Thursday, May 7, 2015

I Am From

Yesterday at work, as part of an institutional initiative to strengthen our inclusion and community engagement, I watched a performance about race and identity and the small and large ways we hurt each other. I felt uncomfortable, which was the point. It's so hard for us to see outside of our little circle, to truly walk in someone else's perspective. It's much easier to judge.

I bring this up because the conversation is everywhere, and it often feels destructive and one-sided, as if we were all having an angry justification argument with ourselves. We have difficulty engaging and listening to those who think differently.

But yesterday, something became very clear, and I can't believe I didn't see it before. As a historian, I'm always considering other perspectives and trying to understand people's stories, because I will never meet the people I study. I have to step back and try to see the world through the lens of an immigrant farmer or a radical suffragette or a black man facing Northern segregation.

At one point in the performance, the actors delivered "I Am From" poems, sharing personal details about their own stories as if their background and experiences were geographic locations. I was struck by their perspectives, laid bare with such honesty. We all have a story to tell, and we all want to be heard and acknowledged and respected for that story. And if I can invest time in understanding people long dead, I should also invest time in listening to those sharing the world with me today.

I wrote my own "I Am From" poem, not because my life has been particularly interesting, but because I wanted to see what it would look like. My story doesn't feel very important, nor my impact on the world very meaningful, but that's not the point. If we are to start constructive conversations and replace anger with respect, let's start with what makes us unique, and then listen to how everyone else defines themselves. It's a place to begin, anyway.

I am from love and truthfulness.

I am from motivation, rolled in hard work, dipped in privilege.

I am from Catholic faith, conservative politics, a liberal education, and all the dissonance that creates.

I am from the past, where people I know and people I don’t live as if in Middle-Earth, a place familiar and strange, many languages and traditions existing in fragile alliances that matter more with every person who says it just doesn’t matter anymore.

I am from water, where I can be still and alone beneath and part of something bigger than myself on the surface.

I am from self-loathing and despair that can’t overpower me anymore but sometimes gets close.

I am from motherhood, blue eyes and brown eyes and little hands on my face, babies gone in a whisper while I always wonder if we should have had more.

I am from pride in my country, the granddaughter of those who served on ships and in jungles and at home.

I am from books, worlds that often seem so much better than my own, so I reach for Avonlea on summer mornings and Hogwarts on wintry afternoons and Austenland all other times.

I am from a family that is everything, they who made me and they who I made and he who I cannot live without.

Write one of your own; it's a little therapeutic to lay out the dots that connect you. Keep it to yourself, or better still, share it and then listen with an open heart to someone else's, especially someone not like you. We may still disagree, but at least we can do so in a spirit of wanting to understand. 

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