Personal Essay


There’s a Native American proverb that goes: Don’t walk behind me—I may not lead; Don’t walk in front of me—I may not follow; Walk beside me that we may be as one. The proverb hangs artistically upon my kitchen wall, a gift from my oldest daughter. As much as I love the wisdom of these lines, I know they are not always practical—like when taking a family vacation, for instance.

My family and I just returned from a week-long Disney adventure. Vacations are exhausting and can often result in the exact opposite of a “vacation.” Once again, I think of the way in which humans behave and the way we most find compassion in our fellow humans. I spent the majority of the trip walking behind, just barely making out the outline of my husband’s stride as he led the way through crowd after crowd.

My husband is a sprinter. He does everything with a great sense of haste, needing to get to every location ahead of schedule. In his pocket he carries the day-to-day details of our destinations.

I am a meanderer. Going at a steady jaunt, I browse the scenery and people watch/listen. In my pocket is the empty space where I should be carrying my cell phone in case we get separated, but even had I remembered it, it probably wouldn’t be charged.

Our youngest daughter is a halt-and-observer. She scans the ground as she walks and stops abruptly at the slightest hint of interesting creepy-crawly or unidentifiable foliage.

And our oldest daughter spans the distance between us—sometimes gathering pace and walking alongside her father—other times slackening her pace to join me and point out this or that along the way.

As pretty as I’ve painted it, you can see how a vacation that includes itinerary could be a nightmare for a family such as this. The important thing we’ve learned is that we have to allow one another to be who he or she is—and yet, that is still not enough. I have to meander quicker than I’d like, and my husband must stop more often to look back and let us catch up. If we don’t consciously compromise our internal pulses, we’ll never be in the same place at the same time, thus defeating the family portion of the family vacation.

The only part of the trip where we lost sight of this was under the extreme conditions of The Harry Potter Wizarding World Park at Universal. 105° . . . choking humidity . . . and crowds comparable to those I experienced while touring the Taj Mahal. It was a two hour wait for anything—including shopping. Most Harry Potter fans go with the distinct desire to purchase their wands at Olivander’s, and you can do just that—if you are willing to wait in line under a hot sun for two hours and then allow yourself to be packed into a shop the size of my living-dining room with at least forty other people.

That being a single day out of the week, I think we fared pretty well. Why do families choose to go on family vacations? For the memories—especially for the memories of our children. It’s like filling up their warehouses so they can one day think back upon that time. A memory void of pleasantries is a troubled one. And troubled memories can wreak all kinds of mayhem on a person’s internal life later in adulthood. We may not always succeed at being one, but as long as we give one another the freedom to be and yet work to meet one another’s separate needs, all the fuzzy edges will fall away from the memory, and our children will have the freedom to remember them only as moments of oneness.

See Me

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” –An English Proverb attributed to John Heywood, 1546, with origins potentially rooted in Jeremiah 5:21.

As a teenager, my favorite movie was Dream a Little Dream. I knew every line. My best friend, Tammy, and I put a tape recorder up to the television to record our favorite exchanges of dialogue. At the time, I didn’t analyze my obsession with the film, believing it had something to do with “The Coreys.” But I remember loving the elderly couple in the film equally as much. The old man writes this quote on the chalkboard in his study—“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” and he repeats it to the other characters.

Today my favorite films include The Matrix Trilogy, Fight Club, American History X, and the newly added, Avatar. It was while watching Avatar with my family, though, that I began noticing this recurrent theme. I was drawn to the movie’s use of the greeting “I see you.” The character Norm Spellman instructs Jake Sully on the custom emphasizing that its use goes deeper than “Hello.”

I then began thinking back to the literature I’ve felt similar ties to—Plato’s “Cave Allegory,” Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone,” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and Hyemeyohsts Storm’s, “Jumping Mouse.”

