Tutoring

I have been tutoring in a few public high schools in San Francisco the past three weeks, and it has been one of the best things I could do with my time. I can write and think about race and gender and class and understanding and inclusion, but it is another thing to do this work out loud and in public.

One of the tutors gave me a compliment. He said that I bring a good energy to the group and that the students seem to be responding well to me. That is a compliment that I have earned. When I started tutoring nine months ago, I made a lot of mistakes with students. Not huge mistakes that looked terrible, but my assumptions were incorrect. For example, I expected the students to respect my authority and my time, and to listen to me and follow my instructions. Ha ha ha. I should’ve realized that with a young son that this is NOT how it goes. The best way to get my son to follow the rules? Explain why it is important. Explain why brushing one’s teeth gets sugar off the teeth and keeps cavities away. Put in some knowledge so that he will have the intrinsic motivation to want to take care of himself, or at the very least plant the seeds for this for the future.

I also do the lovingkindness (metta) meditation on the BART ride over. (http://www.onbeing.org/blog/lovingkindness-metta-meditation-sylvia-boorstein/2599) I think about everyone in my life and I send them these thoughts. Though it is called a form of meditation, I see it as a form of prayer. I also do this for the people who are commuting with me, for the students and teachers I will work with, and then I open it up for the whole world. I have no idea if it “works,” in that the people who I am thinking of suddenly feel enlightened or more loved by the world, but I will say that for myself it opens up my heart for the day ahead and the people I will encounter. I use it when I am driving too because traffic stresses me out and this is one thing I do that calms me down. This reminds me that I am connected to other people and that how we all feel as a whole matters.

On the BART ride over, I will also read something that centers me and takes me out of my own preoccupations. Last week I read David Whyte’s Consolations. He has a generous perspective that resonates with me. I also will read Pema Chodron, and tomorrow I will bring a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, whose interview I just heard on On Being and loved. Writings by people who believe in things like love, peace, and wisdom. People who are not so unbearably cynical about the world that they have no belief in humanity. People who are not wholly in it for themselves.

I write all this not because I want to convert you to my particular flavor of pseudo-spirituality but because I know that it takes a lot of mental preparation to give myself over to day devoted to students. I don’t have sophisticated expectations either. I am there to 1. connect with them 2. listen and see them (so many of us go through a day without feeling seen) 3. do whatever it takes so that they can see that there is real meaning behind the work the teacher is asking them to do 4. do the best I can 5. self-reflect so that I can learn from my mistakes, figure out what is not working, and what I can do better in the future.

I like being out in the world this way. It feels empowering. The world feels less scary when I’m walking toward the things I believe in. This feels like what will be one of my lifework. I have spent the last 10+ years writing, struggling with writing, I just had my first piece published this month. It has been a tough struggle where I doubted and continue to doubt myself some of the time. But then I see that I have this other thing, where I have deep empathy for anyone who struggles with writing and where I know I can help. There are many approaches to writing. There is more than one point of entry to writing an essay. I want to show students that a flexibility with writing and with ideas makes for better writing. There is not one easy solid right answer. I want to make writing feel less rigid and structured and like a dreaded school assignment. I want to push them toward seeing how writing can make them feel alive.

But most importantly this experience has been about learning so much from the students I have worked with. How impressed I have been by all of them, every single one of them. How most of them work hard in school (and have support of their families to do this) because they want to have a better life. How this makes me think we better make damn sure that they’re getting the education they need to be able to do this.

Everyone can do this and should go volunteer in under-resourced schools. (I recommend volunteering through 826 Valencia.) Just know that you will probably learn more from the students than they will from you. Just be open to the experience whatever it might be and that every time will be different. You don’t have to be the coolest tutor, the funnest person, you just have to show up consistently, listen and work with them, and be yourself. And no BS because students can look through that.

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On Love

Today was my son’s babysitter’s last day, and we were all sad. She’ll be going to school in San Francisco and her life will be up there. It’s not as if she’s even gone very far, but it feels like a big deal to lose her. She’s watched my son since he was 2, so for the last two years. A lot happened in those two years. She knew him from when he was barely talking, not even potty trained, to this little boy that plots and plans and talks so much now. In her card to him she called him funny, which I take to be the highest compliment. He IS funny with his parades and the way he laughs to himself. His jokes are great—he even makes me laugh, which I find surprising. A toddler can make me laugh? I feel proud as a parent that he has such a great sense of humor, and want to take credit for this, though I don’t think I can take credit for this.

