Shrugging off cynicism

April 19th, 2011 | Filed under: personal

Mama Worrell helping me see with new eyes.

I just returned from a trip to Paris with my mom (“Mama Worrell”) and my partner Thomas. It was amazing, frustrating, fun, exhausting…all of the things you’d imagine it to be. We saw amazing art, ate the best falafel of our lives (I’m still dreaming about it), and witnessed monstrosities like the Eiffel Tower. I had moments of wonder as I held my mother’s hand climbing stairs throughout this amazing city. And I had moments of despair as I tried to ignore four young African men trying to sell pieces of string as friendship bracelets. There is a lot of poverty every where I look, even when I’m not trying to see it. Seeing these sides of a touristy city make it hard for me to not feel ashamed of myself as I waltz around spending money in a place where so many struggle.

But then I remember the life I lived growing up with my mother working her ass off to support her children while my father was out of work. The mother who didn’t think twice about her pride when it came to seeking social assistance to feed her children. The mother who worked two full time jobs. The mother who got to go on one vacation to Florida with us when I was 11 years old. The mother who was probably still paying off the debt from that trip for years after.

Experiences are relative. I try to tell myself that when I feel guilty enjoying something I know many around the world wouldn’t dream of being able to. I sometimes envy those with thicker skin – the ones that can turn their empathy on and off when they want to really, hedonistically enjoy something without a hint of shame.

I made sure I brought a video camera with me to document all of my mama’s reactions and learning and amazement. I knew this was important and exciting. I’m still not sure how I’m going to compile the whole thing – maybe a few mini movies – but I just know I need to get this on record somewhere. So we can go back and see that from those humble and heart-wrenching beginnings, a family can still make it to the Eiffel Tower and read into that achievement however they wish. It can be nothing – just a trip – or it can be something inspiring. An event to give us happy memories and hope and pride and comfort that it was all worth it somehow. Mama is still pulling 60-hour weeks on nights as a nurse just to be able to fly over here and visit me. But she made it. While her 57-year-old body and achey knees struggled climbing and descending the many stairs of the Paris Metro (not even to begin talking about the stairs she climbed to the Sacré-Cœur), she would turn to me and say with pain still furrowed into her brow, “I can’t believe I’m here,” or put her arm around me and say “Can you believe we’re in Paris…together?”

This was my second time visiting Paris, but it felt new all over again seeing it alongside my mother – a person with whom I share a closeness that Hallmark cards and commemorative mugs can’t begin to explain. As I witnessed her wonder I couldn’t help but think about my work with students and bearing witness to their discoveries and amazements. I’m a bit of a cynical traveler when I visit cities like Paris, seeing the wealthy flaunt their money and my eyes turning instead to beggars and souvenir sellers and wondering about their stories and struggles. I couldn’t even bring myself to visit Versailles since I knew it would frustrate me – to wonder how much money is laid in every inch of that place that could have been used in more productive ways. I rarely see beauty in monuments, but rather waste and death of those used to create it. Traveling with me can be tiring, as you can probably tell.

I came from a low-income family that did a pretty good job of faking lower middle class status thanks to credit cards. It gives me perspectives I’m happy to have, but in some ways clouds my experience of other cultures and monuments and sites. I wouldn’t change anything, but I want to be more like my mother. Someone that can walk into a city wide-eyed, amazed, and not let the scars of her life taint her experience with cynicism. I am always learning from her and from the children I teach and hope to teach.

It’s never to late to shrug off the cynicism and see with new eyes. I’m trying.

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