On ‘The Color of Fear’

Yesterday evening as a few fellow American friends and I gathered to simply enjoy in-person company after months of social distancing, we found ourselves reflecting upon current events in the US. It’s hard not to. We shared our frustrations and concerns, and also shared a bit about what we were reading and what has had a profound impact upon each of us. One friend mentioned the documentary film ‘The Color of Fear’, and how ten years later it resonated with her and made a profound impact upon her.

Indeed.

Please spend some time really taking in this powerful, emotional and brutally honest discussion from 1994 on race in the United States among men.

The conversations we need to have will not be easy. They will make us uncomfortable and force us each to confront realities about ourselves and one another which we honestly don’t want to. But once we do, we might also achieve a better understanding of one another, and an understanding of what we need to do in order to achieve equity and justice for all.

Along with acknowledging our own flaws and culpability in how we have consciously or unconsciously sustained a system of racial inequity and inequality along with systemic and institutional racism, we might understand what we can do to dismantle it. And along with that we might just begin to heal long-festering wounds left raw and untended. It is likely we will feel rage and anger, and there will be fear and there will be pain. But, unless we have those conversations, we will never clean out the rot and truly heal. We will not change ourselves or society. And, neither will those institutions.

So,…. Listen. Learn. Do better.

On ‘Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m not sure that writing a review of this particular book is necessary. My first reaction can be summed up quite simply: Read this book. Now. Right now.

Given the long-overdue awakening taking place not just in the United States at this moment, but across many former colonisers and countries characterised by white privilege and power at the expense of everyone else, those of us who know nothing about the lived experiences of POC need to listen carefully and silently to their voices now. This book goes a long way in granting us at least one voice rather clearly and unapologetically. She is not angry, although she has every right and reason to be. She is not preachy or admonishing, although I’d certainly expect anyone writing a book like this to be. This book made me uncomfortable and angry, despair and cringe, and it made me mutter again and again, ‘what the fuck is wrong with people’?! Not POC, but those of us who have and know white privilege without ever accepting or acknowledging it.

The simple notion that history and institutions have made it difficult for those of us not lucky enough to have been born white is undeniable. Correcting it, let alone simply accepting it, shouldn’t be a matter of debate. And, yet, here we are in 2020 still wondering why a statue for a slave trader or Confederate general is so offensive to some.

As much as this book angered me, it oddly and rather refreshingly offered up doses of hope. I am a firm believer in knowledge being a powerful weapon if wielded properly. I suspect Reni Eddo-Lodge shares that old adage. She provided me with a bit more information about racism and racist institutions in the UK, and by doing so allowed me to gain a bit of objectivity on institutions which have parallels in my own country, the US. She also understands how we all need to be gentle with ourselves as we disentangle and make sense of atrocities from our historical past in order to do the hard and necessary work of dismantling them as we move forward. This is painful as a process and incredibly uncomfortable at times. As long as we, each of us, does something with the knowledge we gain and the awareness necessary to be and live as antiracists, those small steps collectively can help us to achieve our goals. Let’s move forward rather than stand still in our despair and anger and frustration.

I will read this book again. More so, I will continue to think about every bit of this tiny, powerful book, and how I can be the change and do something and do better every single day.



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Juneteenth

The video below provides an animated version of the Atlantic Slave Trade. For 2 minutes, dots of varying sizes indicating the number of black human beings transported from Africa to the Americas against their will move across the Atlantic Ocean from the Old World to the New.

If this isn’t horrific, I don’t know what is.

Today, 19 June, is Juneteenth, the day we should all celebrate as marking the end of a most horrific era in human history, the day when all black Americans learned that the ownership of other human beings (meaning, their ownership by their white masters) officially ended across the United States. Yet, few know that Juneteenth actually exists or what it specifically means and refers to. That lack of knowledge and skipped-over bit of history is problematic all on its own. It’s also emblematic of how far we still have to go in the United States and elsewhere in making racism and inequity and inequality a part of our past rather than current events so that we may truly claim freedom for all a reality.

That Juneteenth honours and remembers events from Galveston, Texas, when Major General Gordon Granger informed the people of Texas that all slaves were free, makes it all the more ironic if not outrageous to this particular Daughter of the Republic of Texas (yes, I am actually a member of the DRT). We are not taught this particular and incredibly important event in our ‘history’ courses. We are taught the history of white America, but not American history. Rather than being taught the history of Juneteenth in grade school or university history classes as a young girl or young woman, much as I learnt about the Emancipation Proclamation, I first heard the term Juneteenth within the last several years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that most textbooks are written for and approved by the Texas Board of Education, an agency known to bend to the whims of political ideology and religious dogma at the expense of critical thinking or scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us. At one point in time, before an outcry and complaints, one Texas textbook referred to slaves as involuntary ‘immigrants’ and workers. Talk about whitewashing history.

