Take a Chance

Journal Entry—Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Attended Reception for The Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor to hear reflections on her life in retirement, her current judicial and civic activities, and her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She was introduced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Event was sponsored by the Women’s Forum, Washington, DC.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor

From HarperCollins book cover: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.

What an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to be in a room in the Supreme Court building with the first and second women to ever serve on the court—Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively.

In her introduction, Justice Ginsburg said that the best advice Justice O’Connor gave her was: “Waste no time on regret or resentment—just get the job done; gain visibility and put on an impressive show.”

What is the job we want to get done?

 How will we go about gaining visibility in order to get that job done, and in what arena?

 What might our impressive show look like, and who would need to be impressed in order to get the job done?

 Will we take a chance on creating a new idea of who we are in order to live our life in service to what really matters to us?

Tomorrow Will Be Another World

We’re still in shock—and will be for a while. While there is no avoiding the effects of the pandemic of 2020, we should feel proud of ourselves because we have been exceptional in finding ways to adapt to what we hope is a temporary reality. We gamely say that what we’re experiencing now is “the new normal,” while hoping with all our heart that this is not true. We always hated clichés about how things always work out, and now we use them as salves to soothe ourselves and one another. We must admit, though, that coping with the present has given us some respite from thinking about the future.

But we know that—like a fast-moving train approaching the next station—we can’t hold back the future. Imagine this train as an old-fashioned one with conductors and porters responsible for accommodating passengers. On this imaginary train there is no hierarchy: conductors and porters all work together according to their strengths.

Wisely, the conductors and porters on this old-fashioned train understand that they need to create different teams to work on different aspects of their dilemma:

  • The first team focuses on adapting what always has been done to the current situation in order to make the transition as smooth as possible.
  • The second team creates best- and worst-case scenarios of what they may find when they reach the next station.
  • The third team has the biggest challenge. They are charged with creating a vision for a preferred future—a future that evolves from impossible dreams and high aspirations.

It is critical that this third team has the capacity to see the positive in the midst of all that seems to have gone wrong. They will use the cataclysmic disruption as leverage to make the kinds of fundamental change that they dared not dream of making in the past. In order to meet the realities of a future in which there are no models, they will make the assumption that processes and structures that led to equilibrium and success in the past are not useful in the new context.

Like us now, this team on the imaginary train barreling into the future, realizes that previous warnings and exhortations about not creating change pale in comparison to the opportunity this pandemic has given us to pursue the “what ifs,” the “why nots”, and the “this may sound crazy, buts…”.

It is possible, whatever our endeavor, that the 2020 pandemic—our ultimate test—is the catalyst that unleashes our creativity and ingenuity in pursuing a vision that will help us create the tomorrow that will be another world.

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.

Change: From the Ordinary to the Catastrophic

swaying sunflowers

It’s a Monday morning and a great day to begin a new exercise routine. After an hour-and-a-half of stretching and strength-building at home, I’m ready for a nice walk. I feel great and decide to take a new route. Stretched out in front of me on a slight incline is a new sidewalk flanked by small delicate sunflowers swaying in the breeze. As I pass others, some walking their dogs, either I or they walk into the street in order to increase the space between us. After an exhilarating experience, I return home feeling revived by the fresh air and sunshine. All is right in my world.

As I put my foot on the first step to go to my front door, I spontaneously scream in pain and grab the handrail as my knee buckles under me. With my eyes tightly shut, I just hang there, moaning in pain and wondering what happened.

This comparatively ordinary moment comes to mind when I read how some of the people affected by COVID-19 describe change:

“So much has changed so quickly . . .”

“Everything has changed in a manner of minutes—seconds”

“. . . changes so sudden that there is no time to adapt”

When life changes in an instant, we can’t consciously think about dichotomous options of fighting to keep things as they were or adapting to the change. What we do usually just evolves as we’re forced to acquiesce to the conditions in which we find ourselves.

We wait.

We adapt.

We hope.

Up close and personal…

I’m remembering previous times when everyone around me was frightened, but the scary thing was not up close and personal.

  • During the first years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, when we would hear the piercing siren sound, our teachers would direct us to quickly scramble under our tiny desks and to cover our head with our hands.
  • When the rain became an electrical storm, our teachers would urge us to move quickly and quietly into the cloak room where our little coats were hanging on low hooks. I remember covering my face with whatever coat I was near.
  • When I was at home and there was loud thunder and crackling lightning, my grandfather would turn out all of the lights, cover the mirrors, and tell us to be very quiet.

