Waste not, want more

No variations on a theme.

Anything I set my mind to – Part 1

I’ve always felt conflicted about that child-encouraging adage: “you can do anything you set your mind to [doing].”

At the risk of sounding like Ms. Negative, can you really?

On the one hand, I think that the support and faith that this phrase reflects is fantastic. I certainly wish someone had taken me aside and told me this when I was 5, 8, 10, 12, 16, 22 – repeatedly. [This is a rare case of me not blaming my parents. This was so far outside their cultural experience, I could not expect it. But if someone had taken it upon themselves to let me know, I would have been quite pleased.] I truly believe that being told this has empowered people around me, given them confidence and drive to pursue difficult, mysterious, and seemingly out of reach things, and find success in that pursuit. If we set a goal, pursue it doggedly, take initiative, share our passions, there is a great deal we can accomplish.

On the other hand, I think that treating “you can do anything” like dogma can get us into some disconcerting thought patterns. Some people face extraordinary barriers and some do not. Many who do have barriers overcome them fantastically. They contribute to their community and the world in ways we would have never imagined. But some don’t. Maybe I’m being too black and white about this but, isn’t there an implication that if we believe anyone can do anything they set their mind to, and they don’t achieve that goal, that their failure is somehow their fault? That if that person had just tried harder, they too could have been a star on the path of their choosing? In revering those who can, are we shaming those that can’t or don’t?

To give a concrete example, I was talking with a colleague of mine about people with disabilities who have to advocate for themselves for the accommodations they require to succeed academically. Some are able to do so and in the best case scenario, are accommodated accordingly. One can easily recognize their ability to overcome adversity. In some cases, others who were not in a position to so advocate, struggle more to do so, or give up on accommodation entirely, are not given the opportunity or are seen as having failed in some way. We may think that they don’t have the valiant spirit necessary to succeed.

Is it helpful to tell a person with severe depression that they’ll feel better if they make it their goal to do so when just getting out of bed may be a daily struggle that person faces? Can we help but wonder if another person in a similar situation was able to do it, why can’t they?

IĀ  suppose it’s complicated. I suppose the real message is that we should set our sights high. I suppose we should similarly be able to accept when we fail, or at least forgive rather than blame ourselves. As humans, we have limitations. Where do they fit in?


October 11, 2011 Posted by | Bad TV References, Childhood Complaints, Doing it the hard way | , , , | 6 Comments

What I learned at camp: Samoan Sharing Circle

I’ve been mulling over the following recently. Then Woman Wielding Words posted an invaluable blog discussion of constructive online dialogue. She writes eloquently about the balance between respectful disagreement and argument gone awry. Though not directly related, the post gave me the impetus to finally get my excitement down/out/around.

Even in discussion groups, community meetings, classrooms, boardrooms, meeting rooms, and other places meant to foster the exchange of ideas, ideas are often stifled. Minority opinions and wild what ifs are frequently silenced and consequently unexplored.

After spending five years in what – with youthful abandon – I liked to refer to as a right-wing propaganda institution (it really wasn’t, but who hasn’t had fun saying “fascist pig” once or twice? I kid – I actually don’t find that super useful. Or a little useful.), I enjoy finding myself in the majority on occasion. There’s comfort there. As well as singing and hugs and vegan recipe exchanges – yum. I’m probably too comfortable there. That said, I still want people to bring up those other points of view. I don’t want them to be or feel silenced.

I think silencing leads to bad blood and extremism as well as people constantly seeking out others with the same viewpoints in order to find some community (I could be the president of that club). As a result, it’s easy to forget that there’s still racism to unlearn, that some people find immigration concerning or capital punishment necessary. This is obvious to many, but if I don’t know why someone supports capital punishment, how can I learn from them, argue with them, or refute their claims? The discussion starts from the wrong place, and loses anybody who isn’t already there. If a conversation were a hill climb, starting some people at the bottom and dropping some people halfway up and expecting them to know why the rest of the crew is wheezing and traumatized from a near accident. This is why finding base matters that everyone can agree on, or at least understand, is valuable even though you’re never going to get every person starting from the same position on the hill.

More importantly, conversations, positions, debates and issues are not binary – either yes or no, black or white. You can’t plot all the people in the world into one of two boxes. Issues have varied and complicated points of view to match all us varied and complex people.

So, what’s the point, queen of the obvious?

Well, maybe there doesn’t have to be one, have you thought about that? Maybe there’s a bunch of points and any one of them is worth some thought.

But in this case there sort of is a point (foiled!). During my dreamy (read challenging and crazed) field course this summer, I learned something new and exciting (one would hope). After several rounds of mock negotiations and adversarial conversations about who wants what, we were introduced to a new way of sharing ideas, the Samoan Sharing Circle.