But it’s so heartbreaking to think that their relationship will stop right there, at least not in the incarnation that we know it as now. I guess the thing that I still have difficulty dealing with and the thing that I will never “get over” is the way that people leave my life, the way I leave people’s lives, the way relationships end. Through death or through changes or just a break of the relationship, but it is so hopelessly sad. Don’t I wish I could just hold onto all these relationships I have had over the years, just cling to them, in some kind of unhealthy way, just seal them off in a biodome, just so…what, so that I can have proof that someone cared about me once upon a time.

I have a close friend who tells me that she loves me. It is weird because while I tell my husband and son that I love them all the time, I very, very rarely tell other family and friends that I love them, though I do. Of course I do. So I tell this friend that I love her too, even though I have other friends I have known much longer who I do not tell that I love them. But it was thinking about it very logically that I suddenly realized that I’ve known this friend for almost ten years now. (As if that period of time passing suddenly makes it legit, as if it’s crossed some kind of valid threshold.) We met in a Personal Autobiography class at City College and were in a writing group together for, I think, two years. So, yes, of course I love her, but my mind just doesn’t easily go there. For whatever reason. Because love can take on so many different forms and feelings and colors and ideas and it’s hard to define or think about. And also people can leave and then it’s like what do you do with these feelings.

I have also been thinking about being a parent to my son and how in those first few years I was crippled with a feeling of inadequacy. I would see my husband bouncing around with my son and being so FUN and just feel like I was a terrible parent in comparison. The exhausted grouchy one who didn’t want to be there. Thankfully, there are a lot of adults in my son’s life who pulled through when I couldn’t. He has us plus two sets of grandparents who love him and spend time with him. I used to think of it as some kind of ranking of who were the better caretakers, and now, I really don’t care. I space out. I kind of think, let someone else play with him in their own way. Maybe the problem with new parents is that there is this need for control in the beginning. No screen time, no HFCS, no this or that, rules rules rules. I’ve lessened on that a bit, and I let the ones who take care of him go by their rules. Because it all balances out in the end, it all evens out to love and care and that FEELING that someone loves you more than the rules. Maybe this is misguided in some way, but I don’t think it is. Because I have noticed that everyone plays with him in a different way, in their OWN way, and I like it. Everyone brings something else to the table, and it all adds up to something good.

So when I think of women who feel like they have to be super moms, at least I know that I don’t buy into that crap. I will never be that kind of mom. I’ll probably just be “good enough” most of the time. But that’s ok because there are plenty of other people who can take up the slack when I can’t. And that’s the biggest lesson on being a parent that I did not realize until now.

There has been so much leaving and loss in my son’s life recently. His babysitter left, his uncle moved to Seattle, a neighbor in our building passed away, his dad is away on a business trip for the week and that was a particularly tough goodbye, he’s leaving his preschool for another one closer to where we will be in a few months. And so on. It just goes on. I want to tell him, this is the way the rest of your life will look like. People will come and go of their own choosing and of not, but they will sometimes leave. Life is a series of loss, we cannot hold on too tightly for our life to look a certain way, and we must make room for people to leave and we must make room for new people to come into our lives. We cannot be so closed off that we cannot see that from this loss, beautiful new things will come. I can think of many times when I thought the worst thing happened to me, but it turned out to be the best thing.

Writing

For me writing is still very much an act of faith. Though in the beginning,  it is the most fun. It’s like coasting downhill. I just write whatever I want and I’m so inspired. It’s all wheeee!!!! But there always comes a part where I have so many pieces of the thing, and I need to stitch it together. The messiness overwhelms me. Someone talked about giving up her current project to start a new one and I wanted to say, “NOOOOOOOOO!!” Because that’s always the temptation. I’ve abandoned projects that I probably just should have sat with and worked on. But I guess that’s part of learning. Make some mistakes and start to realize the patterns.

So, there’s always that messy moment where I wonder if things are going to come together. I get up from my computer a billion times because I can’t stand that uncomfortable feeling of it all not working. And then miraculously, or not so miraculously since the whole process at times feels painful, it comes together. I feel like that moment is the reason why I write. There is some kind of big life meaning behind it. Sticking to something that isn’t working out quite right in the moment, having the foresight to see what the project will be in the future, chugging along even when it’s so incredibly difficult and tangled. And how the work seems to be from so much more than just myself. The best work seems to arise when I am able to let go of some control.

