Dear Ms. Harriet,
I love my family, but it means I’m living in two worlds. It’s impossible to sit around and compare notes about our lives like I thought we’d be doing by now. Believe me. I’ve tried.
I’ve tried talking about what it’s like to be a boss. They say nothing, but their eyebrows go up having been bossed their whole lives. I bring up the news. Their faces go blank. We can’t even discuss the latest movies. Trying that ends with, “now that was good” or “I didn’t like that one at all.” Subjects I bring up get changed. My comments meet with silence. They’re proud of me, but don’t know how to relate. We usually end up talking about easy topics, the weather and family memories. Or, I listen to whatever they decide to share.
Away from my family, I’m a good and even witty conversationalist. I moved out long ago, but, when I’m back there, I can’t grow up. I want to. I’ve had such good times with my family. Now, I’ve got so much more to share. Can you help me figure out how?
–Living in two worlds
Dear Living in two worlds,
Judging from what you wrote, I do not doubt that you live in two worlds or more. It sounds like your life has taken a turn away from your loved ones. For better or worse, that’s typical of us Ones who made it. Bear with me while I explain how your question reminds me of a trip I once took to a small beach town.
When the designated weekend arrived, my relationship had fallen apart. Things at work had taken a turn for the worst. And, news from home was disappointing at best. I was not in the mood for the fun get-away I’d scheduled. But I listened to friends, who convinced me to go anyway.
While there, I attended a small church with a modest congregation. The guest Reverend knew her audience well. She chose a topic to which the regulars in the expensive tourist town could relate. Her sermon started with a story about a trip she had taken years before. She visited a new land–somewhere in Asia. People there talked, ate, moved about, and did everything different from all she knew. As she spoke, you could see her silent and awkward in a foreign land. It had made her humble, and sensing that humility became a turning point in her faith. She encouraged us to live in ways that helped us remain humble in the eyes of God.
I liked this woman. Her eyes sparkled as she preached in the way that eyes can when someone loves what they do. Her sincere tone embodied the empathy and humility of which she spoke. I looked around. All sat, attentive. They smiled as if they’d sent postcards from that place she described, or others like it. Mine was the only head not facing forward as I turned to notice, as I usually did, I was the only Black person there. But, that wasn’t what made me uneasy.
She had focused on discomfort. She described it so poignantly it reminded me that it’s a feeling to experience and not a way to be. In time, she walked back down the aisle signaling the end of the service. The church’s custom called for those in the pulpit to greet worshipers as they left the service. As I waited to shake hands with the Reverend, a question formed.
On having expectations
Perhaps it was her clergy robe or her being another woman of color or the sincerity in all she’d said. Maybe it was the space of challenge I inhabited. Regardless, I asked this complete stranger my burning question. “What about those of us who don’t have to travel to feel discomfort? who feel it every minute of every day in our daily lives?” Then, I looked at her in a way that I’d learned not to a long time ago.
I looked at her expectantly, hopefully even. From everything I’d heard, I knew she had seen me. I trusted she’d have an answer. And, it would explain why my blue-collar loved ones kept asking what time my 24/7 professional job ended. She’d help me figure out what to say to mentors encouraging me to accept cross-country job offers without understanding the gulf doing so would create between me and my generations. I’d learn the secret I needed to be my whole self whether a downtrodden or button-downed soul vied for my attention. I had only needed to work up the courage to ask.
For her part, she did have an answer, a compelling one I continue to contemplate. She looked deep into my eyes and said, “I knew you would show up.”
Keeping in touch
Not only do we Ones who made it inhabit professional and family spaces. But we also negotiate in-between spaces. Those spaces reflect all the ways we describe ourselves. They can include our culture(s), social status, lifestyle preference and more. Each in-between space has its own norms, language, history. Yet, few bridges connect all the worlds we navigate. Even if we had bridges, they’d connect one place in one world to a single place in another. That stated, the operative word here is world.
Don’t focus on the full set of differences contrasting the worlds we negotiate. Instead, try focusing on one thing. For example, instead of telling your family all about your work life, share one thing about it. ‘It’s different to be the boss after hearing your stories about bosses.’ Say it to show up as the person you are today. Share it to help them begin to hear that you’ve changed.
Here’s another way to see my point. A single flower in a concrete lot or against a stone wall may seem out of place. Or, it can remind us that nature makes no mistakes. It can convince us that change is coming, one season at a time. Chances are a change of focus will help lead to connection.
As for my story, it didn’t end there. The Reverend held my hand for longer than the greeting called. She told me she’d sensed something amiss in her draft of that sermon. Still, she had felt moved to deliver it anyway remaining open to whatever lesson it might offer. She encouraged me to contact her later so we could talk more. And, we did.
Neither the Reverend nor I knew ever came up with the answer. But, we found a way to connect in how we shared an understanding of the profound nature of my question. I’m guessing you do too.
–Signed, Ms. Harriet