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Buttermilk

May 1, 2014

“The refugee experience of dislocation, cultural bereavement, confusion and constant change will soon be all our experience.  As the world becomes globalized, we’ll all be searching for home.”

– Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere.

For a long time my mother was just about the only person I knew who drank buttermilk. I remember her telling me how she’d hold her nose and gulp down a tall glass of it when she was pregnant with me, just to strengthen our bones.

When I was in high school, she’d have it in a thick glass encircled with red and green stripes with a couple of pieces of cornbread crumbled in and shoved to the bottom with a large spoon.  She’d eat the soaked cornbread with the same spoon and then drink the buttermilk that grated her throat with its tiny leftover crumbs.

I know how it felt because sometimes I make my own version of this East Tennessee cocktail.  I fill up one of my own glasses with warm cornbread right out of the oven and pour cold whole milk over it like a bowl of cereal.  I eat it with a small spoon,  crushing down the cornbread that has soaked up the milk like a dishtowel, and then eat it like my grandmother did after she’d taken out her teeth.

Grannie was good at cornbread, and we’d make it in the kitchen of her trailer while a pot of pinto beans simmered on the stove. I’d simmer too, roasting the back of my legs in front of her big gas furnace and then turning around to warm the front side, too.

She had a big tank of gas out back that I longed to ride like a cowgirl.  It was next to the old house my mom had partly grown up in, beside which sat a school bus full of furniture my uncle had left when the Army moved them across the sea.

A couple hundred yards down the family property sat two other trailers, one a rusty red and the other a faded white.  Uncle Raymond and Aunt Nettie lived in the white one, and their collection of, well, everything, spilled off the screened porch and into the yard. My parents owned the red trailer, but we never lived there, just used it for a few years when we came up for weekends and then rented it out to aunts and cousins who made it a more permanent home.  Out back was the old road my grandfather had ridden his horse cart through alongside the creek.  It was where my Daddy taught me to shoot a gun by setting an rusty can of Dr. Pepper up on the sawed off stump of a tree.

I still buy buttermilk, usually when I feel like making cornbread. Despite watching Grannie and then my Momma make it a hundred times, I still measure out the ingredients according to the recipe on the back of the cornmeal bag I buy at the grocery store.  Even when I’ve got the Merle Haggard station I created playing in the background on Pandora on my iPhone, it almost never turns out right.

My husband is forgiving, and sometimes this makes me think less of him. Not him, really, but his ability to understand me and my need to be able to make good cornbread. I know he wants to make me feel better, but telling me the cornbread is good when it just isn’t makes things worse, even more so when he believes what he’s saying is true.

I think his mother understands something about cornbread, about buttermilk. Like mine she was not raised in the city or the suburbs.  She understands what it means to drink milk warm and straight from the bucket that sat underneath the cow.  I don’t.  He doesn’t. But I bought us a cast iron skillet at the Salvation Army and cured it with bacon grease in the oven just like my Momma told me I should.

His mother can feel beyond the crisp crust. I think she understands the need for the texture of home.  I say it this way because her English and my Spanish keep us at safe distance from such intimate exchanges about food.

I sometimes wonder, sitting across the table she insists on clearing when I’m the one who has prepared dinner, how it came to be that she and I are connected by the thread of a boy who sits next to her not finishing the home fried potatoes I’d decided not to peel.

I think back to a single day in a $500 two-bedroom apartment in Buford, Georgia, a girl on the brink of puberty, almost able to speak English because I’d been teaching her, knowing just enough to tell me they’d left her grandmother behind.

I was 21, hadn’t even finished college, had moved back home for my last year as an English major, and had needed a job.  I’d called up my high school principal, also a deacon at my church, who’d told me they’d gotten a grant and asked me if I was interested in teaching.

I hadn’t thought much about teaching, wasn’t getting a teaching certificate, but I’d just completed a course at the Statesboro library on how to teach literacy and thought that his offer might be a place to begin.

My mom was, for the first time in decades, making cornbread in her own kitchen in a basement apartment on the other side of the city.  I was wading through what that meant with my sister, my father, in our house by the lake in Buford.

