Greatness: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

I couldn’t believe I was holding it, procured so easily from the public library: “The only known novel by a female African-American slave, and quite possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere,” read the cover jacket of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Jr. who laid hold of the original 300-page handwritten manuscript launched an extraordinary quest to unmask the pseudonym of Hannah Crafts. Taking the clues he left, Professor Gregg Hecimovich from Winthrop University located the novelist in history at the end of an assiduous ten-year pursuit. Hannah Bond was the mulatto house slave who fled a North Carolina plantation disguised as a man and lived to tell her story cast in part fiction.

BondwomanI have always felt a pull toward the African-American odyssey of slavery. The female slave experienced double jeopardy not only for her race but also for her sexual vulnerability. I beckon to light the invisible greatness of a woman who made her way out of bondage with pen as she did with her feet.

TIMELINE
To authenticate and date the book, Dr. Gates consulted experts of historical documents. The characteristics of the paper, binding, handwriting, the iron-gall ink that had been popular until 1860, the style of the narrative were some of the elements they studied. A sedulous search among federal census records turned up the “Mr. Wheeler” whom Bond had served. In 1855 John Hill Wheeler enjoyed more fame than he had sought in government when word got out that his slave Jane Johnson had run away. Hannah describes how she found herself filling the vacancy. So the manuscript would have been drafted after 1855. I was captivated by the rigorous intricacy of the literary archeology.

Dr. Gates reports the observations of the keenest scholars in slave literature, the cause for their excitement over this particular self-authenticating text: “Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked to – and about – one another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought they should talk or wanted white readers to believe they talked. This is a voice that we have rarely, if ever, heard before…For Crafts, slaves are always, first, and last, human beings, ‘people’ as she frequently put it.” (Gates’ preface to the novel)

LITERACY
How did Hannah learn to read and write? She enjoyed her first secret reading lessons from an elderly white couple until the meetings were aborted. Dr. Joe Nickell, a historical investigator, paid “close attention to Crafts’ level of diction, the scope of her vocabulary…the degree of familiarity with other texts, or literacy, that she reflects in word choice, metaphors, analogies, epigraphs, and allusions to other words, concluding that she had the [modern equivalent] of an eleventh-grade education.” She evidently had taken liberties with John Wheeler’s private eclectic library. The plantation also housed students from a neighborhood finishing school. In a news radio interview, Hecimovich said, “Bond would have been listening and waiting on the young ladies who were boarding at the Wheeler family plantation while they were practicing…and she would have intuited, like other slaves we have record of, when she came to write her own stories. She could tell her story in the way that she heard the other stories.” (What does this say, incidentally, about the impact of quality literature upon listening children?) She has a beautiful, bold hand in the word selection and painting of imagery: “The clear cold sunshine glancing down the long avenue of elms…” While Hannah’s multisyllabic words [magnanimity, obsequious] tell of a rich bibliodiet, the many misspellings [meloncholy, inseperable] reveal the struggles of one who was self-taught. The novel was printed with the spelling errors and revisions Hannah had made intact, offering a precious glimpse of the subnarrative where writers play out choices in the birthing of a tale. Scholars thrill to have broken new ground in the landscape of antebellum literature. Gates explains, “To be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man, unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand, would help a new generation of scholars to gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible.”

DEPRECATION
Hannah draws a distinction between house and field slave, one of class and levels of degradation. It is when she is forced to marry into the squalor behind the Wheeler home that she decides to flee. “Accused of a crime of which I was innocent…most horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts, and condemned to receive one of them for my husband my soul actually revolted with horror unspeakable…” (p. 205) The relative advantages she enjoyed as a house negro and very light mulatto distill the institution of slavery to its unrelenting truth. Hannah wasn’t whipped to work faster under the sun, didn’t have to mind the hogs in their sty. But no matter how light her skin, she was a thing with no license to go where she chose, wear what she wanted, say what she thought. The day she woke to was not hers. She got out of a bed she did not own to meet the needs and demands of another. Why would slavers think she had intellect, talent, feelings, a soul? Hannah was sold and bought, had no say under whose roof she ended up. “No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better.” (p. 6) And even house slaves were not immune to the prospect of torture, rape, or murder. Hannah recounts the tale of a beloved nurse of the master’s son who, after begging for mercy, chose to suffer rather than drown her dog. Woman and pet were gibbeted on iron loops for six days with no food or water, making it through a fierce storm that only revived them to agony. A drop of black blood — and you were no better off than a dog. The establishment of slavery ironically did not discriminate between the classes extant in the world of slaves. Hannah writes of a man who agreed to part with his young chattel for a handsome amount of money: “He reck[on]ed not that she was a woman of delicate sensibilities and fine perfections – she was a slave, and no more that was all to him.” (p.82)