These were scary times, but they were not up close and personal.

It was the second month of my first semester in college and my roommate and I lay on our narrow beds facing one another listening to the radio and talking about what might happen because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would we die any moment because of what sounded like an impending nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union? We were frightened, but this was not up close and personal.

In October 2002, the “DC Sniper” randomly killed ten people and wounded four. Whether going to the grocery store, pumping gas, or walking on the sidewalk, there was fear that one could be gunned down any time without provocation or warning. I recall being so frightened that I actually did walk a zig zagging path down the sidewalk in DC in order to make it more difficult for the sniper to get a good shot. It looked crazy but it was a suggestion on how one might stay alive. Despite the generalized fear, this was not up close and personal.

Today, COVID-19 – or the Coronavirus – is up close and personal. The virus is likely the most impactful phenomenon that the people of the world have experienced, and its historic significance cannot be overstated. All of our lives are being touched in one way or another by the circumstances this pandemic has caused.

Because this pandemic is up close and personal, it is my hope that it will stimulate more compassion and selflessness when the first instinct might be something else.

 

 

Recontextualizing the story of women

Women have inherited a context in which race, class, and gender enter with them, treating them as if they’re guests in the house of opportunity that women before them paid for and left for them to build upon and expand. Some enter the house and find that they are prevented from going to the upper levels of the house because they couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. Others realize that they could not even stand up to their full height in the house because the ceiling of expectations was so low.

Although traveling different roads to get there, all women who enter the house have a story to tell. Women’s History Month 2020 is a good time for women to share these stories and to recontextualize the barriers that have prevented them from realizing their full potential. When women recontextualize the conditions and circumstances of their existence, race and gender can become strengths that stimulate a collective vigor to support and help each other succeed in all the houses they enter.

Women who came before cracked opened doors through which women who followed could squeeze. Because of the work of those who have come before, women today are obliged to ensure that there is no turning back, but a continuous reaching back to move the next woman forward. Will women of today accept their role in the story of women? When women recontextualize the story of women, the house is on the high ground and all the rooms have a favorable view.

 

 

From Being Charming to Being a Contender, Part 2

When MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow interviewed Elizabeth Warren on the day she withdrew from the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee, the tone was pessimistic about whether a woman would ever be elected President of the United States, and how devastating such pessimism would be for women now and the young girls who are seeing this as their future.

It’s not for lack of trying that a woman has not been elected president of the United States. Though history was made in 2020 when six women were candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, seven women before them also ran for president. The first woman to run for president—though it might be disputed by some—was Victoria Woodhull, who ran as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. It would be almost a century until the following women dared stand for the office again:

  • Margaret Chase Smith (Republican, 1964);
  • Shirley Chisholm (Democrat ,1972);
  • Patricia Schroeder (Democrat, 1988);
  • Elizabeth Dole (Republican, 2000);
  • Carol Moseley Braun (Democrat, 2004); and
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, 2016).

pictures of women who have pursued US presidential nomination--Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Moseley Braun, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillebrand, Marianne Willamson, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobachaur, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard

Clinton, the most successful of these candidates, was interviewed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria for International Women’s Day. When asked about the failed attempts by women to become President of the United States, Clinton described some of the reasons for the failure:

  • unconscious bias;
  • a double standard;
  • objectification of women;
  • women not being what we expect them to be; and
  • unconscious alarm bells going off when a woman wants to lead.

We still need to work out how to “truly respect and value women in the workplace,” she said, “…how best to empower women to be the best they can be under whatever circumstances they find themselves.”

Let the church say, “Amen!”

From Being Charming to Being a Contender, Part 1

It was 36 years ago this month that the first collegewide task force for diversity on which I served hosted a Women’s Week program. After a year of meetings with faculty about the need to make the curriculum inclusive, we were thrilled that Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women had agreed to be our guest speaker.  Her papers on white privilege had catapulted her to the top of the A-list as a speaker on issues of equity and privilege.

It was not until after this program that our task force realized what a dismal failure we had been in helping faculty to see that educating for diversity could revitalize their work, affording them the opportunity to rethink knowledge, evaluate their teaching methods, and effectively put students’ learning at the center of their efforts. Disappointingly, it seemed that few faulty beyond the twelve of us on the task force saw the point in making their syllabi and the curriculum more inclusive. The hardest blow—and most debilitating comment—from a faculty member after the Women’s Week program was that Peggy McIntosh was interesting and charming, but what did her presentation have to do with them?

