On ‘Assata: An Autobiography’

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.

Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.

Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.

This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.

#blackhistorymonth

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Out of habit

It’s been a mere two weeks since we returned from our extended holiday in the sun. And, I still feel out of sorts. Primarily, re-establishing my routine and schedule remains murky at the moment.

I’m not sure that this is entirely a bad thing.

Oddly, this post-holiday confusion that forces me to wrestle with my schedule and how I pass the time isn’t simply the pain that accompanies resuming work. Quite the contrary — I’m happy to be back in the classroom, and enjoying my office-based work immensely. A decent stretch of sleep, rest and relaxation will do that evidently. Falling into a routine for our holiday seemed natural and instantaneous this year. Perhaps that is simply a measure of how much we both needed it. There is a lesson here. And, we’re learning.

Before we left in mid-December, admittedly my mind and body were on auto-pilot. The pace of work in 2017 was relentless. And, exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great year and immeasurably rewarding on multiple levels; but, our holiday reminded me that time is fleeting. Carving out a bit of time for life — those moments beyond work — is necessary. More so, magic happens in that chiselled-out space if only we let it. The mundane somehow becomes memorable.

As we return to our respective routines and all those projects on-hold in our absence, we’re also forming new habits. First amongst these is not working all the bleeding time. I love my job (no kidding, right?); and I’d like to continue loving my job for as long as possible. To do so, I also need to learn to say ‘no’, either because what I’d like or am asked to accomplish is impossible in the time available or because I need to not work all of the time. (Happily, I’ve already managed to say ‘no’ this year, and on a task I normally would have worked day-and-night to accomplish. I’ll take this as a small victory.)

New or re-established habits carried over from our holiday needn’t seem like guilty pleasures. In fact, there’s nothing at all to feel guilty about. Spending quality time with my husband and running or doing a bit of yoga all keep me balanced and mentally healthy and happier. In addition, as with every year, I rediscover my love of books when the 24/7 access to the internet is removed as a possibility. Reading — whether fiction, political commentary or related to my work — provides a healthy distraction and hope in the enormous potential we humans possess.

So, intentionally or not, 2018 thus far has offered an opportunity to form new habits and routines. I don’t mind being out of sorts regardless of how uneasy that would have made me feel in the past.

I’d like to reach the end of this year feeling not quite so tired and rundown. Naturally, that will take work. But, here’s hoping that the work seems more like play and continues to inspire, excite and stimulate me mentally.

(And, for those of you wondering how the half-marathon training is going, don’t ask. I’ll come back to that later…let’s just say one habit I need to re-establish is a running routine. Small steps, eh?)

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Happy 2018 from us to you — and may each day feature a little silliness and just enough laughter to make your cheeks hurt a tiny bit. 

Until then…

We are nearly off. And, I cannot tell you just how much we both desperately need a nice long, luxurious kip for about a week.

I’m not sure when I’ll post here again — it may be later this week or sometime next year. As we’ve prepared for our annual escape to the sun and the land in which we unplug and unwind, I’ve had a bit of time to also reflect upon this past year.

What. A. Year. I can’t say that I’ll really miss it.

Rather than look back, though, I’m looking forward. 2017 has proved more than a little challenging, and more than infuriatingly frustrating at times. But, it’s also been a whiplash-inducing mixed bag. My year has been stellar professionally (if not utterly exhausting) and personally rewarding. Yet, 2017 was horribly marred by politics and current events. Unfortunately, those politics inevitably bleed into my own life, partially given my political junkie tendencies, but also because of the reality in which I reside as an American expat (member of the diaspora?) married to a Cuban living in Europe.

I have no idea what 2018 will bring. But, I’m ready. All I really know is that I can continue to work on this corner — this tiny seemingly insignificant part of the world I inhabit. I can do my best to ensure that it is fair. That it is compassionate. That it is just. And, I can work towards increasing the ripples of that world ever-outward, hopefully extending that fairness, compassion and justice if not by my own deeds at least by my own example.

