Author Archives: gwendungy

Why

Two weeks ago, Buffalo
Two days ago, Uvalde

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Why are active shooter attacks increasing?
Why does this keep happening?
Why can’t we stop this?
Why do people kill?
Why is enough not enough?

Why do all the questions begin with WHY!

Beaches

Beaches are on my mind. The one constant for me about beaches is that my loving Charles was always with me when I was on them. Our first beach together was in Acapulco when we were on our honeymoon. We visited various other beaches in places such as Nassau, Nice, St. Croix, St. Martin, Hawaii, Jordan, and several beaches in Florida. Stone Harbor at the Jersey Shore was our favorite.

Some of my favorite things at the beach—in addition to the sand, sun, and water—were sipping the varied piña coladas, reading books that had piled up on my bedside table, and eating the kinds of sweets and snacks that were forbidden in other settings.

When I would tire of reading, I would ask Charles questions about himself that, when he would answer, never failed to elicit some new information about the man with whom I was spending my life. On some occasions, we would share our fantasies and dreams about the future, while other times we would reminisce together. Recollections beginning with “remember when” tended to elicit a lot of laughter. The memory was usually about some embarrassing moment that was not funny at the time but oh-so-hilarious now.

As Charles and I sat side-by-side, there would be long stretches of time when, in complete silence, we just stared at the water. As I looked out over the water, I usually felt a deep sense of humility. Everything was aligned and put into perspective through no effort of my own.

When we were on the beach, it seemed as if we were alone in our own world even though surrounded by people up and down the shore. This was our time to be easily and naturally fully engaged with one another without expectations or distractions. It was just us.

It was on the beaches where I felt most emotionally intimate with my life partner. It’s hard to articulate the specifics of bliss, but the contentment and happiness I felt during our time on the beaches was about as close to bliss as I’ve ever been.

 I miss having time at the beach with Charles.

A Very Good Summer

Summer 1999

It was a very good summer. All the stars aligned. Good vibes all around. I recorded specific encounters and activities in my journal and found that most journal entries ended with some acknowledgement of how fortunate I felt to have my family, friends, and colleagues. In retrospect, I wonder if the events are what made it a good time or if my attitude helped me to see the positive in some situations that could have been interpreted differently if I had not been working on a personal challenge.

I challenged myself to be deliberate and intentional in practicing graciousness and respect during encounters, especially when my instinct might be to push back. My challenge to myself was like a New Year’s resolution or a change in behavior that some implement at the beginning of the Lenten season. I wanted to experiment with how I might be able to change my experience by changing the orientation of my mind.    

I determined that I would look for opportunities to honor the basic goodness in others and act without rancor when negativity invaded my space.

I had several opportunities to try out my experiment during the summer of 1999. One   opportunity was during a professional development program being run jointly by my organization and another on a campus in the Northeast. Our team of facilitators was excellent, and I made no journal entry indicating that there was any friction among colleagues.

My opportunity to implement my personal challenge came instead from an encounter with a woman who was working at the cash register in the dining facility of the host college. I noticed that unlike most people who might have an occasional bad day, this person seemed to be having a bad day every day. In my journal notes, I describe her as impatient, unfriendly, and rude. One morning, when this woman’s supervisor (who was always kind and smiling) was near, I praised the worker at the cash register for her patience with us because it had to be frustrating when visitors didn’t know or follow the processes that made everything go smoothly. Within earshot of the supervisor, in a teasing manner, I commented that this worker should receive a bonus for having to put up with us.

A change in attitude was immediate. By lunchtime that same day, the once unfriendly woman appeared to be in a much better mood. On subsequent days, when I was not in her line, she would give me a smile and a nod across the way. On our final morning in the dining hall, my new friend came to the table where colleagues and I were having breakfast to wish all of us a safe trip home. I recorded this episode in my journal because I was so moved by the power of honoring the positive and basic goodness in others especially when the first instinct is to respond in kind.

Family ties were strong. My skills were stretched and appreciated. Travel for my work was exciting. And, when there were mishaps and possibilities for negativity, I harkened back to my challenge and reframed the situation. The summer of 1999 was a very good summer.

“Gift” Unto Others

Perhaps you, like me when hearing certain songs, conjure memories of what you were doing when you first heard the song. 

When I hear a recording of Barbara Streisand singing Secondhand Rose, I see myself in a small café where the noise of the el trains is so ubiquitous that no one notices it.  

During a break from college, I was at home in Chicago. My priority was to get a job—any job. I saw a classified ad in the newspaper for a waitress position, and that’s how I ended up working in a White, working-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

The man in charge of hiring questioned me about whether I was one of those college students just looking for a summer job. He said that he didn’t want to hire somebody who was going to be gone in a short period of time. I could understand his position and that is why I pondered whether I should tell the whole truth and ruin my chances of getting a job or rationalize telling a lie because if I didn’t get a job, I most likely would not be returning to college.

After the lie about my status, I was hired as a dishwasher. This was something I had experience doing. It was during the times when I was washing dishes that Streisand was singing Secondhand Rose. Hearing her was like being with a friend.

Occasionally, I received a reprieve from dirty dishes and could help the waitress. I was eager to pitch in for even a short while because I thought I might be able to get some tips.

One day, a group of men who were having their lunch break from their laborer’s jobs were laughing a lot. Being a Black woman, I assumed that they were having a laugh at my expense. I just kept Barbara’s beautiful voice and song in my head and continued to clean tables, all the while keeping alert in case customers needed anything.

I recall that I was deliberately attentive and courteous to the “happy” men because I thought that if they noticed how attentive I was, they might leave a tip. When the laughing men left, I went to clear their table.

