Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Too Many "I's"

I’ve been emotionally revisiting my childhood in Brooklyn a lot these days.  Maybe it is the sign of aging.  Maybe it’s the nostalgia triggered by Facebook and finding old friends.  Maybe it’s the trip to Brooklyn over Christmas and the joy of seeing stoops that I stood on, steps to school that I walked on, and the visions of a young Joyce walking down the street.  Whatever it is, it’s wonderful.

There was a question often asked of each other on those Brooklyn streets:  What are you?  Now to the untrained and non-Brooklynite, you might wonder and say something like “I’m a human being.”  You’d probably ask, what do you mean by that?  In Brooklyn, you would answer, “I’m Norwegian or Irish or Polish or Puerto Rican or German or Lithuania.”  Neighborhoods while mixed, often had a dominant ethnic flavor or culture. 

Everyone had an identity.  Everyone belonged to one group or another.  I guess we all knew we were Americans but so many of us were immigrants or children of immigrants that knowing what you were was just part of breathing.  It wasn’t about discrimination or stereotype – although of course that did exist.  It was more of a way of learning about different people, different cultures, and life.

Our block was an interesting microcosm.  We had one Jew.  She was a Holocaust survivor.  We had one large Irish Catholic family and the oldest daughter’s name was Kathleen (of course).  I don’t remember the other children but I am sure there must have been a Michael.  My best friend was Italian.  I learned to eat pasta properly and enjoy the wonders of homemade “gravy” (sauce).  I learned the coolie (end) of the fresh Italian bread was the best part. 

I learned we were on the lower end of middle class in the neighborhood of my block.  The girl across the street whose father worked days at a bank was a higher socio-economic status than being the daughter of a janitor who worked nights.  We still played together and our mothers were friends. 

I learned about the crisis of NIMBY – not in my back yard when our first Puerto Rican family moved on the block.  I heard words like “they are creeping up from 2nd Avenue-soon there will be many of them.”  There may have even been a comment about their birth rate.  Interestingly because of a swing set, a small pool, and amazing jelly and cream cheese sandwiches I became the good will ambassador and played with their children.  I quickly discovered they had a lot more than we did and were very nice.  Anything that was different was a plus – especially those sandwiches.

I’m Norwegian.  I love my heritage and my culture.  I’m reconnecting to it through Facebook, Sons of Norway, and baking.  Tonight I’ll fix Norwegian meatballs for supper.  It is becoming a staple and go-to meal along with the chicken curry and other Pakistani dishes. 

I am the daughter of an immigrant and the wife of an immigrant.  I am first generation and five of my children are first generation.  We are close to the immigrant experience.  It forms my political views.

As I think of the question,” what are you?” it is not as simple as it was in Brooklyn.  I can no longer just smile and say I’m Norwegian.  I’m still Norwegian but the answer now has so many other complexities.  I am a wife.  I am a mother.  I am a grandmother.  I am a doctoral student.  I am … I am … I am …  So many “I’s.”

Labels are so tricky.  They lump everyone into a mold that may not fit for them.  I heard a saying the other day – if the box people want to put you in is too small, they need to make a bigger box.  Another label defines me these days – I’m known as old.  I’m known as a baby boomer.  I am known as someone nearing being put out to pasture.

Yes, those new labels are true if I look at the calendar.  But like the little girl who went after the jelly and cream cheese sandwiches made by the Puerto Rican girl with the swing set in her backyard, I need to make the box bigger.  I don’t fit in the box of old.  I’ve never fit in most of the boxes people have formed to put me in.  I’m not done.  I refuse to quit.  I’ll break any box you put me in and in the process I’ll break the box for others – for I AM A FOLLOWER OF JESUS CHRIST and He broke every mold, stereotype, or box that could ever be formed.
 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

Friday, January 13, 2012

Generalizations and Labels

I love school.  I suppose anyone who knows me, knows that’s true.  I love to think.  In fact, I think way to much.  I have to analyze everything from every perspective.  Sometimes I wish I could just accept something, not worry about it, and go on. 

I am like Mary I guess.  You know, Mary and Martha?  How many sermons have you heard on that one? They usually go like this – Mary was “worshipping” at Jesus feet – she was a worshipper.  Martha on the other hand was worried about kitchen duties and hospitality.  We should be like Mary.  Amen.

No I’m not this extravagant worshiper that can’t serve a meal.  Neither was Mary.  Mary was a student, a thinker, just like me.  Mary was “listening to the words of Jesus.”  I see her hearing him talk.  Sitting with the men (a no-no?) and taking in every word.  Martha, who always gets a bad rap in these sermons, was practicing Eastern hospitality.  She was fulfilling a very important role. 

Why all this talk of Mary and Martha and school?  Because I’ve been thinking.  I’ve been mulling something over that has come up in one of my classes.  Like Mary, I have listened to the discussion.  I have read the material.  I am now thinking something through.

I stuck my neck out yesterday and mentioned what I was thinking.  So far, no guillotine has found my neck.  I tend to think that every time I open my mouth someone is going to say I think I’m a “know-it all.”  Truth be told, on this issue, I probably am the closest to a “know-it all.”  That doesn’t mean I don’t respect other opinions, I’m just saying that it is hard to express what I know, what I really know very well, because I fear the backlash.

We are talking about “exceptionalities.”  That is the new term for talking about disability issues in the workplace.  It’s as bad a term as any of the others, but it’s the latest.  We are all discussing how we should include PWD (the acronym for people with disabilities).  I don’t like it.  It’s not the concept I don’t like, it’s the acronym and all it seems to represent.

I was an advocate for persons (the word I prefer over people because people sounds like – you know “THOSE people”) with disabilities for many years.  I trained on the state and national level on inclusion, etc.  I walked the difficult path of incorporating persons with disabilities of any age into a multipurpose senior center.  Talk about difficult, you have NO idea…  It taught me a lot.  It taught me to look at a person with a disability not by their label, but by their humanity.  Throwing around acronyms and labels really bothers me.  It’s like rubbing your nails on the chalk board.

As I thought about it this morning, I thought of Jesus and Mary.  I wonder if Jesus repeated the greatest commandment as Mary intently listened:   
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  Mathew 27:37-39
Notice, Jesus didn’t say love your “neighborhood.”  He didn’t lump all people into one group or another.  He just said, love your neighbor.  To love your neighbor, to love your neighbor, you need to know them.  You need to meet them as a fellow human being who journeys through life with you.  They may not be the “same” as you – they may be a different race, a different religion, they may have a disability, we could go on and on with ways we generalize and classify people.  

But that’s NOT what Jesus said, He simply said Neighbor.  Love your neighbor, that person who you rub elbows with, no qualifications, no words that say they have to be like you, just love your neighbor – a person as a person.  Then love them the way you love yourself. 
I’ll be spending the whole semester learning about diversity – personally I think if we just followed the greatest commandment in all areas of life, we’d do just fine.