The climb

The climb
Climbing together

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

It's getting cold in here, so put on lots of extra layers.

This is going to be a bit different. I'm taking scads of qualitative methods courses these days, and I'm also struggling with depression, so here goes nothing. 

You are the sky. Everything else is just clouds passing.


I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had trouble writing recently. I’ve threatened a blog post for weeks, now. The type of aimless writing associated with responding to emails and posting on the internet isn’t what I’m talking about – the productive type of writing is what appears to be the stumbling block. In a recent bad review of my performance my mentor criticized me as being low productivity. I hear the echo of some voice that belongs to no one I know and slightly resembles a caricature of my mother’s voice (but not really her voice), shrieking, “You’re SO LAZY!”

I can intellectually tell you that I am not lazy. That I have a 3.9 GPA in my doctoral program, which they say no one cares about but I do care about it, so I mention it. I have two children, one of whom has autism. He fell asleep next to me on the couch tonight, with his feet snugged up into the crook behind my knees and his body draped over my side. I slid out from under him and picked up his 65 lbs. body that is nearly as tall as me and carried him into bed.

I have a home and a family to maintain, in addition to school and volunteering. I have been making an admittedly half-hearted effort in this regard, recently. Since the beginning of August, really. All the fight drained out of me. I nearly called it quits, my friends. I nearly threw away everything.

There had been a lot leading up to this, of course. Chronic pain and an increasing effect on my mobility and energy levels left me sluggish at the beginning of the year. I wasn’t motivated. There were no positive, supportive relationships in my immediate academic setting. I learned recently that certain political maneuverings had increase tension in the department. I felt alienated, disconnected, and alone. In a manner typical to me and my family in general, I soldiered on. I forced myself to continue. I tried to communicate the struggle to my mentor but oddly enough I just don’t think I found the right words. Or maybe I said the right ones but she didn’t hear me…something got lost in the mix.

But that’s the most recent thing. If you had a few days we could climb back into my past, rung by rung, so I could reveal all my experiences that have led me here. And the experiences of my parents. And their parents. And so on and so forth. Not naming the names, as that chapter in the Old Testament, but naming the experiences. The emotional reactions that shaped what came from experience. The true legacy, that runs deeper than name. The legacy evident in your very epigenome. As usual, I digress. Back to the present.

I was charged with attending the United States Breastfeeding Committee’s 2016 National Breastfeeding Coalitions Conference as part of my participating with my state coalition. At this point I felt myself slipping into despair. I was doing the hard work of making lifestyle changes to address some of my health concerns. I stopped eating meat and dairy, lost weight, starting at least moving more. I was able to whittle down the number of prescriptions I was taking. But lifestyle changes can require a lot of investment, including time investment. It’s not like antibiotics where you start to feel better after 48-72 hours. I was also feeling a weird disconnect. The energy that had lifted me at the Kellogg First Food Forum has evaporated. I won’t be attending next year, and I’m a little disenchanted with the pursuit of knowledge in general because my idealism is dripping off of me like makeup sliding off my face in the Florida humidity.

Away we went, up to the conference. I drove with my family most of the way, then left them behind in Virginia to visit with family friends and their young son (at least they had a good time), and rode the train into the DC with a nervous stomach. There was a dessert reception going on at the time, but I’d already missed it. I had planned on getting takeout with a great friend and spilling the proverbial “t”, but I missed that, too. The train was slow. I ended up getting to the hotel late and ordering room service. I didn’t sleep well, tossing and turning through the night and waking, or rather getting out of bed, early - before the alarm went off. I painted on layers of makeup. I tried to smile as anxiety bubbled up inside my stomach. I wanted to throw up.

The Crystal Gateway Marriott is massive. Also note that there is a Crystal City Marriott in relatively close proximity, so that makes everything fun and confusing. I trudged down labyrinthine hallways in heels, went down an elevator, walked through a busy lobby and then up a double escalator, and through globs of people that tend to come together at the beginnings of large gatherings because it somehow makes more sense than floating as isolated agents…event though we’re all just looking at our phones.

I registered and got my random bag of things that every conference gives attendees. Some are “going green” and thus, bagless. This only serves to emphasize how empty one feels paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend a conference, receiving perhaps CEUs, but not even the courtesy of a Hollywood style swag bag with some samples of things and at least one full sized product. Stress balls and gum or mints should be mandatory, especially if you have lots of coffee available (coffee breath). There were lots of papers and a BPA-free water bottle. There was the requisite sponsor bingo sheet, encouraging us to visit all the display tables and listen to the various sales pitches to assuage the visibility concerns of said sponsors. I never do the bingo sheet. I can’t go through the process of pretending that I want to hear about their booth, because if I did I would listen to them of my own volition rather than being forced to in order to be entered into a sweepstakes.

