walking along a revolutionary road

I am watching the epic and tragic and brilliant story of Revolutionary Road again this weekend. I have a great appreciation for the intensity of the movie (as I have been told that I am an intense being) as it touches upon fundamental issues of life, purpose, and meaning. Each of these have profound reverberations on the people around us, too. This is where there is beauty in life when acted upon, or loss and dismay as is the case for Kate Winslet’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in the movie.

On the surface it is a love tragedy. Yet, wrapped in layers and layers, the movie is an illustration of walking the road less traveled (as M. Scott Peck calls it. A book that I would like to revisit this year, after more than a decade of being untouched). It is when stories of love, family, work, career, art, travel, journeys, passion arise. So many factors that they can cause a lump in a throat because they are too much to comprehend. Yet, it is not about the comprehension but the ability to act or decisively choose (in such a way that choosing sometimes feels like plunging) in spite of all the unknowns. In our hyper-intellectualized time and the delusion of logic, we attempt to know everything before acting. This set up is an impossibility. As we cannot know all that we need to know (nor can we know all that there is to know). To wait until all information is adequately known results in paralysis.

This delay of choosing, or inaction, at pivotal moments in life is what resonates for me in Revolutionary Road. Contrary to the revulsion or sadness that many others felt about the movie, I was drawn to it. I appreciated the darkness. It is a stark telling of what is far more common than I believe is acknowledged. Furthermore, it is an indictment of what happens when the pursuit of professional success trumps personal relationship.

***

The road less traveled requires walking through a doorway of choices, of choosing the less common, less appreciated and less understood choice(s) especially when these lesser knowns are frowned up or objected to by society, writ large or one’s inner circle. Every day there are moments when we have to choose (what are called choice points). Even when we decide to not act, we still make a choice. Life is chock full of possible choices and our choices impact not only other people and circumstances around us, but impact the remainder of our life.

Too often, we cower to the pressures of what is normal, what is acceptable or tolerable to family, friends, coworkers or to other people we perceive as being in our same social order. Perception is a dicey thing because it is our individual ideas of who we consider as being like us and being with us. Yet these we can trap ourselves and deny life-giving choices because of what the very same people want. Sometimes it is that we accurately see others as they are, and correctly understand what choice they want us to make; there are other times where our perception is mistaken and the very people we care about and care about us wish for us to make decisions that are more freeing. However, we may not because we cannot see (or hear or understand)) that that is what they, too, want for us. These are some of the ways of how we can trip ourselves up and become trapped. A paradox about being social beings is that we defer to others even when that is not in alignment with our inner self. When we repeatedly do so, we establish a pattern that can make it harder and harder to listen to the inner wisdom of intuition because we seek the counsel of others’ voices, even when it drowns our own voice.

For six years of the last decade, I waited for others’ permission to make choices that were mine alone to make. I come from two strands of families, where masculinity was defined as fitting within certain social structures and social orders. The lives of both of my grandfathers looked very different, yet each created families and built professions that placed them in contexts where their choices affected others — at work, in their home, in their extended families. While I cannot know what it was like to be fathers in their time, I reflect upon what their lives were and how they have profound reverberations two generations later.

***

Part of my attraction to this movie is that I was on a path that mimicked the path/s of the primary protagonists. For five years, I had limped along my path, stumbling. My feelings of being unseen and unheard were reaching a peak when I watched this movie. I could see a version of the movie’s storyline playing out in facets of friends’ lives and relationships more easily than in my own life. Yet, it was a story that resonated with me because it was foreboding — even when placed in an entirely different time and place than my own life.

I remember not being able to situate the movie setting the first time I watched the movie. The clothes and cars offered some glimpses, but it was not until I was far into the movie that I understood that this resonated deeply with me even though it was placed some 50 years earlier.

By placing Revolutionary Road in (what I believe is) the 1950s, I am reminded that the midcentury American Dream was not working for plenty of people at that time. Even for the people purportedly benefitting from that Dream, according to the dominant social narratives, which in this story is a white, middle-class, suburban family. The challenges shown in the movie — of responsibility, success, love — are timeless. The pressures to conform span generations; some conditions change with time yet the existential nature of life transcends decades.

