mindful living (Page 16)

We say hello. They look at us funny. We try to make polite conversation. They give polite responses paired with blank stares. The well-known “deer in headlights.” Who are we? We are From Away. Who are they? They are Real Mainers.
I’ve lived in the Midwest, the South, and all over the East Coast. I’ve visited other parts of the country as well. The styles everywhere are different; the regional languages aren’t always easy to decode. After several years, I never did learn how to talk Texan. However, only in Maine have felt I speak an entirely foreign language.
We’ve been here over five years and it still happens. I think I’m being friendly and I feel as if they think I’m totally offensive or insane. This happens in brief exchanges (paying for gas or at the market) and even still sometimes with people I’ve known casually all these years (fellow CSA farm shareholders, my husband’s former coworkers).
Is it me? Is it something I’ve said? I’ve been trying to understand the puzzling dynamic. In the process I’ve needed to disentangle the social awkwardness I’ve known my whole life because of my uniquely outgoing personality. In Minnesota, my sociable personality seemed sometimes to surprise the generally shy folks. But even when it was a bit uncomfortable, I could sense they, too, were trying to make the conversations work. So when I arrived here, I thought the deer-in-headlights response had to do with my own personal style. As the years go by, though, I come across more and more people From Away who say, “oh my gosh, yes!” when I ask them if they’ve had similar experiences.
We (From Away) are chatting away enthusiastically, trying to find common ground where we can all have a shared positive conversation. They (Real Mainers) seem to retreat into their shells with facial expressions bordering on contempt.
I’ve become convinced people From Away and Real Mainers must frequently have different meanings ascribed to our shared social interactions. Sociologist Herbert Blumer believed, as I do, that people interpret each other’s actions and interact with each other based on those interpretations. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman offers a theatrical metaphor to describe social interactions. For Goffman, our interactions depend on our presentations to each other and our interpretations of each other’s performances. That is, I have my set of cultural values and expectations and you have yours. When we are together, our most successful interactions happen when we have an unspoken shared agreement about how to appropriately react and fit in.
What is especially puzzling, though, is the varied backgrounds of those From Away I speak to about this phenomenon – we come from entirely different worlds, different cultural languages, different socio-economic roots, but all have the same deer-in-headlights experiences with Real Mainers. How can this be?
I’ve witnessed Real Mainers interacting with none of the deer-in-headlights response. It seems so free and convivial. Their conversation dance moves smoothly from one to the other, there are no retreats into blank stares. It’s like they are a part of a super-secret club and know the handshake. Only a few times have I tried to participate in these conversations. And when I do?
Blank stares.
Until I extract myself from the situation (finish paying for my gas, for example), everyone stumbles. I get the paranoid feeling that as soon as I’ve left they quickly return to back slapping and speaking in that mysterious foreign tongue.
I used to kick myself over this. I used to try and figure out where I went wrong. These days, I’m not as surprised. I’m less fearful that I’m just making huge mistakes. It’s very clear there are communication patterns here I don’t yet grasp. Until I find some good local sources (Real Mainers) to help decode the situation, I’ll keep on chatting away knowing my conversation partner might stare at me with wide open eyes showing what I can only assume are part surprise, part judgment, part puzzlement, and mostly, a part of a world I don’t yet understand.

“She’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!” was just about all my brain could handle. Maintaining a simple and polite conversation was barely possible. No matter how much we had in common, no matter how likely a future friendship, I could think of nothing but that amazing dark skin, the transcendent hair texture, and my entire personal history of race relationships. Oh, how I wanted to prove to this woman that I was not like just any white woman! I knew, of course, it was just this level of self-consciousness that would make me utterly annoying to her. But, I just couldn’t help myself.
Helping myself, though, is really what race relations is about for me these days. I do care about the greater socio-political issues (shocking disregard for people’s lives all across the continent of Africa, overt brutality in our country, job discrimination, and of course the list goes on). However, my personal journey with racism now centers around me, my husband, and most of all, my daughter.
When I sat for coffee with the “she’s black she’s black she’s BLACK” woman, I was reminded of a time in college in the late 80’s when a fellow student raged at me something like, “I am not all black people! I can’t solve your problems!” The disgust, the tears, and the absolute giving up I felt from her did change me. I was so ignorant, so inexperienced with people who were not white-upper-class-and-highly-educated that I lumped anyone unlike me into a group. This group, I thought, would be my source for how to fix the world. Surely, they knew what I could do to not be like a bigot, a racist, a slave owner.
It was then I began to try and get over myself. Trouble was, I just didn’t have anyone to practice being just a person with. There was no one in my life I could intentionally not discuss race relations and curing the world of injustice. There was no one in my life with darker skin, or fancier hair. There wasn’t even anyone I knew whose family had struggled financially, dark or fair skinned. And, yes, I recognized how this desire to not look to someone for all the answers was just a different side of the same coin.
