Monthly Archives: December 2020

Learning in Community

It didn’t matter how little sleep we had had the night before, we made ourselves get up in order to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. on the two days in the fall when we would attend The Atlantic Festival of Ideas in Washington, D.C. Most of the time, the weather was beautiful, but sometimes there would be rain and flooding. On the occasions when there was heavy rainfall, we had to leave home even earlier in order to get to the parking garage and find a spot near the front of the lines waiting to get into Sidney Harman Hall where the Festival forums would take place.

We liked sitting in rows close enough to the stage so we could see the faces of the guests in real life rather than on a screen. I was always eager to see the journalists from The Atlantic and NPR, as well. After so many years of reading their work or listening to them on radio, I felt as if I knew these journalists and I wanted to see if my preconceived notions of what they looked like panned out. Never did. I was always way off in how I thought they might look.

We saw members of Congress, journalists, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, environmentalists, and many other thinkers who were asked questions about their take on a wide range of current events and the future issues. I was amazed at how all of us were able to just sit for hours and listen to one guest after another chat about the world and our place in it.

Because of the COVID pandemic, the Festival was virtual this year. The guests were just as interesting as when we could be in the same room with them, and we were up close where we could clearly see their faces on the screen, yet the virtual experience was less satisfying for me.

I tried to get at what made the experience less satisfying than being in Harman Hall in person. For example, although I’d be taking notes furiously on the questions interviewers posed and the responses offered by the guests, I could, at times, look down the row from where we were sitting or look at the people in the row in front of us and try to guess how they might be judging what they were hearing. There were people of all ages at the Festival but not much racial diversity. Over the years, I would look in wonder at the many rows of people who shared the same skin color, but not mine.

When there were breaks, we would seek out other people who looked like us to start a conversation, exchange cards, and sometimes promise to follow up. The people who planned the virtual Festival were aware of the need for people to interact, so they set up chat rooms so people could make connections. This didn’t appeal to me. I remained silent.

Treats of the onsite Festival included exhibits of up-and-coming innovations, an opportunity to see documentaries and films that may not be shown in many theaters, and the “Food for Thought Break-Out Lunch.” These lunches were sponsored at different restaurants in D.C.’s Penn Quarter or might be a box lunch at Harman Hall. The lines were too long at all the eating places and there was a scramble to find a place to sit, but it was well worth it because speakers such as the initiators of Black Lives Matter were there to have a conversation with us. The crowds of people—all eager to learn—evoked a vibe that I could not feel during the virtual Festival.

It was during the many hours I spent online getting a lot of information from the speakers that I had the best understanding of what students probably experienced as they took their course work online this past year. For some of us, just because the material presented virtually is the same as that presented in the classroom does not make it comparable. My learning is more than just the transfer of information from someone to me; it’s the feeling of engaging in a common quest with others that stimulates my desire to learn.

Along with students and teachers all over the world, I hope that in the next year and the years to come that learning in “community” will again be the norm for those of us who need it.

While there is something missing when the Festival is virtual. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the Festival despite not being able to be there in person. The fact is, without the virtual opportunity, I would have missed the Festival altogether this year because I no longer live in a place where I can just get up and drive to D.C. whenever I like. I hope that when people can congregate in one place to enjoy the Festival, those of us who are not in proximity to the event can still join in virtually. In the meantime, following are some of my notes from the 2020 Festival. The quotes may not be exact, but they are accurate enough for my purpose here:

September 23

  • “1.3 million people would not sign an agreement not to discriminate.” – Brian Chesly, CEO of Airbnb
  • Author James McBride and actor Ethan Hawke talking about the film based on McBride’s book The Good Lord Bird:
    • “The blood has already been shed, the path has already been cut, now we just need to put on our hats and go on down the road.” (McBride)
    • “To do well by people, you have to not do what society wants you to do; you have to break the box.” (Ethan Hawke)

