A warm thank-you to Jaydon Galindo-Lovell for curating, editing photos and collaborating on the arrangement of this photo essay.
When friends come over for dinner, does everyone look like you? In an exploration of what it means to make room at the table, I recall the years in the late 90s when one of the most popular shows on television was Friends. From 1994-2004, as many of my coworkers rushed home to see Friends, I had to give the popular program a pass, wondering why none of the pals on Friends looked like me. I was never invited to the party. I didn’t find that not-so-subtle notion amusing. There’s nothing funny about exclusion. My circle of friends didn’t look like the cast, and I wanted more than tunnel vision from my entertainment. Fast-forward a decade and the country is contorted with the searing pain of misunderstanding, mistrust and fear. This shows me the real, everyday value of diversity. If we pick our friends, then the friends we pick matter.
Fifty years after Jim Crow officially and legally ended, there is widespread discomfort and stereotypes about people with dark and non-European phenotypes. It’s possibly a self-perpetuating cycle, wherein racism, discrimination and injustice against people leads to a deep fear of retaliation of the same brutal isolation, disenfranchisement and alienation. It’s still common to hear good people claim color-blindness, a banal lie that undermines honest communication. The commonly held theory is that by the age of 3 or 4, children can already discern racial and ethnic differences. Well, honestly, I can see why some folks continue to rely upon the failed trope of “colorblindness”: The truth requires an awareness regarding individual power, position and the ability to communicate. Only by relinquishing the myth of colorblindness can we breathe new life into our extraordinary society.
The first step is to embrace the nuances of the complex collective history of our dear nation.
Let me say that this is not academic. People are community-minded creatures. We literally need each other to survive and thrive. True, there are the odd cases of those who go it alone, but most of us are looking for our clan—it’s why people easily gravitate to people who look like them. Here’s the challenge. A clan need not solely be based on skin color, socioeconomic class or religion. In a sense, there is a false sense of safety there, when in reality, those groupings merely ensure a baseline of respect. There is the expectation that everyone in that group knows how to behave and can read the covert social cues, allowing them to understand implicit rules that outsiders may miss. But those rules shouldn’t be enough for one group to relegate another group to the margins of acceptability as if they were numbers in some neat binary system.
Moving toward the middle requires opening to not knowing. Shifting our perspectives into curiosity mode may be the very salvation our society needs.
The answer to some of woes is to make diversity a priority. Visible, discernable differences are part of the natural world. The human species’ varied spectrum of shapes, hues and sizes are spread thinly over virtually identical biological matter, with only small variations of genetic coding to give us our unique external appearance. We are all mammals, capable of sophisticated language and superior intelligence; it’s up to us to end the artifices of separation.
If you want to make a difference, start by acknowledging the realities of whatever is in front of you. Instead of holding on to prefabricated fantasies about people, ask questions. Make a new friend. See the beauty in someone, anyone, who isn’t just like you. So maybe a little discomfort is required, a little awkwardness and just enough vulnerability to invite humility and authenticity, but not so much as to create anxiety. From this opening there can be a dialogue, the invitation to not know and to welcome the time investment needed for the knowledge and friendship to grow. Be willing to possibly feel a little silly to get to know a colleague. Ask about hobbies and favorite foods, and listen. Start small and build on the currency of your good will. Empathy and connection bring people together in friendship. We can solve the crisis of fear by laughing or crying together. Firing off mirror neurons in the company of new acquaintances will humanize both parties. Take the risk. You could just find yourself with a whole new group of friends.
I’d like to think that as a teacher, it’s my job to believe in people, especially when they don’t believe in themselves. But even when I’m not wearing my teacher hat, I find myself looking for the sacred in other people, looking for that one particular element that is precious and perhaps goes unseen, some overlooked dollop of goodness even we may not see in ourselves when we look in the mirror. We may miss it entirely. This, unfortunately, happens to many of us. Life batters and abuses us. We make so many mistakes we become strangers to ourselves. Perhaps we can no longer look upon ourselves with compassion and kindness. Our self-love is fraught with conditions. Negative thoughts can spirals into decisions that are not always made with our well-being at heart. That’s when we need someone to believe in us, to look into us with the loving light of compassion.
This is no trivial matter. Many people feel or become invisible after setbacks, withdrawing into pain and isolation.
