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Five Stories about Otherness and Me   (From On Being with Krista Tippett, Public Radio)
By Parker J. Palmer, Columnist   (@PARKERJPALMER)

When we talk about “otherness,” it’s important to remember that we’re all “other” to someone. My otherness includes the fact that I’m a straight, white, middle-class male who was born in Chicago, raised in the mainline Protestant tradition, grew up in an affluent, all-white Chicago suburb and, at age 77, am certifiably old. 

By 2045, over half of the U.S. population will be people of who do not look like me, people of color. Some white people fear this fact — and at this very moment, their fear is being amplified and exploited by people who seek political power. 

If you believe as I do that diversity is to be welcomed, not feared, you’ve probably heard some version of this adage:

“The more you know about another's story, the less fearsome and more human that person becomes.”

It’s equally true that the better we understand our own stories, the more human we become. Revisiting our own experiences with otherness and trying to learn from them is key to becoming the people we want to be. It gives us a chance to live into the best of our stories and transcend the worst.

Here are brief stories of five moments when I learned something important about “the other,” myself, and how we are related. I share them not because my experiences are anything special but in the hope that my stories will encourage you to revisit your own. 

Story #1: All four of my grandparents were working-class folks who grew up on farms and had grade-school educations. But there the similarities ended. My father’s parents were people of generosity and grace. My mother’s father was a hard man who had diminished my gentle grandmother’s sense of self.

Sadly, my most vivid memory of my maternal grandfather involves the day he opened his dresser drawer and showed me a prized possession. It was a postcard picturing the charred remains of a black man who had been lynched and burned. I was ten years old, terrified, and wordless. I felt horror and disgust in the face of that photo and of my grandfather — who, in an instant, destroyed whatever bond we had or might have had. Not until I went to college was I able to tell anyone about that experience. I feared that my soul had been indelibly stained by my grandfather’s racism and inhumanity.

Story #2: My memories of my father’s parents are blessedly different. The Iowa farms on which they grew up were not far from the farm of a black man named Sam Bass. During my family’s annual summer visits to Waterloo, we always visited the country cemetery where our ancestors were buried — and without fail those pilgrimages included a visit to Sam Bass’s grave. We’d stand there under the hot sun in the fragrant summer grass while my grandparents told stories about Mr. Bass, as they always called him: stories of his skill at farming, his eagerness to help neighbors in times of trouble, his kind heart, and strong spirit. In effect, we held a yearly memorial service for this good man. I never met Mr. Bass, but to this day he has an honored place in my family’s story. 

Story #3: My dad was a Chicago businessman. When I was in high school, he took me to the South Side where I was born, a neighborhood that had become as black as our hometown was white, and as run-down as my town was posh. We walked around for a couple of hours as Dad pointed out the sites of my parents’ early married life and my first year on earth. As we drove home, he asked me how it felt to be there. “Out of place, nervous, and afraid,” I replied. 

A year later, Dad and I were walking down Michigan Avenue toward his office on a glorious spring day, in a part of the city that was clean, orderly, and packed with well-dressed white people. A bus pulled up to the curb, and a dozen young black men got off and walked in the front door of the community college they attended. Dad said, “Those young men probably came here from the South Side where you were born. Do you remember how you felt when I took you back there? That’s most likely how those men feel here on the ‘Magnificent Mile.’” 

Story #4: I grew up in an all-white suburb and attended a college that had only two black students during my four years there. I never knew a person of color up close and personal until I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City at age 22. As part of my first-year program, I was assigned to do field work at Riverside Church, a large urban congregation that offered extensive social services and had a sizeable staff. My field work supervisor was a youth minister, one of the best teachers I’ve ever known and an African American. One day, as he began a training session for the Union students working at Riverside, all of us white, he said:

“I want to tell you a story. As you see, I’m dressed casually for a morning of basketball with some of the kids. Later, I’ll get suited up to make a few pastoral calls at their homes. An hour ago, I got on the elevator to go up to my office. Just before the door closed, one of the senior ministers got on. I’ve worked here for a couple of years, but I guess my white brother didn’t recognize me in my civvies. Before he got off, he smiled and said, ‘There’s a clogged toilet down the hall from my office. I’d be grateful if you could fix it this morning.’ We don’t need to talk about this right now. But I want you to remember that story as you go out to work with our kids, many of whom look like me. And I don’t want you to forget it, ever.” 

