I’m not a big believer in the idea that the deceased are able to talk with the living. No amount of talk by so-called “mediums” convinces me that people in this life can connect with the dead through supernatural means. I once read that a famous celebrity promised his wife that if he died, she would someday see his presence revealed in a white feather floating in the air. I don’t think that ever happened, or we might have heard about it.
Instead, I believe that when it comes to all things supernatural, it is up to us to find meaning in everyday experiences that trace the lives of those we have lost. Yesterday, I felt the strong presence of my late wife in a teaching experience with children the same age that she once served.
As a substitute teacher the last month and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to work with classrooms ranging from first grade through middle school and high school. Having been in many teaching situations over the years, including adult and higher education, I’m exploring how I can expand that love of teaching at this point in my life.
It has been a challenge and a joy to learn how to work with students of all ages and abilities. Like my late wife, I’ve also worked with special needs students across a range of abilities. Her ultimate career choice was a preschool teacher, a bit different than the higher-paying public school positions to which she once planned to return, but her love of teaching young children won out.
I always knew why my wife loved teaching children that age. They are getting ready for the big world of kindergarten. They need guidance in social skills as well as basic learning in the alphabet and numbers. They also love to explore the arts and play.
As a teacher one learns to adjust to aptitudes and witness how personalities are already forming. It is also a calling to help form those personalities in an encouraging way.
That means you use what talents you have available to connect with kids. For me, that means read-aloud time and drawing. Those are my best teaching attributes. While moving from group to group during play time, I shared some drawing time with a left-handed little guy who absolutely loved the process of copying what I drew on the board. At one point I drew the head of a mouse. He then completed the body and legs, and drew a companion mouse next to the first.
Such are the serendipitous arrivals of teachable moments. Sometimes you make them happen. Sometimes you let them happen.
Over a twenty-year period my late wife experienced thousands, if not millions of such encounters. Those kids were a gift to her in life. Though her life ended earlier than she ever planned, the children and raised (our kids) made it the richest life imaginable. She saw it through their eyes, and the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time. It will be eight years since she passed away on March 26, 2013. It was nice to feel a bit of connection with that life through some preschooler’s eyes.
A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”
I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.
It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.
Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.
I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.
Middle school subbing
My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.
I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…
My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.
To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.
I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.
Individualized Learning Plans
I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.
The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.
The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.
Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.
By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.
Speed it up
The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.
Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”
“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.
Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?
The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.
We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.
Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.
The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.
Black History month
I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.
That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.
I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.
That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.
I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.
On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?
Oh simple thing, where have you gone? I’m getting old and I need something to rely on So tell me when you’re gonna let me in I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin
At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.
I came across a fallen tree I felt the branches of it looking at me Is this the place we used to love? Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?
After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.
I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”
And if you have a minute, why don’t we go Talk about it somewhere only we know? This could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.
We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.
My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.
Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.
That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.
It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.
Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.
Oh, this could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know? Somewhere only we know Somewhere only we know
Many years back, when I was still single and engaged in a long distance relationship with the woman I’d eventually marry, we ached to be together during the Thanksgiving holiday. She flew out to Philadelphia where I’d been sent on a job transfer and we made the best of it. I grabbed the literal last turkey in the grocery store and we baked it in the oven. Then we parted ways again until Christmas.
We’d only met the previous year in October. Any plan of being together long-term was just formulating. Early the next year, the company that moved me out East dumped the entire marketing department. I was left trying to decide what to do next. Stay out East, or move back to the Midwest?
I moved back to live with a friend in downtown Chicago and spent the next couple years living a dual life between the city and suburbs. That was a period of great change and experimentation. After a couple of years, I’d had enough of the Bohemian city life. We got engaged and married the following year.
From there, it felt like a blur of events as our first child came along, then another. We celebrated holidays with our respective families. Those days of celebration together rolled on. Mostly we got together at her family home where her parents were always wonderful hosts. Sometimes my parents would join those festivities. Over the years, we also invited friends to add to our joy.
Our Christmases were filled with family togetherness. The anticipation of opening presents with the kids was so high some years we had to let them open a small gift before the rest of the family got up so they wouldn’t burst from the pressure of expectation. Our kids were always respectful, but when they had a hint of the goodies to come, it was cruel to make them wait several hours to open the “big gift” that they’d requested.