There are two possible approaches here. I could explain the way the concept is found in each, which I know I personally would find satisfaction in doing, but I’d have to assume that you may not have read/seen all the works in question. That might not only be time-consuming, but I’d also run the risk of losing the concept under the plot explanations.

The other possibility is that I focus on the concept and only allude to its use in the various works—but you’ll then have to trust my interpretive assertion of the concept’s existence within each.

The concept then:

It’s the belief that there is a layer of existence not readily discernible to the man or woman who goes about life simply living—taking things as they appear to our conscious selves. In philosophical terms, those persons who concern themselves only, or mainly, with the phenomenal world (the world of matter—those things we can see, hear, taste, smell and feel).

Some people, however, and in all the above named pieces, select people, come to realize that this is an artificial layer of existence. Neo, in The Matrix, is that select person. Others discern the existence of an “other reality” and aid him in reaching the ultimate plane, but it is only Neo whose physical blindness in the last installment of the trilogy (and I’ll try not to get side-tracked here by my temptation to talk about the symbolism of a trilogy and Neo’s companion’s name, Trinity) allows him “to see” the real Matrix.

What the Wachowski brothers called The Matrix, Plato called The Forms. Example: Take a moment to look around you and inspect the chairs surrounding you at this moment. Does the chair you are sitting on contain a back? Does it have a cushion? How many legs? Are there many different kinds of chairs in your home, office, place of business?

My guess is yes. And yet, we call each of them a “chair”—which chair represents the true concept of chair? Now, when I use this exercise with my students, one student will always point out the utility of the object—a chair is any object we can sit on. I then sit on the nearest table or desk and ask if I have suddenly turned it into a chair. Of course, the answer is no, so he or she will modify—no, no, it has to be made to sit on.

Then I begin listing the many objects made for the leisure of our bums—couches, and stools, and benches, and lounges, etc. The game could go on for hours, but what Plato says is that there does exist somewhere, the perfect “form” of chair that the concept or representation of chair in the phenomenal world is imitating. (Incidentally, this is the reason Plato and Aristotle are accused of hating poetry—because poetry’s imagery further imitates what is already an imitation of “the real.”)

Here’s where things get complicated—why this interests me so much, and why I seem to have been drawn to it for so long. At one of the former schools where I worked I approached administration about a concern I had about the school’s students of color. I felt their individual needs were not fully being addressed. The response I received was in essence “At this school we are color-blind. We see students, not minorities. To focus on our minority students would be to exclude the majority.”

When people see me, they usually see a Latina. Unless, of course, I’m in a room full of Latinos—then I will most likely be seen as a gringa. People’s failure to see me has caused me a great deal of stress. I don’t walk around with that stress daily, and I can often focus on myself as simply an individual, but this determination of refusing to see an individual (to willfully choose color-blindness) is to strip the person of a layer of his or her true self.

Let’s approach it a different way. Culture and environment can influence blindness of concepts. For instance, if I live in a place where there exists only one computer within a 50 mile radius, I will most likely be without the concept of Internet. For me, Internet is non-existent. It exists somewhere—out there—but it is not a part of my reality, and certainly not a part of my vocabulary.

If I live in a place where biting into an apple too slowly may bring about an accusation of being a seductress, I will most likely be without the concept of autonomy. It still exists, but not for me. For me, my every move must be filtered against the norms and regulations of my present reality.

When we use a basic term like chair, we notice the chair’s uniqueness. We know that while we are using the general term we are also seeing the chair’s wheels—or its four legs—or its fabric. It would be illogical to tell someone, “I only see chair. For me, there is only one chair. I see no discerning qualities.” Of course you see the fabric’s texture, its color, its size, its legs or lack thereof!

This insistence on the idea that people should be color blind to insure equality actually strips individuals of their discerning qualities—and therefore eliminates our obligations to meet individual needs. Does this chair need to be pushed or picked up? We all treat chairs with rockers differently than we do those that fold and transport easily.

