Right before Thanksgiving, I spent a couple days sitting in a hospital, watching my grandfather leave earth. I wasn’t particularly close to this side of my family so my memories of him are few, but distinct. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, pastors, and children rotated through his room. We talked, cried, hugged, laughed, and reflected. My grandmother told us that when he proposed to her, she told him she needed time to think about this decision. She decided that after 66 years together, it had turned out okay.

This part of my family is stoic but very kind. My grandfather spent most of his life doing manual labor – he loved to farm. When farming didn’t pay the bills, he worked other jobs on top of managing the farm. He’d been a milkman, transit employee, and worked as a foreman for NASA’s fuel program. He turned 18 at the end of World War II and as an agricultural worker was needed more at home than abroad. His farm kept him out of the Korean War as well. My dad shared these memories as we drove to the hospital. He was immensely proud of his father — an extremely hard worker with four kids to raise but still found ways to enjoy his life. His gardens have been described as cleaner and more beautiful than most houses. My grandfather made his achievements by working hard and with patience. My dad said that whatever he did, it was done carefully, thoroughly. He gained the trust and confidence for whomever he worked. He attended all my dad’s high school football and baseball games. He helped my dad finance his education by selling livestock.

To me he was sort of intimidating – always sailing by on a big tractor, up before dawn working outside. Into his eighties he still retained significant physical strength. He had a low, rumbling voice, that resonated in every fold of his vocal chords. A country man, his vernacular floated through his drawl. I loved listening to him pray – it was always a short prayer full of thanks. With his accent it seemed much longer. He was not one to command attention and yet the throng of cousins immediately stood stock still once it was time to pray before meals. He loved to eat. My grandmother spent their marriage trying to keep him healthy, but he wasn’t much for salad.

He loved the land where he lived. He knew all the families and their geography. I loved listening to him give directions – he added so much color to what he described. He wasn’t giving directions so much as he was giving an oral history.

His life was a well earned one. He survived farm life, gasoline burns on his legs as a child, heavy manual labor, burying a daughter much too early, and drastically improved the quality of life his children had over his. My aunt looked around his hospital room and said, “this is quite a legacy.” He wasn’t awake, but we all spoke to him, held his hand, and he would sort of nod his head. My grandmother sat with her hand on his head, leaning her cheek down to his, just being with him.

For every action there is an equal or greater reaction.

My great uncle gave me a two minute sermon in the hospital hallway. “Hate is like a boomerang. We wind it up and it just keeps coming back to us. Love is choosing to grab it out of the air and bury it. We stop it from beating us up and hurting those around us. Love chooses to break the cycle. Love is brave.” My grandparents made a lot of hard, brave decisions. They chose to stop many of the things that divide families. They chose to be generous even when it cost them. They always sent us (and many others) home with a cooler full of meat, canned vegetables, preserves, hulled nuts in an old coffee can.

My grandmother selected 1 Thessalonians 4:11 in honor of my grandfather, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands…so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Often when I think of ambition, it is for huge causes and world changing ideas. This idea of ambition as a sober, gentle life seems just as challenging – choosing to focus on the things that matter rather than be consumed by what matters to everyone else.

I never thought of myself as a single-issue voter. I’ve lived in equally liberal and conservative parts of the country with opportunity to develop a greater context for some of the hot button issues. Yet, this election, it centralized on one issue for me: respect and value for people. If we can’t value someone as more than an opportunity for advancement or pleasure, how can we solve any of the issues around healthcare, education, and equality? My bottom line frustration with Donald Trump (aside from many other concerns): his gleeful practice of sexual harassment as sport. While I certainly found inspiration in the idea of a female president, Hillary Clinton’s calculated silence on her own spouse’s sexual semantics compromised her presence in the conversation on sex and power – to me.

Born into white middle class suburbia, my resources in terms of education, healthcare, etc. were privileged. My vigilant mother frequently identified the opportunities sexual predators utilized for their benefit – like the manager of our neighborhood pool. My mother recognized his dismissive attitude towards regularly present parents and hugging nearly naked kids in swimsuits or holding their hands when their parents were nowhere to be found. He lived across the street from an elementary school, taught at the middle school, and ran a Sunday School class. Once I became a lifeguard, she told me to never be alone with him. A few years later, his arrest for sexually molesting dozens of children rocked our small, tight-knit community.

