Please Don’t Call Me Grandma

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My daughter called me a few days ago laughing. A family friend welcomed her first grandchild last month. My daughter was laughing because the friend told her she wants to be known as Neena to the baby. My daughter said, “All you baby boomers have different grandmother monikers and none of them is Grandma.”

Damn right. I have three grandchildren and I  dare any of them to call me Grandma. My chosen grandmother name is Memu. I love it when the middle one sees me at her preschool and says in her little New York accent, “I’m going with my grrrranmaa…” but I don’t want her to introduce me that way. I cringe when her teachers call out, “Nyla, Grandma’s here.” Is it crazy that I correct them sometimes? Her teachers are young so I’m sure they think, “Whatev.”

Is my daughter is right?  Do you think it’s because we’re boomers? If it is, maybe it’s the second stage boomers, those of us who came of age during the nineteen sixties. Our frame of reference developed during an era of major changes like the Voter Rights Act and the Equal Rights Act. We were empowered by its ethos. We define ourselves by that time and we think we’re cool. You’re more likely to see most of us in jeans and T-shirts than in black pants and Alfred Dunner blouses. You probably won’t find us with glasses hanging from chains around our necks. We turn our Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison up loud in our cars and we rock it like we know how. I don’t dye my grey hair but I do wear it in long braids, thank you very much. Many of us use social media. Interestingly, I know a few women born at the end of WWII who, although they like Facebook, won’t do Twitter or Instagram. I both tweet and ‘gram, much to the chagrin of my grandkids’ parents. I was told explicitly by one of them NOT to get on Snapchat. (Truth be told, I tried to post my first Instagram story recently, but I sent it to a young acquaintance by mistake. I could almost hear her saying to herself, “Why is this old lady texting me a video of her car window?”)

That brings up another point. I’ve had conversations with other grandmothers my age about how our adult children don’t like our attitudes. They would prefer it if we “acted our age” which I guess means old. I was told I’d be selfish if I let my social life impede being a good grandmother. I don’t understand what that even means. It’s not that I don’t like being with my grandkids. I look at their faces and my heart sings. They are my best friends. Their presence enhances my life for real. In them I have love to the second power…I just don’t want them calling me Grandma.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny my age. In fact, I embrace it. I’m fortunate to still be here. Several of the folks dear to me are gone now. And often I feel my age. I feel it when my knee doesn’t want to get out of the car with me after a long ride, when I fill my weekly pill case, when I catch myself eating dinner at 4pm and I feel it when the grandkids ask me to push them on the swings for what seems like days. But maybe my daughter is right. Maybe it is my attitude.  No matter how achy or tired I feel I’m always in the mood to put on my suede booties and go out to see what else there is for me to discover and enjoy.

So like all the other Memus and Mimis, the Neenas and Nonas and Nikas, I’ll be there on the school playground to pick up the kids and push them on the swings like the good grandmother I am. But please don’t call me Grandma and watch out for me when I leave. I’ll be the one tearing out of the parking lot with my music turned up, bouncing to the boomer beat.

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Of Love, Loss and Storage

Like most folks, I have my guilty pleasures when it comes to TV. You know, those shows you don’t readily admit to watching and that you try to justify by likening them to car crashes from which you simply can’t look away. I’m sure you have yours and I’m sorry if I’m holding  up an uncomfortable light in the darkened room where you indulge in your decadent viewing. In fairness, I’ll tell you that mine are (cough, cough) “Bring It” or as I like to call it, “Why Are We Teaching Our Girls To Be Strippers” and Married At First Sight (how old am I again?) Much as I’d like to say otherwise, you can find me sprawled out on my bed, chip bag in hand (if I’m going to be bad, I believe in going all the way) eyes glued to the TV when those two shows are on. I also read the live tweets while they’re on although I don’t tweet myself out of the fear one of my 10 followers will find out that I’m a trash TV watcher.

 

Funny I should call it trash TV because the kind of “reality” shows I can’t watch are the ones about the buying and selling of storage units. I think the philosophy behind these programs is supposed to be “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” but that’s not how it feels to me. When I see the ads the tag line I come up with is “pricing peoples’ memories” and it makes me sad. Maybe it’s because I took a trip to Boston last January (just ahead of the hundreds of blizzards) specifically to empty out my storage unit and it made me sad. I’d been paying to store my stuff from other life for over five years. I no longer live in Boston, my kids are grown and it was time to move on. Plus I was anxious that I be the one to determine what happens to my things, not the storage company or mother nature. The junk people stood by as I opened each box and decided which of my memories to keep and which to throw into the dumpster. I had to touch each one of my children’s old toys and my late husband’s golf trophies then let them go. I kept the tears at bay for the sake of the junk folks and for my granddaughter who happily ran up and down the long corridor of doors, making a new memory of her own.