I want people to see me. I wonder what it must feel like to use that phrase, “I see you” and mean “I see the essence of who you are.” I want people to see my bi-racial features. To recognize my uniqueness. For only if we first see the phenomenal aspects of a person can we even hope to travel to the next plane and see what lies beneath, beyond.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Those Things Doméstico

It’s a line from the 20th Century Fox animated Thumbelina spoken by the overly ethnicized character of Mother Toad as she tells Thumbelina her destiny is to settle down and “do those things domésticas.” It’s one of those lines that, like the Banana-Boat Song in Beatlejuice, you only need hear it once before it irritatingly creeps back into your brain at inopportune moments. Everyone has been asking me lately what I’ve been doing with my time now that I’m no longer working . . . and each time I’m asked, I answer that I am enjoying my freedom to be just a wife and mother. But in my head, I’m saying, “Oh, just doing those things doméstico.”

Notice the just? I can’t help it. I have been working steady since the age of fifteen. I have never been without at least two outside-of-home commitments on my plate since the day I got married. Job, marriage, motherhood . . . and school. These four nouns have served as character descriptors in my life for nearly nineteen years. When the academic year came to a close this May, I packed up my schoolroom of the last five and stepped into a three-category life. The first few weeks were rough. I began writing task lists. I created an enrichment schedule for my youngest daughter. I began walking the dogs. I began re-organizing closets. I began pulling weeds. When I lay down at night, I carried the guilt of uncompleted tasks on The List. It took self-convincing to quiet my mind and remind myself . . . there’s no one watching. There is no boss. The dust will wait one more day.

I think it’s the just though that drives me. The unarticulated judgment I suspect in other’s voices when they ask what I’m doing these days. My oldest daughter is taking a summer Race and Gender Studies course. She came home appalled having heard how young women of the 50’s were instructed to greet (or cautioned away from greeting) their husbands when they came home from long days of work. I’m going to speak in the generalized “we” here for a minute and speak as though there is a unified collective women. We were taught that the man sacrifices himself for the sake of his family—going off each day to work. In exchange, he earns the honor of returning to his abode filled with the welcoming scent of dinner, freshly-scrubbed children, and a lightly-perfumed wife. And we, women, were later then put in the position of having to justify our desire to work outside the home—assuring ourselves, our husbands, and society at large, that we could do both, that the management of the home and child-rearing would not suffer if we also pursued careers.

Being that I have always worked, I am obviously of the generation that grew up within the context of professional women. What’s interesting to me is that, while the stigma of a working-woman was something I never felt personally, I still managed to feel as though it was my job to make sure the house and children were cared for. Now this is in no way a reflection of my husband or his ideals. He never expected dinner on the table, kids well-groomed running to him at the door. And being that we have both always had careers in addition to family and personal hobbies, we obviously had to develop some kind of shared-routine to make it all work. So my own feelings aren’t a reflection of circumstance—they go deeper and must originate in the reverberations of culture itself.

Again, I return to a conversation my oldest and I had regarding the difference between men and women. She wanted to argue that there is no difference between the sexes, but of course we know there is. While there may be hormonal variations between one woman and the next or one man and the next, the physical indicators between the two recognized genders are different and serve different functions on a simple physical plane. The bodies of women can house life and must therefore accommodate. The bodies of men cannot, and therefore are built accordingly. It’s the reason still today the Olympics has male and female categories. If we were the same, there would be no need to differentiate.

Sameness is often mistaken for equality. “So you’re saying women are the weaker sex?” That accusation again equates difference to mean unequal. In my classroom I hung this sign:

In this classroom, Fair is not everyone getting the Same,
but rather everyone getting what he or she needs to learn Best.

It is a difficult concept—especially in a school environment. But what I’m realizing is that it is a core value for me, not just as a teacher, but as a person. It is how I know that my seven-year-old’s needs are different from my seventeen-year-old’s. It’s how I know that chores do not have to be evenly divided between the four of us. It’s how I know that my need for sedentary thought is as vital as my husband’s need for physical motion.

