Remember: A Poem by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Reflection: What We’ve Forgotten by Rev. Jessica Steward
I have a confession. Something that has haunted me for years.
Are you ready?
I didn’t go to Kindergarten or to 5th grade.
I know. I know.
It doesn’t seem like it would matter.
And it doesn’t.
But for some reason, it left my Grandma Elsie, my maternal grandmother, completely and utterly disappointed in my mother.
Did I go to a small, hands-on daycare from the ages of 3-5? Yes I did. Did I test out of Kindergarten as a result? Also yes. Did it matter to my grandmother? Absolutely not.
Did I travel to Europe with my mother during my 5th grade year? Yes. Did my mom have me complete boring 5th grade-level workbooks in between exploring ancient churches, memorizing the history of the English Monarchy, while also reading Agatha Christie novels and playing with my Barbies? Also yes. Did I then return to school and test into 6th grade without any issues? Of course I did. Did my grandmother care? Of course not.
When my mother was ill, she was in the hospital one time receiving a platelet transfusion and my Grandma Elsie went to visit her. My mom’s nurse came in and my grandmother got to chatting with her and somehow found out that this nurse had a child in Kindergarten. Looking very pointedly at my mother, my grandmother said “Oh wonderful! Kindergarten is sooooo important to a child’s development.” In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, my grandma felt that somehow my development was deficient because I skipped Kindergarten.
It’s silly, of course. I have never felt any sense of yearning or grief over missing Kindergarten. And while I did have a really hard time leaving my home and traveling around the US and Europe during my fifth grade school year, I don’t feel I missed anything important in 5th grade itself and certainly wouldn’t change anything about that experience if I had the chance.
But for my grandmother, in her very limited view and experience, there was only one way to raise a healthy child—and apparently it involved Kindergarten and 5th grade.
It honestly doesn’t surprise me. My grandmother was truly a product of her time. She was born in 1923 and grew up during a time of incredible and rapid national transformation. Between the social and economic forces of the Great Depression and World War II, she was witness to the formation of the American Middle Class and fed these wholesome images of the great American Dream. Up until her birth, roles for women in her socioeconomic class had been limited to those of mother, homemaker, and community service provider. But with the Suffrage movement, the 1935 New Deal, and World War II, the opportunities for white women in particular to work outside the home and to work in fields previously only accessible to men began to rapidly increase.
And yet during this time of rapid socioeconomic change, my grandmother also entered into what I consider to be an age of incredible paradox for women. Sure, a woman was allowed to participate more readily in the workforce and to contribute to her family’s economic wealth. And sure. A woman could vote and attend medical school more easily, and when there was a labor shortage, she could successfully work the factory line instead of being restricted to back-office secretarial work. But this national perception of increasing social and political freedom and equality for women when juxtaposed with the very real ongoing expectations and responsibilities of mother, homemaker, and community service provider—while also still relying on the men in her life for permission to, well, live—only deepened a woman’s sense of feeling trapped in a prison of impossibility, even though it was all presented under the guise of equality and freedom for her.
The grim realities of the American Dream for a woman at that time were pervasive. She was still paid a fraction of what her male counterparts were making. She was still denigrated as being the fairer sex and called sweetie and honey and sexually harassed and diminished in her daily life. Her proficiency and excellence in any field she entered would still be overlooked in favor of the mediocre white man. She still needed permission to open up a line of credit or get a bank loan. She was still expected to care for the children, manage the household, tend to the physical and emotional well-being of her family, and still find time to volunteer for the PTA. And of course, this speaks nothing to the horrific realities of any man or woman of color, anyone who was gay, trans, or non-binary or anyone who in anyway didn’t fit the white, cis-gendered, hetero-normative American ideal. So as you can imagine, any deviation from the norm would have been a risky proposition for the burgeoning yet tenuous opportunities for women. In my grandmother’s mind, Kindergarten and 5th grade were all part of that path to ensuring my success as a woman.
Recently, I was going through a box of photos and memorabilia that I inherited from my Grandma Elsie after her death in 2004. In it I found a scrapbook that she started in high school in the 1930s and that she continued to add to off and on throughout the 1940s and 50s. Each item was some achievement—a moment, a milestone, a memory that was precious to her as a young woman, a new wife, a young mother. In fact this box was filled with these precious mementos—photos of her grinning at her wedding as a 21-year-old bride. My mom’s baby book. The original wedding certificate of her mother and stepfather from their 1926 wedding. I was moved by the nostalgia of it, overwhelmed by the history that this box held of a woman I loved in spite of her concerns for my educational failings.
But I was also struck by something deeper—a starker reality, if you will: I realized how few of these things really told the truth and the totality of my grandmother and her life, and the truth of who she could have been if her opportunities and the system she had been born into had been different. Looking at this scrapbook, these photos, these momentos, I felt like I was getting a carefully curated version of my grandmother through the lens of societal expectations instead of the strong, intelligent, grieving yet resilient, and highly complex woman I knew her to be. At that moment, I was left wondering if in fact my grandmother even knew the truth of herself, her dreams, and her hopes for her life outside the confines of culture and society.
The truth is that my grandmother was born into a system that needed her to forget who she was or that her voice mattered. It needed her to forget that her dreams mattered because this country—this world—and its systems and institutions rely on free labor and compliant workers to make sure the ruthless gears of capitalism can continue to grind out money for giant corporations and the wealthy upper class.