This was not the first or the last time that I would hear a woman described as “charming.” A synonym for charming is “likable”—the standard to which women who run for high political office seem to be held. By contrast, many women are looking forward to the realization of what former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Amy Klobuchar said: “I think what matters most is if you’re smart, if you’re competent, and if you get things done.”

What’s your personal motto?

On February 25, 2020, CBS hosted Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina for the final debate before Super Tuesday. For the last question, the candidates were asked to share what they thought was the biggest misconception about them and their personal motto. I was most interested in their personal motto:

  • Tom Steyer writes a cross on his hand each day to remind himself to tell the truth and to do what’s right, no matter what.
  • Amy Klobuchar grounds herself by remembering that politics is about improving lives.
  • Joe Biden’s motto is, “When you get knocked down, get up, and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what or who they are.”
  • Bernie Sanders referenced Nelson Mandela for his motto, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
  • Elizabeth Warren looks to Matthew 25 for her motto—actions done for the “least of these” have been done unto Jesus.
  • Pete Buttigieg also used a biblical reference, seeking to “live by the teachings that say if you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

I don’t know whether having a personal motto or a theme one uses to remain personally grounded is a “thing” or not, but the question to the presidential candidates made me think about what my personal motto might be.

Some years ago, when I was up in the mountains of Colorado, I had an epiphany that there was a pattern to my thinking and behavior that could be codified into an anagram that I could easily recall when I needed something to hold on to in order to keep from falling off the tightrope that I often found myself on.

I easily recall my personal motto with the anagram FIRE. While I have changed some of the descriptors to the anagram on occasion, two ideas represented by each letter of the anagram remain constant:

F is for fate and faith

Whether the situation is positive or negative, fate is hard for me to reckon with because my first reaction is to use logic to understand the why and the what of the unexpected circumstances in which I find myself. When I can’t make the connection between cause and effect, I think about life as a crap shoot – sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. On the occasions when fate appears to be negative, I go to the other concept for the “F” in my anagram.

I rely heavily on faith. Because I have so much evidence to support my belief that it has been faith that has kept me in the game, this is not an empty promise or self-righteous bromide for me. Recalling that I have successfully come through other situations that I thought were impossible, and knowing that I will eventually be whole again, is what faith is to me.

I is for initiative and integrity

Initiative has two interconnected meanings for me: it both spurs me to get up and do something and pushes me to make something different, to innovate. Initiative keeps me thinking and creating. While I’ve sometimes thought life and work would be so much easier if I could just leave things as they are and go with the flow, I’ve always wanted to make something better or add something more. More often than not, my initiative / innovation has been on target and helpful. On the occasions when the vision of what could be was not realized, the disappointment never stopped me from having the desire to invent another way to move forward.

In my anagram, the letter “I” also reminds me that integrity is an important value that I want to include in all that I do. I live this value by doing my very best to do what I say I’m going to do, even if it might be as insignificant as being on time for an appointment. My goal is to always “walk the talk.”

R is for reflection and respect

As the theme song from the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The Golden Girls” goes, reflection is “a pal and confidant.” If anyone is with me for any period of time, that person knows that I get a lot out of reflecting on what has happened and what I might learn from experience. What I write in my blogs are products of my reflections.

The other thought that “R” helps me recall is respect. Reflection and respect are often connected because my reflections are usually about interactions with people and what my role was in the experience. Did I say or do all I could to demonstrate that I had respect for the other person? Was I able to think of our communicative relationship as “I-thou”?

E is for empathy and energy

Empathy comes naturally to some people. I can recall crying as a child just because another child cried. My folks said that when I did this, I was just too sensitive. In addition to a predisposition to feel with others, as a professional counselor, I have a lot of practice in expressing empathy as a team member in work situations. I learned that it was not okay to restrict my empathy for peers and a chosen few. In order to accomplish the goals of the workplace, empathy and understanding had to be a commodity everyone could share.

I call on energy to fuel my initiatives because they are usually a reaction to inertia and resistance to change. In order to get results, one has to be able to press on. I call upon energy, then, when I don’t want to continue in the fight, when I don’t care about the brass ring and just want to settle. I call on energy when I fall down literally and figuratively and have to tell myself as Hercules Mulligan says in the play Hamilton, “When you knock me down, I get the f*** up again!”