Believing in someone can save a life. It is a human need to be seen and recognized. When John Legend accepted the Oscar for his song, Glory, he told everyone watching the Academy Awards that evening that he could see them. It was a powerful moment, symbolic of a soul seeking to water the goodness in our society, a flood of recognition and an outpouring of love from a public figure to nameless witnesses. It was Legend’s way of saying that the daily struggles of our lives are not in vain, acknowledging our collective journey toward a more just society. For Legend, “seeing us” was an affirmation of us, showing his belief in us, in our ability to change institutions with our awareness and activism. His simple act of seeing affirmed the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and witnessed the continued unseen struggle and toil of the many people working for societal transformation.
We all need to be seen. We all want someone to believe in us, in our ability to surpass self-imposed limitations and external barriers, to act with courage in the midst of our fears and doubts, to involve ourselves for the betterment of our communities, to stand with conviction. It’s not clear to me if we can believe in someone else if we can’t believe in ourselves. My hunch is that we can build up a reserve when we practice this act of loving kindness. Like a muscle, it will atrophy from disuse and strengthen with repeated exercise.
Essentially, this is time sowing and watering seeds. We do it for friends and family or strangers; it will form the foundation wherein we allow love and support to flow back to us. The Rev. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist philosopher and teacher, talks about the importance of watering the seeds in oneself and others that we want to nurture. The seeds are attributes, traits or emotions. He asserts that the seeds that get the most attention, intentionally or otherwise, are the ones that will thrive. Therefore, it’s vital that we look deeply into at each other and really see the gifts therein, and to selectively water the ones that foster health and wealth in all their forms.
Unfortunately, if the seeds of love, peace, and joy are not watered, they will not bloom.
The path to connecting can take many forms. We are the bees in the garden touching every flower. Maybe it’s taking a few minutes to affirm an aspiration without interrupting. We can mentor an older woman starting something new, or listen to the dreams of young people around us. Take a moment to be kind to folks in transition or depression and recommend and promote their gifts. If you see a spark in someone, name it, because it’s one of the ways to grow a society that is strong and good: by looking into a heart and honoring those gifts. We can step up for each other when it really counts.
The truth is, believing in someone else sets us free. We get to leave behind our judgments, criticisms and fears and just let ourselves see the light in another person. We create an environment for ourselves where feelings of appreciation and friendship can be reciprocated. In other words, we get to be seen, supported and loved because we’ve made room for those things in our lives. Imagine the wonderful world we can create by taking time to believe in each other.
Now that I’m older and more aware of the cycles of life, I see how critical it is to stay open to care, love and support from family members and from unexpected people and places. I have a small fragmented family and no children, so I can’t expect that care will come from the traditional people. I’m open to receiving love from family and other sources of care and love. I’m also open to giving it where and when it is needed. That’s how I became involved in caring for my good friend’s aging mother last year. The experience has made me think more about aging, and more specifically, how I want to age, because I do believe we have a choice to make.
After a series of accidents and unexplained injuries requiring medical treatment, my friend’s 80-year-old mother needed round the clock support for several months in order to prevent further unexplained harm. Various factors undermined her independence: her inability to continue driving, extreme memory degradation and physical limitations, stemming from inflamed joints. Because of her impaired memory, no one could account for periods of time in which she went missing; objects disappeared from her home and purse. She created fantasies about her adventures and repeated her fantasy narratives constantly. Most of this was about medication, but trying to manage and assess the cause of the problem was challenging. For one, she didn’t want help—she was outright belligerent at times and did not want anyone around except for her daughter, who she asked for constantly. Two, she could not remember from moment to moment what was going on. Three, she was often irritable, gruff and occasionally angry, which was often connected to over-consumption of coffee, diet or personality. Notwithstanding, we joined the team of community members ready to pitch in.
To care for her, I resorted to tactics, not all successful and not all tactful. I spent time in the car, waiting for her to show up; we pretended to renovate our home so we could sleep in her house. Eventually, we fell into a routine. We ate lunch together and read magazines and newspapers together, gossiping about local news and the celebrities, and found in the midst of it all, that we shared a love of gardening and floral arrangement. We drank tea and watched the light change in the afternoons.
The things that were a hard for her were about her perception of giving up of her freedom; independence is indispensable, and she is a fighter. When she fought me, I knew she was fighting to be the resourceful, energetic and bossy lady she wants to be. The problem was, we were working, all of us, to keep her independent, safe and outgoing. But I was an interloper in her private domain, the earwig in her dahlias—I wasn’t wanted. I was a reminder that our society seldom lets us age with dignity.