The tip was one thin dime. I felt anger and hurt. I wished that they had left without what I saw as a mocking gesture. I felt demeaned. I understand and believe that it is not the gift that counts, it’s really the intention and thought that matters. The thought and intention were clear to me. I believed that the paucity of the “gift” symbolized these strangers’ measurement of my worth and the intention was not to reward me for service but to put me down.

My feelings associated with that experience have made me sensitive to what I think others might feel upon receiving a gift that does not reflect a sense of authentic caring. That’s why I think that you ought to gift unto others as you would have them gift unto you or don’t gift at all.

Becoming With One Another

Is it too late for us to see one another as good neighbors? Is there anything that will make us honor and value one another?

Optimists used to think that extreme threats would bring people together in harmony and mutual caring. Now they might not be so sure. Since 2019, the entire world has endured a potential life-ending threat and during that time, rather than bringing people closer, the schisms and reasons to separate have become more apparent. The threat itself became a cause for disunity and separation.

Witnessing the failure of a pandemic to make us mortals live together in harmony, one might think that even “the really big one,” such as a catastrophic earthquake, would not make a dent in softening the hard hearts of many people who have staked out their position on every conceivable topic.

A metaphorical earthquake is occurring all around us when voices escalate over ideological conflicts, when citizens arm themselves with lethal weapons, and when states roll back laws protecting civil rights. It’s no wonder that people get drawn in and fixate over TMZ-brand news, reality shows, soap operas, and other distractions that “stream” into our homes.

When I attempt a philosophical perspective on how people treat one another, I come back to a thought I’ve had for many years. That idea is that we are part of each other’s becoming. What I experience from you is only a part of the equation. My reaction to what you initiated completes the formula. Your behavior toward me and how I react determine how both of us are growing into or away from our ability to live as social beings. What if we purposed to become each other’s foil in our quest at becoming? Then our principal role would be to help those we encounter to become the best that they can be.

We’re all works in progress tasked with learning how to value our connections. It’s not too late for us. However, the impetus for honoring and valuing one another is not outside of us. The motivation comes from us. We know what the right thing is. We just have to do it. One person at a time.

What Brings You Joy?

If you knew that you were living your final earthly days, barring any physical or mental disabilities that would prevent you from doing what you desire, how would you spend the time you have left?

Giving the question serious thought after watching the film Don’t Look Up, I rejected a host of what I considered cliché or stereotypical answers. I let the question hang without a conclusion.    

Shortly after these ruminations, a good friend and I were Zoom chatting about the world in general and especially about our emotional reactions to the horrors occurring in Ukraine. To change the subject and move to a more cheerful topic, my friend asked what brought me joy. Unlike the struggle I experienced when considering how I would want to spend my last days, I was able to articulate what brought me joy without hesitation.

In that moment, I realized that what brought me joy was how I want to spend my precious time near the end.

For some time now, without the conscious intention of preparing for my final act, I have taken note of my life’s journey through photos, video recordings, and journal writing. The happy memories provoked by these treasures bring me joy. They nourish me as I live in memory. The happy memories are what I want when I’m completing my journey. 

What brings you joy?

KBJ: Portrait of Black Women

The inane and insulting questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee about critical race theory, her sentencing record, transgender women in sports, and on and on were unable to crack the composure of The Honorable Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the hearings to approve her for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though she maintained judicious silence despite the barrage of questions and statements that impugned her integrity as a judge, I imagine that the hardest minutes and most difficult moments of the hearings were the 19 minutes and 23 seconds of Senator Cory Booker’s emotional and passionate comments about her capabilities and worthiness for the role as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

As I focused on her face, I realized that she was the portrait of all Black women. As she listened to Sen. Booker praise her for her “grit, grace, and extraordinary demeanor,” she kept her composure. It was when the senator began to speak about her family that a light was shone on this portrait of Black women.

Notwithstanding the one time she allowed herself to smile when the senator said something humorous, she held frozen the muscles of her face. She pressed her lips together and folded them inside her mouth as we Black women often do when we want to suppress our voice. However, her clasped hands could not keep her thumbs from agitating one over the other as they smoothed and soothed her skin. My heart broke when uninvited her tears started to roll down her face as she sat unmoving all the while experiencing an earthquake inside her body and mind.  

I don’t know how she will rule as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and I may not agree with all of her opinions, but I agree with Senator Booker that she is “[our] star and harbinger of hope.” She, perhaps more than any other prominent Black woman today, is the embodiment of all of us who put a burden on ourselves to maintain composure in the face of disrespect and efforts to make us feel unworthy and less than.

Unsung Hero

One of my happiest memories was when my mother and I studied together. I was in high school and she was working days and attending Marion Business College on Madison Avenue in Chicago in the evenings. It was quite a hike on foot, but she made the trip with a spring in her step. She wanted to acquire secretarial skills in order to be qualified for an office job.

To study, we would close the door to the kitchen to lessen the sound of the television in the living room. In my memory, my grandparents were always watching the western, Gunsmoke.

Sometimes my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table next to a cold radiator because, more often than not, there was no heat. This inconvenience did not deter us from studying, however.

We would turn on the gas for the stove, strike a match, and light the oven. We would keep the oven door open to try to keep warm.  When it was too cold to study in the kitchen even with the oven door open, we would take our books to my mother’s bed and wrap ourselves in blankets and enjoy the warmth of our shared body heat. Rather than complain about the cold, we sometimes would exaggerate the chatter of our teeth when we tried to talk and laugh so hard that our eyes would water.   

Muhdear, as my siblings and I called our mother, was her best self when she was learning. She was excited about learning the Gregg Method of shorthand. I would quiz her by reading sample passages typically used in a business office and she would rapidly transcribe them into shorthand. I was fascinated at how easily and quickly she learned. She was so smart.

This photo of her as she exited the school with her certificate of completion captures her joy of achievement against so many odds.

I am so proud of her.