A Seat at the Table
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
My dad and I broke the legs off of the spice covered crabs and dipped the white meat in melted butter, our fingers covered in a mixture of Old Bay, vinegar and said butter. My nose began to itch, just like it does when I'm washing the dishes and I don't have a dry hand to appease the persistent, annoying prickle. My kids were running around somewhere, their bodies encased in a layer of sweat and earth and sugar. Baths were non-negotiable that night. In fact, given the amount of dirt they had acquired each day from hours of tree climbing, frisbee, barefooted running etc., each of the three nights that we were at my parent's house was a bath night, while at home they might go three or four days without one. I call it 'Cat's Theory of Subsequent Kids and Soap': with each additional kid that is added to your brood, the days per week that are devoted to bathing go down--it's proven science, except when at the grandparent's house, or when lice invade. The theory doesn't hold in those scenarios. Fucking lice.
Against the backdrop of a soft, grey sky and somewhat unseasonably cool, May air, the gathering of kids and cousins reveled in their freedom to roam as various adults ate and talked and kept an eye out for the littler ones. The newest cousin, at just over two weeks old, lay bundled and cocooned in his mother's arms. Almost all of my six siblings and I plus our families had gathered at my parent's house the second to last weekend in May to celebrate my oldest brother turning 40. To an extent, 40ish is how I still picture my parents in my mind's eye even now. They are as I remember them when I was a kid. My dad mows the lawn, my mom too. She cuts fresh basil from her garden, grabs a few tomatoes from their vines and slices some mozzarella for an afternoon snack, all of it topped with a bit of sea salt. But when I look back at pictures of when they actually were 40, they do look different now, older. Of course they look older, that was over 20 years ago. Time—and the passage of it—is such a weird concept to try and grasp. It leaves me bewildered and awed and sad. And yet it actually can't be grasped—it's literally always in motion, doing it's work silently and relentlessly with no regard for status or power, fame or family. We will all bow to it eventually. It's true that the heavy eyed, ever yawning newborn is a walking, bumbling, cheerio eating one year old before your own eyes, but, how? Further, today matters, what we do in our lives has consequence and holds weight. But it's also true that dust returns to dust. This strikes me as simultaneously freeing and a little defeating. We will all die eventually, so live loud and large and without fear. We will all die eventually, so what's the point?
The talk turned briefly political between my dad and I on that moody afternoon. I wouldn't say that our home was a particularly political one growing up, more so religious, if I had to contain it in one word. But, inevitably, religion always intersects with politics at some point.
Home is cathartic, for me anyways. For some, it is nothing but pain or pills, a place to escape from, a reminder that you are never enough. My years away from home have shown me that not everyone is like me. Of course I knew this before I left, but not in the flesh, not in my face. In my experience, home is a falling into softness and nostalgia, into familiarity, even though much has changed. Time has not only done her work on skin, eyes, hair, but the weeping willows and the driveway and my ideas as well. Still, home is a chance to let out my breath. It's easy to laugh, ok to cry. My kids feel this comfort, this freedom. They move about that space with ease and joy and a sense of safety.
It was about gay marriage--the conversation with my dad while we ate crabs on the patio. We don't see exactly eye to eye on some things anymore. Like my parents, I am not the same in body or in mind as I was twenty years ago, or even ten. I once held up certain ideas as absolute, immovable and untextured truths. Certain things have begun to change my mind--time and art and blood and words and screams. And people.
I emailed my dad a few days after that conversation. I had picked up on a subtle shift in his mood after we switched topics. Our talk didn't get contentious or ugly, it's almost impossible to go there with my dad, but I could tell something was bothering him. So I asked him via email: did I say something that upset you? He replied back that it wasn't so much that he was upset, but rather, discouraged and down. He felt that he had somehow failed me as a parent because my views on gay marriage had shifted to the point where he felt like they don't line up with Scripture anymore. Our home was built upon Scripture. I could see why this would be crushing to him. He ended his email telling me that I am a great mother and daughter. He told me that he loved me with all his heart.
I, in turn, felt pretty crushed, too--not because we disagreed, but because the thought that my dad felt like he had failed me was sad. And not sad in the way the President uses that word in his tweets, as in pathetic, but genuine sorrow. As a parent myself now, the last thing I want to feel is that I've let my kids down.
