Dear Mom & Dad

Me and Mom and Dad

Dear Mom & Dad,

It’s a good time of year to honor ancestors. Many traditions focus on ancestors who have passed away. My genealogical research indicates that the overwhelming majority of our ancestors are in this category. In fact, of direct living ancestors I have but two: the two of you. However much we honor the dead, we should surely not neglect the living. And so therefore I thought this would be a good time to say “thank you” for all that you’ve done for me.

First and foremost, I’m grateful that you brought me into the world. I’ve been around enough to know that simply being alive is not an unqualified good. Some have called this existence a “veil of tears,” and certainly suffering and pain are plentiful. Even so, after four decades (plus some) I can say that I’m glad to be here. The basic existential question was one reason I dithered so long on the question of having a child of my own. The notion that my daughter might somehow regret being born still haunts me, vaguely, however absurd that might seem. Thus I want to remove all doubt: Thank you for the gift of life.

One key reason I can affirm and celebrate the joy of being alive has been my general freedom from want. Granted, I was born in a prosperous nation at a prosperous time. But you worked continually to make sure that all the material needs of our family were covered. I never went hungry as a child. I never did without any basic necessity. I’ve seen enough poverty now to be grateful for that. Thank you for providing food, shelter and clothing.

We didn’t just eat, we ate well. For as long as I can remember, you were always interested in a healthy diet. You never made an obsession out of it, but you read books about nutrition and varied our menu as your understanding evolved. Our fare rarely strayed outside the American mainstream, but it was always wholesome and nourishing. Junk food was not forbidden, but it was never encouraged. As I’ve grown I find this orientation to food has served me well. I don’t struggle to like food that’s “good for me.” I’m predisposed to like it already. Thank you for inculcating a love of healthy food.

The solid foundation you provided allowed my curiosity to flourish, and you always encouraged my personal development. You provided a great example by being curious yourselves, always interested in learning more about the world around us. We traveled regularly and visited museums and cultural centers around the country. You were always reading and took me to the library often. You sent me to schools which were funded with your taxes. You helped me with my schoolwork and valued academic achievement. We hosted exchange students, and you even sent me overseas for a year. It was a difficult time but rewarding as well, an experience I wouldn’t trade. You sent me to college, and I was able to concentrate fully on my studies; I didn’t have to work a job or accumulate an enormous debt. Now I’m gainfully employed at a university. Thank you for funding my education and encouraging the life of the mind.

There are so many things you did as well. Big and little things. You generally respected my autonomy and freedom. When you disciplined me you were even-handed and fair. You taught me the value of a dollar. You taught me to tune out commercials when watching television. You taught me that racism was wrong. You taught me to be honest in my dealings with others. Thank you for teaching me these values.

It hasn’t always been easy. We have had our disputes, and they have not always been trivial. I know you often worried about me during the wild years of my youth. I know I have not always been the most grateful or gracious son. There were times when you were very close to giving up on me. But you didn’t, and in the final analysis, that’s all that really matters. Thank you for that. Thank you for loving me.

You know that I’ve only scraped the surface?

Your son,

Forty-Four Months

A Song for the Dead

Dear Persephone,

You are forty-four months old today. I am forty-four years old. I guess that means I’m roughly twelve times as old as you.

Your big dramatic moment of the last month came when you locked yourself in the bathroom. It was on a Saturday morning. You went into the bathroom, insisting that you can do it all by yourself. “I don’t need any help, I just need some privacy.” This has been your habit lately. I’d noticed the day before that you’d actually shut the bathroom door, and I thought to myself, not a good idea, but I didn’t do anything about it. Saturday morning you also shut the door, but this time it was locked. Your mother tried everything she could to spring you, but to no avail. You were pretty upset. Finally she called me; I was out giving a walking tour of the Lafitte Corridor. I ran home as fast as I could. In the end we had to send your mother in through the window. Afterward we has a lesson on how to operate the thumb-turn, and also on the wisdom of leaving the door ajar.

A couple weeks ago, when it was time for bed, you protested that it was “not fair!” It was the first time I’ve heard you complain about fairness. You must have picked that concept up at school because I don’t think we have ever talked about fairness at home. I smiled to myself, because I know this is a refrain I’ll be hearing repeatedly in the years ahead.