It’s shameful to me that in 2020 we are still woefully unaware of our own history. That history, whether we acknowledge it or not, shapes our lives today, and informs how we view and treat one another. From Juneteenth to the Tulsa race massacre and destruction of the Black Wall Street to the impact and legacy of Jim Crow laws to rewriting MLK and Malcom X as less threatening and more ‘peaceful’ to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Robert Fuller and today’s mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, we need to revisit and rewrite history, making it less favourable to white America and more reflexive and inclusive of the voices and lived experiences of POC. It will be uncomfortable, and it will be difficult. But, it is necessary. And, it is right and just and honest and true, even if we find it horrific.

So, as a first step, let’s start today. Right now. Here’s to making Juneteenth a national holiday, celebrating freedom and a day of remembrance.

School’s out

Taken on a Nokia 8. Munkkiniemi Frisbeegolf Course, Finland, 1 June 2020.

What a truly bizarre academic school year.

My last lecture for the 2019–2020 academic year was scheduled to take place this morning. But, covid-19 ensured that I would not physically meet with my students, and the entire last dash towards the end of the year was rather anticlimactic. I spent a portion of this weekend recording and cleaning up the audio files for my last lecture and sorting through my slide decks. And, by about 9.30 this morning, all of the lecture materials were uploaded and visible via various distance learning tools the University of Helsinki has made available to both instructors and students alike.

Now, I’m left with sorting through my inbox as final assignments filter in and submitting my final reports and student grades. No lovely send offs. No in-person thanks and well-wishes for equally productive and restorative summer holidays. No fanfare at all, it seems.

It kind of sucks, to be honest.

And, most educators I suspect have felt something similar for the last several months. specifically as they close the books (pun intended) for this school year. And, certainly at the end of this most memorable and challenging of academic years.

Teaching and lecturing are exhausting during the best of times, and more so when you must quickly adapt and adjust to new realities with relatively little warning at all. I’m fortunate. I love my job and find the exhaustion infinitely rewarding because of the returns earned through inspiration and continual intellectual challenges and breakthroughs for me and my students. I’m infinitely fortunate to have the continual support from my direct supervisor and immediate colleagues, and incredible students, all of whom as graduate students are more than capable of using their own reserves to draw upon for self-discipline and time management necessary to learning asynchronously.

But, goodness I miss lecturing.

The worry for me and the source of my overwhelming exhaustion this year relates to that constant concern that the courses and materials are not meeting their needs. That all of these tools and technologies made available to us are poor and rather inadequate substitutes for the real-life, in-person interactions we typically enjoy and use to gauge engagement and understanding. Interactions I enjoy, and ultimately use to measure my own performance as much as theirs.

Summer may have arrived in Helsinki for this university instructor and her students. But, much of this summer for me means revamping and reexamining how to make distance learning a little more palatable for my students as well as for me. How to make achieving our mutual learning objectives a bit more possible and attainable. And, how to make the experience a little less lonely and a little more fulfilling and more interactive even with social distancing measures in place.

And, here, again, I suspect I’m not alone.

We are all redefining what ‘normal’ means to and for us. [Instructor and teacher friends, we’ve got this!] We are all adjusting to new realities and wondering what various seeds of change drifting on one wind or another will sprout in the near and distant futures.

One conversation at a time

NB: Like many, I’m genuinely struggling to put into words what I feel or to process what we’re collectively witnessing and experiencing in this moment. This is my own first step, based on a personal experience from this morning and how it might help me, at least, move forward and do something — anything — to affect positive change within my own network. The specifics of this morning’s experience are anonymised in order to protect my friend’s identity. This is my own perspective and reflects that alone.

Uncertain future. Illustration: Chris Riddell

I am not necessarily good at difficult conversations. I have never have been, and it’s perhaps the flaw I recognise as most unfortunate about myself. And, the flaw I struggle with the most.

If I am completely honest, I see the ugliest parts of myself surface during those moments. Specifically, I do not deal with criticism well at all, despite being more critical of myself than anyone else could ever hope to be. Contrary to understanding its necessity in helping me do and be better as a wife, friend, instructor, writer, [insert descriptor/role here], constructive criticism makes me exceedingly uncomfortable in the moment. I have no problem questioning my own beliefs on my own, but publicly I find such instances particularly painful and typically shy away from them whenever and as much as possible. I am also working on this. Because I want to grow as a person and be a better person for those in my life as well as my own community. But, it’s damn hard work.

