aim higher: on time and labor

As another Labor Day passes, it is helpful to stop and take stock of why we pause, how we work, and why we rest. We Americans, in particular, derive a lot of value from our relationships to work. Our national mythology is wrapped up in the idea that hard work and an independent spirit are powerful enough to eliminate every other factor that might hinder our success. Our national origin story stems from the ongoing idea that we Americans are exceptional, that we are destined for glory because we determine to work at a thing until we achieve more than anyone thought possible. We pretend our work gives us control over time, and so we commit everything to work. This American Dream and our shared American stories merge to produce a red, white and blue baby who finds unlikely success because she works harder than everyone else, ignoring the deficits of her past and determined to keep moving forward, convinced that sacrificing her health now will secure her well-being down the road.

The commitment to ignore limitations as we find all value in productivity is uniquely American. Because we are convinced that our hard work will set us apart and reveal our worth, we are invested in our own upward trajectories. Time, for most of us, moves in a linear fashion, climbing upward we hope, but always moving forward. Rest then, unproductive as it is, is not valued. As a society we are invested in moving along, in facing the future, in improvement.

 Time doesn’t always behave within the constraints we give it though, does it? We work hard, committed to our own narratives of ascension, only to be rejected, forced to face the same failure or insecurity over and over again. We do all the right things, marching along the straight line we planned for ourselves, only to find that a career surprise, a struggle with mental or physical health, a tragedy, or a slower-than-expected relationship reality derails the benchmarks scheduled on our linear paths. We work to heal from a would in our past, only to find ourselves panting, hearts racing, as sweat runs down our back. Panic and anxiety defy time, forcing us to relive traumatic moments or to be stuck in our current one with no clear path forward.

In much of the global east and south, time is held differently than here in America. Instead of a linear path moving in a straight line from the past into the future, time’s nature is recognized as cyclical. Time moves along, and then doubles back; the future and past are inextricably linked, identities evolving and deconstructing simultaneously. America’s insistence on forward motion can offer hope that things need not stay as they are; however, the progress of time does not erase the lived experience of the past. Instead, notions of cyclical time have a way of making space for the past to coexist with the present. The all that you have seen and known and been is very present with the all that you currently experience. Cyclical time takes away the power of chronic productivity and control by acknowledging the mystery of time and the balance discovered through rest.

This weekend, my niece turned 7, and family and friends gathered to celebrate her joyful, resilient life. It was a wild celebration of loud fun, and we were mostly fully present and grateful for her birthday. We were simultaneously swimming in grief though, because every year of her life her big brother had a birthday the day after hers. Her birthday and his are inextricably linked together, but this year he is gone and his birthday marks a terrible absence. A cavernous longing. In the same 2 days we celebrate her life and possibilities in this very moment, while also reliving so many birthdays from years’ past. Time cycles on time so that we live both the present and the past, the joy and pain, together.

The holy scriptures of the Torah speak of a God who knows that time is both linear and cyclical. Time moves, but the present can’t be fully appreciated unless it is experienced in the context of the past. Throughout the record of God’s relationship to the Israelites, God often says, “Remember this moment when you caught a glimpse of who I am and of who you are. Build something in this spot so that you won’t forget. Tell your kids about our encounter as you go about your day. Carry this day with you because it will impact your experience of every future day.” God, in these scriptures, knows that time and memory are much bigger, much more mysterious, than a simple chronological line.

In this series on the disconnect between what we tend to say is true about our existence and how we live in our existence, we must notice that our dependence on hard work, on a better deal coming tomorrow, on time marching on, severely limits our ability to embrace the wonderful mystery of life. We don’t know—on any given day—if our best days are ahead or behind. We don’t know if the moments we now wish would end will be the same we soon long for. We do know that our experience of time is never as straightforward as we have been led to believe. Instead, time marches along and loops back on itself. At times we find ourselves released to be present today with little worry to yesterday or tomorrow, while at other times we find ourselves humbly thankful that the past can still feel incredibly close, shaping our now.

Today can be new, but it doesn’t mean yesterday can’t continue in beautiful ways within us. Watching my niece blow out her candles, I experienced joy in the miracle that we get to celebrate her life in the midst of such awful sadness. Infused throughout those moments was a palpable and shared deep grief that her brother was not standing next to her, his own cake next to hers. And yet. He was there. He was present in every single heart that wrestled to make space for the joy and the sadness. The present and the past. Creating room within our cyclical realities for work and rest is important if we hope to share each other’s stories and engage our present moments, pregnant as they are with the past.

Holding on to cyclical time in a country committed to linearity is labor, indeed.

what I've been reading

Yesterday I met a dear friend to watch the documentary,Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am at a small theater in Nashville. Before the film, we met for a drink and talked about all the things. This friend and I stumbled upon each other near or in our 40s, and we have been making up for lost time since. She is brilliant and fierce and compassionate and reflective. She is curious and challenging and knows who she is and isn’t. Time together feels abundant, full of possibilities and lament, hope and outrage. She makes me better.

