During November — which I think of as the month of Thanksgiving — I give thanks each day for one of my many blessings. Today it’s my grandson, with whom I am (of course!) besotted.
Trinidad is a BIG blessing. But over the past several days I’ve also been grateful for other, more mundane things: the golden autumn light, the perfect fall weather Tulsa enjoyed for several unbroken days, my husband’s support for a month where I’m gone more than at home… And yet not one of these is really ‘ordinary.’ Or mundane. And each happens daily. Kind of like winter snowflakes — no two blessings alike.
People expect me to be grateful for such a healthy, happy baby. But the happiness I feel for Trin is only the tip of iceberg. It was hard for me to become pregnant w/ his father — it took 3 years, including an operation. So I never take either of my sons — not Trin’s father nor his uncle — for granted.
And every mother of sons knows how lucky you feel just to graduate them — intact! — from high school Add a job with benefits to that? Whew!
And then combine that with an amazing daughter-in-law, and then a brilliantly beautiful baby boy? All healthy? That’s the iceberg, isn’t it? That still leaves plenty of gratitude for the snowflakes, if that makes sense.
So this month, as you count your many blessings — hopefully one each day — remember how they came to you. And be grateful for your snowflakes as well as your icebergs.
I spent this past weekend in the company of humanists. It’s a word that’s come to have a negative meaning, and I’m not sure why. The word itself simply means to have a deep concern for human beings, for their welfare. For their right to self-determination. Who could quibble that? Neither liberal nor conservative, if given the definition only.
But to be a humanist in liberal circles appears to mean you think 18th & 19th century values are more important than contemporary ones. And to be a humanist among conservatives seems to mean that you are the worst kind of liberal — financially irresponsible, and prizing a ‘liberal education’ over important things like…business.
Neither is true, I assure you. Of the more than 250 people at the National Humanities Conference this past weekend (a conference put on by the Federation of STATE Humanities Councils, an important distinction from the NEH itself), I bet not a single person there would say business, and work, and governance were not important.
What they would tell you — as the eloquent keynote speaker Dr. Freeman Hrabowski said in his address — is that the humanities is about what connects us, as human beings. It’s about our inner values, and how they manifest in our shared world. It’s about not simply saying we value families, if we’re a politician or a business or a corporation. It’s about what we do: in our classrooms, in our universities, but also in our hospitals, in our armies, in our sciences and our places of worship and our private, singular homes.
Because the humanities are US, folks. WE are the humanities. Our interests, what drives us, our passions and even our fears. I heard session after session, each completely different: one where a panel member, of Yupik culture & heritage (FYI: did you know there’s a difference between your culture & your heritage? more later ~), shared her story that began in a small Yupik village and came to the present, representing Alaska at the National Humanities Conference. Another where new members learned the difference between the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and the National Endowment for the Humanites (the FSHC is housed within the NEH). Yet another was on how to better serve rural citizens in states where Humanities Councils tend to be at state capitols — far more urban.
In other words? There was as much diversity in the sessions — language sessions, history sessions, advocacy sessions, K-12 education sessions, social media and change sessions — as there is between me and the Yupik scholar from Alaska.
Which is why I never understand how — and why — anyone can think the humanities are ‘no longer relevant.’ As a board member on our state humanities council, it’s a comment I’m aware of (most folks don’t have the courage to say it to my face!). What is there irrelevant about science? Environment? Religion? History or language or the arts or education? Medicine, anthropology, communication… ALL human endeavours come into humanities, because they’re HUMAN! And they matter because we matter to each other — and must continue to do so.
You’ll hear more on this from me this week, as I process — and share — what I remembered this past weekend: that we are far more connected than we sometimes believe. Certainly than I sometimes believe! And that it is critical in this beleaguered time to focus NOT on what divides us (far too easy, as I know!), but on what unites us. And the humanities are a fascinating, colourful, curious, and necessary place to begin.
When you go to a national humanities conferences, you hear a lot of stories. Stories of the past (especially in Birmingham, 50 years later…), stories of what-if, stories of maybe and possibly and even stories about stories.
And when you’re a writer — aka someone who collects stories — you may well hear stories from complete strangers. On the plane. Say, from Tulsa to Chicago. More on that in a moment.
What I have learned — over & over & throughout the duration of this conference, beginning on the plane from Tulsa — is that our stories shape us. What we tell ourselves becomes our reality. I know, I know… What a DUH comment!
But as I watched the woman sitting beside the window, one seat over from my aisle seat, I knew her stories were based at least in part on fear. Because she recoiled visibly as the young woman in the pink hijab asked, in totally native-speaker English, if she might sit between us.
Ms. Fearful cast a disgusted look at the down parka over Ms. Hijab’s arm, then flicked another disgusted look at the student backpack and the large Coach tote. You know you have to put EVERY-THING under your seat, she said disdainfully, in loudly enunciated single syllables. Almost like a cranky robot: you-know-you-have-to-put-ev-er-y-thing….Did I mention that Ms. Hijab spoke perfect, unaccented, English?
Ms. Hijab flushed a deep shade of red, and stood in the aisle. We had the only seat around. You could tell poor Ms. Hijab just wanted to evaporate. I stepped from my seat and gave her the warmest smile I could muster, and said “Of course! Do you want me to put your bag up?” She shook her head, and said in a very small voice, “I don’t want to be a bother. I can hold it in my lap.”
Ms. Fearful repeated that everything has to go under the aisle. Despite having put her own things in the seat Ms. Hijab was now going to occupy, to deter folks from joining us. (I know this because she told me so.) Whereupon I repeated that I didn’t mind putting Ms. Hijab’s things overhead. Ms. Hijab handed me her big tote, and placed her backpack at her feet, then sat down.
She sat for a bit, and I wrote in my journal (surprised?). After a while she began to visit quietly, thanking me effusively for basic good manners. I demurred, pointing out she would have done the same for me. We exchanged the desultory conversations most folks do on airplanes, while Ms. Fearful hugged her window.
One thing led to another, and Ms. Hijab told me she was very recently divorced. After we discussed her ex’s anger issues, and how she might go forward, she shared that he had told her he was divorcing her BY TEXT MESSAGE!!! Can we say class-A JERK?
There is a point to this: most of us have had relationships fail — many have even lost marriages. And our mothers have needed us when ill, and we have worried and mourned. This kind of grief is universal, whether it wears a pink hijab or goes bare-headed. Perhaps, if Ms. Fearful had not closed herself into the tightly wound ball of fear huddled against the window, she might have made a friend, as I did (I gave Ms. Hijab my card; she asked).
THAT’S what the Humanities are about: sharing our humanity. Through stories. And it was the best possible warm-up to the conference I’ve been bedazzled by all weekend. Well, except for Ms. Fearful (and clueless…).
I’m going to Birmingham tomorrow! And my posts — if I break free to make them 🙂 — will be from there for the next few days. I have the IMMENSE good fortune to be part of the Oklahoma delegation to the National Humanities Conference this year. How cool is THAT?
And to be going to Birmingham, this anniversary year, the city where so much civil rights history has been made…wow. How humbling. Speakers, sessions, activities… they all sound like the best possible history lessons. For someone whose master’s focused in part on African American literature, to get to see Nikki Giovanni, for instance… Another big WOW!
It’s Alexander Pope who said the proper study of mankind is man. I don’t think even cranky Pope would mind me being a tad more inclusive with his epigram ~ The proper study of humankind is the humanities. Medicine, history, literature, philosophy, film, scholarly research… The humanities are a rich smörgåsbord of human endeavour. And I get to spend a three-day weekend immersed in them!
So check back over the next couple days. I promise you a ringside seat to what I learn.