traveling notes, AZ-NM

For more than a week, my daughters and I explored parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico. We rented an RV for some days and we stayed in hotels for the rest. We saw the Grand Canyon (below is a picture of us at Oak Creek Canyon on the drive from Sedona to Flagstaff), went to Four Corners Monument, and made several other stops along the way.

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As we made our way back home to Maine, I’ve thought a lot about how to share our experiences with our friends and family. Long gone are the days when we might sit around the living room with the loud slide projector seeing “pictures from our vacation.” I’m not sure yet what the modern equivalent will be. It feels like it needs to be more than sharing pictures on Facebook or on this blog.

Traveling as the only adult turned out to be a pretty big deal. As we drove — for hours and hours at a time — I’d be gasping at the landscapes on my own. Both of my daughters have a greater capacity than a lot of children for awe and wonder at things like mountains or rock formations, but they tired of the views a lot more quickly than I did (I didn’t tire of them). Add to that the sheer exhaustion I felt from being the only grownup on duty as the parent, and there wasn’t a lot of “vacation” in my week.

That said, oh my gosh. Wow! I’m in my late 40s and while I have seen some of southern New Mexico, I got a real taste of what the southwest looks like on on this trip. I feel like I’d never really seen anything like it. I resisted the urge to take photographs at every gasp, but I did take a few and some of them effectively remind me of what I saw.

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Photographs, of course, don’t actually come close to doing it any justice. I can see why Georgia O’Keeffe was struck by the need to capture what she experienced out there. Just driving across the landscape was emotionally overwhelming. I wish we’d had a geologist and a botanist traveling with us. I didn’t do any research in advance and had no time/energy to do it as we moved along. Someday I’ll learn about how and why the land looks like it does.

That’s it for now. I’ll share more later when I figure out just how I want to do it. (Photo below is me at (I think?) the Petrified Forest.)

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walking the walk, social justice through parenting

Reading a “facts of life” book last night with my almost-7 year old daughter, she stopped me after I read about what makes boys boys and what makes girls girls. She said, “That’s in the brain. It’s not there [pointing to the genital areas].” She was talking about the fact that there are people whose bodies are biologically one sex, but their identities are another gender. I’ll admit I felt a little proud of myself that I’ve been mothering my daughters to understand that gender is much more complex than biology alone.

A couple years ago, my older daughter called out, distressed, when she realized — admittedly after years of playing with them — her playmobil figures had only one person of color among nearly fifty people. We searched the website and found one brown skinned figure with what looked like a Native American set among hundreds and hundreds of characters. Looking at the site this morning, I see they have new figures that look like people of color in the top banner. Scrolling through the characters, I don’t see that much else has changed. The point I’m making here is that I felt glad when my daughters noticed the playmobil set was made with a foundation of racism. We talked about not playing with the set, what is our responsibility? How can we help? We talked about different things we could do (color with markers?) to make the set have a wider range of people figures. We ended up writing a letter to the company complaining about the issue. That’s not nothing.

There will be people who think these kinds of smaller exchanges are not as important or valid as participating in a drastic overhaul of our entire system. And, indeed, we need to change our whole system. We need to do more than have conversations in our own families. Personally, I am doing more. But there are times when “all I’m doing is parenting.” During those times I’m not missing my opportunity to help my children know more than I did about injustice. I want them to notice problems and think critically about solutions. I want them to practice responding to injustice with action. I believe these smaller steps count. They matter. They are more than “better than nothing.” My children and many like them are people who know that just thinking about and talking about changing the world is not enough; they want to walk the walk and, as my daughter said (she’s sitting on my lap and I asked her how I should finish this), “make the world a better place than we found it.”

parenting while under reality

“Mama? If Trump or Cruz become President, will the world become a dystopian nightmare with a black sky?” (She reads a lot.)

“No, hunny, the sky won’t be black.”

On second thought, with the environmental crisis, the sky may be going black…

“What will we do if Trump or Cruz is elected?” she continued.

I realized my answer — that we would go to organizations like the Maine People’s Alliance, 350 Maine, or the Maine Women’s Lobby who are already doing the work and get involved to fix our broken systems — must be the answer to the question, “What will we do now?”

We also discussed the seductive and incorrect idea that it’s “them” who are the racists; that it’s “them” who are greedy and scary and sometimes evil. We talked about how the overt racism we recognize in the Trump supporters is frightening, of course, but that a well-meaning white person who doesn’t consider themselves racist might deny someone a job because they feel personally that interpersonal relationships with people of color makes them uncomfortable. [We were in a car burning fossil fuels. We shop in stores where people are paid insufficient wages. The list goes on…] We talked about how we should take the overtly ugly and dangerous seriously, but that we shouldn’t use it as a way to imply the rest of us are innocent.