The snake lamp I couldn't throw away.
The snake lamp I couldn’t throw away.

 

That’s why those shows seem cruel to me. I can’t believe none of those buyers feel empathy for the people whose belongings are in those units. If they do, they don’t display it for the cameras. They paw through the discarded, abandoned, forgotten items making callous remarks like “Chump change,” and “This is nothing but a dump.” Surely they have keepsakes of important times of their own. Surely they have experienced the loss of a possession that was special to them. Perhaps they lost a loved one and hang on to a material object as a way of hanging on to the person. I think if I were in their position, the first time I saw something that even remotely reminded me of a time in my life, evoked a memory from my own experience, I’d have to pull down the heavy steel door and walk away. I feel the least they could do is talk about it on camera. They could allow the viewer the real emotion in wondering out loud about the circumstances around each unit owner losing their belongings.

 

But they don’t. At least, not that I’ve seen in the half minutes I’ve been able to stomach watching a couple of episodes. Instead they greedily assess the contents, then scurry to the nearest dealer or retailer with anything deemed valuable to sell the goods for the best price. Big red plus or minus numbers appear in the corner of the screen to let the viewer know whether the buyer was a “winner” or “loser” on any given unit. But isn’t the underlying understanding that the unit owner is the ultimate loser? Then again, maybe not. After all, those buyers also get the karma attached to disposing of other’s possesions without knowing the provenance and good luck with that. Anyway, I threw my junk in a dumpster. Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to throw in my TV.

Out of The Mouths of Babes

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Two-Nine-Year Olds’ Magnificent Open Letter to Disney About Racial and Gender Stereotypes.

I wrote my previous post as a humor piece with the sharp end of a stick aimed at Disney. These two third graders however,  explained the unsettling aspects of Disneyland/World better than I did. Please click on the link above and read their  letter to the chairman of Walt Disney Parks. It’s lucid and heartfelt, pointed yet respectful. Maybe if my generation had been as wise at nine as they are, I wouldn’t have a problem with the idea of taking my grandkids to Disneyland today.

(Big snaps to Maria Popova at BrainPickings.org)

 

Why You Won’t Be Seeing Us Real Soon

 It’s been a little while since I posted.  I have a few pieces in the pipeline so I  hope to post more during the summer. But there’s been a lot going on around here, the best of which was finishing the first draft of my first novella, “Ties That Bind”. I ‘ll talk about that experience on my other blog,  BusyWritingLife.

The other stuff is mainly around family, some good, some bad which are the subjects I’ll be sharing this summer. And speaking of which;

 

Yeah, Disney, about that…..

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We’ve been thinking about doing a family vacation this summer. There are young’ens in our clan so, naturally, when I threw out the vacation idea, Disneyland was mentioned by their parents as a possibility. I grew up in the counter-culture days and tend to think of myself as a social reform type so at the Disney suggestion the only response that came to my mind was, as one of the other family members says, “hashtag, I can’t”. But I was pointedly reminded by one daughter that as I was bringing her up, I pushed Disney like a Oxycontin dealer.

I admit it’s true. I enjoyed a lot of Disney movies, both as a child and as an adult. When I became a mother, the memories of feelings I had as a child for Snow White and Cinderella overcame my supposed highly developed social sense. My emotional need was to share those memories with my kids. I wanted them to give them what I thought I’d gotten out of the films. It was a knee-jerk response to parenthood. And, truth be told, I continued to get with the Disney program. As a matter of fact, The Little Mermaid was a special bonding experience for me and that same daughter. Her favorite song was Part of That World and mine was Under the Sea. Some things never change…

…And some things do. So, I changed my mind. Sue me. (Oh that’s right, daughter can because she’s an attorney now. Take that Arial!)  It was right around the Aladdin years that I noticed a change in my attitude toward Disney films. I was starting to become bothered by the things like historical contexts and language. Why is a princess using an expression like, “at your service?” And why a princess? Why always a princess?! By the time Pocahontas was released I was suspicious of all the basic Disney themes. (Actually during one point in that movie, in a theater, my sister and I both stood and shouted, ‘Oh c’mon!”)  I started questioning what it was I actually did get from those old “classics” in terms of gender roles, class distinctions and cultural perspective. I realized that as an evolved, modern, African-American woman, I needed a new cartoon vision that matched my mood. (Haha.) That’s when I started boring my kids with “responsible” TV shows like Captain Planet. We stopped going to Disney movies and instead I brought home videos like Ferngully, The Last Rainforest”. The only Disney distributed movie I let into the house was The Brave Little Toaster. It scared the shit out of them and began the “reading era” of their childhood. As a result, when they criticize me about that time, as they still do, it’s in very literate terms.