From the moment my grandmother was born, she began receiving confusing and conflicting messages from her society, her community, her church, and her family that demanded both her obedience and yet also her authority as a woman. Messages that told her that her “freedom” required her autonomy from the very systems that she was also utterly reliant upon. Messages that spoke to her of opportunities for independence and growth while also forcing her to carry the mental, emotional, and manual load for her entire family.
From the moment my grandmother was born, we slowly began forcing her to forget her fire. Her wildness. We slowly began teaching her the limitations of her dreams. We slowly began taming her, reducing her life to these culturally-mandated achievements in order to lull her into a false sense of equality and freedom. All for an American dream that was never really available to her.
Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen incredible advancements in technology and its post-industrial impact on our economy. We’ve witnessed amazing breakthroughs in science and medicine—in our understanding of the human body and the human brain, in diseases and disorders. We’ve seen more and more opportunities for anyone other than white men to participate in our economy and in politics. Yes. It’s true. And yet our political, economic, and social systems and policies have failed to keep pace with our rapidly changing world. In fact, as we’ve seen in the past few months, many of these systems and policies are regressing in significant and terrifying ways. And, as a result, many of these rapid and mind-bending technological advancements come at a great cost to our planet and ultimately to our humanity.
My grandmother was a product of her time and, in spite of 100 years of advancements, I’m not sure the times have changed all that much for the better. Because for the past 100 years, we’ve been building on top of a fundamentally broken system. A system that relies on the oppression of others in favor of the freedom for a few. A system that has been in place not for decades, not for centuries, but for millennia. For millennia, we have been taming the wildness of the human spirit in the name of progress, but progress only for a few. For millennia, we have been twisting revolutionary and radical ideas of love and equality and inherent goodness into ones of obedience and subservience and original sin. For millennia, we have been quietly and deliberately indoctrinated into the roles, responsibilities, expectations, and beliefs of the dominant culture, forced to forget ourselves, the truth of our lives, the power of our voices, the importance of our dreams in order to maintain the broken systems that oppress the many in order to serve the few.
We are at an incredible turning point in our history.
The American Middle Class is disappearing, as the social and economic divide between the “haves and have nots” continues to widen and deepen. For more than a century, the American dream has been held in escrow by American Capitalism, hoping that we’d forget to come collect on a promise they never intended on fulfilling. In fact, our culture, our society, relies on us to continue forgetting. To continue to stay busy and distracted, to keep our heads down and work hard for a dream that is no longer achievable, to accept the broken institutions and systems that perpetuate our own oppression in order for them to maintain their own power and wealth.
But the problem for American Capitalism is that we can’t ever really forget. The resilience, strength, and fortitude of our ancestors is encoded in our DNA, made manifest in our flesh. Their hopes and dreams run through our veins. We are the living, breathing embodiment of a future that can never be forgotten.
Our collective freedom—the future our ancestors dreamed for us—begins not with dismantling the external institutions and systems that facilitate our own oppression but rather with the deliberate dismantling of those systems of oppression that live within us. The internalized messages and beliefs that tell us that our dreams require us to change who we are in order to become acceptable in a world where we are not rather than creating a world where who we are and what we dream of is acceptable exactly as it is.
And while the task at hand may feel enormous, the best first thing we can do now is to remember.
To remember our wildness before they tried to tame us.
To remember the power of our voices before they tried to silence us.
To remember the strength and beauty of our connection before they tried to separate us.
And to remember our joy before they tried to break us not realizing that we cannot be broken at all.
My Grandma Elsie experienced enormous loss in her life. She buried her father, her mother, and stepfather by the time she was 11. She buried her husband when she was 50. And she buried 3 children before she herself died at age 80. Moments after my mom died, I could not get out of that tomb of a hospital room fast enough, and so I fled from there, as my grandma chased down the hall after me. She ushered me into a small lounge on the oncology floor and I sat there, heaving and shaking like a wild animal, not wanting to be there with her at all.
“I can’t handle this. I can’t handle this. How do you do this?” I chanted it over and over like a mantra. It was then that she turned to me and fiercely grabbed me by the shoulders and told me that I could handle this. That I could do this. That it would be the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life but that I could do it. That there was no other option. As I forced myself to look at her then, I realized that I hadn’t just lost my mother but that she had lost her daughter. And not just a daughter. Because if I looked long enough at her face, I could see a map of all her losses etched in the lines she wore there. I realize now that she wasn’t just telling me that I had the courage and strength to continue on. No. She was reassuring herself, once again that she had the fortitude to endure here.
When I remember that moment now, I realize that it is probably one of the most intimate moments I ever shared with my Grandma. One of the few times that I ever got to see the truth of her and who she really was outside of her carefully-managed life. And I realize now that I am born of this stuff, this moxie, this fiery fortitude that my grandmother compounded in the mortar and pestle of her own life. When life seemed to grind away at her spirit, to burn down the joy in her life, she found that she was made of sturdier stuff. She turned that ash into a garden and grew hope from it. A hope she gave to me as her legacy—a hope I will always remember so that as I move forward with what sometimes feels like an impossible mission—to be a mighty kindness in this world—I never again forget where I came from and what I’m made of and why I’m here, even if I didn’t go to Kindergarten or 5th grade.
This reflection was offered live in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging—on Sunday, October 16, 2022.