I don’t believe in the concept of being “color-blind.” I find it offensive to everyone involved. Why should anyone pretend someone doesn’t look the way they do? How is that respectful? One constant in my life is my need for authenticity. Facing tough issues by talking about them; I don’t do well with elephant’s snoozing on the throw rug nearby.
It my own need for honesty and clarity that had me obsessing, desperate for an intense and intimate conversation about race every time I ran in to this woman. Entirely annoying, of course, since I knew I was just doing it again. Not seeing her as a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer, a social justice activist, but only seeing her Blackness. I really didn’t want to, but I knew if I pretended I wasn’t, it would just make it worse.
In college, I studied and fell in love with “Symbolic Interactionism.” Put forward in force by Herbert Blumer but made real to me by Erving Goffman, the idea that we all together strive most of all to maintain a coherent sense of reality. The “presentation of self” is disturbed when an individual becomes obsessed with their own performance. Smooth interactions between individuals are the goal of most players in life, most of the time throughout our daily lives (most don’t walk down a crowded busy street intentionally slamming into other people, we work together as individuals to keep the peace).
I know in my past I have suffered from white guilt and that has prevented me from behaving naturally. It’s humiliating, really, but, it’s my own shit.
Playing with dollhouse toys, my daughter announced one afternoon that she called one set of dolls the dark-skinned dolls. She didn’t say that the other set was the light skinned dolls. I gathered myself together enough not to launch in to a whole history of race issues in the USA. She’d made a simple observation. We’ve tried to always be sure she has characters in books with lots of different backgrounds, tried to always have dolls that are not only blond and white, knowing every little thing is part of the greater picture. We talked to her about melanin when she first asked about darker skin after visiting my parents’ church. We’ve done everything we can to not make a big deal, but to still keep the option for deeper discussion open. And, yes, I am probably over-thinking it way too much. But, then again, I’m really not.
We live in a state (Maine) where it’s not common to see people who aren’t white. Economic status is more varied than where I grew up, but trying to recognize those differences takes a judgmental frame of mind, not easy for a four year old to pick up on. We visit Boston (awfully white city, but relatively International) and come across families speaking other languages, wearing interesting clothes, looking remarkably different. It’s nice, and we talk about things with her, but what will help Maya most?
I tried signing her up for a Kwanzaa celebration class for toddlers, but was vastly disappointed when the instructor slipped up and asked the class if they knew about the country of Africa. I do believe that experience with people with darker skin, with different languages, and with different cultural backgrounds is the best thing we can give Maya (and ourselves). But, how can this happen and not be contrived?
I’ve written previously about my six grade field trip on a bus into Hartford where the teachers showed us “urban decay” and “urban renewal.” They actually stopped the busses in stressed out neighborhoods and said “this is urban decay.” I guarantee you there were people around those streets. How can [my husband] and I be sure that signing Maya up for classes or working to have playgroups where the kids aren’t just white isn’t a lot like that? I suppose it makes a difference if there is a genuine interest in the topic, or if the playgroup participants are actually friends. Knowing I have the motivation of “exposure” however, is what feels too close to that old frame of mind (“these people will give me the answers, ease my guilt”).
Today we went to the toy store where [my husband] and I very blatantly purchased an excessively expensive and annoying toy strictly for bribery (you reach this milestone, we’ll celebrate with this toy!). We reached the shelves and the Baby Alive toys available were only the dark skinned, curly haired dolls (sort of African American looking, though I think they all look like aliens). We had watched a movie on the computer that morning as we whetted her appetite for the thing where the freakishly large-eyed blond baby says, “uh oh, I made a stinky!” I flinched at the shelf. I wondered if I should be prepared for Maya to say, “That isn’t the doll we saw, I want the other one!” I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to say, “It’s this doll or no doll,” because I didn’t want the darker doll to be the disappointing choice.
Maya didn’t say a word about how she looked different (even though the doll was surrounded by the blond dolls of the “pee-pee only” version). She hugged the box to herself. She has been cherishing the boxed doll all day (she gets to open it after she reaches her milestone).
On the way home from the store, this is what she said, “The company that makes these dolls must really want children to buy them!”
“Yeah, hunny, why is that?”
“Because she has dark skin and dark skin is the most beautiful.”
“Dark skin is beautiful, hunny, yes, they must know.”
Inside I’m not afraid her pale-skinned self-esteem is suffering, I’m doing a touchdown dance with fireworks. Thinking, at least at the moment, she’s making good associations.