FREEDOM
The act of running away, of plunging into the harsh vicissitudes of threat and want, is obviously a bravery all its own. What impresses me as much are the battles Hannah won first in the deepest places of self. She was bold enough to envision not only her escape but well before, to have broken through the low, hard ceiling that kept slaves from the daylight of dreams. Taking the words that had come alive to her on paper, she would compose a novel that revealed truth. I find the vast verbal blueprint she was able to draw up in her mind astounding. It appears Hannah had not been “writing this for herself,” as “it was not an internal sort of story [in which she grows or changes] which makes me want to think of her imagining a public for it.” (Preface, lxiv) The pen at work was a soaring of the mind, a declaration of will. She did not heed the holes in her learning. A full imagination, insight, and instinct for the framing of words would do. Her sense of worth, not mollifiable, told her she was capable of attempting what no hand of woman had as of yet and that she could secure readers. This anchor is what impelled her escape, for “rebellion would be virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually required it, and that whatever accidents or misfortunes might attend my flight nothing could be worse than what threatened my stay.” (p. 206) I love the duty to herself. Her body, her spirit, her dignity were worth protecting, and she would see to it.

COST
Some things are not worth fighting for. “Marriage like many other blessings I considered to be especially designed for the free, and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system…I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human being.” (pp. 206-207) Hannah decides it the wiser course for slaves to forgo certain pleasures. The sweetest of them – creaturely comfort and family – promise in the grander scheme only to embitter their own existence, feed the very beast of their anguish. So how far do you go to protect your child? Hannah describes the response of a young black woman forced to sell her children by their father, the master of the house. “Her eyes had a wild phrenzied look, and with a motion so sudden that no one could prevent it, she snatched a sharp knife…and stabbing the infant threw it with one toss into the arms of its father. Before he had time to recover from his astonishment she had run the knife into her own body, and fell at his feet bathing them in her blood. She lived only long enough to say that she prayed God to forgive her for an act dictated by the wildest despair.” (pp.177-178) This despair was no drama out of a writer’s fancy. Hannah likely knew of the publicized infanticide of 1856. Margaret Garner was fleeing a Kentucky plantation with her husband, their baby and two-year-old daughter Mary, and his parents when she was pursued by her master. Margaret slit Mary’s throat with a knife to spare her the waiting travail. It was a doomed attempt to solve the lesser of two impossible evils, and Margaret’s act of desperation articulates Hannah’s own conviction to refuse helotry another generation of victims. So accustomed to the relative comforts of the wealthiest nation in the world, I can’t imagine what would compel me to extinguish my son’s breath.

GREATNESS
To run away is to face the real possibility of torture and death, but the road before holds out the irresistible hope of autonomy and birthright of dignity. To stay or go back is to assure oneself of a living death. The Underground Railroad saw many, though not enough, lives to freedom. But literacy liberates the mind and creates its own opportunity of voice. The depths to which Bond pursued her art yielded a remarkable achievement. She reached for access to that forbidden code of the written word we call reading, and went on to add her own undimmed testimony of good, evil, and the true to the dark pages of the human heart we call history.

My Race, Coast to Coast: Part 1

I designed this series because I thought it’d be interesting to glimpse stories from around the globe. But I found myself feeling almost apologetic writing my own; I didn’t consider my tale really worth telling. Then I warmed to the rich potential this project held out as a forum for safe, honest talk about our biases and personal struggles.

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I prefer Asian-American or Korean-American. I grew into the American part with time so I looking back on my childhood, I speak of myself as a Korean kid but it bugs me to have to check “Asian” on forms. Tip-toeing on politically correct ground, we don’t call black people Africans in the States but acknowledge their American status. I don’t know why Asian-Americans are not accorded the same respect. Actually, I do know. We are not vocal about it.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in California. My family joined the biggest tide of emigration that brought South Koreans to America in the 70s. After the formative years in New York City, I went to Pennsylvania for college. I ended up nesting there until the move across the country 13 years ago. Given the diversity in major American cities I didn’t notice significant cultural differences between them, at least ethnically.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My childhood in NYC was your unoriginal melting pot. From neighborhood to school and city, we had white, Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and of course many Koreans. My neighborhood was so motley it was in fact homogenous when I started my school career; it was only as an adult that I realized how unusual it was that my first grade class was all Korean – under the tutelage of the only Korean teacher in all of NYC at the time. (I won’t get into whether she would’ve insisted on the -American.) Mrs. Cho was Korean and Americanized, one fully immersed in her culture but comfortable and proficient with the mores of this country. Because I was still clinging to my native language at seven, Mrs. Cho sent me out for a season of English as a Second Language services.

