Nearly fifty years later, I don’t clearly remember my first day of kindergarten, but I know I was miserable and complained that I didn’t fit in.
What I really meant was that I was the only white student in my class.
That didn’t last long.
On the second day of kindergarten, Mike Donahue switched classes and joined mine.
I have a few other memories from that year: sitting on the floor at the feet of an elderly tribe member who taught us her native language; participating in the annual root feast; wearing the wing dress my mom had sewn, and being chased and taunted when I was walking home from school. My tormentors, a group of older children, told me I didn’t belong and I needed to move off of the reservation.
The next year I did. I started first grade in a classroom full of white students like me.
When I was younger, I used to tell people that, because of those experiences, I knew what being a minority felt like and that I had experienced discrimination.
I didn’t and I hadn’t.
When I complained about being the only student with my skin color, my white, well-educated parents stepped in to ensure I had a friend in my class. When I lived in a place with a very different heritage than mine, my professional parents bought a house elsewhere among people with similar backgrounds.
In other words, what I actually experienced as a child was white privilege.
I’m still experiencing it.
I guarantee that no one has ever clutched their purse a bit tighter when they’ve seen me in a parking garage. No one has ever called the police because I look suspicious when I’m walking my dog in their neighborhood. I’ve never been patted down or had my car searched when I’ve been stopped for speeding.
But I have been the person who has clutched her purse a bit tighter when she’s seen a black man in a parking garage.
And I absolutely hate that.
My parents raised me better. They taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin. My education specifically addressed prejudice. I am a licensed social worker whose professional ethics are grounded in fairness and equality. My children and friends, who are all strong advocates for diversity, expect more from me.
And yet, I’ve had those moments when my immediate reaction is to clutch my purse tighter.
Living in a racist society has influenced my reactions, but, I am still responsible for them. I am responsible for acknowledging them and I am responsible for changing them.
America should be too.
There’s an old saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The saying may be old, but it’s more relevant than ever. From the world stage to the community stage, too many people use the slightest bit of authority to benefit themselves. Sometimes they do so with no thought to the damage they do to others, sometimes they tell lies to hide their true intentions, and sometimes they just don’t care.
But those left in their wake do care.
I should know.
In the last few months, weeks, and even days, the fallout from multiple instances of abuse of power has seeped into both my personal and professional life.
But, like so much in life, I’ve had to make a choice. I can either ignore the problems or I can can learn from them.
I’ve chosen to learn, and here’s what I’ve figured out: people only abuse their power because other people let them.
Sometimes, people allow the abuse of power because they think they too will benefit. They realize what is happening is wrong, but the potential gains outweigh the immorality of the situation. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are afraid to call out the wrong doing. They fear they’ll be hurt, someone they care about will be hurt, or that an institution or organization in which they are invested will be hurt. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people believe more in institutions than they do people, and they will do all they can to protect those institutions. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are in such awe of power that they truly believe that the abuse of power is justified. Or they believe that those who are abusing the power somehow earned and deserve to be where they are and to do what they do. Or they were taught not to question authority. So they say and do nothing.
These may be excuses, but they should never be excusable.
In the end, people who abuse their power only do harm: to people; to communities; to organizations; to institutions; and even to countries.
And while their behavior is reprehensible, looking the other way when abuse occurs is what allows it to continue.
It’s the sin that sits next to power.
There’s a reason people with good sense wear glasses when they ride their bikes. It prevents bugs from flying into their eyes.
Apparently, I don’t have good sense. Or at least I don’t have enough good sense.
Because I wasn’t wearing any protective eyewear when I was out bicycling last week.
I was heading down a steep hill and into a blind curve when a gnat flew into my eye.
There was nothing I could do about it. Stopping on the narrow road with no shoulder would have been more dangerous than allowing the gnat to stay.
So I continued pedaling and focused my mind on other things. By the time I got home, I had almost forgotten about the gnat in my eye. Almost.
But that night, when I was taking my contact lens out of my red and puffy eye, the little bug made his reappearance – both literally and figuratively.
When I finally threw him away in the toilet, I realized how lucky I was. Ignoring the irritation would never have made the problem go away. It would only have caused more harm.
