Why this?

The occasional piece of my own and a generous helping of others' creations I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Talking to my white son, as a white mom, about de/colonization

I recently realized I haven’t talked much with my kid (age six) about our country’s colonialist past and the fact that we live on stolen land. Which isn’t surprising considering my own thought patterns, which tend to focus on more recent indicators of racism/white supremacy/patriarchy. I’m aiming to educate myself about Indigenous cultures and history in my (Northeast) corner of the country; meanwhile, I want to also bring my son into conversations about the people who rooted in our area before many were overtaken by colonizing Western Europeans, and about what we can do in the day to day to actively oppose colonizer mentality. 

For years now I’ve asked and attempted to explain the question “does your heart feel open or closed right now?” with Finn, and I think he understands in his way. Connecting with friends and family; helping people who have less than we do; soaking up the beauty of nature and honoring the Earth by not littering, by recycling, by composting; expressing gratitude for the food that nourishes us and our shared companionship as we sit down for meals… Though in talking to Finn I haven’t really framed them as such, these are all things our family does that challenge the pillaging, winner-take-all foundation of whiteness in our country. 

This FB page was recently recommended by a friend as a solid resource for locating children's books that accurately represent American Indians and the European takeover—and here's an upcoming webinar (May 28!) I just learned about and will be joining. Glad for the support.


The other night I asked Finn, “Hey, do you think it’s possible for humans to own land? Like, to say that parts of Mother Earth belong to them?” Finn: Smiling, knowing I’m talking serious here. “Yeah.” Me: “Really? Like how we can go to a store and pay money for a book that we can then take home with us because we bought it?” Finn: Pausing, appearing to think on it. “You can buy a toy Planet Earth from the store.” Me: “Ah, yep. But that’s a toy, right? Different from the earth we walk on.” Finn: Quiet but possibly absorbing.

While distractions were, as always, the norm (“I want dessert”; “where’s my giant shark tooth?”), Finn appeared to more or less stay with me, probably in good part because of his current interest in weapons/violence, as I talked about how hundreds of years ago white men sailed across the ocean in search of more land/wealth/power, which they made sure to secure, wiping out entire peoples as they went along. I told Finn that even though I don’t believe land can truly *belong* to any person, the first people to discover the land he knows as the United States—the Native tribes that the white men encountered—had lived on it and honored it for thousands of years before the white men came and declared it theirs. Finn: “Maybe they did that because someone treated them unkindly when they were a kid.” Me: “Yes, I think that sort of thing is often a factor. But there’s more to it, and we can keep talking about it.”

Friday, March 29, 2019

Supermarket Blues: Classism in America

I recently watched this brief video with my six-year-old. Afterward, Finn, who lately is interested in dramatic situations and intense emotions, wanted to talk about the one parent’s departure early on and the mother’s tears over not consistently being able to feed her family due to working a low-paying job. I took the opportunity to talk about the fact that, unfortunately, because of the way our country is set up, there are big differences in the amount of money people are able to make at their jobs, with a small number of folks making a lot more than the rest, which can make things really hard (and sad) for some—plus the added difficulty that some families face when only one parent is able to bring home a paycheck. I had Finn’s ear for this. I then mentioned the wrongful assumptions that are often made about folks who ask for money outside grocery stores and other places (not hard enough workers, lazy), which my kid wasn’t as present for. (I know better than to go beyond a minute with this stuff!) But I know we’ll return to the topic—Finn may even bring it up himself, in his own six-year-old way.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Talking with my white kid, as a white mom, about mass incarceration

April 2018

Scene: It’s bedtime, and I’m chatting about this and that with my kid while he flips through a book. 