I was at ease with fellow Korean immigrants but as you’d expect, there was plenty of race consciousness on everyone’s part. I didn’t escape being called chink in elementary and walking home one time, was slurred with a kick for good measure. This, by two white girls I saw all the time whose parents, I now remember, were European immigrants. It was older black or Hispanic kids who wrested your bike from you and made off with it on our street – not older Asian kids. The Mexicans didn’t blare mariachi with the Chinese. Life was what it was. It would’ve been weird for the neighborhood to go all white. I wouldn’t call what we lived with tension so much as it was subtle racial abrasion. But for the most part there was peace. We had subcommunities in high school too, though there were the kids who mingled. The magnet school I went to was over 50% Asian-American, the majority being Korean. So I obviously didn’t have much occasion to feel left out the first two decades of my life.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

Straight out of college, I ended up one of three Korean-American teachers in a Philadelphia school. But the diversity of the city represented in staff and students kept me from thinking twice about myself as a minority. On a field trip one day with my class, I was struck seeing a line of golden-haired children from another school. It was the first time I really noticed I was Asian – and this, in my early 20s. It vaguely crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be as comfortable teaching that class.

Two years later I transfered to a neighboring district where I felt the keen finger of self-consciousness as never before. White upper-middle class suburb, old money. In the meetings that prefaced the start of school, I found I was one of two Korean-American teachers among the 100 in the entire district. My African-American principal was a colored minority. Ten percent of the students in my school were Asian and as few black. In other words, I felt very Asian surrounded by staff, parents, and students. The Korean kids lit up and greeted me when I passed by even if they were not on my roll. As the Gifted and Talented Education instructor, I was a status symbol and my principal said it was important that those children see themselves in me. Despite the politeness of many teachers, I did feel awkwardly different among them. When a group of us went out to try some Korean food, I saw for the first time the profound, basic relationship of food to culture. Those who passed nervously on the invitation gave away their indifference to the Korean culture, and to me.

Others were outright mean (on things not having to do with food), even conspired to get me, with things eventually coming to a dramatic head. Though it’s hard to say, the malice didn’t seem fueled by racism as it was by the position I held. Suffice it to say I was a walking omen of more paperwork for the classroom teachers. Anyone who stepped into my position was doomed because, servicing the high achievers in the whole school, I worked with everyone and no one. As a specialist, I had no colleagues by grade to team with. The cultural distinction felt sharper for the rejection.

My sense of self was not shaken. It never has been. I enjoyed deep friendships with teachers who shared my faith and also knew the kindness of those who didn’t – some black, some white. I’m not sure how I handled that sense of separation from the masses. I kept my head high, even managed to break through some walls and feel accepted by some cliques though I refrained from trying too hard. I also refused to stoop to the level of my enemies. Not one retort, confrontation, or curse escaped my lips though I can’t count the times I came hairline close. I had dirt on them, too. But this way, I had won. No one could accuse me of a bad word. And in time, they were served their due. I have never looked back on those few years with anything but a dull negativity. As trying as it was, I now feel it was good for me to have experienced the cold heat of exclusion. The real world isn’t a bubble and if you insist on staying in one, it’ll burst on you. I’d say it’s important for those who usually sit among the white majority to have to work through this sense of isolation at some point, too. Of course I don’t mean we should perpetuate hatefulness across racial lines. But some discomfort out of complacency challenges us to grow.

Continued in Part 2.

Time: Lessons From The Dying Brain

The starship engine spins in winged centrifuge. The growing list of tasks in the mission multiplies its rotational speed and efficiency as the system expands tirelessly to accommodate demands.

That is my brain. THiS is HIS:

A white hum. The wheels are happy in their easy dance of movement and stillness. Any information that streams in faster than homeostasis approves activates the self-preservation mechanism. EJECT. EJECT. The data overload leaks through a sleek aperture, which physiology translates into IN ONE EAR, OUT THE OTHER.

My husband’s brain is a fascinating piece of machinery. It refuses strain. Barring any unforeseen tragedy, he will likely outlive me because he lets go of the past easily, does not fret over the future, and functions in a simple, elegant neurological circuitry that permits only one claim upon his attention at any given time. I have yet to try to be like him, but trying to be less of me, I find myself asking What exactly does it mean to be in the moment?

human_brainNeuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a life-changing stroke of insight that left her unable to speak, write, read, or recall her past:

Our right human hemisphere is all about “right here, right now.” It thinks in pictures and learns through the movement of our bodies. Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks…smells, tastes, feels, sounds like. I am an energy-being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere.

Our left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere is all about the past…and the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment and start picking out details, and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information, associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned, and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am.” I become a single solid individual, separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you. And this was the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.

…And…my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. At first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there. So here I am in this space, and my job, and any stress related to my job — it was gone. I felt lighter in my body…imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! Oh! I felt euphoria. And again, my left hemisphere comes online and it says, “Hey! You’ve got to pay attention. We’ve got to get help.” And I’m thinking, “I’ve got to focus.”

