On a recent trip to Richmond for Pilates Certification training, I visited Maymont Mansion during some free time. As a child, my family traveled there once or twice a year, visiting my two great aunts. They have both since passed away, quickly dwindling my trips there.

v6QZKwvgQc2KBhiDIoAVCQI needed an adventure break during training weekend. Saturday was a beautifully sunny day. I always try take in cultural experiences while traveling. I needed a little exercise, too, so Maymont Mansion seemed like a great match. Clearly a community favorite, families and joggers enjoyed the grounds with me. I laughed (to myself) overhearing a dad try to explain to his little girl that this was indeed, a park. She expected swings and slides, not manicured lawns. She kept repeating, “Where is it? I don’t see no park.” I walked most of the grounds before realizing that below a hill lay another garden. I bounded down the winding stone path into a Japanese horticulture homage. It felt like entering a secret garden tucked beneath the great hill.

One water feature included large stepping stones to access a small island. A dad and his son crossed ahead of me, so I paused to watch the little boy’s pleasure at hopping across the stones. His mother and sibling waited on the other side, waving happily. Somewhat frantically, the little boy yelled, “How am I going to get over there?! Am I stuck here?” His young mind hadn’t quite calculated that the whole path formed a loop, or that he could return the way he came. His dad calmly said, “Lookthere is a bridge on this side of the island we can take.” Crisis averted! The little boy darted across the bridge eagerly, ready to be relieved of his brief marooning.

His cry and posture reminded me of Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore. As a senior in college, I acted as house manager for the show. I made the mistake of not fully observing the play prior to managing the late seating policy. I tried to squeeze two patrons into aisle seats just as several cast members came darting up the aisle “on their way to the other shore.” The play reminded me of dynamics on the show Lost, wherein the stress and adrenaline of trying to figure out one’s relationship to the universe made one question every aspect of reality.

I understood exactly how that little boy felt trying to get to the other side. It is easy to bound forward in excitement, target in view. You realize there is something unexpected or impassable between you and your final goal – it might be small, like two feet of water. The focus and commitment to the goal makes looking elsewhere feel like betrayal or a waste of time. But, by taking a moment to look around, the way out might become clear. Or, the voice of a friend with wise advice can be heard. This quick interchange gave me a picture of God, the good Shepherd, walking alongside his beloved. He isn’t in a rush and he isn’t going to join the freakout party. He isn’t going to laugh at our short-sightedness or get frustrated at our zero to sixty desperation. He keeps walking with us, letting us charge forward, guiding our steps.

 

 

 

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

 

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

Rereading some material on aesthetic education and it’s always good to revisit John Dewey’s Art as Experience:

“…to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience.  And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent.  They are not the same in any literal sense.  But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced.  Without an act of recreation, the object is not perceived as a work of art.  The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest.  The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest.”

Around this time in 2001 I was nervously rehearsing my lines for a performance and even when I heard the news on the radio thought, “this must be a joke or something, no one would do that.”

And then my family and I waited hours to hear from my aunt working at the Pentagon.

And then the show went on.

Because it was about a father wrongly imprisoned and his fight for his family.

It was about fighting injustice.

It was about a mother bravely taking care of her family on her own.

Our director said performing was our way of honoring the brave men and women who fought for everything on this day in an effort to spare lives.

It was for now childless mothers and fathers and parent-less children.

It was for those who were spared such loss.

It was a refusal to let evil hearts and minds instill fear and hatred in our spirits.

I jumbled my lines for my “big” scene that night. But the emotion was real. My older brother (community play, folks, it takes a village!) was on stage with me that night and saved the day, entering the stage early once he realized I had no idea what I was saying. That’s what big brothers are for…

Today is my best friend’s birthday. She has fought for me and with me in some of my biggest challenges in life. When I try to understand loyalty, I think about her. In the melancholy of today, there is also a cause for joy in celebrating her.

Be brave. Fight injustice. Hold close to those around you. This kind of fight is only successful when a community unites, looking heavenward.