September 24

  • Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, on “Finding the Funny During a Pandemic”:
    • “You have to prove that you’re vital, so I had to keep doing the show.”
    • “There was a lot of innovating and building new systems and trying to make things more visual rather than a flat experience.”
    • “This form of entertainment is our planting our flag on what’s right and what’s wrong.”
  • Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on “Antiracism in America”
    • “Trump’s denial of racism has become a mirror for other Americans to see themselves as deniers of racism.”
    • “We’re in the midst of a time when writers, organizations, and Black Lives Matter are making people aware of racism.”
    • “Removing Trump from the White House will not be a postracial time.”
    • “The path forward is to replace racist policies, structures, and systems with antiracist policies, structures, and systems.”
    • “On the interpersonal level, make sure we’re seeing racial groups as equal.”
    • “Racist ideas deflect us from what’s preventing us from coming together as a human community.”
    • “The resistance gives me the most hope.”
  • Echelon Insights Research—“Opportunity for Young People to be Successful”
    • Only 13% of those surveyed think the next generation will be worse off than the current generation
    • 43% think higher education is too expensive
    • 40% worry about health care
    • 35% worry about racial inequality
    • The American Dream consists of a husband, wife, white picket fence, opportunity to better lives where people are equal; freedom and financial stability.
    • Key Themes: Importance of the environment 74%; importance of education 72% (want more career and life skills)
  • Journalist and author Bob Woodward
    • “Trump was elected to break norms. His voters loved the lack of decorum.”
    • “We’re in store for a quadruple train wreck after the election.”
    • “Trump has no moral compass.”
    • “Dr. Fauci says that Trump is obsessed with one thing and that’s to be re-elected.”

My Magnificent Seven

‘Tis the season to be grateful, and this theme is coloring my every thought. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the benefit I get from writing thank you notes and letters. Now I’m thinking about people for whom I have no words to adequately express how grateful I am that they held me close and gave me what I needed when I needed it following the passing of my husband, Charles, in 2019.

First, I’m so very grateful for my family who held me close as we squeezed one another tightly in an effort to shield one another from the pain of our loss. Words can’t express how much I appreciate them for all they do to make it all tolerable.

Next, I’m so very grateful for all the friends and colleagues who let me know in one way or another that they had me in their thoughts, especially around special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

Neighbors Stan, Gail, and Tosh stood at the ready for the mundane and not-so-mundane needs. They epitomize what a good neighbor is like.

Without Carly, a gifted high school student, I would never have gotten the messages about Charles’ passing out to friends and family.

I gave my friend, Jackie Woods, who we lost this past July, the moniker, “my wiki,” because she helped me find my way from here to there in a new location. I didn’t have to experience everything for myself; she showed me what to look for, and what to avoid, and where to find anything that I might ever need.

I’m so grateful for Kevin Kruger, Stephanie Gordon, Olivia Jones, and Zafer Bebek, who shared their love by using their relative youth and strength to do some of the hard stuff of putting a huge dent in clearing a house and garage of many years of accumulations.

Then there are the “Magnificent Seven,” to whom I’m forever ransomed because of the lifeline they gently pushed out to me. In alpha order, these are the modern-day saints who exemplified what I can only aspire to be to a friend in need. 

Paulette Dalpes had no time—just hours to spare—and yet, she flew across the country to be with me  and to help me to jumpstart what I needed to do to begin my move from East to West. There were many errands to run, and I was not in a good place to drive. She chauffeured me hither and yon, never losing her upbeat attitude as I was no help in finding my way. Critically, she helped me take the first step by taking me to Home Depot—a place quite foreign to me—to get tape, boxes, and other packing materials. I thought I could work alongside her to make boxes until the tape gun that I was using took over and wrapped me up so I couldn’t move. She disentangled me and showed me what I could do instead of making boxes. Because of her, my personal journals were not abandoned to the trash heap like so many other papers and notebooks. She took great care in packing and labelling them so they would not be lost among all the moving boxes. It was during this period of loss that I stopped keeping my journals. Instead of writing my journals before going to bed, I talked on the phone with Paulette.

