Category Archives: Perception

Reflections

Reflection is a constant theme in my life. Often it means moving from an emotion to an observation of new insight into my life and/or the lives of others. Reflection means asking “why?” Why did it happen that way? Why do I feel this way? Why do some and not others have this or do that? Why do you believe what you do about adventure, or loss, or happiness? Reflection means observing yourself and your life. It is that quality that makes us human: the homo sapiens sapiens.

The knowing knowing man.

Lighter Skin

One of the more surprising aspects of my research into Richmond newspapers was the sort of stuff I found in the Afro-American (Now the Richmond Free Press). My primary research interest, the story of a highway being build through Black neighborhoods, was hardly covered. In addition, I didn’t find the “Black is beautiful” perspective of Marcus Garvey and his contemporaries. Instead, I was devastated to find ads such as this one to the right promising lighter, softer skin. I share it because, like me, you may not have known that this ad existed in 1950s Richmond. I share it so that we all can have a tiny connection to the past.

Reflex Relearned

Over the course of the past year, I have written and thought about the effects of stress and trauma. I have wondered about how the major traumas and micro traumas might have affected how we inhabit our communities and the ways in which we react to the stress of life. Yesterday, I listened to the This American Life podcast, “Back to School.” It’s a very well-done take on early childhood development and what some believe teachers should be expected to “actually accomplish” in their work.

In it, there is an amazing conversation about the affects of stress biologically and the long term affects of stress psychologically. What does it do to the brain when each day there is a stressful event that triggers a flood of adrenaline? How do humans develop when they are always tensing up, afraid of the unwarranted (and unpredictable) verbal or physical lashing? What Ira Glass says, is that, “When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained.” The fight or flight response thus becomes one of the primary responses in the affected brain and one of the primary responses in the child’s life. Fight or flight.

If you’ve ever been a teacher this is perhaps not news to you. You might have experienced one of these two responses as you placed a worksheet on a student’s desk or passed out a graded quiz. You may have seen a student place his or her head on the desk during class because the numbers on the page might as well be written in Chinese: their brain is not connecting. Glass shares that over time the adrenaline rush during these traumatic moments stunts the development of a section of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, “where a lot of these non-cognitive skills happen — self-control and impulse control, certain kinds of memory and reasoning. Skills they call executive functions.” Without these executive functions, students cannot sit still, engage information, and reason a thoughtful response.

There are even ways that I can see these pathways in my own brain and and how stress has affected my own experience. How I interact with some sorts of people, how I believe I am perceived when I walk into a room, when and where I feel confident. All of these have developed over years through a series of unstructured, unplanned, semi-traumatic events that have brought me to this point in time. Granted, these traumas are minor in scale in comparison to many. I have been blessed to grow up in a world where I felt safe to play outside and to spend vacation with my relatives.

Still, as I grow up (however reluctantly) I am finding that I have these reflexes within me that emerge under certain types of stress. Because the prefrontal cortex is where a lot of non-cognitive skills happen, I am not totally in control of these responses. I can only be aware of myself and the ways in which I affect others in order to preempt my more negative, learned reflexes. Also, I believe that leaning into these harmful reflexes and embracing activities that may conjure up these responses (in a safe space) will allow me to reteach my brain new responses and to integrate new positive experiences into my identity. I can effectively relearn a reflex. This is is most commonly called therapy or, more simply, personal growth.

Below is a transcript of the excerpted conversation on the effects of stress. I highly recommend listening to the whole piece, but also take some time to read through and contemplate the conversation below. For me, it is a profoundly important take-away because it has everything to do with my current work as well as my life of personal evaluation. Enjoy:

“Ira Glass

But in addition to all the bad things that are likely to happen to them as adults, there’s also the effect that long-term stress has on them when they’re still kids, especially on their brains and their ability to learn.

Nadine Burke Harris

If you look on the molecular level, you’re walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s kind of your fight or flight system. Right?

Ira Glass

Right.

Nadine Burke Harris

And your body releases a ton of adrenalin, right? Which is your short-term stress hormone, and something else called cortisol, which tends to be more of a long-term stress hormone. And this dilates your pupils, gets your heart beating fast. Your skin gets cold and clammy. That’s because you’re shunting blood from anywhere that isn’t absolutely necessary to the muscles that you need to be able to run from that bear.

The other thing that it does– now, you can imagine that if you’re about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you’re going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Nadine Burke Harris

And that’s really good if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night. Right? And for a lot of these kids, what happens is that this system, this fight or flight response, which is an emergency response in your body, it’s activated over and over and over again. And so that’s what we were seeing in the kids that I was caring for.

Ira Glass

When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids’ brains. And especially affected in this situation is a specific part of the brain that’s called the prefrontal cortex, which is where a lot of these non-cognitive skills happen– self-control and impulse control, certain kinds of memory and reasoning. Skills they call executive functions.

