Category Archives: faith

Compartmentalizing Disrespect

By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.

You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.

Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.

You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.

You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.

During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.

It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.

At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?

Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.

You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter Aligns with Mars

Back then, our generation was consumed by the layperson’s minimal knowledge of astrological sun signs. Sun signs played a role in determining who would be our best friends, who was the best person to date, and who might be a good prospect for marriage. “What’s your sign?” was the question most frequently asked when young people spent any amount of time together. Instant assumptions were made about the essential character and compatibility of the person depending on their answer to that simple question.

Astrology was not only our guide for determining compatibility with others, it could also be useful when making decisions about fashion and home décor. When choosing among options, the colors associated with the sun signs of the zodiac were sometimes deciding factors.   

For example. our first house was one of ten houses on a dead-end street. In choosing to buy this house, we might have noted that it was a brown brick, like the earth for stability. For a small house, there were a lot of windows. Windows and light were something to love, but the window coverings were another story. Impressed with the wooden window blinds, we were disappointed when we realized that the dingy yellow of the blinds would not return to white even after scrubbing them with bleach and cleanser and using a considerable amount of elbow grease. Without easy alternatives, we made the bold decision to paint the blinds. But what color?  Sky blue was the choice because it was always associated with positive traits, astrologically speaking.

Our baby’s room was a sunny yellow, purported to reflect the joy and happiness of people born under the sun sign Gemini. In line with the Gemini character, the crib and chests were bold and cheerful in orange and white. The tops and sides of the chests were orange, and the drawers were white with orange pull knobs. We were so proud of our little nest and over the moon with our baby. I thought that leaning over the sides of his crib softly singing, “Good morning star shine, the earth says ‘Hello.’ You twinkle above us, we twinkle below” was the best way to start the little angel’s day.

In 1969, Good Morning Star Shine and other songs from the Broadway musical Hair were the catechisms and prayers on the lips of our generation. We were spiritually struck by, and literally infected with, the songs from the musical. Many people knew the lyrics to all the songs and, even though we lived on a shoestring, we bought the album and played it over and over again.

The song everyone recognized from Hair was Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In. The feelings evoked by the song confirmed our alignment with the universe and with humanity. During the turbulent war-torn times and political schisms of the late 1960s, all laced with violence and brutality, this song, in the opinions of many of the young, was one way to imagine all of humanity on the same page. Singing in unison with the singers on the recordings was liberating and hopeful at a time when we, as young people, felt constrained and misunderstood.

Astrology was one thing we could trust and believe in. When we didn’t always live up to our own expectations or those of others, we didn’t have to take full responsibility for our shortcomings because some things were pre-ordained according to our sun sign. According to our astrological sun signs, we all had parts that we might not boast about, but there were always the good parts that we could hold onto when we needed a boost. We could always choose to see ourselves in the best and most flattering descriptors of our sun sign. The balance in the descriptions made us whole.

Though it sometimes felt as if fate had dealt us a bad hand, we had faith that one day “when the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”

Our Story, Our Song, Part 2: The Black Church in Chicago

(read pt. 1: Our Story, Our Song)

After living in Memphis with my Daddy, his wife, and my baby brother for several years, my Daddy sent me back to Chicago at the age of 12 to be with my mother and her family.

In Memphis, the two Black churches I knew were large, elegant, traditional religious structures in which members could feel a sense of pride. The first church I experienced in Chicago was a “storefront church” on the West Side of Chicago. It was on Fulton street surrounded by manufacturing industries and crisscrossed by “L” trains.

On my first visit to this storefront church, I thought it was not a real church because of its name and how it looked. There was a large showcase window to the right of the entrance with the name of the church painted on it. It read “West End Baptist Church.”

I soon came to realize that what West End Baptist Church lacked in traditional religious ambiance, it made up for in the religious fervor and dedication of its small and loyal congregation. Because of the loyalty of members such as my family who scraped together money, the congregation was able to rent a space shortly after my arrival in Chicago in a modest “real church” structure a few blocks away on the same street.