So, dear reader,until we, meet again in either a few days, weeks or two months’ time, here is my wish for you:

May your holiday season be filled with boundless joy and delight, and may the New Year bring you peace, prosperity and better days. 

 

2017-2018

Suomi 100 and counting

Independence Day for us Americans is a day of over-the-top patriotism and fireworks displays beyond anything reasonable. Our celebrations, to my mind, mimic the stereotypes most other inhabitants of the world have about us Americans as people—loud, bordering if not completely obnoxious and at times rather unnecessarily boisterous.

Finland’s Independence Day falls on 6 December each year. This year, Finland turned 100, an incredible milestone particularly given that she gained independence from a far larger and more powerful Russia. All of Finland and Finns everywhere have been looking forward to this centennial celebration — Suomi 100 — since last year. Quite rightly. But, the celebrations are still incredibly subdued and rather restrained by comparison to my American garish experiences.

Finland’s celebrations have been rather admirably and typically Finnish—quietly and rather free-from-boastingly proud. More than anything, a quiet pride pervades the atmosphere and celebrations, and it’s really quite moving.

Just about every Finnish company and business has created special items for Suomi 100, particularly the many design companies throughout Finland. Commemorative items to marking this milestone have been advertised and offered. Buildings and landmarks across Finland were lit in Finnish blue beginning on Tuesday evening. That same day, 100 Finnish flags were erected in the Market Square near one of Helsinki’s harbours and many of the landmark buildings. A massive (for Finland) fireworks display closed the festivities yesterday evening. Interestingly, as we walked through our neighbourhood yesterday evening, we glimpsed just about every Finnish television tuned into the traditional Presidential Independence Day reception, broadcast and showing various individuals shaking hands with the President of Finland.

It’s really quite lovely. And, yet, sedate. Much like Finland.

Finns are incredibly proud of their 100-year independence, and well they should be. We’re rather proud to be immigrants to this fine country. To confirm this pride, every single Finnish phone number received a birthday text message yesterday. Rather impressively, the message was distributed in Finnish, Swedish (the two national languages) and English (at least on our phones). What did this message say?

Today Finland celebrates 100 years of independence – Happy birthday everybody!

It’s rather odd to see a message pop up from ‘Suomi 100’. But, it was also incredibly sweet.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to wish Finns and Finland a happy Independence Day in Finnish (Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!). But, it is an absolute honour to be a resident and extended member of Finnish society.

Congratulations, Finland. Onnea Suomi!

On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree

‘Be silly. Be kind. Be honest.’

Yesterday. Yesterday was a week of bad days smushed into a mere 24 hours.

By the time I returned home, nothing mattered, other than crawling into my favourite pjs and crabbing a giant gin and tonic (although we were sadly out of gin). If I’d had the energy, I would have grabbed my colouring books and pencils, built a blanket fort and hid from the world until next week.

Call it the end of a long, long year, the need for our holiday to begin N O W, a case of being overly tired from lack of sleep or simply a bad day. Regardless, yesterday sucked.

Evidently, my husband thought it best to channel Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both men’s mottos are ‘Be silly. Be kind. Be honest.’

Knowing that yesterday wore me out—psychologically and physically—The Cuban aka my hero sent me the perfect email sometime after I drifted off to sleep. (Never mind the weirdness of a couple who work from rooms next to one another sending emails back and forth—we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’) are forgetful at times and email occasionally works best.) This email was silly. It was kind. And, it was honest. And, it was precisely what I needed to put yesterday behind me.

As the holiday season descends upon us, it seems as though everyone is overtaxed and overly tense and perhaps more than a little sensitive. Words and facial expressions and simply sighs may be taken out of context and in ways not fully intended. Individuals may be stretched to their absolute limits to such an extent that a smile can ease their minds or bring them to tears. This all rings true for me at the moment.

So, let’s all channel Ralph Waldo Emerson with a slight update: Be silly. Above all be kind And, be honest (unless it contradicts the first two).

And, for everything else, here is a picture of The Cuban’s grandmother with a rooster. Just because.

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