A meditation on intimacy

I don’t, as a rule, blog about personal relationships or intimate feelings. I do, however, care deeply about how we build community, and how we constitute family and social connection is at the heart of that. As since age and disability have brought me to a place where I understand what it is to be erased, to feel invisible, I think a great deal about how we set expectations and manage communications about intimacy and community.

I think we do a poor job of it. Or at least, I have observed many instances in which we — I — struggle to do it well. And I think this has larger implications, which is what makes it worth blogging about.

A Facebook friend shared a blog post by a couple named Josh and Lolly Weed that set me searching for language this particular morning. In the post, they explain their decision to end their marriage. They are devout Mormons who, despite their deep affection, children and generally happy home life, have decided that their marriage cannot accommodate Josh’s same-sex attraction. We are assured that there has been no infidelity, but that it’s not healthy for them to remain in a marriage where he can’t love her the way she deserves to be loved, and neither of them is free to find love with someone else. This paragraph from Josh, especially, sent me off on a reverie that had little to do with their revelation:

The love I felt [for Lolly and their children] was real, but something in me wanted to die.
It’s the thing that wants to die in all of us when we don’t have hope for attachment to a person we are oriented towards. It’s actually a standard part of human attachment: when we don’t have attachment—and have no hope of attachment–our brain tells us we need to die.

The post is worth reading  for its testimony about people of faith struggling to reconcile what their church teaches about homosexuality with their lived experience. I don’t intend to address that here. What I want to say about that paragraph is that it resonated deeply with lived and observed experience – a lifelong crisis that I once thought existential, only capable of being articulated in art, but increasingly, taking shape in public policy.

Too many of us don’t know how to create and sustain connection to other humans. Too many of us live outside of structures of extended family and community. Experts say the lack of connection is killing us. The UK now has a Minister of Loneliness. A former US Surgeon General took to the pages of the Harvard Business Review to declare loneliness a public health crisis and to call on employers to change their cultures. A 2010 AARP study found a strong correlation between loneliness and poor physical health.

Weed’s words triggered very specific memories.

When I was a child, far too young to know of romantic relationships, there were two songs that moved me to tears, that touched something that I knew deep inside from having been uprooted and displaced: Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” and Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” I never spoke of the way these songs made me feel. I suspect that Aretha’s song sounded like the pain of some of the adult women I saw in my neighborhood, or heard my aunts and uncles talking about in conversations I wasn’t supposed to hear: “Ain’t no way for me to love you/If you won’t let me…” But “This Bitter Earth” spoke to a fear I carried:

This bitter earth
Well, what a fruit it bears
What good is love
Mmh, that no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust
Ooh, that hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows

Oh, this bitter earth
Yes, can it be so cold?
Today you’re young
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth, ooh
May not, oh be so bitter after all

I was a lonely child, unsure where I belonged, how I fit in, and Dinah Washington spoke to that so powerfully that I resolved not to listen to that song, lest I give in to despair. At that age, it was a slew of things that loom large for a child, but less so for adults, such as being told by a relative, “You must be a genius, because you are weird.” Or being bullied in school. Or thinking Janis Ian’s ode to teenage angst, “At 17,” was written for me. I grew up, and have lived much of my life in the friend zone, hopelessly crushing on people who would confide their love for my best friends. Oh, well. l learned early on to be philosophical about this.There’s a reason my middle school classmates called me Spock.

Later, I would be told that I had been a rebel in college, not adhering to the expectations of how young women were supposed to behave, ignoring people who were attracted to me (or in the words of one friend, supposedly in love with me.)  The truth is that my parents pretty much raised me to read books, take care of home and family, and exercise. I was rarely allowed to date or have a job other than babysitting. This is how my parents hoped to keep me from being derailed before I got a chance to have a life.

I didn’t break the rules; for the most part, I never learned them.  So if you wanted to step to me, you had to make it plain.   Later, of course, I learned that most of us are misfits in our own way. Sometimes we find others who understand our nerdiness, and we can be misfits together. Sometimes that connection comes through a partnership called marriage that lasts for decades. And sometimes not.

Anyway, it’s with this understanding that I came to Josh Weed’s words. And then I thought about people I had met from other cultures, other stations in life.

I thought about the people I have met who come from cultures that consider “love marriages” inferior to arranged marriages. I know women in arranged marriages who are at peace with their lot, for whom intimacy is built on shared history, values, and priorities. I don’t know how they process the idea of the kind of passion of which Josh Weed speaks. And then I remember the young man I met in Biratnagar, Nepal, who told me how his wife’s family disowned her because she chose her husband. He was from a lower caste – which wasn’t supposed to matter, but it did. I remember having a conversation with another man, a student, who said he couldn’t possibly enter a love marriage, despite the fact that they are growing in popularity. It would be too devastating for his family; it would ruin his career; he would lose standing in his community.

