Greater Than The Sum of The Parts – Intellectual Biography

Author’s Note: August, I returned to University to give one more try at securing a degree. The advanced course focused on Interdisciplinarity with an emphasis on globalization. Below was one of two final projects. Although originally written in APA formatting, WordPress is a bit weird. References are at the end.

GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS

“I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.” ~Sonia Sotomayor

Since childhood, if a quote spoke to me, inspired me, I wrote it down. In careful script or block lettering, the quote would be transcribed from high school notebooks to Moleskine journals, carted from dormitories to homes, displayed on desks, shelves, and bedsides. They represented the aspirational me, and reminded me how often I failed to achieve an iota of my dreams. The past year, they collected dust upon a lower corner shelf, hidden by a couch, forgotten, because I was lost.

Then someone gave me a challenge to review my life from a distance. Create an “Intellectual Biography” that explored the themes of upbringing, schooling, worldview, and interdisciplinarity. By examining these instances that molded and crafted me,  echoed in the silence, and shouted amid the crowds, I will better understand who I am and my place in this world.

Upbringing

“Are you going to come quietly, or do I have to use ear plugs?” ~Spike Milligan

My father turned 97 on August 20th of this year. His six children traveled from the far-flung reaches of this world to descend upon a blistering-hot week in our hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Giving the old man a good taHOOT-taHOO! meant we would, for one solid week, put aside our strong individualism, and pretend to be a close-knit, loving family. We are not good at this. Hugging is tolerated. Heart-to-heart discussions avoided. Most dinner table chats are tinged with sarcasm and pointed passive-aggressive barbs that would please the playwright Harold Pinter. That we made it through a week without running from the room in tears, stewing in the corner, or being disowned demonstrated our strong upbringing, affirming both mother and father of a job well done.

Being an independent human in a religious family of six children meant that I was constantly in conflict. Will over docility. Rules over exploration. I never recovered. 

I am an unrepentant individualist who wears the kindest aspects that Christianity weaves.

When people ask me where I fall in the line-up, my response is, “I am the youngest of six and an only child.” The closest sibling is more than seven years older than I am and, at the time of my birth, was completely disinterested in giving up his place on the roster.

By the time Tom was eight-years-old, he was out raising hell, and, as my mother would say with pride, “kicking in doors”. He didn’t have much time for a runny-nosed, little twerp of a sister. All the other siblings were either in high school or college. That meant I knew I had older brothers and sisters, but because of their natural absence, their influence was a whisper during my childhood.

Early on, I was left alone and learned how to be self-reliant. I cooked my meals by the time I was four. At six, I got myself to school and let myself back in, a turn-key child before that was even coined. I could wash and iron my clothes by seven. Most of my dreamy afternoons were fueled by imagination, reading thousands of books, annual trods through the magical world of Middle Earth, and listening to an old 78-record player spin Boogie-woogie. I thought it idyllic in every way.

My character is the collection of esoteric conflicts that could only nurture an independent spirit. I am from Tulsa, Oklahoma, considered to be Southern by the Northerners and Northern by the Southerners. We are neither West, Southwest, or Midwest, and we are certainly neither coast. Frankly, we are the bastard child that no one wishes to claim. We are Other and, in writing this, I have discovered from where my persistent and propelling need to only follow the beat of my drum comes.

My parents were part of what was known as The Greatest Generation. That generation fought in World War II, came home, found jobs, started families, and attended church. Their ideals promoted personal responsibility, humility, frugality, work ethic, and faithful commitment. Each of these was the daily lessons of my youth. By age three, a weekly ritual of tithing half my allowance and stowing the other half into a piggy bank was a requirement. To display my humility, by five, I learned how to subvert my need for attention by readily saying I’m sorry, please and thank you, and sitting quietly in a room full of adults. I was put to work in my grandfather’s law office at ten. Although my parents tried to instill these ideals in all their children, faithful commitment was the one that did not stick. We turned our back on the acceptable way to display that.

