Yesterday, I went to hear a panel discussion which opened the "Beyond Our Beginnings: Women Writers from Lower and Working Class Backgrounds" at Vanderbilt. Joy Castro, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Heather Sellers, Dorothy Allison and Minton Sparks participated.
When I saw this listed in Sunday's paper, I was drawn to it. I thought about who I could take with me and emailed my friend Paige, who is a writer and community organizer for Mother's Acting Up. She has a toddler and couldn't make the timing work, so I went by myself.
I'm giving myself props for going. I feel so out of place at events at universities. First of all, most everyone knows most everyone else and I never know anyone and wind up standing around like a wallflower. (I do attempt to make conversation but people are tolerantly polite until the person they're meeting shows up and then I'm forgotten.) Secondly, I feel totally out of my element. I barely made it out of high school and never felt any inclination to pursue any higher formal education (and self-education doesn't count for much in that environment). I've been a stay-at-home mom for most of my adult life. Yeah, now I work for a university in an interesting job which allows me to "pass" for one of them, but I always get "caught" when asked "Oh how interesting. Did you study sociology?"
The funny thing is that this was a group of women who all, in one way or another, probably know very much how I was feeling about passing. They all came from families in which they were the first to "escape" or get beyond their raising, the first to go to college and work in some capacity that wasn't manual labor. If I had had the foundation to establish actual conversation (rather than small talk), I'm sure I could have found much in common with many of them. But an hour's worth of panel discussion does not allow for depth.
As I rode there on my scooter, I thought about how coming from the background I do has made me a much more creative and engaged person than I probably otherwise would have been. I'm an ideas person. Often, I'm not even aware that I'm supposed to be in a box that others struggle to think outside of. In many ways, I think I see culture from an outsider's perspective, noticing what works well and is good, what things are dysfunctional and which ones are neutral. There are many, many things about our culture, of course, which I've internalized and never considered that I should become aware of and examine, but I think I have more perspective than most folks in our society because of my upbringing and background. I feel grateful, now, for my parent's lifestyle choices during my childhood (most of them, anyway).
The thought that I left with which is still resonating with me is to speak up, tell our stories, speak our truths. All of the women are story-tellers whether via fiction, essay, memoir, spoken word or short story, each of the women on the panel (and most of the audience, I imagine) tells her own story. Someone asked what the repercussion were of writing about family and each panelist said that it was absolutely necessary although very frightening at first, but came to be healing for all those affected by the stories (characters and readers alike). Telling our stories is owning our lives and saying that our voices, our experiences, our lives are as important and valid as those who comprise the dominant culture--and oftentimes much, much more entertaining.
Coming from where I did, I have a unique perspective which enriches the lives of others. I have a loud voice and the strength and creativity to catalyze change for the better in my world. I feel strongly that inviting people from a broad spectrum of society to worship with us at NFM will enrich our spiritual community: They will each bring new ways of seeing the world, helping us move outside of our narrow culturally dictated paradigm (comfort zone). The changes they will bring will not always be easy or comfortable but, if we allow Spirit to open our hearts and guide us through the changes, they will make us a better community.