I realize that a sharing circle harkens ideas of hand holding, crying and cannabis that are not firmly within every person’s comfort zone. But let’s try to put that aside for a minute, shall we? Let’s also set aside that the practice as I learned it probably misappropriates Samoan leadership culture. I cannot claim any knowledge of its history and am speaking only of the experience I had with something called the “Samoan Sharing Circle” by the person who facilitated the discussion. All that said, there were some great things that came out of the exercise.

First – what goes on?

There is a small circle of three or four people in the middle. They are given an initial thought or discussion point and asked to talk about that particular issue. There is a larger circle of people around the outside of the smaller circle that must listen but not speak. If someone from the outer circle is motivated to speak or add to the conversation, they physically move behind the person whose point they want to address. At that point, a person removes themselves from the inner circle so that the outer circle person waiting to speak has an opportunity (i.e. the number of speakers remains constant).

This may sound a little exclusive, all this talk of inner and outer circles, but it produced amazing results, even among a group of people relatively willing to speak their minds. In particular, the exercise:

  • freed people from the obsession with being correct and allowed them to raise ideas in a more “I think someone somewhere argued” sort of manner;
  • allowed people to play devil’s advocate more easily without feeling as tied to the views they were expressing;
  • elicited contributions from people who don’t participate as much in more adversarial discussions;
  • made it more difficult to be disrespectful when you disagreed (though I wonder whether that would be the case in a different group)
  • allowed me to learn a great deal from others and apply what I’d been learning in lectures;
  • brought up really good and interesting ideas;
  • curtailed conversation monopoly; and
  • it really drew us out of that X versus Y approach by allowing us to think about the multiplicity of factors/issues/positions to a given statement

Such exercises always hang on their participants. Admittedly, this group was pretty fantastic. Others may not find it as illuminating. All I can say is that I was plenty illuminated.

About this illuminated. (Moon Jelly)

This was one of those perspective changing moments in my life. I’d be dying to hear from anyone who has given the circle a try.

October 5, 2011 Posted by | Brackets, Self-reflection | , , , | 6 Comments

I Prefer My “Maiden” Name and You Can Too (or Not).

I cannot express how excited I am. I am ridiculous.The wheels are in motion for me to return to the surname I enjoyed for more than a quarter century. And no. I have no confessions of relationship drama or emotional turmoil, which makes this much more fun. So why is this coming to a head now?

I’m quasi close to graduation and even closer to actually getting my degree (not online, you’ll be saddened to know). In a field where people actually do hang their piece of paper on the wall, I’d like to awkwardly change my name back only once. Now seems like a good time. But the other, maybe more important reason, is that some 4+ years ago there was an agreement between me and hypothetical people. “Good. So we’ll go with the name change. But you can change your name in five years, if you want.” I sent an ashamed email to a friend I knew would sympathize/scold me and thereafter, for practical purposes, owned the name change whole heartedly.

I had completely new documents and a corresponding new personality (I kid) within a month. I’ve been uncomfortable about this deal ever since. Not in a dramatic, “what have I done” sort of way. In more of a genuinely confused, send my mom a card with the wrong last name on it kind of way. Seriously. Cause if my name’s different, then my mom’s must be too, right? The point being, I have not embraced (or understood) with whole heart this new me.

This of course, is indicative of the negotiations and starting positions. I never thought I was going to change my name. Hypothetical people never thought they would have a partner who didn’t. What were a lover of tradition and a lover of her name and its meaning to do? As I understand it, some level of standoff is not uncommon. A friend I know characterizes it this way: her otherwise progressive and awesome partner turns into a neanderthal about 10 seconds into a discussion of why a woman needn’t change her name. Thankfully, I haven’t witnessed any cave-burning or club weilding.

It hasn’t escaped me that my name is my father’s. I get that that raises its own issues about patriarchy. But that doesn’t change that I feel more connected to his (my) last name than any other. I was also named in the traditional Portuguese manner, which means that my mom’s name also made the cut: Rose [Mother’s hard to pronounce maiden name] [Father’s Surname]. While my mom’s team doesn’t get listed in the phone book, it is still in there, which I’ve always liked.

Just to be clear, I’m not invested in how other people deal with this issue. In an ideal world, I suppose, I would prefer that there was at least a conversation, that people didn’t just assume that in the straight marriage scene every woman should and would change her name. There are those who keep, those who take, those who long to take because they hate that freaking name, those who keep and then take, those with different work and personal names, hyphenators, combinators and those who challenge marriage as a patriarchal institution and reject the whole deal. In classic liberal wishy-washy fashion – I dig. Name yourself as you will.

September 29, 2011 Posted by | Childhood Complaints, Doing it the hard way, Hypotheticals, Portuguese-ness? | , , | 11 Comments