Learning to See the Other

 

 

You are a person only if someone else thinks you are a person 
                                                                    — South African proverb

 

See the otherThe dehumanizing impact of labels and stereotypes—the losses we suffer when we fail to see the other as a human being with his or her own unique story—was the subject of Naomi Tutu’s presentation to my Rotary group last Friday morning.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has been a long-time activist for human rights.  She began her comments with a compelling portrait of a young girl growing up under apartheid. No one in the audience was surprised when she described a world that viewed her as a member of the class of “black women,” someone who had no story apart from her blackness.

Similarly, no one was surprised to hear that she had viewed white South Africans as members of a class who had no story apart from their role as “oppressors.” Under apartheid, legal, social, political and historical barriers made it difficult for both whites and black to see the other as individuals—to see the other in terms of individual aspirations, fears and delights.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

But Tutu got our attention when she observed that the white oppressors were themselves oppressed, the victims of a self-imposed oppression. Yes, white South Africans as a class had wealth and privilege and opportunities denied to the blacks. But individually, many South Africans lived in a state of nearly constant fear of the violence provoked by decades of apartheid.

Naomi TutuThis insight came during her first visit to South Africa after she had finished college and started working in the United States. Proud of her spanking new credit card and driver’s license, she rented a car for the drive to her family home. Like all black drivers in that era, she was stopped at a police checkpoint. When she was told to get out of the car, she complied but “with attitude.” As she waited, annoyed and resentful, for the officer to search her car, she watched his face. It took her only moments to realize that the young policeman—in a position of power and with a gun—was clearly terrified of what she, “a black woman,” might do to him.

In an effort to calm his fear, she talked about her visit to her family and asked about his family. They talked, as human beings with a shared humanity, for a quarter of an hour before she went on her way. I had an image of the policeman waving her off with a smile, of her looking back with a grin to wave at him.

That was only one of many stories she shared. All of them spoke to the essence of being a person, of recognizing the unique stories of each and everyone of us. Tutu spoke movingly about the hurt we cause as well as the opportunities we miss when we fail to recognize and honor our shared humanity.

The weight of Tutu’s words struck me again only moments after her presentation ended. As I crossed the Drake campus toward my car, I found myself recoiling, intellectually if not physically, from a young man with heavily tattooed arms in a rainbow of green, red, yellow and blue. Mine was a shamefully elitist reaction, not unlike that of the white South Africans who saw only “a black woman.” Perhaps this young man was an honors student or a faculty member. Perhaps he was a loving husband and father. What right did I have to assume that that the color of his skin would tell me anything about his humanity?

How often do you fail to recognize our shared humanity, to truly see the other?

 

Tutu’s presentation reprised one of the key themes—the corrosive impact of stereotypes—in my novel, A Fitting Place, although my focus has been on gender rather than race. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on how stereotypes have affected your life. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion with a guest blog, please contact me here.

 

Buy a paperback copy of A Fitting Place                       Buy A Fitting Place for Kindle 

 

 

 

Feather in a Hurricane

 

feather in a hurricaneMy guest today is author BC Brown, who explores the painful consequences of subordinating her own needs to her husband, a pattern she had in common with Lindsey Chandler, the protagonist in my just-released novel, A Fitting Place.

 

Feather in a Hurricane 

Three months driving between St. Louis and Indianapolis. Working all week and driving all weekend. Sleeping on waiting room floors and eating out of machines. My mother now recuperating after major surgery.

I was weary, leaden, and spent. Just when there seemed a light at the end, my husband of a decade calls.

“How quick can you come back?”

It’s ten p.m. I’ve been awake for more than 48 hours with only catnaps. Perhaps after a million hours of sleep. All I said was, “I don’t know. I have to pick up mom’s meds tomorrow, wait for the nurse, and do her grocery shopping. Why?”

“Can you be here by noon?”

An hour time change, a three-hour drive, and a mountain of errands beforehand. Uh, no.  “I could be home by two. What’s this about?”

A hesitation. “I’ll see you at two. I can’t talk about it on the phone.” Click.

I should have gotten a speeding ticket, a Driving Under the Influence of Fatigue ticket, but I was lucky. Despite my lack of sleep and my complete lack of focus, neither I nor anyone else was harmed.

I arrived home to have my heart ripped from my chest. My husband was leaving. What I thought was a happy marriage had been a sham. He’d had an ongoing affair. Within an hour, he’d gone.