The town had changed in the few years since I’d left it, and this teaching opportunity was evidence of that. I had graduated with exactly one Latino, and now the elementary and middle schools were over 20 percent non-native speakers, as I learned they were called.

Dijana was one of my middle school students, and she was more than a head taller than the short Mexican girls with long braided hair who sat with me in borrowed classrooms. Dijana was  loud, funny, quick, and Bosnian. She lived with her family in an apartment behind the supermarket near the highway.  That grocery store was called Ingles – Een -gulls, we pronounced it, not having any idea that to many of the immigrant students who were moving into town it meant English, the language I was hoping they might learn.

I didn’t have anyone to tell me whether it was appropriate to accept Dijana’s invitation, but she made it so often, and so convincingly, that eventually I did. I drove into her complex in my red Chevy S-10 pickup and saw several of my students playing in the parking lot, watching their siblings ride second-hand tricycles on the asphalt in the heat.

“Come in,” Dijana’s mother said, and it was soon clear that these were most of the few words of English she’d been able to acquire in the classes she’d squeezed in at the Presbyterian church a few blocks away.

They were Muslim, and thinking back now they were probably the first Muslims I ever encountered, surely the first whose home I’d ever walked into, the first who’d invited me in.

I sat down on the sofa, and it seems now it should have been covered with something, a comforter maybe, or possibly even a clear plastic covering that perfectly fit over the contours of the cushions, the arms,and  the back.  Just like the one my mother-in-law uses to keep the dust off the furniture in their home in Ecuador, it must have squeaked when I sat down.

Drive around I-285, the perimeter that once encircled the whole city of Atlanta, provided some sort of boundary for it, and you’ll see trees, lots, small forests draped with invasive vines. In summer, they make the shoulders of the roads so green you feel a freshness amidst the heavy humidity.  In the winter, such as it is in the South, the brown vines are exposed as creeping and ominous, weaving in and out of branches from the rusty barriers of the highway to the backyards of the nearest homes.

Kudzu is considered a nuisance, and every time we pass a large patch, my father reminds me of his version of its history, claiming it was brought over from Japan to stop erosion and ended up causing more problems than it solved.  He says it is impossible to kill.  You can hack it, burn it, freeze it, trim it back, yet it survives, becoming impenetrable eventually.

It was growing up the wall in Dijana’s family’s apartment, creeping up from floor to ceiling on a series of nails.  Its tendrils were reaching from the black and gold entertainment center to the front window’s sunlight, unstoppable.

I sat on the sofa as hearty smells wafted in from the open door at the far end of the kitchen.  Dijana’s mother was grilling on the fire escape. She had a small, charcoal grill with a red dome top, and she knelt down to reach it, to tend its warm flame.  Halal meat, something I’d only learn about in the years to come working with other refugee families like hers, was charring on the escape route from their second floor home.

A few minutes later, Dijana’s younger sister, who was eight, brought an almost silver tray with a matching set of china out from the kitchen. I thought of my Nana’s china, lost now, whose cups then hung from hooks and whose plates perched on top of box frames around the picture windows in the dining room and kitchen of my parents’ home.  There were two sets, one royal blue and white, sturdier, and the other a delicate bone with pink roses and a gilt trim around the rim.

Dijana’s mother’s china was like that set, with tiny handles you had to pinch between a forefinger and thumb to hold.  I wondered briefly if she’d brought it with her from Bosnia, realized that was ridiculous, impossible in the flight from war. As her sister set the tray down on the black coffee table in front of us, Dijana told me about the house they’d lived in back in Bosnia, she told me about her school, their village, the garden her grandmother had tended behind the small concrete home they’d shared.

“All of it gone,” she said, the four simple words I’d given her perfect for the sentiment she needed to share with me. Just her grandmother had been left, and I wondered how she was surviving without her vegetables.

I looked into the cup, thought of my own grandparents’ land, now fallow with a few of their children’s trailers planted in place of corn, tomatoes, cotton. No need any longer for the nine siblings to start school after the harvest was done.  Like PawPaw and Grannie alive only in our memories, even the farm house is nearly gone. She’d moved out of it back in the seventies when it became unlivable. When the movers broke some of our furniture in our last relocation, I began to long for some of that hard wood so I could build us a sturdy dining room table.