Like their parents, my parents are life-time members of The Disciples of Christ, a Christian denomination. That denomination is an easy-going church, with not many rules. “Love and be kind to one another” are their strongest spiritual mandates. Most of the time, their guidance is to try not to be too much of a nuisance.

My innocence sincerely embraced those two mandates. Although I held those two as true-heart banners, they didn’t stop me from thinking independently, and what I now know were perceived heretical thoughts. I questioned everything. 

“How could such an all-powerful being allow such horrors in the world?” 

“How could one person “save” so many, and why was that savior a man?” 

“What’s the point of heaven without hell holding up its part of the bargain?” 

“Who wrote these books, when, and what was their agenda?”

My credulity was stretched into disbelief because my parents tried to instill in me the idea of faithful commitment while also making sure I learned to think for myself. One won out over the other. I could not blindly follow, believe unflinchingly, or make a commitment to something that appeared cobbled together, as well as a not well-thought-out fairy tale. Similar to four of my siblings, pursuing a lonelier path towards enlightenment deepened my independent spirit.

Listening to people talk about their great family relationships, I find my reaction is always bittersweet. I hear their stories of laughter, support, and camaraderie and wonder what did they receive in their upbringing that we did not. When we are together, we laugh and get along, but there is no true friendship. Then I remember this story.

My mother held court at the dinner table. Her seat was at one end, dad’s place at the other, and the six children divided up between the two sides. Whenever she had something important to say—and that was often—her lead-in was to play with her coffee spoon, emphatically pushing the stem up and down between her fingers. This one time, as she sat playing with her spoon, she said, “You know, your father and I wanted all you children to be independent.” She paused to look at dad, then delivered, “Damn if we didn’t do it.” 

Looking at where I am now, the choices I made, I know they both succeeded in giving me the skills to live an independent life. I cherish that gift.

Schooling

“They don’t actually want you to do your own thing, not unless it’s their thing too.” ― Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

 Hush-toned conversation floated from the kitchen across the family room to the place where I sat. Listening attentively, I detected an occasional whispered, “Janet”. My immediate response was, “Oh Gawd. What did I do this time?” My mind raced over the past ten days to pinpoint what might have offended.

The truth was completely different. In the Spring of 1976, before the autumn-start in junior high at Edison, my brother Tom, a senior, stood shocked as another student waived a loaded gun in his face. It is incomprehensible to me that he calmly waited until I was watching my favorite T.V. show to inform the parents about the incident. Racing home, I would have burst through the back door yelling the news at the top of my lungs. As he aged, Tom’s responses became more measured.

The discussion at that kitchen table involved removing me from the public school system and enrolling me in one of the best private schools in town. I was not part of this discussion. Like many things in my childhood, decisions involving me were made without consulting me. This process was de rigeur because I was young, a girl, and my family thought I was not smart enough to have a say in what was best for me.  

The gig was–for me to be accepted into this prestigious academy–I had to prove I was smart enough to earn a scholarship. Accomplishing that goal was left up entirely to me. My parents picked and chose what things I would do on my own volition.

Thankfully, I did it. I was accepted to Holland Hall. On that small campus surrounded by eight acres of woodland and multi-million dollar designer homes, I began the pugilistic education that tried to pummel my brain to think a certain way. Instead, with conviction, I delivered an uppercut that allowed me to walk out of that educational ring with self-knowledge and my individualism amplified. In that environment of constant contrasts, the privileged rich juxtaposed against the impoverished educators and students, I battled my need for acceptance against my need to find my place in this world. My unbound individualism won out time and time again.

Mistakenly, I thought that entering into this new environment would be easy. In elementary school, I was popular enough and knew almost everyone. The kids accepted me and my collection of quirks. That was not the case ay Holland Hall. 