Given the current backdrop of various bits of chaos that has become 2020, and the unreal events unfolding in the United States specifically, difficult and uncomfortable conversations are necessary. So, when a friend with whom I share very little ideologically reached out to ask me about a sensitive topic, I took a deep breath and dove in head first.

And, you know what? I regret nothing. It felt good. It worked. It was respectful and honest. Unresolved, but solid and a step in a direction we both welcomed. And, that’s something.

Because neither of us approached this conversation from the perspective of needing to be right or correct or proving our point, it worked.

To me, this moment provided an opportunity, not only offering the chance to reach an understanding of a perspective and the thoughts of someone with whom I do not share a world view. But, also, a chance to help someone I know understand a bit more about where to find resources and perhaps look at their own world view in a slightly different way, one which might prove more beneficial to those unlike us who desperately need allies who look like us. This moment hearkened back to a time when liberals and conservatives / Democrats and Republicans / blue states and red states could discuss the issues of the day and find a way forward rather than ripping one another apart.

This friend and I conversed with the intention of listening and gaining insight rather than being heard and judging one another. We challenged one another (I hope), but we also chatted aiming to help one another rather than selfishly and myopically support and validate our respective viewpoints. We did not approach the conversation intending to pick apart everything; instead, we tried to unpack one thing. We asked probing questions and patiently waited for responses. We left labels aside, placed pins in other important topics which were tangential to this specific topic and focused instead upon the meanings we might have missed by using various labels previously.

And, we left the conversation with points to think about and consider, with an agreement return to our discussion later. We did not leave feeling frustrated, angry, hurt of belittled.

We provided ourselves with a way to move ourselves as well as our communities forward. And, that’s huge.

So many of us right now are hurting, whether we agree on what pains us or not. So many of us lament and despair the loss of innocent lives and the inhumanity we are collectively witnessing, all in the middle of a global pandemic that demands social distancing and has impacted our social and economic realities if the not the very fabric of our lives. We may not necessarily agree on what causes the pain or anguish, or indeed upon on what specifically what must change. But, we agree that the wounds run deep and divisions are killing us. And, that change is necessary.

To me, we must also confront continuing injustices such as institutionalised racism and a system rigged to maintain the status quo and extreme power differentials in place. Doing so requires finding common ground and understanding wherever and whenever we can. It won’t be easy, and perhaps might result in more than a little blood, sweat and tears, for some real and for others allegorically and metaphorically. But, the difficult, sensitive and hard conversations and discussions must take place.

So, here’s an invitation: Come talk to me.

I will listen. I will do my best to be open to those difficult conversations, without judgement or justification. I will do my best to be respectful and less reactionary or defensive. Primarily, rather than shy away from them, I invite those discussions and conversations, welcoming them and genuinely consider them. I may not always agree, but I will seek out ways to reach consensus where possible and check my own biases and privileges and assumptions as necessary. I hope all of us will do likewise. Otherwise, nothing will change.

On being 50

5-0. Fifty. Five Zero.

Yesterday, I turned 50 years old. And, I am fabulous. I do not mean that in a boastful sort of way, but in a way that my life, as simple as it is, is truly good. And, I cannot quite get my head around that simple truth.

My life at 50 provides me with more than I need, and exceeds my expectations in surprising ways, particularly when I compare where I am now to the dreams of a young woman with no earthly idea what lay ahead. There is no flash or needless drama, but there is a peace and serenity, qualities lacking not so long ago. My life at 50 resembles nothing I envisioned for myself at 25. Yet, this life is far better than I dared hope it would be.

I am beyond grateful every single day to have found a partner who constantly and continually amazes me with his kindness and his patience, his talent and his intellect, and his love, his boundless, unconditional love, even on my worst days. I have a job that challenges me and rewards beyond expectation, and colleagues who lift one another up with support and compassion, and feature friendships forged by fire in many ways, particularly over the last several months. My family and friends scattered literally everywhere across this crazy world still manage to make the girl inside feel special without physically meeting-up and instead popping the champagne bottles virtually. Another cheeky cat entered my life whom I may spoil and annoy and who will keep me entertained and humble. And, to house it all, we have created a place to call home filled with reminders of every aspect of this little life for which I am enormously grateful and at times in awe of because it is mine.

