In my August post I reflected on the kindness of strangers with a couple of stories. And because the subject is so worthy, here is a dramatic example from 2010.
In 2010 my husband and I joined a group of high school students going to Bali to study art. After a month of music, painting, puppet making and dance –as well as sweating profusely and slapping mosquitoes –we headed for home, stopping in Japan for a few days. Our first morning there my husband woke with a fever of 103 and a full body rash. The hotel had a thermometer but no doctor. As the fever neared 104 we hailed a cab for the Hiroshima City Hospital. I had frantically pieced together shujinwa byoki des — my husband is sick — from my pocket dictionary and blurted it out to the cab driver, who took one look at us and stepped on the gas.
In the large, orderly waiting room, we were the only Caucasians. Roberto was a sight, lobster-red and wild-eyed. Staff and patients politely averted their eyes. A nurse led us to the lab for blood work, and after filling several tubes, she withdrew the needle and pressed a gauze pad on the site. Roberto bent his arm and held the gauze in place until she motioned that he could take it off. But when he straightened his arm the gauze pad, red and soggy, fell onto the floor, and a fountain of blood squirted in the air. I was going to laugh until I looked at the nurse. Her eyes were wide with fear. She applied new gauze and whisked us upstairs where a bed and IV waited in room 575. (more…)
[We took our grandsons to see Inside Out, the recent Pixar movie. It was entertaining with a good message about the value of our different selves. I was reminded of a device I invented years ago to help explain myself to myself — described below. I call it the Bus Lecture.]
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Maybe it will help you sometime. This is the way it works. Imagine you are a bus – not on a bus, but you are the bus. You can be whatever kind of bus you want. You might choose an ancient Blue Bird school bus, now part of the Guatemalan bus system, chugging up hills, puffing blue smoke, grinding gears, festooned inside with silken fringes, Virgin Marys, Mickey Mouses, and lots of ignored signs about not standing in the aisles or talking to the driver. Or, you may be a Greyhound Scenicruiser, with big high stairs, air conditioning, a lavatory in the back, and seats that recline with that material like a very, very short crew cut. Or, you may be a private coach, like Willie Nelson has, a huge van equipped with everything, including beds. Or maybe it’s a good, solid bus from the Transit System, reliable, clean, swift, efficient, with plenty of ads to read on the ceiling above the seats, and environmentally responsible, running on natural gas or even electricity. My only advice is that you choose a roomy bus. A mini van will not do. Trust me.
I was at a gathering of colleagues from around the country recently. We meet once a year to catch up with each other and exchange news, both professional and personal. One member had lost his wife a few months before and spoke of the experience in detail, her courage and humor, their adult children’s return home to be with her, their very special time together and her inevitable and final decline. He was emotional, of course, as were we who listened, but he was able to tell the story with control – until he talked about their friends and neighbors, old and new, and how generous they were, how they visited and supported the family in such beautiful ways. Here, he broke down. It was too much, remembering their kindness. It touched him deeply and in a different way from the experience of profound grief that infused his every cell.
I mentioned this to him, and he agreed. There is something particularly touching about “strangers” (non-family) who feel our grief and make an effort to meet us there in that sad place. Of course his friends and neighbors were not strangers; they were close and caring people. But they were not family members; they did not have to be there. I can imagine they brought food, cards, books, flowers, condolences. But their most important gift was their love and compassion. Our conversation reminded him of a visit to Israel where he saw a memorial walkway to non-Jews who helped Jewish people during the holocaust. As a Jew, when he walked between the plaques and trees planted in honor of each rescuer he was moved to tears in this same way. These were people who reached out because it was the right thing to do, the human thing to do.
Several years ago we made a trip to Japan to visit our new in-laws. My son had married a woman from Hiroshima and we wanted to meet her family and learn a bit about her culture. Hiroshima was an emotional place for us New Mexicans, whose home state was the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Every cab driver, every waiter knew New Mexico; not one made us feel unwelcome or responsible for the devastation of their city in 1945. But we felt a special obligation to visit the Peace Park and pay our respects to the victims of the bomb. Needless to say it is a very emotional experience for any visitor, and for us it was especially powerful. (more…)
Last month’s post “Anglo Sisters” brought a comment I was not expecting. After taking liberties with women from Texas, I was sure I would get a response or two from that corner, but not a one. Instead I received a thought provoking message from a cousin. She and I share a great great grandmother who was Dakota and Ojibway, and she began with a question: How do you think your ancestors would feel if they knew that you were totally denying your Indian heritage?
I was stunned. I would never deny that heritage. I honor and treasure it, and share it when appropriate. Did it occur to me to mention it in “Anglo Sisters”? No. That was a story about identifying with a culture that is not yours, and learning to identify with the one you were born into. I identify myself as Anglo, I was raised Anglo, I am seen as Anglo, I have had all the advantages of being Anglo. I am not hiding all the other ancestors that contributed to my particular being; they are making themselves known in ways I cannot imagine. But most of the time the fact that I have an Indian great great grandmother is not relevant. And especially here in the southwest I am hypersensitive to the danger of appearing to be part of the “wannabe” tribe, those who have a trace (or not even) of Indian blood but who “wannabe” native and masquerade as a tribal person.
So, end of subject? Of course not. I continue to muse on this question of who we are, who we appear to be, and how to be honest with ourselves and others. Why did it not occur to me to mention my Indian ancestor in “Anglo Sisters”? Was I really in denial? Did I sacrifice the truth of my identity for the sake of a good story? I can defend myself on all these points, but still the questions are worth asking. (more…)
[For those of you not in the Southwest, the term Anglo usually means anyone not Indian, more or less synonymous with White.]