If you’re in a constant state of emergency, that part of your brain just doesn’t develop the same. Doctors can see the differences on brain scans. Dr. Burke Harris says that for these kids, the bear basically never goes away. They still feel its effects even when they’re just trying to sit there quietly in English class.

Nadine Burke Harris

And if right at that moment someone asks you, “Oh, could you please diagram this sentence? Or could you please divide two complex numbers?” You’d be like, what are you talking about? And so that’s what we were seeing in the kids that I was caring for, is that a lot of them had a terrible time paying attention. They have a hard time sitting still.

Ira Glass

And you hear about this in lots of schools. Head Start teachers in one survey said that over a fourth of their low income students had serious self-control and behavior problems. Nadine Burke Harris says that it’s true for her patients, the ones with adverse childhood experiences like neglect, domestic violence, a parent with mental illness or substance abuse.

Nadine Burke Harris

For our kids, if they had four or more adverse childhood experiences, their odds of having learning or behavior problems in school was 32 times as high as kids who had no adverse childhood experiences.”

Gamble and Risk

During this year, I have learned a lot about how I carry and process the past. At one point, I decided that our experiences can often be put into the two categories of therapy and trauma. At the time, however, I didn’t really know if there was a proactive way to prevent the latter.

That brings me to a book by Henry Cloud, Integrity: The courage to meet the demands of reality. In it, he writes about the difference between a “gamble” and a “risk” and why successful people oriented toward growth are willing to take a risk, but never gamble. “Risk,” he writes, “means that you do something that has the possibility of a bad outcome, and that you embrace that possibility and are OK with it.” If you are not OK with the possible outcome (or, more importantly, if you can’t imagine the outcome), then you are not taking a risk, you are making a gamble.

The important step is learning to distinguish between the two types of choices. I’ve always been told that I wouldn’t grow if I didn’t take a few risks, but I didn’t really know how to do that well. Cloud writes, “People who grow are not afraid of getting out there. But they are not stupid, and they risk in increments. They start small, master that, and move to the next step. As they do, they have grown.” And something that is really important to note is that these sorts of people have already been moving in this direction for a long time. What seems like a rash decision, is often actually quite calculated and reasonable because of the growth that has occurred under the surface.

Unfortunately, sometimes we gamble and we get burned. Sometimes we move in a new direction, but it’s a job or responsibility that is just out of our reach and we fail in a way that we could never have imagined. If you don’t know how or to what extent you might fail, odds are good you aren’t prepared for the move. And, writes Cloud, “If someone cannot withstand the negative outcome, then it was not the kind of character investment that leads to growth.” The failure becomes a sort of trauma in our past that we then need to process, understand and prevent in the future. Then, the next risk will be more calculated and (hopefully) will lead to growth. That will also be therapeutic for the person who has recently failed.

The difference between therapy and trauma is important, but I think what is more important is simply calling it what it is. “That was really therapeutic” or “that was a little traumatic” have become phrases I say and think as I live my life. We will never fully know how each work together to form our experience, but the more aware we are, the more likely we are to see it when it matters.

And hopefully, as we watch ourselves live, we will be more prepared to make the choices that are best and we will be that much more ready to grow.

A year

This story starts, not in the year itself, but in those preceding that conspired its form: to understand the confluence you must also embrace the tributaries of life. Bind the tails, I have been telling myself, and see how other lives have stretched out to your own and brought you to this moment in this place with these people. Bind the tales, I tell myself, and see how one life is made up of many.

The foundation of this story is the past that has been mostly lost. There was an alcoholic man who left his family just before the Great Depression, a young girl who watched all of her family’s belongings sold on their front lawn, somewhere a boy found a love for planes and a young woman found her love for him. The foundation of my story is this love, these two sets of people, their commitment, and their families that became my own.

The story moves to Dallas, Texas, where the Quin family and the Rogers family grew, saved, and travelled on airlines that have since been bought, lost and replaced. There was a great war, America increased, there were riots and protests, Curtis Rogers was killed in the jungles of Vietnam, Mrs. Quin died of cancer in a hospital in Dallas, and, as their families felt the shock of loss, two high school students chose, at the last minute, to go to Baylor instead of UT. Jane Quin and Rick Rogers met during those years at Baylor, but it was later when they both moved to Dallas after college and even later still that they did finally fall in love. And, like their parents before them, committed their lives to each other and an unknown future in an unknown place.

This story finds its roots in Rochester, New York, in the early 1980s. A boy named Daniel Fisher loved the Allen family and he walked to their house to see his best friend, Johnathan, and Cindy, the mom who loved him as her own. After a few years, the Allens left Rochester, but they never forgot the city where they spent their first years together as a family. Time passed, Daniel and Johnathan grew, the Iron Curtain fell, Clinton served two terms, Cindy got a new teaching job in Tyler, TX, and down the road a boy named Michael was born to a doctor and a retired nurse who had recently moved to the neighborhood from Dallas.

