Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

 

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

 

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends,  unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

If at first you don’t succeed …

I am a writing mentor with Girls Write Now, and I get the pleasure of working with Sophia, who is an entirely fabulous young woman. She’s a senior, and we’re in our third year together. I adore her, and still can’t guess how GWN was able to make such a perfect pairing.

We had our pair session today. We meet in a coffee shop near my office. I arrived a little ahead of Sophia and snagged a booth, our favorite spaces in this cafe. I fished in my bag for notebook and pen and looked up and there was Sophia, not looking her usual self. She gave me a half smile and slid in across from me.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said.

“Mmmhmm. Why don’t I believe you?”

She smiled a more real smile. “I hate saying ‘I’m in a funk,’ but I think that’s the only thing to say. I’m in a funk.”

“Why do you hate to say it?”

“It’s so dramatic. Sounds like I’m talking in a book.”

Ha. I like that. “Talking in a book.”

After some conversation, Sophia put the source of her funk on the table, announcing a bit flippantly that she is suffering through a mid-life crisis. She is feeling that she should have accomplished more by this time in her life. She is seventeen.

But I totally understand how she’s feeling. I told her she was a little early, that I hadn’t had my first midlife crisis until I was 18. We talked about where these feelings come from and how to deal with them. Sophia said she figured she’d have her next crisis at 25 (as I did), and that each time she had one, she’d move the goal posts down a few years, maybe to 30, maybe to 35.

As our conversations pretty much always do, we moved on to talk about a thousand other things. We talk all over the place, as if we have a shared stream of consciousness. At one point, we were talking about the ocean, about snorkeling, about how alien we feel about being in the ocean, about swimming, about rainbow fish and stingrays and manta rays and jelly fish …

And I suddenly thought of Diana Nyad and watching footage of one of her attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida and her being stung by box jellyfish. Both of us reached for our phones and looked her up. And we marveled at her decades-long push toward the goal of being the first person to complete that swim, and the fact that she accomplished it at 64.

Sophia put her phone down and looked at me. “She’s like us,” she said. I will admit, that took me totally by surprise because, as much as I might like it to be true, I don’t see a lot of similarities between me and Diana Nyad.

“No, she is,” Sophia insisted. “She tried to do this thing in her 20s and she didn’t make it. So she pushed the goal ahead a few years and a few years and a few years. And then she did it!”

I love that she drew this connection, and that it seemed to make her feel less of that funk she’d been carrying when she walked into the cafe. We said our goodbyes with Sophia looking more upbeat, more herself, than when she’d arrived. We’d only written for about 15 minutes, but we covered some good ground today.

I also love thinking about Nyad’s accomplishment. Thirty-six years working toward a single, precious goal. And, to my mind, being all the more impressive for achieving that goal at 64 than she would have been had she succeeded at 28. I think I’ve left mid-life crises behind me at this point, but I am holding onto this idea of Diana Nyad, this idea of staying true to my dreams and continuing to push for them even if I have tried and failed again and again.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Call me by … my job’s name?

I had a meeting today with a friend who works for a partner agency. We needed to review some work we’d done on some grant applications. At one point we were talking about being mistaken for other people — something that had just happened to us both — and she commented on the fact that there are so many folks with my name working in our relatively small circle.

It’s surprisingly true. I have gone through most of my life knowing hardly any other people with my name. Years ago, the Fed Ex man who delivered to my office was named Stacy, and he thought our having the same name was hilarious. But he was really it, no one else sharing my name.

And then I came here, and I was suddenly surrounded. There was one fabulous moment when I was walking into a building with a Stacy and a friend who is a Stacie, and someone behind us called our name — she had spotted Stacy and wanted to say hi. She called our name, and we all turned in a perfectly choreographed move and said, in unison, “Yes?” So there were those two women, but there were also three others in other agencies that I work with and one in a program for helping high-skilled immigrants find work in their fields, and one who worked for one of the Deputy Mayors. So many!

So my friend commented on the abundance of Stacie-ness and said that her big concern was that she would spell one of our names wrong in an email, especially mine, as the others are all “y” or “ey” people (my dear “ie” friend has moved to Texas).

