Racism and a lack of imagination

The last summer of college I spent at home, I hostessed at a chain restaurant that is known in Ohio for serving breakfast all day.  Until that summer, I didn’t know that there were people on earth who ate more than one meal a day at the same restaurant. As it turns out, the usuals at this restaurant often took 2-3 meals a day there. They considered the waitstaff family, their usual tables were just extensions of their homes.

During one of my first shifts, the wait staff alerted me to one of the usuals. Val was pegged as “difficult.” I quickly learned what qualified Val as difficult. She came in every evening with her two children. She rarely ordered a meal for herself. She ordered kids’ meals and ate their leftovers. She sent food back that wasn’t to her satisfaction.

I learned that these were high crimes in restaurantville. There is an unwritten code of conduct for being a usual. It requires that one runs up a decent tab and doesn’t complain.

I also learned that the penalties for those who broke the code of conduct are just a little bit more severe if your waitstaff is all white and you’re aren’t white. And Val and her two children? Were black.

I was intimidated by Val. The first time I sat her, I learned my lesson. I started to lead her and her children, with kids’ menu packets in tow, toward the back of the restaurant. “Noooope nope no! Not sitting back there. Not sitting in the back of the bus.”

Got it. So I was not to sit Val in the back. But if you’ve ever made your living by playing Tetris with tables, you know that sometimes you can’t honor every request. You don’t want to slam certain waitstaffers with a fresh crop of tables all at once or there will be hell to pay. I began to perceive Val as a mosquito in the summer. She was always there, but if I protected myself, she wouldn’t bite.

The waitstaff groaned about Val in the breakroom. How the manager coddled her. How she tipped poorly. How she sent food back.

Val came in most nights with her children. I don’t know if she was married or divorced. Here is what I do remember about my personal encounters with her besides the mistake of seating her in the back: She was polite and quiet. She was always dressed in professional attire as though she was coming from work. She always had a paperback book with her and occasionally would sit reading it at her table while her children ate their meals.

One of the middle-aged hostesses once remarked, “Val is very well-educated.”

I remember wondering why Val was the only customer that whole summer I ever heard consistent complaints about, or about the fact that she was “very well-educated.”

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Fifteen years later, I am sitting in my work clothes at a chain restaurant. I am sitting across from my two children, happily occupied by their kiddie menu crossword puzzles. I take the chance for the first time all day to open up a book for pleasure. My husband is not with us as he works most evenings. I am relieved to not have to cook and am reluctant to buy my children their own separate meals when I know I will be finishing their leftovers.

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Fifteen years later and I am Val. Except I am not a usual and no one comments on my education level when I bust out my book at a restaurant. When I misplace my gift card, no one questions my intent or ability to pay. When I have to run and get my wallet in the car (long day), our waitress offers to watch my children. I am Val except I am white and therefore I can only fathom how Val felt.

Fifteen years will not absolve me, though. Why did it take me half of my life to understand a faithful patron who wanted what she paid for and who wanted to model for her children the service they should expect in a restaurant?

In other words, why did I lack imagination 15 years ago? Why did I have to wait fifteen years to experience a taste of what Val faced (and chose to face) each day?

The problem we have in dissolving the -isms that poison our lives is that we are lazy imaginaries. Because we are carnivores, we can’t imagine what might be difficult for vegetarians at barbecues. Because we never struggle to find shoes in our size, surely those who do are crybabies.  Inconvenience sparks us to change. Make my life difficult and I will modify my systems.

The difficulty in having a lack of difficulty is perhaps the definition of white privilege.

I pray for difficulties. I desire a better imagination. But most of all, I strive for a world where I don’t have to fathom any of this, because neither does Val.

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Why is Quiet so Loud?

Basically every single night of Little Man’s life, he has fallen asleep in the company of his parents. The voyage to dreamland is not a solo one for him. We went from co-sleeping to rocking him to sleep and, now, every single night for as long as he was too big for the rocking chair, we sit in his room, playing soft piano music until the boy is KOd.

Sometimes it is so annoying and I’m done with enabling this arrangement but mostly–it’s the best. It’s peaceful and bonding and meditative and there is something quite awe-inspiring about being there each night for the graceful drift another human makes from the conscious to the unconscious state. I notice it’s also a time when Baby Girl is engrossed in narrative play with her dolls, setting up micro-living rooms where they discuss the latest in American Girl Doll fashion, I assume. This time of quiet, it does something for our son to have one of us there and it does something for our daughter to have us both undisposed . I realize now as I am typing this: it does something for us as parents, too.

Which is to say that I am pretending to discover land that is already well-inhabited territory. I’ve stumbled upon a thing that is, for all intents and purposes, an element in the periodic table of life that everyone knows about already, that everyone has memorized and understands its usage. So why is the messaging around Quiet so loud?