I was left with a minimum wage job that couldn’t support the life we lived. I had no schooling, having supported him in school and helped work his business.

I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I called family.

My sisters drove from southern Indiana to St. Louis in almost the record time I’d done it only hours before, packed everything I owned, and took me home. Where things went from devastating to destitute.  It took more than a month to stop bursting into random tears.

The best part of it all? Expectations of job searching and of being an independent, strong person. With what skills?

My husband and I met at seventeen. The instant I was legal, we had the dream: jobs, one of us in school, a business, dogs, and a mortgaged picket fence. My life was very much ‘my husband’. With the exception of my writing and my love of karaoke, I didn’t have my own opinions, my own interests, or my own skills.

I was stymied when potential employers asked why I’d make a good fit for their company? I mean, I didn’t know if I made a good fit for me.

As a result, I worked a string of back-breaking and paycheck-puny jobs. I tried counseling. I tried job fairs. I trudged from one ad to another, touted my pitiful skills, trotted out every reference, accomplishment, and award.

It didn’t help. I was free falling. My elderly and ailing mother was financially supporting me, while one sister with kids fed and housed me and the other fed my gas tank and car insurance. I was broke and broken.

Enter the good friend.

My best friend for almost fifteen years, the same man who’d introduced me to my husband (but I couldn’t hold that against him), mentioned his old job was open again. The pay was crap, the job bottom of the barrel, and the hours long with mandatory overtime. But he’d put in a good word for me.

I walked in, seven months out of work, with a pathetic resume of retail, food service, clerical, and a smidgen of advertising experience. The HR manager asked why I wanted the position.

“I’m broke. I need a job; you have one that needs to be filled. No matter that I feel like a feather in a hurricane, those two things are true,” is all I said. Desperation is rarely the best form of self-presentation, but I was beyond desperation, willing to consider jobs that weren’t exactly the most flattering or self-respecting.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “You’ll hate this job, probably quit in a month. Everyone does.” Pause. “You start Tuesday.”

For the first time in half a year, my stomach ceased churning. I put my hand in his and shook. “I won’t quit.”

My feather had snagged something solid and stopped spinning long enough for me to get my feet. I spent the next three years in that job, moving from the entry position to a middling position. Even when I was offered a better, full-time position elsewhere, I continued to work there. See, if everything I’d tried and done on my own hadn’t helped, I sure wasn’t going to give up the one good thing that had happened.

I learned an insanely good lesson. I’d been raised with a ‘do it yourself’ mentality. But that hadn’t worked. It was when I’d acknowledged that I needed others that life straightened out.

I could pick up the pieces, build a new me. But it took someone else, a good friend, to show me who I really was all along. Just me. And I could do this.

BC Brown featherBC Brown is the author of A Touch of Darkness and A Touch of Madness, both Abigail St. Michael novels. Her work has been included in three, multi-author anthologies – Fracas: A Collection of Short Friction, Quixotic: Not Everyday Love Stories, and A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. She has published a dark fantasy novel, Sister Light, Book One: Of Shadows previously under the pen name B.B. Walter.

BC has upcoming work with the Abigail St. Michael novels entitled A Touch of Emptiness. More of her work will be released in a general fiction novella entitled Feather in a Hurricane and a dark fantasy novel, Of Shadows.

You can see more about BC and her books from the links below.

Amazon … Barnes & Noble … Facebook … Twitter … Goodreads

 

The discussion on the human condition will continue, with particular emphasis on the issues that complicate the life of Lindsey Chandler, the protagonist in A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in contributing a guest blog to this series, please contact me here  or at afittingplace@hotmail.com. 

Flying the Coop – Leaving Mennonite Land

  

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was 
more painful than the risk it took to blossomAnais Nin

Marian JourneyMy guest this week is Marian Longenecker Beaman, who looks back at her decision to step outside of her comfort zone and leave the Mennonite community in which she was raised.

A prayer covering hugs my head capped by two circles of interlocking dark-brown braids. I chafe in a blue wool dress with a cape that masks my womanly curves. Standing in front of my dresser mirror as Sister Longenecker at Lancaster Mennonite School where I teach, the truth dawns:

Me: I can’t live the rest of my life looking like this!

Other Self: Then come with me.

Me: But what would my parents say?