These are the dilemmas of the search for intimacy: to conform to the expectations of one’s culture at the expense of the possibility of deep connection. To search for connection and fail, repeatedly, because you can’t measure up to set of rules you may or may not understand. To follow the rules as you understand them, only to realize that you don’t know what healthy connection looks like. To enter a marriage with hope, and to stay for decades out of a sense of soul-crushing duty. And, occasionally, to stare in wonder at that rare couple who has managed, against all odds to find a way to be together until, “the last of life for which the first was made.”

I have sat with older people, some close relatives, who no longer see a purpose or place for themselves. Spouses gone or dead, children grown, work life behind them. I remember some of them deciding they were done, and before long, they were. I remember a lively widowed friend in her late 70s who ached for a companion, and I hear there’s a bar in town that has become something of a pickup joint for seniors. Well, why not I say. Just be careful out there – STD rates are rising for older people.

I have participated in support groups and forums for other people with disabilities struggling with the pain and disappointment of losing lovers and marriages because their partners can’t understand or cope with the ways in which their bodies and lives are changing. I am also reminded of the happily coupled people I know who happen to use wheelchairs or have some other impairment, and what it’s like to deal with others’ assumptions that their dating and marriage options are limited.

I am living Josh Weed’s fear – “no attachment, no hope of attachment” – but I am determined not to die.I have resolved for myself to stay connected to life, through writing, through work, through church and community involvement, through friends.

I appreciate the connections I have to old classmates. Even if we weren’t intimates in youth, we are at an age where we share much that is meaningful that younger people wouldn’t understand. We don’t have to read a book to know what it felt like when the Kennedys and Dr. King were murdered, or why Vietnam was so divisive, or why wearing pants to school was a radical act. We’ve had chronic illnesses and scares and losses. We remember Carol Burnett and platform heels and Belmont Plateau and Summer Madness. We go out, share a meal, dance to old songs, sometimes accompanied by a man, sometimes not.  And then we laugh and tease about how we’ve still got it.

I think, in this next phase of my life, I will revisit Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, which I read when I was far too young to understand. I am one data point in this public health battle against loneliness, but I think that this quest for deep connection is a researchable problem, and I will be part of its solution.

The Dream

  1. Part 1

Dear Christina,

It’s important that you know how we got to this place. You may wonder, especially, why my generation didn’t do more to protect you. So much has happened; so much has been hidden.

Perhaps we let down our guard.

There were times when we imagined some jujitsu was possible. We wanted to believe there was some arsenal of magic moves that would flip the lies about who were were on their heads, would help us see our ways to becoming whole, would let us each stand or fall on our own merit – not as exemplars or exceptions to a race despised. But the tools we hoped would deepen our trust too often made the distrust stronger. And the knowledge we wished to share was too often ignored or derided.

And when we folded in upon ourselves, we found our internal spaces denuded – strip-mined by those seeking plunder and control at scale.

Still, Sister Sonia sang,

“But we held out our eyes, delirious with grace…”

And Sweet Honey told us to “stay on the battlefield…”

What choice, after all, did we have? Where was there, at long last, to flee? Since our forbears were dragged here, every generation has fled to somewhere where the knowledge passed on by the generation before was unavailing, forcing us to improvise on stages never meant for us. The lighting was always too harsh, the makeup garish, the sound system was always calibrated to some other vocal register. They loved our culture, it was said, but they didn’t love us.

This is why we still read Zora, to remind us that, “Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less.”

And despite all that has happened, and will happen, I still believe we are strongest when we hold on to the truth and lead with love.



I Shall Sing a Song of Home, and the Song Shall Make it So

Note: There was a time when I tried to write fiction. It’s not something I am good at. But this is a fragment I’ve held on to that has been on my mind. I wrote it in 1991. It was inspired by some anxiety about events of that day, and by  remarks I once read by former Bell Laboratories executive Robert Lucky on the concept of telepresence – the idea that we can use computing and telecommunications technologies to experience the world remotely. (Think of The Matrix.) I worked at Bell Labs during the 1980s, and occasionally interacted with him. In his remarks, Bob posed the question, if we are in one physical location and our sensory experiences are taking place elsewhere and being relayed back to us, where is our consciousness? That question led me to think about a dystopic novel about a society in which telepresence is used to create a dictatorship that masquerades as a democracy. This is the epilogue. Perhaps I will return to it as a retirement project. 