My short-lived relationship with the gnat resembles my too-long relationship with the guy in the Oval Office.
They both arrived in my life unexpectedly and in the most unwanted manner.
My problems with then could easily have been avoided if I, or others, had actually understood the danger they posed and acted appropriately to mitigate the potential disaster.
And even though ignoring them felt like the only way to keep my sanity, that’s never been an option.
Last Sunday, an old friend asked why I hadn’t been writing recently, I was honest when I said I’ve been busy and overwhelmed with work and other responsibilities. But that wasn’t the whole truth.
I’ve also been trying to ignore the ongoing barrage of embarrassing and disturbing news coming out of Washington DC.
But I can’t nor should I.
Instead, I’ll do what I can to cope and face the problem while doing my best to address it.
And hopefully, in the near future, the bug in the White House will be flushed out of Washington DC as efficiently as I flushed the gnat out of my life.
I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me last Monday, but, up until just now. I haven’t been able to.
I could use the excuse that I’ve been busy (which I have been), but I’ve never before let that prevent me from writing about something so incredibly important.
The real problem hasn’t been lack of time. It’s been a lack of words.
I just don’t know how to write about hate.
You see, last Monday morning, a man came into my office and spewed racist venom at me.
I sat in shock as he got up in my face and yelled at me about using agency money to help Hispanic and black people. He even accused me of not caring about white people. Despite my efforts to be calm with a clearly irrational person, I admit glancing down at my arm and saying, “You do realize that I’m a white person, right?”
He couldn’t hear me. He was too absorbed in his own anger.
And, other than simply waiting out his verbal assault while my colleagues tried to decide what to do, I was powerless.
I can’t imagine how I would have felt if my skin color were darker.
I used to think I understood the problem of racism.
At age five, I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I discovered that I was the only white child in my class on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
But my parents and teacher (who was also white) rushed to my rescue. They had the only other white child in kindergarten transferred into my class so I felt more comfortable. I can only imagine how the man in my office would react if a Hispanic of black family had done something similar for their child.
By first grade, my parents moved our family off the reservation, and my class was full of kids who didn’t make me self-conscious about the color of my skin, eyes, hair or culture. As I moved from childhood into adolescence, I claimed to have experienced racism because I had been one of only two white kids in my kindergarten class.
I hadn’t. My limited experience didn’t even come close. Being a different color doesn’t equate to racism if you still have power. And my family had the power to get me out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable.
But I didn’t feel as though I had any power last Monday.
I was in an office with no escape as the angry man stood between me and the door. I was in a situation in which reasoning and rational discussion couldn’t resolve the problem. And I was face to face with an individual who truly believed in a social hierarchy based solely on physical characteristics.
No matter how calm my voice was as I repeated the mantra “We care about all people here. We don’t care about their skin color or their religion,” I felt powerless.
When the man finally left, I rehashed the incident with my co-workers, expressed relief that he hadn’t been carrying a weapon, implemented a safety plan and complained that the current political environment is empowering bigots.
But I never doubted my convictions or the words I’d said to him.
He may have tried to intimidate me with his hate, but my words of love actually had more power – of that I have no doubt.
Hate might come knocking on my door. Sometimes, it might even walk in. But I will never, ever allow it to stay.
And knowing that makes me feel incredibly powerful. As it should.
Here are a few of my favorite things:
- Riding my bike
- Taking time to enjoy the awesome beauty of nature
- Having a good story to tell
Here’s what I’m known for:
- Having random weird stuff happen to me on a regular basis
Thankfully, that random weird stuff often involves animals that I encounter as I’m riding my bike while enjoying nature. Those events, in turn, generally make for a good story.
Take, for example, what happened Wednesday night as I neared the end of an otherwise uneventful 16-mile bike ride. I was zipping along a flat, straight stretch of road that runs parallel to a large cow pasture when something unusual happened.
I’ve ridden by that pasture hundreds of time, and the cows have never demonstrated the least bit of interest in me. Even when I’ve belted out Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes such as “Oklahoma”and “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” they have remained unimpressed while they chewed their cud.
But not on Wednesday.