She’s better now. Her medication doesn’t cause her problems; she’s adjusted to walking to places in the neighborhood rather than driving everywhere. This experience made me thinks about what it will take to remain in our home with the familiar things we love as we grow frail. It makes sense to fight for liberties, but we have to know when to entrust ourselves to others, when to open the door to friendship and kindness.
I sense the places where it will be difficult for me. I have to let go having things done my way, now. I have to give in to the yielding part of myself, to let others do things their way, even in my space. I never thought about my control issues as a potential hindrance to relationship, but I can see that if I allow my perspective to get entrenched, no one will ever be able to wash my dishes, cook my meals or launder my clothes as well as I can, and those are the exact openings for a friend to step in and lend a hand with the least intrusion.
Instead, I’m going to try to infuse my day with more mindfulness. I’m going to breathe when it’s not as I would have it and just say, “Thank you.” So what if it’s not my way? At least someone else is sharing my load.
I have to learn to “yes, please,” while there’s very little at stake, so when my time comes, I can say, “Yes,” with grace and dignity and let someone do for me what I’m willing to do for others.
Remember Plaster of Paris? Gosh, I sure do. I remember a fifth-grade art-class project in which we mixed the plaster powder with water and filled our molds to make three-dimensional reliefs of our choice of animal. I made a butterfly, which had a great big air-bubble dimple on its wing caused by air trapped on the bottom of the mold. I didn’t care a bit. I painted that butterfly, wrote my name on the back of it, and took it home to perch on a windowsill. I was thrilled with my creation. Recently I shared this experience with some girls from my community. What started with a little paint and plaster ended with dancing and laughing.
Even though it may seem like a simple thing, mixing plaster can be a challenge. Things can go wrong; the mix can harden quickly on a warm day, or it might never dry. The oldest of my guests, a sixteen-year-old, mixed the plaster with some hesitancy after reading the instructions while the younger girls worked on painting the casts I had poured earlier in the day. As she worked, the plaster alternated between being too thin and too thick before it clumped up, and then when we added more water, it liquefied, but only in places. We were only able to get one viable cast from the mix. As I observed Kea, she was just a little afraid to get her fingers dirty and quite tentative about pouring the thick goop into the mold. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Dive in. Use a rag if your hands get dirty.” She grew slightly more emboldened yet remained guarded. I mentioned that the plaster could also be used to repair a hole in a wall, to which she nodded casually. Of course, being competent is important for a person her age. I wanted to let Kea have dignity, while gently letting her know that making mistakes is only natural when you’re doing something for the first time. I’m not sure she believed me, but she walked away visibly relieved that our time was over. As the oldest girl, I knew I had to let her take the lead with the others in an activity. She had to be in charge.
When Kea rejoined the younger girls, the plaster painting was winding down, and the youngest ones were getting extra silly mixing paint colors for fun. The signal that the activity was over registered, and I began to direct the girls to clean up their areas before heading down to the garage for planting seed starts.
In the garage, I gave each girl a small tray with six cups that I had set out earlier. I showed them how to fill the tray with soil from a large orange bucket that contained potting mix. After the demonstration, I put Lea in charge of managing the soil distribution while I gathered the seed packets from my special gardening drawer. She lined them up by age and had the job done by the time I got back with the seeds. The magic started when I read of the seed choices. Each girl got excited over different seeds. They were sweet and eager and tender with the tiny seeds. I made sure they each took a good look at all the seeds to see just how different a bean seed is from a collard and tomato. They were impressed and focused on the task of planting and observing. They covered the seeds with a light layer of soil and watered them. After labeling their trays, we headed out to the garden so they could see what their seeds would look like in a few weeks with sunlight, care and attention.
In the garden, the second-oldest girl, nine-year-old Kia, was ecstatic. She ate raw broccoli and snow peas and poked her nose into every bush. She was fearless and clearly a naturalist. In the garden older brother and father to Kendall, Eli, who had been weeding and sowing with Hal, watched over the brood and his five-year-old daughter with tenderness. After showing them how to plant garlic cloves, we gave the girls garlic and let them plant them wherever they wanted. Soon Kendall grew jittery with the awareness of the terrifying bugs in the garden and had to retreat to the safety of the house. Lila, on the other hand, was instructing the older girls on how to identify onions and garlic. She’s finally comfortable in the garden. After some pictures, we headed inside for refreshments, followed by show and tell. Big smiles and good-natured teasing flavored the early evening.