Speaking of bedtime, we have been reading from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book just before lights out. Actually, just after lights out: I use a flashlight for the reading. This book was a gift from local artist Jane Brewster. (When we were at Fall Fest at the Botanical Garden this weekend we saw Jane and she let you pick out one of her artworks as a gift. You chose Moon Over Bywater.) I thought it would be over your head, and while it’s a stretch, I think you’re just old enough to enjoy it. You do interrupt sometimes to ask questions about terms you don’t recognize. I think the fact that you don’t completely understand what’s going on helps lull you into sleepiness.

A couple nights ago, as I was tucking me in, you offered the following:

We love our bread,
We love our butter,
We love each other,
But most of all,
We love our blankets.

You’re having a good time in pre-K3, but it’s already time to start thinking about next year. We’d like to get you in a public school. Earlier this week we went to an open house for a local school, a public charter with which your mother and I are fairly impressed. We toured the facility, met some teachers, and really liked everything we saw and heard, and everything we’ve been hearing for the last year or two. The only bad news is that there will be a lottery, and the odds are against you (or any given child) getting in. We will apply and hope for the best. We will also be applying at a number of other schools. They all have a different application process, even though they are all public schools in Orleans Parish. Such is the state of our school “system” after the floods of 2005. It’s going to require a good amount of research and preparation, but it’s worth it, considering how much of the next phase of your life will be shaped by your school. I’m trying to stay on top of this without getting too anxious about it.

After the equinox, we revived our habit of cemetery picnics. You love them. I was surprised to learn that this was once a popular activity in Victorian times, and may be making a comeback. We sought and found the grave of Maunsell White, and took a photo to fill a Find A Grave request.

As we prepared to head home, we heard birds singing in the trees. “Maybe they’re singing a song for the dead,” you said. We went home and listened to Fauré’s Requiem. It was a beautiful day.

Florestine

Once again we interrupt our regularly scheduled investigations to draw your attention to a notable screening.

The Florestine Collection

Florestine

Experimental animator Helen Hill found more than 100 handmade dresses in a trash pile on one Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. She set out to make a film about the dressmaker, an elderly seamstress who had recently passed away. The dresses and much of the film footage were later flood-damaged by Hurricane Katrina while Helen was still working on the film. Helen was murdered in a home invasion in New Orleans in 2007. Her husband Paul Gailiunas has completed the film, which includes Helen’s original silhouette, cut-out, and puppet animation, as well as flood-damaged and restored home movies.

This film is screening tonight and Thursday. Details at the New Orleans Film Festival website.

Testosterone and Emergence

IMG_4151.JPG

Last month, a study was published which reveals that men who take care of their babies get a big drop in testosterone levels. The more involved they are with their kids, the bigger the drop.

These findings certainly corroborate with my experience. Testosterone is associated with selfishness and aggression, and in the months and years following the birth of my daughter, I’ve been feeling the opposite. The authors theorize this may be a survival mechanism. Lower testosterone levels may make men better fathers and also protect them from chronic diseases.

I buy it.

So could all this, everything I’ve been feeling of late come down to a shift in hormones? A hardwired evolutionary development?

Perhaps. And yet: An overly mechanistic view of psychology is highly problematic. Such explanations can be powerful but also powerfully disenchanting, even depressing. It’s the fallacy of reductionism, I think, a fallacy in which I’ve participated for many years.

I even wrote a triolet on the subject back in the late 80s.

I admit it! My mind is a machine.
But really, I’m comfortable with that.
So I tick tock tick talk what I mean.
I admit it! My mind is a machine,
just like my watch, but so is everything.
I work much like a thermostat.
I admit it, my mind is a machine,
but really, I’m comfortable with that.

I’m coming to understand that I am guilty not only of bad poetry but also bad philosophy. The human psyche is certainly more than the sum of its parts. I’ve been reading a bit about emergence and emergentism, and it’s fascinating stuff.

Probably I am mangling this badly, but I’d describe emergence as the idea that seemingly simple components can interact to generate complexities of another order entirely. This offers an alternative to the mechanistic model. Mind can be seen to emerge from the biological brain almost as a new dimension of reality.