Story #5: My field work assignment involved spending several hours every weekend with junior high students from Spanish Harlem, mixing Sunday School lessons in with sports. I was a privileged, well-educated, young white man with a big ego and a strong sense of mission. Though I had zero experience in the trenches with “otherness,” I was quite certain I knew things these kids needed to know. So I sat them down and gave them talks that might have been OK as comments in a seminary class where everyone knew the big words and was at least mildly interested in the subject. But with these young people, my talks fell far short of OK — so short that they turned the tables and KO’d me. 

For five weeks running, they destroyed my lesson plans and my self-confidence in ways well-known to beleaguered teachers — ignoring me, rolling their eyes, whispering, laughing when I tried to restore order, etc. It hurt and hurt big-time, and it was my fault. I was trying to colonize them with ideas that mattered to me but were utterly irrelevant to their challenging young lives, and they were resisting with the only weapons they had.

During our sixth session, I went down for the count: I wept in front of my students, wept long and hard. Then came the miracle: when these youngsters saw the fear and pain hidden behind my bravado, they began to care for me. My lessons made no sense to them, but vulnerability was something they knew from the inside out. Without knowing it, they became my teachers, showing me how shared brokenness can lead to compassion, mutual learning, and community.

Lessons Learned: I don’t want to forget experiences like these, or the endless lessons about “otherness” they have to offer — lessons that served me well when, at age 30, I became a community organizer working on racial justice in Washington, D.C.:

The Postcard Lesson: Racism is brutally ugly, evil, and obscene, in all its forms. If one has been tainted by it, as I was — especially at the hands of a person one is supposed to love and respect — it’s crucial to find some way to scrub off the stain. Even if that means breaking ties with that person.

The Cemetery Lesson: Friendship across racial lines is possible and beautiful, and can pass down the generations just as easily as fear and hatred of “otherness” can. The friendship between my paternal grandparents and Mr. Bass provided me with the soil from which myriad diverse friendships have flowered over my lifetime.

The Michigan Avenue Lesson: Fear of “the other” cuts all ways, and if it goes unattended, it will grow like kudzu and choke out all forms of new life. Once I understand that my whiteness can make people of color feel unsafe, and my straightness can do the same to LGBTQ folks, I have a chance to join in breaking fear’s stranglehold on us before it’s too late.

The Elevator Lesson: Stop making assumptions about “the other,” assumptions that come from the unconscious lenses through which we tend to look at people whom we perceive as “not of our tribe.” Talk to them, learn who they are, and remember what you learn. In the process you’ll learn and remember more about who you really are.

The Spanish Harlem Lesson: Lose the arrogant attitude that “we” know what “they” need to live a good life. Cultivate the humility that opens into a larger truth: I have a lot to learn, and “they” can help me learn it. All I need to do is ask.

What stories about “otherness” do you have to tell, and what can you learn from them about yourself?

Our Ancestors by Rev. Keith Kron      (Sermon from UUA Worship Web) 

The process of getting lost seems complex and lengthy on the surface, but quite often is nothing of the sort. Two steps off the trail for whatever reason-flower gazing, bird watching, rock photography, or a simple nap-and you can be just as lost as if somebody had dumped you 50 miles from the nearest building. There's no rationale behind losing your way, but trackers have to at least try to understand the process before attempting to find someone. Tracking one's life is much the same. Sometimes you have to figure out why you did a thing in order to know what it was you actually did. Retracing steps requires getting alarmingly close to what is most unknown to us: who we were at a specific point in time. Who we were without ever knowing it.

Consider those words from Hannah Nyala along with these familiar words from T.S. Eliot.:

What we call a beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we started from.

Singing the Living Tradition #685

There are all kinds of ways to commit suicide. My grandfather did it when my father was 15-a combination of alcohol, diabetes, and a tendency toward emotional extremes. My father and his two brothers and their mother apparently felt relief-or so my father related in one of the two times he ever mentioned his father in the last forty years to me. In neither instance have I ever learned my grandfather's name. I turned 40 this year. It made me think a great subtitle for the week would be:

Suppose you had the opportunity to have a mid-life crisis and bring several hundred people along for the ride.

