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A fresh perspective on the personal and political.

My Notebook May 16, 2011

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

“What’s kept you here at UCSC, in the CRE job so long?” the young, earnest candidate interviewing for an open Coordinator for Residential Education position asked me this morning.

If I had drank mimosas for breakfast instead of a green smoothie, I might have said , “I live in a kick-ass apartment with ocean views from every window that I don’t pay rent for. And after teaching middle school in the Oakland, having a job that I can mostly work 40 hours a week at and that I can leave at the office makes it feel like easy job.”

What I actually said: “I get to work with highly motivated, often activist-oriented students who make me proud to know them and as long as they keep me interested and challenged I’ll be here.” That’s only partially true. These students do indeed often blow me away with their creativity, dedication and drive to make change or educate or entertain. I am proud to be a part of their growth and development, even if it’s small. But I won’t be here too much longer because I’m not terribly fascinated or challenged by this work anymore.

Answering this question today, I had this rush of hope that my partner will land a great job in a city I like and that I can run off and move in with him, start my MFA program at Antioch University and work part time as a substitute teacher or in a bookstore. Shit, I thought, after a feminist college education and 11 years of supporting myself, I’m ready to throw it all in and rely, at least in part, on man? A man who, it should be said, knows nothing about his role in this future fantasy.

My longing also was curious to me because it seemed so unambitious. It’s not “I want to leave UCSC for a higher-paying dream job or a graduate school program that will lead to a higher paying dream job.” I’m not traveling the world or joining the peace corps or going back to teaching. Nope, no aiming too high here. I’d be happy to live in my partner’s pad, pick up substitute gigs to help with rent and food and immerse myself in creative writing, with only a vague hope of becoming a successful author or columnist.

Although, as I wrote that, it sounds like a dream life to me, even if it isn’t awesomely impressive. Perhaps the achievable life is more impressive to me than the ambitious one, at least for now.

Thursday, May 5

Sometimes I leave my Thursday writing class euphoric, as though we all just spent a few hours hearing works-in-progress from the some of the finest writers alive, and the fact that I got to read my work at this amazing event, must mean that my writing is as good as all these other gifted writers. Today was not that kind of day.

I wrote almost everyday this past week and the sentences failed to coalesce into pretty little things, like they often do, eventually anyway, with some tending. Perfectly good ideas got buried in convoluted paragraphs. My images leaned on trite metaphors and similes. By today at lunch, when I sat down to see what could be salvaged from my literary casting about over the last seven days, I gave up within five minutes.

I went to class with nothing to share, and though Ellen had really kind words for when we are “stuck,” I came away feeling frustrated and doubtful that I should pursue writing full time.

But here I am, typing away not so ugly sentences, and I feel like the writerly me again. How flaky my inner critic can be. I should really get around to just firing her altogether.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I learned today that sometime this morning, a student found this in a stall in a male bathroom at Cowell College: “Stop the invasion. Kill a Mexican.” This is the umpteenth instance of racist graffiti found around UCSC over the past couple years and the third that threatens or suggested violence this year. How sick and regressed we have let our white men become, I thought (I know, it might not have been a white guy, but chances are it was, so let’s just draw the most likely conclusion here, please).

As providence would have it, I ended up with a ticket to see a talk by the preeminent race scholar Dr. Cornel West tonight. I was thrilled to be in attendance before I heard about the graffiti, as I read his work in college and felt transformed by the power of his ideas and analysis. But now it was timely. He was funny and hard-hitting. He let no one off the hook but held us all in his belief that “love is what justice looks like in public.” At one point he said, “Graduating a bunch of smart people is not enough. If the kind of deep education I am talking about here fails to happen, the world ends up in the hands of very smart people well equipped to end justice.”

And that’s when I remembered that between resolving judicial cases, mentoring my NAs, and updating my financial budgets, I have a job in which I support the kind of education that graduates very smart people who are able to summon the courage it takes to combat indifference, passivity, and denial. What can I do to treat the mental illness that is this neo-racism we’ve seen develop since Obama’s election? I can talk whiteness with my white students, I can talk to any white people I know about white privilege and why it matters. Indeed, I must. I will. In part, our ability as a campus to transform the climate here depends on people who look like me being willing to talk about it. And I’m not so hopeless.

Dr. West said we must distinguish between hope and optimism. Evidence always looks overwhelmingly bad, so do not aim to be a cheery optimist. When you’re in the mess, keep your eyes open for movement. Know there will always be movement. That’s hope.

Monday, May 9, 2011

This morning, I read about students responses to the threatening, racist graffiti found at Cowell College last Thursday. Being privy to the administration’s constraints and limitations, I can see how it might be easy to dismiss some of their righteous indignation. One student sent a condescending and disrespectful letter to the Chancellor, which was painful for me to read. It was so clear the deep hurt this student was feeling and so clear that it would, most likely, not be paid the respect such anger and sadness deserves because of the delivery.