Every act of creating is a miracle, and getting to do that is like testing the universe to see if there’s any magic left in it. And so I repeat the process in the hopes of having that happen again and again. But I’ll be honest: sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Rocket Science

I told myself this today that updating a blog does not have to be rocket science. All I have to do is write what I’ve been thinking about for the last week. But it feels hard after everything that happened last week in the news.

I’ve been thinking on and off about an article I read a few weeks back called, “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City” by Nikole Hannah-Jones:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html?_r=0

Hannah-Jones talks about the segregated school system in Brooklyn, New York as a microcosm for the education system in our country. How people buy and cram themselves into the good neighborhoods so their children can get into “good” schools. How schools are segregated as a result of housing costs (and a long history of housing discrimination) that it has left low-income primarily black and Latino children out of the more desirable, resource-flushed public schools in the area.

This is one of those articles that I read and stayed with me. Well-researched, especially on the history of segregation/integration in schools, and with a deeply personal angle, it hits all the marks of a resonant, thought-provoking article that really shook me up. When I was picking up my son, when I was reading up on the news last week, when I was cooking, when I was writing, and when talking with friends—it never left my brain because I knew Hannah-Jones spoke the truth. Our school systems are very, very segregated.

She writes, “Legally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again. Today, across the country, black children are more segregated than they have been at any point in nearly half a century. Except for a few remaining court-ordered desegregation programs, intentional integration almost never occurs unless it’s in the interests of white students.”

I saw it when we were at the wonderful Children’s Museum in Chicago. At the museum we saw groups of kids segregated by race all on their own separate field trips. There were groups of African-American kids, groups of white kids, and even a group of Asian-American kids (they were a Chinese school), who didn’t really mingle with one another. I remember how stark it was to see those divides before my eyes. I went home and looked it up online and found that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. From what I see, similar things happen in the Bay Area.

But all the events from last week and this article have gotten me thinking about the racial injustices in our country. I’m starting to see some of the links: housing, education, law enforcement. And I cannot turn a blind eye. Schools play a huge part in this. It’s easy to get our kids into the “right” school system and then completely ignore the problem, but Hannah-Jones throws down the gauntlet when she writes:

True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural. Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. “My children,” he said, “only have one life.” But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregated schools. They have only one life, too.

A parable

Told by Rachel Naomi Remen in Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise:

This was my fourth birthday present, this story. In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called Tikkun Olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.

And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

—Rachel Naomi Remen (p 24-25)

Implicit Bias

Recently, there was an On Being interview with Mahzarin Banaji, a professor who studies implicit biases. I liked what she had to say:

I do believe that, in our culture and in many cultures, we are at a point where our conscious minds are so ahead of where our less conscious minds are. Our conscious minds deeply believe in egalitarianism, in selecting people based on things called merit, on talent, and not based on the color of people’s skin, or their height, or whether they have hair on their head. And yet, we are doing that.

And so I like what you just said which is “implicit” just allows us to shed that whole sort of moral encasing in which so much of our values about — “Am I a discriminator or not?” — comes. That I am especially interested in, letting people let go of that sort of sense — “I’m a bad human being.” The title of the book, therefore, has been Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. And the “good people” is extremely important to me. I do believe that we have changed over the course of our evolutionary history into becoming better and better people who have higher and higher standards for how we treat others. And so we are good. And we must recognize that, and yet, ask people the question, “Are you the good person you yourself want to be?” And the answer to that is no, you’re not. And that’s just a fact. And we need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement. 

I, myself, am not free from implicit bias. After I listened to the interview, I took Banaji’s test on gender (here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) and found I have a Moderate bias with regard to gender, even though I am a feminist.

Banaji says, “It is my job to tell people to feel uncomfortable, to squirm, to go back and think hard about where they come from and so on…Because if we don’t, we’ve basically given up the most fundamental aspect of who we are and what we prize and value, and what I believe is at the heart of social change…There’s nothing about this issue that is simple, but I have every faith that we will come out of it if we don’t hold back, if we keep talking, and if we try to understand what the other is saying.”

So, let’s talk about it.

For me, I have been thinking about how I’d like to read up more on the history of Asian-Americans in this country. I’d also like to read up on African-American and Latino history in our country as well. I would like to read up on the construction of race. Also, novels. Read more books by people of different races and backgrounds to feel what people’s lives are like in this country and the world. I would like to write about those books here.

The Ocean

More than 10 years ago when I lived in San Francisco I would run the four miles from the Panhandle all the way to Ocean Beach. I’d look at the waves for a few minutes, and then I’d hop on the 5 and take the bus back home.