On Wednesday I didn’t even have to sing to grab their attention. In fact, I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. I was just peddling along when a big white cow with black spots started chasing me.
I’ve never seen a cow move that fast, and I wanted to know why.
And so, I stopped to ask.
But the cow didn’t provide any explanation as to why she felt the need to stalk me.
When I went up to the fence to question her, she didn’t udder (pun intended) a sound. Instead, she started licking me.
She licked my hands. She licked my stomach (or at least my shirt over my stomach). She licked my leg (or at least the pants over my leg). She licked my shoes then she licked my ankle (she really licked my ankle – not just my sock).
She even tried to chase away the other cows who, like me, had become curious as to her motives.
But, after I scolded her for not playing well with others, she allowed the other cows to join us at the fence.
I literally had a whole herd of cows at my fingertips when I finally realized I needed photos to document my whole “cow whisperer” experience.
Taking pictures on my phone with a herd of cows jostling around wasn’t exactly easy, but I got a few.
Not until I got home and was looking at those pictures did I realized two things.
First, not one photo captured the essence of the moment. Sure, some gave a glimpse into it, but none captured the actual experience. That’s because truly magical moments have nothing to do with what is seen by the eye and everything to do with what is felt by the heart and soul.
And second, I’ll probably never experience something like that again. No matter how many times I ride my bike by that field and no matter how loudly I sing to those cows, they will probably never come running again. (My singing might actually make them run in the other direction.) But even if they do come running, their actions won’t be nearly as remarkable. Remarkable moments, like remarkable people, can’t be duplicated. And, like people, the more unique they are, the more they should be treasured.
But here’s the thing: whether or not the cows and I now have some kind of undefinable relationship, they are now on my growing list of favorite things.
And anyone or anything that goes on that list will forever be part of not only a good story but of my life story. And that, in itself, is magical to me.
When I was a little girl, I fell out of bed on a regular basis.
Sometimes, I’d pick myself up off the floor and climb back under the covers. Sometimes, my father, who must have heard the thud, would come into my bedroom, scoop me up, and tuck me back into my bed.
I don’t remember being particularly concerned or afraid of falling out of bed, nor do I remember my parents worrying about it.
It was just something I did until, one day, I didn’t do it anymore.
Like so many childhood memories, my habit of falling out of bed was locked away in a part of my brain that only opens with the right key. Sometimes that key is a piece of music, sometimes it’s a smell, and sometimes it’s a conversation. But there are times when I have no idea what key unleashed a memory. It just pops into my mind, and I can’t shake it. Those are the moments when I realize my memories have come out of hiding and dusted themselves off because they are trying to teach me something.
And so it was last week with my memories of falling out of bed.
As I thought back to those nights decades ago, I realized they represent all of life’s struggles. Those times I fell out of bed were only a fraction of all the tumbles I’ve taken. And yet, I only remember a very small percentage of them – the ones that left behind scars and a good story.
But almost every time I stumbled or even completely fell, I had the choice to wallow in the pain and humiliation or to pick myself back up. Those few times when my struggles were so great that I couldn’t just pick myself back up, I was fortunate to have someone nearby who heard the thud and immediately responded with a helping hand.
There are so many individuals with no such people nearby. On almost a daily basis, I watch the stream of people coming through my office doors for financial assistance or other social services. I realize that most of them had very few, if any, people nearby listening for their thuds. And I wonder if it’s harder to pick yourself back up when you know that no one else is paying attention to your struggles.
I also wonder if knowing that you are safe and that someone has your back makes it easier to teach yourself not to fall. When you trust that people care and realize that falls are part of the learning process, it’s easier to have the fortitude and the ability to prevent self-inflicted bruises.
My memories were reminding me that I, like everyone else, needs to pay more attention and react to the thuds when someone nearby, no matter who they are, falls.
I try to be a nice person. I really do.
But sometimes, the person I strive to be and the one in my head couldn’t be more different.
O.K. – not some of the time. Most of the time.
In fact, I’ve often wondered if the first verse of “Cell Block Tango” in the musical Chicago was written with me in mind. In it, a young woman explains how the habits of other people can “get you down.” She complains about Bernie, who popped his gum when she was having a bad day. Her bad day turned into his bad day when she shot and killed him.