A selection of unfortunate circumstances prevented me from executing a positive debut. Puberty hit that August, and whatever athletic prowess I had, it ran very far away very fast. My parents did not belong to Tulsa’s high society; there was no elbow-rubbing with those movers and shakers; no cocktails and keys played at Saturday night soirées. Worse, my mother volunteered at the public psychiatric center that aided the homeless population. Volunteering at one of the prestigious hospitals would have been the acceptable display of community-minded charity. We belonged to the wrong denomination or religion. Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Jewish were the only “approved” displays of faith. To their way of thinking, all other faiths were fraudulent, intellectually inferior, or signs of mass hysteria. Lastly, I had a scholarship that represented two things. One, I was smart enough to get one. Oklahoma girls were never to display their smarts. Two, my parents could not truly afford to send me to Holland Hall. Unless one has the money, trying to better one’s self or one’s children were considered attempts to rise above one’s station. When I entered that particular ring, I did not know the game playing, nor the rules.

Walking the hallways with a handful of marks against me did not deter me from trying to earn acceptance. Within a year of my arrival, I was a lead in most theater productions, an active member of our prestigious nine-member chorale, writing small works of fiction, and generally excelling at my studies. Not straight As, but well enough to show I was learning. Although a kind of acceptance was granted by the student body, being a theater/chorus nerd was simply another mark held against me. I struggled to come to terms with the idea that the match I had entered was rigged against me from the beginning. I wasn’t blonde, blue-eyed, svelte, empty-headed, athletic, or the child of the filthy rich. I was “weird.” There was no changing that. I decided I had only two viable choices, either view being weird as an unremovable stain or an honorable badge. 

Donning the badge was the most obvious and best choice.

Instead of worrying about how people viewed me, I focused on living a good life and sought out others who did the same. By connecting with students and educators who were considered outsiders, I developed into more of the person I wanted to be. The school accepted its first African American student in 1980. Denise entered Holland Hall with a scholarship too. Brilliant and funny, we became fast friends and study buddies much to the chagrin of the other students. Gina’s disabilities kept her from participating in any athletic pursuits. We chatted about navigating through life, plus she introduced me to latkes and the joys of Jewish cuisine. Cynthia’s brains were respected, but few wanted to be around someone considered to be a know-it-all. She helped me with my French pronunciations, edited my papers, and gave me solace and courage when I failed at life. Their gentle kindness softened the loneliness that came from pursuing whom one is meant to be rather than following the crowd.

My instructors were my best resources. Their tutelage not only included academic explorations but life skills as well. They trained me on how to pursue goals, think, plan, and organize my thoughts for every fight. I was frequently comforted in knowing they held my best interest. With a ready towel to wipe my face, a cool drink of water to wetten my parched throat, and a gentle pat on the back, always, they inspired me to get me back into the ring and fight. 

For five days a week, nine months of the year, I met them at the “gym” and trained. When to pick your fights was Ms. Henry’s forté. Knowing when to walk away was an equally important lesson as well. Mr. Tuttle’s one-two combo punch of wit and intelligence disarmed any adversary who assumed I was just a girl. Although I was an apprentice journeyman, Mr. Rollo promoted my gifts to the public. Mr. Sloane’s perceptive worldview helped me see that there were always more perspectives and ways to land a punch. Mr. Benton’s gently graceful guidance helped broaden my understanding of the need to practice, train, and how to cope with failure. He understood that growth occurred through the daily use of these skills. Becoming someone required focusing upon what one did and how one did it. He taught me that, every time I got knocked down, I made sure I got back up.

My managers, my instructors, taught me how not only to last the full fifteen rounds but to make it to the next fight. 

Never hang on the ropes. Never wait to hear the count to three. Never hope for the bell.

Fight.

In their offices, as I sat on the floor doing my studies or relaxing, I knew that these spaces were safe havens from a school filled with teenage rumors, viciousness, and confrontation. I learned it was okay to be someone who made mistakes, screwed up my lessons, and was, at times, a complete ass. I was learning what it meant to be me, and my trainers were helping me with the footwork to get there.

Perhaps the best lessons they taught me were that, through training, practice, reflection upon both the lost and won matches, and the grace of self-forgiveness, I could reach an unfettered potential.

