Category Archives: Mistinguette Smith

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The Responsibility of Story: A Fifty Year Passage

We humans are social beings; we live on food, water and the power of story. We linger at the holiday dinner table (or, as children, hide beneath the tablecloth) to hear the stories of who we are and how we became a family.  We pour the small-town shanachie another Harp lager, and settle in to listen to the old, old story of our tribe and clan, even if it’s a story set in our lifetime. We answer every krik?  with a resounding krak! calling out for stories of our essential selves cast as tricksters and mermaids and foolish men. We honor the tellers of facts with riches and staying awake through their Powerpoint presentations  and lifetime academic posts. But we honor our storytellers with praise, publication and positive reviews, and sometimes a small measure of fortune.

As I move toward fifty, I have discovered new work that makes me the keeper and the teller of precious stories told anew. I am deeply immersed in understanding what makes a story compelling, and what makes a story precious and true. To do this work with honor, I must summon my decades of skill as a writer, a scholar and a lover of culture in order to transmit these stories with great care.

The care with which a narrative is passed on can shape what kinds of stories a people are allowed to tell ourselves ever afterward. Commercial advertising has told us stories amplified and specially designed to build temporary connections based on the gift or illusion of a briefly shared common language. Now, a five minute performance poem or a popular, if dubious, memoir offers equally fast, brutal stories that gather us together just long enough to feel something other than lost and alone. Casual artists and serious journalists stream three minute bites of digital video to tell us the story of who we are now, flashing instant connection and stories of difference, with or without context, across the globe. The speed of these stories draws us in with their immediacy; their one-off nature, and hearing them in private, prevents us from testing their truth across generations or noticing whether their wisdom still applies when shared with new people in new places.

This week I am grateful to be almost-fifty. Those decades of understanding story help me keep my balance as I wade the stream between stories that tell the truth about difference and stories with verisimilitude: the comforting appearance of being true or real. The bottom of that river is slippery and full of stones: the way popular movie The Help helps some of us to dwell in illusion and while providing others the occasion to tell a counter-narrative; my effort to help a client release their desire to appropriate a “truthy” story about indigenous culture and to grasp instead a story that is resonant because it is powerfully true.

As I learn about the responsibility involved in carrying an authentic story, I am learning to strip the geegaws of verisimilitude from the story I tell myself about who I am. I need fewer of the tools of drama to say who I am in this world with you: no costume, no special lighting, no symbolic colors, no props. I can choose to use some of them occasionally and lightly, but without depending on them because I know how to tell a story strongly rooted in veracity: my half-century practice of finding and telling the many, many stories that make up the truth.

The responsibility for telling my story, and the story of others, will require at least fifty years of wisdom. I will need to offer more than just engaging stories told with good intention. I will need all the wisdom of my fifty years of practice of humility, fifty years of strength from holding the creative tension of diverse points of view, and fifty years of learning what truly nourishes us. At fifty, I become an elder who is responsible for telling stories that are more than entertainment. I am becoming one who is responsible for bearing stories to help each of us stay connected and alive.

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Change

I spent last night talking with a group of hopeful, eager young women at a progressive, elite college in the northeast. I talked with them about my life’s work, helping to shape a world that makes possible well-being for black women, and the many shapes that work has taken. Over dinner we talked about the difference between doing work that feels good and helps people, and work that makes social change.

They want to be activists, yet feel helpless and hopeless. They were born in 1990, and wondered if social change can really happen quickly enough for them to see it.  I talked about the impacts of social movements during my lifetime, which began as a passenger on northern buses that were segregated by fear and violence, not law. I reminded them that sexism has not ended, and yet American women now routinely leave their homes without heels and a head covering. They gasped when I explained that when I began my work in domestic violence 30 years ago, it had just become illegal to beat your wife. They pondered having “change that takes a lifetime” simply means a lifetime longer than the one they have lived.

And I felt my journey toward Intentional Fifty as potentially dangerous, with the risk of becoming closed and preachy.

Afterward, we walked to an auditorium, where I gave a speech. When the faculty had offered their congratulations and the line of eager-to-impress students had drifted away, three young women of color waited to speak to me alone. They described the brutal open hand of racism in their lives on this peaceful, leafy campus with its intercultural dialogues and student multi-cultural center. They told me about being disrespected and abused even during the small group breakout session in the workshop I had just lead. We talked for a long time about how much this hurts. We considered what part of addressing that hurt is the work of intercultural groups, and what part is not.