At the time, I could not see the parallels to my life (circa 2008 or 2009) when I first saw it. In hindsight, i believe that I could feel a resonance, though. Years later, I now suppose that there will repeatedly be phases in life that can mimic this storyline. We may forever be on a path where forks in the path require that I choose one or the other. There are innumerable instances where I could choose something contrary to my inner self because of collapsing to social (or familial, professional, cultural) pressures. Grappling with the path that I am on and the choices to make may cease only when becoming free.

***

Despite the patterns and shaping that comes with repeating the same action over and over again, I have a delight that a different choice can be made.

One definition of what it means to be human: to suddenly choose something contrary to all the things that one has been prior to now.

For years, I have been astounded by attempts to simplify and therefore deaden what it means to be human. There have been formidable professional and economic pressures that choose systematization over spontaneity. It is core to the economic tenet of specialization, that long term partner of the endless growth demanded by capitalism. This growth is also a reckless growth as it prizes growth over wellbeing. In other terms, it chooses quantity over quality. Such brutal force is not nurturing to countries (pushed to focus on a few cash crops or a few products for export) nor individuals (pushed to repeat the same motion in manufacturing, or to do a segmented piece of work in services of white collar industries). The end result of a forced, narrow focus is the opposite of fulfillment and meaning.

Such brutal force, when seen through an economic lens, would be better described as abuse than specialization. It depletes life, denies flavor, substance and diversity. It trumpets homogeneity in a world that depends on heterogeneity. It squashes life when confining humans to repeated action even though evolving relationships and learning are fundamental to who we are.

Similar pressures and delusions have consumed educational institutions by placing greater value on testing than on learning. This, too, chokes the life out of students, out of learning, and pedagogy. Rather than investing in what gives life and causes us to flourish as humans, policy and budgets are correlated to metrics even though we are not machines. In our attempts to understand and to prove progress, certain elements have chosen false proxies as a way to define who we are and our experience.

Choices are the doorway to liberty.

Tending to unfinished business rather than bucket lists

I’ve had death and how our collective culture revolves around, relates to and treats death for the last month since my cousin died. I heard of his death in a car accident at midday on a Thursday.

Within a few days, I heard mention of Bucket Lists at least three times. And multiple other times in recent weeks. My emotions over the last month swam far, deep and wide. I have been quite irritated when I hear about “bucket lists” because a tone of jovial, fun-filled, and this-is-cool accompanies it. Much of my irritation is due to the material or experiential aspect of most things that populate these lists — hot air balloons, travel, bungee cord jumping. It feels like yet another instance where we are supposed to wear happy faces and feel great, even though most of our feelings about death and transition are not happiness nor greatness.

On the other hand, I first learned about Unfinished Business two years ago when I opened a first book by Elisabeth KublerRoss, which was either The Tunnel and the Light or On Death and Dying. Ahh, the joys of reading and the power that new ideas, when remembered, can have on altering my own life. Since first reading Kubler-Ross, Unfinished Business has become a counterpoint, or an antidote, to the Bucket List.

Unfinished business, according to a summary of how Kubler Ross described it to a six year old with a dying sister, is:

anything that you haven’t done, because this is your last chance to say or do anything you want to do, so that you don’t have to worry about it afterwards when it is too late.

Forgiveness. Love. Freedom. Permission. These are the simple and fundamental things in life. For some odd reasons (including attempts to control and manipulate others) we have a tendency to make life much more complex and messy than these staples.

_______

Unfinished business is affirmed by reading this list of the five biggest regrets (biggest wishes, in other words) of people approaching death, which was compiled by a palliative care nurse. The five biggest regrets/wishes are:

  1. wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected.
  2. wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. wish I’d let myself be happier.

Courage. Live truly. Play. Express feelings. Touch. Happiness.

C.L.T.P.E.F.T.H. is a word game worthy of befriending the 5 As of David Richo: acceptance, affection, allowance, appreciation, attention.

_____

At this moment in my life, I am attending to finishing my business in this life by:

  • appreciating and celebrating people sooner, on the same day or as soon as possible
  • not holding onto grudges with family, friends, coworkers or strangers
  • eating well, sleeping when and as much as I can,
  • writing more and more by honoring the urge when it arises
  • telling my parents, siblings, more females and males that I love them
  • sharing the ways that love looks
  • letting go of the need to have someone say “I love you, too” after I tell them of my love.
  • responding “thank you” (rather than “I love you, too”) when someone tells me that they love me
  • eating chocolate and baking cookies or bread more often
  • accessing compassion (for others and myself) quickly
  • slowing down
  • recognizing that the only person’s who’s accolades and approval to concern myself with is me

Recalling Sophisticated Lady from Charleston to Tuskegee at 92

I called my grandmother, Jane Draine (nee Jackson, Jones), yesterday. At 92, I could hear the surprise and delight that I had called her at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning.