With everyone’s aid and support, and even though I didn’t know at what I excelled, I accepted that I was the undisputed champion in a class of my own.

Worldview

“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.” ― Friedrich Neitszche

The view from every window is of mountains, jagged monoliths stabbing sky and cloud; immovable, sharp-angled debutantes draped in the current season’s fashion. They are cold, hard, littered with evergreens, aspens, and dead-growth. Yet in their immobility, they are a microcosm of a life strewn with beauty, dreams, accomplishment, heartbreak, and danger. They are a Northern Hemisphere legacy and will endure long after we have expired.

In this ever-changing landscape, one grapples with this question. What does it mean to endure? My fluctuating legacy wobbles under the weight that it will never be enough. Yet here in the mountains, I declare my intent and purpose with this statement. I am a teacher, writer, artist, wrapped in a cloak of moral relativity. 

My moral relativity is a worldview shaped by many life experiences. Family, schooling, and restaurants exposed me to people and situations I had never experienced. I lacked awareness of others’ plight and struggled with self-absorption. Growing up softened those hard edges and opened up my mind to possibilities. 

People helped me become a better human, one who judges less, questions more, and listens most. Although my intentions were never to force my worldview on others, never the less, it informed my interactions with others.

My mother’s weight problem taught me to look at the soul and not the vessel. Her challenges weren’t down to lack of control, but a genetic predisposition toward weight-gain coupled with unfortunate nutritional advice. If I could go back in time, I would say, “I see you and your struggles, and love you no matter what.”

My friend, Elyse, was bullied by the teacher because she could not grasp math. Observing her struggles was my most memorable lesson to ask questions before judging. Her dyscalculia remained undiagnosed well into adulthood, and I often wonder what would have happened if her diagnosis occurred sooner. 

When people cast aspersions on Eman’s work ethic because he was sick one day, but never asked why he worked three jobs every week, it helped me understand that, for very personal reasons, some people live harder lives than others. For Eman, he not only supported his wife and three children in America, but he sent money back to his village in Nairobi. He worked hard for a better life for everyone in his circle.

Few of us are either complete angels or demons. We are just people, imperfect, trying to make it through another day as best we can. Most of the time, we make a lot of mistakes. Some of us make the same mistake our entire lives, but we keep trying. We stay in the fight.

Offering kindness eases the journey. Utilizing my capacity to gain understanding without judgment, I assist people as they come to grips with the reality that we are imperfect with little chance of being anything else.

Learning this skill paved the road and eased my journey here today. Although my kindness towards others had been part of my foundation since early childhood, it was through teaching that I learned to be kind to myself. Teaching saved my life. 

2005 was the year of living in a metaphorical parched desert. Every encounter was one of prickly rejection or a venomous diamond rattler’s bite. Returning from three years in Europe made me unemployable, too old, and unakin for any Los Angeles restaurant to consider me viable. The town known for serving rejection was consistent in delivering that reputation.

As the days wore on to weeks then months, my constant companion became the thought that the world would be a better place without me. I would walk nine miles a day with that mantra lock-step with mine. A constant yammering, jabbing the pernicious proposal as fait accompli. Plans created, possessions sold, and debt paid off. Stuffed into my purse was a letter to my family explaining my decision. Any hesitation in taking my life was down to waiting for the right moment. 

Instead, a job opportunity landed at my feet. 

In the first week of December 2005, I interviewed for a chef instructor position at a new cooking school. Convinced that this would be yet another rejection, I still put on my green dress, brushed my hair, and polished my resumé. Peering into the mirror, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “What the hell. It’s a long shot, but it’s a shot.”

The person hired me on the spot.

The job began in January 2006. Those first few months, I learned that kindness, listening, and gentle guidance not only helped the students learn the craft of cooking but helped reinstill a sense of self-purpose. I discovered that my contributions could add to the betterment of this world.