Did I do the right thing by casting a jaundice eye on Disney and sharing my misgivings with my kids or was I the throw back hippie hypocrite they feel I was? I’m not sure but I’m still going to take a pass on dunking the grandkids in the Disney kool-aid as our summertime fun. Maybe I’ll suggest a hiking trip in the mountains instead. Now, please excuse me. We have a birthday party this afternoon and I have to go wrap an Elsa’s Frozen Palace play set.

I Love Being Skinny, Period!

The title of this post is the verbatim text I received from a loved one when I suggested to her that overall health is more important than being thin. What was I thinking? This person is young, female and lives in Manhattan. Every woman she comes into contact with is either skinny and/or obsessed with her weight.

Did I really think she'd listen to a middle aged woman from the land of grits n' gravy?
Did I really think she’d listen to a middle-aged woman from the land of grits n’ gravy?

Besides, we all know our culture in general likes it thin. No matter where we look, big or small, still or streaming, paper or digital, the images underscore that truth. The message is always the same; desirable women are thin. The only overweight woman we see are talking about their weight in shame or are being shamed for their weight, like the TV commercial for a diabetes med that is rife with larger women. Apparently, those fatties bought their disease for the price of a candy bar.  Every once in a while there will be a portrayal in the media of a heavier woman who valiantly overcomes her weight to live a happy life. But the point is always that being over 120 pounds is unhappy and more than likely unhealthy. Have you noticed that on the rare occasion that a heavier female is highlighted on a TV show as happy with herself, at some point down the line she loses weight?.(Hello Jennifer Hudson, Oprah Winfrey, Rosanne, I’m looking at you.)

Did you see the TLC show, Fat and Back, in January? It was about the painfully skinny British correspondent Katie Hopkins who gained and then lost over forty pounds to prove that “fat” people lack discipline. Granted she admitted to gaining a deeper insight into weight issues after the experience yet at the end of the day, she came away still feeling superior for being underweight. The program was fascinating in an uncomfortable way to me. (Click on the above for more info on Katie and the show. Let me know what you think.)

I worry about how young woman in this country fare in all this. They have to negotiate the landmine ridden landscape of body image. C’mon, those of us females brought up in this culture live the body dysmorphic disorder story: we are bombarded with the message that thin is best from childhood and when we get to the angst filled adolescence ages, our self-esteem is inextricably tied to how we think we stack up to the physical ideal. Coming to sexual maturity when you already have a distorted body image is a recipe for long-term agony. And it’s not just a psychological problem. How can we tell a teenage girl it’s her imagination that boys aren’t asking her out and other girls are being mean to her because she’s packing extra pounds, when we know it’s not her imagination? By the time young women reach their twenties there are two groups; one group obsesses over being overweight and feels miserable and the other, of which my loved one is a member, obsesses over staying skinny and feels relived yet constantly fearful. Both groups spend an inordinate amount of valuable time thinking about how much they weigh and that’s sad. Vinita Nair of CBS This Morning did an excellent piece last month on the ideal body image as it is manifested in models and how that affects what young women see in themselves. Nair states that there is a “push to regulate appearance and size in magazines” but juxtaposes that with stats on eating disorders. She also asks the question, “what size is realistic?”  Good question. Realistic for who, where and at what stage in their lives?

I’m not thin and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m also not naïve. I know that its human nature to make assumptions based on how a person presents physically. So I know that we older women don’t get to leave the problem behind once we reach a certain age. For a long time I wondered why I wasn’t  getting any hits on the old folks dating sites. It finally dawned on me that even the few older men who want older women want beautiful and skinny older women.  Also, I talked in my last post about losing my primary care doctor. She admonished me at every visit about my weight and sternly ticked off the health problems my extra poundage would cause. I always felt that I was being finger-wagged by a skinny woman. My new doctor didn’t mention my weight once at my first appointment. Instead of fat shaming me, she talked to me about the medical issues I already have, like high blood pressure, and how my weight factors into addressing them.She is not as thin as the other doctor but she isn’t overweight either. Interestingly, she is African-American and I wonder how much cultural factors play into ideal weight perception.