To say that my family was very involved in the church is an understatement.  My grandfather was on the Deacon Board and the Usher Board; my grandmother was in the choir and on the Mother Board; my mother was in the choir and the “poet laureate;” and I was in the choir. On Saturdays, my grandfather and I cleaned the church.

Some of the most exciting times at church were the Sunday afternoons when another church would visit. The choir, minister, and some of the members would represent their church. It was really fun when more than one church visited because it was like the battle of the choirs as each choir would have an opportunity to sing its best songs before the minister began the sermon. While I claim not to have any artistic talent now, I was quite proud of the banners I made to welcome visiting churches. Our dining room and car never seemed to be free of the glitter I used for my creations.  

On one occasion when West End Baptist Church was hosting visiting churches, the person who usually gave the formal welcome to visiting churches was not available. Since my mother was the resident poet who wrote poems for every special occasion, reciting them from memory most of the time, the thinking was that I, her daughter, should be able to give the “Welcome Address,” as it was called on the program. Apparently, the welcome I gave met expectations and, from that day forward, I was the most frequent designee to welcome visiting churches.

This storefront church challenged children in many ways. Church members were the encouraging audience for whatever any child wanted to try. The members praised my tacky welcome banners and responded to my welcome addresses as if they were something special. They gave me the courage to keep doing what I didn’t believe I could do. And, as challenges became successful efforts, my faith in myself and something bigger than myself continued to grow.

Our Story, Our Song

I recently watched “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” a PBS documentary that creator and narrator Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes as a message of “race and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing.” 

Indeed, my Black churches revealed me to myself. They helped me to see who I was in relation to others. They showed me models of women I could strive to emulate. They challenged me and gave me the opportunity to try. They gave me the concept of faith as an enduring value.

The first church I remember is Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, TN. My mother and her parents loved this church. It was the first church they joined after leaving the Mississippi Delta. To see how they dressed and the sophisticated manner in which they carried themselves when they attended this church, one would not believe that it had been only five or so years since they had been sharecroppers.

In addition to Sunday services and other religious programs and meetings, the church was also the meeting place for charitable fraternities such as the Masons of which my grandfather was a proud member. My grandmother and mother were members of the women’s counterpart to the Masons, The Eastern Star, to which they were dedicated and seemed to be always involved in raising money for one cause or another.

The “Royal Court”

One of these fundraisers was a pageant where a little girl was crowned princess and a little boy prince depending on how much money their sponsors raised. My most vivid memory of Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church is the night of the pageant when I was six years old. I remember being sleepy and my folks kept me awake so I could be in the pictures that would be taken that night. Apparently, my folks had not raised enough money for me to be the princess, but I was part of the royal court standing next to the princess and prince. Being in the royal court and not the princess may have been the first experience that made an imprint about who I was in relation to others.

The other Black church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis I became familiar with was Mount Pisgah Church, where Miss Bailey attended. Miss Bailey had a standing taxi appointment for my Daddy to pick her up early in the morning to take her to work. I think she was a nurse. I could tell that my Daddy respected her a lot, and he asked her if I could go to church with her on some Sundays when he picked her up to take her to church.

Miss Bailey was a kind lady who had manners, dressed nicely, carried herself in what people called a “dignified manner,” and seemed to have the respect of all who knew her. I felt good standing next to her in church with hymn book in hand singing “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” “Blessed Assurance,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and my favorite song, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Singing these songs and being in the presence of Miss Bailey, though I was only nine years old, I could feel the love of God, and I knew that Miss Bailey was the type of woman that I wanted to be.

The Black Church is, indeed, “our story, our song.”

(Next Week: The Black Church in Chicago)

The Excitement and Curiosity of Having “No Plans”

Retirement is one of those events that some look forward to with eager anticipation while others feel sad about the prospect.  Then there are some—like me—who don’t experience either of these thoughts or emotions.

