Only a fraction of smart
Senator Kamala Harris has been in the news lately as she rolled through press events to showcase her run for US President.
Seeing the Senator reminded me of a hot July day in Los Angeles in 2015 when I stood beside her. I was feeling like a fraction of a person, and uttering a silent mantra to the universe, “Oh God, please don’t make me have to say anything!”
I was there as a co-founder of Merit Partners, a terrific non-profit that was being lauded for reducing recidivism through market wage jobs and job training for incarcerated young adults.
Senator Harris was then the Attorney General of California, and her staff planned a press event and symposium for her one-time “Smart on Crime” awards. Before the gathering, I sent brief bios of a few of Merit participants to the Attorney General’s staff. The young offenders in our program often overcome grim circumstances as they change their lives, and I wanted positive attention to be on them.
Outfitting for an award
Packaging myself to get to Los Angeles from my home near Portland became a soap opera. And, in spite of all my troubled deliberating, I regretted every wardrobe decision that I made.
As if it mattered.
Earlier when I worked full-time, I practiced the art of dressing to be unobtrusive. “Blend and focus on others” was my motto. But in this instance, I would be traveling to an unknown professional environment and slated to get some attention.
Both circumstances dumped apprehension into my head.
I no longer owned a summer suit, and since my life didn’t need to be wrapped professionally anymore, I decided I’d rather spend money on travel or hiking gear. A daughter offered me one of hers, but I didn’t want to worry about her clothes as I hustled through a marathon day to LA and back.
Then I focused on wearing something that would travel well in humid heat as well as disguise any food or drink that I spilled. I didn’t want to show up looking like a slob.
As I fretted, I tried to convince myself that what I wore didn’t matter to anyone but me. However, even an apparent truth didn’t penetrate the whirlwind in my head. So, I took several pictures of potential outfits with accessories and texted them to a stylish sister-in-law for her input.
I’m sure my fashion consultant prayed for me to get on the plane and out of town.
The big day
My alarm jarred me at 3:30 AM, and I rolled out to plaster my hair with spray, put on eye makeup, and add color to my cheeks. Then I silently chanted, “Keep your hands off your face!” I’m a germaphobe when I travel, so I’d probably have done that anyway.
Merit’s co-founder and CEO picked me up at the LA airport, and we drove downtown early to make sure we could find parking, eat lunch, and be on time at the Attorney General’s offices.
We arrived to be the first attendees other than the staff assistant who escorted us to a conference room. Tables were arranged in a ring as in a cavernous board room. As we circulated we read the name cards of law enforcement leaders, justice officials, celebrities, and heads of major non-profits.
As I considered the notable participants, I muttered to myself, “Oh God, I should never have come. What if I have to speak?”
Who wrote that stuff?
A symposium program was with my nametag, and I quickly noticed that the words I’d written about Merit and its young participants didn’t make their way to print. Instead, the program discussed the accomplishments of Merit’s co-founders. The blurb referenced my Ph.D. and said that my area of expertise included “the complexities of dynamic social-system change” and that I had co-founded Merit because I believed “that skills and attitudes to succeed come only after people believe their efforts to learn will be rewarded.”
The last part of that bio reflects my beliefs. But as I read the first part, I thought, “Oh, dear lord, who wrote that stuff?”
Of course, I had. Nearly two decades earlier when high-minded blab about me made Merit sound good. But as I stood clad in filmy clothes suitable for a veranda tea party, I felt underdressed and overexposed.
Like a fraud.
The symposium took place the day before a weekly community education writing course that I was taking that summer. I’ve already blogged about how the class had not been what I expected and that the “write and share” format of the course caused me a lot of anxiety. It was easy to put off writing, so I figured that being trapped in an airplane would give me time to work on a piece for the next class.
As I flew home that evening, I took my aisle seat, put relaxing music in my ears, and savored the relief of knowing I’d managed to get Merit’s award without having to venture more than small talk.
Then I ruminated about the writing assignment. But as always, it was hard to put pen on paper and go blah-blah-blah; even with something as harmless to write about as “an embarrassing experience.” I have lots to discuss with that topic, but even so, I seemed paralyzed.