For Lin Eagan, no task was too large or too small, and no time was inconvenient when I needed her to help me prepare the house for sale. She left her house guests on a Sunday to take stock of what I saw as an emergency. Before the final inspections for the house, she insisted that I move West, as planned, and she would take responsibility for anything that needed to be done following the inspection. From touch-up paint to major issues, she took care of it all without any inclination that my house and I were a royal pain.

Shannon Ellis kept in contact with me throughout, and let me know that I could call on her any time and she would drop everything and fly across country to help me. Just knowing this gave me the strength to keep moving forward. When I needed help with business concerns that had always been taken care of by Charles, she gamely volunteered her husband to be my adviser. The gesture reminded me of how I used to volunteer Charles to do things for friends and acquaintances. She is a strong woman who assured me that I was strong, too, and would do what I needed to do to keep moving forward.

Deb Long was always at the ready to lend a hand, whether in the kitchen or at my desk. I would never have exercised so consistently if she had not been waiting for me to go to Zumba or take a long walk in the mornings. Her immediate and constant companionship were invaluable. She even shopped in her own closet for me when an emergency appearance caught me out-of-season as I waited for the movers to bring my clothes from the East Coast. At least once a week, I had a healthy meal because she would just show up at my door with food.

Jacki Moffi and her husband stood in line for hours at Verizon to return equipment for me, only to be told that the equipment wasn’t theirs and that Verizon had never heard of me. Suffice it to say that I no longer patronize that carrier. In the final moments of my life in Maryland, Jacki was the magic lady. After the movers, after the folks to whom I’d given many items, after trash handlers had gone, I discovered—on the last day before my flight West—that there were many items that had been overlooked or missed in the packing. These were not things that I could trash, such as a sentimental set of china, and yet I couldn’t leave them in the house. I called Jacki on a Sunday morning. I don’t know what I said, but she said, “Don’t worry, I’m on my way.” By the end of the day, like magic, problem solved.  

If it were not for Caryn Musil, I would have no books from the extensive library that Charles and I had stocked over the years. There would be not one file from the five file cabinets of folders that I had painstakingly made following my retirement. She worked tirelessly packing these things. Because we were partners on a consulting job during this transition time for me, she was the listener over breakfast and dinner as I coped with my loss. All of these women and my family were wonderful supporters and listeners, but Caryn was with me on the train, at our hotel, at every meal for days at a time. Because she and her husband have been married the same amount of time as Charles and me, she had a deep understanding of what I might be experiencing. Despite my stiff upper lip, my faith, and my façade of being all right, this poem that she wrote for me broke my heart:

The Fullness of Absence

Losing a husband who has been part of one’s life for nearly six decades
Is like trying to see with one eye,
Clap with one hand,
Hug with one arm.

You are not, but you feel as if you walk with a limp.

You begin to talk aloud to yourself expecting him to chime in,
Pose a question anticipating he will answer,
Need a flight scheduled but your AA is on vacation, and you
Long to be able to bicker about a small irritant that always caused sparks.

You smile as if in a mirror that has no reflection, 
You move ever so slightly to the side of the bed where you used to find added warmth.
His soap remains in its appointed place in the shower, a revered totem to mark a loss.

His. Presence is everywhere, all the time, because of his absence.
The emptiness is felt because fullness was experienced,
Indulgently, lavishly, with abandon, decade after decade.

Your heart hurts in its brokenness, but it defiantly continues to pump.
Oxygen courses through your blood vessels reminding you he once made your heart race.
The pulsing rhythm calls you to move on, live on, because of the fullness 
His absence commemorates.

Jane Spalding carried out her role as a friend as if it were a job for which she was being paid. She had a long drive to my house and, despite the rush-hour traffic, she always arrived by 8:00 every morning during the week we pushed to clear the house. She was there until evening, sorting, packing, telling me what to do next, and being my advocate with the contractors, the movers, and anyone else with whom I had to deal with. She was like the Secret Service protecting me from any source of danger. When I had to be away for appointments, she stayed at the house continuing to work and to respond to anything that might arise. She had good resources and always knew how to make a way out of no way. She epitomized the Guardian Angel that we all wish we had at one time or another.