I drank coffee and listened to the opening remarks. At breastfeeding conferences, I recognize lots of people, even if I don’t know them personally, because of the internet and the now requisite social media presence that is expected of anyone who is anyone. I found a lovely woman from NYC’s Department of Health to chat with. She had a French accent, which I found pleasantly refreshing.

The conference theme centered on racial equity, diversity and inclusion. If you have read any of my previous blog entries or happen to know me personally, you will probably know that I was vocally supportive of the opening remarks of Kiran Katira. “All of us have a story that we can use for social transformation.” I clapped vigorously, my hands above my head. I agreed out loud and nodded my head in agreement with her points.

You see, up until this point I had experienced this wonderfully connected feeling that there was a rising tide (not one that lifts all ships, LOL), but a kind of blossoming of social justice and racial equity, that mirrored my own blooming fascinating - an awareness of the significance of these issues in our current sociocultural contexts. I have seen the blood of my brothers and sisters and I feel the weight. Yet I began to feel unsettled. Looking around the room, around the table. Not everyone seemed to be as excited. In fact, I saw frowns of concern, pursed lips signifying words being held back. A ripple of – discontent? Discomfort, maybe. I’m not sure why. I feel alien. My feelers are out and I’m not getting that reciprocal excitement at the prospect of learning sometimes horrible truths that I tend to feel because I was made and created and built to be a scholar.

During the first networking break I was introduced to an MD, IBCLC but our conversation quickly soured as I expressed some discomfort with the reliability of the breastfeeding duration statistics because of the recent reports from qualitative studies that some parents report exclusive breastfeeding to their healthcare provider even when they are, in reality, combo feeding. For some reason the conversation became defensive. I didn’t understand why this happened and the unsettled feeling within me began to grow. I left the interaction feeling like we didn’t talk to each other, that no information was exchanged. I also had an accompanying tightness in my chest. Something was amiss. I have spidey sense in that regard.


Something is rotten in Denmark
I ran into some of my tribe from the Center for Social Inclusion’s First Food Racial Equity Cohort. One of them asked why I had been absent the previous day from the preconference workshop. I launched into a brief vent about my oldest child’s five-hour meltdown the day we were supposed to leave. As an autism parent, I just give in to those moments. It is what it is. The world won’t stop turning if I miss that meeting or whatever. I do what I must and always show up to salvage what I can, if there is anything salvageable. She told me that I had dodged the proverbial bullet. There had been some discomfort expressed in the preconference workshops. A lot of discomfort? I don’t know. The degree to which people feel comfortable communicating openly informs the degree to which anyone ever really knows what is actually happening. I never got the entire story, just bits and pieces as I moved through the day feeling disconnected and out of place.

Another highlight of the conference, after the lovely presentation by Dr. Katira, was a talk given by the phenomenal Dr. John Wesley Days, Jr. This was the first I had heard of his work but his explanation of his journey was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized that in holding onto what I had previously believed to be the only avenue to acquiring knowledge and information was causing me suffering because I assumed it had to progress in a linear fashion. Another blog post about the results of that a-ha moment will have to be reserved for whenever the dust has settled enough to disclose all of that hot mess. Let’s just say KRS One will feature.

Things sort of became a blur after that. I found myself at odds with colleagues that I was surprised to be at odds with. I had this bizarre disconnect happen during Dr. Days talk, where I was uplifted and transfixed, and turned to share the wonder and amazement to find the woman next to me rolling her eyes, tapping her fingernails on the tablecloth and generally having the appearance of an angst-ridden teenager that wanted desperately to be somewhere else. If she had seen her own body language she might have been more aware of possibility that the resistance she felt was from something deeper than boredom. She kept shaking her head, and again I observed the absence of communication – as I glanced at her I could see that she assumed I was reacting in a way similar to herself, and when I mentioned the applicability of a concept he introduced she chuckled as if I were making a joke. It stung. How do you bring that up to colleagues? You don’t of course. Custom dictates that you swallow you feeling and paint on a smile.

I think I started to disconnect after a while. There were no safe spaces available for me to retreat to, aside from furtive conversations with equally drained members of my tribe who also had nothing left to give. I sat through a presentation that had the word “diversity” in its titled but mentioned nothing of the sort. I had enough and walked up to the microphone during the Q&A, and said something along the lines of “Is there anything the organization actively does to recruit participation from groups other than those similar to yourselves? Have you personally invited the gatekeepers or do you just have an ‘open door’ policy?”