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In this society the prevalent standard of beauty is of a Caucasian. The blond, blue-eyed, thin women were the cream of the crop for a long time.

 

Blond and blue-eyed is not naturally achievable in some ethnic groups India_-_Faces_-_village_women_1_(3342548984)

 

and neither is being rail thin. IMG_3022

 

 

After all this thinking about it, I’ve decided to leave my skinny-and-loving-it girl alone because she’s just calling it the way most people in this country see it. And, full disclosure, I’m on a diet right now. I’m using one of the many fitness apps designed to remind me of what my ideal body should look like . I tell everyone I’m doing it for my health.

 

It Rises

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending an event hosted by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture that included the exhibit “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals At Talladega College. It was held at the National Museum of American History because the NMAAHC building isn’t finished yet. It’s slated for completion in 2016.

Smithsonian via Google Plus
Smithsonian via Google Plus

One of the many benefits to me of moving to the Washington DC area has been the excitement of watching the museum’s development. As I passed on my way to the event that Saturday, Maya Angelou’s powerful poem Still I Rise came into my head. The image of that beautiful building rising out of the ground at the corner of the National Mall  seems like the embodiment of the words to me.

When I was a little girl, the biggest public symbol of African-American life that I saw regularly was a giant fiberglass washer woman dressed like Aunt Jemima which stood on top of the roof of the local laundromat. She was mechanical. and moved up and down in a never-ending task of washing fiberglass clothes in a big tub. I asked my mother more than once why “they” put that big, ole lady up there like that. Even at that young age I knew it wasn’t a flattering image of black womanhood. My mother’s answer came with a sigh and was always the same, “I don’t know, honey. I don’t know.”

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So for me, watching the NMAAHC building go up has been cathartic. It has exorcised some of the many shame demons who taunted me in childhood. I’m thrilled to witness the progression of an emblem of the contribution of African-American culture to the country, as it expands upward toward the sky. As Ms. Angelou so pointedly yet eloquently put it:

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Hale Woodruff's murals exhibit
The Hale Woodruff’s murals exhibit

Old Myths and New Narratives

This morning my doctor’s secretary told me she doesn’t take my new insurance because it’s an”ObamaCare” plan. Really?
I had gone in for my regular BP check so I could get my prescription refilled. (My doctor requires that I do so every three months before she’ll call in the script.) The insurance I bought through the government exchange took effect on 1/1. I arrived at my doctor’s office a few minutes early so I could give them my new insurance information. It was then that the secretary looked at my card, turned to a co-worker & said, “Is it the QHP we don’t take?” The co-worker nodded & the young woman said she was sorry. I told her I’d checked the insurance carrier website and had seen my doctor listed as a provider. She said, “They must have some misinformation. We just had a big meeting about these plans. She doesn’t take any of the “ObamaCare plans….or Medicaid.” Incredulous, I walked out of the office of the doctor I’ve had since moving to Virginia over two years ago.

I don’t have insurance through an employer. I’m employed but like many folks these day, I have a job that doesn’t come with benefits. I was 50 years old when my husband died and just before he passed I asked him if he thought I’d need to go to work. (I’d been caring for him pretty much full-time for the previous two years.) He said I might need to in order to get insurance. He had no way of knowing then that the economy would crash soon after, that thousands would be laid off and that it would become nearly impossible for someone over 50 to get a job. I, like other people my age, finally got two part-time jobs, neither of which offer benefits but that together just barely cover the cost of my individual health insurance. I’m grateful to be working and consider myself lucky because my daughter, a lawyer with crushing student loan debt, has a full-time “consultant” position which doesn’t offer benefits either. And all of her co-workers are in the same boat. At least I’m not young, trying to raise a family while facing years of loan payments.

Walking back from my doctor’s office I was thinking about our national narrative, the myth, in its most basic form, that this is a country that is good to you and for you if you work hard. I work hard, my daughter works hard and so do all our friends. My husband worked hard and thought he had prepared enough to provide for me. But let’s be honest, the truth is the narrative has really always only applied to some people. For one thing, this economy favors business owners, small and large. The right of small business owners not to pay for employees insurance is championed more than the right of employees to have insurance. Additionally, there’s been a paradigm shift in this country that we have to acknowledge. There used to be a middle class that worked for the large businesses. The most recent recession pared off many of the workers in the middle class for a variety of economic reasons I won’t go into here but all of which involve corporate bottom lines. So big business is healthier, and the economy is improving but who paid for it?

