So it’s been awhile.
As a matter of practice, I don’t write here about my family or politics. But I want to change that for maybe one post. It’s my attempt to come to grips with what has been happening in the U.S. And I want to get this out there before I move back into writing and thinking about my work. I am feeling a need to discover how to connect those dots – what is happening here, my role in it, my future role in it through the work I do now.
A little over a month ago, my father celebrated the 75th anniversary of moving into the home where he still lives today in Dearborn, Michigan. He moved there, with his siblings and parents, on Pearl Harbor day – Dec. 7, 1941. He was 14.
He remembers unpacking the radio and plugging it in to listen to the news. People in the neighborhood sat out on their porches looking up to the sky for war planes. My grandmother – a big woman with a hearty laugh and an unshakable Catholic core – asked her kids if anyone knew where her Virgin Mary statue was packed, and to go fetch it. They did. She placed the Virgin Mary on a table, had them kneel with her before it, told them “we’re in for a rough time ahead.” And prayed.
In the days before the move, that house had represented a dream come true. My grandparents were part of the migration to the industrial north to find work. Their move from Kentucky northward and the years of struggle before finally getting a home are the stories of trying to eke out a life during the Depression. Foraging and hunting for food. Living in the garage of a relative. Taking work where and when you could find it.
Meanwhile in Detroit, my mother and her siblings were playing out a similar story line. My mother died of cancer more than 20 years ago, and except for the loving life she shared with my father, she did not have it easy. The daughter of Polish immigrants, poor, abused. During that period family for her, I think, was defined entirely by her relationship with her sister. That special kind of sisterly closeness, forged in just getting past every day.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school (although my mother did check that box in her 60’s by going back to get a high school diploma). My father went into the grocery business and ultimately owned his own little store about a mile from where we all lived in my grandmother’s home. Life was comfortable and predictable by the time I came around.
I share this because by no means do my parents qualify as coming from privilege.
Except, of course, they did. They were white.
How, I wonder, would their stories have been rewritten were they black? I can say one thing for certain. They would not have lived in Dearborn.
From 1942 until 1978, Dearborn, a city of 90,000 people, was led by a mayor whose segregationist views and policies were more aligned with the deep south than Midwest. “Keep Dearborn Clean” was a phrase I remember clearly growing up – a thinly veiled reference to keeping black people out of the city. The mayor – Orville Hubbard – once told a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper: “They can’t get in here. We watch it. Every time we hear of a Negro moving–for instance, we had one last year–in a response quicker than to a fire. That’s generally known. It’s known among our own people and it’s known among the Negroes here.” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orville_L._Hubbard. See Hubbard’s NY Times obituary for more).
I have a very close relationship with an individual who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. A kind, creative, smart and loving individual who has the ability to connect and engage with people from incredibly diverse backgrounds.
For the past 13 years or so, I have seen the worst elements of someone trying to live a life with mental illness. Normalcy. Then streaks of chaos. Psychotic breaks, substance abuse, recovery, trips into and out of psych wards. Disappearance resulting in missing persons reports.
Fortunately the streaks of normalcy seem to be extending for longer periods. The chaos, however, will likely never really stop. Yet, I know this individual can be, and should be, a valued contributor to the community and the economy. The “normalcy” bit.
But finding (and keeping) a job, finding (and keeping) a place to live while managing a chronic health condition that impacts the way you act, think and feel – that is a different game. And it is a game where you cannot reduce the strategy of winning to depending on individual character or perseverance or grit. We love stories of heroic individuals who overcome incredible odds to do something “normal.” Some of us like to think that, facing similar struggles, we’d have the grit to do the same.
I have seen what it might take to win the mental health game up close. It is a wicked combination that relies on disability payments, Medicare and Medicaid, underfunded social services organizations, free clinics, complex medications, family, friends, neighbors, luck…I have no confidence – zilch – that I could beat the structural odds stacked against me, if it were me who was mentally ill.
Two close members of my extended family are immigrants. My daughter-in-law is Colombian. A sister-in-law is Chinese.
My sister-in-law is relatively new to the family. She and my brother live in Michigan and we see each other occasionally. But I have come to know a bit about her story.
She left China after having been a student at Beijing Normal University at the time of Tiananmen Square (1989). She – and a number of her university friends – left for political reasons. They did so by landing graduate school positions (she earned her Phd. in Detroit) and eventually leveraging that education to secure a life, and their place, in the U.S.
I know my daughter-in-law’s story more deeply because I lived it. My son met her in a serendipitous moment at a concert in Chicago, when my then future daughter-in-law was traveling through the U.S. with two friends from university. He asked them if they wanted to come see a particularly American event – our town’s 4th of July parade. It worked; they came, and that parade now holds a special place in family lore.
My daughter-in-law and her friends returned to school in Bogota after their U.S. tour. The relationship with my son grew through online chat. Then followed a trip to Bogota. Followed by a move to Bogota. A proposal. A meeting of the families in Colombia. A wedding.
Fast forward to today: The couple live in Chicago, where she is finishing her medical residency and he is doing policy and advocacy work for a not-for-profit. When I step back and reflect on it, I think one of the things that I admire most about them is how they are each, now, of two places. For each, it is “both/and,” not “or:” Head and heart in Colombia and head and heart in the U.S.
I don’t think the value of either place is diminished by this combination. From my own (ok, biased) viewpoint, I see it as enriching. There is a very deep and powerful sense of social justice that binds my son and daughter-in-law in the work that they do and how they make decisions about their professional lives. That sense of social justice is enriched by the history of both places, the family stories and struggles in that history, and the current experiences my son and daughter-in-law share as history and family stories continue to be written.
It is enriched, for me, by being close enough to my daughter-in-law’s family to know some of their history. As my parents were products of the Depression, her parents and grandparents were products of the political violence of the 1940’s and 50’s that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. They lived it. The decades that followed also included political and social tensions, violence, and (more recently) rebirth that are just not part of our recent U.S. experience.
I imagine, in my daughter-in-law and her family, there is a deeper, visceral understanding of the way politics, leadership and power can go terribly wrong. As well my sister-in-law.
I was not at Tiananmen Square. I do not have close relatives who lived through La Violencia. Nor have I faced the prospect of being a refugee. But I value having citizens living here who have that deep, in-the-bones understanding of what it was like to be in those conditions, and the toll it takes to struggle out of them. We need them to wave us onto another road when we start moving down a path their experience tells us is dangerous.
My point here is…well…honestly I have no fucking idea. Still trying to connect the dots between what is happening now, my role now and in the future.
I think I have learned to appreciate the complexity of struggle. How underappreciated are the impact of structural privilege or pure luck in overcoming the struggle of [fill in the blank here]. How over hyped is the role played by personal responsibility.
And so I am exploring how to better connect what I do, or the skills I might have, with how we might do a better job of appreciating the complexity of struggle, and working toward solutions which fit that complexity. This is in part an exploration of focus (what projects might have important impact?) and part an exploration of mindset (how might we embed this kind of struggle-is-complex thinking as part of everyday work?).
In the meantime, I am working on checking my own thinking about struggle, as experienced by others.
It’s no secret that I have progressive political leanings. That certainly won’t change. But if there is growth to pursue – maybe the path is in the common ground of the experience of struggle. My intent is to be more open to trying to understand the experience of struggle no matter where people are on the political spectrum.
In the meantime, part 2, I am open to new ideas on how to contribute, through what I know and who I am.