I looked down into that cup that afternoon, and what I saw was something familiar: white bordering on yellow, thick and creamy with edges bubbling up to the lip of the white China cup into which it had been poured.

I saw my mother, her journey out of poverty and into our kitchen and then her own.  I saw Dijana, making her way to my classroom, me making my way to her because my mom had found a way out, if only for a little while, again.

I took a sip, drank down the acrid taste of the buttermilk. I thought of my mother thinking of me growing inside her, taking a breath, and making me strong.

Picture perfect

February 24, 2014

Since I got a smartphone, I’ve taken thousands of pictures. Over the same seven years or so I’ve also spent a lot of time on photo shoots, and I’ve learned a enough about lighting and composition to get a great family holiday photo in a single take. I’ve picked up enough about editing and filters to make backyard snapshots look like something that might go in a magazine. I’m not claiming expertise, just practice and a basic understanding of what it takes to take a good picture.

What’s freed me up to gain some level of skill and confidence is the room to fail. I’m no longer limited to the 24 shots on a roll of 35 millimeter film or the wait time to get them developed before knowing what I’ve got. Gratification, like iteration, is instant.

It isn’t fair to say I got the holiday shot in a single take. There were actually several, with my son and sister as stand-ins on the spiral staircase. I adjusted curtains, scooted the Christmas tree, raised and lowered my iPhone tripod and set the timer at just enough time for me to get back to my spot but not too long that my family couldn’t hold their smiles.

When we were kids, my dad never said, ” Say cheese.” He said, “Say bartsfarkle,” which made us laugh instead of smile. He also seemed to never break out the camera except on Christmas morning, when I was barely awake and none of us had brushed our hair. It’s funny to look through photo albums and see the same pictures over and over again: us surrounded by wrapping paper, curled up in a big green chair or holding a gift up to the camera from the living room floor.

My dad took decent pictures, but whether they were birthday parties or Easter morning, there’s the quality of occasion to all of them. Dressed up or still in our pjs, on vacation or at a piano recital, there was something about the moments that were photographed then that was apart from the rest of our lives, frozen even as they were happening.

We rarely print pictures these days, but there are some photo albums from my post-college era that have captured my daughter’s imagination lately. “Who’s that, Mama?” she asks, pointing at friends and former students whose names I can’t always recall.

She was “Star of the Week” a few weeks back and we were asked to bring photos to put up on the bulletin board of her. I chose pictures of her doing favorite her favorite everyday things: riding a horse at Van Saun Park, hugging our cat, playing in the sprinkler, reading a book. I also chose the classic hands-in-the-birthday cake shot from when she turned one, a moment conceived and constructed for her, as it had been for me, solely for the purpose of taking that photograph.

As I was choosing which images to print and share, I scrolled through more than 3,000 of her and my son, images we’d taken since she was making my belly the size of the pumpkin on the table next to me at the pick-your-own farm. So many of them had been shared with friends on Facebook that I was able to print the ones we needed by logging in to my account from a kiosk at my local CVS. I put them all in an album yesterday, and tonight we sat in the orange chair while she explained to me what each of them was.

I wondered what the ability to document everything in images has done. Are we more likely to capture the everyday? Or have we curated all of our moments into miniature occasions? Are our pictures more reflective of what we experience since we know better how to make the photos in our phones match the snapshots of our memories? Are photos now proxy for memories, or have they always been?

I’m not sure, but tonight I read an article about how shelter pets who have been waiting for forever families for months are getting adopted within hours of a good photo of them being taken and posted online.

It is the same sort of curated authenticity and instant intimacy that is perfected in Instagram feeds and that make us feel like we know the kids of our high school friends, people we haven’t actually seen since graduation. The simple tricks of perspective, backgrounds, tonality – and the freedom to take as many shots as needed to get it right – hold promise beyond perfecting the holiday portrait or portraying the perfect family, and they’re saving animals lives.

As I was putting Nacine to sleep tonight, I told her the story of Rascal, the stray cat we brought in to our basement who had kittens in a laundry basket. Rascal nursed and weaned them and they opened their tiny kitten eyes in a refrigerator box filled with our old sheets and towels and then promptly left our lives the way she’d entered through a screened door. I wondered if I remembered the story itself so vividly or if it was the photos we’d taken of baby Tit-Tat and her brothers and sisters that cemented the memory there so I could share it tonight.