Mario Cuomo’s funeral was today. I remember as an idealistic young woman being absolutely mesmerized by his 1984 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address. He spoke so eloquently about the U.S. as a country that is like a family that take’s care of its members. He said:

“…we can make it with the whole family intact, and we have more than once….wagon train after wagon train…the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way…”
Sure, he was a smart politician who understood that the American Dream, land of the free, ‘anyone can succeed on their own merit’ was a myth but he believed in a real middle class. In that speech he also said:
“…if we do not forget that this entire nation has profited by these progressive principles; that they helped lift up generations to the middle class and higher; that they gave us a chance to work, to go to college, to raise a family, to own a house, to be secure in our old age and, before that, to reach heights that our own parents would not have dared dream of.”
We have always been sold, by politicians and advertisers, a vision of an America that doesn’t exist. But today we are a nation of haves, have-nots and a lot of people struggling with student loan debt, poor employment choices insecure employment situations, ridiculously expensive health insurance premiums and leaders who tell us anything but show us no compassion. I wonder if that’s what my ex-doctor’s group talked about in the big meeting.

Hey Cliven Bundy, Freedom Beats Picking Cotton

Very well said Michael Twitty.

Afroculinaria

Sooo…I heard about this rancher who was angry about not being able to graze on “his land,” (Let’s ask the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute and other First Nations about that claim…)  and I was really disturbed that someone with some sort of ancestral or historical connection might lose their land or ties or livelihood–you know I kinda get passionate about that kinda stuff.  I actually felt sorry for him–or at least based on first impressions I felt some sort of kinship or empathy.  More details, came, I felt less sorry, but still intrigued by what this story meant for what American democracy means to different types of people and why they get passionate about the nature of being an American and their idea of freedom.  After all, it was just Passover…I’ve had eight days to think about what freedom means and how glad I am not to be enslaved. (Wait–I do that…

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Winter Meditation: Tribes-Trying to Feel Connected

IMG_2285I wrote in my last post about how we cling to the tendency to divide into tribes and what I image a world wide tribe would look like. It was an optimistic post bordering on naive.  It’s a subject that’s important to me because I was brought up without a sense of being part of a specific population so I think a lot about who and how people form social groups.

I want to begin by talking about the positive aspects of the way I grew up. I never felt I was forced to have an alliance to any group, clan, or other homogeneous body and there’s a certain freedom in that. I always felt removed from the bubble of ethnocentricity. That can be beneficial. As Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation explains in the discussion of his  Second Stage of Spiritual Development,

“At Stage Two, your concern is to look good outside. Your concern with pleasing the neighborhood, the village, your religion, or your kind of folks becomes such a way of life that you get very practiced at hiding or disguising any contrary evidence. That’s why it is so dangerous… Your whole identity becomes defending your external behavior as more moral than other people, and defending your family, your community, your race, your church or temple or mosque, your nation as superior to others.”

So I was spared that kind of “tribal thinking” and that’s a good thing. I’m more apt to interpret the clan affiliation of individuals in a global context. It also allowed me to be more objective about human behavior. I could observe it without feeling too invested to be objective. I think the reason I studied journalism was to learn how to write social commentary that was as unbiased as possible. I’m glad and grateful for that.

The downside was that kind of “otherness” made for a sometimes lonely, always complicated  upbringing and personhood. It’s taken me up to this, the third trimester of my life, to internalize that humans are social beings and I’ve come to truly believe that we’re all connected in The One. But I was brought up divorced from the cultural group that I would naturally have been a part of, the African American community, so my socialization within it was cut off. I was disconnected and because of the way American society was when I was growing up, I couldn’t feel part of any white social group. Those groups saw me as part of the separate black world. On the other hand, I had a parent who told me that I wasn’t part of that community so it was hard for me to know where my place actually was. Eventually, I came to feel that my place was totally “outside”. My saving grace was that I’m naturally an introvert and need a lot of solitude anyway so isolation wasn’t completely intolerable to me. But still we all have an intrinsic need to feel connected to others. My feeling of being an outsider is also why its been hard for me to practice compassion (I posted about this in Back To The Bow) and conversely seeking connection is what’s made it so important to me.