Taking care of my house, my home, my family are basic needs for me. Having more time to devote to them sent me initially into an overwhelming mix of emotions. I fought with my own sense of what being just a wife and mother would mean. I worried that the “me” might suffer, but the really cool thing is that the individual within me finds satisfaction doing just this—sitting here, writing and contemplating, in a clean, well-organized room, my children and husband well-fed and in their respective corners of our home. Is it for everyone? Certainly not, but luckily for me, it is just what I need at the moment.

Independence in the Context of Interdependence

Most Americans will be watching the sky this evening. Multi-colored explosions will be set off in every state of our country today to commemorate our symbol of unity and our belief in the value of freedom. For some fortunate Americans this symbolism rings true, but it is still a bit of an oxymoron, isn't it? Unity for freedom? In order for us to stand up for our inalienable right to freedom, we must come together as a unit--we must co-mingle; we must stand as individuals comprising a group. Once an essential mass is reached, we are formidable.

But, as anyone who has tried living with others will tell you, the uniting part is difficult. The co-mingling transgression from independent individuals to co-dependent unit brings with it its own array of complexities.

So, who might the commemorative symbolism of freedom in its purest use of the term ring true for? Perhaps someone who is young, healthy, wealthy, single, and who has very little family--and the family he or she has must also be wealthy and mentally stable. So, like I said, this sense of the term 'freedom' will apply to only a few.

For the rest of us, we are commemorating freedom from a structure of government--because we have chosen a co-dependent way of government over a government with one symbolic leader who dictates our way of living. And by that, what is really meant by "way of living" is "our means to attaining education, wealth, and property and means to exercising religious faith." That's not so bad. In fact, for most of us, it is the best possible option--and so, we watch the skies tonight. We will barbecue and bring together our family members--we will stand next to possibly a thousand or more other individuals, crowding ourselves onto thick green patches of lawn so we can bend our heads upward and feel a a sense of awe.

And though I hate to put a damper on such a patriotic image, I must contemplate this co-dependency for a minute. Why young, healthy, wealthy and single with little family? Each layer of those identity markers symbolizes its own little orb of freedom . . . but, if you are older, you find yourself exercising fewer freedoms; unhealthy, well that's self-explanatory; poverty-stricken . . . you get the picture.

Let us again, on this day meant to commemorate not just our freedom from tyranny but the symbolic values of our county, think about the message inscribed on the base of our Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these — the homeless, tempest-tossed — to me;
I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.

This is no longer the true message of our country, is it? Is this a symbolic belief we still hold dear? No.

The huddled masses that will cram themselves alongside one another this evening will look around them and will judge many of the people present there alongside them as foreigners. They may have been born here--their parents may have been born here, but to their fellow-man standing there it makes little difference if they too are "yearning to breathe free" because our country has become a land too full. We are no longer a Golden Door. We believe the homeless should seek refuge elsewhere . . . and if they have come to this country "tempest-tossed," they had better be carrying the proper documentation along with them.

But this is not only a statement of nationality. It is also a reflection about our nation's new-found inability to value individuality. It's true. It is sad, and it is true. We have states enacting laws requiring authorities to hunt out illegals. We have a candidate for governor openly telling people that if they want to live in his state, they need to speak his language. And now we are even attempting to enact laws that would send American-born citizens the message that if they are born here, but their parents do not have legal US citizenry-status then we will DENY them their own birthright citizenship.

And so, we return to the context of inter-dependence. The United States of America is supposed to stand for its name--a nation made up of states that are united in their commitment to the value of individual freedoms. In order to remain a united nation, a formidable unit, we must force ourselves to look up tonight and re-evaluate our commitment to the symbolism of the explosions within our own hearts. Do we still have it in us to look up and feel the sense of awe we are at liberty to feel?

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