She found a helpful mnemonic for spelling my name correctly, however, and I couldn’t love it more. The initiative I have spent the most time working on since taking this job is integrated education and training, a little something we call “bridge” around here. It’s all about offering adult basic education or English language instruction combined with occupational skills training, helping people move more quickly toward their employment goals. My first 18 months on the job, I presented about bridge all over the place. I was the one-woman bridge roadshow. I even made a slide for a presentation that featured a cartoon me asking a lot of the questions I heard from people who weren’t sure what bridge was:

bridge image

I very much want to be all about integrated education and training, want to eat, drink, and sleep it. That would make me happy, would be a real mark of a job well done for me.

What does any of this have to do with my name? When she needs to write me and wants to be sure she’s got the correct spelling, my friend says to herself: “Stacie — IE for Integrated Education.” It’s so perfect, so ridiculously fabulous, I can’t believe it never occurred to me! I’m done. Done. I love it like crazy.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Backsliding toward Bethlehem

I grew up quiet. I was docile, compliant, held my tongue when I should have spoken. This isn’t a thing to be proud of, and I’m not proud of it. I should have spoken the first time a man flashed me. I was eight. I should have spoken the first time a boy tried to pressure me into letting him touch me. I was nine. But I was a “good girl,” a seen-but-not-heard girl. So I stayed quiet.

Eventually—though not for many too many years—I realized that staying quiet is a form of self harm, that silence can equal death.

Writing ended my silence. When I started blogging ten years ago, I started posting things I didn’t say out loud, started telling stories I hadn’t told: the first time I was called a nigger, the night I was raped, the acceptance of my inability to have children. And when I wrote, people read. And I found I had more things to say. And more people read … and more and more, reading and reading and reading. Silence stopped being my default position. It became, instead, an occasional choice, a choice made to serve my needs, not anyone else’s.

In recent years, I have been anything but silent. My pain and rage have been loud and sustained. The steady drumbeat of devaluation and death that has been the storyline of Black and Brown communities calls up my voice again and again and again, has spilled across pages and pages, come to mic-ed spaces like this one to spill over audiences like you.

***

When I looked up “backslide,” I was surprised to have page after page of religious websites come up in the search results. At first I ignored them because nothing I think about when I think about backsliding has anything to do with religion.

I searched again. I was looking for something that might steer me away from the negative definition of the word that was dominating my writing. All my searches came up religious. Finally, I gave in and clicked the first site, “Ask a Minister” (seriously). And what to my wondering eyes should appear but definitions of backsliding that resonated more powerfully than the standard, “relapsing into bad ways or error.” Ask a Minister gave me:

Revolt
Refuse to harken
Pull away
Rebel

Suddenly backsliding looked like a badge of honor, something to which I could and should aspire. Biblically, of course, it’s all bad—backsliders were folks who “refused to harken” to religious rules, to the word of God. Okay, fine. But is that always necessarily a bad thing? Questioning authority—speaking up instead of keeping silent—can be exactly right, exactly the thing that saves your life.

And there it was—the memory of quiet, go-along-to-get-along me, and the memory of all the ways the stress and damage of my silence manifested in my health, in my bad relationships, in my fear of embracing my anger.

But no more. I have become a proud backslider. I have—to paraphrase my favorite of the “Ask a Minister” bits—refused to harken and turned a backsliding shoulder and made my ears heavy that they should not hear.

One. Hundred. Percent.

***

I was born on a Tuesday, and I used to like thinking about that old poem: Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace …  I liked thinking that I might ever be seen as even the least bit graceful. And somehow my silence was part of that.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she sent me the biblical definition of grace: the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. I do tend to think of myself as the recipient of the free (and generally unmerited) favor of God, so perhaps I’ve achieved gracefulness after all. This graceful backsliding is such a relief. Freedom, finally, to just be my own authentic, un-quiet, angry, rebellious, refusing-to-harken self.



This piece was written for the July 24th Big Words, Etc. reading, the theme for which was “Backslide.”

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Episode IV: A New Challenge

#52essays2017

Yes, my title is an homage. And the challenge is an Everest-sized mountain I’ll attempt to scale this coming year. Wish me luck, folks, wish me luck!

Would you like to take on this challenge, too? I’ve been inspired this past year by the powerful work of my friend Vanessa. Just as I was thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll take a cue from V and write an essay a month in 2017,” she posted a challenge invite, and I couldn’t resist joining. Check out the details.

And I made this announcement image on canva.com!


So, it’s a Tuesday. That means it’s a Slice of Life day! Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what’s up with the other slicers!