In reality, an art project is just an excuse to fill our house with the noises and laughter of children. The girls showed off their art projects while we ate snacks and cranked up the stereo. We laughed at our own foibles and teased each other over our eccentricities. We found the easy place between newness and trust and found we liked what we discovered.
We don’t want to stand out. We don’t own our gifts and talents. We shy away from the limelight. Students drop a class on the day that they are to present. We can’t stand to have our pictures taken. We put on brave faces and don’t admit to our troubles. Why do so many of us fear visibility? Let’s examine the tendency to hide and the motivation behind this action.
As an undergrad I studied literature with a voracious appetite. When I first learned the concept of “the gaze” and how some of us have the status of the viewed or the power to cast down our gaze upon the object, the body of the other, it sounded true, profoundly true, and unquestionable. It has the potential to humanize or dehumanize. As a woman of color, I have often been subjected to the unwanted gaze. I have been defenseless against it, and I have also been enslaved to it, desiring it and needing it to feel alive.
Unfortunately, too many people wander through life unable, owing to trauma or abuse, to accept love in the form of healthy relationships. When you’re a teacher, you encounter people who reside all along the length of this continuum, in which the opposite extremes of this reality are the most challenging: the needy “hungry ghosts” (so named by Thich Nhat Hanh), whose bottomless hunger attempts to consume your very soul, and the stalker, bent on owning, controlling or destroying what she cannot have. Both are dangerous. Both need love. Both may not be able, ready or willing to accept the gift. Audre Lorde said that “we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.” This is must be true. I’ve read that sometimes schizophrenics don’t like to take medication because they lose contact with the voices in their heads, their friends, their community. In a sense, they are constantly being seen by their personalities. They are never alone. Barring mental illness, we all do intricate dances, moving between solitude and companionship, stepping up and sliding back. But why do we let our illnesses drive us so deeply into isolation?
I believe we fear the visibility of our illnesses and diseases more than we do humiliation, which tends to be fleeting. We hide our worries, fears and doubts from others. We are expected to mask our pain, hold it together, go to work—crawl there if we must. I think of my unexplainable shame of having a shingles episode, going to work in agony. My mother insists that I not tell anyone about my shingles (if she only knew about this blog: ay-ya-ya!). More commonly, people feel apprehension to discuss cancer, skin disease, mental illness and depression. Ironically, though it is during the times when we are weak that support is most critical, we may not ask for help. Perhaps this ties in to some aspect of the American Myth of Meritocracy, the creed by which we live, consciously or unconsciously; being weak or sick places us in the “other” category, and we all strive to be included in the dominant culture, to assimilate into the norms that govern a “normal” existence, anything—anyplace—so long as we are not “other-ed.” We attempt to make ourselves invisible in order to avoid the yardstick of normalcy. This makes our suffering worse, possibly prolonging illness.
As a teacher, I find that visibility is a two-edged sword. In my quest to facilitate a classroom that is built on principles of engaged pedagogy, every student has a voice. On the one hand this is empowering for students to be seen; on the other, that visibility carries enormous responsibilities and ramifications. Some students have never been truly seen by a person in authority. This can lead to drunken power in some, usually those who already feel entitled or disenfranchised but who often possess lots of social power. It can also cause fixations in students, with the teacher as the unfortunate object of focus. A student may feel that she is special (which is not untrue) but will not know the boundaries of the relationship. These relationships can be sexualized in the mind of the student, and in a college setting, this doesn’t always feel safe. I sometimes feel vulnerable to the returning gaze. Suddenly the student wants more than I am willing to give; he takes it personally when he is not privileged above others. I cannot turn out the light. I have to see the relationship through to the end, praying that the semester will conclude well. Still other relationships are precious. The connection is deep, lasting and mutually reciprocal. I cannot have the one without exposing myself to the other. I have to be open to both, or I may miss a gem.
In my maturity, the need to stand out and take up more room than is necessary has lessened, reduced by the loving relationships that sustain me in authentic ways, rendering the superficial gaze, just that. Yet, I understand that we must be seen in a loving, compassionate light if we are to thrive. In life, our good friends see us; their gaze nurtures us. I am learning to trust people more by opening myself to sympathy and empathy. It does not make me weak, as I have always assumed. It makes me visible. Had I discussed my shingles sooner with more people, I perhaps would have received more advice, and maybe recovered faster. I am stronger in community than I am by myself. I understand that better, and it’s blessing me.