Other Self: They aren’t living your life.

Me: Dean Noah Good wants me to stay. He says he thinks it is God’s will for me.

Other Self: How can he know? He is not God. 

Starting a [new life] demands a conscious falling through the window,
a journey through the looking-glass — Madeleine l’Engle

I’ve had this dialogue before, but the urge to change is growing stronger. One possibility: My church endorses a Teacher’s Abroad Program (TAP). I’ll sign up for that. Apply for Western Europe, maybe Germany or Switzerland, land of my ancestry. Maybe I will meet a nice German boy. I’ll teach English, learn German, have a family–and never have to wear my constricting Mennonite garb again. 

I can escape!

But one enchanted evening I meet Cliff, on Christmas break from college and staying with my next door neighbor.  I am his blind date. One week into our friendship, he has drawn a portrait of me, written poetry about me, presented me with two hand-made cards, and given me a corsage of pink carnations. He says he is falling in “like” whatever that means. It feels more like true love to me.

Cliff (the Catalyst) suggests I find a school away from my Mennonite culture. Okay, it could be a private Christian school, just not a Mennonite one. Soon I apply to Charlotte Christian School.  The phone interview is embarrassing on both ends. I can’t understand the board member’s southern drawl, and he can’t decipher my lilting Pennsylvania dialect. Overly polite, we ask, “Will you repeat that please?” Nevertheless, I am asked to come down to Charlotte, NC for a face-to-face interview.

The school can afford to pay only bus fare, so I mount the Greyhound for the 14-hour trip with my Baum’s bologna sack lunch and suitcase, a square brown thing with metal snaps. It’s late May so it gets hotter as we head farther south, but at least I am not wearing a cape dress. Before the trip, I boldly shed my prayer cap too, though braids still hug my head. A search committee member in Charlotte says, “You come highly recommended from Lancaster Mennonite School.” (What? Dean Good approves of my leaving LMS and mingling with Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists—maybe even Episcopalians, for heaven’s sake.)

I am offered the job and take it. Even with the meager salary of $4,200, there are fringe benefits: I could understandably leave my family and be closer to my boyfriend Cliff (now teaching in Florida). My family has mixed feelings about the move, but after all I am 25 years old. My mother says finally, “I’d rather have you be a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite.”

My dad, maybe worried that I’ll end up an old maid, even helps me pick out a car. In the 1980s movie, Marty’s time machine is a DeLorean, thrusting him “Back to the Future” where he gets stuck in the past. My time machine is a 1960s Valiant that propels me forward from Mennonite farmland in Pennsylvania to Billy Graham country in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The obliging officials at Charlotte Christian School recommend a place to live in a neighborhood of elegant Southern ladies. Their charm is most enchanting (How ya’ll doin’? the plural directed to just me) and I take up residence with two fancy young women who roll their hair at night for flip hairdos by day. 

By the end of the school year, I am wearing my first ever piece of jewelry, a diamond engagement ring, which “plain” Grandma Longenecker beholds with an ashen face, her eyes communicating betrayal of my heritage and family values. Nevertheless, the ring never leaves my finger. And I get brave enough to cut my hair.

That’s the way things come clear.  All of a sudden.  And then you realize 
how obvious they have been all along — 
Madeleine l’Engle

Yes, standing in front of that mirror as Sister Longenecker at Lancaster Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, the truth dawns. It had been obvious all along. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

 

Marian - journey #2Marian Beaman’s life has been characterized by re-invention: Pennsylvania Mennonite girl moves to Florida to become traveling artist’s wife, then English professor with credits in the Journal of the Forum on Public Policy published by Oxford University Press. Along with her work as a community activist leading a neighborhood to take on a Wal-Mart expansion, she is a writer and blogger in this second phase of her career. Fitness training and Pilates classes have become a metaphor for her mind-flexing experience as a writer, mining stories from her past along with reflections on current events. 

Facebook: www.facebook/marian.beaman/

Twitter: www.twitter.com/martabeaman

Website: http://plainandfancygirl.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/marian-beaman/73/3a2/660

 

This guest blog continues the discussion on issues relevant to themes in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you’d like to contribute to the discussion, please contact me here.

While I am hosting Marian Beaman, my essay on the writing process is being  hosted by Linda Austin on her lovely website, Moonbridge Books.  Linda, who encourages life writing, wrote Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, her mother’s memoir of life in Japan around WWII, and Poems That Come to Mind, about the caregiving journey.