The whole thing felt rather absurd to me at the time. First, staring at the ocean—who did I think I was, some kind of star of my own indie movie? Second, taking the bus back. I even recently told someone about taking the bus instead of running those four miles back, and he’d laughed at me. I didn’t feel offended because that reaction felt about right. I felt sheepish about it even back then. Why run halfway and then take the bus home? But there was something important about getting to the end, seeing the ocean and that being the reward in itself.

Looking back I can say now that I was running to see that wide expanse of water that stretched out to make a gray line in the horizon. My body somehow knew that I needed to get out and see that. It was all about that ocean. How free it made me feel, how much it cleared my head, even if I hoped no one would see my eyes fixed on it like it would save me. I can say now that it was some form of prayer.

I did not have any special problems. I was not unique in any way from most people living in an urban city who may have felt a little lost and alone. My biggest tragedy at the age of 22 was losing a close group of friends to hang out with in the city. Painful, yes, but not upending. But it wasn’t only that. Nothing seemed right. My job wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though the people there I can say in hindsight were pretty fantastic. I didn’t know where my life was going, and living around the Panhandle, it was pretty gray, a grayness that seemed to seep into my days…

From the outside my life looks so different now. I’m married, I have my family, I have much less free time, and my social circles feel more set. This weekend we went to Monterey, but I also sought out the beach on my own. I went by myself and let myself get pulled into the spell of the waves. I had forgotten how the crashing waves were so unpredictable and arbitrary, how that made me feel in awe.

It’s not just that the ocean is vast and powerful. This is true, but it’s also that the ocean is extremely beautiful. To see it is to see something of real beauty and life force. It forces you away from the screen, from the emails you need to respond to about what you’ll bring to the potluck. It forces you to pay attention and so you do.

Do you know what the problem with my life was then when I was 22? It was that I was so overwhelmed by my problems, by how my life wasn’t perfect, how nothing was going the way I wanted it to, and how ceaselessly impatient I felt. But here’s the real secret of it all that I realize at 35 that I couldn’t realize at 22: that’s just how it is. I still don’t feel like everything has fallen into place, and I don’t think it ever will. When I stood before the ocean in Monterey, my first thoughts were, “Why isn’t it like this? Why is it like this?” I always feel unsettled and uncomfortable, and I always have this strong wish for everything to line up just so. I hate those jagged, uneven edges.

A part of why I was so miserable when I was 22 was that I didn’t/couldn’t see all the wonderful things I did have in my life because I was so fixated on the ideal, on the perfect. I wanted that perfect romantic partner, the group of friends straight out of the show Friends (even though if I had this in real life, I realize now that I would HATE it), and the glamorous, important job where I got to wear pretty outfits to work. Basically, 22-year-old me wanted to live in a romantic comedy. As a result, I didn’t see all the great things going on around me.

Without the crutch of a group of friends I had known for forever, I was forced to get out on my own, meet other people. My life was so rich, and I was starting over and building things from scratch. I was essentially learning how to interact with new people who hadn’t known me for a billion years. I was learning kindness, and the ways that I was not always kind. But I was learning. I had wonderful conversations with so many people. I got to see plays and go to museums. I discovered Mary Gaitskill at the time and had that mind blowing, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could write like that!” moment. I wandered by myself through the city. I had all the time in the world. And this built the foundation that let me become who I am today: interested in the world, curious, engaged, interested in people. I don’t feel like I would’ve developed this if I’d been more comfortable.

David Whyte says that, “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given.” Gratitude requires work. It requires thought. It doesn’t happen naturally. So to pull away and just be able to say, “I appreciate, I am happy despite all these other things that will always be up in the air,” is a form of perspective I lacked then. The nice thing about getting older and having lived my life is that I have developed more patience than I would’ve thought possible. I have learned to have faith that what I put into something will eventually pay off. Not in the way I may want it to, but in the end it will pay off in a way that ends up making more sense than the daydream version I had in my head.

But the ocean to me has always been some kind of reset button, some kind of clearing my brain. We’re built to keep striving and wanting. It keeps us alive, but the truly content people, the ones who can really settle into their life, understand the importance to sit back and enjoy even in the midst of the muck and mire because they know too that those good moments will be gone.

Life is not about wishing for another life or other circumstances because I have yet to see truly anyone with a perfect situation. And there is simply no way to avoid difficulties. Look at the ocean and then walk back into that beautiful, messy life that is waiting for you.