I thought about these last couple of years, and how it feels that there’s been a rapid increase of racist graffiti here at UCSC. It’s gotten more violent and more frequent and more disturbing. It’s as though the nation-level unease with having a black president is bubbling up here in bathroom stalls, and were all at the mercy of a country being forced to finally face it’s white male supremacist foundations. Of course it’s an opportunity, but it’s scary to not know what’s coming next, which group will be targeted next or how. It makes for a very unpredictable and inhospitable environment for students of color in particular, and any allies in the fight to deal with racism, more generally.

The image that keeps haunting me is of any of the hundreds of students of color sitting down in one their classes, perhaps next to or across from a fellow white student. “Is this the one who wrote ‘Kill a Mexican’ in the bathroom?” Or, “Are those two white guys laughing in the corner the ones who drew nooses in men’s bathrooms all over campus last year?” Or, “Can I trust this seemingly friendly, open minded white person, or would they dismiss the impact of the kind racism I have seen here?”

If you are white, and have never had such a thought, imagine what it must be like each and every day to have to evaluate whether classmates, co-workers, friends can be counted on to not harm you, physically or emotionally, to wonder if they would stand up in the face of bias, and then, what it must be like to being consistently disappointed by these people as they fail to listen and act. It’s distracting, exhausting, and deeply painful, and though every individual touched by these acts of intimidation reacts differently, from what I’ve heard from students these last few days, the picture I’ve painted here isn’t too far off.

I was reminded today that there’s no way to know if the people who are willing to be racist on bathroom walls are all white men. This is true, but even if none of the perpetrators are white, they are espousing white supremacist ideology on a campus that is ill-equipped to change campus culture, and there is no way to dissociate these acts from whiteness. So, all of us who are white hold responsibility for transforming the culture, and though it’d be nice to be lead from the top, it’s unlikely that our Chancellor will take on a deep, campus wide exploration of whiteness and racism, so it must come from us, whether it should or not.

I felt ready Friday after listening to Dr. Cornel West to find my place in the revolution, and once again, here it is…

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Mondays and Tuesdays are exhausting blurs. Meetings, entering IRs, squeezing in workouts, meals, leaving dishes undone, late nights. The one salvation is that the bookend to these long days is choir practice. Tonight we sang eight or nine songs, some of them several times, and I was worked. There’s one song in particular, I Had A Revelation, that without fail, every time we sing it, I am overwhelmed by it’s power.

Right about the time we’re heading into the verse, my fingers start to tingle, then I’m flooded by warmth. I can feel the sound of my voice, accompanied by the blended voice of the choir, like a current running up and down and back just under my skin, and then as we slide into the all-out praise line, I’m gone, I’m there but only barely aware I have bones held in place by muscles, wrapped up in skin that looks like “me.” I am lit from within, as though I could float away into the ethers.

It’s surreal, it makes me feel a bit crazy, but it is the best kind of singing, this being sung.


My Notebook May 4, 2011

Filed under: Beauty,Family,LGBTIQQA,Mental Illness,Politics,Writing — mandolyn10 @ 6:14 am

I’m doing my best to write something each day. I may miss a day or two or more, but the point is to do it as often as I can. I will only publish my notebook once a week. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The sun, as it dipped below the horizon, pushed long shadows eastward across the hills, and as those darkening fingers stretched to cover the land in shade, I longed for more daylight. More hours to write as though I actually plan to make career out of writing, more time to unpack from the trip I got back from three days ago (and to hang the laundry I did before I left). Just enough more sunny moments to go for a hike or a run or meditate on my porch. I only needed a bit more bright, promising time to not feel so penned in by all I haven’t done before bedtime. I was asked yesterday, “How do my expectations limit my sense of freedom?” A part of me expects I will always be this occupied, this stressed out, that I forget I can at least, pretend I have a sense of freedom. So today, instead of rushing from work to work out to grocery shopping to dinner and then writing, I walked slowly to my car after work, drove the speed limit to the Farmer’s Market, and meandered from stall to stall. I tasted, for the very first time in my life, the grassy, sweet-fresh taste of fava leaves. I lifted small, creamy spoonfuls of Vanilla Macadamia Nut sorbet to my mouth, which I bought to eat before dinner. I stood in the sun for a few minutes, listening to a string band and watching the hippies dance. The loosening feeling didn’t last, not even until sunset, but it was a good, free-feeling, unexpected hour.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On my run, I was listening to an episode of This American Life. The last story was about a 67 year old widow, Emily, and her 39 year son, Scott, who has autism. Though perfectly healthy, this mother knows she won’t always be around, so, with the help of a low-interest government loan for people with disabilities, she bought her high-functioning son a house across the street from hers. She wanted to provide him a trial “live-alone” experience before she dies. There were certainly some bumps to getting him independent, but she had already taught him to cook, to do his own chores, to drive, and buy his own groceries. He seemed to be managing day to day tasks well after a while.