July 16, 2041

Dear Christina,

I’d always expected that I would write you this letter, that some day it would be time to set down and account of days when people thought that freedom was in our reach. I know that in writing to you, I commit a dangerous act – to possess a document which contradicts the official history of the so-called Marginal Rebellions of the latter half of the 20th century  has been a felony since the dawn of the 21st. The mere private possession of written material is enough to make you a suspect — I know that you have not been assigned a job which authorized you to learn to read. What lengths your parents and I had to go to hide your literacy when you were young!

Believe me, if this was not important, I would not subject my grandchild to such risks. It is only because I was such a young, inconsequential participant in our movement that I was not subjected to the intensive “reacculturation” or “sterilization” processes that so many others were forced to endure. Actually, I’m not completely proud of the way in which I escaped that fate. It took a great deal of deception — but that is something I will explain later.

It is enough to say, for the moment, that there was a time when small people, such as myself, thought that we could shape the world in our own image. I know that will shock and amuse you, having been taught that the world has been shaped by the thoughts and deeds of the Great Men. But I think that the conditions are emerging which may permit the revival of such dreams, and I see in your heart one who may have the courage.

There are many little and big things to tell and there is much that is past telling, the old slaves used to say. Some of them are personal things which may seem unrelated to larger events, but in the era of which I speak, we used to say, “The personal is political.”

I am afraid that much of what I have to relate my seem far-fetched, given what you have been taught, but trust me, even at my advanced age and infirmity, I know my mind. And I know that somewhere, despite the successive decades of “alternate constructive programming,” there are still people with souls who dream of home. What is needed is to turn the story of those dreams into a song – you know the original Australian people believed that all reality is created by singing it into being. May you, my dear, discover the song inside of you – before it is too late for all of us.

Love, Gran

Part 2: The Dream

A Post-#Ferguson Reflection

This is the morning after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. I watched St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s announcement, said a prayer for Brown’s family, the people of Ferguson and the protestors who filled the streets outside the police station there, as well as in cities around the country. I said a prayer for my friends in St. Louis County, some in the media, some who are educators, some in government. I said a prayer for all of the black men I know, and for all of us who love them. And then I went to bed, because I knew that the morning would come, and there would still be serious work to do.

The details of what is happening in Ferguson matter, but the response must take into account the reality that, as New Yorker writer and University of Connecticut history professor Jelani Cobb has written, “Ferguson is America.” full of fears and frustrations that, often misdirected and misplaced, circumscribe the lives of black men daily. Cobb writes:

I was once a linebacker-sized eighteen-year-old, too. What I knew then, what black people have been required to know, is that there are few things more dangerous than the perception that one is a danger. I’m embarrassed to recall that my adolescent love of words doubled as a strategy to assuage those fears; it was both a pitiable desire for acceptance and a practical necessity for survival.  I know, to this day, the element of inadvertent intimidation that colors the most innocuous interactions, particularly with white people. There are protocols for this. I sometimes let slip that I’m a professor or that I’m scarcely even familiar with the rules of football, minor biographical facts that stand in for a broader, unspoken statement of reassurance: there is no danger here. And the result is civil small talk and feeble smiles and a sense of having compromised. Other times, in an elevator or crossing a darkened parking lot, when I am six feet away but the world remains between us, I remain silent and simply let whatever miasma of stereotype or fear might be there fill the void.

I was 24 years old and in graduate school. I had decided to surprise my parents by popping in for a weekend, unannounced. It must have been autumn, because it was dark when I arrived, and it was still early evening.  I came in the front door and found out they weren’t home. I put my bags upstairs, turned on the kitchen light, and I saw their car pulling into the back driveway. I went downstairs to open the back door for them, reaching up with my right hand to flip a light switch, and pulling the door back with my left.. On the back lawn, I made out the figure of a young white police officer pointing his gun at me. I think he said something like, “Hands up! Police!” but I no longer remember. From the right, I heard my father’s voice, and I saw him rounding the back of the car with his arms outstretched.

“Don’t shoot! That’s my daughter!”

The officer paused. I think he turned his head to look at my father and back to me. I stood still. My father stood still, where the officer could see him. He holstered his gun. He confirmed that everything was okay and he left. The crisis had passed. Later, we learned that a neighbor had seen the light go on in the kitchen and panicked, knowing that my parents’ car was not in the driveway and I was away at school. There had been some robberies in the neighborhood. It was a simple misunderstanding, easily rectified.

Fortunately, the officer did not feel threatened. Fortunately, he was able to hear my father. Fortunately, he was not like the panicky rookie cop in Brooklyn who recently shot an unarmed man to death in a stairwell.

Of course, I was reminded of the Richard Pryor joke about one of his own encounters with the police, where he loudly intoned, “I am reaching into my wallet, to get my driver’s license,” because, he said, “I don’t to be no (bleeping) accident!”  Years later,  I told my Race, Gender and News students about the encounter as we discussed how one should cover the acquittal of four police officers in the shooting death of unarmed 22-year-old Amadou Diallo in the doorway of his apartment building. He was, it turned out, reaching for his identification when the heavily-armed police officers fired on him.