After a good rain, desert flowers bloom. I was one of those desert cactuses blooming again. My life had meaning. I was teaching people how to cook, passing on the legacy of training passed down by Brazier, Escoffier, and all the other great chefs in our field. Through my growth, I helped others know they could blossom too. 

Denise, who daily drove one and a half hours each way to come to school, needed to be heard, understood, and aided in a paradigm shift to finish the program. She completed it, as well as becoming a Master Gardener and Master Preservationist.

Sarah, a dreamer who wanted to start a food truck selling her mama’s tamales, then grow it into a thriving business, needed help studying for her citizenship test. She became a citizen, completed the program, and opened not only a food truck but a brick and mortar restaurant in Silverlake.

Orlando, a natural talent who’s severe dyslexia made any written work almost impossible for him to manage, felt he could never be a good student. Without a written I.E.P., he wasn’t eligible to receive any accommodation. My counter was to spend every day reading to him. On written test days, he would arrive early. I would read the test aloud to him, and he would respond with the correct answer. In 2009, he created a hot sauce brand that has sold nationally.

If one reads the above, one notices how much I helped people. What one might not understand is how much they helped me. They taught me how to be a good teacher.

I became one who displays patience while reserving judgment, one who found ways to help students get to the next place on their educational journey, and one who helped them overcome challenges. We rejoiced, and I offered congratulations once the student comprehended something that caused so much effort and agony. 

Adult learners carry an enormous amount of baggage. I can’t throw their baggage down the hill, but I can lighten the load. What they hear me say is, “I am your sherpa,” because I’ve been up and down that mountain a thousand times, and I know how to get one safely to the next basecamp on this journey. 

All people leave legacies. My worldview, one that embraces understanding, listening, and teaching, is how I climb life’s mountains. My legacy is I help people build their futures. 

What an amazing view.

“Human life is far more important than getting to the top of the mountain.” ~Sir Edmund Hillary

Interdisciplinarity

Last night as I lay sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive here

inside my heart.

And the golden bees were making

white combs and sweet honey

from all my old failures.

~Antonio Machado

Truth is for philosophers to debate, facts are for historians to uncover, and data is the scientists’ realm. Poets, artists, and musicians attempt to interpret the world around them through words, images, color, line, or sound. Psychologists examine behavior and events to discover clues to “underlying pathologies” (Ingemark, 2013, p. 8). Individually, viewing each discipline’s approach skews my story, making it one or two dimensional. The definition of who I am and my narrative are intricately linked, so much so that I am unsure how much it leans toward undebatable truth or high-gloss fiction. Yet, to understand who I am in this world, a broader perspective must be taken. Better yet, a collection of views will give me insight that perhaps was previously hidden.

Williams (2012) wrote, “Perspective taking refers to the process of imagining another person’s thoughts or feelings from that person’s point of view” (as cited in Davis, 1996; Mead, 1934)” (para. 3). I’ve rewritten that statement to include an examination of one’s own life, representing a more modern, precisely stated goal. Socrates pontificated that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I wonder if he recognized how dramatic a role imagination, denial, and emotional and mental self-protection played when creating one’s narrative.

Many a time, woken from a deep sleep, my concept of time and place was confused. Lonta et al. (2011) described this experience as a sensory overload. “The body representation in the brain [was] a complex crossroad where multi-sensory information [was] compounded in order to build the basis for bodily self-consciousness (as cited in Haggard et al., 2003; Jeannerod, 2007; Metzinger, 2008)” ( para. 1). Waking from a deep sleep amplified a confusion in which my awareness of location and time was disjointed. In turn, that same confusing awareness represented me at a crossroads as I approached writing my self-told narrative. 

When the mind repeatedly whispers one’s life-narrative, expect embellishment.

As long as the narrative remains as inner-speech, meaning it stays in one’s head, one will always be confused, creating a grander or sadder depiction of said story. This head-story possibly better reflects one’s image or circumstances; maybe presents a less dire one or worse, a loss within self-imposed silence. Drakos (2005: 11-13, 18-19 as cited in Ingemark, 2013) calls these broken narratives, “narrative that [can] not be voiced openly and hence [are] aborted or cut short.” (p. 9) Through writing it out, then examining it, bitter or not, a form of clarity emerges, revealing a complex human being with an active inner life whose layered experiences are multi-dimensional and possibly unfathomable. 

