Sunday, December 27, 2009

Black Jack and Ujima

Somehow we moved from Franz Fanon and Edward Said and self-determination last night to Blackjack.

I'm still trying to figure out how that happened, but I think my mistake was in retelling Tracy Kidder's story of Deogratias the Burundian medical student.

As soon as I said Deogratias, "Deo" for short, my two offspring sang in unison "Day-O" and then ran to the laptop to pull up Harry Belafonte on Rhapsody. They suggested that we honor self-determination through African and African-American music, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

So we ran through Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald (we listened to a Christmas gift - the recent release "Twelve Nights in Hollywood" really is a gem). And that was as good as it got - Most Favorite Son put on Screamin' Jay Hawkins "singing" Old Man River, which was decidedly not my idea of self-determination, though it led to a spirited discussion of what constitutes self-determination and self-expression. I asked for Paul Robeson to cleanse my ears, but lost that battle.

We moved into 70s soul tunes, which promptly scattered the younger generation. So I lured them back with the promise of playing a game. Pictionary was nixed by one (too artsy), and Yahtzee by the other (too juvenile).

Most Favorite Son suggested Black Jack - Army rules with "soft 21". Sleeping Beauty had to be coaxed to come to the table and learn to play a new game. Once she learned the rules, she cleaned us all out.

We figure she's now learned a great skill for college.

And so it goes: Kwanzaa in Barelas.

We got a jump start on tomorrow's Kwanzaa principle of Ujima - collective work and responsibility. We collectively took part in making dinner, cleaning up, getting post-dinner refreshments and putting together entertainment - from music to games. I'll be putting on my thinking cap early in the morning for a Duke City Fix post on Ujima.

Suitcases and Kujichagulia

I spend so much time living out of suitcases that in both my homes I store them within easy reach and within eyesight. Today's chore is to put the suitcase out of sight for the rest of my winter break - just so I can fool myself into thinking that I live in one place year round. (I would have done this earlier, but unwrapped Christmas presents needed to be hidden where the suitcase goes).

Today's Kwanzaa principle is kujichagulia. Years ago it took me a few tries before that word rattled off my tongue - Swahili is influenced by Arabic, but they are not that similar. Kujichagulia means self-determination. Each time I see that phrase I think about Israeli scholar Dov Ronen, who penned a book by the same title and introduced me to the idea of national self-determination in an Arab-Israeli politics class I took when I was twenty, the same age my son is now.


If I'm not paying attention, I mix this up with Emerson's essay on self-reliance. I suppose there is some connection; I think that it would be difficult to assert self-determination without at least some measure of self-reliance. Self-determination encompasses more - from nations to individuals - each choosing how to define oneself, sometimes in contrast to others' definitions, and sometimes in accordance with one's own.

My little Kwanzaa book suggests teaching kujichagulia by remembering the history of slavery and telling those gathered around to keep the dream alive. Important topics, to be sure, but I'm not giving my children a history lesson they already know or reciting slogans tonight.

Instead, I'll dip into my Kindle and share with them a few passages from Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, the story of Deogratias, a young medical student in Burundi who escaped genocide and put his life together again in New York setting his sights towards medical school (and earning bachelors degrees in Chemistry and Philosophy from Columbia University in the process) while also working to establish a health clinic in his parents' home in Burundi.

This story will undoubtedly lead the kids to bring up the movie Hotel Rwanda and genocide, and then I'll slip in some Fanon and Said on colonialism, decolonization, and national self-determination.

We'll wrap it up with some conversation about what it means to determine your "self" and I'll throw in some ideas about physical self and mental self and self-conception and how others see you if the conversation stalls. (Not that it ever does in this Barelas casita - life is just one long conversation punctuated by appropriate silence).

Yeah. Just doing my part to raise educated citizens here in New Mexico.

The road to self-determination starts with education. Kujichagulia.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Umoja and the Proselytizers

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, and I am doing what I do every year: wondering where in Albuquerque I might buy a black candle for the center of the kinara.

Red and green candles are plentiful this time of year; I have finally figured out that the best time to buy muhindi (ears of corn) is just before Thanksgiving - one ear for each child in the family is tradition. The mkeka (straw mat), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup for libations), and mazao (fruits of the harvest) are all ready to be placed in their spot of honor. But first I need a black candle!

So I'm kicking myself for not buying any of the Kwanzaa candle sets I saw in DC earlier this month, and wracking my brain for a possible solution. It'll come.

Meanwhile, the Kwanzaa principle today is Umoja, or unity in family, community, nation and race. (I interpret that last one as the "human race" though I suspect Ron Maulana Karenga had something different in mind). Communities are where the cultural lines emerge for me, not race, which everyone knows is a social construct anyway.

My first Umoja challenge of the day was an elderly couple who appeared on my doorstep. They were too conventionally dressed to be artists/writers/community activists and too old for me to place them as my kids' friends. The woman wore a hairstyle that was Pat Nixon-esqe, and the man wore a dapper tweed porkpie hat. I guessed that they were peddling something - religion, most likely.