Somehow, one relief created from the current executive office consists of emerging dialogue on the very tangible concern of sexual aggression. Perhaps, the uncovering of Harvey Weinstein’s career-long sexual perversion and domination became a more legitimate, believable part of the conversation clearly revealing that sex abuse occurs at numerous positions of power. The bravery of our colleagues in the entertainment and media industries detailing years of trauma showed that sexual abuse doesn’t detour at privilege.

Sexual harassment ranges from subtle slights and micro-aggressions to aggressive physical contact. Subtle slights include the many times I entered a room, gas station, coffee shop, or meeting to find myself visually appraised from head to toe. Or, a male colleague shaking the hands of other men at a conference with intellectual platitudes, before turning to me, remarking how he loved to kiss a pretty lady goodbye. A faculty member greeted the other members of the panel with a handshake but kissed me on the forehead instead.

More aggressive actions include drivers tooting their horns, yelling their enjoyment of my backside as I jog. When this first started happening to me in high school, it was explained that “I should wear less appealing clothes” and to “not advertise what isn’t for sale.” As a grocery store cashier in high school and college some male managers would press against me as they cashed out my drawer in the very small kiosk rather than allow me to step out before they stepped inside. A lesbian coworker looked up my shorts every time I climbed up the lifeguard stand.

In a previous neighborhood, I increasingly appreciated passing a major police station on the way home. When men followed me for multiple blocks, detailing all the things they’d like to “do to me”, they disappeared once I hit the police station’s block. On the subway, men tried to sweet talk me into who knows what. As an experiment, I said, “no, thank you, please leave me alone.” When they wouldn’t let up, I said, “my boyfriend wouldn’t appreciate your speaking to me,” and most backed off instantly. They respected an invisible, imaginary boyfriend but not the person standing in front of them just trying to go to work, the gym, or the movies. Several NYC bartenders I knew constantly ran interference on men refusing to accept “no” from women.

When the above video came out, none of my female friends found it that remarkable. Just another day, trying to mind one’s business. I considered the video pretty conservative in my experience. I don’t fully endorse Amber Rose’s process of promoting female equality, but we concur on the basic message: no means no, women are not responsible for a man’s inappropriate behavior. In an interview with Rose, Rev Run countered, “you should dress how you want to be addressed,” putting the responsibility of the perpetrator’s behavior on their target. For the record, I’ve been hit on/harassed wearing baggy sweatpants, a full-length puffer coat, and a power suit. Catering one’s clothing or behavior to avoid harassment doesn’t solve the issue. Rather, one takes responsibility for another’s issue; the offending behavior unchecked.

Probably the most frightening experience occurred as a junior in college. My then-boyfriend and I enjoyed a day in New Orleans. We went to mass, hung out in a music store, ate a po’ boy, and walked through the French Quarter. The PG version: a large pickup truck with several men inside pulled up, followed us for a few blocks, purring about what a catch they’d found, that they would all take turns with me, and they’d even let my boyfriend watch! We suddenly realized we didn’t really know where we were, and, as we picked up our pace in the dusky light, debated how to get out of range. We took off running and turned left. Thankfully, that ended it. My deeply shaken boyfriend – a six foot four proud member of the NRA with a hidden gun compartment in his car – designated a safe word for either of us to use whenever we felt we were in a bad situation. He decided that if either one of us invoked the safe word, I would run for help and he would “take on” the instigator.

I traveled to Italy post-graduation with a theater cohort. In a little seaside town, locals at the roller rink/club announced that “the girls had already been divvied up.” I spent most of the trip’s remainder holding hands with a fellow male student when in public, just so men would leave me alone. Because, again, they respected another man’s “girl” but not the girl herself.

When I was mugged a few steps from my apartment several years ago, it was deemed lucky the incident didn’t become overly physical. So lucky. When I asked my landlord about installing a light at the entryway (at the suggestion of the attending police officer noting our building was not well lit), she snapped “it isn’t my fault you were attacked. You shouldn’t be out so late.”