On February 22, 2012, about a month before I officially retired from NASPA, I wrote the following in my journal:

As I get nearer to the final days at NASPA, I feel no sadness. I feel satisfaction and pray that all continues to prosper with the organization.

On March 1, 2012, I wrote:

I don’t think I’m going to miss my role. I just want to keep doing something that is meaningful to move our world forward. I want to add my part, fulfill my purpose, live up to my potential.

These were goals for my life. I had no plans for what I would do in retirement.  

Being without the responsibility of a job and having no reason to get up, to get dressed, and to leave the house would be a little like a free fall. I had to rely on my faith that without these routines and trappings of identity, I would still be able to maintain confidence in myself and optimism about my future.

As I dropped through the space of what could be a professional void, unexpected safety nets and lifelines afforded me a soft landing in the field of retirement after my last day as NASPA Executive Director on March 30, 2012. At the same time as I was consulting, facilitating workshops, and making speeches (see boxed list), I was working on writing projects with 2012 deadlines and organizing and filing a career’s worth of papers and notes at home.

What gave me the energy to follow through on the activities and experiences I had during the year that I “retired” was my excitement and curiosity about the experiment of having “no plans.”

Since this experiment, I’ve stopped making New Year’s resolutions and I’ve begun each year with optimism and “no plans.”

  • 4/15-16: Indiana State University
  • 4/18: Skype with master’s class, DePaul University
  • 4/25: in person with graduate class, University of Maryland, College Park
  • 5/21-29: China on behalf of NASPA
  • 6/4: Taylor University in Indiana
  • 6/19-23: Portland State University
  • 7/9: conference, Los Angeles
  • 7/28: conference, Manhattan
  • 7/30-8/3: University of Vermont
  • 8/16: University of Southern California
  • 8/30-9/1: Evergreen State University
  • 9/17-19: California State University, Fullerton
  • 9/18: Skype with graduate students, Colorado State University
  • 9/19-21: conference, Washington, DC
  • 9/30: Skype with graduate students, Oregon State University
  • 10/16-17: Berkeley College, New York City
  • 10/19: conference, Baltimore
  • 11/1-2: Wake Forest University
  • 11/18-19: conference, Hawaii

Pushing on…

Despite intermittent squalls, heavy rains, and poor visibility, students, faculty, staff, and administrators push on in preparing for what used to be the beginning of the traditional academic year.

Why students push on

To increase their learning, which contributes to the development of the means to challenge the fairness of the distribution of power and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of the promise in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Why faculty push on

To provide learners the opportunity to develop critical-thinking tools in order to discern for themselves whether or not there is a systematic plan to stratify people into groups where some are always the most needy.

Why professional staff push on

To provide the environment in which students have the opportunity to create experiences that will help them develop the skills to speak up about inequities and lead communities in public problem solving so necessary for a democracy.

Why support staff push on

To provide the safety net of strong, sometimes invisible, sinews that hold the academic community together.

Why administrators push on

To demonstrate strong leadership in turbulent times because our hope is in a new generation of leaders who can help the nation move toward the fulfillment of the promise in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

 

The Pain and Pride of Coming Through Hardship

One fact that we can all agree on is that we are in an economic and financial downturn with Depression-level unemployment rates triggered by the pandemic. In addition to the current hardships for so many, a consequence of this experience will be how it changes the way many will view their relationship with money now and on into the future. For example, it’s not hard to imagine that your future children or grandchildren will rationalize your excessive frugalness as a result of your experience during this time.

My mother told me many stories about how hard it was for her and her parents during the Great Depression. I remember one being especially sad. My mother was five years old in 1929 – a year often associated with the Great Depression – and my grandparents were a struggling young couple.

They had been sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta before the Depression and had done well enough to move from the farm to the city of Clarksdale. Their relatives had done well in finding jobs in the city and my mother’s parents had high hopes that they would also find jobs. They were eager to put farm work behind them.