When I woke later that afternoon, I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire. And my spirit soared free. I found Nirvana. But then I realized, “I’m still alive! And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” And they could purposely choose to step to the right of their hemispheres — and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.

So who are we? We have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project.

That’s wild. I can’t imagine my inner radio going silent, taking my words with it. As for the life application she draws, I don’t know. We need both hemispheres tending to the moment. In the conversation she had with herself as her consciousness wove in and out, Bolte (that is, her left brain) kept urging herself to pay attention. And mindfulness is very much paying attention, isn’t it? I understand the power of sensory presence was such a new experience for her that it felt as though she were inhabiting reality more fully than she ever had with her linguistic and analytic brain. But I think cognition, comprehension, and the ability to name our experience complete awareness.

In the film Still Alice, we see Columbia linguistics professor Howland losing more than her memory to Alzheimer’s. Our history is part of our emotional, spiritual, and even physical anatomy. The past with its challenges, trauma and joys have forged who we are and given us the ability to meet the moment with knowing, with intelligence, strength, hope, gratitude and our bag of dysfunctions. If your past crumbles to ashes, you lose your autobiography, and can’t fill the new page. An illness or accident robs you of your past and hollows out your present. You forget why you came into the kitchen and lose the intention, and therefore meaning, of the moment. Psychologist and professor Dan Gilbert seems to make sense of this:

pixabay.com

pixabay.com

If you ask most people what’s real, the present, the past or the future? They say the present. Actually, they’re wrong. The past and the future are both real. The present is a psychological illusion. The present is just the wall between yesterday and today. You know, if you go to the beach, you see water and you see sand, and it looks like there’s a line between them, but that line is not a third thing. There’s only water, and there’s only sand. Similarly, all moments in time are either in the past or in the future…which is to say the present doesn’t exist.

As he says, most of us feel that the present is hard ground. But for the steadfast hands of the clock and the turn of seasons, we don’t experience time as an unending sea of movement that unseats the present from its place. And naturally, for we apprehend the material world with our senses and what we see and touch is obviously real. So what does this mean? How do I stay grounded in the shifting sand of time? Well, this moment is ephemeral but not elusive. And I’ve found that perspective makes all the difference in the way I relate to it. When I perceive time as a scarce commodity, the Bargain I have to fish out from the daunting Clearance pile, I approach the table with a measure of angst. Put the chicken in the oven, run his Spelling audio, check his math, email her about this week’s get-together, change the windows appointment, be sure to review Geography. I won’t get to write today! But when I trust that I’m not the one creature out of the seven billion on the planet who needs 28 hours in her day, I can let go the frustration that the sun sets too soon on my hopes for that day. I’ve been given the hours to do what I need to (bonus thought: to do what gives me joy. And take joy in what I’ve been given). What about multitasking, the great Zen no-no? I don’t see how anyone can mother (or blog successfully) unpracticed in the art of efficiency but what puts me in the marrow of the moment is consciousness and purpose, which call upon both the thinking and feeling parts of my brain. I’ve probably overthought this. I should study that right brain of my husband’s some more.

Finale: Why We Love

bouquetWhy do we marry? I mean, why do we want to? I think eyeing that green, green grass of marital bliss, as singles we think more of the physical and emotional intimacy and the charming notion of making house. Those who live by convictions of faith or tradition that prescribe sex only within marriage may in particular feel this way, but people the world over copulate outside marriage. So it’s a broader question I’m asking. We are in love with the idea of being in love and want to sustain that feeling. We give ourselves away on this point: we root for the lovers on screen and in those pages as they push against every obstacle set before them – culture, race, class, war – and strain to touch fingertips. Elizabeth Gilbert says: It’s all about a desire to feel chosen. [My friend] went on to write that while the concept of building a life together with another adult was appealing, what really pulled at her heart was the desire for a wedding, a public event ‘that will unequivocally prove to everyone, especially to myself, that I am precious enough to have been selected by somebody forever.’ Although still retroactively tired from the rigors of my own lovely wedding and wishing I could’ve traded that satin shoe for an elopement, I think this woman gets close. We want to be marked.

CLAIM
Wanting to get married looks different for men and women. Though I won’t name the bloggers who’ve disagreed with me (aren’t you glad, Curt, Brad?), I think men are wired to pursue, their pleasure to be found in moving toward the woman. And women want to feel desired. In wanting to find someone to settle down with, men don’t think, “Oh, I want to be wooed.” I’ve said in the past that our very biology suggests this dynamic at play. And yes, I’m on shifty ground because in this feminist day many women in fact do the chasing. But descriptive behavior is not what I have in mind. I have yet to see a successful, lasting nuptial where the woman had insisted herself on the man and overpowered him (or manipulated him into it). Whether or not you agree, you see the majority of us wants to lay claim to someone and be claimed. Not be out here floating, forever available.