I spent a couple years in an office with a very handsy colleague; in case you didn’t know, sexual orientation is not a factor in sexual harassment. One day the receptionist pulled me aside, warning me to keep my distance from a certain board member because, “he liked pretty girls.” I tried to adhere to my mother’s advice to always keep myself between the door and someone I didn’t know/trust. I shared about said colleague and company on LinkedIn – which received nearly 500 hits – and received this apology note: “I’m not sure if this post is referring to me…I hope you can forgive me. I have no excuse, and I will not even try to explain the reasoning behind my behavior.”

In Lupita Nyong’o’s Op-Ed, she described how Weinstein normalized sexual harassment. For young women entering the industry, he set their expectations on how to be treated. I think this is why many women, including myself, don’t think of ourselves as victims.

This behavior was/is normal, often    common knowledge, occurred casually   and regularly.

 In a raise negotiation, a director told me I wasn’t “done paying my dues and that there were a hundred other people who would willingly do my job for less compensation.” This negotiation came after working six days a week, nights and weekends; sharing an office with inappropriate colleagues regaling anyone within earshot of their recent sexual exploits; some taking every opportunity to touch me. In my mind, I thought, “hhmm, these ‘other people’ must be trust fund kids with a sugar daddy/mama because I can barely pay my rent or afford a gym membership.” It seemed to me that I’d been paying my dues. There were other human resources issues at this particular company; the expectation set for me was that I should just grit my teeth, do my job, ignore the chaos, my hard work rewarded with ridicule. It was so bad I took another job with a significant pay cut. The relief of staff meetings without someone caressing my back or stroking my hair temporarily neutralized the lost compensation.

I state all this as information; not as an angry rant about the wrongs done to me. Unfortunately, the statistics are much worse for women of color and lower economic/education levels. They say we have to hear something between three to seven times for the brain to comprehend the information. So, I’m saying it, and encouraging those with similar experiences to do the same. This is not a complete account of every harassment endured, but I think you get the idea.

For all this, I’d like to counter with times people looked out for me. Like the guy who caught me as I slipped on the stairs at Penn Station, “I hope it’s okay I grabbed you, I just didn’t want you to get trampled.” Yes, it is okay that you caught me by my backpack before I took out the morning commuters. Or the summer I worked as a lifeguard in Colorado and coworkers alternated picking me up so I wouldn’t have to walk through the woods alone in the dark. Or the bartender pushing the dude away kissing me without my consent. The landlord offering to come over, reset the locks, whatever was necessary, when a really aggressive ex-boyfriend made me feel uncomfortable staying there by myself. With the racial tension in Tallahassee, the Florida A & M student walking me to my car after a joint FSU/FAMU dance project rehearsal on the FAMU campus because, in his words, “white girls aren’t received well here.”

I heard a pastor say once that “when we choose to open the door to sin (make decisions we know are wrong), we may think we’re opening the door only a little to judgment (what some might call karma) but in fact we don’t get to control what comes through that door of bad decisions.” You can’t sexually harass or assault someone just a little; all those little indiscretions add up. Ask Harvey Weinstein. Sometimes privilege is more of a hindrance:

Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. ~Matthew 19:24

 

The art and practice of storytelling resurfaced in the last decade with the development of organizations such as The Moth and slam poetry. By resurfaced, I mean since oral histories became formal text and later illustrated via digital means. When I think back on my undergraduate work in Communication Studies, I keep hearing my professor say, “the medium is the message/the message is the medium.” If I remember one thing, it’s that how the message is received is sometimes more important than the actual message itself. In terms of audience engagement practices, there is increasing focus (hopefully) on understanding what our audience seeks from us (and in what way) rather than cheerfully forcing what we think our audience should need/want upon them…frequently followed by anxiety over ticket sales.

Professional development offerings often include interpersonal communication seminars to reduce office tension and increase productivity. I’ve taken several of them. Social media platforms emerged as highly empowering to the individual and organizations in terms of agency and accessibility. It allowed me to share video of a coworker’s really annoying ringtone rather than actually discuss the really annoying cacophony a spouse’s ten calls a day caused – the ringtone was a squawking chicken at max volume. Apparently neither the spouse nor grown children knew where anything was in their house. Is there a relationship between the social media explosion and communication effectivity? e.g. fake news.