But I don't think my dad has let me down, and I told him so. I told him that I think one of the hallmarks of good parenting is raising independent and critical thinkers, which is what I'm trying to be (excuse me while I pat myself on the back.) I told him that he and my mom showed me how they think I ought to live, and I have taken that in, and now I am trying to figure out where to land (do we ever really land though?) I asked him: Wouldn't you rather have me read and think through and question and doubt and analyze rather than blindly and dumbly follow along whatever happens to be right in front of me? I told him that I wanted my convictions to be my own, not something I believe in just because my parents or a small group of like minded men told me to believe in it when I was growing up. Have you ever wondered what you'd believe if you grew up in a different family? If you were born in India? In 1712?
I'm much more interested and intrigued by the complexity and contradictions that human nature seems to encompass, rather than boxing everything off into strict dichotomies and blacks and whites. Yes, truth has to be concrete and constant and solid. But truth is also fluid, depending on circumstances and context and PERSPECTIVE. Not everyone is a woman. Not everyone is white. Not everyone grew up in the suburbs and went to private school. Not everyone is like me or has experienced life as I know it, I know this now. And that changes things.
Where does truth and real life intersect? Since real life is relative, maybe we'll start to have an idea once all the lives and all the voices have a seat at the table. This means elevating those who have historically been less seen, less heard, less valued. It's that simple.
It's never that simple.
Do I truly believe that everyone, everyone, should have a seat at the table? The racists, the bigots, the mean spirited, the rapists, the murders, the thieves? Does David Duke, for example, get invited to the table? People can change, right? We don't know we need to change until we see another way, after all. I am mulling and feeling like I am missing something when the thought hits me square in the face: David Duke has already been at the table for a long time. White men have had a seat at the table for centuries. This is not an affront, simply a fact. The idea is not to push them aside, to banish them, but to simply make room for others.
I can already hear the protests, I can feel the defenses going up. I'm not a man, but I am white, and I used to bristle, too when I would hear the words white privilege. I took it as an assault on the way I was born, something I had no control over. Ah, the irony, the hypocrisy. How many generations of black families have actually been enslaved, assaulted, mistreated, demeaned, cheated and murdered because of the way they were born? Though it pains me to admit it, this is something that I did not recognize until recently. Please don't hear what I'm not saying. Not all white men are David Duke, or have a superiority complex. But as a white man, he won't know what life is to be a black man or woman. Nor do I. I think the crucial thing to know--is that we don't know. We all need each other in the sense that inviting another's history and experience and point of view into our lives is essential to becoming more curious, empathetic, compassionate and humble--characteristics worthy enough on their own, but also essential to strength. Malcolm Gladwell said it well in his podcast Revisionist History: "The path to a better world is hard. Is that depressing? I don't think so. I think what's depressing is when we ignore everything history is trying to tell us." (This quote is from the special event episode, which is what I've started with, but the entire series sounds interesting and worthwhile.)
There is nothing inherently wrong (or better) about being white and male. But tradition holds strong, and thus blind spots are sure to occur if the field of vision remains narrow. Not only that, but generation gives way to the next generation through stories and longstanding beliefs and ways of life, the narrative being controlled by those in charge. If we only see one type of leader, won't we begin to believe that that is the only type of person fit for leadership? Tradition can be lovely and meaningful, but it can also stagnate. Sometimes, it needs to be upended in order for growth to take place. Oftentimes this requires sacrifice on the part of the privileged in service to the greater good. The ironic thing is, the greater good includes the privileged. Those who practice altruism often reap the benefits, too. Let the last be first kind of sentiment.
I almost don't want to keep those last few paragraphs. They are quite messy, no? And surely there are blind spots. But I can't bring myself to erase them, because they are also too important to ignore.
One last thought. The point is empathy and humanity. The point is not that we are all experts on everything under the sun. I don't expect to be invited to the table to share my opinion on neurosurgery or 19th century European sculptors.
I ended my email to my dad like this: You have not failed me. Just because we may not see eye to eye on everything is hardly a sign of a failure as a parent. If anything, I'd be worried if none of us pushed back. You are a great father.
I'm trying to find and think my way through these muddy waters. I'm trying to push back in love. The answers are not clear to me. I have not yet landed. I am just one person. But I am inclined to believe that the table, just like the landscape, is textured, multi-colored, large.