Early on, one of those “big gifts” was the Red Ryder BB Gun from the movie A Christmas Story. It became a new tradition in the annual celebration along with watching the movie umpteen million times.
My father-in-law loved those Christmas mornings more than anything on earth. He also made a big deal out of Easter joys and the annual Easter Egg hunts as well.
His birthday was on the Fourth of July, so that day was always filled grilling steaks and setting off backyard fireworks of the milder kind, except the year that his son and friends loaded up with a stash from across the border in Indiana and blew off so many fireworks the police showed up to confiscate many of them. When the cops arrived, my father salted away the major part of the fireworks stash in the garage. He was a conservative guy by trade, but he also loved a bit of fun. That’s how they did things out in the Nebraska hinterlands where he grew up. You had fun until you got caught. Most of the time, you still got away with it.
These days that father-in-law is gone. He passed away during leadup to Christmas 2012, the year before his daughter, my late wife, passed away after eight years of ovarian cancer treatments. These days, my mother-in-law is quite alive and doing well. But we’re cautious with our visits given the Covid-19 pandemic. My own mother and father passed away in 2005 and 2015, respectively.
So we’ll be apart this year on many fronts. My son lives in Venice, California and the state is rife with Coronavirus, so he’s sitting tight. I cancelled a planned visit with him earlier this year over concerns of infection myself. This will be his time in 34 years that he’s not in company with direct family during the Christmas holidays. It hurts to be apart. But there also comes a point in everyone’s life when circumstances or other interruptions place things out of our control. This is an inside joke with my children, but those changes really do “build character.”
My daughter and her boyfriend live nearby, and we’ll likely see each other. But they’re cautious about the Coronavirus too. Even more than I. So we’ll all Zoom with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and make the best of this holiday the way we have always done. That’s what most families typically do during the holiday season anyway. We go through the motions of opening presents, but to our group’s credit over the years, we dialed that down quite a bit, choosing one person to “gift” each year, and we’d buy or make small themed things for the rest of the family. That took the pressure off the shopping. We could all focus on the joy of appreciation instead. I’m always grateful we did that. It was the right kind of pride to turn our attention away from the presents and toward the relationships.
Our holiday get-togethers were always mixed in with long naps from food comas and other indulgences. For many people, that’s a big part of being together. Letting everyone have their time and space. Sometimes, it’s the unchanging nature of the holidays that makes them special.
We’ve added some critters to our celebrations over the years. This little dog Chuck is a rescue that is now almost fourteen years old. My son has a dog named Luke Skybarker that he’s brought home from the holidays. This will be the second Christmas with our dog Lucy for my wife Sue and I. We’ve all adopted these pups and some cats because they bring change (and joy) into our lives each day.
It’s also true that life’s changes come along whether we like it or not. That’s why finding joy amid the changes in the moment is important. The ache of times past comes from the happy remembrance of shared celebrations. That is the inseparable bond from which we can draw strength. When our hearts ache from being apart, we turn to that. But there is also the joy of creating new traditions, celebrating with newfound connections as well. Over the years, we brought people into our circle to share those bonds. That’s a tradition we should all embrace. Make the world our family.
If this year has proven anything, it is that increasing the breadth of that “circle” is the reason we’re all here. Reach out. Make it happen. The world needs you. Celebrate Christmas or whatever you do by connecting in new ways and old. That’s what this is all about. Peace. And joy to you.
This morning I taught a session for the INCubator program at a local high school. In the past I’ve served as mentor to groups working together to create a product, service or solution.
Today’s session was on storytelling, a major component of marketing. to explore the subject of what makes a good story, we discussed some of their favorite television show. One young man shared his interest in a show about corrupt superheroes owned by corporation. We talked about how the contradictory nature of the show’s subject was an immediate attraction.
We talked as well about the branding success of the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” We discussed the fact that the phrase has been used for a couple decades and somehow still feels fresh. “How does that work?” I challenged the students.
The Nike approach works––we decided––because it allows the company to show examples of Just Do It while also issuing a Call To Action. That way everyone gets to be part of the story.
Culling a brand message down to such a simple, useful form of marketing takes a bit of inspired thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in all the associated stories and lose sight of what you want customers to do: Identify with your brand.