Their plan was to live with a relative until they could, so to speak, get on their feet. Shortly after their move to Clarksdale, the depths of the Depression were being felt by the entire country and jobs that black people used to be able to get were now occupied by white people. When my grandfather couldn’t even get a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), he “pulled cotton” to make just enough money to buy food.

When the weather became too cold to pull cotton, my grandfather became resigned to the fact that he would have to find a farm where he could once again share crop. My mother said it was the “dead of winter” and they set out for the countryside walking and carrying all their belongings.

After knocking on a lot of doors, they found an old lady who was living alone. She welcomed them to move in with her. Shortly after moving in with the old lady, my grandfather became ill. He had always been asthmatic, but this illness was more severe than asthma alone. They were way out of town where there were no doctors and even if there were a doctor near, they had no money with which to pay.

My mother said that my grandmother tried everything she could to try to get my grandfather’s fever down and help him breathe. Indelible in my mother’s mind is what my grandmother did: She made a salve of Sloan’s liniment and Vick’s salve and rubbed it all over his chest, and then she covered his chest with a flannel cloth. She made a tea out of cow chips and the liniment and held him up so he could drink it while it was very hot. Then she gave him some pills called Red Devils.

While my grandfather was sick, the family ran completely out of food. The old lady they moved in with told them that there was a well-to-do farmer down the way who might help. My mother and grandmother went to the farmer for help, telling him about my grandfather’s illness and how, as a consequence, they had no food. The farmer gave them some food and told them that there was a corn field behind where he was living. The people who had planted the corn had moved away and did not gather it before winter. The farmer said they were welcome to gather all the corn they wanted and, if they shucked it and brought it back to him, he would take it to the mill and exchange it for food and other things they needed.

After wrapping their feet in grass sacks for extra protection, my mother, about six years old now, braved the snow and ice with my grandmother to return to the farm where the corn had not been harvested. They pulled enough corn to fill a large cotton sack that was so heavy that they had to drag it back to the house. My mother remembered that when they got back to the house freezing, she helped her mother lay the ears of corn on the floor in front of the fire so they could dry. After the corn dried out, they shucked it, put the ears in the big sack and took it to the farmer before filling the sack again with as many ears of corn as they could drag.

My mother said they felt lucky to have access to the corn and to be favored enough that the farmer would take the corn to the mill because some people were literally starving. The old lady with whom they were living had grown some turnip greens and, when she was ready to cook them, she had no lard. Ever resourceful when desperate times called for desperate measures, she used Blue Seal Vaseline as a substitute. My mother told me that they declined the greens cooked with Vaseline, but her mother did accept the turnip roots.

When my mother would tell me this anecdote about how tough times were, I could see in her face and hear in her voice both pain and pride. Pain in recalling the struggles so many people suffered then and the following many lean decades they endured after the Great Depression was “officially over.” Pride at the fact that she and her family had come through these times, and, in her mind, the better for it because their survival was proof of their faith and resilience.

If there is one common piece of advice survivors of the Great Depression might recommend, it is to always seek the long view when disruptions appear catastrophic in the microscopic lens of the moment lest we overinterpret the future impact of our experience and accept a destiny not worthy of our potential.

Ideal qualities of humanity on display

Being forced to stay put these days reminds me of the East Coast Blizzard of 1996, when Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia were declared disaster areas after more than two feet of snow was dumped over one weekend. After being snowbound a couple of days and optimistically believing our local weather forecasters that the storm was over, a lot of us ventured out to work with walls of snow surrounding us.

The bad news is that we were all sorry we had left the haven of our snowbound houses because many of us had to struggle mightily to get back home. The good news is that what I witnessed during my commute warmed my heart and gave me hope about us as a people. I was so moved by what I saw happening that I journaled the experience.