Kid: Mama, what is jail?
Me: Well, basically, jail is a place—a big building—where some people go when they do things that are very unkind and that hurt other people a lot, or that the people who are in charge of the country have decided are what’s known as “against the law”—
Kid: [Cutting me off, because at five he’s ready to move on] What do they do there?
Me: Well, not a lot. And that’s because jail isn’t supposed to be fun or anything—it’s a place where people go because they maybe did things that are really uncaring or wrong and the idea is that, in jail, they spend a lot of time thinking about what they did. And the food doesn’t taste very good. But there are things that people in jail can do—like read books and do exercise.
Kid: [Clearly listening to me now] Oh.
Me: And honestly, I don’t agree with a lot of the things about jail. Often there isn’t really a chance for people in jail to get the help they need, like by talking to helpful people about things they’re having a hard time with and about why they might have done unkind things. 
[My kid is quiet but still with me. So, inspired by the experience of a fellow white Parenting for Racial Justice workshop participant who’d addressed the topic of racist policing with her little one, I decide to keep going.] 
Me: You know another thing I don’t like about jail?
Kid: What?
Me: Well, black people get put in jail more often than white people do. And it’s because black people aren’t treated the same as white people by police officers and other powerful people—they’re not treated as well—and it’s unjust and unkind and not right, and your dad and I are very against it.
Kid: Oh.
Me: Yeah. There are a lot of things about jail and about how black people are treated differently from white people, and they’re kind of hard to explain and understand, but we can keep talking, more and more as you get older—and I want you to know you can always come to your dad and me with more questions about any of these things. OK?
Kid: OK.

Reflections (specific): In the wake of the above exchange, I felt pretty good about how I’d proceeded. As usual, I saw room for improvement in the form of using fewer words, but for the most part my kid had seemed interested in what I was saying. 

Reflections (general): I'm always primed for my kid to go off on tangents and topics to run away from us if I pause too long or ask him his thoughts—but I know it’s important to try to involve him in a meaningful way if the social justice topics that are important to me are going to speak to him as well. Also, as I remind myself, I’ll be living with this person for at least another 13 years, so chances are excellent that opportunities for follow-up conversations will arise.

We Are the Immigrants

Topics of immigration and asylum seeking continue to be front-and-center in the U.S., with 45 taking every opportunity to make his unabashedly racist positions clear. The other week I realized that these are topics I hadn’t to date explored much with my almost-six-year-old, so I dug around online and found some great resources to support my conversations with him, including the animated short “We Are the Immigrants." The film, thesis project of Catalina Matamoros, an award-winning animator and illustrator from Colombia, narrates the hardships of a girl and her family as they cross the Mexican-U.S. border in hopes of reuniting with the girl’s mother. I sat down with my kid to watch, and we were both drawn in straight away, with Finn especially taken by what he called “the ghosts” as well as the appearance of, sigh, guns (topic for another post; related). 

At the end of the film I explained to Finn, who was actually paying attention to what I was saying (hardly a given with five-year-olds), that many of the families who are trying to enter our country from the southern border want to get away from governments that are doing things to hurt or potentially hurt them—but that Donald Trump, who Finn has heard his dad and me describe as cruel and only liking people who look like him/are white, doesn’t want to let them into the United States. He had just one question for me: “So where can they go?” I was struck, hearing that, and I struggled to answer in a way Finn would follow and without painting the bleak picture I guess I was trying to avoid. I pretty much said that was the problem—that they didn’t really have any good/safe options. Finn and I both went quiet, and I sensed that he’d picked up on the gravity of the conversation.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Getting Comfortable with Discomfort--with ++ support from the ACT for Social Justice team

ACT for Social Justice, based in Brattleboro, VT, published the below account of mine--which I'm sharing here as well. If you're looking or know someone who's looking for social justice support, I strongly suggest checking them out! From their homepage:

Do you want a world where all people have what they need to thrive? Equity is important in making this possible. It means that people put in what they can and get back what they need. ACT provides strategies and tools for putting equity into practice.