That sense of ownership is vital. We talked about how customer stories actually become the product when they offer strong enough testimony to its value. I also shared a hint that could help them find that brand messaging the easiest way possible. Ask questions, then listen.
Listening to people is the most powerful tool to build ownership on the whole earth. It is true when you’re a brand marketer. But it’s also true when you’re a caregiver, a team leader or any number of other positions of responsibility in this world. Your brand is composed of the character it expresses. Its authenticity depends on how well people trust what is being said. That’s why influencers have such powerful voices in today’s marketplace. They are the storytellers that people trust for word of mouth advice.
With all this information swirling around, I shared one last image to help the students understand the process of revealing the main story of their product, service or solution. I showed them a fossil (at top) that I’d collected years ago. It has the back of some segmented creature protruding from a sedimentary rock. “Your job,” I told the students. “Is clearing away the material around the creature inside the rock. That’s what you want to show them.”
Every fossil is like a new product emerging from the rock of creativity. It is a revelation when the whole thing is revealed. The reward is sharing that discovery with other people in a way that invites them to participate in the story going forward. That’s what Steve Jobs did with Apple… from the personal computer through to the iPod to the iPhone. Those devices were locked in the rock of perception. It was his genius to see them lurking there and dig them out.
Jobs once stated: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
Having the will to persist in that exploration and discovery is the right kind of pride.
Let’s talk about aging faces. I have no real way of knowing the age of the people who read this blog. There are about 1500 subscribers, and there are some who don’t subscribe but read these words through social media and other portals. But no matter what age you are, we all deal with the aging on our faces.
When you’re in your tweens and teens, those facial changes have profound impact on your self image. Getting zits and growing facial hair is a part of growing up. Dealing with tweezed eyebrows and the right makeup mix, or watching a callow jaw shift to manhood are all part of the process. Hair length also affects how facial changes are seen.
So the process of dealing with our aging faces starts early in life. Add in the impact of getting braces on your teeth, or in my case having a baseball accident smash a front tooth, and the changes never cease.
Those of us that compete in athletics put our faces through an entirely different kind of strain. The grimace lines wrought by the pain of endurance sports begins the process of forced aging that continues throughout our lives.
So perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a healthier form of pride in that aging face we see in the mirror each day. That face of yours has so much to tell about all what you’ve gone through. There is laughter, joy and excitement. There is sorrow, fear and depression. All in the same face. It’s a wonder we don’t wear them out with all these emotions.
In recent years, I’ve worried that the look of my face has begun to limit opportunities in life. The ugly specter or ageism creeps up on you secretly. People aren’t going to tell you to your face that they consider you “too old” to do a job or fit into a workplace culture, but it happens. By law, age discriminate is illegal. Yet we all know that it still happens.
Wattled and tired
I was sickened one day while reading an article that popped up in my social media feed. A younger writer crowed that he wants nothing to do with people whose faces are “wattled.” That’s a disqualifying factor in his mind. His thinking seemed to be centered around the idea that if someone looks old, they must be unable to think clearly or creatively.
That would be news to millions of people throughout history whose contributions to this world continued or even began in their later years. I think in particular about the life of R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative yet practical individuals to ever live. One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Fuller evolved from an experience of great sorrow and near defeat in his life. He’d experienced a great personal tragedy and was depressed beyond imagination. He indulged in a period of intensive personal isolation to figure out what to do next and emerged with a vision of new purpose, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.”
He used that perspective to face the world in a new way. Among his many inventions were the geodesic dome, a mathematical breakthrough in architecture. His influence and thinking continue to expand to this day. No one cared that he looked young or old. What matters is how he thought. We all need to grab that truth and never let it go.
We should also never forget that our faces are attached to our bodies. Today I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that people who do something more than walking in their exercise routines wind up having better efficiency and posture as they age. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t stress the body in the same way that cycling, running or swimming do. It’s the classic training principle that applies to life itself: you have to push past your boundaries to gain the most benefit.
That seems to be the principle at work when we consider the condition of our faces as we age. If you’re engaged and passionate and pushing yourself to continue learning and trying new things, it shows in your expression and even the condition of your face.
Until a few years ago, I’d never heard the term ‘resting bitch face’ applied to the baseline expression of someone who looks dour or unhappy all the time. Is that term as bad as dissing someone through ageism? It certainly seems cruel. Yet there is a reality at work in how we project our emotions through our visage. I’m perpetually aware of the value of smiling during conversations with people.