The speaker stammered and then admitted that they had not. Another member got up in her defense and mentioned that they had “a gay person” on the coalition, which sounds tragically like “I have a black friend!”

I covered my face with my hands. As a racially mixed person, I often feel out of the loop in these tensions. I feel like there is a secret, full-blood club that I can never really be part of. All my old high school insecurities about not being accepted, you see, never really resolved.

It seems that most had missed the memo about asking people of color to talk about racism, and I was disappointed in the lack of overt ally-ship by some. There were a few rock stars I must give mad props to – Elizabeth Brooks pretty much saved my faith in humanity during my own presentation where technical difficulties sparked with existing interpersonal tension to completely undermine my ability to give a coherent presentation. I actually had to walk out of the room during the second panelist’s presentation to emotionally collect myself with the help of some beautiful souls (Andrea Serrano, Nikki Killings, Mona Liza Hamlin, the one and only Queen Kimaree Bugg and anyone else that I didn’t see or mention because I was a hot mess in the bathroom). Liz asked me to elaborate on points I had touched on and I was able to calmly and clearly present the critical race theory analysis I had traveled so far a distance, figuratively and literally, to present.

After the presentation I left and went back up to my room. I got locked out somehow and sat on the floor at the end of my hallway with tears leaking out of my face. People walked by me without a glance. The engineer who showed up was a kind woman with a Mexican accent who called me honey and told me to go ask the front desk for my voucher for a free meal. I pulled myself together and went down for a halfhearted attempt at the awards ceremony but I didn’t even know what was happening at that point and I felt almost psychedelic. I felt like I was tripping on acid…not hallucinating, because that has never happened to me on any of my forays into the world of mind expansion (which may or may not have happened during my college years, such a cliché). Just like my perception of reality was altered. People seemed foreign and alien to me. I walked rapidly up an escalator to escape the incessant chattering of two male tourists in their 20s. They were of the type that pitches their voice up slightly at the end of each statement, making everything sound like a question.

My family had arrived by then, to help me with the transfer of belongings to the second hotel in DC that I was staying at, because that is what you have to do when you attend conferences and are getting reimbursements from sponsoring organizations that have very specific requirements for participation. I was able to relax in bed in my hotel room, temporarily. I got my free meal to go and brought it up to the hotel room and split crab cakes and a green salad. Why do I never think to put corn kernels into a salad? It’s actually quite good.

That night I drank a lot of wine at dinner with my tribe. I came back to the dim hotel room where my children were already sleeping. My youngest sat up and asked for me. I fell asleep holding him in my arms, but again my sleep was restless. I was comforted by his little warm body sleeping soundly next to me. His older brother shared the other bed with his Dad. Everyone snored or breathed deeply. The sound of their sleep also comforted me.

The next day, I was to attend a training to learn about how to talk about race in organizational and institutional settings. This agenda had been abruptly cancelled and we took the day to collectively process. Initially I felt pretty good about things. This is my tribe, right? Then after I communicated a piece of my existential despair related to academia, that I had lost faith in a lot of what it meant to be a faculty member in a University. That the reality of what I saw, and what I had learned about the racist origins of our higher education system (See Wilder, Ebony andIvy) had left me in a position where I didn’t know if I wanted to or could tolerate being within that system as a professional…another participant raised her hand and asked to comment off what I had just said.

I sat and listened to her defend the university tenure track system and her belief in its value. I understand that she meant me no harm, that she was speaking her truth. But the unfortunate side effect was that I slid into a place deeper than existentialism, questioning my path and wondering if I could make meaning, and I fell into nihilism. The sincere conviction that everything is chaos, nothing matters, and there is no such thing as truth, beauty, or goodness. Just random events that have no inherent moral value.

This was right before lunch. I tried to contain myself, but found myself weeping. I skipped lunch. Tears leaked from my face. I could no longer even participate in the activities. I sat and observed and simply could not stop my tears. They welled up over and over. For six hours I sat in that conference room on the sidelines, quietly sniffling, rubbing my eyes and cheeks raw to hide the wetness of the tears that couldn’t stop.

I left without saying goodbye to most. I was walked home by a lovely woman from the Bi-national Breastfeeding Coalition on the Texas border. Her stories distracted me. I was grateful. I hugged her.

I’m still in that place, though. I’m trying to refocus on what I have to be grateful for, even though part of me thinks that it’s just random anyway. That is the end of this very odd blog post. 


No comments:

Post a Comment