I can’t say I’ve ever come close to killing another person, but my mind is often plotting revenge. I just don’t act on these thoughts.
But when I’m in a funk, like I was last week, people or situations that are normally just irritating suddenly proliferate as though purposefully torturing me.
The moms who have known each other for years and don’t make an effort to include me in their conversations, even when I try to insert myself, morph into that pack of mean girls from high school.
The people who talk about updating the living room paint to “this year’s color” make me feel completely incompetent and out of touch. (Up until this year, I never even knew that some shades of beige are “in” and some are “out.” I generally feel accomplished when the old, faded living room carpet at my house gets vacuumed a couple of times each month.)
The grocery store clerks who make comments about the food I’m buying completely annoy me. Even though I tend to be a chatty person with almost everyone, I don’t need complete strangers talking to me about my eating habits.
Parents who make sure that they drop a list of their children’s accomplishments into every conversation seem to taunt me for my less accomplished (in their eyes) kids.
And those are just the people who irritate me. I haven’t even mentioned the ones who make me really angry:
- Individuals who don’t take pride in their job. I just don’t get that. If you are being paid to do something, you should never, ever expect other people to compensate and clean up your messes.
- People who compensate and clean up the messes for individuals who don’t take pride in their job. When that happens, the lazy people never learn.
- People who post derogatory comments in social media about low-income people who receive government benefits. No one in this world goes without the help of others. Some people are just fortunate to have family, friends, intellectual gifts and opportunities that helped them overcome difficult situations.
- Individuals who don’t take time to listen to others who may be less educated, less beautiful, less wealthy, less accomplished or less socially connected. We are all on this planet together, and I’m fairly confident that God doesn’t care more about some than others.
- Those same people who flaunt all they have by dropping snide comments or making off-hand remarks that are actually intended to put down others.
- Anyone who makes decisions that hurt my children and cause them to question their abilities or their dreams.
Generally, my antidote for this anger is to make up and play out entire scenes in my head. In them, I say just the right words or take just the right actions to cut down the offenders and put them in their place.
And then I pray to be a kind person and pretend to be the nice person I wish I were.
Usually, that’s enough, and the anger and irritation subside.
But when the irritation and anger continue to linger and the notes from “Cell Block Tango” become an ear worm, I have to do something a littler more dramatic and employ a stronger antidote.
That’s when I write about the people I annoy me. And sometimes, I even make those written words public.
For the last few months, something has been missing from my life. Its disappearance is particularly unnerving because I am given a sufficient supply of the missing element every day. But when I go to bed each night, I am left wondering what happened.
Time is that common yet mysterious element that belongs to everyone, plays favorites to no one, speeds up and slows down at the most inopportune moments and steals the occasions we treasure most while gifting us with memories.
When I was young, 24 hours per days seemed more than sufficient. Now, it’s anything but.
Which is why, on Christmas Eve, I felt as though I’d won the lottery. I had 11
days, or approximately 264 hours, without any significant appointments or commitments. And even though I had a long list of projects I wanted to tackle, part of me that just wanted to escape life as I know it.
Which is exactly what I did on Christmas Day.
After the presents were opened and the Christmas dinner was prepared, I escaped to find evidence that life is more than a series of events or accomplishments that are documented with time stamps and dates to remember.
I took my bicycle out on an unseasonably warm day, and, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t pedal to
cover a specific number of miles in a specified number of minutes.
In fact, I often didn’t pedal at all. Instead, I stopped to investigate. I stopped to listen. I stopped to breathe. Most of all, I stopped to take photos on my phone and to simply appreciate life without the constraints of deadlines or appointments or expectations.
And what I discovered was that, unlike people, most of the world pays no attention to clocks or calendars. While everything is affected by time, only people give it power.
The rest of the world just exists in the moment, adapts to the elements, accepts changes and stays committed to survival.
In other words, the rest of the world can teach us humans a thing or two.
And I’m ready to learn.
I was mad that cancer had taken the life of a good friend. I was mad at a self-serving state legislature that is pandering to special, extreme interests rather than improving the lives of Mountain State residents. I was mad that years of previous hard work had been torn apart by people who care more about touting their own importance than about doing the right thing. I was even mad that I had spent the day fighting with my work computer, which was eventually diagnosed with having either a bad virus or a bad hard drive.