That’s especially true in business situations. I once had a boss tell me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.” He was right. I wasn’t a happy person during that period. My late wife had just experienced a recurrence of cancer and had a nervous breakdown as a result. I was scared, felt alone, and had little tolerance for the daily vicissitudes of business, which seemed so insignificant compared to what was going on at home.
Those internal conflicts showed in my face. There was little I could do about it at the time. Just put on the best face I could, and get through it.
So we perhaps don’t always have control of what our faces say about us. There’s always the possibility that a person with a ‘resting bitch face’ has gone through so much in life their face reflects that path. But then again, some people develop attitudes of victimhood and duress that dominate their existence. There is such a thing as becoming so bitter about life that it shows in everything you do.
I’ve got enough life experience now to look back and understand the causes of the challenges I’ve faced in life, and the reasons for the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve come to realize that a native anxiety affected many of my decisions. So did a likely associative form of ADD, a lifelong challenge that often determined the manner in which I processed information, or did not. In summary, I’m proud of having dealt with these challenges and adapted to succeed in some ways along the way. It all comes with knowing yourself well enough to accept past mistakes and not let them rule the present.
I can look at my face in the mirror now and see all sorts of experiences etched there. I see miles of training and racing, and the self-belief emerges from all those tests. But they keep coming. A former coach once told me, upon hearing that my late wife was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
He was quite right. That coach later faced cancer himself. He passed away a few years ago. The thing I remember most of all about him is still his face. I don’t see him as young or old. There’s a spiritual aspect to that, I believe. Take pride in that aging face, no matter what age you are.
Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.
Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.
Humanity on the block
We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.
Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.
We all have challenges
That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.
We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.
These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.
I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.
Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity
That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.
One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.
One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”
For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”
He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”
I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.
“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.
Just let it happen
The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.
The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”
Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.
People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them
I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.
Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.
The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.
That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.
We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.
While out conducting a breeding bird census in a forest preserve named after a legendary local botanist named Dick Young, I was wrapping up the count and walking back the asphalt path to the parking lot when an older couple on bikes rolled up behind me. They’d gone all the way around the loop through the restored prairie on a windy spring morning.
Our conversation started when they showed me a photo they’d taken of a bird perched on one of the count posts in the prairie. I identified it as a meadowlark and they were pleased with that. “I thought it was a woodpecker with that long beak!” the man observed. It wasn’t a bad observation. This photo I took that same morning of a meadowlarks shows the long bill. Probably if it chose to use it in hammering wood, it would work. But that’s not its evolved purpose.
After the meadowlark discussion, my new friend started chatting about how he actually knew Dick Young, who did so much to identify the plants that designated the Illinois Nature Preserve at the heart of the preserve named after the man.
Along with Dick Young, it turned out we had many mutual friends as a result, because he told me, “I’m Jerry Hennen. I was President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.”
“Whoa,” I chuckled. “I was President of Kane County Audubon probably thirty years ago.”
“I’m eighty-five,” he proudly told me.
His wife Delores smiled and told me. “And he doesn’t hear that well.”
In fact, I’d noticed the song of a sedge wren right behind them, and pointed out the bird. They’re a small species with a high-pitched song that goes ‘chapp-chapp-chapp-chapprrr.” But Jerry has lost that range of hearing, so he couldn’t hear it. We talked about the problems of aging, and I told him about a website for which I’d written the content about hearing aid technology and advances. He made me repeat the name so he could look it up.
Then he related that he has a son my age. “I could be your father!” he laughed.
I’m proud of all these longtime associations. Grateful that there are people I meet almost every day that can add to the breadth of life like this. It’s also interesting that our shared interest in birds brought us together one late spring day.
Over the years I’ve lost a few birding friends along the way. My high school teacher and birding mentor Bob Horlock passed away in 1993. He was only 53 when he had a heart attack while burning a restored prairie. By coincidence we’d met that morning at the same forest preserve where I connected with Jerry yesterday. Bob didn’t look himself that morning, a fact I related to my wife at the time. Were it not for that chance meeting in the field that day, I’d not have seen him one last time.