Love limits, almost by definition. Love narrows. The great expansion we feel in our hearts when we fall in love is matched only by the great restrictions that will necessarily follow. F and I have one of the most easygoing relationships you could possibly imagine, but please do not be fooled: I have utterly claimed this man as my own, and I have therefore fenced him off from the rest of the herd. His energies (sexual, emotional, creative) belong in large part to me, not to anybody else – not even entirely to himself anymore. He owes me things like information, explanations, fidelity, constancy, and details about the most mundane little aspects of his life. It’s not like I keep the man in a radio collar, but make no mistake about it – he belongs to me now. And I belong to him, in exactly the same measure. Gilbert in Committed.

BELONGING
Single people can stake out a community, especially in this age of options with meetups and interest groups of every hue in the rainbow. But this doesn’t quite mute the loneliness for most. It is an exclusive belonging we seek, one that is both horizontal in the emotional connection as well as vertical in the building of a home, the roots we want to lay. Even animals mark their place in the world. Communal affinities don’t require the private intimacy that Gilbert reminds us comes in a committed relationship. We want to desire and be desired, and in the heady throes of romance declare and hear the longing. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. CS Lewis (who else?)

KNOWING
In The Signature of All Things by Gilbert, scientist Alma Whitaker had been quietly following the work of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace into her waning years. The men had no idea who she was or that she too had actually come up with the theory of evolution that had propelled them to fame. Darwin never publicly spoke an ill word about Wallace, nor Wallace about Darwin, but Alma always wondered what the two men – so brilliant, and yet so opposite in disposition and style – truly thought of each other. Her question was answered…when Charles Darwin died and Alfred Wallace, per Darwin’s written instructions, served as a pallbearer at the great man’s funeral. They loved each other, she realized. They loved each other, because they knew each other. With that thought, Alma felt deeply lonely, for the first time in dozens of years.

Described to be unattractive, Alma had been hungry for the love of a man all her long life. Like her, we want to be known and cherished through our utmost faults, and be shown our own possibility of beauty. We discover the fuller breadth of this gift when we step over the threshold of matrimony. Marriage is one place this marvel of being known and (still) loved unfolds as you bump against each other’s offenses and annoyances and realize it’s forgive or bust. This knowing goes beyond the acceptance in the schoolyard, the affirmation that we’re all right and likeable. It goes even beyond the assurance from parents that our loveability is in sure standing. Which is why when we feel our spouse doesn’t really see us it cuts deeply. And so love is hard. It not only demands expression and attention but exacts its greatest testimony, sacrifice.

SACRIFICE
Even as a girl, my wanting to get married someday was bound up in my yearning to be a mother. In truth, what I wanted more than anything was to hold my baby to my heart someday. (Sorry, honey. I got the trash tonight.) Taking care of my latchkey cousins on my visits, I also wished I could raise them myself – literally, as a teenager at the time. If I were assured in my single days the recognition of Gilbert as a writer and her place on the TED stage for a trade-in on my hopes of marriage and motherhood, I would have chosen this life unblinkingly. (Okay, so I lingered on that stage a few minutes.) Remember, this from a woman for whom every minute writing is a drop of rain on a parched tongue. No, I didn’t see boyfriends only or primarily as potential fathers and I made sure to enjoy the romance with my husband. Well aware that nothing this side of heaven could ever fully satisfy, that I would always want more, I would still have felt palpably, if not achingly, incomplete without a child of my own. I would’ve felt so even before having completely fallen in love with the baby I called Tennyson, before I went on to follow the miracle of his growing.

TPotSo why would I surrender the chance at unimpeded devotion to my art and intoxicating acclaim (presuming I had Gilbert’s talent in that alternate universe) for the daily sacrifice of my body, time, and energy in the obscurity of motherhood? Turn my back on the opportunity to be known by millions around the world, in order to wash cloth diapers by hand and pour over a stove? The question is its own answer. A friend I grew up with realized when she had her first child, that her mother had always been looking at her. It is the sacrifice that is our delight, the unique experience of giving wholeheartedly and relentlessly to a life that delights as much in the taking. Babies and young children have nothing to give back, at least intentionally. They don’t see you because they can’t the way you do them. It’s not their job. The art of parenthood is the art of knowing. The more keen your observations, the better you decode the cries, the shyness, the explosion of energy, the ways they cope with fear. This correlation holds with friends and spouses also but at least in adult relationships we can expect some return of pleasure and appreciation on the investment of our emotional resources. Parenthood is such a one-way street, especially in the early years.