I attended a Craft Talk at Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center featuring Wild author Cheryl Strayed. Disclaimer: given the immense popularity of Strayed’s book and the Reese Witherspoon film adaptation, I completely forgot that while I read much about the book and Strayed, I hadn’t actually read the book. So, when everyone else enthusiastically bobbed their heads up and down when Strayed referenced specific scenes from the book, I added it to my Goodreads list.

Strayed’s residency activities, presented in partnership with VT’s Department of English Visiting Writers Series, focused on the technique and form of memoir writing. Alumni Distinguished Professor Lucinda Roy interviewed Strayed on the intricacies of shared narratives. Strayed discussed the importance of acknowledging the duality that “who we perceive people to be may be different than who they actually are” doesn’t negate our perspective. Memoirs are messy because it complicates the ownership/authorship of narrative. Each person has his or her own journey in life that is uniquely theirs. However, all life stories involve the people in our lives. So, when telling our story, to whom does it belong? Strayed recommended “handling the truth gently because your truth involves other people…the truth can hurt people. However, the truth – as Strayed learned through her legal team – is an absolute defense.”

When we communicate with others, are we using the truth to manipulate a false sense of agency? Or, are we using it as an investigative lens to uncover the whole truth? A holistic approach to communication predicates an intimate understanding of all the stakeholders in a story (or truth). When sharing our truth, perhaps we can consider it as bridge building rather than a final destination. In my recent professional transition, I took special care not to burn any bridges. I soon realized that if a bridge never formed, nothing existed to manage or salvage. Rather than looking back and hoping to preserve some kind of access, focus is invaluably spent deliberately building lifelines. Accessing the truth, or perspective, of someone else creates a shared, embodied experience of an authentic relationship/narrative.

Strayed’s memoir utilized dual narratives: hiking the Pacific Crest Trail paralleled reflections on her life. Strayed said that writing a memoir, “allows us to recognize origins of ourselves and our lives.” These recognitions advance the plot. In our communication practices, what advances the plot of a story line/relationship? Crisis? Genuine inquiry? Rather than scrupulously defend one’s truth, can we include others in the narrative? This is the very crux of issues in today’s discourse. Political parties, activists, and lawmakers seek to enact their own truth as unilateral – I’m speaking to folks on both ends of the spectrum. The truth of a nation involves a narrative with a million leading characters and a million more plot lines. Whom or what have we positioned as the primary role in the narrative on healthcare, civil and social justice, and equality?

Truth is only an absolute defense…when your voice matters. I’ve learned my voice matters more to someone when it is part of the narrative rather than a red-marked edit. I’m also aware that there is a hierarchy of voices that matter which is why diversity and inclusion are crucial for authorship of the full narratives in our communities. In our communications with others, are we advancing the opportunity to understand a 360 degree truth or to superimpose our portion of the truth across an entire narrative?

 

Martha Graham said that “the body never lies.” She built her technique and vocabulary on contractions. That is what my body involuntarily, automatically did upon entering my former dance teacher’s home. My dad caught the Roanoke Times update, so my mom and I stopped by Saturday afternoon. Everything was up for auction to support her move to an assisted living facility. I went mostly to say hello and be supportive, unaware I would have such a visceral experience.

Then I saw the box. My hips tilted, my stomach lunged towards my spine, my breath escaped upward in a contraction that brought tears to my eyes. The small wooden box held student registration cards and fees. Something we saw everyday when we signed in to class, something she touched everyday. I took ballet class Monday and Wednesday, morning and evening; contemporary class on Tuesday or Thursday maybe; afrocentric movement a couple evenings a week; and the occasional tap class on Saturday morning. I started teaching class there – a pre-ballet class on Monday and subbing a beginner ballet class on Thursday afternoon – before starting my own ballet ensemble.