For all these longtime associations, one of my favorite things to do these days is share birding with people new to the activity. I get texts from people sending iPhone photos of birds they’ve seen. Two months ago I accompanied a newer birder into the field and she was so excited by the thrills gained from bird photography that she invested in a lens just like mine fo her camera. She instantly nailed some beautiful results.
That’s the ‘thrill of the new’ at work in her and others. Each and every bird we find is one of those chance meetings in the field. Like our human companions, their songs and visage give us a connection to all of nature. That’s why some of us get sad when we hear that a species of bird is struggling, or going extinct. That sense of loss is hard to reconcile.
That is why, during this period of greed and squander in America, when environmental laws are being tossed aside out of selfish pride and power, that our nature connections matter the most. The eagles we treasure as national symbols made a big comeback in the Lower 48 states of America because real Americans cared enough to end the practices that were polluting the environment and wiping out habitat critical to the survival of these and many other species. That was the right kind of pride, for sure.
During that critical period of environmental awakening in America, a certain man named Dick Young carried on a secret life of civil disobedience as an environmental activist. During the polluted late 1960s and early 1970s, wildlife was suffering and rivers were catching fire in Ohio, he started punishing the industry and politicians responsible for trashing the world. Under the guise of The Fox, his activist name, he’d collect gunk from the polluters and return it to them on the white carpets of their headquarters with a written reminder to clean up their act. He was an environmental patriot of the most sincere kind.
Though some had suspicions, and others kept quiet about the mystery of The Fox, no one ever figured out or revealed the true identity until the work was long done, and that was after the turn of the new millennium.
Real change did come to America through the actions of environmentalists such as Dick Young and my new friend Jerry Hennen. The quality of the environment in America improved through legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (by a Republican president, no less…) and protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty.
All our environmental protections are in the process of being trashed by a brutal narcissist with a reputation for selfish acts of power. His sycophants gladly carry out this work, and his beneficiaries gleefully relish the demise of regulations they consider fruitless. This must be stopped.
It is all our responsibility to play a role in protecting our earth. Sometimes that means dumping industrial pollutants on the carpet of a polluter, but other times it simply means voting for people who won’t destroy creation for egotistical reasons.
Why trust the future of the earth to economic zealots who can’t tell a robin from an rusted aluminum can?
Willful ignorance of nature and a selfish desire to wield dominion over it is not an acceptable way to live, in my opinion. That’s clearly not the right kind of pride in this world. Not by any means.
Which is why, every day that we can, it is up to all of us to resist these efforts to compromise the most important thing we all have in this world, the earth and its life, because it all comes down to the fact that every one of us is here just by chance, and this is the only one we’ve got.
The first time I was made emphatically aware of that fact was at six years old. I was playing with two kids that I’d gotten to know. We were running around a schoolground next to the baseball field where my brother played games in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Every week I’d meet up with two kids, a pair of twins actually, that were a bit younger than me. They loved to play tag and wrestle around.
But one day I was chasing one of them and he came to a sudden stop. I was a bony, skinny kid who was all elbows and knees and one of those struck him right in the eye. He went down crying. I helped him up, then his brother came over, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him across the field toward the wall of houses south of the field.
The next week I showed up to play and the twins were nowhere to be found. Nor the week after. Finally I saw them at the playground the third week and ran across the grass to greet them. I loved those two kids. They were bright and funny and loved to laugh. But when I approached their faces fell.
“We can’t play with you,” one of them told me. “Our momma said so.”
“Why not? I’m sorry if you got hurt,” I pleaded.
“She said we can’t play with white boys,” the one with the black eye told me.
“Was it because I bumped into you? Was that it?” I wanted to know.
Of course it was more than that. Their mother feared their children were being roughed up for no other reason than they were brown-skinned.
It broke my heart in the moment to realize that a rough mistake on my part had led to a broken friendship. But at six years old I told the two boys, “It’s okay. I understand.”
That was that. I realized for the first time that the color of my skin could be a threat to other people. That made a big impression on me. I’m not saying it cured or prevented me from racist reactions that I might have learned along the way. But because the race you inhabit is something you inherit, and it can’t changed, there are racist thoughts one learns along the way. That makes it impossible to know exactly what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. The people that are targets for those racist thoughts, actions and reactions never escape them.