Either way, I think, pictures hold power: to turn moments to memory and memories into moments again.

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What a picture is worth

February 13, 2014

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Last week I heard about Getty’s new Lean in Collection on my local NPR station, WNYC.  I listened to the story about pictures with my communications person hat on, thinking how frustrating it is to try and find good stock images of anything but especially of real people – women, diverse ethnic groups, humans that don’t appear to be androids.  Today  I saw the story again, this time on Buzzfeed, and perhaps because I was seeing a sampling of the photos themselves, the story resonated with me on multiple levels.  Not just as a mom in her thirties with biracial children. And not just as someone who often tries to represent a brand and communicate a message through photography. But also as a person concerned about social issues like women’s rights and how brands and companies address them intentionally and also through their business activities. Here are a few of my takeaways of why this initiative is so great:

  1. The images are visually stunning and fill a void in the marketplace.
  2. The pictures reflect the world as it is, and don’t make a preachy fuss about social change.
  3. The pictures cut across generations, and depending on yours you either see your normal finally depicted or stereotypes you’ve long fought being broken down.
  4. It’s not positioned as an announcement about a partnership or grant funding, but the end product shared with the world as a useful thing.
  5. The publicity isn’t just about promised collaboration but instead informs both the niche of potential users but also manages to matter to everyday women.
  6. It is dead center of what Getty does as a business and addresses a globally relevant social issue.
  7. It is going to make people think AND it will undoubtedly sell more images for Getty.

Manage? Or let go, serve, and lead.

January 25, 2014

My boss used the term “servant leadership” the other day to describe the style he aimed for in leading our team. It’s a phrase I last heard from a pulpit in South Georgia more than a decade ago and never expected to encounter in corporate America, much less on Wall Street where I now work.

He said servant leadership, to him, meant that his whole job is to give us what we need to be the best at what we do. I see him do this, both intentionally and automatically, all the time: always saying “Come in” when I linger at his door, never giving me a solution but instead asking questions until I find one on my own. His style is refreshing, and it motivates me because I know he has my back when I need it, but he also gives me the space I need to do my job well.

A side effect of working for him for the last 8 months is that I’m starting to be more conscious of my own leadership style, and I’m gaining the confidence — in the teams I work with, and critically in myself — to begin to let go and lead.

One of the reasons is a piece of feedback he gave me a couple of months ago that might be the most important I’ve ever gotten. “Sometimes you approach things like you’ve got it all figured out, almost like you believe it would all work much better if there were 20 little Angies running around.” He said it gently, but it is a hard truth. I do.

Instead of leading, I’ve been managing – designing a plan, assigning roles, staying on top of deadlines, ensuring deliverables. The results are good, but they’re exhausting, and more than that, they don’t benefit from the diverse perspectives or full capacity of everyone I’m working with.

What happens when you manage, if you work really hard, is that you end up getting what you expected. But what I’ve been thinking about is what could happen if instead, I started to lead. If I were to know my colleagues’ strengths, build teams and trust, pose problems and ask questions until a solution emerges, then let people own the pieces they’re best at and come up with ideas and results I could never have dreamed.

Last week our team shared an exercise in discovering our styles of influence, taking and examining a diagnostic to evaluate how we orient our thinking and approach our work. I learned a lot about myself, including that I am by nature a delegator (a huge surprise), and even more about the people on our team. The facilitator talked about the energy that is wasted when we have to use “five fingers of effort.” I felt myself unclench my fist and wonder what it would be like to unleash the one finger of effort of all of us instead.

The understanding I gained about how our strengths might be combined to great effect led me to make a conscious shift from managing to leading a project the very next day. The results were dramatic.

When a logistical challenge arose, I asked some colleagues to help. I could have figured out the details of what to do and done it on my own, but it would have put me into overdrive, compromising other projects and creating tension in relationships with others on the team. Instead, I gave capable people a problem to solve that they had the skills and connections to make happen in much less time and more effectively than I ever could have.