From the introductory handout at ACT for Social Justice’s racial justice workshop series:

In this workshop series we will look at our own understanding of race & racism and how that impacts the way we talk with our children about race. … Our main goals are for participants to:

·         Gain a deeper understanding of race/racism/white supremacy/racial justice
·         Build relationships that allow for better communication about the above concepts
·         Set the foundation to work together for racial justice
·         Establish goals for personal next steps at multiple levels—personal, family, school, community

Early this year, a Nonotuck Community School parent and diversity committee member invited parents from my four-year-old’s nearby childcare center to join Nonotuck parents for a three-part racial justice workshop led by ACT for Social Justice’s Angela Berkfield and Shela Linton. I could not have been readier.

Although I haven’t to date done much of what I’d consider racial justice work, I’m an empath and avid reader/defender of social justice topics at large who feels pulled from deep down to fight oppression—and I want to raise my kid with a solid understanding of racial inequity and the need for justice. I’ve been addressing skin color and unequal treatment with my five-year-old for years, guided largely by resources I’ve found online, but I often feel like I’m muddling through, unsure my approach is as helpful as it could be.

Back in January, I was also fresh off a conversation with a white male neighbor that had included sentiments along the lines of it’s not like I’m a racist and why would I talk to my four-year-old kid about racism? It’s not his fault. The exchange had been pretty uncomfortable for me, and although I’d felt true to myself throughout, I was shaken: angry and discouraged over my neighbor’s narrow view, and second-guessing parts of my response.

In short, I was craving support—both in my parenting and as a white person who wants to deepen my understanding of white privilege and its role in my life, ultimately so that I can serve as an effective ally to people of color.

On walking into the classroom where the workshop would be taking place, I found a roomful of parents who in the coming weeks I’d get to know a bit—and learn from a lot. Chairs had been set up in a semicircle. An image of an iceberg representing two forms of white supremacy was prominently displayed—the version that is overt/widely socially unacceptable (hate crimes, swastikas, racial slurs) and the one that’s more covert/socially acceptable (hiring discrimination, mass incarceration, “colorblindness”).

Shela and Angela introduced themselves and their intent with the workshop. We talked about the iceberg metaphor, and we participants introduced ourselves, specifying racial identity, pronoun preference, and what brought us to the workshop. People, most of us identifying as white, mentioned feeling disappointed at the lack of racial justice programming at their kids’ schools, family members who make offhanded racist remarks, not knowing where to start in talking with their kids about inequity, disconnect in the value they and their partner place on having these conversations…

After introductions, everyone paired up with an “accountability buddy” to identify and discuss goals at the personal, family, school, and community levels—goals that we committed to check in with each other on. For example, my buddy, who identifies as white, intended to dig deeper with a relative to try to get at where he was coming from with his racially insensitive comments, and I planned to email the principal of a local elementary school with a reputation for its social justice programming (“how are you doing it?”) in hopes of eventually bringing my findings to the administration of the school my own kid would be attending in the fall.

The rest of the session was equally engaging: participants shared more encounters they’d had around race and difference, as did Angela and Shela, whose deep understanding of the complexities and reach of white supremacy was and would continue to be a gift. Three hours in, we closed (as we would each of the three sessions) with a reading of this bell hooks quote, which was posted on the wall: “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world… We deepen those bondings by connecting them with an anti-racist struggle.”

I left the classroom with a full brain and a full heart, and confirmation that I was most definitely in the right place at the right time. The following insight, offered by our facilitators, was already lodged, and I knew it would stay with me:

As a white ally doing racial justice work, you’re going to mess up. It’s inevitable, and it’s OK—just learn from it, adjust your approach, and keep doing the work.

Also: It helps to get comfortable with discomfort. 

Workshop sessions two and three also resonated.

There was discussion of an excerpt from Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and a piece, “Raising Issues of Race with Young Children,” from the anthology Rethinking Early Childhood Education. In the latter, an educator recounts initiating an activity among first-graders that involved acknowledging difference in skin color—an activity that one African American girl didn’t want to take part in because she knew her darker color would stand out.