These cryptic notes convey just a few of the gifts that these women who make up my “Magnificent Seven” gave me when I didn’t know what I needed until they gave it to me.

I’m filled with gratitude for all those who have filled my life with their generosity of spirit.

What is learning? Lessons that stick when everything else is forgotten

The habits that seem to really stick—whether for celebrities or just plain ordinary folks—often come from lessons learned from parents, grandparents, or other elders during one’s formative years.

I’m no different. I can’t believe the dumb things that I do or don’t do because of lessons so ingrained in who I’ve become:

  • I try hard not to cry in front of people because I still remember hearing, “No, no, no, no, crying will make you ugly!”
  • I won’t keep the best for myself and leave the rest for everybody else, ever since being told when I turned five, “All right, if you don’t want the other children to have any of the flowers, you’re going to have to eat every last one of them yourself.” What seemed like a victory was anything but one as I can still taste the bitterness of the dye in the pretty flowers that were on my birthday cake. Perhaps in part because of this experience, I didn’t grow up selfish.
  • I try not to get in physical fights because my Daddy warned me that if I lost the fight, he would kill me himself.
  • I never assume that I can just take something without asking permission because I remember clearly this warning: “Don’t even take a straw out of a broom that does not belong to you.”
  • After Miss Alice, our neighbor, whipped her boys, Jesse and Curtis, and my Grandmother looked for some green twigs that wouldn’t break when she switched my skinny little legs, I learned not to show little boys what was in my underpants and I didn’t want to see what was in theirs.
  • A constant reminder of the need to secure my own financial security came from my mother when she would sing: “Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.”
  • It’s not easy to just sit and relax without getting up every few minutes to do something because my Grandmother would say to my Grandfather: “There is always something to do, even if it’s just nailing a nail into the wall and pulling it out.”

As anyone can see, it’s not the profundity of these lessons that make them stick. For me, it was the timing—the teachable moment.  

Gratitude

“You would have more time to get other things done if you didn’t write so many thank you notes and letters,” said Joan, my wise administrative assistant in the 1980s.

While reviewing notebooks and journals I’ve kept over the years, I am amazed at the number of times I noted that I was writing a thank you to someone for something or other. For example, shortly after my retirement as NASPA executive director in 2012, I took a trip as part of the association’s exploration of offering professional development to those who provided student services in some of the universities in China.

I was in Shanghai at the Renaissance Hotel after having travelled to several other cities in China when I reviewed my meeting notes and made a list of the people with whom I had met during this visit. My list included 27 names and pertinent information to help me recall who the people were and the occasion of our coming together. These were the people to whom I would be sending thank you letters upon my return to the United States.

When I wrote the letters, the ones that made me smile the most were the ones I wrote to “unofficial” people, such as the exuberant young women students who met me at some station or harbor in pouring rain carrying a bouquet of flowers that were the worse for wear after being drenched by the rain.

As I look back on what was a time-consuming and, to me, necessary chore of writing so many notes of gratitude over the course of my life, I realize that I likely benefitted more from writing these missives of appreciation than the recipients who might have given my message a cursory review at best.

In order to write the message, I had to recall the location, the interaction, and the result of the meeting. I could relive the pleasantness of the moments. Often, there are so many distractions and emotions present during encounters—whether with people we’ve just met, day-to-day colleagues, or long-time friends and family—that keep us from appreciating what is happening in real time. Recalling the experience in quiet contemplation, we can tease out the wonder of the gift of having made this unique human contact. I’m grateful for these memories and writing to express my gratitude on so many occasions has been well worth the “costs” in time and effort.

The Beauty of Memory

Before Alex Haley’s Roots captured our attention and ushered in family reunions, funerals had been the impetus for our family to come together. Though painful to lose loved ones, the grief was always eased by the abundance of humor. We are a family that can find something to laugh about in just about any situation.

When the family would get together and start “lying” on one another and showing no mercy to the victim of the moment, someone would bring up “the fire.” The aunt, uncle or cousin who told the story would also mimic the action, such as running, and would be laughing so hard that they could hardly finish what they were saying. The funniest part of the story was how fast my mother—“Muhdear,” to me—was running down Hollywood Street away from the burning house. The storyteller would say that she out-ran the fire truck.