Yesterday was a weird day given the the current pandemic-altered world we currently inhabit. But, the day itself also reflected the quiet and calm my life has become at the half-century mark. A few tasty treats thrown in to remind us what truly matters: health, laughter, light, good food with a bit of rich decadence when possible shared with the two creatures I call my family. And, that’s rather perfect. Life isn’t perfect, but there are moments that echo a perfection we all seek.

Reading the messages and reminders from individuals and moments throughout my life filled me with a sense of enormous gratitude. I am so, so fortunate in ways measured neither by wealth nor material goods. It’s overwhelming at times.

Seriously, y’all. I want for nothing (well, aside from wanting to actually hug you all once again, damnit). And, I thank you all for every text, message, good thought, kindness, shoulder, laugh and gesture. My cup truly runneth over.

On ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

We do not watch much TV. We opted not to connect a digibox to our fancy TV because we haven’t watched an actual TV programmes in real-time since we moved to Finland.

We are also a household divided. I will watch just about anything (except reality TV and extreme horror films). The Cuban is a film snob.

My husband’s taste in films is incredible really. I tease him about it, because his standards are exacting, and typically correct. And, I do not mind at all since he finds some true gems whilst scouring various databases and critic reviews. Thus, we tend to watch films which are relatively unknown to the box office, many foreign films and so many documentaries on topics ranging from the secret lives of cats to how foods are made and what’s actually in spam. And, naturally, politics. (I didn’t say my taste takes a complete back seat!) Typically, The Cuban selects what we watch each evening after dinner, and will throw in a silly movie just for now and again so we can mock it together. (I know: we’re awful. But, it works for us.)

Yesterday, there was no hesitation in what he cued up, something he had just discovered and read about very recently. We watched ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always‘. And, I must say, it was truly brilliant. To me, it was perhaps a much more honest portrayal of the lengths a high school girl from a low- or middle-income family living in a parental consent state in US will consider should she find herself pregnant with very little perceived or real support from her family.

The acting is incredible, the characters and script are genuine and relatable, the direction and cinematography are both stellar and beautiful. More than anything, this film does not spoon-feed you every single detail nor dwell upon the political or social implications in the backdrop. It’s a portrait of a journey told from one perspective: a young 17-year-old girl who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be.

I have so many questions about the girls in this film and their circumstances, and can imagine so many routes via which they landed in these specific moments. Truly, I wondered what would happen to them next once the credits begin rolling.

A very tiny tagline on the movie’s website reads simply,

Her Journey
Her Choice

Indeed.

In this specific journey, the main character — Autumn — is accompanied by her cousin. I’m glad she had that companion along with her throughout. She did not judge, she did not chide and she did not question Autumn’s choice. She simply sat with her and stood by her on that journey, and occasionally held her hand to get her through the most difficult moments. From beginning to end.

This is stripped-down storytelling. And, it is beautiful.

Trailer

A welcome visit

Like everyone else in the world, Covid-19 has altered our world. We have socially isolated ourselves since 13 March, which seems like a lifetime ago. A friend who lives in our neighbourhood has stopped by a few times briefly for visits reminiscent of Romeo & Juliette’s balcony scene without the drama. But, aside from those chats, we have interacted with no one other humans beyond the supermarket staff and each other, our darling kitten and nature for the last 8 weeks or so. The uncertainty and weight of these times, along with various reactions to it are, overwhelming at times.

Yesterday, this guy visited one of the feeders we hang from our second-floor flat’s balcony. Our views largely consist of other buildings. But, we are close enough to woodlands that many birds visit our balcony daily. This gorgeous creature is a more recent and our most precious guests.

A family of woodpeckers visited our former flat daily throughout the spring and summer months. Since moving about 1.5 years ago, our only real regret was not seeing or hearing those woodpeckers outside our balcony, despite moving less than ~1 km from our former flat. We’ve missed that family, and their lovely little chirps as they fed on the treats we left for them. The appearance of this guy last week made my heart sing. And, was so utterly random. At one point as I watched the tits and finches feed whilst sipping coffee, he just appeared. Time stopped. And, the weight of the world lifted. For whatever reason, hope was restored. At a time when I needed a reminder of the good in this world, I was reminded that the tiniest of joy can and often do appear when you least expect them.

Yesterday, Woody — because all woodpeckers are ‘Woody’ to us — showed up to delight The Cuban, who quietly gasped, quickly ran to grab our fancy-ass camera and then crept as close as he could to snap this and many more pics. The look of pure delight on his face nearly made me cry.