At one point, she used a sentence of appreciation that I had called, signaling that she was wrapping up our call. In those few minutes, Grandmother told me about her health, had humored herself and me about the quality of food that institutions serve our elders and grandparents and remarked about her memory and my mobility. But, I wasn’t done talking since I had more questions for her. I had called to hear her voice as well as pose select questions to her. The mastery of asking questions is increasingly become a tool from the abyss of my soul where I forge history and family.

I asked her about the time and her and Grandfather Hooks’ decisions revolving around my father in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. In 1960, my grandparents moved from Denver back to Tuskegee. I asked how much Emmett Till factored into her thoughts, heart and soul as she readied to move from integrated Colorado to Jim Crow Alabama. I have been reading about Emmett Louis Till in James H. Cone’s “The Cross and The Lynching Tree” (published by Orbis Books in 2011) this week. When Cone reminded me of Till’s barbaric mutilation and how his mother’s choice to “not let her baby die in vain” was an inflection point for Black America. As Cone says himself, and quotes John Lewis as saying, Emmett Till made them and countless other black boys realize “it could have been me.” It was 1955, when my father would have just turned 12 years old. It turns out that my dad and Emmett share the same birthday, Till born two years earlier.

In 1960, my dad would be 17 when his parents moved to Tuskegee. I read Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Sons” a month ago, which reminded me on the barbarism of lynching, schooled me on sharecropping, and illustrated how widespread the brutality pushing Blacks out of the South was. Wilkerson makes the case that the Great Migration of six million African Americans between 1910-1970 was one of the (if not the) greatest historical events of the 20th Century US. This was a tide that my grandparents went against as they returned in 1960.

As Grandmother recounted to me over the phone, she and Grandfather chose to send my dad to Charleston, West Virginia, during his senior year to live with Buddy and Grandad Jackson, his maternal grandparents. Grandmother mentioned how the people at the Tuskegee Institute advised them that the high school was not as good.

53 years later, I cannot know how much of it was the pull of better educational options in Charleston or the push of the possibility of lynching and Jim Crow reality. My father would have been young, black and on the verge of manhood. Perceived as a young adult, yet carrying the simple not-knowingness of childhood in a body that was getting bigger and stronger. He would have been coming into a culture, setting and interpersonal dynamics of Tuskegee far different from the Denver he knew as a youth and teenager.

I asked more questions, about decades earlier when Grandmother’s parents hosted Duke whenever he came to Charleston, WV. She said how they held “all of the social activities” whenever he was in town. I asked her if that meant any meals and down time that Duke and his band were not performing. Yes, she said.

Grandmother mentioned how he began writing “Sophisticated Lady” one time he was in their home. Duke first came when she was 7, 8 or 9 years old. She cannot remember when it was the last time she saw him (as he passed in May 1974), though it was in New York. Grandfather approached “Duke” to let him know that they were there and how Duke affectionately recalled “Janie” from Charleston.

I asked her if she was excited during his visits, which she seemed nonchalant about when he was there. Yet, Grandmother recalled how she attempted to learn some of Duke’s songs, including Sophisticated Lady, on a few instruments she had as a child.

All of this family, legacy and lore in a sweet sixteen minutes on a Sunday morning.

Saturday a.m.: appreciations for walking other paths

I appreciate the paths less taken by each of my parents. My mother, was the first in her family to get a BA. She had sought out adventure, the kind that travel fosters, since high school when she attempted to be an exchange student. Her travel bug metamorphised probably much earlier than that. While attending the state university in Boulder, one of the gigs she chose was to become a resident advisor. 

Through that RA, she made an acquaintance with my dad. One of the few stories that i can recall from what I have been told was how they were supposed to do a new student orientation. Well, when it came time to begin speaking with the students, he was silent and left much (if not all) of the talking to her. A pattern that has been evident for much of the four-plus decades that they have been together. 

The collegiality of RAs led to them getting to know one another, and eventually going on a date. I cannot fathom what it was like for mom, to date a black guy in the mid 1960s. They married in June of 1967, 12 months prior to RFK’s assassination in Los Angeles. 10 months prior to MLK’s assassination in Memphis. 