In an essay titled “The Sacred Emergence of Nature,” Ursula Goodenough and Terrence W. Deacon write:

Reductionist understandings of how minds work are fascinating, but they are also irrelevant to what it’s like to be minded. While we don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, we know what it’s like to be a human, and it entails a whole virtual realm that doesn’t feel material at all. The beauty of the emergentist approach to mind is that it suggests that to experience our experience without awareness of its underlying mechanism is exactly what we should expect from an emergent property. The outcome has been given reverent names, like spirit or soul, names that conjure up the perceived absence of materiality. But we need not interpret this as evidence of some parallel transcendental immaterial world. We can now say that the experience of soul or spirit as immaterial is simply a reflection of the way the process of emergence progressively distances each new level from the details below.

To extrapolate, the extraordinary cognitive shifts I’ve experienced after the birth of my daughter may well have substantive biological underpinnings, but to focus on those to the exclusion of all else would be to miss the point entirely.

One could say that I lost some testosterone but found my soul — while still maintaining a naturalistic worldview.

Photo: IMG_4151.JPG / Yutan / BY-NC-ND 2.0

Big Fix

We take a break from our regularly scheduled odyssey to promote the following worthy item.

This Friday, the New Orleans Film Festival is hosting the American premiere of the documentary film, The Big Fix, which details the massive government cover-up which has taken place in the wake of the BP oil spill. There will be a press conference at 2 pm at the Contemporary Arts Center before the film is shown. This may be the best chance the Gulf Coast has to raise the country’s awareness to the reality of the condition of the Gulf.

Please share widely. Like the film on Facebook. More at the Zombie.

Question of Practice

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I touched on the idea of dialog as a practice which I hope to cultivate.

Here are some other practices which I’m, um, practicing, with some regularity.

  • Mindfulness meditation.
  • Writing.
  • Baking bread.

I took yoga classes for about three months, but cut them as an austerity measure; now that our finances have stabilized I should pick that up again.

I’d like to address each of these in more depth going forward. That’s the plan, anyhow. For now I thought it might be good to pause and ask you, reader —

What else?

What practices do you find beneficial?

I’m interested especially in those practices which might not seem spiritual or religious at first glance. But anything goes.

What practices expand your sense of self, of connectedness, of context, of the numinous? What do you do on a regular basis that deepens your experience as a living being on this Earth? What you strengthens you as a person? What integrates the loose ends of your life?

And — how often do you do them?

Does this question even make sense?

Photo adapted from original love? / Federico Reiven / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Context Clues

Bayou Conversation

What’s in an Acronym

I work at an HBCU. That acronym is not recognized by my spellchecker, nor was it in my vocabulary until I came to work here. It stands for “Historically Black College or University,” a term which requires even more unpacking.

In a nutshell, the story is this. Once upon a time in America, people of color had virtually no educational opportunities. Even after slavery was abolished, institutions of learning were for white people only, and remained so for generations, especially in the American South. And so eventually HBCUs were established, and over a hundred are still operating today.

Like me, most Americans don’t know about HBCUs, their role in our history, or their continued relevance. To understand this, you have to come to terms with certain painful aspects of our history, which seem to be subject to a peculiar and selective cultural amnesia. Sometimes we’d rather forget about slavery and its legacy. Or perhaps we’d like to pretend that’s all well behind us, old dead history of purely academic interest. Such a view relegates HBCUs to the status of relics, anachronisms, survivals of a bygone age. The truth is that while we’ve made progress we are still living that history, and racial disparities are still significant. HBCUs still have a role to play. I’ve been learning about all this, and more, on the job.

Book Club

I work in faculty development. It’s part of my job to think and grow together with the people who are actually in the classroom teaching.

One avenue to that end is our Fall Faculty Book Club, which has been running for several years now. This time around, we are reading How Black Colleges Empower Black Students, an anthology edited by Frank Hale Jr. The response has been phenomenal. We had so many faculty wanting to participate that we had to split into two groups.

As I read through the very first essay, “HBCUs in the Old South and the New South,” by Samuel DuBois Cook, I learned a lot. I did not know, for example, that HBCUs were at the forefront of the movement toward diversity and inclusion. Most modern educational institutions now embrace these values — or at least pay them lip service. But in the Old South, this was a radical commitment that went against the grain of the dominant culture, and there were consequences. I’ll cite just one instance: The state of Georgia cut off funding to Atlanta University because they had accepted some white students. Read that again if you have to. Atlanta University had been established as an HBCU, and the idea that white students would be attending classes and rubbing elbows with Black students was unacceptable to the establishment. The university administration held their ground and lost state funding. This was in 1885. The university survives to this day, in the form of Clark Atlanta, but it could not have been easy. This is a dramatic illustration of a general principle. HBCUs have always been inclusive and multiracial, long before the contemporary notion of diversity became popular.