In honor of 2017 being the 10th year of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, and in honor of the fact that I’ve participated since the first year of the challenge, Stacey (one of the creators of the challenge) made me my very own Slicer badge!

original-slicer-girlgriot

A Woman of a Certain Age

As I was getting ready to head into Manhattan tonight, I overheard two folks talking outside my window. They’d run into each other and were catching up, a young-ish man and an older woman. They had a lot of crazy things to say and gossip to pass back and forth. They said their goodbyes and then there was silence as they walked away … then the guy shouts: “I just gotta say, you’re one of those people whose black don’t crack!  They both burst out laughing, and I almost did, too.

Today is my birthday.  Funny how fast these come around!  It’s my birthday, and I’m quite solidly middle aged now.  But I’m also one of those “uncracked” people that guy was shouting about outside my window.  Sometimes I feel every nanosecond of each one of my 52 years, but mostly not so much, mostly I’m well aware of how much I don’t look whatever people think my age should look like. I stressed out about my age a lot more when I was in my 40s. (Might have had something to do with all those younger men I dated … ahem.)  Now, I’m rude enough to tell people my age for no reason other than to make them tell me how not my age I look.  My vanity has done no mellowing over time!

Earlier this week, one of my neighbors asked me why she never sees me pregnant or with a baby (really, my neighbors will sometimes just say every damn thing!). I told her that time was past for me, and she said not yet, that I could probably have kids “up till you’re 40 or so.” Um, yeah. That time is p.a.s.t.

So that time is past, but now there’s time for about a bazillion other things.  This second half of my life is already shaping up to be very interesting — one knee surgery down, one to go, got fired for the first time in my life and have spent the last three months unemployed for the first time in my adult life, I’ve learned to spin, I’ve discovered a new writing genre to explore, I’ve reconnected with some old friends and started cultivating a gorgeous garden a new friends …

I’ve got work to do.  I’m only 52, but I’m already 52.  All kinds of clocks are ticking.  Think of how many crafts there are still for me to learn.  And how long is it going to take me to get over myself and stop hiding my grey hair with henna?

Time to prepare for embracing myself as the Crone, the wise, free, powerful me.  This non-working summer has given me a delicious taste of what the “free” can feel like — I have very much enjoyed my long days of reading, writing, strolling, thinking, seeing just how much I enjoy my own company — but I have a ways to go before I can pretend to wisdom or power.

I’ve got work to do.


image source

__________

Hello to everyone who began following the blog after reading my last post.  I appreciate the follows and the comments.  You intimidated me just a little, I won’t lie.  I’ve started and dashed half a dozen posts since that one.  I worried about what kind of writing you’d expect each time you saw my blog in your inbox.  Well, the fact is, you’re here.  Stick around and you’ll see how non-linear and nonsensical I can be one minute, how focused and fierce I can be the next.  This is a theme-less space that is often left to grow over with weeds.  I’m only today remembering that I should have started a 30 stories in 30 days challenge on the first.  Maybe I’ll jump in with that tomorrow.  We’ll see.  I hope you’ll keep reading.  It won’t be praise- or comment-worthy every time, but I’d love to have you jump in and start conversation when you’re moved to do so.  Welcome to my tiny little corner of the internet!

Classroom Resolutions

I don’t make my resolutions this time of year.  If I can be said to make resolutions at all, it would be the wish-list I write up for my birthday — the start of my personal new year.  So January first is more like a quarterly report.

But this year I’m feeling like making some school resolutions.  There are definitely some things I’d like to see become true about my classroom and my teaching between now and June, so …

  • More integration between my class and the teen peer education program
  • Redesign of our classroom, including getting started on the mural we want to paint on the big wall
  • Publish at least two books of student writing
  • Revisit goal-setting / education plans with everyone
  • Less me, more them
  • Plants!
  • Bring Carlos in to talk about the college transitions program
  • Find better ways to keep my adult and teen students working together
  • Read A Wish After Midnight (thanks for catching the error, Susan!)
  • Work through the geometry and algebra curricula (without suffering my usual math phobia!)
  • Find better science resources

All of these things are important.  Some will, of course, be much easier than others.  I’m really worried that my class is going to be completely teen-i-fied by the end of the year.  I don’t want to lose my ‘real’ adults now that we have so many new young people, and keeping that from happening is on me.

Lots of work to do, starting with Monday’s new student orientation.  I’ve missed my classroom, and I’m looking forward to getting started again.  I had hoped the last two weeks would include a little more time for me to focus on planning for next week … but when has that ever happened?