There are so many instances that I can glimpse how she is walking another, a different path. From having her own business in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Bringing silver jewelery from Taxco, Mexico and selling it around Denver. I have never asked how much she would make, but it was a creative outlet, exploration, and set of skills that mom built in the midst of raising four kids — who in 1980 ranged from 2-10. 

****

My father’s path of embodying a different type of maleness is what has been salient to me. To be a grown male in the latter half of the 20th Century, was a particular thing. Yet, (some of) my father’s uniqueness comes from not only being a man, but a Black man. Who was an oldest child. Having a father who had fought in the Korean War, and later taught at Tuskegee Institute. A father who was not only in the service and a veteran, but one of the Tuskegee Airmen. There are so many layers to my relationship with my father, and I can only fantasize (hypothesize, romanticize as well as idealize and be frustrated by) what my father’s relationship to his father was. My grandfather died a few years before I was born — I want to say three years prior, but I am not convinced. So, what I have known of him have been through stories, photographs, and family traditions, mannerisms and other subtleties that may be passed through genes as much as upbringing. 

A few more forms of my father’s intersectionality include black/male, oldest child/with a developmentally disabled sister, only boy/with two sisters. Over the past decade, I have attributed meaning to who my father is, trying to lump my notions — of identity, experience, values — onto a skeletal structure of what I conceptualize his early life having been. I am more conscious of the gender make-up in my dad’s family, and in my own, because he embodies such a unique form of masculinity for me. 

In my 20s, i was flabbergasted, sometimes irate, with his inability to express, to divulge, to share. As a kid, he taught all of us the mantra, “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.” (that reads with far too many negatives than my lawyer-father would utter. if my memory serves me correctly) Those notions kind of worked in elementary school and as a teenager, but in adulthood I sought more perspective from him and everyone else in my family on what was coursing through his veins, his soul, his heart and mind. In my 20s, I fought the reality of what was, rather than embrace things for how they were. And those struggles have played some part in things being different today than they would be if I had not banged on the door of his feelings that he did not give voice to. A lot has changed in the eIght years since my mom told me how the only times my father would express his feelings were when he was sloshed. 

 

Omnipresent Identity

omnipresent: present everywhere at the same time. 

I have walked much of my 34 years in this life seeing myself, and the world, through the lens of race. My particular racial identity being mixed, mulatto, a half-breed of Black, white. There is a sprinkling of Native American blood in there, too — but I don’t live in a culture where we bother with one-sixteenths. There was a elementary school phase where i was name-called an Oreo; by a handful of white classmates (in an overwhelmingly white school). 2005 was the first time that I began to put my identity in terms of class. In June of that year, I had an epiphany that my white mother came from a working-class, white family. That was the first time that I had uttered that phrase. Seven years later, I am confident that ‘working-class, white family’ is a phrase that my mother will not use for the rest of her life.

I have entered into identity’s abyss in recent years. On Super Bowl Sunday of 2008, one of my two surviving grandparents passed. Dick Uhlenhopp had been in hospice for a month or so. Prior to that he had lived independently and on his own since Grandma Shirley died in October of 1987. Aside from my paternal/maternal great-grandmother, Buddy Jackson, my branch of the Jones/Uhlenhopp family trees had been spared death for the 21 years spanning from 1987 until 2008. What was different, in 2008, was that I was nearly 30 when Grandpa Dick passed. And I had been poking around family history, and asking quesionst hat had never occurred to me before, or topics that I had quietly agreed to remain silent about, as my siblings and others had. But with Grandpa’s death, I began to see how deeply identity goes. How many layers of an infinte onion, identity is.

Identity has become a doorway into personality, opinions, values, vantage and feelings.

I remember an exercise in college, where we were asked to compose a list of 20 or so identities for ourselves. Then we narrowed the list down to 5 by eliminating 15. Then we were told to whittle five down to one. In a room full of students of color, most of us had been selected for our leadership in student of color groups. Most of us settled with a singular identity emanating from our racial origins of Blackness, Latino/a lineage, API, immigrant or Native ancestry. That is, all of us saw ourselves as people of color. Except Sherman.

There was one guy who picked ‘friend’ as his one identity. He chose it over all others. I remember sitting near him, perplexed. Unable to fathom how a guy borne of two Chinese immigrants in Canada could see himself first as a “friend.” See himself only as a friend, especially when I saw his black hair, eyeglasses, toothy and nerdy smile wrapped in the skin and features that I had learned was Asian. I had even known that he was majoring in Economics, was raised in Saskatchewan, finished high school in Hong Kong, and had siblings. But at the time, all that I could distill Sherman down to was race.

