Making Repair

by Maria Theresa Maggi on February 12, 2019

Alder Branch with Hummingbird pastel life memory sketch by MTM for blog

Each morning before breakfast as I do my simple yoga and meditation routine, the branches of an old alder keep me company outside the bedroom window. From this alder, which leans toward the street, I have learned continued patience with my right side, the cerebral palsy side, as it continues its journey of balance on one foot in tree pose. In the summer this tree is lush with green and much of its architecture is hidden. But in Winter all those leaves have fallen into the salal bushes and the culvert below those and I can see its attenuated and stark branches reaching out toward the new daylight. Often, in exactly the same place it looks to me as if a single dried up leaf has curled itself around a tiny branch and held on for dear life. It seems to be the only one that hasn’t fallen to the ground.

 

On New Year’s Eve, I sat around my old kitchen table with 3 of my favorite friends here at the coast. Dinner was over and we were snacking on my biscotti and anise cookies and fresh persimmon and grapes one of my neighbors brought. I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, but I found myself telling the story of my encounter on the sidewalk with a black man in Portland who yelled at me for what he saw as me trying to make him invisible when I tried to step around him while he stared at his cell phone in the middle of the sidewalk. (You can read a detailed account of that experience in On The Street.) No matter how I tried to convey the healing energy between this man and I when I understood the societal truth of what he was saying to me and thus responded with a heartfelt “I’m sorry,” two of my friends got stuck on the fact that he had called me a bitch for seeming to try to ignore him. They were insistent that because of their own experiences in abusive relationships, that they themselves would not have allowed that. They felt I should have spoken up, stood up for myself. One said she wouldn’t allow anyone to talk to her like that.

Now as some of you have read here on the blog in posts like I Knew I Had To Go Deep, I have my own experiences of surviving abuse. I spent very intense years of my 30’s working with the consequences of that. Even so, I couldn’t get my friends to see that defending myself against offensive language wasn’t the purpose in my exchanges with  this man. The point for me had been that I had understood what he must have felt like day in and day out, being treated as if he were invisible, or worse, as if he were a dangerous criminal, and how my actions had triggered that multiplied many times over, no matter what my intention might have been. The instant my heart truly understood that, the only meaningful thing I could say in the moment was that heartfelt, “I’m sorry.” Because, as I said in the post On The Street, I was sorry this was so much the state of affairs for black men on the streets of Portland and many other places.

My friends, both compassionate and liberal teachers, dug in. They couldn’t see how where I was coming from was a position of compassion that freed me from fear or outrage in that moment and gave me strength. They both said what they would have done was  set him straight–that sticking up for a woman’s right to be treated with dignity overrode everything else. I repeated that for me it wasn’t about that, it was about acknowledging the glaring and dangerous racist injustice of how he must have been treated in our society over and over. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what else to say. And then the 3rd friend at the table, a therapist, spoke up. She said to them, “I understand what you are saying about standing up for yourself and how you are spoken to, but for Maria, that wasn’t the point. For her, the point was making repair.”

When our therapist friend articulated this phrase, “making repair,” I suddenly felt understood in a way I could not find the words to express on my own. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “And THANK YOU!! That’s exactly what I was doing.”

What I love so much about this phrase is its literalness. I am, or I see myself as, a “maker”–of pieces of writing, pieces of art, piecing of quilts and of course, food. I am happiest when I am making something, whatever it is. This choice of words so “got” what I was trying to do that I even googled it to see if it’s some kind of psychological term I may have missed, but Google only coughed up the literal idea of making repairs to your home or rented space.

We were all quiet for a moment, taking the wisdom of our therapist friend’s words in. Then one of my other friends at the table suddenly looked at the time on her phone and said, “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry, I have to go.” She had told us at the beginning of our dinner that she would have to leave around this time to meet another friend who needed a place to stay for the night.

Though she protested that we not break up the evening because she had to leave, that was pretty much the end of it. The other two friends stayed to help me clear the table and wash the dishes. So we never got around to fully processing our different views of this experience or what we were thinking. I sometimes wonder what else might have been said or gained or lost if we had.

I was very glad, however, that I had not responded defensively to their objections, or felt my throat tighten up because I was not understood. I was able to stay in my own conviction without defensiveness or outrage. Upon reflection, it took me back to something very wise a co-op employee I was friendly with in Portland said to me in the 24 hours following my encounter and apology to the man in question: “maybe it was a good thing it was you he picked to yell that to. At least you knew what he was talking about and didn’t react defensively or as if he was crazy, even if he was.”

Without realizing it until much much later, though I understood it literally and agreed with it, I kind of glossed over the import of  what she meant. It just didn’t occur to me that these two reactions, defensiveness or dismissal, would have been far more common. In fact, I was a little confused she saw it as exceptional.

In one draft of this post I struggled with paragraph after paragraph trying to make a transition into how insidiously systemic racism is imbedded in how all of us behave and respond, even if we do not engage in openly aggressive racist tactics and behavior–(and how I myself, despite responding the way I did in the moment, still had to process  some feelings about how this man didn’t see me as the friendly person I thought of myself as, or  know my other heartfelt connections with my black neighbors, or my years of study and mentoring in academia around issues of cultural diversity and retention of students of color, etc.  As I wrote in On The Street, “About a couple of blocks away I started wondering if I should have explained that I thought he was busy and didn’t want to interrupt him. In fact, part of me  foolishly wanted to run after him and tell him so. But I also realized the wisest part of me knew to keep it simple and from the heart. The I’m sorry I got out was all that was necessary to be witness to the general and particular pain he was evoking, and dissipate the rising negative energy.”

