Once upon a time I was 32, and lived half a block from the center of Harvard Square in a pale blue triple-decker with Rastafarian-colored ballusters under its railings. My friend Sally owned the house and lived on the top floor, and I lived on the bottom. In the middle were a rotating cast of characters who shall remain nameless because I can't recall their names.
Sally was my parents' age, as well as a friend of their's, but she and I became pals and did many things together, including stand around in Harvard Square listening to a wonderful steel drum band that used to play there. In summer, with our windows open, we could hear it from the house, and would call each other up and say “They're here!” just the way people in my current neighborhood call each other when we hear Sandhill Cranes overhead on their twice-a-year migrations. We'd grab our flip-flops and run around the corner to gather with the crowd, swaying, singing along, and dancing.
At some point, Sal and I started throwing big parties at this shared house, and she had the great idea to hire the band. So for about five years we had a tradition of steel-drum music in the driveway, a couple of grills putting out jerk chicken, with both our apartments wide open and people milling around late into the night. A good deal of beer and rum were consumed, and Lord knows what else. Spliffs, I am sure, at the very least.
If you haven't heard steel drum music before, it's a cheerful, bell-like sound often accompanying Harry Belafonte and others whose music derives from the West Indies. We called it “pan,” which is what the band called it, in their lilting Trinidadian voices. This band had five players and seven drums, and though I never got close enough to see inside the curved bowl where they thumped their mallets, the resonant optimism of those notes still rings in my ears.
Fast forward to a New Year's Day party here in California and a motley but enthusiastic collection of singers and guitars. I arrived just in time to chime in on Margaritaville, one of the sappiest songs known to mankind. And lo, who should appear suddenly from a back bedroom, but a white guy with a steel drum to play an inspired solo!
While thanking my hostess at the end of the night, I mentioned the drum.
“Oh, he gives lessons,” she told me, “And they're free!”
“I'm taking them,” I heard myself say.
“Oh you are, are you?” I asked myself later in the car. “You've got time for one more thing?”
“Yes!” I replied. “Not for everything. But if it's light-hearted, and free, and makes me grin in spite of myself, I have time for that.”
Which is why, for about ten minutes last Thursday evening, you could hear me playing “Yellow Bird” on the tenor steel drum, all by myself..
This week, after five years of being a client and three years of classes, workshops, practice- and then supervised-sessions, I got my certificate to be a Life Coach. The tradition I'm in is called Skills for Change, and the reason I like it is — of course — because it worked so well on me.
In the words of Wikipedia, “Life coaching draws upon a variety of tools and techniques from other disciplines with an aim towards helping people identify and achieve personal goals.” Those goals can range from cleaning out your broom closet to choosing a new career. They can include any sort of change you might want to institute: becoming more compassionate, training for a marathon, even changing your gender. What a life coach brings to the mix is an outside view, a little extra energy, and some practical tools to help a client accomplish goals that have been languishing.
I'm one of those people who was sent to therapy as a teenager and have been going on and off ever since. Big things were wrong in my life, but it took me 35 years to figure out what they were, and then another 15 to live through the discovery. I've talked about this before, and don't want to go into detail now. You can read a book called The Courage to Heal for a sense of the general territory.
By the time I discovered Skills for Change coaching, when I was 53, I had delved into so much of my life it didn't seem possible there was anything new to learn. Ha! Wrong. Maybe there weren't new facts to discover, but there were some wonderful new skills, like how to make the uncharitable voices in my head quiet down for good, and how to accept things that are unacceptable, with self-love and compassion toward what I can't change. Not all life coaching wrestles with life's big questions like this, but I'm glad I found a tradition that does.
These tools have made me incredibly happy and I love teaching them to other people and seeing the relief they provide. This kind of coaching also emphasizes how the wider culture affects us: How we've internalized outside privileges and oppressions to make up our world view, and how we can learn to pull them apart again in order to see their effects more clearly. Now, instead of thinking “Oh, I'm smart and I work hard, which is why I'm a successful poetry teacher,” I realize that my white skin, middle-class background, and upper-class education are also indelibly part of the equation.
Not everyone has a jones to figure themselves out. But for those who do, this method is fabulous. My life is so much better than it was five years ago, and now I have a lovely certificate to display on the wall, too!
I think all that's left before I hang out my official shingle is to get my coach to help me clean out the dang broom closet.