So does Toni Morrison. I’m so sad her voice has reached its coda. Spending three hours together and with Morrison, we explored ALL the ways to be a human, to love and to hurt, to be torn apart and put back together again. Time well spent.

Of course I am biased. I love books and think words are magnificently powerful. I rarely regret any moment I spend with a book in my hands. In the film, a Morrison scholar, like a precious disciple, suggests that the written word is the only real medium that allows a person to immerse themselves in the skin of another. Books help us to dive deep, to witness and share the thoughts, histories, hopes, fears and emotions of a character. Good characters are precise in a universal kind of way, and he thought Morrison wrote people better than anyone.

In the spirit of losing (and understanding?) ourselves by immersing our thinking in someone else’s context, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve read in the past couple of years. Particularly for those of us hoping to understand and confront the racialized society we live in, these texts help. (And stun, and shatter, and inspire, and undo, and motivate, and educate, and satisfy.)

Happy Reading.

Recent-ish Books Worth Reading in the Quest for Racial Justice

Addressing our Historical Gaps

Stamped From the Beginning Ibram X. Kendi

Academic, thick, and accessible. A well documented and contextualized account of racialized understandings in America.

 

The Color of Compromise Jemar Tisby

History of the Church’s action and inaction regarding racial oppression. Truth-telling that demands the church reckon with our past.

 

Stony the Road Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Academic essays and photos discussing the history of black resistance. Gates is a rare scholar determined to teach us all, convinced that his work is relevant and meaningful for each of us. He is right.

 

Waking Up White Debbie Irving

Personal account of a wealthy white woman studying the origins of racial inequities interwoven with research explaining the history of those disparities (informative and personal).

 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria Beverly Daniel Tatum

Academic, but from a social science lens mixed with observational research. The 2017 Introduction is one of the best pieces I’ve read on historically contextualizing our current moment.

The Color of Law Richard Rothstein

Deep dive into the history of segregation at the hands of our government. Academic but accessible.

Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge

Clear about her own boundaries and determined to educate, she covers the reality of and paths of resistance against structural racism in Britain. Includes a fabulous chapter on the nature of the interaction between feminist and antiracist activists.

  

Personal Accounts of Experiencing/Overcoming Prejudice and Valuable Advice on How to Engage the Work

How to be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi

Just got it…can’t describe it yet but expect to devour it shortly. He is an incredible thinker and communicator.

White Awake Daniel Hill

Story of a well-meaning, woke-ish pastor who tried to start a multicultural church in Chicago, and learned a lot through his failures as he learned to be antiracist as a Christ follower.

I’m Still Here Austin Channing Brown

Personal account of the cost of being “the only one” in many white, church/non prof spaces. A love letter to black women saying, “I see you. I hear you. We’ve got this.”

 Between the World and Me Ta-nehisi Coates

A letter from a black writer to his son about being in his skin in America. Morrison called it “required reading.” Wow.

Dream With Me John Perkins

Reflection on how to reconcile communities without hurting them from a legend in community development.

 

Finally, Fiction

I’ll only say here that I recently reread Morrison’s Love and Home, and both are brilliant. The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved get all the love. They are indeed wonderful. But so are the others. Pick any book she wrote and wrestle/read your way through. You might just come away understanding your town, the people who share it, and yourself, a little better.

an announcement

Two years ago I launched ExpandYourUs with the unwavering support of my family and the massive technical support of my sister. Since then I have written essays every week. Always prompted by the goings on in the world around us, sometimes they are thoughts on how we might better think about the way we live, or how we treat each other. Sometimes they are filled with outrage at how mean we can be to vulnerable others. Sometimes they attempt to contextualize our current moment with a retelling of histories often erased. Sometimes they are a lament, and other times they celebrate the good.

I have learned that each of you readers can surprise and delight me when you engage with this work. I have learned that it IS work to write and revise on a weekly deadline. I have learned that reading someone else’s thoughts every week can feel impossible, like getting through the New Yorker before the next one arrives! I have also learned that I am not invincible, and that sometimes I need to rest.

Therefore! On this two year anniversary of sorts, I’ve decided to publish an essay every other week, slowing my production significantly. I hope this will both improve the clarity and effectiveness of the writing, and that it will incentivize you to pause and read more often! I’m also working on a way to post an audio file each week, so you can listen to a ten minute reading of the essay as you go about your day. (Let me know if you are a tech wizard and have ideas!).

Since this feels like a juncture of sorts for me, I’ll also say that I’m so very grateful for the curiosity you have shown me as you allow me to help us think about the way we think about each other. I remain convinced that each of us are capable of living in ways that improves the lives of those around us. Indeed, each of us sacrifices for others all the time in beautiful ways. My hope is that we will simply expand our circles so that we care about more people, seeing them as our brothers and sisters. As I’ve grown fond of praying, “Expand my capacity to care about all of it. Help me never see a living soul and utter, ‘Not my problem.’ Everything matters. Amen.”