A few days later, a small team needed to work together to create and share information and ideas quickly. A process that normally takes days was achieved in minutes because we trusted each other and shared a goal and vision for success. Each of us understood our role clearly, including me – and like my boss I realized that my most important job was to make sure they each had everything they needed to succeed.

This view of leadership seems obvious, and in some ways it is. But only if I stop focusing on myself and look around to see how I can help others. It works, but it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to slow down and really ask what everyone else needs. It isn’t easy to swap my own agenda and ideas for a shared goal and trust that everyone else is doing the same.

But the results are incredible when you do, and you can transform not just the what, but the how of achieving them.

Serving others before self is a lesson I heard often growing up, and one I’m well served to recall. With guidance from my boss, accountability from my peers, and feedback from my team, I am beginning to return to service. And, as I do, I hope to move from getting things done to building things together, and from trying to manage to learning to lead.

Mama

December 14, 2013

Sometimes, it is hard for her to sleep. I’m awakened by the loneliest sound: the name she calls me, Mama. I wait a while, hoping she will turn over on her pillow and close her eyes again, then drift off to sleep. Sometimes it works, but this time, no, it won’t.

I roll out of the sheets-tangle and out of bed. As I take the railing and start walking down the stairs, her “Mama” gets louder. The motion-sensor light pops on, and with the confidence of being able to see where my feet are landing, I tiptoe toward her faster than before.

“Shhh,” I say as I walk in her door. “Shhh, sweetie. Mama’s here.”

In the shadows coming from the skylight over her crib, I see her stand up. She raises her arms toward me and says “Mama” again. All the loneliness is gone from the word, and it’s become the hope and happiness of what she believed would happen all along: I’ve come for her. I wonder if I’ve waited upstairs to give time for this relief to build.

Now I have to decide: do I take her upstairs, which is what she’s asking for — “I want to go with you,” she says, and “you” is a pout that lingers on her lips as she nestles into the crook of my shoulder — or do I sit with her here in her room?

The recliner is there next to her crib for this. But I just got up from it a few hours before. It was just 8:30 (now it’s 1:00) when I sat there trying to accommodate a space for her against me that is mostly no longer there. Her legs wrapped around my waist and into the crevices of the chair. I leaned my neck to either side to make room for her head because her body is now too long.

She fit here before. First she was a little bundle, perfect in the crook of my elbow, nuzzling and nursing until her breathing changed to sleep. The she leaned against me, my chin on her head. The lavender of her wet hair then is the smell of her to me, ever and always.

I decide to sit, knowing getting up will be noisy and lurching. I have to push down on the footrest with my heels and on the arms of the chair with the palms of my hands. It is not a smooth descent and the last bit is likely to wake her.

“Mama?” she says, this time a question. It is a plea like the night I flew out to London and she cried, “Mama, don’t leave me!” as soon as the road to the airport revealed the planes. But I can’t stay here in this chair with her all night any more than I could have stayed in that car.

“Shhh,” I say again. I pat her back through the blanket and footed pajamas that warm her. She settles a bit and I stand. I rock side to side and there is a pang again because she doesn’t quite fit here either and it makes my forearms and my heart both ache. Getting her over the edge of the crib and down onto the mattress on her stomach is the thing I’m not sure I can do without waking her and her “Mama” denouncing my betrayal.

I consider sleepless hours ahead if I bring her up to our bedroom: her head hitting the railroad-tie headboard and her “Mama” ringing with surprise and pain, her foot in my stomach, her arm flung across my husband’s face.

I know it wouldn’t be snuggles and lavender hair all night so I slowly put her down. I tread like a soldier backing out of her room, watching for movement, listening for “Mama” again. I manage to make my way out, miss the creaky floorboard, turn the door handle and pull the door to lightly enough to be silent. Then I realize the cat’s in there under the dust ruffle up against the baseboard where there’s heat.

“Dozy!” I whisper, “Pstpstpst. C’mon.” She does, slinking her narrow black and white body through the crack I’ve made for her and hobbling away on her three legs into the den.

I close the door again and listen on the stairs for my sweet girl. I half regret I didn’t bring her with me; I miss her warm chest against my chest already, and the sound of her breathing is faint from this far away.