I know when my cat Sid is mad at me, because I come home to find Q-tips scattered all over the bathroom floor. This is his day-time expression of rage. At night, he jumps on my bureau to jangle the necklaces on the wall, which can wake me from a sound sleep or even dreams of Alan Rickman. But in daylight, he steps out of the sink, where, if I'm around, I'll turn the water on for him, onto a small table where I store my sundries. He places his black lips around the head of one Q-tip at a time, flipping them out of their blue jar onto the floor. Sometimes the other cats are waiting to chase them around, skidding on the linoleum and folding the rug into a big omelet. It can be four Q-tips, or 20, depending on whether he got distracted and how many were in the jar.
If you're not familiar with cat behavior, you might think it odd, but nothing is too odd for a cat. This is why middle-aged women and other do-gooders admire them so much. They're outrageous, independent, and deeply self-involved, and isn't that what we all aspire to?
I've seen cats leap up to sit beside some delicate object on a mantelpiece — the place you foolishly thought that object might be safe — for half an hour before they nonchalantly stretch out a paw and knock it to the ground. Then they look down as if to say, “Oh, wow! Smithereens!” Sometimes they'll even look around to make sure you're watching. They never run away afterward the way a dog will. They look right at you, impassive and unapologetic, while you're tearing out your hair, as if to say, “Human, you have got some kind of problem.”
Middle-aged women, the so-called “cat ladies” among us, are often long-time negotiators and compromisers, having raised families or held jobs where these traits are prized. So for us to master aloof destruction takes practice. I recommend starting out alone, or in the presence only of cats. You don't want performance anxiety to impede your progress.
Make a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich, cut it in half, and place it artfully it on one of your great-grandmother's best antique china plates. Sit at the dining room table and eat half the sandwich. You're going to need the carbo-loading. Next, look out the nearest window, holding your gaze steady with a small smile on your lips, while simultaneously lifting your dominant hand and swinging it briskly in front of you like a tennis racquet, sweeping plate and other half-sandwich off the table. You should hear a satisfying crash.
Realistically, you ought to now go find a sunny spot on the floor and take a five-hour nap. Floors aren't that comfortable for the middle-aged, so a two-hour nap on your own bed is allowed. Then come back into the dining room and take a photo of the mess to post on Facebook with the note:
“Look what that terrible cat did now!!”
What to Do About Whiteness
There's been some talk about racism this week on social media. Look up “plantation” and “Ani DiFranco” to read about one issue, and “Native American Mascotry” for the other.
I live in one of the whitest counties in California. When there are black, Asian, or Native people on our streets, we either know them by name or we know they're from out of town. We don't discuss race often. One privilege of being the dominant color is that you don't have to recognize race is even an issue.
Like many whites, I squirm when the topic comes up. Although I've commented on-line about both Ani DiFranco and the Washington Redskins, it's taken me forever to frame what to say: lots of rewriting, erasing, stumbling... Will I sound racist? Will I sound racist and stupid both? Is this defensive? I feel uneducated. I don't know what to say about race except “This is awful,” and “I'm sorry!”
Most people I know are trying to be fair and just. They raise their kids not to bully, they return the extra change to the grocery cashier, they give their old clothes to the homeless and truly want to help alleviate suffering. So when there's a big situation with a pretty clear right side and wrong side to it, like racism, they naturally want to be on the right side. Me, too.
Our skin color denies us this. Even though the damage is centuries old and your great-grandparents were Quakers so it's not your fault, whites — all whites, even Howard Zinn — are on the wrong side.
Fine, great. Is that the end of the story? I don't like racism and I also don't want to be wrong. Is there anything whites can do about it?
Here's a start: We get real and acknowledge our privileges. Nothing makes me crazier than a guy who thinks men and women have equal privilege, so I imagine a white person saying “What privilege?!!” could drive someone of color insane. If you're white, imagine something simple in your life, like going to the hardware store. No one's ever refused to sell me a hinge. But that's actually a white privilege. We expect to be treated, if not well, then at least neutrally, wherever we go, and we almost always are. This isn't true for other groups. They have to wonder whether they'll be able to buy a hinge or not, and how the cashier will behave. This is a burden! Even if we can't change it, we can at least acknowledge it, and the 50 other privileges we have just like it.
And we start talking about race to people who aren't white, if they're open to a conversation. Someone who studies power dynamics tells me there's only one thing for the person with more power (white, male, smart, wealthy, able-bodied, etc.) to say to the person with less, and that is “What's it like for you?”
Then, of course, even if it takes another century, we have to be willing to listen to the answer.