My commute required a metro subway and a train. On the first leg of my trip home to the Maryland suburbs after a fool’s errand to get to work in DC, a woman near me on the metro was squeezed in so tightly that she was almost sitting on a man’s lap while holding on to a stabilizing pole. When she apologized, he responded that he understood that she could not help it. (It was not possible for him to get up and give her the seat.) After about a minute, the woman who was hanging on just above the gentleman’s lap turned, smiled, and introduced herself to the gentleman and the woman sitting next to him. They smiled back, introduced themselves, and began to make small talk. They chatted easily as if they were at a social event. They were of different races and, judging from the manner in which they were dressed, probably did not live in similar neighborhoods.

Although we were patient as we invaded one another’s personal space, we were aware that the metro was taking much too long to move ahead from the station. After a while, there was an announcement regarding mechanical problems, which seemed to serve as a signal for people to settle in and begin conversations with one another. Chatting seemed to help because the crowding was paralyzingly tight. No one could move. As can be the case when there is a captive audience, some joker began shouting off-color jokes, and one brave passenger yelled that we didn’t want to hear what he had to say and that he should pipe down. As the joker quieted, the conversations resumed.

To our great disappointment, there was another announcement after some time that the train was out of service. With a collective groan we prepared to offboard. While we had been inside the disabled metro, more people had come to the platform and it was jam-packed when we squeezed off the metro. There was no room to push back behind the caution line, and many of us were dangerously close to the edge of the platform. Incoming trains were as packed as the one from which we had disembarked. Needless to say, none of us on the platform were getting on any of the approaching trains.

Did I mention how cold it was? It was freezing.

As I stood squeezed so tightly that I could not turn, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere behind me yell out the question, “Does anyone know how far we are from Union Station?” Several people yelled back that it was the next stop just four or five blocks. The woman who asked the question said, “It might be better to walk if we have to count on getting a train here.” Several people, as if they knew her, said that it was much too cold to walk the distance. Not facing the woman, I yelled out that I’d be glad to share a taxi if I could get back to the exit. She said, “Sure, let’s do it!”

My fellow commuters twisted and turned in their heavy coats, shifted their brief cases and bags, and helped me push through the crowd to the escalator where my anonymous taxi partner waited. We gamely took the escalator up out of the station, feeling proud of ourselves for our initiative.

When we emerged from underground, we were in a deserted Judiciary Square. We looked at one another and commented on how quiet it was. It was eerily like being in a ghost town – there were no cars nor people, but there was a whole lot of snow. It didn’t take long for us to realize that there would not be a taxi on these unplowed streets.

As we trudged through the deep snow, we realized that we didn’t know what direction to walk to get to Union Station. She was from Virginia and I was from Maryland, and we’d only taken trains to our destinations in DC. We hadn’t walked too far before a lone man passed us, and we asked directions to Union Station. We were so relieved when he pointed us in the right direction.

We walked single file, encouraging and helping one another as we slipped and fell a number of times on the way. We finally arrived at Union Station and embraced warmly, wishing one another safe travel home before parting for the second portion of our journeys on our respective trains.

Finally getting on a train, I didn’t mind the newest delay as a result of ice on the tracks. Just as before, I witnessed people spending the time in community. Two women sitting opposite one another struck up a conversation and realized that they both worked for the same large communications corporation. They talked about their career paths. A man I thought to be in the military said to the woman next to him, “You see that hat that woman up front is wearing? My daughter has one just like it.” He went on to tell this stranger a funny story about his daughter, who he described as an archaeologist who was beautiful and a really fine human being, just like her mother.

I listened to these conversations and was heartened because these people did not take their frustration out on one another. I was amazed at the amount of camaraderie among a diverse group of strangers. Although it was not a wise decision for any of us to have attempted the commute during this record-breaking blizzard, this experience was a break from being snowbound and isolated, and it was an opportunity to actually look at one another directly and engage one another in a basic human-to-human exchange. If I had to sum up the collective attitude, it seemed to be that all were of one mindset: “We’re all in this together, and there is no one to blame. Everybody is doing the best they can.”

The history that I want to recall is that disasters – regardless of the degree or kind – often pull people together in a manner that displays our ideal qualities of humanity. Like no other experience, disasters can promote a feeling of community and common identity in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.