Her biggest worry was that his fear of social interaction would lead to isolation, and that if he spent long stretches alone, he would sink into depression, which had happened before. So she embarked on a campaign to recruit volunteers to check in on him once she dies. For weeks she listed on craigslist, posted fliers at local restaurants, cafes, schools, community centers, senior centers, event he mayor’s office. Her efforts were fruitless, and her panic about leaving her son alone grew. It seemed that the story would end on this hopeless note, and just when my heart was aching for this woman and her son, and for my 69 year old mother and my 36 year old mentally ill brother, who has only ever lived in her house. But then, like rain breaking across dry, thirsty, land, the story ended like this:

(His fear of being social) is another roadblock, but for now, maybe it doesn’t matter. Scott’s been doing more and more on his own. He’s actually reaching out to his neighbors for help, all without Emily. Just having the house has changed him, made him more confident, and even more sociable. A few weeks ago when he was out raking leaves, he knocked on the door of his 84 year old neighbor, and offered to rake her yard, too. He asked another neighbor, a guy he barely knew, to help him haul a table, and the guy said, “Sure.” He started to really rely on a man across the street. A bunch a times, Scott’s even sat on the guy’s front steps late at night, chatting with him about real stuff, like Scott’s frustrations. And the other day, when the guy heard Emily was going away for a few days, he offered to look in on Scott. Emily didn’t even need to ask. 

I started crying around the raking his neighbor’s fornt yard part. My mom can’t afford to buy a house for my brother, but he could afford to move to an apartment somewhere before my mom dies. What made me so hopeful that I burst into tears was that just being independent from his mother helped this man be more self-sufficient, more sociable. Living with his mother had kept him from developing the skills to live on his own. My mom worries like crazy about what will happen to my brother when she dies or if he lived on his own, but I’m not sure she yet believes that he could make it, that it could well be the best thing for him to do.

But tonight, as I listened to this story, I wanted to call her and play the story for her, to show that when given the opportunity, even people with significant challenges can rise way above our fear-lowered expectations. But we’ll never know if my brother can live on his own successfully if we, as a family, don’t encourage him to try.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I suppose any inexperienced non-fiction writer/personal essayist thinks she has too few interesting life experiences to write a whole book about, but it occurred to me tonight that perhaps the problem is perspective.

I went to see a movie tonight, called Rejoice & Shout, about the history of Gospel music. I was totally riveted and absorbed. I loved, loved, loved learning about the roots of the music I sing as a part of my choir.  At one point, they showed a program that featured a smiling picture of the robust, incomparable Mahalia Jackson, a program from a performance she gave at Carnegie Hall. I thought, “Hey! In less than a year, I’m going to sing on the same stage as Mahalia Jackson! Holy Shit!” It hit me how absurd and unlikely it is that I was so into this movie. Ten years ago, if anyone had told my sometimes atheist, sometimes agnostic self that within a decade, I would believe in something more than just me or human nature; that I’d be singing in a church choir, preparing for a performance of Negro Spirituals at Carnegie Hall, I would have laughed mockingly at them until I peed my pants.

If I can look at my life from the outside, as if I am not the one living it, it’s a fair bit less tedious than it can feel, and certainly provides enough material for good writing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I have just deleted an hour’s worth of writing on the disgust with which I learned about the raucous, frat-party like celebrations that followed the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death last night. Yes, I am disheartened, disappointed once again to be represented by shallow thinking Americans who grab the media’s attention, but it’s not worth writing about anymore.

What touched me much more deeply this weekend than the killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the event which made me feel proud to be American, the thing that deepened my engagement with making this world a better place, was . It was a student production I attended on Saturday night called Queer Fashion Show.

Part fashion show, part social commentary, part dance performance, this show was funny and heart wrenching, edgy and sweet. The student performers were not just putting on a show, they were sharing what it’s like to live outside of society’s expected roles, warts and all. They did it with bravery, commitment, passion, vulnerability, resolve, and a zest for life. One of those students was Zack, a senior who I supervised last year. He was one of the directors of QFS this year and there is little else comparable to seeing students you have worked so closely with excel, educate others, and have a blast doing it.

So although the very next night, college students in DC poured into Lafayette Park to cheer the murder of a fellow human being (I know, an evil one, but still human), I am heartened that it is not only them who are inheriting this society. The sixty or so students who took to the stage at QFS this past weekend represent legions of other young people who have a vision of a more inclusive, peaceful world.  They give me reason to hope that all is not lost.

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Spring is here in full swing, with wildflowers screaming from the roadsides and paths I jog and walk, the sun falls warmly on my skin as I walk deliberately slow to work, the breeze comes in off the bay alternately cool and warm, in a way that I think of as uniquely Santa Cruz. It was so pretty my chest felt heavy with relief that winter is over and summer is around the corner.

Perhaps it’s the promise of summer that triggered a startling longing in me. Summer, with it’s break from Monday night meetings and Tuesday night choir rehearsals feels like a much too distant haven where I have time to things like dishes and watering the plants.

Six weeks left, more or less, but as I look down my nose toward the middle of June, it feels like six months.


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