What if I had been male?

What if something had been in my hand?

What if my father had not shown up?

My experience was not that of Mike Brown, Amadou Diallo, or John Crawford, the 22-year-old who was shot to death (graphic video warning) in an Ohio Walmart while talking on the phone and holding a toy gun in an open-carry state.  It was, however, frightening enough that I cried writing this, 33 years later. My encounter happened before the height of the crack epidemic, mass incarceration and mass marketing of the hypermasculinity and lunatic madness of corporate-sponsored gangster rap. (See Byron Hurt’s “HipHop Beyond Beats and Rhymes.”)

As the fires are doused in Ferguson, there is pain and anger in the streets. People who put their faith in peaceful protest feel betrayed. Civil libertarians worry about the militarization of police. Certainly these are important issues. TheUS Justice department may impose reforms on the Ferguson Police Department in light of this and other charges of the use of racial profiling and excessive force over a period of years.

Indeed, as former police commissioner Anthony Bouza has argued, police-community tensions reflect a larger societal failure to confront disparities of poverty and race.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has set up a commission to examine the root causes of and potential remedies for the region’s racial and economic divides. When Pres. Lyndon Johnson appointed a similar commission nearly 50 years ago, one of the common understandings to emerge was the need for everyone to feel as if they had a stake in the system. Author Michelle Alexander put it this way:

[T]rue justice will come only when our criminal injustice system is radically transformed: when we no longer have militarized police forces, wars on our communities, a school-to-prison pipeline, and police departments that shoot first and ask questions later. True justice will be rendered not when when a single “guilty” verdict is rendered in one man’s case, but when the system as a whole has been found guilty and we, as a nation, have committed ourselves to repairing, as best we can, the immeasurable harm that has been done.

I’ve asked friends who know the Ferguson area what young people there have to look forward to. They struggle for an answer. Jobs are scarce. Normandy, Missouri, the school system where Michael Brown earned his diploma is so poor, it lost its accreditation in 2013.  In Education Week this past September, Normandy teacher Inga Schaenen argued,

Nearly every student I teach has lived through encounters with the police that nobody should ever have to experience. (I know this from their journal entries written the first week of school.) And we know from research conducted by Gloria Ladson-Billings,Alfred Tatum, and many others regarding African-American students that best practices call for teachers to actively, critically, and morally engage students’ real lives and communities. When we do so, our students will achieve academically. Pedagogically speaking, designing community-responsive, standards-based activities and lessons is a moral imperative in Normandy.

One friend to whom I posed this question directed me to St. Louis Community College’s Bridge to STEM program, which provides intensive tutoring and mentoring to prepare students with a diploma or G.E.D. for study in the life sciences. The school also offers accelerated workforce training in a range of technical fields, in partnership with local industry. Certainly, this is part of the puzzle.

But it leaves unanswered the question that Du Bois posed more than a century ago: “Training for life teaches living; but what training for the profitable living together of black men and white? Especially since, it must be acknowledged,  most poor Americans are not black, and pessimism about future economic opportunities is pervasive in the US and other advanced economies.

Here, again, the work begins anew. I am a journalist and educator, not a civil rights attorney or policy maker.  There is a lot to be said about how the press has covered all of this, and I will leave that to others. I want to help people find a reason for hope.

My own effort, although it may seem unrelated, is to think about how we can use media to support those who people together across lines of difference to work on common community problems. That’s part of my personal stake in projects such as SOAP, an interdisciplinary collaboration to provide New Jersey residents with accessible, comprehensive and current information about polluted properties in their neighborhoods. (If you follow the link, you won’t see much now, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes, that we hope to make public in coming months.) Our hope is that SOAP will help agencies such as Habitat for Humanity in siting affordable housing. We also hope it will be useful to Isles, a Trenton non-profit working to promote environmental and economic sustainability, in finding safe property for the dozens of community gardens its volunteers build to combat hunger. Community gardens not only help combat hunger – they may make communities safer.

This is one of several projects, and it is only a beginning. Ultimately, I think the media’s part of the solution will also have to include a shift toward what I’m calling culturally responsive journalism – a journalism that covers community responses to problems in ways that emphasize that humanity and enlarge the capacity of the community to take action to solve problems. We saw elements of that approach in the coverage of Ferguson – Michel Martin’s #Beyond Ferguson forum, for example. I still believe alternate reality games can be useful in this area. But that is another post.



Also of interest: Sheila Seuss Kennedy calls for a new GI Bill that includes a one year program of civic service and participation.