These are big issues to be discussing with a 12.5 and nearly-7 year old. They are necessary subjects of discussion, though. That said, I want my children to live in a world that feels safe and full of joy and hope. Can we have both? Can we expose them to reality, work together with them to make changes in the broken system, while also helping them know they will always be safe?

The solution for me is to involve my children in direct actions to help those organizations who are working on the issues that matter to us (see those I mentioned above, though there are so many!). I will help them stay in hope and optimism in the face of the terrifying realities of our world by showing them that we are not entirely powerless. Much is beyond our control, of course, but one of our realities is that we have a safe home, a loving family, and involvement in incredible wider communities who are all engaged in good work.

Next on my agenda after hitting “publish” on this post is to reach out to those organizations to find out where my daughters and I can actually help.

another suggestion for white people who want to be not racist

After I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, my conversations about racism with my children (we’ve had such conversations since they were able to talk) were much more informed. I don’t believe in sugar-coating the real world, or glossing over truths that make some people uncomfortable. Of course, I do want my children to live in a world that feels safe and I want them to have hope. How deeply I go depends on the moment, how ready my daughters seem, and whether or not I can get myself to shut up.

One thing I tell my daughters is I will always prefer stating my opinion and offending rather than staying quiet when it’s a time for me to speak. They know I write a newspaper column and they know people don’t agree with things I say. In particular, I wrote a column about racism in the Bangor Daily News that starts with two overtly racist and ignorant statements. The intention was some shock value and that may have been a stylistic mistake. The column wasn’t a mistake, though.

Adding to the theme I set out in that first column and in “Ending racism: What White People Can Do,” I want to add this suggestion for white people who, like me, haven’t spent much time with people of color. As I’ve said in my columns and in this blog, I believe a lot of why interpersonal micro-level racism sticks around is because authentic communication is limited by white people’s desperate desire to be not racist.

Does this sound familiar? You feel mildly awkward talking to a person of color and are really angry at yourself for the mild awkwardness but you can’t figure out why you feel weird and you really want to not feel weird because you know there’s no reason to and no matter what you say or do you can’t seem to just be a regular person because you’re so self-conscious about your mild awkwardness and it all becomes a stuttering hyper-friendly over-the-top polite exchange. If it sounds familiar and you hate it, I have a suggestion for you:

Go to twitter, or other social media sites. Do this when you are alone. Search for the hashtag “blackoutday.” Spend time looking at the pictures. Then, look some more. See the variety of people? Look! There’s no awkwardness as you look, the pictures are there for anyone to see.

In the late 80s, I started learning that black and brown people can’t fix my own personal racism, and it’s not their job to tell me what I can or should do. What I do, instead, is look at my own racism—as I tell my daughters, I believe all white people are racist because we benefit from our systems that are inherently racist (we discuss prejudice and bigotry, too, which are different)—and work on it. After all this time, I was surprised that looking at the #blackoutday pictures was such an eye opener for me. The images are powerful and beautiful and surprising. (Tip: just look, don’t try to be involved in the hashtag. It’s not a white people thing.)

Get that awkward staring and fascination that you may experience and so desperately want to resist when you’re with another human being out in meat space. You can help yourself realize that there is an infinite number of different ways to “look black.” It can help you relax and just be with people of color without struggling to be not awkward, or “not racist.”

lost in the possibilities, or, when my daughters went to school

My older daughter is 11; my younger is 5. For the last 11 years I have, for the most part, been at home with one or both of them. This summer, both girls went to two weeks of full day camp. It was the first time in 11 years that I had such an expansive amount of childcare. I was giddy and elated and I painted furniture and went to Goodwill a lot. It was summer. Most of my clients were quiet and there were very few pressing deadlines. I played a bit, though I never lost the sensation of being in a huge hurry — the kiddos will be back any minute! gotta get this done!

Today, they both went to full-day school. As I drove away after dropping them off, I laughed and I cried.

I laughed because I was filled with joy. The school aligns with our values in some of the most vital ways. It will challenge them. And, it’s safe. They feel at home.

I cried because, as the girls’ father said, “It’s a big deal moment. Out of the first nest.”

I also cried with relief. It’s been a difficult journey over the last several years. Their father provides substantial support, far above the legal requirements. But, it’s still been difficult and part of that is because being at home with our daughters has been a priority for us. Time is always scarce; I always feel in a hurry. With so much to do and so little time, I have to go-go-go or I might collapse.

Today, I am caught between collapsing—something I do a bit of each time the girls go to their father’s house—and getting things done. I’m in shock, truly in disbelief, at the amount of time I now have available to me. Not only will I be able to grow my business, but I will be able to… fold the laundry, cook meals, pay bills, complete paperwork, make and keep appointments, go for walks, grocery shop, sleep, and be emotionally and physically available to my daughters when they get home from school.

As my business grows, of course, I will have less personal time. Everything’s relative, though. Going from just two mornings and a day each week to five days a week is the lottery of time, and I’ve won it. For now, I need to learn how to breathe and believe it’s really true.