Next Monday’s contribution to the blog hop on the writing process will come from Sharon Lippincott on her website. Sharon, who began teaching lifestory and memoir workshops in 1999, is the author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing and four other books. Her latest volume, Adventures of a Chilehead: A Mini-Memoir with Recipes was released in December last year.

 

Secrets & Lies – The Tangled Web of Human Nature

 

locksMy guest this week, Carol Bodensteiner, offers another thought-provoking perspective on the cost of keeping secrets.

 

The Lies of a Child  

When I was ten years old, I made a bet with a classmate. The payoff was $1,000,000.  I lost. At ten, I could no more grasp the concept of a million dollars than I could space travel, but I knew two things: 1) I was honor bound by my word to pay the debt, and 2) No one could know I had been so stupid. 

I was about $3.00 into stealing nickels and dimes from my dad’s pants pocket before my horror at being a thief trumped my need to keep my word. It was more than 50 years before I told another living soul about that million-dollar bet.

This was my indoctrination into the dark underworld of secrets. 

Keeping secrets – and telling lies to protect those secrets – is part of human nature. We’ve all felt the thrill of having and keeping a secret. We’ve all seen the devastation that results when a secret is revealed. We may even have felt the pain of having a secret of our own leaked. Secrets make wonderful fodder for novels. 

The Lies of an Adult

As I grew up, so did my secrets. When I learned in the 1970s that my husband was gay, I embarked on a long and elaborate path of keeping that – and my own life – secret. 

The impact of these secrets on me as the secret keeper lingers to this day. 

Initially, I didn’t tell anyone about my gay husband because I feared how others would react, what they would think of me. In the 1970s, it was not unrealistic for my gay husband to fear for his job and possibly his life. It was not unrealistic to believe that people would blame me for his being gay. We had a child. We had jobs. We genuinely loved each other. We agreed not to say anything to anyone. 

Keeping the secret became everything. In the isolation of my own thinking, the secret grew more powerful. My imagination created bigger, more damaging results should anyone find out. Even after my husband and I divorced, I did not tell anyone. After all, it was the past. Why dredge that up again?

What I didn’t realize was that by not saying anything, I was letting the secret define how I thought about myself. No matter the reality, the secret told me I was not a good wife, a good daughter, or a good mother. The conflicts between how I needed to see myself and the other reality of my secret world were huge.

I resolved the conflicts with strict compartmentalization. I was a good wife and mother. I was a good daughter. I was an excellent public relations practitioner (who could be counted on to keep secrets!). I was married to a gay man, but we never talked about that. I coped with my conflicted sense of self as woman and wife in some unhealthy ways, and I most certainly didn’t talk about THAT. As long as I operated within the rules of each compartment, as long as no one ever found out, life was fine.

Keeping secrets requires a tremendous amount of energy. Neuroscientists have found that secrets cause the brain to fight within itself as part of us wants to tell and another part wants to keep it hidden. The result? Huge stress. 

James Pennebraker, a University of Texas psychologist, found that “people hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer.” Pennebraker says, “Keeping a secret often becomes less about protecting people and more about becoming overly preoccupied with the “thing” or maintaining the double, secret life.” 

Hiding my double life was exhausting. But, letting go of the secrets was terrifying. What would everyone really think of me when they knew the truth of who I’d been all those years?

Fifty years after the fact, I wrote about my schoolyard bet in my memoir. I told my mother the story before writing it. She didn’t stop loving me as I’d convinced myself she would. Amazing!

When I finally wrote about the secrets of my first marriage, told trusted friends, and unloaded with a counselor, I received positive, supportive responses. I found others who had experienced some of the same things. I was not rejected. In fact, I found community.

Confession has been good for my soul. Each time I tell the stories, the secrets own a little less of me. Telling makes the events a part of my life, not all of my life. 

 

BodensteinerC-copy-220x300Carol Bodensteiner is the author of Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. She finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. 

 Her essays have been published in several anthologies. Her debut novel, historical fiction set during World War I, will be published in 2014.

Carol’s website/blog:  http://www.carolbodensteiner.com

Tweet @CABodensteiner;  LinkedIn 

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Quote from James Pennebaker comes from “How can a secret hurt me?” on the website for Discovery Fit & Health

 This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place