On being asked, “How are you doing?”

In a public or holiday setting, I focus on trying to participate more or less normally in the social situation. But when other people (I mean those who are not close friends or family) see me there, it triggers their dormant memory of my husband’s death, and they may feel it as their opportunity to share a sympathetic moment.

There are ways of doing this that work. Yesterday at Easter service two people offered me loving hugs, one of them a woman I honestly didn’t recognize even a tiny bit. It was nice. They were giving me something that I could receive from them. They didn’t ask for anything back.

On the other hand, a well-meaning pastoral person asked me at the cookout, in a serious voice, how I was doing.

Here is a tip for those who wonder what to say to a bereaved person: don’t ask solemnly, “How are you doing?” It’s like a kid asking for an elephant: if I could give it, you’d find you didn’t want it after all.

Instead I recommend another question I was asked at the same cookout: “So what have you been doing lately to be good to yourself?” I could honestly reply, “Planting trees.” But in response to the minister’s inquiry I merely said that I was done with my food, and asked him where the garbage can was. I couldn’t really think what else to say. The images and feelings he was asking me to tap into are ones I don’t access in company.

By all means, employ the usual formulas of daily living. It’s okay to ask “How are you doing?” in a casual manner, expecting a formulaic response. But please don’t invest the question with that mournful, soulful emphasis, as if you wanted a heartfelt answer. You’re just asking to be allowed to take a postcard away with you as a wistful little souvenir of another person’s recently bombed landscape. Right now it’s winter and I have chores to do. Don’t be a tourist. If you really want to know more about what it’s like here, stick around. Carry water. Chop wood.

Someday, chances are you’ll come back here to live.

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On Being Told What to Do (re: cats)

Being told what to do doesn’t sit at all well with me. I foresee that this might be an ongoing theme, hence the specific heading about cats in this one.

Since I became a cat owner I’ve been coming in for more than my usual share of people telling me what to do. One camp tells me not to let the cats out because they can get run over. (More on this another time.) Another camp says not to let the cats out because they’ll catch birds. (If there’s an equally vociferous group asserting that it’s mean to keep cats indoors, they must not have my number.)

Did I ask?

A friend puts up a note about special cat collars to prevent predation (fine–interesting information, I’ll think about it) and within hours the Facebook fur is flying: “Domestic cats are an invasive species and belong indoors” squares off against “If you don’t want small things killed around your home, don’t get a cat.”

I love to share information. I like to blare my opinions, as long as I can do it without starting a brushfire in my family or community. But I try very hard to avoid telling other adults how to live The Righteous Life According to Me–as if their experiences were the same as mine and their priorities ought to be–and I do wish they would return the favor!

On not being in Selma March 2015

I’m a northern white liberal myself. I’ve more or less accidentally ended up living and working and breathing the furtherance of interracial understanding in the corner of America where I find myself. I kind of wanted to go to Selma.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes, but now I’m glad I didn’t participate in that orgy of unseemly self-congratulation. The enthusiastic righteousness of some of my erstwhile classmates and faraway Facebook friends is giving me hives: lapping up the sweet cream of being on the Right Side of History, flocking in fake marches and reveling in photo ops with picturesque heroes, taking selfies alongside the decorous survivors of the speechless dead.

It’s like a revival meeting where the saved gather together to smoke the hallucinogenic drug of spiritual complacency.

Where are the raucous ones who are still alive and still poor? Where, in all of this, is honor given to the wackos with bad hair, bad teeth, and cheap clothes, shouting angrily about today’s ongoing inequities? They’re not gone! I’ve seen them at gatherings of those who remain on the wrong side of the lines drawn by police, economics, reporters, and the Secret Service agents around the President.

These firebrands are the ones for whom assimilation was never the goal. They didn’t put themselves on the line so they could be allowed to wear suits and to follow some neutered program about when to talk, how to talk, or what to say. Where we’ve gotten to, we would never have reached without them. Now they face a more potent enemy than violence: they are ignored or disdained. As they were before the brief spasm of violence against activists made the news in the mid-1900s; as they have been since. It angers me to see feel-good liberals drawing away from the unassimilated soothsayers. Is it really true that the unforgivable sin is to not want to be middle-class?

My fellow white liberals, Selma 2015 is just a happy dance in one spot. We’re going to need firmer footing for the journey forward than is found in this morass of self-congratulation. We need brasher guides than these tidy ranks of survivors and the embalmed hippies singing 60s songs — last century’s warriors. Jumping on the easy, obvious, well-sponsored bandwagon at this late date doesn’t make our generation into any new band of warriors, either. The message of those who are dead and gone, and of those who live on in uncelebrated struggle, is that the people who grew up in a safety zone can accomplish nothing from inside it, even though — maybe because — it is largely in our minds. We are not really marching until we venture beyond that zone, to risk losing our job or getting tear-gassed or looking foolish, without knowing in advance which of those will happen. Selma in our souls should carry each one of us to a place where we struggle to fathom the strangers around us.

That Dress

First there was the dress, then there was the furor, then the sneer: “Yes, yes; context dictates color perception; we knew that. Yawn. Who cares about the damn dress?”

I’m here to say the dress is important.

First, it’s a mistake to simply attribute this whole brouhaha to visual contexts—to point out that we interpret colors in light of surrounding conditions, yada yada. That’s fascinating stuff, but actually it’s not what this is about at all. The point was not whether blue can masquerade as white in some settings—the point was that two people looking at the same photograph at the same time had different answers.

I have a jacket that is one color outdoors and another color by artificial light, and it’s fun to have people try to convince each other of its color, when some of them have seen it only by natural light and the others have seen it indoors. They are initially disconcerted to find themselves at odds. But once they look at it all together, they realize how lighting dictated their perceptions, and they agree on its color.

The message of The Dress is the complete opposite, and the buzz it started is anything but frivolous. Driving this viral conversation is the eternally astounding discovery that other people are truly different from us. Not merely apparently different because of their circumstances—they are different, period. Over and over again, two people looking at the same screen said what colors they saw—then stared at each other and said, “One of us has got to be crazy, and it’s not me.” This harmless garment, appearing on our tiny screens without any distracting moral or political agenda, announced with brazen clarity the existence of irreducible differences between people who assumed they were alike.

If we want to get along we can’t accomplish it just by doing the hard work of learning to meet in the central arena of our supposed shared values. We must also learn to live in a world where some people will always see blue and black, while other people continue to see white and gold. Now that’s scary.