Instead, it has made think of where my story, my stories come from-and where they will go. And this seeming far preferable to 40-year-old angst, I begin with sharing some of my ancestors' story-which, in many ways, is my own.

My grandmother Helen became an accountant and worked until she was in her 70's and her second stroke rendered her unable to care for herself. I do remember her well-especially the part where she said she didn't want to be kept alive and taken care of by her children, but was anyway. She would rather die. I also remember her fondness for Manhattans, usually three at dinner time when we would go out to eat-and then the perilous ride all over the road on the way home. This probably explains my tendency to want to drive when I am in a carload of people-and undoubtedly explains my always volunteering to be a designated driver.

I thought of my grandmother the night I was pulled over by a Kentucky state trooper and made to walk a line and touch my nose because I was weaving. He wasn't quite sure why I was weaving-the obvious answer seemed to be that there were 10 people in the car total, three of whom were crammed into the front seat with me. I was the sober one, which he readily figured out and escorted me and the nine tipsy teachers back to the conference hotel. My grandmother would have scolded me for having too many people in the car as clearly this would have kept me from enjoying a Manhattan or two myself. In many ways she was a remarkable woman, surviving both alcoholism, physical abuse, the stigma of all that-as well as my father and his two brothers whom she pretty much raised on her own.

I also remember her mother, my great grandmother, who came over from Sweden at the turn of the century. I think of her every time I go to dinner with my father and he orders his steak so rare it you can still hear the "moo." My grandmother had a reputation for making the best pork dishes in central Connecticut-and burning beef beyond recognition.

Two years ago, when I was in Salt Lake City, I took a trip to be among the Mormons at their genealogy center. I had been in scarier places to be sure, and I arrived with my great grandmother's name and a desire to learn more about the family that no one dared talk about.

An hour of research with a sweet, doddering older Mormon who hovered a little too attentively gave me some answers. My great grandmother had arrived around the turn of the century. Alone. Well, sort of alone. She arrived here according to the information some four months before my grandmother's older sister was born.

She became a family cook and raised four children on her own. I remind myself of that whenever I wonder if I could be a single parent or not. I could not investigate my grandfather's past-I'm not even sure if Kron is shortened from Swedish or German. Those tracks have been brushed away.

I could never-at least not yet-quite bring myself to talk about this with my father. We like silence in our family-rule number one, though I love breaking it outside of my family system. By pure coincidence, however, the genealogy center resides pretty close to a Scandinavian shop in downtown Salt Lake City. The Swedish food I brought back that November and gave to my father for Christmas ranks as the best wrapped present I ever gave him-his predictable glibness as he opened it was replaced by a slight sense of wonder and awe.

So often, many people lose their way, lose the tracks of their ancestors. I am just one among the masses.

On the other hand, my mother's side of the family is far more transparent. Being from Appalachia for centuries and England some 300 years ago, we like to joke that there are not too many prongs in that fork.

I call myself a Tennessean, despite having lived there for only a year and a half after I was born and then not again until I went to college. But I tell people I am from a hill in East Tennessee-a place more like home than any other.

My grandfather Virgil who tended the farm, drove a school bus, and served time in the Army, never learned to read-or even sign his name. My grandmother was a forger it seemed. I learned this from my father, interestingly enough, who delighted in telling me this story. Clearly, only his family secrets were worth keeping quiet.

On the other hand, my grandmother, Grace, and I are both alumni of the University of Tennessee. She taught elementary school, was quick at crossword puzzles, and with the advent of television became addicted to the Secret Storm when she retired. In addition to being a forger of her husband's name, she taught me as a child how to play-and cheat-at Scrabble. Another pork fan (perhaps this explains in part my parents' attraction to one another) she and my grandfather would keep and kill a pig and then have food for the rest of the year. Having seen the pig killed one Thanksgiving, I became a strong advocate that everyone read Charlotte's Web. I even gave it to my grandmother one Christmas-to no avail.