Having been encouraged to share my personal motto, I’m changing the title of my blog to “The FIRE This Time” – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s title “The Fire Next Time” – to allow me to expand the breadth of my subject matter and to connect to my personal motto anagram when appropriate.

Writing satisfies a personal yearning, and I’m grateful for the outlet this blog provides. I share my thoughts and experiences because I’ve learned so much about myself from reading about the experiences of others in memoirs, essays, and personal stories.

The last thing I want to do is to come across as if I think I have the answers, or that my experiences give me the wisdom to know how others should be or what others should do with their life. I only know that thinking about the meaning of the words that make up my FIRE anagram helps me go through the dark tunnel that leads to the next checkpoint on my journey, and I am grateful for each of you who joins me on this journey of Faith, Initiative, Reflection, and Empathy.

Role models: What do your actions teach when you think no one is watching?

When students stray from the path toward their goal of completing college, it is not usually because they lack the skills to do college work. Motivation may be lacking, and they may not have examples in their lives that demonstrate the characteristics needed to accomplish the extraordinary. Many ordinary folks who have reached their goals forget who and what motivated and inspired them to do more and be more.

While everyone won’t have a desire or an opportunity to serve or be recognized as a mentor, we all can think of ourselves as role models because we never know who is watching and learning from us. By our behavior, we can promote the idea that each student has the potential to experience their own potency and ability.

What makes a role model a role model? It depends on the context. Although I didn’t know it when I was a preteen, my role models were two multifaceted women for whom I had conflicting feelings. Sometimes, I judged them harshly. Even so, I admired how strong they were and how hard they worked.

Miss L was my father’s wife and not my mother. She owned a small store called a sundry, for it sold various items, from snacks and soft drinks to headache medicines, antacids, and the like. The sundry was at the end of a street – just before it curved around the bend – in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, Tennessee. It was across from the park and a few doors down from the Orange Mound Cab Company. During the day, Miss L managed the sundry, doing her bookkeeping in the evenings, often until the wee hours of the morning. Despite her hard work during the day and bookkeeping at night, there apparently was not enough business and income to keep the sundry going.

After a series of low-paying waitressing and domestic jobs, Miss L landed a job as the head domestic worker for a wealthy family on the other side of town. She became indispensable to this family, who bought her a new station wagon every two years for the safe chauffeuring of their children to school and their various after-school activities. Miss L took care of the family even when she had a day off. She would stay late on Thursday nights to cook all the meals for the weekend. She never missed a day of work and always looked impeccable in her white uniform. She looked like a nurse going to work in the mornings.

When she was at home, I don’t recall her sleeping much or sitting down to eat a meal. She would take little naps and nibble on food while she worked. Her respite was when she would take time to read the newspaper. When she went out during her times off, she dressed stylishly and never skimped on her make-up. Because she went to the beauty parlor on a regular schedule, her hair always looked the same. No bad hair days.

I also watched my paternal grandmother, Mama Rosie. She was less than 5-foot tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Despite her size, she was strong. She had had to be to raise four sons alone.

There were only two options available for Mama Rosie to make money, and she took both. She would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a. m. to join other women and men in the back of a truck to be driven from the city of Memphis to the fields where cotton was in need of picking. I remember riding with her in the back of the truck at least one time.

When Mama Rosie would come to see me on Saturdays or Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old, my other grandparents and the neighbors liked to tell stories about her. They would laugh as they talked about how it was not humanly possible for a woman of Mama Rosie’s size to pick as much cotton as she did and carry bags of cotton weighing hundreds of pounds. They teased her, saying that she was making all the money because her sacks of cotton were so full.

When she was not in the cotton fields, Mama Rosie was cleaning houses and taking care of the children of people who had financial means. She sometimes had domestic jobs that required her to “stay on the place.” Whether working in the cotton fields or cleaning houses, I never heard her say she was tired or didn’t want to do whatever her job was.

While Mama Rosie didn’t go far in school, she made the most of her time there, learning all there was to learn, including reading and writing – skills some other women in her age group didn’t have. Mama Rosie always talked to me about how important it was for me to learn all I could while in school.

Neither of these women knew that I was watching them. They didn’t know that they were teaching me just by doing their job. They didn’t know that they were instilling in me a reservoir of strength that I could call on when I thought the work was too hard and the time to my goal was too long. What they did for me was to normalize working hard to achieve my goals.

What I didn’t learn from them was that there is more to life than hard work. I didn’t learn that work was not the be all and end all. Nevertheless, I owe my work ethic to these role models who never knew that I was watching them.