It’s embarrassing, but one of the hardest things about being Anglo for me has been admitting it. After years living in Navajo country and more years working with Pueblos and tribes, I sometimes drift into some kind of fantasy that I am not really Anglo, that I am almost an Indian, that I am more non-White than White. Of course this is not true, and I try as quickly as possible to bring myself back to reality before I do anything that might embarrass myself and others. One memory that helps bring me back comes from Acoma Pueblo several years ago.
I had a free day and decided to indulge myself and go to the traditional dances at Acoma Pueblo. I jumped in the car, zipped through Albuquerque, turned west toward Acoma, then south to the pueblo’s mesa top. I spotted it in the distance, rising hundreds of feet off the valley floor, so beautiful, so powerful. I felt very lucky to be on my way to a special ceremony in a community that would welcome me and all others who came with respect. (more…)
I went to have blood drawn the other day. As I waited in the crowded waiting room, I watched the technicians open the door to the blood drawing area and call out a name. Which one will call my name, I wondered. I hope it is a good one, not one who has insomnia, is mad at a spouse, had a fender bender on the way to work, is suffering from low blood sugar and needs a candy bar. Finally my turn came. A middle-aged, cheerful woman named Maureen ushered me into the cubicle, where I sat down and rolled up a sleeve. She tied the tubing tight around my upper arm and began patting the area where she hoped for a plump vein. There were too many “hmmms” and “arrghs” for my comfort and when she finally pricked the skin and began exploring it was painful. Now, the noises were coming from me. She was full of apologies as she abandoned that site, put a bandaid on, and said she would have to try the other arm. (more…)
Once my ten-year old son and I were in the grocery store, and we witnessed a crime. A man stood over the mounds of grapes, plucking and tasting one after another from different bunches. “What right,” I hissed to my son, “does he have to eat grapes? What if everynone did that!” I ranted all the way home, so much so that “the man who ate the grapes” became one of those family phrases that can bring a chuckle decades later.
Where did that outrage come from? Like many passions it came from childhood. When I was in grade school, my mother was a graduate student in philosophy, and I learned from her about the categorical imperative. What I grasped at that impressionable age was that if you are thinking about doing something, you should imagine that everyone around you, even everyone on earth, will do the same thing. Because if you have the right to do it, then, of course, so does everyone else. I immediately saw that I should not throw my gum wrapper out the car window. If everyone did that the air would be thick, the ground covered, with foil and paper. And, if everyone acted like the man who ate the grapes, we would be left with a pile of stems, right?
Another passion that has guided my choices as an adult came from my father. From him I gained a deep appreciation for the democratic process. He was an enthusiastic, if not always successful, politician in my early years. He loved the race and was passionate about his underdog causes. I learned from him the joys of participating in the system, imperfect as it may be. The concept of democracy, where ideally each person has an equal voice, moves me deeply; I confess to even tearing up in the voting booth when I think about it. If we all took each vote that seriously, thinking about our needs, the needs of others, the greater good — and the categorical imperative — wow, it could be an amazing world!
Now I find myself all grown up, a professional mediator, and I see that these values instilled by my parents are core to what I do and why. My cases are complex conflicts over the use of natural resources and protection of the environment. My first and most important job is to get the right people at the table to find a solution. I am insistent that every interest with a stake in the outcome be represented. Each of those voices has a right to participate, to have a say in that ultimate solution. Of course it would be easier in many cases if the troublemakers, the obstructionists or the little guys were left out. Then the powerful players could cut a deal “on behalf of everyone.” But that strategy offends me deeply. To resolve the most difficult conflicts we face requires us all to take part, get educated, speak up and above all to listen to other voices. To approach these problems like the self-absorbed man who ate the grapes will not do.
I welcome your thoughts and stories about the origins of your passions and values. And by the way, you can still be my friend if you have sampled grapes at the grocery store. I am working on my tolerance.
He was a well-dressed utility company executive in his early forties and he was walking in my direction. I had hoped for a little peace and quiet during my lunch break in the cafeteria, before the negotiation resumed and I would have to take up my mediator role again. But he was heading toward me, and he looked concerned.
“Lucy? May I have a word with you, just briefly?” he asked.
“Sure, have a seat,” and I motioned to the chair across from me. (more…)
“Prom Night in Mississippi” is a documentary about the first integrated prom at a small town Southern high school. The filmmaker Paul Saltzman showed it here in Santa Fe to a packed house and led a discussion afterward. Because how people change their minds was on my mind, I wanted to add it to our discussion.
In Charleston, Mississippi in 2008, a number of seniors moved to integrate the two proms, one Black and one White, that had been the rule for generations. Parents and many school staff were opposed, holding onto old, fear-based racist beliefs — beliefs that they hoped they had passed on to their children. You will see in the film that many students “changed their minds” and abandoned their parents teachings and the region’s history. Their determination to create a better, more just and loving society, starting with their high school, is so inspiring. I hope you will find a way to see the film. Here is the link.
When I am listening to talk radio sometimes I wonder what it would take to get through to someone, to actually change a mind, or at least open it. What could I say or do, to him or her? How do we change our deeply held beliefs? What is it that makes the difference, so that the old, misguided way doesn’t suit us anymore? This question is especially intriguing for me as a mediator, working with those who are deeply committed to the positions they have staked out.
And so I think about myself. Have I ever changed my mind about a deeply held belief, shed a prejudice for good? The answer is yes.
Many years ago I was on a flight from DC to Albuquerque. The flight was completely full. Seating is first come first served on Southwest and by the time I started down the aisle, there wasn’t a lot left. I wanted to be as far forward as possible. I am not a happy flier, and the bumps are less violent in the front than in the back so I grabbed the first aisle seat available. (more…)