After tears from laughter were wiped from cheeks, somebody would recall that my grandmother’s sister had run back into the burning house, found me in the bed in the front room, grabbed me by the ankle, and pulled me to safety.

What really happened?

Me: Muhdear, how old was I when our house at 494 S. Hollywood burned down?

Muhdear: You were four-and-a-half years old. Your birthday was in July, and the fire was in December 1948.

Me: I thought I was about that age. I don’t know what I remember about the fire and what I heard people say about the fire. Muhdear, can I ask you a question? Did you leave me in the burning house and run down the street?

Muhdear (in her own words): I had planned to save my new suits to wear Christmas, but I decided to wear the navy suit and the navy shoes the Sunday before Christmas. When Mama asked me why I was wearing the suit before Christmas, I told her that I had a feeling that if I did not wear the suit on that Sunday, I would never be able to wear it.

I had put two snow suits for you, one blue and one pink, in the lay away, and I had put two suits for myself in the lay away—one navy and one gray. I also bought two pairs of shoes to wear with the suits. The suits were $140 each on sale and the shoes were $32 each on sale. These were good clothes that really looked sharp on me. I had the money because the Christmas savings club had divided up the money that we had all been saving.

This was going to be the happiest Christmas I had ever experienced. I bought the record, “Merry Christmas Baby,” and hummed it all the time. Every inch of the house had some decoration about Christmas and there were new covers on the furniture. The house looked great. We were all in good health, and I was happy that there was no man in my life.

It was December 18, 1948, when one of my Mama’s brothers, his wife, and their children came up from Mississippi where they were sharecropping to spend the Christmas holidays with us and our other relatives in Memphis. The children were excited to be away from home, and they squealed when they saw anything that they had not seen before. Despite their running and screaming, I went to sleep. There were pallets of blankets and sheets all around on the floor for everyone to have a place to sleep.

You were sleeping with me, and you woke me up and said, “Muhdear, I want to go wee wee.” I told you not to be scared of all the people in the house. You should just go through the room where the kids were and wee wee in the slop jar on the other side of Mama and Daddy’s bed and come right back. You came right back and told me that the children were in the other room playing with matches. As it turned out, the children were sticking paper into a space heater and when they heard grown-ups approaching, they threw the lighted paper into the closet and the fire was out of hand immediately.

Somehow, I got you to safety in a fire truck, and I was trying desperately to get my new shoes out of the burning house. My navy shoes were just inside the door where I had slipped them off when I came in earlier that night. Lucy Turner, our next-door neighbor, ran out of her house with her mink coat and her alligator shoes. The neighborhood had just gotten gas, and Lucy Turner was running and yelling for people to get out because the gas was going to explode. When I heard this, I started running too. Folks teased me later saying that I was outrunning the fire truck. I was really scared that there would be an explosion.

When folks calmed me down by assuring me that there was not going to be a gas explosion, I looked for you. During all the confusion, your daddy and his wife had come for you and took you home with them. I was grateful. We all had to find a place to stay. Mama and Daddy stayed two doors down at Miss Nanny’s. She owned the only little eating place and sundry in the neighborhood. I stayed with a co-worker named Augusta from Airways Cleaners, where I was now working.

Me: Wow! I’m sure that was a really scary time. I do remember being cold and I think I was in the fire truck for a while before my Daddy came for me. So how did the story about Aunt Lady grabbing me by the ankle and saving me from the fire at the last minute come about?

Muhdear: That wasn’t you. One of your cousins was still asleep on the couch and he was grabbed from the house just before the roof collapsed.

As Muhdear looks off into the distance taking herself back to that night, in my mind I’m playing the investigator as if a crime has been committed: Got me to safety, trying desperately to get the navy shoes, and out-running the fire truck all at the same time the fire is raging. Huh?

If she says this is what happened, this is what happened. This is the beauty of memory. It’s ours and ours alone.