The sweetness of a man’s attention is the reason it might not have drawn me as compellingly as motherhood. (Masochist, remember?) Because where sacrifice is the measure of love, you don’t get more pain out of the business of forging a family than you do in childbirth. It’s not that one must give birth to experience love in its fullness. Love is too rich, has too many dimensions. I personally know fathers who are the better parent and there is enough room in the world for foster parents and caregivers which many, many step up to fill. There are women who can’t or don’t want children who give in many other ways out of a profound ability to love. This simply happens to be my narrative. I would make a better birth mother than an adoptive one. And there is something organic and visceral – downright bloody – about birthing that it discloses its own mystery on love. The pain is so mind-blowing it is a foretaste of death. You will permit me to speak because I felt every bit of it when I brought my boy into this world unanesthetized. And I’m not putting a higher premium on parenthood over the privilege of being a spouse, either. In fact, I don’t believe we should. All I am saying is we want to love so much to the point of giving up something, to the point of hurting, and women happen to find this generous opportunity in the physical and emotional capacity of the womb that is part of our design. Ironically, the high calling of sacrifice is the very reason so many marriages fail. Negotiating the give and take day in, day out, into decades can get tiresome in the least under the rule of human nature that is selfishness.

So whether we become a parent or remain single, we want to mark not only our place in this world but upon other lives. Where we inscribe our sacrifice at great cost, we know we have really loved.

The Secret to Happiness

A friend of mine who suffered immensely caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work. To work not to live. The obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, and she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.

She continues to live with the guilt.

Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sunk into depression.

Her response back then was profoundly intriguing to me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining. My life before and after this season was one hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, and life without money struggles was a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions came my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away to be tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me she couldn’t resist picking up a suit tossed outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I came. She had spotted it, good as it looked, on her way out after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class community. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp. She never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.

When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped – in fact, paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.

In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.

With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].

Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.

The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.

Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.

He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time looking for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with my two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of options she had stumbled into. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared at the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.

Notice the themes written on the mighty dollar. Happiness, guilt, blame, worry. There are more, too, in this new series on money that our guest writers have been waiting to help roll out. Look out for our oldies, thoughts on class and belonging and identity. You might see yourself in the stories. Here we go!

Around the World in Eighty Days

What a trip. England, Turkey, India, Africa, China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia.

That’s not counting North America, where we hit Canada and Hawaii, trekked across western United States through the Midwest and Texas to the Eastern seaboard. We glimpsed Native American culture, the WASP world, New Zealand Maoris. We spoke with the daughter of a picture bride, a young Arab in North Africa, an American who chose life in an Indian ashram over the noise and ease of the States. We learned of the genocide of Armenians 100 years ago and the civil wars in Liberia, caught sight of the KKK.

flag-of-turkey_w725_h483I learned as much from the discussions as I did from the posts, more history than I did in a year of high school. I did not know “Tejanos are land-owning Mexicans who were farming and ranching before the Germans, Czechs, Irish, and Scottish settled in Texas. They speak with the same drawl the Caucasians do, but still get treated like border crossing migrants.” Mark, our American Gypsy, taught us so much.

PERCEPTION
Seems race is often the color others paint of us. Paul, not a blogger but a wonderful reader and writer, said to Sreejit, American in India:

flag-of-india_w725_h484I found it delightful that in America you are black and in India you are white. That is amazing and completely counter to conventional wisdom. It reminds me of an interview I watched with Barak Obama and his wife Michele before he was elected to the first term. The interviewer asked Barak what his response was to those who said he wasn’t really black, as one of his parents was white. Michelle jumped in and said he was black and if they needed any proof all they had to do was watch when Barak tried to wave down a taxi on a street curb. If there was a white man farther down the block, the taxi would go right past Barak and pick up the white man. That put an end to race questions. Michele is a lawyer and it shows: she picked an example that clearly showed that discrimination determined race.

White people in America told Sreejit he was white, blacks insisted he was black. And he wasn’t the only blogger on this journey to have been told what he was.

I said to Sreejit: That is something – plain funny and sad – how people kept imposing their own background on you. Projection? I’ve always said we see what we want to see. And you were chameleon enough, with enough black and enough white for others to pull you to themselves in the attempt to categorize you.

We see what we want to. Why? We fear what is OTHER. We fear the unfamiliar. It made them feel more comfortable to be able to identify with Sreejit.flag-of-australia_w725_h363

BELONGING
Julie, whose contribution did not make it into the race, shared some thoughts as an adoptive parent:

My husband and I are Caucasian; we adopted our daughter from China when she was ten months old. We are a mixed-raced family. This fact is both irrelevant on a day-to-day basis, and the thing that defines us. A while back, I read an article about a person who got in trouble for saying that she had forgotten that her adopted Chinese daughter was Chinese. I think what she was trying to say was that she simply thought of (let’s call her) Ann as “Ann.” Her “foreignness” was removed by familiarity, and she had for all intents and purposes blended into mainstream white America. Just an ordinary child, her child. And this is what offended people, the very denying of her ethnicity, the removal of her birthright of Chinese heritage and culture.