My grandparent's house was where everyone stopped by on a Sunday afternoon and-despite living at least three hours away in Kentucky-I knew all of my third cousins by name, as well as whom to pick for the pickup football games. We tended to not spend a lot of time in my grandparent's house-or at least I did not, regardless of the season. The cool breezes of summer made being outside easier. That and the outhouse we would have to visit behind the house. I rarely looked forward to spending the nights there.

Winter was worse. In addition to a cold trek outside in the morning, which lasted until 1970 when the indoor plumbing arrived to everyone's delight, there was no heat-other than the coal burning stove. It was often hotter in the winter in the living room than in the summer, a real feat for Tennessee where 95 degrees in the shade was not uncommon. My grandfather took special delight in keeping the fire going so that my grandmother and her poor circulation would remain warm enough-either that or he liked my sister and me far less than I had imagined. She and I slept on the pullout couch there when we visited.

I never forget the night when the temperature had eased over 100, and I just couldn't sleep. My sister did just fine asleep on top of the covers, but still asleep. My grandmother awoke from her unheated bedroom feeling chilled. Upon discovering me in the bathroom reading in the bathtub-I was nine at the time-she and I retired to the living room where she spent the rest of the night telling me stories of that hill, the people around it-our people she called them, and of the geography of the place. I acquired my love of geography from her, it seems. At 6 a.m., when Virge came in to stoke the fire, he discovered us asleep on the sofa, my head cradled on my grandmother's arms. His rattling of the coals in the furnace awoke both of us, and I still considered myself refreshed despite sleeping less than half an hour. I always remembered that night. I hoped to return the favor one day.

"Is there ever a way to cut for sign along an old trail without your mind cleaning it up some? Perhaps in some ways at least, weaving a less tangled past for yourself?

"The process of getting lost seems less complex and lengthy on the surface . . . Two steps of the trail for whatever reason . . . and you can be as lost as if somebody dumped you 50 miles from the nearest building."

These words by Hannah Nyala remind me that this grandmother whom I treasured was also the mother of my mother-a woman who tries to keep peace and works meticulously not to make a mistake. My grandmother, a trailblazer along with my father's mother in many regards, considered herself extremely liberal because she used the word "colored" to describe African-Americans as opposed to the more overtly racist words of her husband and other contemporary relatives. She told me this in both 1970 and 1998, the second time well after Alzheimer's had begun to consume her life.

I suspect my grandmother would have been barely civil to Hannah Nyala's grandmother from the Sioux nation-feeling superior despite being a fellow poor Southerner and probably more alike than either would care to admit.

But that's life. There is definitely a part of me that would like to remember my grandmothers through only the lenses of toxic nostalgia. But I think they deserve better than to have to have their lives cleansed for my benefit. It was after all their life and not mine.

Last year I stood besides my grandmother's casket and reminisced about her. I remembered as much as I could, though I pondered my mother's last question to her. It was in the hospital before she died, and my mother leaned forward to her very dehydrated mother and touched her hand, "Are you being a good girl?" she asked. I wondered how many times my mother had been asked the same question. My grandmother nodded-to a question I was sure she had been asked many times in the early 1900s. I leaned forward and kissed my grandmother who grinned and chuckled.

My aunt laughed and said, "She does that when the preacher comes and visits and then kisses her good-bye too. Oh." She realized what she had said. She had meant the Southern Baptist preacher from her church. We all sort of reflected on the fact that I was "the preacher" too-for about five seconds before we left the 93-year-old good girl to sleep quietly.

My desire for stories-a product of my Appalachian heritage I suspect-has led me to collect children's books. Somewhere over the years, I have amassed some 3200 children's books, particularly of stories not told, rarely told, or those told well. No great surprise.

I am particularly fond of this Buddhist story. Soon after the Buddha began teaching, he passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary joy and peacefulness in the Buddha's face. The man stopped the Buddha and asked, "Sir, what are you? Are you a god?"

"No," replied the Buddha.

"Are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha replied, "No, I am not."

"Are you a man then?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well my friend, what are you?"