And I felt the weight of  the stereotypes of fifty-year-old women. One such stereotype is that I should become an   ever-giving, wise, big-bosomed mama who wants to take care of other people’s feelings.Now, I am both wise and buxom, but I actually don’t hold much truck with gushing feelings, especially among strangers. I save  emotional intimacy for trusted friends.  I am a hearty hand-shaker, not a hugger.

So I surprised myself by standing fully on my threshold of fifty-wisdom and reaching out my hands to three strangers on the threshold of  twenty-one. I asked them to take exquisite care of their hearts, for I know that hearts can grow numb from living in this kind of place. I confessed my longing for them to be in the world as brilliant and joyful and thoughtful and whole.

And my own  fear of standing in the place of my deepest knowledge and desire fell away from me as I welcomed my young sisters, weeping,  into my arms.

Witness

Last week there was an attempted  political assassination in Tucson, Arizona.  This event opened   debate about the tone of public discourse, and whether violent political metaphors contributed to this violent act.

Like most folks, I had my share of things to say about this. Some of the statements I made were thoughtful; others were just part of the feast of avid conjecture.

But I was particularly surprised by the opinion of someone who advised me to stay neutral. She thought I should withhold judgment about whether the violent rhetoric that passes for political speech was responsible for this bloody act. She counseled me to draw no conclusions and to refrain from analysis until all the details about the individual shooter were known.

She asked me to stop making sense of what I see.

But I am old enough to have seen some things. I have lived in this country during other eras of violent rhetoric, and I have lived through its aftermath. I have watched verbal assaults escalate into political  violence before.  I have watched the illusion of comfort and neutrality go up in smoke. I have seen my city burn.

I don’t need a TV news analyst to tell me that there are a thousand reasons why someone might want to kill a member of Congress. I don’t need a police investigation to know there are as many reasons for shooting eighteen people in a Safeway as there are civilians who feel a need to own handguns. I know that a single shot fired by an “unstable” person is no more an individual act than is a riot, and I know that his bullet seeks to kill something greater than the human being within its sights.

So, I am surprised to find my journey toward  awakeness includes discovering things to which I am not open.

I’ve grown comfortable being my own witness, staying open to the claims of others while being deeply rooted in what I have experienced and what I have  seen.

Being a grown-up means believing myself when I’ve seen something happen enough times that I can call it by name.  I am old enough to be the author of my own history.  I am strong enough to have compassion for folks who get uncomfortable at the way the world looks when seen through my eyes without disbelieving myself.  I am learning to take myself seriously as a witness

Beyond Coming Out: Living as a lesbian in midlife

Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’m thinking about what it means to be a lesbian in midlife.

My life is unusual. I live openly as a lesbian in a place where that’s not illegal, or immoral, or even cause for comment. The law in Massachusetts says I can’t be fired for it, or denied housing for it, or my marriage disregarded for it. No one questions whether I should be a public servant, or speak on behalf of my faith community. As have many of my friends, I could become the legal parent to my spouse’s children freely and without discrimination (though heaven forbid we should become parents this late in the game!). Every morning, in my headscarf and ratty robe, I kiss my wife goodbye on the doorstep as she leaves for work. Friends and neighbors admire our long-time happy home.

I live in Massachusetts because I grew up in Ohio.  That’s a place where “coming out” means quietly telling your mother or your boss that you and your roommate aren’t just “friends.”  I live in Massachusetts because I want to live in a place where there is more than one neighborhood where I can rent or buy properly without fearing violence from my neighbors. In Ohio, I never dreamed of marriage, or even of being on my partner’s dental insurance: at 49, the cost of a crown makes her dental insurance a really big deal. In Massachusetts, my spouse has survivorship rights to our home; in Ohio, the law says that you, dear reader, are as closely related to me—and as entitled to my estate – as is my partner of 22 years.

And yet being a lesbian in midlife brings a different set of worries, and makes me wish for other things. I live in Massachusetts in exile; like my southern ancestors who made it across the Ohio River to freedom, I still long for the people I’ve had to leave behind.  I yearn to be an aunt to my nieces and nephews who are now young adults, starting families of their own. I miss seeing friends I’ve known since high school, and I wonder who will want to hear my stories when I’m old. Living with the simplest of freedoms and dignities has banished me from the intimate web of family obligation and community built upon time and love.

Today is National Coming Out Day, but everyone already knows that I’m a lesbian. So today, I have a wish for midlife lesbians everywhere: I wish us all the simple dignity of blossoming in love wherever we are; and the joy of bearing fruit and ripening with age in places where our roots hold us fast and strong.

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