And while I don’t feel particularly inclined to join in the condemnation, I must say that I never forget that my daughter is Chinese, for that is part of her very essence. What I often forget is that there is anything out of the ordinary for a young Chinese girl to be parented by middle-age white parents.flag-of-china_w725_h479

Ann’s mother obviously meant she did not see her girl as being other. What does it mean to belong in this situation? To be full-blooded Chinese and part of a white family? What I hear from this mom is a deep acceptance of a child that did away with any self-consciousness about color. The way I might talk with a dear friend and, while appreciating the wisdom she brings to our relationship, forget she is old enough to be my mother. Because it feels natural, like we were meant to be together. Can we just say what we feel about race? Of course we can. And of course we can’t. I am so glad we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct in this series. Navigator echoed sentiments Jenni and Elizabeth had expressed: “Perhaps there is an unconscious luxury of being white.” I found the point-blank confession refreshing.

SELF-DEFINITION
Paul recently said to me, “When you started the Race series, you were obviously exploring asymmetry – how do we each create value in our lives given the different starting places and circumstances? Quite a few of the interviewees identified seeking commonness as the means of success. And yet if you looked deeper, they actually leveraged their unique personal circumstances to be successful.” Any thoughts? Many of our articulate writers felt race didn’t matter. flag-of-united-states-of-america_w725_h381I think it most certainly does but we need to clarify the not mattering. Race does not determine worth and should not affect opportunity. Sadly it does both these things in many places and where this happens, race should not matter. Can we instead take healthy pride in the culture of our lineage, and be neither overweening nor ashamed? My God made strawberries red and lemons yellow. And He delights in their color. Imagine strawberries looking to erase their ruby signature or trying hard not to be so red. Interestingly, every color of the farm fields and gardens offers its own irreplaceable nutrients. Why have I at times felt apologetic about being Korean? Why did I feel looking back at where I came from, talking about my past, would be a waste of your time – until you said otherwise? It was out of your response to my story that I gave myself permission to keep going with The Measure of a Woman. Remarkable that the immigrant tale would make its way up my Top 10, second only to my About which had over a year’s running start.

We had more than discussion and history lessons in our race around the world. There were personal history and conviction and fears. In my virtual travel around the globe, there wasn’t one tour guide of a contributor who has not opened these small Asian eyes. I’ve decided people who don’t travel or at least open themselves to cultures outside their own short themselves.

Sreejit put it well and sufficiently in reply to a comment: “I think the more we see of the world, the less we are stymied by race issues. But since most people don’t leave their own backyard, it is easy for stereotypes and prejudices to persist. Though I think the internet is also helping to break down the walls as well. The world is becoming a little smaller everyday.”flag-of-mauritania_w725_h483

I was nevertheless reminded in conversations with the Race participants who live in a far and different time zone just how grand our world is. Even instant email could not keep our long-distance exchange going at the pace I wanted. When I was up, my fellow writers were in bed. There is a sunrise every hour throughout this world. I am consumed by the affairs of my day but my light is someone’s darkness. We do well to grow a bigger heart.

At The Finish Line: Asian American In Thailand, Part 16

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I consider myself Asian American, or as I like to say, American Asian. The latter description came from digesting people’s perceptions of me. Depending on circumstances, I’m either too Asian or not Asian enough. I just go with Asian American because it’s the title folks are saddled with. It’s the convenient box I check. But I think Asian American means different things to different people. My father and his family made their way to the United States after fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution. My mother met my father during the Vietnam War when he was stationed with the US Air Force in Thailand. Interestingly, I was almost born in Thailand, but my mother boarded the plane nine months pregnant with me so I could be born in the US. Yeah, she’s crazy, but I’m thankful.

Six years later we returned to Thailand on family vacation. My father died in a motorbike accident. Our lives changed in ways I would never have imagined. My mother never remarried but stayed with her Caucasian boyfriend for pretty much my entire childhood. I refer to him as my step-dad, out of convenience. Like my mom, he was from a poor working-class family. When I got older I would jokingly refer to me and my family as “Asian white trash.” Now that I look back, there was something in that. It was never meant as self-deprecation but just my way of recognizing the uniqueness of my family.

My ethnic identity is important to me in as much as it gives me some sort of foothold. I’m part of a tribe, so to speak, but my ethnicity is also not that important in light of the experiences I’ve had. My experiences have left me to wonder what identity really is, and I’ve decided it is a fickle friend.

2) What was your first language? What did you grow up speaking with your parents, especially until your father passed? How much Thai do you understand and speak?Lani

Had my father lived I feel Chinese and Thai would have been taught us, but this is just a guess. My brother and I grew up surrounded by the Thai language but interestingly enough, Mom spoke English with us (even though hers is poor and has not really improved because she had many Thai friends in Hawaii). So I started learning when I arrived in Thailand about five years ago. I have functional Thai, but the goal is to be fluent.

3) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Before that I was in Ecuador, Alabama, Southern California, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado. I was born and raised in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. My family moved to Barstow, California when I was around 12 years old. We were in the armpit of America for only 2-3 years, but they were formative years. It was the first time I was a minority, and I felt every bit different. It has seemed my identity would get redefined with each move. Like a potato, I can be cut up and served as fries, or be put in soup, stew, or curry. In other words, depending on the context (the dish, to stick with the analogy), I will be perceived accordingly. I’m still a potato though, you know?

4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Very diverse. It was a motley neighborhood due to the vast Asian population of Hawaii and the US military presence on the islands. But there was and still is racial tension, ironically enough. When I was growing up Caucasians often complained about feeling like outsiders and being called haole (Hawaiian for foreigners), especially when expletives accompanied the word. Can’t say that I blame them. Actually, I like to say that Hawaiian culture is a confrontational culture because there was a lot of fighting in the schools. It didn’t necessarily have to do with race, but all the races were involved. This isn’t to say we didn’t get along, because most of the time we did.

And then we moved to Barstow, California – a big change for me with no Asian kids around.  It was also the first time I was confined to the great indoors due to the harsh desert climate and environment. So I fell in love with books and writing during this period. When we returned to Hawaii I was a very different girl. I had become passionate about reading, writing and theatre. These are not “Hawaiian” qualities, like zeal for the beach or mall which back then were all that mattered.

5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity?

After my father’s death I woke up from any kind of childhood dreaminess. I often heard how much I looked like my father, which made me feel I looked “very Chinese” and made me aware of my ethnicity. In fact, I actually resented it when anyone said it was my younger brother who looked like him because I had become proud to look so Chinese and take after my father. I was Daddy’s girl.

6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity?

I consciously gravitate towards outsiders or folks perceived as different. When I was 11, we had our first dark-skinned Black student at my elementary school. We had plenty of brown-skinned students, but no one looked like her. Nobody liked her, and for some reason I immediately made friends with her. I remained her friend even when my peers teased her. She eventually made new friends and left me behind.

I kind of marvel at my younger self. I certainly didn’t get that openness from my family. My mom was sometimes racist and judgmental against all races that were not Asian. Yet for some reason, my younger brother and I knew better and would usually respond by laughing. We didn’t take her seriously. Her remarks were so archaic. As far as being around people of my own ethnicity, there is a certain kind of comfort that comes with being with your own kind. I used to hate sticking out in any crowd. Then I came to enjoy it, and now, well, I like blending in. After all, I live in Thailand where I merge into the landscape.

7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

No, it doesn’t work that way for me. With other Asian Americans I have met abroad there is a certain understanding we share for the similar experiences. Many expats form their own little communities. But most of my relationships are unique unto themselves. I also enjoy meaningful friendships across the ages (20s-70s) and with folks from around the world.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?

I actually feel a sense of belonging in many groups. This makes me easy to relate to or identify with, which is important to me as a teacher and a writer. Although I do think being Asian American helps me belong to the American and Asian communities readily.

9) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

It’s something I’m aware of, but these kinds of things ebb and flow. These days I don’t really have to make much of an effort because I’m an expat (and my Thai family is a few hours away). But here’s a quick example of what I mean. For my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training in Bangkok, my class consisted of a Mexican, Belgian, French, Cambodian, Filipino American, British-Thai, Indian, a third-culture kid (American raised in Brazil, China, and the Philippines). My trainers hailed from Australia, South Africa, and Romania. I’m still friends with and in contact with all of them but one.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

Moving around a lot has given my identity a few solid shakes. When I was living in Colorado, I had a Native American ask me, “What tribe?” I was shocked because I thought I looked so Asian. When I explained my ethnicity, he said, “Oh, I thought you were Najavo.” In Ecuador, I had a Bible thumper thrust the Good Book under my nose. He spoke in Spanish and the book was in Chinese. In Thailand, the people always try to guess my ethnicity. Japanese is a common answer, for the way I dress. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, people speak to me in Chinese. Yesterday, a new friend asked if I was Korean. And since I teach English, I’ve made a game out of students’ guessing where I am from. So I think I’m just used to people thinking whatever they want to think about me depending on where I am. I can be outgoing or quiet. I think it helps that I like to make people laugh. There have also been times and places where I haven’t had friends and I’m okay with that, too.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

I don’t know if it is fully possible, but I hope it is possible to be more compassionate and culturally sensitive.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

These questions were hard to answer because HW obviously put some good old-fashioned thought into them! I guess it’s because we live with our ethnicity and race, that we don’t often try to explain to someone else who we are and the conditions that have shaped us. I also think that some of the questions (or the answers!) might make folks feel uncomfortable. Which is not a bad thing, I liked the challenge. Thank you.

Lani at Life, The Universe, and Lani