Carol A. Hand
Where we stand at any given moment affects what we see. It’s a simple common sense maxim that we often lose sight of in our everyday lives. If I look at my garden closely, I see all of the things that I didn’t plant (“weeds”) crowding out the things I had deliberately placed.
Photo: Peonies and Weeds – August 2015
If my vantage point is a little distance, the “weeds” are less visible, but because the plants have grown so densely and tall, I can only see the plants that are closest to me.
Photo: Flower Gardens – August 2015
It is only when I have a distant vantage point above that I am able to see larger patterns.
Photo: Gardens – September 2015
Although we can see the patterns from above, we lose the details that help us tend the gardens to keep them healthy.
Our lives are like that too. Both the details and patterns are important. The poem I posted yesterday about a childhood memory is but one detail that is nested within the histories of peoples and nations over the course of generations. One question that follows is “why would an Ojibwe woman feel that her only alternative to escape abuse by her husband was to hop on a train at night with her two little children?” Another is “why would she return and suffer even greater abuse – standing as a silent powerless witness as her children offered themselves up to deflect or accept abuse as her proxies?” The answer is deceptively simple. She was socialized to accept her place in society, as were her ancestors before her. And all the institutions of that society operated to keep them there.
She accepted her place in her aunt’s family as the beholden servant. What other options were there for a child whose mother gave her away to a sister when she was only two weeks old? She internalized the messages of the Catholic Indian boarding school where she spent at least several years of her childhood. She was inferior to whites, but better than other Indians because she was diligent and docile. And heartbroken over the loss of her fiancée, an Ojibwe pilot killed in action in WWII, she married the charming, handsome Anglo-American marine from New Jersey who courted her and promised her the world. Although it wasn’t what she had envisioned, she made the best of her situation. An unwanted child who really didn’t fit in either Ojibwe or Euro-American culture.
A hopeless situation except for serendipity.
The wife of a wealthy resort owner who had grown up poor herself decided to help my mother go to school, paying all of her expenses at Loyola University so she could become a Registered Nurse. My mother became a gifted healer who would, in later years, be instrumental in the creation of the healthcare clinic on her reservation. Few knew the suffering she endured to get there.
I doubt that she ever really saw the larger pattern of her life. She merely lived it by attending to the details day to day. But I had to learn to see the larger patterns in order to survive. My mother couldn’t really help me bear the weight of the promise I made when I was a child of four to protect her from abuse. I had to protect my own tender empathetic heart by learning and questioning everything I could – by thinking critically about the institutions that were meant to keep me in my place. I learned to pay more attention to the patterns from my vantage point on the margins than I did to the details.
It would be many decades before I would have words to describe this perspective – standpoint theory and strong objectivity. It’s reasonable to acknowledge the trustworthiness of a theory that asserts that where we stand in the social hierarchy affects what we see and how we experience the world. As a qualitative researcher, a woman of mixed ancestry, and now an elder, I find the notion of strong objectivity appealing as well.
“Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize. Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within. The status quo representing the dominant white male position of privilege.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Photo: Duluth Shore of Lake Superior – Summer 2010 (photographer Jnana Hand)
As I look at the larger patterns in my life, I realize that it’s important for me to share knowledge from the heart as well as from the intellect in words that are clear and simple. Lately, I’ve given some thought to the question “why do I write?” I write to share the simple things I’ve learned in hopes that it will help others. I follow my mother’s footsteps, not as a healer of bodies (I grow faint at the sight of blood), but as someone who sees the beauty in others even in times of adversity. I hope to be a mirror that reflects back the beauty I see in others so they can see it in themselves.
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