Geography would say I have a sense of place in relation to my choice of landscape. Adams et al. (2016) discussed how “in general, sense of place describes our relationship with places, expressed in different dimensions of human life: emotions, biographies, imagination, stories, and personal experiences (as cited in Basso, 1996). I live in the mountains, off a lonely highway for the silence, with a close relationship to nature, the ability to view infinity in the night sky, and a home that nurtures soul-restoring solitude. As I walk the trails, deep within the woods, ascending elevation, I recall what Einstein said. “Look deep within nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Yet even nature has white-out storms.

History, Religion, and Psychology would say that I have blind spots. In trying to reconstruct past events and wrap them with meaning, my subconscious gets in my way while my conscious mind picks and chooses the stories that frame me in the best light. 

Saint Augustine could be considered the ultimate grandfather of intellectual autobiographers. “Thus, little by little, I became conscious where I was,” the Bishop of Hippo wrote in his Confessions (AD 401) after praising the Lord, verbally prostrating profusely, before ever retelling his story to his readers of how he became a man of God. Augustine knew his audience. To capture his audience’s attention and lead them towards the goal of conversion or recommitment, he used seven lead-in paragraphs that praised The Lord Almighty of Infinite Mercy and Wisdom, begged to be forgiven, enlightened, and spiritually-expanded, before recounting the choicest bits of his degenerate, reprobate youth. Perhaps manipulative, but anyone’s intellectual autobiography is a possibly disingenuously perceived reconstruction, except there is an element of surprise where the writing takes one. Neisser et al. (1994) expand this idea that when writing, these are “reconstructions [of] episodic memory (emphasis his). If the remembered event seems to have played a significant part in the life of the rememberer, it becomes an example of autobiographical memory (emphasis his) and may form part of a life narrative.” The difficulty lies not only in remembering but also how to put it all into perspective.

My Intellectual Biography is storytelling with the added goal of defining who I am in this world. My purpose lent me an opportunity to heal, understand, and find self-acceptance through an interdisciplinary viewpoint. Ingemark (2013) began her exploration of the therapeutic uses of storytelling with this remark, “to examine the ways in which narrative might aid in coping with difficult situations in life, and with the emotions that these situations engender.” (p. 7) To paraphrase her, writing out my story has been healing (p. 8), but also extremely challenging.

NOT THE END OF THE STORY

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” ~Flannery O’Connor

 This journey began with the exploration of my conflicted upbringing. The choice to follow deeply held religious expectations or gravitate towards individualism were constant pulls and reasons for isolation. Although I learned that sticking up for myself was worth the fight in the middle of it, it was a lonely place. During a dark period, I found redemption through teaching and helping others. Reviewing it all through an interdisciplinary lens presented a more fully detailed image of me as a person. Ingemark wrote it so well, “The verbalization of the experience is in itself [was] therapeutic.” (p. 8.) Certainly, contemplating and writing this Intellectual Biography brought more clarity to this journey. In Freeman’s 1993 book, Rewriting The Self, he explains,

“[as the] object of self-examination, the self, in turn, comes to be understood as an elusive, capricious, and in some cases an opaque being, which requires painstaking and deep attention to psychological detail for its secrets to be revealed.” (p. 26) 

I disagree with his assessment because it focuses only on the psychological. The past several months have refined my understanding of what an intellectual autobiography reflects — cultivating an approach that encompasses many disciplines’ perspectives aided in understanding the whole me. I must listen and reflect without judgment. Redemption comes from shining a light on the self, illuminating the shadowy areas. Thus, gently examining this collection of experiences and emotions, I honor the person who I have become. 

But the journey is not over yet; my story is not yet done.

Onward.

References

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