Reflections on life and music.
Growing up my sisters and I would spend summer days roaming the neighborhoods on our bikes, heading home when the street lights started to buzz or my dad whistled with his index fingers.
Then when I was around 8 or 9, my parents gave each of us a dog tag bracelet. It was a shiny piece of rectangular metal, on which was inscribed our home address and telephone number. We wore these around our skinny suntanned wrists.
I don’t remember being given an explanation. I don’t remember asking for one either. I assumed it was in case I kicked the bucket. (Even in death it’s good to be useful, or at least considerate of your first responders.)
When school was back in session the metal tag proved to have upsides. My peers assumed I was diabetic or allergic to bees. I let them think this for a while because it was nice to see their look of concern and soak up sympathy. I imagined them realizing in their heart of hearts that they’d taken my presence for granted. But never again. The school lunch room would be my new kingdom. Here, Aaron, sit by me. No, Aaron, over here by me. You can have my chicken nuggets.
The tag was useful for other purposes. Slouching in my homeroom desk, I could fidget the tag when I grew bored. I’d flip it over and back again. I’d twist it around until it pinched my arm hairs. I was a dog with its favorite chew toy.
Some 30 years later it occurred to me that my parents bought the identity tags shortly after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. Jacob Wetterling lived in a similar small town not all that far from mine. He and his friends were roaming on their bikes, much like my sisters and I would. He got in a car with a stranger and was never heard from again. I remember seeing his school picture on the back of the milk carton. He was on the bulletin board at Dairy Queen. I remember eating an Oreo Blizzard and thinking he looked like my friend’s older brother.
Buying identity bracelets was probably my parents way of braving a new world. Until Jacob Wetterling, peddling your Huffy bike unsupervised all day was childhood 101 in a small town. But times change, the world gets meaner in some ways (kinder in some ways, too). Parents are left with the hard task of figuring out how to extend the proverbial playpen.
I don’t remember when I didn’t wear the bracelet anymore. It’s one of those memories that’s hard to pinpoint, like trying to remember the last time your mother held your hand while crossing the street One day she just didn’t anymore. But looking back, you’re thankful to be on the other side.
And I wonder if someday our kids will remember this time in the same way. Maybe they’ll come across a picture of themselves wearing a mask, or they’ll be driving (flying?) the car and something will cue a memory: masking a stuffed animal or pretending to be a robber.
It’s likely they won’t remember the last time you put the mask on them. I bet, though, they’ll understand you were a parent trying your best to brave a new world.
Most of you (on my email list/blog readers) are a lot like me. Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent. Let me ask you something. Do you know what lefse is? If you answered no, this particular post is not directed to you so much as it is to my fellow potato-farming brethren.
We Midwest Scandinavians like a little discomfort. Physical discomfort, that is. To us, a little pain is like an old friend. It’s the reason we keep our thermostats set to 60 in the dead of winter. It’s the reason I haven’t seen a doctor for this ache in my knee. The reason my dad didn’t admit he was pretty much deaf until he was in his 60s. A little struggle feels good. Discomfort keeps us honest and humble…or something.
Emotional discomfort, though? That’s something entirely different.
We Scandinavians don’t like to talk about our feelings. It probably has something to do with our Viking ancestors. Maybe they threw kids overboard into the icy waters for admitting they felt a weird sensation in their chest after getting picked last in gym class.
While running away from our feelings was likely an important part of survival back then, I think it’s the opposite today. If we want to survive in today’s world we have to deal with our feelings. Life is too complex. The information we process and issues we face. Racism and discrimination, for example. And if just saying that made you squirm a little then that’s what I’m talking about.
It’s why I’ve begun to think about being uncomfortable internally in the same way I’m comfortable being uncomfortable externally (it makes sense, you just might have to read it twice). If I treat my emotional discomfort the same as this pain in my knee, or like keeping the thermostat set to 60 in January, it prevents me from running off into the woods and living alone as a hermit. Essentially, it helps me engage in conversations — mostly just listening — where I feel ignorant and am afraid of looking stupid or even worse, racist or un “woke” and all that stuff.
Why do this? Because it’s the first step for me to get to the next step. And that step might lead to another step, which leads to more steps. One step might be me posting on my blog about Scandinavians and racism (you think my Midwest self really wanted to do this?).
If you’re feeling like me, you might try thinking about that mess in your chest and brain a little differently. Here, practice by watching this short video. I love the title, because it tells you right out of the gate to expect to feel awkward inside. Let that be a sign you’re on the right track.
Watch the video here:
Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man
I didn’t feel right about posting a secret song yesterday. I also don’t feel right about saying much. Partly because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong things. But also because I’m listening and processing. It feels like I will be (and should be) for the rest of my life.
I’ll just share one anecdote. Because I can’t stop thinking about how wrong I was. It’s about someone close to me. I’ll call him James, for privacy.
One day it was brought up in conversation that James never puts his hands in his pockets. Early on, his dad broke the habit, teaching him to always have his hands visible.
It wasn’t because James’s dad thought it was more polite or proper to have your hands out of your pockets.
It was because James is black. His dad worried James might someday be mistaken for a man pulling out a weapon. Simply because his hands were in his pockets. Simply because he is black.
When I first heard that story, I’m ashamed to say, I thought his father had been drastic. That at best he was overly worried. And at worst possibly paranoid. But I don’t think that anymore.
I was wrong, and I’m sorry.
Please let there be more love and justice, compassion and equality, and may we have the courage of our convictions in this important moment in history.