I’m only recently back from a 3 week trip to Belfast, and as is often the case when one returns from a vacation (of sorts), I’ve been asked by friends, family, acquaintances, and workmates what I did while I was away. So I discuss–or attempt to discuss, as the case may be–exactly what I did. And about 9.999 times out of 10, the person I am talking to stares off into the distance, their eyes glaze over, and they blink repeatedly. And say nothing. No questions, no polite, “oh wow that’s really interesting”–usually no reaction at all. It’s usually something circumstantial that breaks us out of that temporary standstill, like if I’m at work one of us has to leave suddenly to do something, or if I’m at a restaurant the server comes over and fills up the water and then suddenly there’s the exit we’ve both been waiting for. “Is it supposed to rain today?”
I know it’s not me. I’m certainly not a confrontational person, nor am I inclined to boast about much of anything. This sort of thing has happened before though. When I first got to graduate school, I can’t tell you how many parties, events, or classroom settings in which I found myself discussing what I had been doing before I came to school. I’m in an environmental program, so most if not all of my fellow students had worked in the field or a related one prior to coming to UM. I did what I’ve pretty much always done; I had a job that would pay my bills and then I used my “free time” to do important political work.
Before grad school I was a volunteer caseworker at Centurion Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey. CM is an independent investigative agency that works to get innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of rape and murder out of prison. It remains the most meaningful, powerful, and inspiring work I’ve ever done. The most incredible stories of the most amazing, strong, determined, thankful people you’ll ever meet. I could go on…
So this was the story I would tell when it was my turn to share where I had been before Michigan. The response? The same far-off stares, the same glazed over eyes and the same flutter of the eyelids. (Are there wheels turning in there…or does the brain work overtime so that you do not process my words?!) I remember only one person in my program who ever engaged me in a conversation about this.
And so I came to the conclusion that the idea of people being wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes and left to rot in prison was something that was just so far out of the frame of (white, middle class) reference of these people that they literally had no idea how to respond. Or that their minds were working so hard to NOT process what I had said (please don’t mess with my rosy pink worldview), to not have to think about how folks live outside the bubble that their gears just momentarily stopped shifting (hence the glazed over, fluttering eyes) until the subject changed and they were safe.
Come on, people–do you really need to know someone personally who is in jail to acknowledge that this is a serious issue? Perhaps even a bit more pressing than paper vs. plastic? So much for your understanding of NIMBY-ism (that’s Not In My Back Yard–and guess what people, it applies to more than dumping). But I digress.
So when I get back from a place like Belfast and you ask me what I did and I begin to tell you and I see your eyes begin to glaze over, I’ll probably assume you just want to hear about all the Guinness I drank, or about how fucked up I got, or if I went to any shows or sweet parties. Since I don’t expect you to be fully informed (or even well-informed–or informed!) about the conflict or the peace process (and your eyes tell me you’re not interested in politics), I’ll probably just tell you about the time I went to Dundalk for the night with a bunch of really great ladies to go to the dog races (of all things!), how we started drinking on the bus on the way down, went to the disco (my boobs popped out of my dress, several times, and Linda ended up on the floor trying to recreate a scene during that song from Dirty Dancing).
But boy will you be missing out, because I won’t tell you about the experiences I had that really touched me. I won’t tell you about the afternoon in the park, eating ice cream cones with my friend, who is struggling for justice for his murdered son, a victim of collusion; about how he reminisced about his childhood, talked about his kids and grandchildren, how we literally stopped to smell the roses. About how his story is unfortunately one of many. This is a place where people are carrying so much pain, but at the same time it’s also a place that bubbles over with humor, hospitality, and humanity. It’s too near, too close to me, and I’m tired of sharing with people who choose to numb their minds to reality (and it is a choice). So I won’t tell you about the community organizations that I worked with, and will continue to work with. I won’t tell you about the amazing, inspiring people I met, how the potential I see fills me with hope. You won’t even come close to understanding why I might be so drawn to this community, with its painful past so close to the surface as it struggles to make the small portion of the earth that it occupies a better, safer, inclusive and sustainable place.
A word of advice: don’t ask if you really don’t want to know. Or at least be polite and say something if I tell you and you decide you don’t really want to know. But from where I stand, you’re missing out.