Moments like these are so, so precious. And, we are beyond grateful for them. I’ll be taking a few moments each day now to simply sit at our table stare out the window and watch the birdies. No wonder Pollito Pito Frito Fu does this daily.

Covid-19 has not impacted us directly. The curve here in Helsinki and Finland remains relatively flat. But, since most of our families and friends are scattered across this world and far from us, we feel that distance more acutely these days. As accustomed to this as we are, the knowledge that we can do absolutely nothing to help those we love or be there for them is crushing. At least we have the technology now to stay in touch with everyone. And, to share our concern, unease and uncertainty as well as our hope with all those we hold near and dear as well as all of you.

Solidarity, y’all. Be safe and be well. And, thank you for sharing your views from across this gorgeous world. We are all in this together

On ‘Choice’

Choice by Karen E. Bender

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This was my first read during women’s history month, and with the full awareness that we are increasingly edging our way towards a reality in which choice no longer exists.

I absolutely think everyone — and I do mean everyone — should read this book. Make it mandatory reading in sex education classes as a minimum.

It’s no secret that I am staunchly and firmly pro-choice. And my life has largely been possible because I’ve been free to make decisions regarding my own desire to reproduce. Had I not had some options open to me, it’s very much unlikely that I’d have gone to graduate school or landed in Moscow or met The Cuban. What an astounding reality and one I’m so grateful I don’t have to contemplate for long.

I’ll never question any choices any other woman makes regarding what she chooses to do with her own body. Those are decisions she must live with as I live with my own decisions. And I will never stop fighting for the young women who follow me so that they will have all of the choices they need available to them.

Abortion should be legal, and safe and rare. And the only way that becomes a reality is if we stop trying to regulate women’s bodies. And my favourite bumper sticker is still this:

‘How can you trust me with a baby if you can’t even trust me with a choice?’

My body, my choice. Full stop.

#womenshistorymonth



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The Queen of Cheek (2006 to 2020)

I’d like to tell you a story.

Just about 14 years ago at a BBQ at the US embassy compound, we met a darling little bundle of fur. I say ‘met’, when really she chose us as she stepped out from amongst her litter mates towards The Cuban and I. You cannot image how impossibly tiny she was, nor how utterly adorable all whiskers and fluffy kitten fur. That day, the three of us—this tiny kitten, my husband and I—made a pact, one which we could not envision being more synchronised nor more loving than it has since remained.

This tiny kitten became known as Cheeky Che Fufu, The Princess of Darkness. In those initial days when she became a central member in our family, she proved to be the cheekiest of cats, capable of being a little shit whilst also insanely endearing and lovable. From wiping out on my desk head-first into a very full cup of coffee which went e v e r y w h e r e and took ages to clean up, to her nightly habit of turbo kitty-ing around our tiny Zelenograd flat in the outskirts of Moscow, to sitting outside our bedroom door crying in the most mournful way until one of us (read: me) would crawl out of bed, open the door and allow her to nestle in with us as she purred loudly and happily and drifted off to sleep, to being utterly obsessed with my toes, many of those habits endured until very recently despite two countries and four homes later. She was queenly even as a kitten, and quickly gained loyal subjects to dote upon and worship her. We imagine she had some sort of connections to the Egyptian cats from centuries past given her ability to rule whatever room she entered.

She loved bird watching, but only from inside her home or the safety of her balcony. She loved very cold water, best delivered via the tap from the bathroom sink or via a tiny syringe leftover from some weird illness that remained unexplained. She loved pooing and digging FOR-EV-ER despite the cleanest of litter boxes, and then rocketing out of it to tear around her home leaving a trail of tiny little bits of litter all over the place, which I swear will never disappear. She loved butter, served on a plastic spoon intended for tiny toddlers. She loved licking yogurt containers. She loved her brush, but only once a day. She loved greeting us as we returned home, even if we were gone but a short while. She loved temptations. Of all sorts. She loved Pollito, who only joined us recently, but complemented her stateliness with his own clownish antics. And, she loved us, individually, showing us both in ways unique to her and to each of us.

And, good grief we love her. Still. Always.

In the end, kitty breast cancer proved too powerful a force to hold off forever. We used to joke about cloning her. Now we know that there can be only and precisely one Cheeky Che Fufu. And, what a mighty hole she has left in our hearts today.

We must extend our thanks to all those who loved this most amazing feline. And, we know there are many of you out there. To give you an idea of just how incredible this precious girl was, the vets’ office was utterly silent as we left this afternoon.

So, here’s to the Queen of Cheek. Long may her memory reign.