The story begins to take shape in the kitchen of my house in Tyler where I prayed with my mom to accept the love and forgiveness of a God I had been told could hear my voice. My story moves to the woods behind my house where I imagined an empire in the trees and to the floor of my bedroom where I prayed for a new life and a better future. And so I grew, learned to read, swim, bike and run, travelled, fell in and out of love, lost and made friends, and, at some point between then and now, became a person.

Lives began to converge when my oldest brother Curtis finished elementary and moved to a private school on the other side of town. Following precedent, we all moved to this new school and as I moved through the next ten years, Cindy made a reputation for herself teaching American history and leading others. She also began to advise the high school student government to which I was later elected and devoted. Then, as I looked to finally move away, Cindy told me about a young man from Rochester named Dan who was about to graduate from a university in Richmond. If I was interested, I could meet him and hear his story.

I did apply to the university and, when accepted, flew up with my dad make a decision. Dan, then in his early twenties, met us for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Carytown and told us about life at school, a professor named Rick Mayes, and the neighborhood of Church Hill where he and others were planning to start a high school. The next day, Dan introduced me to Jason Barnes (who now lives with Caitlin on 26th), Benjamin Telsey (with whom I travelled to Peru to study with Dr. Mayes), Sarah Burd (who now lives on Chimborazo Blvd.), and Michael Kolbe (who moved in with Adam Hake with whom I lived during our first year of college across the hall from Rashad Lowry who now lives on 23rd and with whom I currently work). I did not understand at the time how significant this move to Richmond would become.

In my first semester, I rode with Alli Barton every Thursday morning to tutor (her future husband) Dan’s math students at Church Hill Academy (where I also taught for the past year) and spent the afternoon each week at Captain Buzzies Beanery, my first love in this beautiful, lonely city. Three years past, I did not transfer as I claimed I would, Gordon Meador (who lives on Oakwood and with whom I taught) told me about Shane Claiborne, I attended Urbana and the CCDA conference, and found myself hopelessly drawn to a Christian faith that challenged paradigms and transformed lives. A man named Adam Burgess decided to work at CHAT and later walked with me through Chimborazo Park as I decided to commit to the summer internship. Already connecting the dots, I told him that I had been headed in this direction even before I started school.

I spent that amazing summer working at CHAT, but when I returned for my fourth and final year at Richmond, I left that summer behind. I interviewed at the Deloitte offices in Arlington, fell in love with New Orleans (again), (re)started dating Nina, considered a year abroad, and began to feel trapped by this city that had given me so much. I watched as my friends left for China, DC, New York, and Atlanta; whether they were going home or abroad, they were going somewhere else and I felt, again, like I was stuck. But God, in his sovereignty, desired that I would continue my commitment to this one place and these people he had given me for this time. He was drawing me to Richmond years before I even knew where it was on the map and had not yet finished teaching me what I had come to learn.

Nina accepted her calling back to Church Hill far more readily than I did as I continued to resent all that I had come to love. Once Richmond started to feel like home, I wanted to get away. I eventually applied for the yearlong internship, but in this move toward that life there was also an emotional move away as I reconnected with family and friends in Texas. When I did commit, I had no reservation in my heart that I was making a decision to accept the life I had been given and God’s plan for my future.

With that behind me, a new year gradually began to take shape. Friends, family, and my home church in Tyler committed to fund my salary, Gina Maio and I discussed what classes I might teach, Chris Whiting told me about life in the Lighthouse, and I carried on exploring my hometown learning how to read and write. Before I started this year, I thought it would be much like the twenty-three preceding years I had already lived. I thought my life would be similar to the life I had come to love in Richmond, but with the addition of work at CHAT and the academy. I did not yet realize that, in ways both simple and profound, life gradually becomes work and work isn’t all that bad.

I drove to Virginia at the end of August, moved into the Lighthouse where I was joined by Daniel, Matt, Steven, and my own brother Will. Nina lived down the road and we drank coffee on our first morning together in Richmond with no idea what we were about to experience. We simply started the day as we would start hundreds more. The days were long and the weeks were fast. The heat of summer cooled, leaves turned brown, Jamel T. Cobb was killed and mourned, Khalil Clark was born and celebrated, Nina and I somehow became teachers and bus drivers and tutoring coordinators, mentors, and, eventually, neighbors in this home away from home.