Sacred Work

The religious themes in this essay were also striking. These are by no means incidental, as the very first HBCUs were private institutions founded by religious groups. As Dr. Cook notes at the outset,

It was neither accidental nor an experience of minor and fleeting importance and relevance that virtually all of the educational institutions founded to educate freedmen were church-related. Indeed, the church-relatedness of their origin was of overwhelming and enduring significance, meaning, and value. Involved were a theological worldview, formal commitment to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and a belief — however insufficient — that ex-slaves and their descendants were human persons endowed by God with intrinsic dignity, value, and worth and were equal in God’s sight.

Furthermore, Dr. Cook refers to the founding and operation of these institutions as “sacred work.” He writes of teaching as a “sacred commitment,” a “divine art and enterprise.” That language gave me pause.

I work at an institution which is not only “church-related” but which was founded by a saint, now canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The cornerstone of the oldest building here, dedicated in 1932 and built with Indiana limestone, bears this inscription:

God’s greatest work on earth is man.
Man’s master art is the leading of man to God.

Teaching is surely one of those arts that can lead “man to God.” I’ll leave aside my reservations about theological doctrine for the moment, though they are many. As I read Dr. Cook’s essay, I realized that one doesn’t have to be Catholic to participate in this “sacred work.” One doesn’t even have to be Christian. One doesn’t even have to be a theist.

So, in a very real way, I might assert that my job is my religion. Or at least a part of it.

Discussion Group

As I mentioned, interest in this book was so high we had to split into two discussion groups, with my boss facilitating one while I took the other. We had our first meeting on Monday.

In aiming to foster a good discussion, I drew upon a key lesson from last year’s book club selection, The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc: Start with a story.

We began by going around the table, introducing ourselves, and telling a bit of our story. “Tell us how you got here,” I said. “Tell us the story of why you are here, both on this campus generally and in this particular room. Tell us how you came to be at this HBCU, and also why you wanted to be here reading this book about HBCUs.”

I began with my own story, in order to model the sort of openness I wanted to hear from the others. I won’t repeat that in detail here, as I’ve written about all this before: How my grandfather was a Klansman, how I went to high school with Klansmen. Despite growing up north of the Mason-Dixon line, I grew up in a virtually monocultural suburb where Black people were rarely seen. My point was that the very notion of an HBCU was completely off my radar. I never heard of such a thing until I was searching for a job back in ’99.

Though I’ve picked up some bits and pieces over the past twelve years, I never got a formal orientation to HBCUs, what they represent, and what it means to work at one. Furthermore, my department is responsible for orienting new faculty each year. So by reading this book, I’m hoping to deepen my understanding, to finally get that orientation, and learn how to orient others.

Around the Table

As we went around the table, a couple interesting things happened. First, people really did open up. The stories people told were heartfelt, candid, and emotional. Second, I experienced a sense of humility and honor and interconnection and respect that seemed quite profound — and I’m certain I was not alone in this. I felt some intangible essence reflected back to me from the face of each participant.

I was reminded that dialog can be a spiritual practice.

On my door to my office I have posted a copy of the Tree of Contemplative Practices. After the meeting was over, I consulted it.

Tree of Contemplative Practices

Sure enough, listed under relational practices one finds dialog, deep listening, and storytelling.

How does it work? Just off the cuff, my impression is that when you really open up to dialog you become part of something bigger than yourself. Sitting in that room, listening to my colleagues and co-workers, we became more than just ten individuals around a table. Some sense of shared purpose and identity began to emerge, however tenuous, however briefly. Most every spiritual path seems to acknowledge the idea of being a part of a larger whole.

We had that sense of expanded context doubly Monday, as we experienced a communion of sorts with one another, and also felt our sense of shared mission within the larger scope of history.

Context is everything.


Tangents & Foonotes: In the process of writing this I discovered the Spirituality & Practice website, which appears to be a great resource. For example, check out the section on listening as a spiritual practice, and make sure to use the listed links for related quotations, books, films, art and much, much more.

I am trying to keep these posts under a thousand words. Trying, and failing.