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The magazines tell us how to structure our Me Time, as if it were a bureau dresser from IKEA. Spas tantalize with promises of peace for the price of an hour-long massage. Quiet has been commodified, luxurified. But oxygen is not a luxury, nor are clothes a fringe benefit. Quiet time should not be something that is reserved as in four-star dining. Quiet is a need, a necessary ingredient in wholeness. It is not simply the absence of noise but the intentionality around whatever creates a haven for reflection. So, again, why is the messaging around quiet so loud?

[Portrait of June Christy and Bob Cooper, 1947 or 1948] (LOC)

Because we have allowed it to be so. We pretend to steal away private moments to pray, to meditate, to breathe, all the while worried that there might be a gaping hole in the universe we will have to replenish with our busy-ness and idle small talk.

I am here to say that Quietude does not affect our carbon footprint, my friends. The messaging will tell us that to seek a quiet life is a radical act of surrender and even selfishness. But it is one of the very things that we need more of, that we need to drink in and breathe out and become better and braver because we have been quiet.

What if the work to stay relevant was less prized than the work we must do to preserve ourselves in irrelevance? What if Donald Trump relaxed his face for a few minutes, what if Marissa  Mayer took a radically longer maternity leave? What if umpires and baseball managers, instead of squaring off on the mound in disagreement, took a full minute of silence before they tried to settle a dispute about a fly ball? What if we changed the expression “For crying out loud” to “For crying in my corner!” What if quiet were less of a library standard and more the atmosphere of our world?

Hartshorn's Baby Primer

One of the coolest things I heard a business woman say in the last year was “Sleep is an act of worship.” Ruth Simons, an entrepreneur and mother of six boys said that, as an exhortation about leaning in too much to the din of social media and online hyperactivity. Sleep, and in effect, quiet, are extraordinarily ordinary acts that glorify the Heavens for their providence — in spite of all that we fancy ourselves able to do here as mere mortals. I can tell you that I could use a few more nights of working the evening shift with my little man. While I am supposedly Waiting him out to fall asleep, I am also Becoming Quiet, committing a random and necessary act of worship.

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2015: The year of the release

We were just talking in bed, Loverpants and I, as we do more often, now that we have children who can breathe on their own. And that was the point, I was explaining to him. This year has been a watershed one for me because I no longer feel like I need to breathe for my children. My lungs started working overtime at the birth of my children, and it has been unceasing, this breathing for them, until recently when I felt released.

2015-11-05 18.58.35Parenting in America will do that to a person predisposed to control issues. If you read the books and practice the fine art of narrating your life aloud, you will appear in command of your and your child’s life, which is just as vilified as it is rewarded in America. Hashtag helicopter parenting. You oftentimes feel so responsible for the entertainment and well-being of your child that you will feel tethered to him/her at all times, much like you are breathing for him/her. 2015-11-05 20.25.29

You become a ventriloquist controlled by an unseen ventriloquist called SuperParent. But then one day you realize even ventriloquists take turns speaking for themselves and their puppets.

2015-11-05 21.00.00This year has been gracious to me in showing me my condition. My helicopter propellers were about to fall off.  My lungs were on the verge of collapsing. My ventriloquism wasn’t even very good. I went to a conference in October and did a lot of talking to myself and listening to God and walking up and down the streets of Greenville, SC until I was good and ready to come home a new woman mom teacher human BEING, not a human DOING as my bosslady says. 2015-11-05 20.16.21

Above: Christmas at the Clay Pot

I resolved: I had to stop stressing over Baby Girl’s spelling tests. This was second grade, after all, and I had already passed the class myself. I had to let Little Man sit in the hula-hoop of shame at gymnastics and not send him laser glares from the balcony. I had to bench myself, both as a coach and a player, over and over because this wasn’t my game. I was only a fan in the stands.

2015-11-05 21.36.21As I let go of my clipboard and picked up my pom-poms, strange things started happening. Baby Girl started getting 14/12 on her spelling tests. Little Man emancipated himself from the hula-hoop of shame. My team started winning and I had nothing and everything to do with it. I could feel my lungs relaxing a little–what was this new elevation? It was manageable and less stressful. I went to the gym more and gave myself permission to sit at my kitchen table and play with markers and glitter and be a hobbyist.  The only unhealthy obsession I nurtured this past year was with watching every episode of “Friday Night Lights.” And pondering why Michelle Obama and I are not yet best friends. 2015-11-05 20.26.19

I trusted that my kids could handle some consequences of their own making. I released myself from this tightly-wound rope and–what do you know? It might have made me more available for sessytime with Loverpants. I’m saying it’s a possibility. WINK.

“This has been a very creative year for you,” Loverpants said as I was starting a new chapter of a novel that was not written by Roald Dahl. There could not have been a higher compliment coming from my dashing counterpart. He recognized someone who was no longer immersed in creating problems and creating opportunities to provide air support. He saw someone creating things that brought delight and in so doing she was creating space for change. Change this past year has looked like a lot of glitter glue and paint on the kitchen table, and four members of the FamiLee breathing a little easier. God bless us, every one.

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