Where do I come from? Where to start? The Big Bang? My relationship with my mother? The failure of my first marriage over thirty years ago? My professional achievements? My most recent health crisis or act of dissent? So many options! I want to speak of my grandmother.
All of us cousins called her Nonny. The last time I saw her before her open-casket funeral was at the nursing home in Milwaukee. This was the early 2000s, my son Eli would have been a toddler. The attendant who wheeled her into the common room told her, Your grandson is here to visit with you, Liz, then parked the wheelchair next to me and left us alone. I was scared. Would she know me? Was it a good day or a bad day? I started talking nervously about the weather, the season, what was going on outside the window. Nonny, I said, guess what. I moved to the country. And then, as if arriving suddenly from far away, she looked up at me and drawled out the words: Smart, she said, smart. I knew that the joys of living in the country was something we shared deeply in our bones. It felt great to get her approval.
Now that she saw me she remembered I was a teacher. Nonny loved learning, read all the time, left school after eighth grade. You're teaching, she said, half statement, half question. Yes, I'm a professor now. Unimpressed, she asked me what I was teaching, and I said glibly, Well, I'm trying to help tear down the system. Her eyes got real squinty then, and they widened and cleared as she looked up at me with the firm authority of elderhood, You mean build it up! She was insistent, and that was the end of that.
Most days my grandmother didn't know her own name, her children or grandchildren's faces (there were dozens of us), the season, the current President (she often spoke of Lincoln), or how long ago her husband had passed (it had been 30 years). But at the mere mention of tearing something down, the response from my grandmother was adamant and sure: Sonny, she said, you need to build it up.
This is elder wisdom, and I honor it in gratitude for my grandmother, born Elizabeth Kehl Ochs, in Hrastovac, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia, formerly Yugoslavia), 1914. The forces of war, ethnic hostility, and poverty pushed her extended family to immigrate to the US in 1921 for a better life. Liz came of age during the Great Depression in my homeland of southern Wisconsin. She married George Teicher, my grandfather, who was born in a house for unwed mothers in Milwaukee, 1912. Together they and raised seven children on George's blue-collar wages, and Nonny's grit and positivity.
We cousins called George's mom, our great grandmother, Gramsy. Her name was Pearl Barry, daughter of Irish immigrants who were so poor that, when Pearl's mother died, her father split up the kids, stuck Pearl in an orphanage, and disappeared. I know all this because Nonny wrote an unpublished memoir before Alzheimer's, and I'm reading in it again as I type. All I know about George's biological father is that he was a Frenchman named Jacque Du Fraune, and that he, too, abandoned Pearl, maybe even raped her. Eventually she found a man, Ed Teicher, to take care of her and her son. Their marriage, according to Nonny's memoir, was more business arrangement than love story.
This brief sketch of one side of my family tree goes back a little more than one hundred years—a blip in the deep time of anyone's lineage—but I hope it conveys a sense that stories of origins, for many of us, are complex and full of blind alleys. I've purposely focused a few generations back, leapfrogging over my own parents, to show some of the social forces that led, eventually, to their unlikely meeting. I am the great, great grandson of a poor immigrant Irishman who abandoned his daughter, who herself was later impregnated by Frenchman who got what he wanted and left. If it wasn't for these two shady characters, I wouldn't be here.
Everyone is born into a particular landscape of possibility that is shaped by the powerful forces of time, place, and circumstance. Perhaps the greatest respect we can have of anyone is not to assume we know who they are. This pithy wisdom, which I borrowed from a book I'm reading about Joanna Macy, might also be applied to what is called self-knowledge. Everything is contingent and in flux, including how we experience each other and ourselves.
Of course, all of our lives unfold in larger cultural contexts that we either learn to see and name, or learn to take for granted and ignore. Some people's lives, for example, are surrounded by the privileges and opportunities they were born into, and that are reinforced by the social structures of a particular place and time. Other people are excluded from those same opportunities and are put down and held back or killed in that same social structure. White, male, middle-age, middle-class, hetero, able-bodied—I was born into a world of privilege. One of the most important lessons of my life has been to slowly make more visible to myself that "invisible knapsack" of privileges I was born with, and then to use that self-knowledge to see the world differently and to change it.
In my work in education, I have seen how confronting the question of privilege can transform people's lives for the better. I have also seen how calling out privilege, and critiquing it, can close, rather than open, spaces for learning and change. Critique is important work, but another life lesson has been to witness how the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Refining the rhetoric of critique and aiming it at others is always inadequate. Tearing things down has its place, but for most of us, this is mainly figurative language. You can't, for example, tear down racism, classism, ableism, and sexism. In actual practice, the old ways are remarkably resistant until new ways take root. Nonny said it: if we want change, we've got to build things up.
Where do we start? Wrong question. The right question is always where do I start. And the answer is always right here, right now. The onus is on me to begin. I found out pretty quick that I can't act alone. A "beloved community" was what Dr. King called those I want to surround myself with. That's what I'm after.