The Buddha answered, "I am awake." The night before at the funeral home I sat beside my sister and my niece Samantha who was four then. My favorite pastoral moment occurred when my folks had asked me if I thought it was all right to show Samantha her great grandmother in the casket. Samantha had wanted to see what was in the box. I said as long as Samantha could talk about this with her mother, my sister, I thought it would be okay.

My sister had explained our grandmother's death to her. But like most four year olds, the concept was a little too abstract, for now anyway. We were sitting in the pews and Karen and Samantha were talking about Great Grandma.

"Why are her eyes closed? Let's wake her up," Samantha said.

My sister, without realizing what she was saying, responded, "Honey, she's not going to wake up." And with that my sister could finally cry. Samantha, being one in a line of good girls, hugged her mother.

A little later, during the service, the "other preacher" asked us all to pray. While I talked to myself about trying to respect all religions and conjure up my own worthwhile prayer, my family-pretty much everyone in the room-closed their eyes and prayed.

Everyone except but Samantha. Conflicted with the desire to be a good girl and her real fear, she managed to say in a voice loud enough to be heard only by those of us in our row, "Wake up, Mommy! Wake up."

At the graveside, I told this story to my third cousin, Amy, and her mother, my second cousin Joan-both of whom were touched by the story. Other family gathered closely and I told the story again.

Family. The graves around me held family names. Rutherford. Stooksbury. Longmeier. Wallace. Ridenour. All of these people my ancestors.

In Native American traditions and those of many indigenous people around our planet, ancestors are regarded as sacred and held with reverence in high honor. Those people who have come before us, blazed a path, and made tracks for us in the ground.

So when did we take two steps off the trail and get lost? How did we get to a place where so many people are like my father-a man who will undoubtedly struggle with his own father's memories until he dies, no doubt leaving a similar legacy for his two children. I wonder if he will ever forgive his father? Why are we so ready to forget the past, to somehow think we are better than it, better than those who marked the trail for us?

I tend to agree with Mammaw Haney-most of the history books and some of the science books written by white folks are wrong-or at least misleading. They tell only part of a story-a story of domination and control. I remember clearly a small section in our fourth-grade geography book that informed the reader that places like Kansas and Nebraska were good for tourists who wanted to see Indian artifacts, carefully worded as Native American culture. One could even see the skeletons of Native Americans preserved for viewing and used for scientific research.

No one ever mentioned how the Native Americans felt about this. I doubt the textbook authors ever asked them. I discovered in a bookstore somewhere a children's book about the Burial Grounds of Native Americans written by two Native Americans-with extensive information about the remains of Native Americans dug up by White men.

Let me say, I had never considered the paragraph in my fourth-grade social studies textbooks about museums and artifacts as anything but positive. The textbook had not forgotten that there were Native Americans there. I was impressed that scientists were putting the skeletons to good use and that people could learn from them.

It never occurred to me how far off the trail I was. Until I saw this book. The Pawnee tribes of Nebraska and Kansas-and later resettled to Oklahoma-were deeply distressed that their ancestors remains had been disturbed. This violated their religious beliefs. So the white legislators passed laws protecting the buried remains of all people-except Indians. Only recently has this changed. And the change is still slow. If you have not read Kenn Harper's Give Back My Father's Body, then you have missed something, not only about the atrocity of dishonoring a family's request for respect for its ancestors, but also the atrocity of the way history is told. We have a lot to learn and a long way to go to return to the trail.

I wonder how likely we are in a couple hundred of years to disturb the graves of the Rutherfords and Stooksburys in the name of science. I wonder what it would be like to have my bones preserved and on display for a fourth grade field trip to examine. How we pay attention to matters of life and death is a pretty significant statement of any culture. How do we honor those who have gone before us? How do we mark the trail for those who will follow? How much of a story will we tell? How much will we clean up? How awake will we be?

We remember history through wars and domination and control and by unearthing that which is "buried" and lost. "We" meaning the dominant culture.

Native Americans and African Americans know history through living stories, shared wisdom, ritual.

Which would you prefer? And how would you live with someone making that choice for you?