So I girded my loins for compassion (not battle), and opened the door. They smiled kindly and asked me about my family - one person in particular. I thanked them for their kindness, and looked at them inquiringly, upon which they told me they were Jehovah's Witnesses and that they had been invited to return and converse more with said family member. I forced my smile (after all we are all humans just trying to find our way through life) and mentioned that I was the only one here and I was not interested in their message for me, thank-you-very-much.

So they left, introducing themselves as they made their way down the steps and handing me copies of the December 2009 issues of The WatchTower and Awake!

I felt as though my morning of music and solitude and good coffee and the written word (Sylvia Plath and Uwem Akpan) had been marred by this imposition and intrusion on my time. Had it been a neighbor in need or a visit from someone stopping by, my response would have been much different. I would have thrown the door open and offered my time and energy.

These folks elicited another response from me entirely - I did not want their message or their presence in my day.

And in my recognition of this, I realized that I was stepping away from that principle of Umoja -unity of humanity. So I stopped, recognized that these people were doing what they believed would be helpful, and that they probably had no idea that their presence on my front porch was unwelcome, annoying, and bordering on harassment.

I've grown tired of proselytizers knocking on my door and banging on my windows and approaching me as I garden.

It would be one thing if we could actually talk about religion and faith - I'd love to have a proselytizer offer some up Bonhoffer or Niebuhr or an analysis of the filoque controversy of the Nicene Creed. Given that I work in a Philosophy and Religion department, these discussions are not hard to come by, but I'm always eager to learn more.

The folks who come to my door are more interested in converting me to a flatfooted faith that involves no questions without answers. Unfortunately for them, uncritical acceptance is missing from my deoxyribonucleic acid. This thwarts their mission.

Once I got past my annoyance, my next thought was how can I recover that sense of Umoja - how could I take what these proselytizers had given me and create some unity from it?

Art is a great unifier - perhaps I could create something transcendent from this moment.

And so I pick up the pamphlets they have given me, looking past the poorly argued article on Paley's argument from design and begin cutting out words, phrases, and images that will become a collage.

What better way to reflect on unity than to tear out bits and pieces of what makes us human and to reassemble art?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

I've just put a pot of posole on the stove and it is beginning to smell like Christmas. In another hour or so we will have tamales from El Modelo, and the gingerbread cookies will be in the oven. I've got a few more gifts to wrap, and I've come up with a few errands to get different people out of the house for a short while so that I can wrap their gifts.

Yesterday it snowed briefly. The dogs were hanging out inside, Apricot the cat was doing her usual to taunt Haru, who we put on a leash in the house because her adolescent puppiness and the Christmas tree are not meshing well. After the rest of the family headed out to run a last minute Christmas errand, I sat down at the dining room table to sign Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year's cards when I heard "crunch, crunch, crunch".

Miss Haru had figured out that if she stretched out her paw really long she could barely reach the Christmas tree skirt. And if she pulled snagged her nail on the skirt, she could pull it towards her, moving the skirt AND the presents her direction! Oh doggie delight! And ONE of those presents smelled AWFULLY good. And hence the crunch. But I was quick on my feet and took the present away and chastised her for her wily ways. (We really think she's got coyote blood in her). She gave me one of those looks that was part "Who me?" and part "I'm so sorry I've disappointed you".

No harm done to the present (it will need to be rewrapped) or Haru.

So the Christmas tree has a skirt and no gifts under it. This year, Santa has been asked to deliver gifts in a place where no adolescent canine can get her teeth on them. And doggie treats are not to be wrapped or placed under the tree this year - it is just too much temptation for a teenager.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tea and Tacos

Now that grades are turned in and grade grubbing has slowed to a trickle, I've been looking at my days before Christmas with anticipation. Which friend will I connect with today? Where will I walk the dogs? What cookies shall I bake this afternoon?

Yesterday I headed to the South Valley to see one of my oldest friends in Albuquerque. We met at the South Broadway Library when my children were very young - my daughter was strapped to my body in a sling, and my son had just moved from picture books to chapter books. We stumbled on the library end of the South Broadway complex one day after seeing a matinee at the theater, and I was thrilled to see so many books featuring children of color and rainbow families just like ours.

I stopped at the children's librarian's desk to comment on this, and started a conversation that has lasted 15 years.

My friend became one of our daughter's godmothers, and we have made efforts in our busy lives to stay connected - through moves and children's events and school and singing and writing and all of the different endeavors that define us. Lately we've struggled to find time to just meet and talk and catch up with life. So when I got an invite to come for tea, I jumped at it.

"Tea" turned into talk over wine and preparing tacos and stir-fried eggplant and sharing a meal with the company of two of her five children - one grown and one nearly grown, plus a grandson. What a lovely night of cooking, camaraderie, and companionship!.

Monday, December 21, 2009

El Modelo

It has been a while since I've blogged here. First - muchas gracias to the readers of Albuquerque the Magazine, who voted my blog as one of the top 5 in Albuquerque for 2009. I'm humbled by this honor.

Second - I'm back in the blogging saddle again. Check out today's post Toiling Over Tamales at Christmastide about El Modelo on Duke City Fix and let me know what you think!