IMG_1331It was like walking through a museum with the reverence of being in church. We all walked slowly, spoke softly, offered hugs while we pondered the greater significance of the moment. Besides being a stunning dancer, Carol Crawford Smith is a prolific visual artist. Much of the artwork that was familiar to me was already sold, but one print remained that hung in the Draper Road studio. As a dancer and as a woman of color, Carol celebrated the diversity of bodies. Hers was the only studio I ever attended without a strict dress code; instead, we were encouraged to wear bright colors that represented our personalities, that inspired us to move. Part of the Africanist aesthetic is the “get down” or ability to flex one’s joints and muscles which symbolizes one’s ability to live and ownership of the body. The Center of Dance and UJIMA both celebrated the fullness of living in one’s body and sharing that energy. She frequently shared with us from Kwanzaa traditions, such as:

kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) which means self determination, to   define ourselves, name ourselves,    create for ourselves and speak for   ourselves.

Carol Crawford Smith changed my life, and many lives in a small town in Southwestern Virginia. It was our good fortune that a former Dance Theatre of Harlem artist chose to make this community her home. Carol’s beautiful spirit bears witness to the power of choice. Life handed her harsh battles and she responded with joy.

I’ve been home for about a month as I’m in the process of a job/life change. At first glance, it seems like nothing changes in this town. But with this extended visit, I am able to peel back the many layers of who I am. There is something powerful about an embodied remembrance. When I picked up Carol’s registration box, it signaled to me that a new chapter was coming. My life changed as a knock-kneed twelve year old walking into her studio, and it changed again as I stood in her house, a monument to her determined spirit.

I remember turning ten years old and feeling so impressed that I was a decade old.

I remember being twentyish years old and my friend saying, “Can you believe we can talk about things that happened a decade ago?”

A decade ago, I mourned the lives of 32 beautiful, magnificent Hokies.

This year, the anniversary came on Easter Sunday, which was a welcome distraction of sorts. Instead of simply focusing on lives that were lost, there were a lot external reminders to focus on life. Mentally, I kept Easter separate from the anniversary even though they took place on the same day this year.

At the last minute, I headed home to spend the weekend with my grandmother. We looked at old photo albums together; she gave a vivid and sometimes blunt narration.

“All my friends and I did was take pictures of ourselves. I don’t know why, we didn’t have any money or any place to be.”

FYI, the selfie is not a new concept (perhaps the techniques have changed), specific to the millennials. In one dramatic photo shoot she and her friends made different themed portraits of each other – things got pretty emo!

“I wish I’d known/thought then I had such nice legs.”

My grandma and her friends were stylin’ and were their own harshest critics. That sounds pretty familiar.

I had to remind myself that these images were taken in the 1940s – wartime. Interspersed in these pages were photos of young men in uniform; some came back to the group and some did not. Or, those that did return were no longer themselves. My grandfather returned and quickly found a job in a new industry. My grandma was very clear that they were some of the lucky ones. She explained that pilots faced stiff competition entering the commercial market now that it was flooded with veterans. Looking back at those life and world-changing events, my grandma was reminded of how fortunate she had been.

That’s how I felt about the anniversary of Virginia Tech; I was one of the lucky ones and it was/is still pretty terrible. Like my grandma, I am able to look back on my college photos and find a similar gratitude. A stranger looking at those photos would see good friends hanging out and having fun. My photos from April 2007 and beyond, show us going through difficult things – vigils, remembrances, memorials. But in all of that, you see a community taking care of itself with kindness and love. The pain and sorrow of that time does not supersede the beauty of healing and reconciliation.

We talked about relationships; hers and mine. I asked her for advice and she said, “Everyone isn’t always up on their hind legs all the time.”

Mostly meaning, that sometimes life and relationships aren’t always that exciting or easy and that’s okay. We all go through different seasons and experiences and, to be honest, some are a lot more glamorous than others. When we can look back on our memories with empathy, it empowers us to see and appreciate the good from whatever our histories may be. When we look back, are we looking for heartache or happiness?

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. ~ Matthew 7:7

Ugh, right? Icebreakers. They’re often awkward parts of professional development or mandatory staff gatherings. We mutter under our breath about them, but we keep doing them. And, usually by the end, we’ve all had a laugh about something. Or, found a way to get into heated political discourse.

Today was one of those days: icebreakers at a quarterly staff meeting. These are people I see infrequently. People have been hired or fired in between some of these meetings. At a large institution, it can take months to figure that out. I am scheduled to run the icebreaker for the next meeting, so I sized up the room today while my coworker charged bravely forward leading the exercise.