A few months ago (a year?) I said to the “she’s black she’s black she’s BLACK” woman who I had come to know on some deeper levels, “It’s so nice to finally know you as a just a person.” I honestly don’t remember if we went forward with that conversation at that point, or later in safer email, but, it’s true that she’s the first Black woman (and Latina, it turns out) who I consider a friend. And, it’s most definitely true that while I have fleeting thoughts of “wow, that hair is so cool,” or, “her skin is so stunning,” I realize I have thoughts like that about all of my friends in different ways (“how does she pull of those knit caps?” “when does she have the time to shave her legs?” “her hair always looks so clean.”). They are fleeting and I’m not obsessed.
[My husband] doesn’t have the same hang-ups I do. He grew up in a much more culturally diverse world (Southern New Mexico). He’s also blessed with an ability to not over-think things. But, he knows what I’m talking about when we try to decide how to help Maya not think that this world (Maine) is typical of the rest of the world. He knows how gross it feels to imagine signing Maya up for a playgroup or class only because we know she’d meet kids who aren’t white. I suppose, like everything, I’ll have to turn this over to faith. Trusting that it will all work out because God’s in charge and I’m not.
I don’t know the answers. I don’t know how I can help Maya make friends without having an internal explosion about race or class issues go on in her brain. For this day, for this moment, I’ll take Maya finding the “dark skin is the most beautiful” as a pretty good start.

Anne Lamott really pisses me off. In fact, when I saw her Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year in the parenting section a couple years ago at the Harvard COOP, I actually gave the book the finger. Such was my resentment at some writer journaling in public about motherhood, like I could. Or, like I should.
It must be trite, it must be drivel, it must be painfully common. How presumptuous to think she had something unique and fascinating to say about parenting.
The fact that my resentment blossomed and exploded with physical force (the middle finger jammed up at the softcover book) didn’t elude me. I recognize jealousy. I recognize fear: Afraid. Really, really afraid. Here was this dream and someone else was living it and how could I possibly ever do it if other people already are. I only want the path less traveled on; I won’t be a sheep or a lemming.
So it required great bravery on my part last week to pick up the book, purchase it, and open the cover to read. I finished it in 36 hours which says a lot as a parent of a 4 year old.
That weekend as I read, I began feeling rumblings in my body. Discomfort. A loosening of my glue.
I turned to the wisest person I know. I turned to this four year old who has spent her life facing her fears and asked, “Sweetie? There’s something I really, really want to do but I’m scared to do it. But I want to do it, but I’m scared. What should I do? How can I do this thing? How do you do it when you feel this way?”
Very seriously and with several long long seconds of contemplation, she looked at me with those ocean-deep eyes and gave me the answer. “Mommy, I listen to what my body is telling me. I might need to give myself more time with my Mommy first, but when my body tells me I’m ready, I just do it.”
Later that day, lying on my back finishing up the Lamott book I spilled empathetic laughter every few minutes. With my four year old audience demanding it, I read the funniest portions out loud (meatball-like poops rolling away, slapping an infant for fear it wasn’t just sleep overcoming him but rather a seizure). Most items made Maya giggle, too.
Years ago (1996 to be exact), I began writing a weekly column and posting it online. This was before I knew the term “blogging,” and certainly the activity of blogging hadn’t reached the masses. My self-imposed deadlines kicked my ass, really. I took them so seriously. I remember many a Wednesday evening sweating and twisted at the computer screen researching “What in the hell is going on with the Hutu and the Tutsis?” Or simply commenting on my latest self-revelation that I somehow imagined might interest someone.
For the past year, I’ve known an intense magnetic pull bringing me back to writing personal essays. I left them when I became suddenly embarrassed at how self-obsessed I knew I seemed to some.
I’ve found the courage to begin reading these kinds of things again, Anna Quindlen, Barbara Kingsolver, (and of course that beastly and fabulous Anne Lamott), most recently. In their words I’ve found not only camaraderie but also inspiration. Much of why I drink their words with such abandon are the feelings I get of a Shared Experience. As I approach my own writing, I feel a permission to address the day-to-day.
Each essayist has a unique voice and experience, no matter how common the theme. Knowing I can say “what’s already been said” and have it still be new and unique simply because it comes from me frees me from the sheep and lemmings fear. Any path I choose will be less traveled because the path belongs to me.
I’m falling apart from the inside out. I’m unhinged, unglued, and frighteningly free floating. My writing days return like a herd of buffalo. Knowing I seem just fine, perhaps a little tired, but as if I’m a functioning member of our simple world, well, that’s just craziness at it’s strangest. How these feelings can be mauling my insides while I stroll through the pumpkin field with my darling daughter and my dreamy husband? I know it’s all because the writing is coming.
I know it because my body says I’m ready.