I have the profound privilege of sitting with African-Americans and Native Americans in the work to dismantle racism that is part of my job. Someone asked us all in a meeting why we would subject ourselves to a job where so many of the people we worked with didn't trust what we said, where we exposed ourselves and our lives and were often greeted with disrespect if not ridicule, where denial was valued more than the truth, where often the rewards of the work were very small. Several people-all people of color-responded they did it for their ancestors, those that had died in the Middle Passage coming from Africa, those who had been moved from their land, those who had tried to escape and failed, those who had resisted domination and enslavement and violence.

This I understood. I too knew of people who had gone before me who were killed, tortured, forced to hide, ridiculed-and perhaps worst of all, then forgotten, for living the lives they had. And yet all these people had helped me be who I am today.

My mother, in going through some of my grandmother's things, found several pictures of her making molasses at the annual festival at the Museum of Appalachia. She asked me if I wanted one and I suggested she find a nice frame and wrap it up for Christmas.

On Christmas night I opened the package. Samantha came and looked at it. I asked her if she remember her great grandmother. She nodded yes. I told Samantha the story of the night I couldn't sleep and how this remarkable woman told me stories. I wondered what kind of ancestor I would be for Samantha.

One Christmas morning two years before at my folks' place in Kentucky, my grandmother was up early, perhaps she never slept at all. At 5 a.m. disoriented and confused, she was dressed and packed to go home to Tennessee. She sat in the living room and wailed.

"Nobody loves me. I am all alone," she cried in a voice that woke my folks and me up. She repeated it several times. My mother got up and tried to get her to get back to bed. Now my mother tried to reason with my grandmother. A useful tactic. I remember it well from my childhood. However, to try to have a conversation with a woman with over 60 percent of her hearing gone in a dark room at five in the morning was doomed to fail. My mother just got up after an hour of this and began to fix breakfast and food for the day.

Later in the day, we sat down for our annual Christmas day Scrabble game. My grandmother asked if she had ever played this game before. She was sure she hadn't.

Often during the day she asked my mother what she could to do help. This made sense to me. She had spent most of her years being of use to others. It was what she knew.

This began a ritual that would re-occur every day for the 10 days she was there. My grandmother would wake at 5 a.m. and not know where she was or who else was there. She would pack her clothes and then sit and wail in the living room. The last two nights I offered to get up instead of my tired and frustrated mother. I would go and sit with her and hold her hand while she cried. Eventually she stopped and began telling me stories that I had heard before. We would soon fall asleep on the couch until eight or so. I had to some degree returned the favor.

Every night for dinner we had mashed potatoes because peeling potatoes was something my mother let my grandmother do. And we would all work a puzzle.

One night, probably the sixth or seventh night, the night after my mother and grandmother had a very tense and very loud conversation about my grandmother's impending move to assisted living, I was sitting at the dining room table, reading the paper. I looked up to see my mother at the doorway leading into the kitchen standing very rigidly, staring. I got up and went to see what she was looking at in the kitchen. She was watching my grandmother do the dishes.

It was at that moment my grandmother took 10 knives of various lengths and sizes and dumped them into the murky dishwater. My mother began to sweat. "Should I do anything?" she whispered.

Why she whispered was beyond me because normal conversation at that distance was clearly outside of my grandmother's hearing range.

I gave my mother a look. "If she cuts herself, at least she'll have something to do. That ambulance ride to the hospital will take up a good couple of hours."

We laughed and the tension left my mother's body.

If you would like," I offered, "I could sharpen them for you. I bet they aren't sharp enough. Then things could get really interesting."

My mother was in tears now she was laughing so hard, my grandmother obliviously retrieving and washing the knives during all of this. By the time my mother had pulled herself together, my grandmother had them finished.

She looked up from the sink, pleased with herself. She noticed my mother and me watching and asked, "Is there anything else I can do?" And then we all sat down for another game of Scrabble.

I will tell Samantha one day this story-and as many as I can remember of our ancestor, this remarkable and imperfect woman who would blaze a trail for both of us.

Have you wandered from the trail?

Who must you forgive?

For whom would you sharpen the knives, fall asleep next to, or honor in the ways of your family?

Whom have you tried to forget or cleanse?

Where does your life start and where does it end?

How will you remember? How will you be brave?

Who are your ancestors? Who are your people?

What kind of ancestor will you be?