It involved asking and answering questions, shuffling of prompt cards, and negotiating question options. The structure isn’t really the point. One of my prompts asked, “What would you do differently/more of if you weren’t afraid of being judged?”

Bam. I feel judged all the time.

Plus, this question came after my partner told me a beautiful story about her father. Whenever she finds herself really missing him or “talking” to him about a problem, sometimes a red cardinal will appear. Cardinals hold great significance in her family history. She takes comfort in their timely appearance in her life. Her prompt asked, “What is something/someone you really miss?”

Bam, bam. I miss NYC, I miss my friends, I miss feeling healthy, I miss having a tan, I miss so many things all the time. It is exhausting to actively miss something or someone.

I told my partner I would ask more questions if I didn’t feel concerned about being judged. Where do we keep office supplies? Why do you like me? Why don’t you like me? What do you want from me? Do you think I’m smart enough to do this? Do you think I’ll ever figure my life out? Will people stop asking me why I’m not married yet? Would you help me understand this problem? Would you listen to me? What brings you joy? What is making you a better person?

So, later today, I realized I needed to ask my boss for help. I hate asking for help because, a) I like the challenge of figuring things out, and b) I don’t want people to think I’m dumb or incapable. Guess what? Never asking for help can mean that you never figure out some of the “things” and some people think you’re arrogant.

So, I asked for help. But, I couched it with all these reasons about why I needed help. I felt the need to justify how I could need a little help. Never mind that I hosted two artist residencies within a week, five performances took place in multiple venues last week, and I traveled for a professional obligation in the middle of all of it. I needed a little help; or maybe an assistant for the day.

A little help made life so much better in about five minutes. Of course, my boss helped me out with a minimal issue.

We hate icebreakers because it is work that is sometimes painful. But we have to keep chipping away to find who we are deep down inside.

I’ve been thinking about investments. This election brought up a lot of questions and concerns about our identity as a country. The implications of that are huge and overwhelming for me, so I scale those questions to the micro-level as they manifest in my immediate sphere.

A recently heard definition of integrity keeps coming to mind: integrity is making and keeping promises to myself. The promises I’ve faithfully kept have been some of the best investments I’ve ever made in myself, my relationships, and my experiences. Some promises have been surprisingly hard – like trying to stop drinking coffee. Took me a whole year, folks.

My grandmother turned 95 this year. I made a timeline for her, capturing 3-4 significant events from each year of her life. She lived through a lot! Presidents, world wars, medical advancements and disasters, social and civic sea changes…this doesn’t even include her own personal life journey. She came of age during World War II; she is a mother, grandmother, wife, sister, daughter. Contemplating all she witnessed during her life, I am impressed by the commitments she had to make to various people or institutions not knowing what would come next. Some of her investments paid off early, some cost her dearly, and some turned out better than she could ever imagine. If your grandparents are still living, take a moment to flip through a photo album with them. You might even find a telegram from your grandfather to your grandmother that “he’ll be home on Saturday.”

The thing with investing is that we just don’t know how it will turn out. Wherever or however we invest our resources is simply a marker of how far we will stretch ourselves. We have to believe in the cause or idea, more than we believe in what we will get from it. We have to consider what kind of promise we can or can’t, will or won’t make to something or someone.

In my current work, I observe students in their early twenties promising their time, energy and creativity. I’m fascinated by those choices; and highly reflective of the choices/promises I made at their age. Moral of the story: embrace learning.

As I completed my thera-band exercises this week, I was reminded that resistance builds strength. Resistance to the promises we make can appear as road-blocks, when in reality, resistance may be the opportunity to strengthen us to maintain that commitment. In daily navigating the sometimes murky, cluttered waters of a large university structure, I’m seeing that success comes not from fighting resistance but positioning it as a catalyst for achieving the long-term goal/investment.

What are the promises, investments we can make in our homes, workplaces, and communities that will unfold positively in healthcare, education, and the environment? What are the investments I need to make now, regardless of how long they take, or whether I immediately (or ever) benefit from them?

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? ~Matthew 16:25-26