“Mama!” I hear her demanding with expectation first thing in the morning. “Come get me, Mama!” The daylight must be coming down through the glass and tree branches above her again.

“Mama’s coming baby,” I call down the hallway to her. “Mama will be right there.

Wall Street Mothers

December 12, 2013

Luz and I have been friends for a decade now, since before we were married, before we were moms, before I left Miami, twice. We had lunch today because she is in town on a business trip, and I smiled as the two of us perched at the bar at Eataly with our coats on the backs of our chairs and our bags at our feet.

Over crudo, sea urchin and pulpo, we caught up on love, work and motherhood and how each of us reconciles them all: watching the men we fell in love with fall in love with our little girls, being that mom who has her son tested by an outside psychologist to make sure he gets into the gifted program, both loving and feeling guilty for traveling the country and even the world for our jobs and leaving the husband alone to take care of the kids. I’m fairly certain that when my husband introduced Luz and I ten years ago he never imagined she and I would be eating in a trendy New York restaurant talking about what it means to be what the New York Times calls a “Wall Street Mother” — and I’d actually be one.

Two of the women interviewed for that story are senior colleagues of mine. They are women I know and admire for their tenacity, intelligence and skill who are a generation ahead of Luz and I and have navigated an industry and a world that is changing. The women before them broke barriers. These women laid groundwork. And that means Luz and I have footing to make choices not just about what we want from our careers but how we organize our working lives.

These women make it work in part by their husbands not working. Luz and her husband have a nanny who has been with them since their first-grader was born and who now cares for their daughter in their house while Luz works from home. I’m remote one day a week, when I can be, and rely on my husband, a professor, to drop off and pick up the kids and most nights make dinner before I get home.

When we met in our twenties, Luz and I were looking ahead at our lives, not yet the wives, mothers, executives, consultants we are today. We were thinking about where we wanted to live, who we hoped to be. We chose our husbands, bought our homes, built our resumes right alongside one another, even when the life I was making took me away from the city where we’d met. Now we’re finishing up our thirties and right in the middle of achieving all we’d dreamed.

As we crept through traffic today I was struck by the comfort I found in sharing stories of our nows with Luz: the glamorous, the meaningful and the mundane. I imagined us a decade from now perched owllike in our forties: looking around at our own careers at their pinnacles, looking ahead more for our children than ourselves, and glancing behind at the amazing women we’ve managed to become.

Harmony

December 12, 2013

Close the book quietly.  Slide it in the wood pocket on the back of the seat in front of you, the pew. You stand.  You sing. You sit.  A plate is passed and a child looks up at his father, who reaches for his wallet, pulls out a dollar. It all happens just in time for the boy to be the one to drop it on the velvet bottom of the plate and pass it to the next person, small fingers gripping the metal that holds his offering in both hands.

You look on with the person standing next to you: sometimes because there are more people there than hymnals, sometimes because you are together, here, impossibly. It is the only time he’s really heard you sing, so you wonder how your voice sounds to him, though he hears your voice every day. He is not singing along, but you see his lips moving, his eyes searching for what comes next. None of this is as familiar as it is to you. You point. You run your finger under the third line of text on each stanza of the song as you sing. You look up and know he’s seeing for the first time words you know by heart.

___

You are 15 and yours is the only white face among a hundred shades of brown. You have found a way to sing that comes not from your mouth, your lips, your teeth or even your throat, your lungs, your diaphragm. You have become the song. All of the notes are pieces of you that you give to the room. There is no hymnal. Notes are the height of a hand and the length of an arm extended. Held. The song is all of you and you resonate with the echoes of every woman around you who is swaying with you and holding up the woman in front of you.  She is the offering, her clear lines piercing through the words you have all become and making you one.

_

She is more than one, less than two. Your daughter: discovering melody, words, rhythm, all of it, and tonight she doesn’t want to sleep. She is in your arms, outside of you this bright girl who began within you, and for a moment once again she is not apart. Her body is long against yours, and her ear is on your shoulder. Her eyes are locked on yours when they can stay open, and both of you are singing the alphabet; it makes up the words that make meaning of everything.

For  a while you lost your sense of the sacred. But now it is an offering rushing back on you like a wave. It is as if the water that is outside of you is remembering that you are water, too.

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