Winter came, however reluctantly, ice on the bus windows had to be scraped, and on Wednesday, January 19, 2o12, I went home from work with a virus that emptied my stomach and stole my day. I slept for 36 hours, my coworkers covered my classes, and when I woke up on Thursday, I started to write. In a Google doc titled “personal reflection,” I wrote and wrote and wrote: 2,608 words I wrote about feeling like a failure, about wishing I were home with my family, and about the desire to finally learn how to do hard work. The next day, the reflection doubled as my teaching style transformed and my perspective grew. This reflection (now over 45,000 words and counting) signaled a bit of a mid-year awakening within me as I found perspective and began to value my thoughts enough to write them down until they gradually started to make sense.

The calendar progressed as Epiphany became Lent, coffee became hot tea, and work stretched into more work. February and March dragged on (as we were told they would) and we looked forward to spring break, to the weekend, to the end of each school day, the end of tutoring and the idea of something called rest. There were worksheets, of course, and videos and tests, quizzes, projects, NWEA, arguments, unuttered rage, tears, laughter, conversations about another life, and dreams of “para-para-paradise.” I wept as five students walked across the graduation stage and in my brokenness I began to find more love for their stories and their future selves.

Summer, like life, has not been what I expected. What I thought would be easy, has been hard, and what I thought would be hard, has been easy. There are new faces in the Mix, new events and partnerships, and a renewed commitment to the program. It has been a blessing to let God redeem this year, take on my burdens, and gradually continue to transform my life as well as theirs.

I do not know how it is that I find myself, two weeks until the end of a year, already boxing its contents and sharing its thoughts. It has been a good year and, as promised, life has been abundant. It will also become something new as my life moves on and others move as well. I have faith that, in ways I can’t predict, this year will become a foundation for the next and the rest to come as each begins and ends. The future will always be unknown, but I am happy because I can already see God’s faithfulness in the lives (many not mentioned) that he has connected to form this one single year. I am confident that he will continue to bring us together and apart as we move to the next.

A year, I have found, is a made up of all those preceding and those yet to come. Only time can move one into the next, reflection allows it to be perceived as it happens, and healing allows it to be processed and integrated when it is done. You’re not always ready for the next year (or even the next week), but still it comes and then it goes. And every once in a long while you are given a chance to grasp the magnitude of its significance. This is the genealogy of a year.

Note: for the past month I’ve been reading through an essay by Walter Benjamin that has motivated me to learn how to tell stories. “A Year” is my second attempt. Thanks to Bonnie Swift for writing about the essay and to Will Rogers for printing it and leaving it for me to read in the loo.

Considering Fiction

This week I have committed to writing a bad short story. I don’t know what it’s about or how long it’s going to be, but it’s going to happen. It’s already getting too snarky (a common pitfall) so I was particularly challenged by this quote by Andre Dubus in this week’s NYT Book Review editorial,

“It seems to me that the primary job of the artist is the paint in the grey, to capture the texture of this life without moralizing or pontificating. This is a sustained act of empathy …” 

I have become increasingly interested in empathy lately, but I have only marginally allowed it to influence my writing for the past year. Perhaps as I begin to write (and read) more fiction I will become more empathetic and gradually see the world through a more complex perspective.

I’m interested to see where this direction takes me … or where I take my writing in the process.

History

“The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.”

If you have not yet watched Aaron Huey’s TED talk, “America’s native prisoners of war,” you should probably do that before reading this post.

The quote above, taken from Huey’s speech, has taught me so much about loss, abandonment, and the legacy of systemic oppression. His description of the Native American experience describes so well the power of stigma and blame: “You are the savage,” says stigma, “you did this to yourself.” It’s the same way much of America still views inner-city neighborhoods that were abandoned by the middle class decades ago. It’s the sort of condescending lens through which the exploiter will always view the exploited. The effect can be seen in West Virginia and Louisiana, oil-rich Nigeria, and even Wounded Knee, South Dakota: #4 on Wikipedia’s List of the four poorest places in the United States. Still.

Huey continues to explain his perspective on European settlement throughout American history. “This is how we came to own these united states.” He says, “This is the legacy of Manifest Destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner-of-war camps long after the guards are gone. These are the bones left after the best meat has been taken.”

People are trapped by the past, he says, they cannot escape because their identity has been crushed. They cannot escape. And where would they go? While federally recognized Americans inhabit much of the fertile soil on this continent, there are still Native Americans living in the desserts, the outskirts, the badlands of our nation. He earlier describes the word Wasi’chu (lit. “taking the fat) as the word used to describe white people. This is a derogatory word, but it is not negative in a sense because it is directed at the exploiter, the “one who takes the best meat.” And so this nation continues to stretch its influence across this land, one settlement at a time.

I suppose my charge is simple: remember the past to have a context for the present. And don’t just remember Gone with the Wind; remember the stories that haven’t been packaged and sold to you. And “Give back the Black Hills,” says Huwy, “It’s not your business what they do with them.” In other words, when there is reason to believe that wrong has been done, the best time to work through the past is now.