Nevertheless, that didn’t mean I didn’t have to process my own fear that I might run into him again and not recognize him fast enough–and what if he followed through on his threats?–so there was a lot of second guessing I had to identify that came from that place of white fragility, and process it for what it was as best I could. As I thought about the best way to articulate all this here, I deleted sentence after sentence because I just couldn’t figure out how not to sound defensive– or as if I am holier than thou–the very thing I was trying to write about the importance and the difficulty of avoiding, while till speaking the truth.

But then, I came upon these two women on the internet–living examples of very matter of fact ways of doing what my friend called “making repair.”  The first one to cross my path was Dr. Rupa Marya, a hospitalist and associate professor for the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, who describes the prevalence of racism in our medical system as reported in this article and video. By recounting her own experience, she inspired me to continue matter of fact ways to question and check myself and what my assumptions might be, and how to deflate the situation when another person is offended at the mention of racism.

Next, the same wise friend who coined the term “making repair” for me on New Year’s Eve, told me about an episode of the podcast On Being, where Krista Tippet interviews black poet and playwright Claudia Rankine on her writing, her life and conversations she has about race and racism. Taken from her own words, the podcast is titled “How Can I Say This So We Can Stay In This Car Together?” The matter of factness about the reality of racism and the astute and beautifully told particulars her poet’s mind brought to light really inspired and resonated with me as I strive to become more aware of more ways to help make repair, and less stuck in not knowing what to say, especially to other white people who don’t see race as impacting their lives. Her recounting of a conversation she had with a Trump supporter who was the driver assigned to bring her to a graduation where she had been asked to speak is powerful, as is her account of singing with a white man she sat next to on a plane and how she was able to enlighten him about why telling her “I don’t see color,” was not a very good thing to say.

 

What does this all have to do with the alder tree? It turns out that so called dead leaf is actually a little hummingbird, who perches in it many mornings. Until I actually saw this, I would think rather crazy things to myself like, “Oh, that leaf is gone,” and on other mornings, Hmm, now it’s back again, but not in quite the same place?” only half paying attention and never questioning or examining how this didn’t make sense.

But one morning, there was something about the leaf that made it look, well, not like a leaf at all. By this time I was kneeling on the mat, looking up out the window, and that gave me a different vantage point, one that made me realize what I was looking at was a little hummingbird! He or she was sitting up there waiting for a turn at the feeder hanging on my front porch. I was delighted to be so enlightened, and laughed out loud. On our morning walk, I thought about trying to draw it, possibly for a way to illustrate this post, and when we got back, I took my sketch book into the bedroom to get a feel for the branches and begin.

Much to my surprise, the hummingbird came and alighted on the branch. I smiled and moved closer to get a better look, peering through the open blinds that I didn’t draw into the sketch. As I approached the window, for a split second, the hummingbird turned her head and looked at me–I saw a flash of eye and the bright reddish feather sand brighter green on the side of her head. And then she looked away, only showing the dark green of an old leaf, before flitting off to the feeder.

I think of this experience as an image for how what I tell myself shapes what I see and what I believe to be true. As long as I was convinced I couldn’t see a hummingbird anywhere but at the feeder, all I saw was a dead leaf hanging on after its time had passed, getting blown away, and then mysteriously reappearing. I didn’t even pay enough attention to sort out these contradictions and why they didn’t make any sense, or might be robbing me of a greater sense of connectedness and wonder with my natural surroundings, attentive to them though I perceive myself to be.

I hope this little hummingbird’s visits will remind me that I don’t always know what I’m looking at, even when I think I do, and that my instinct to “make repair” when I do see something anew is not a one time deal, but a life’s work in progress.  Every day I live I need to be open to find more ways to enlarge that impulse, to expand it, to embrace it in context when I recognize it, especially in ways that help dismantle perceptions and practices that dehumanize or threaten those of us who do not have white skin. As we all know, those situations can be charged and fraught, but I am encouraged to keep trying to build, as Claudia Rankine so aptly puts it, my “white stamina” for those conversations that make it possible for us to “stay in this car together.” I  feel blessed to have had as many of these as I’ve had already, and look forward to growing into more.

Maria (moonwatcher)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nicole O'Shea February 14, 2019 at 9:08 am

Maria, I am so glad you wrote this so others can read it. The difference was your intention – making repair – and so often it seems our intention is self or ego protection. I recently listened to that same On Being podcast – two nights ago! And I thought it was interesting even within in there were moments where I experienced Krista Tippett as having the second intention.Just goes to show we are all going to be imperfect, no matter our ideals, and the only real way to make the ok is to continue in a process of making repair.

I think it is interesting too, that trying to integrate the intersection of sex, gender, race and class, as well as ability and other social factors/cultural cues, is one of the hardest things for us to do. The world teaches us to guard ourselves and it’s all Darwinian out there. What if we all spent a little more time considering that all of us benefit from making repair and lifting up the least of us? That would be amazing.

xoxo

Nicole

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi February 14, 2019 at 10:34 am

Thank you so much, Nicole, for reading and for this great comment. You put into words some things that are hard to say so well. And yes, I found Krista Tippet struggled with that mightily, too, at certain points in the discussion. Thanks for validating that to me. And I so agree with you that trying to integrate the intersection of sex gender race and class as well as ability and other social factrous/cultural cues is one of the hardest tasks before us. I’m certainly far from perfect at it. I especially appreciate you reminding us here that we ALL benefit from making repair and lifting up the least of us. It doesn’t tickle at first, sometimes, but in the end it’s the best and most sure moment of grace there is. xoxo

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