My mother, may her soul rest in peace, I understand her rationale, I absolutely do. She grew up in a time when institutional racism wasn’t even questioned and she had the desire and the intelligence to do so much. She wanted to break out of the confines that were dictated by racism but felt as if she couldn’t in the life she was born to, so she ran. She ran from the south, from the memory of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction and the Great Migration. She had to reinvent herself down to the cellular level to excise all those memories. She was wasn’t unique. In his book How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston chronicled the phenomenon in other African Americans and even said at one point,  “..lots of black people have had the desire to escape their blackness.” But my mother went so much further than that. She was an African American Jake Gatsby. She reinvented where she was born. She reinvented her spirituality. She changed whatever she felt she needed to in order to mitigate the consequences of being black. I’ve written here before about the distance that put between my nuclear family and my traditional culture. (Conflict In Commemoration) There was an absence of things like a black church and trips down south for me to see ancestral homes or visit gravesites. My mother was trying to live up to her potential and by the sixties when things started to change she had hope that her children would not have to be afflicted with the limitations that she felt had hemmed her in. That’s why she didn’t want us to be defined by African American culture, which to her reflected those limitations.

There were of course, a lot of flaws in her thinking. One was that she assumed we would want the life she wanted.  I’ve come to understand as a parent that you can’t assume that about your kids.  The biggest flaw however was that she didn’t realize we might feel alienated in the larger society by not being able to relate to a specific culture. She grew up in an all African American community so I don’t think she ever understood what it was like not have that relationship. She could always relate because try as she might, she was never fully unyoked  from the culture. But she needed to see it as an intellectual exercise and not feel it as an emotional condition.

My mother did the best she could and she thought she was doing right by us. Unfortunately, it was a life fraught with challenges to our identities that the three of us found hard to get through to varying degrees. So that’s another one of the reason I had to come south.  I’ve been fortunate enough to form a strong sense of self that includes but is not exclusive to my African American heritage. Yet I still want to embrace the missing and difficult parts of our past that my mother felt she had to escape. Every time I walk around in Old Town Alexandria on ground where “contraband” slaves once lived during the Civil war, my history is finally personal. I can plot the place at Arlington National Cemetery that was once the Freeman’s Village. I drive around the VA countryside contemplating what my ancestors thought of the weather, the soil and the work. In those ways I create a link to people, place and time; a sense of sharing in a legacy. I didn’t experience the kind of intimacy with my familial history in New England the way I do here. I have a richer perception of my identity now that includes pain and sorrow. It leads me to feel sympathy for other people who are facing similar struggles and compassion for those of us, not just black folks, who live with the challenging aspects of our shared American story.  It allows me to feel part of something larger than myself.

String Theory

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What music are you listening to today?

I was listening to The Goat Rodeo Sessions during my walk this morning. I really love that CD and I’ve written about it here before. A quartet of players make magic by strumming, plucking and stringing us along. The ringleader is Yo-Yo Ma.

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Wu Man was one of Yo-Yo Ma’s ensemble members on the incredible Silk Road Project. She is a virtuoso pipa player who wrote and recorded a solo piece called Dancing that I listen to frequently. When I close my eyes and listen I can see people from many different cultures…dancing together. I see Polynesian warrior dancers, S. African Zulu dancers and Australian aboriginal dancers. I see American western barn dancers in addition to Chinese folk and Japanese dancers. And in the middle of the them is Ms. Wu playing the pipa, the beautiful Chinese string instrument. I thought about the images that Dancing evokes when I read this quote from Yo Yo Ma:

“. . .Nothing great was ever produced in isolation.” Ma says his study of history at Harvard University led him to realize that Eastern and Western cultures are not self-contained, but have mixed since at least the time of Alexander the Great. “Even something as basic as our Western major and minor keys may have originally come from the amazingly complex modes of classical Persian music…”And there’s a continual tradition in the West of incorporating music from other parts of the world.” The pattern continues with instruments, too, he said. “The guitar and the sitar are obviously related — even linguistically. The oud moves west from Persia to become the lute; it moves east to become the pipa. And a European hears an erhu and says it’s purely Chinese, a Chinese violin, but in Chinese the word ‘erhu’ means ‘two-stringed foreign instrument,’ ” Ma said.”  (AP 4/9/07)

Isn’t that a wonderful observation? Culture is fluid, so why do we remain committed to the confines of the concept of “tribes”? We can draw lines in the sand and make claims in the name of “our people” but all it takes is losing ourselves in something as universal as music to see the truth of human connectedness. I can ponder that truth as quantum physics or I can think about it in philosophical terms but what I really like to do is close my eyes and listen to the strings.