As I sat with Willy Nelson softly soothing my head, I didn’t realize that the discomfort at the symposium and the reluctance in writing class were two sides of the same predicament. Unless I had ready research data to back me up, I was challenged to dig out my voice and use it.
Either in extemporaneous speech or in writing.
Of course, I hadn’t suddenly arrived at that paralyzing state suddenly in old age. I’d spent a lifetime allowing others to be more authoritarian, more persuasive, more self-righteous, more depressed, or more helpless.
As I tried to be a dogged altruist, I struggled to know my own thoughts.
A shaky start at womanhood
Like many women in my generation, I wasn’t raised to ask questions. Then I attended a religious boarding school that was so strict that we had separate sidewalks for girls and boys. Presumably, we were taking steps to graduating and being mature enough to walk together in college. However, I didn’t seem to mature. I only aged and crashed ahead in life.
In ten years from graduating from high school, I’d embraced two religions that were very happy to do my thinking for me, attended four colleges, married one husband, and parented five children.
And along the way, I thought I was figuring out God’s plan for my life.
Swimming hard to avoid drowning
When you try to do too much, too fast with no preparation other than “faith” your actions are correct, you can become caught in a whirlpool of your good intentions. Mine nearly engulfed me.
By 1979 our family included six children. Our adopted son was living on his own, and the five younger children were ages three to 12.
We were building a home in a rural setting that we believed we would live in for decades. But, our dream was underfunded, and at that time, our only income was through unreliable partnerships with my father.
We were living in the mostly completed home when the global recession of the early 1980s hit. The ensuing savings and loan crisis resulted in construction interest rates higher than 20%. Mortgage interest rates were in the teens, and people couldn’t afford to buy homes. My father was a mortgage broker who didn’t have money to loan, and Michael was a contractor who didn’t have homes to build.
As I paddled to help us remain above water, my desperate efforts came with irresponsible decisions and tragic consequences. They cost my first-born child his life and saddled his siblings with grief and mental illness.
Those are grim facts, not hyperbole. And I thought it was part of a godly plan.
Talking to a spirit
In a private moment after my son died and before he was dropped into the earth, I sat in the mortuary and spoke to his spirit because I believed it still lingered in the room. I told my son that if he took time from his responsibilities in heaven to look down on us, he would watch us get our lives together.
I couldn’t apologize or tell my son what a shitty mess I thought we were in at that time, for responsibility was an emotion I didn’t allow myself to feel. As I watched grief and guilt suck life out of the survivors, I swaddled my soul with my belief that it was all God’s will.
Then I picked up an oar and kept paddling frantically through a foreclosure, bankruptcy, and multiple moves.
I became a portrait of endurance when I should have been taking charge of my soul. And as I kept coping, I gave the survivors a go-along, get-along, and suck-it-up role model. Not a great gift to give people who had to adapt to plenty of heartaches in addition to the loss of a brother.
Not drinking green smoothies
I may never do some things that could help me age better such as drink green smoothies or give up Diet Coke. Then again, I might do those things. Someday.
In the meantime, the issue that will be the greatest hindrance to my aging well will be a continued failure to confront the patterns in my life that were so darn flawed. If I keep acting like the person I believe I need to be, I have little hope of becoming the person I want to be.
Whoever she may be.
I’m ready to dig in and air out history. I’ve been drinking a strange elixir brewed with both acceptance and avoidance for nearly a lifetime, and it hasn’t soothed my soul. Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” In the few years since I received an assignment to write about heartache, I have allowed sorrow to chisel deeper into the hardpan that protects my heart. But, more caked sludge remains to be hacked and hauled away from my life.
My family knows the bones of the story, and they live with the consequences. But I need to own a public voice and tell the story of how I came to sit in a mortuary talking to a son who would no longer hike with me. I need to route out grief, confront shame, and make more room for joy.
It is about time I take some risks.
As I look back on the pictures of the day, I am amused about one thing. The person with a visible spot on her blouse was wise enough to know that nobody cared. She blithely winged it through the symposium and made the awardees feel important while she dropped sound bites about being smart on crime.
She acted like the confident, unapologetic person I long to be. I’ll never have her skills or her panache. But if I can discover and use my voice, it would be good enough for me.
I’m 75, and I’m finally on it!