How things have changed over a decade. I sense identity, multiple identities, everywhere (I suppose that I did with Sherman, too. But I placed a value on one identity over all others). I like to taste identity in the air, as if it is nectar of a flower or the smoke of a fire or from industrial pollution. Identity is that readily available. Identity is omnipresent. I listen to stories similarly to how a serious fan logs a baseball scoreboard. Identity has become a multi-faceted, nth-dimension in each of our souls and characters. Race and class are simply veneer for deeper stories, lives and identities that are buried within. I have come to see identity as including:

  • siblings: number of siblings, and place in sibling order (or an only)?
  • gender:
  • place of birth:
  • hometown: (do you consider this the same as the previous answer? that is indicative of something else)
  • place of current home:
  • closeness to mother/father/grandma/grandpa: relationship, distaste, struggles
  • favorite subject in elementary school: math, spelling, recess, science, p.e.
  • you get a high school diploma, GED or college degree:
  • more street-smarts, more book-smarts, or some of both?
  • math or literature: or as i like to say now-a-days, do you speak more fluently in numbers or letters?
    … aka, MS Word or Excel?
  • major or subject studied:
  • type of work:
  • reader: of fiction, current events, (even that distinct subpopulation passionate about) sci fi
  • paying rent or a mortgage, or multiple mortgages?
  • favorite author:
  • favorite vegetable:
  • favorite meal: breakfast, lunch or dinner?

Embracing more of our identities is vital in order to weave together stories that encapsulate more of the lives each of us has lived. I am unsatisfied with race alone, because as my father has pointed out, he finished high school in an integrated high school in West Virginia rather than attend a segregated school in Tuskegee. It wasn’t even his choice, but his parents sent him to live with family in Charleston, WV.

Back in 2005, I began to sense the nuance of identity by exploring the distinctions between each of my parents. My white mother has certainly had race privilege her entire life. Yet, I have come to appreciate how she lacked many of the class privileges that my father was raised with. Since then, I have explained it simply as “my mother had the race privilege while my father grew up with the class privilege.” The vestiges of my mom being the first in her family to get a four-year degree are alive today. In ways that I choose not to ask my extended family about, but alive, nonetheless.

Taking class identity and blending it with race identity has been an awakening experience. Class, is such an avoided topic, that what that means needs explanation. Middle class for me has been a father who’s entire career was as a white collar employee with the federal government. A father who had union representation, was trained as a lawyer, and has had comprehensive health insurance for as long as I can remember since i got my first physical the summer after kindergarten. I got a physical as a six-year old because the family was headed to Kenya. A gaggle of dependents and a diplomat for the US Embassy in Nairobi.

So I add:

  • health insurance coverage: any or out-of-pocket?
    … PPO, HMO, Medicare or Medicaid?
    … that you have on your own, or are a dependent on someone else’s?

I have honed how i tell my 1984 story, too. After years of telling the chronological story of living in six countries, four states in the country, three continents over 15 years, I now say how I finished kindergarten in Denver and began the first grade in Nairobi.

****

Last year, I was asked: Who are your ancestors?

Such potency in four words. There is a fits-and-starts fascination with history in this culture. For the most part, a historical amnesia when it comes to the history of families. How many people can tell where all four of their grandparents were born, grew up, and lived? How many of us readily know the years that our four grandparents were born, and died?

 I have a much lengthier answer than I did seven years ago because I have slowed down to ask. To explore, and to inquire with family members over the phone, and email messages as well as in person. The stories are too vast and invaluable to not ask now. There is a great risk in waiting until I will see my last living grandparent.

Pops called and asked a question

Just spoke with Dad for 10 minutes or so. [my sense of time is so screwy as I open, and embrace differently. Time is abundant. My following my heart rather than minding with my brain]

Anyhow, Dad called twice yesterday. Both messages asked me to call him asap. Both times he said how he had a question for me. His question?

Did I want he and Theopolis to come out and help me pack up?

I am awestruck. Into silence. In such tenderness, generosity and love. Offerings that have not been a common occurrence with him. Rather than turn him down altogether, I pivoted the offer by saying that I’d like a raincheck once I’m settled in the Fall. He checked the raincheck.