Most of all, I was mad that not one of those situations was within my control.
And so, I lay awake thinking that, since I couldn’t change the random nature of life or the priorities of other people, I could at expose the selfish nature and behavior of others.
But no matter what scenario I imagined, I was never satisfied.
My friend would still be dead. Constituents would still vote against their own self interest and politicians would still prey upon emotional rather than rational voters. All of my hard work would still lie in ruins at the hands of people who never really tried to understand my efforts, and my computer would still be on a shelf waiting for repair.
And I would still be angry.
My mood hadn’t improved by the time I arrived at work the next morning.
Knowing that I had to put my anger aside, I spent the first few minutes in my office repeating one of my favorite quotes, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Saying those words to myself wasn’t sufficient, so I started sharing them with others.
Then something miraculous happened.
The people with whom I shared that quote not only empathized with me, they also shared their own anger.
In doing so, we talked about our values and about not feeling valued. We talked about how difficult people are often doing their best and just don’t know or have the skills to do better. We talked about our own successes and all that we hope to achieve in the future.
And when we spoke, we didn’t use flowery language that made us sound noble. We spoke from the heart with words that are best left behind closed doors (they were) but are sometimes the best way to describe our feelings.
I hadn’t had a complete attitude adjustment by the end of the day, but I did gain something important: perspective.
No one goes through life untouched by anger, and pretending we are above it is ridiculous. Instead, if we share it in the right way with the right people, we can learn more from anger than we ever could from happiness.
With that said, I’m hoping to be much less studious in the next few weeks.
At the same time, I’ve been told that sometimes the behaviors that annoy us most are the ones we revert to when we are at our worst.
I was at my worst this week.
Nothing horrible or life shattering happened. I just had to deal with some difficult and taxing situations at work. By the time I got home each night, I was too exhausted to do much more than complain about how tired and stressed I was.
I deal with people who struggle to meet their basic needs on a daily basis, so I should recognize how fortunate I am to have a warm and safe home to take shelter in each night. I have friends who are struggling with serious health issues, so I should wake up grateful for a (relatively) strong body and mind. I know people who go to jobs in which their only reward is a paycheck, and I should realize that being passionate about my work is more gratifying than any financial reward.
And yet, I forget.
This week I forgot so much and complained so much about my stress that I was even starting to annoy myself.
Which is why, when my cell phone rang at 6:30 on Friday night, I almost didn’t answer it. The caller i.d. showed that a volunteer from my office was trying to reach me, and I thought I had reached maximum capacity for anything work-related. At the same time, the responsible side of my personality (the stronger one that completing despises my whining and self-pitying side) had to answer the phone.
So I answered it, and the call served as a wonderful reminder of why I should be grateful for feeling overwhelmed at times.
The volunteer actually wanted me to speak with his wife, who was also interested in being a volunteer. The couple recently retired in another state and moved to my town to be nearer to their children and grandchildren.
I’d never met the woman who I spoke with on the phone, but on a cold evening in February, she was the only person who was able put my week in perspective.
I initially tried to hurry her off the phone. After confirming when she would come in to discuss volunteer opportunities, I said, “Have a good weekend.”
She wouldn’t let me go that quickly.
“I’m just hoping you can help me,” she said.
That shut me up.
“My mother is 94 years old,” she said. ” That means I likely have 30 years of retirement ahead of me. Everyone tells you that retirement is great. No one tells you that no one values your skills anymore.”
She went on. “I used to take pride in my work. I liked contributing something. I don’t feel as though I’m doing that now.”
I told her I understood.
And I did.
I may complain about all the stress in my life, but that stress means that I’m overwhelmed by demands on my time and talents. That stress means that others depend on me and need me. That stress means that I’m valued and that others recognize how important my contributions are.
In other words, the type of stress I experienced last week is a reflection of what I value most: the ability to make a difference to others.
The woman I talked to on Friday night may or may not decide to be a volunteer at my office. But whether she does or not, she’s already made a difference in my life.
Sometimes, strangers can do that.