One workshop participant, who identifies as white, shared that, in reading, she’d really felt for the girl—a girl who was put in a position that was clearly uncomfortable for her. And it was the same woman who later added that she understood that not acknowledging visible difference (read: the “colorblind” approach adopted widely to date, including by my own well-meaning parents in the ‘80s) had clearly not led to a comfortable existence for people of color at large.

Referencing the same anthology piece, I expressed some sympathy for white teachers called on to initiate conversations about race and racism with kids, including kids of color: “It just can’t be easy—especially for teachers who are new to this, who just haven’t really done it before.”

We compared notes about children’s books that reflect race and racial justice (both those that do it well and those that fall short), and I scored a stellar rec in the process. And for what I think was my favorite exercise of the workshop, we split into groups to act out challenging conversations of our choosing. My group sought to explain to a four-year-old and an eight-year-old the significance of the Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard. Two of us were parents and two were kids—and we “parents” definitely felt the challenge. Other groups tackled talking to kids about a play their family had attended in which the only person of color had played the “bad guy,” and sitting down with a school principal to make good on the PTO’s desire to bring racial justice programming to the curriculum—all scenarios drawn from participants’ actual experiences.

I found the practice (and the feedback) really helpful, and I got tips from others’ role playing too. Also, something we’d discussed before came up again: the fact that it’s always an option to clarify or “change course.” If we don’t manage to explain our position on something well or as intended, or if we find our thinking changes, we can just say so. I’ve done this with my kid and expect to do it plenty more. (“Hey remember the other day when you asked about X—well, I’ve thought about it some more, and actually…”)

The concluding workshop session centered on racial justice action. We brainstormed plans at the personal, family, school, community, state, national, and global levels, writing our ideas on large sheets of paper taped to the wall then going around marking other actions that also resonated with us. It was awesome to see everything that was generated in such a brief period, including:

·         Recognizing my own white privilege and continuing to do personal work/reading/etc
·         Working to connect my passions with actions I can take
·        Connect regularly with my partner on our approach to talking about racial justice with   our kid
·         Activism/support for targeted undocumented people
·         Get involved in community organizing activities

As we gathered for a last sit-down together, one white participant shared how sad and angry ongoing racial injustice makes her feel, which was met with a roomful of nods and yeses and Angela’s thanking her for inviting feelings into the room. I was struck, too, by another person’s suggestion of opening race conversations that feel hard with language like “this isn’t easy for me to bring up/talk about, but it feels important and so I’m going to do my best.” I’ll be using that myself.

We talked about our desire to welcome more people of color, both kids and staff, into the childcare centers our kids attend and ways we can support this. Shela offered valuable insight from the perspective of a parent of color in the Brattleboro, VT area, sharing that in her community people of color tend to rely on word-of-mouth when it comes to making decisions about where to send their kids. And at the top of the list of specific considerations: would their child be in the company of other kids of color; is the curriculum/programming strong and does it respect and address the unique experiences of kids/families of color; are people of color represented in staff makeup; and further down the list, cost. (Shela shared that even when money is tight, parents of color will often make it work if it means sending their kid to a school they feel really good about.)

We also talked about our professional backgrounds and how we can drive racial justice progress through our jobs. As we’d done throughout the series, we made connections. Knowing the workshop was about to end, we made plans to keep in touch—and I will be following through.

Since the conclusion of the series, I’ve thought a lot about my experience. I’ve thought about how finely tuned and effective Angela’s and Shela’s approach as facilitators had been. They’d created an environment that felt safe and inviting, nonjudgmental—accommodating of everyone, no matter where we were at on our path. They’d kept us in the racial justice space, steering us back when topics of gender got too much play. And although warm, the two hadn’t jumped in to respond to participants’ observations with nods and other affirmative gestures intended to make a speaker feel more comfortable in talking about difficult topics, which I’ve realized is something I see (and do) a good deal of. Neither were they quick to challenge directly what people shared, even when a more nuanced perspective might aid growth. They listened—really well. That’s not to say they didn’t contribute substantially, because they did. They just did so in a way that gave us participants room to stretch our thinking and perhaps arrive at a different conclusion more organically, on our own.