The benefit of not having to live with racial stigmas has been accurately branded ‘white privilege.’ Some white people love to deny that it exists. But much of what has happened in the 200-plus years of American history, and that continues to this day, proves that white privilege not only exists, but is getting worse in this moment when selfish white Americans are claiming persecution for themselves. And we all know who’s leading the charge.
Race of a lifetime
I doubt those children with whom I played in the 1960s recall the incident when I bumped into one of the twins while playing together. It is far more likely they either symbolically or literally experienced events in life that really were racist in origin. So the divide is apparent: I got to go on with the race of my lifetime, being white, and they got to deal with what it meant to be brown-skinned or “black” in America.
That has everything to do with the unrest we’re seeing in this country today. The allegory of my accidentally knocking into that child and giving him a black eye holds true in many ways. Black people are constantly getting knocked upside the head and even killed simply because their skin color differs from the majority white population.
Which is why the instincts and reaction of that mother trying to protect her children from harm during their innocence was a lesson in their race of a lifetime.
That mother showed the right kind of pride. Whatever her prior experience with racism––and it was likely rife in the early 1960s when these events occurred––she knew that two four-year-old boys were hardly ready to deal with it. She likely wanted to give them the tools to avoid trouble when they could, even if they weren’t trying to cause it.
I still remember the beautiful smiles and sparkling eyes of those twins. And their creative nature during play was a joy. They made a big impression on me before I accidentally caused the end of our relationship with an elbow.
It’s hard to get back to that place after something bad has happened. If it keeps happening over and over, it’s really hard for people to be perpetually forgiving of the insults, the slights, the blocked opportunities, the economic and social prejudice, and the violence.
The closing lyrics of the Stevie Wonder song Living in the City seem to ring true now more than ever:
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow This place is cruel, no where could be much colder If we don’t change the world will soon be over Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city
One of the things that I do every day is to look people in the eye. Everyone I meet, I look them in the eye. Not out of suspicion. But to seek a connection of humanity.
I often smile when eyes meet. That’s a little harder now that we’re all wearing masks in public to prevent the spread of Coronavirus and the associated disease and conditions it produces, Covid-19. So I try to make my eyes smile. Which is harder. But still worth it.
It is important to look people in the eye, to make eye contact, to tell them: “I recognize you as another person. I respect your presence. I honor your struggles and joys, whatever they are.”
That is how you be discriminately indiscriminate. Once you get in the habit of acknowledging the humanity of other people, you can even advance to celebrating it. And while it is also harder to hold discussions through the mute cloth of a mask, it is still worth it.
Ask how someone’s day is going. That’s all it takes. “How’s your day going?” It is the most open-ended and compassionate question one can ask. It says nothing about money or race or social status. It opens the conversation up for you to listen, to hear, and to acknowledge the worth of that person. Indiscriminately.
The word indiscriminate means “done at random or without careful judgment.” Perhaps you’ve never paused to consider that definition. I’m asking you to do that now. Because random meetings are the best opportunity to get outside your own bubble. Over time, you will find, as I have, that the prejudicial habits of our minds are persistent. It takes both courage and commitment to let down your personal guard and be vulnerable enough to ask the question, “How’s your day going?”
So you have to discriminate against those instincts that hold you back. They might be old or present racial or cultural fears. There might be fears or suspicion of strangers. So you have to discriminate in your own mind to separate those “careful judgments” from your action and behavior.
Being discriminately indiscriminate is actually nothing more than being a good person. Someone to trust even when society conclusively compels you to draw back, pull in, protect yourself from every danger.
This is not to say that you should be wanton in hour behavior, or incautious in protecting your own health. But you’d be surprised how much talking to another person actually reminds you both what social distancing actually means. It is simple courtesy, and sane behavior to stand back from someone else.
But don’t ignore them. Don’t let this pandemic crush the humanity of our society. Then it is only the yellers who triumph, the selfish who get heard, and the dividers who conquer.
Discriminate from all that. Be indiscriminate in your interactions with other human beings. Seek them out. Be nice. Invite them into your world even if sharing social space has its limits.
It is much harder through social media to be discriminately indiscriminate. Even a poorly handled joke can be misconstrued. Pointing out even basic of obvious facts can be taken as a threat. So this is not about being indiscriminate on the Internet. We can talk about that another time.
But through channels of direct, humane exchanges will emerge a better feeling about the world, and about yourself. And that’s a good place to start.