For example, they emphasized throughout the workshop that no matter how challenging and uncomfortable racial justice work may feel at times for white allies, people of color always have it harder—and the emphasis took root. To paraphrase one participant toward the end of the last session: I think back to my 20s, to before I had kids. It felt like such a wide open stretch—I had more time and space and less stress and fatigue compared to today. And now, it occurs to me that people of color don’t generally get a stretch like that at all—they’ve had to fight through every period of their lives.

I’ve since thought about my comment on how race conversations likely aren’t easy for white teachers—and I now see clearly that something far less easy is being a person of color in a world in which white supremacy continues to reign. And while that doesn’t mean white people’s difficulties can’t be acknowledged, reminding myself of the relative ease that white privilege affords is helping and will continue to help me push past anxiety brought about by unfun exchanges like the “why should I?” one with my neighbor earlier this year.

Speaking of white privilege/precedence, I recently realized that, in talking about race, I don’t yet think to share my own racial identity off the bat. For instance, the other week I emailed an Asian American acquaintance, racial equity advocate, and successful children’s book writer/illustrator for her insight into my potentially representing kids of color in a story I’d written. While I’d felt good about reaching out, it didn’t occur to me until after hitting send that I’d failed to note (because there was a good chance she wouldn’t remember me) that I was inquiring as a white woman. But it did occur, and I followed up.

I’ve also kept in touch with my accountability buddy from the workshop—we became fast friends and are working together, along with other likeminded parents, to drive the change we want to see at our kids’ schools. And on recognizing that it’s time, I’m deepening conversations with my kid about racial inequity, who the other day asked about jail. I took the opportunity to introduce the concept of mass incarceration, encouraged by a fellow workshop participant who recently raised another “advanced” topic with her kid: the fact that police officers often treat people of color differently, and far worse, than they do white people.

Prompted by the assigned reading Stages of Racial Identity Development, I’m thinking about my place on the continuum. I want to better understand and work through my own blocks that hinder my capacity to serve as a white ally to people of color. I want to listen more.

And: Get comfortable with discomfort.

I’m working on it.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday Dinner

Always my grandparents arrived
disguised as harmless elders. 
They'd say grace, bless the three
of us and our small residence 
above my father's office.

Residence. I don't choose the word
for the poem's sake, but because
it was their word. I want you to hear
what I heard
through all those years 

before my mother's death,
all those Sunday briskets 
and pot roasts, all those potatoes 
she and I peeled on Saturdays 
and the pies whose crusts

we dispatched till it became ritual
the way, I thought, the making of the host
must be ritual for those who toil
in some secret bakery blessed
by a bishop. I haven't forgotten

I wrote disguised. And I know
you might wonder if I should have
changed that word
before I called this poem finished.
I meant 

they had harmed someone.
Not me who believed 
in the prayers they uttered,
but my mother 
who inhabits me each time 

I roll out the dough as she did,
shape it, fit it to the pan,
fill it with mincemeat or apples,
pinch the edges together
with my thumb and forefinger,

and with the tines of my fork 
prick it and prick it and prick it.

--Andrea Hollander Budy 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

December Morning

How did I come to this late happiness 
as I wake into my remaining days
another morning in my life with Paula
taking me by surprise like the first one
I know it is rash to speak about happiness
with the Fates so near that I can hear them
but this morning even the old regrets 
seem to have lost their rancor
and to harbor shy hopes like the first grass
of spring appearing between paving stones
when I was a small child and I see
that each step has been leading me
to the present morning that I recognize
before daylight and I forget that
I am almost blind and I see the piles
of books I was going to read next
there they wait like statues of sitting dogs
faithful to someone they used to know 
but happiness has a shape made of air
it was never owned by anyone
it comes when it will in its own time

--W. S. Merwin