Bing tracking

Making a lot of this up as I go Along

Uncovering Vocation Series

Uncovering Vocation is a partnership between Campus Ministry and the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University. Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, a member of the Augsburg community is invited to share a component of their vocation story. It has become a way of building community, becoming reacquainted with one another, and celebrating the diversity of people and vocations that make Augsburg University the beautiful place it is.

This week’s Uncovering Vocation talk is given by Jenean Gilmer. Jenean holds a B.A. in Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and a Master of Heritage Studies & Public History from the University of Minnesota. She is invested in building collaborative projects and partnerships that deepen our understanding of one another, the communities we live in, and the land that we live on. She has previously worked with the Minnesota Historical Society, the Sioux Chef, A Public History of 35W, Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis, and the Urban Farm & Garden Alliance in Saint Paul’s Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods. Jenean builds relationships on and off campus that create learning opportunities for students and provide support to community partners in Cedar-Riverside and beyond.

If you happened to catch my last Chapel Talk, you already know that I am deeply suspicious of the word, “vocation.” The great source of knowledge for our time, Wikipedia, tells us, 

“Use of the word “vocation” before the sixteenth century referred firstly to the “call” by God to an individual…more specifically to the “vocation” of the priesthood, or to religious life, which is still the usual sense in Roman Catholicism which recognizes marriage, religious, and ordained life as the three vocations. Martin Luther, followed by John Calvin, placed a particular emphasis on vocations, or divine callings, as potentially including most secular occupations.”

My suspicions arise largely from the coevolution of Protestantism and capitalism, wherein work and the accumulation of wealth take on a spiritual significance, the roots of which deeply inform the way we think of wealth, worth, and work today. When I read Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, while a student at the U, it was REVEALATORY. It helped me make sense of myself in a way that I might not have otherwise. 

By the time I was about six years old, we stopped going to church. In Sunday school I asked too many questions and was sent outside while the class continued without me, meant to think about how disruptive I was, about my badness. Mom was pretty pissed about this. Regardless, I continued to say my prayers at night and I was raised with Christian values and an encompassing sense of the importance of a good work ethic. To learn how deeply intertwined these concepts are, particularly in U.S. American culture, is to understand that worth, work and wealth are, in many ways, one and the same. 

I learned this consciously from reading Weber, but knew it intimately from my lived experience. I come from a long line of poor people. I was born to an unwed, teenage mother in a small town in rural Minnesota, in the hot summer of 1977. I was adopted by my grandparents when I was two years old. Shortly after, we moved out of that town to the country outside of Zimmerman. 

Mom and Dad were born in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Dad’s mom, Fredericka Castle, had come from Kentucky as a teenager when her father, who was an engineer, got a job managing some kind of factory in Southern Minnesota. When she married Paul Gilmer she had, as people were wont to say, “married down.” The Gilmers were mostly farmers–steady but not real successful–and known for having some wild tendencies. Mom was born in a small home in remote Northern Minnesota. She was premature and spent the first few days of her life in the oven. There wasn’t electricity or running water in the house and the nearest hospital was much too far to travel a fragile baby even if they had the money to pay a doctor. 

When he was around ten Dad spent a couple of years in the Boys Reformatory School in Red Wing—for his role in a terrible crime that he claimed to have had no part in. The other boys’ families had money to pay lawyers, his didn’t. 

Mom spent a few years in a Catholic orphanage in Duluth beginning when she was five years old. She and her brother, Teddy, has been badly neglected. Rose, her mother, was from relatively recent German immigrants as compared to her father, Mitchell’s, much longer connection to the region through his French ancestry. They met in high school in a very small town that very much disapproved of Germans and French intermarrying, regardless of their status as American citizens. 

I imagine that my mom and dad’s early institutional experiences bonded them, as did the questioning of their parentage by their fathers. Dad looked just like his dad, his claims were almost farcical but this didn’t make them any less hurtful.  His mother wrote him letters and poetry when he was in Red Wing, encouraging him to be a good boy, to grow into a good man. Despite these accusations, his parents stayed together and Dad grew up with his two sisters and older brother. After taking DNA tests after Mom died, we learned that the man whom my mother grew up thinking was her father was not. I’d like to think that this would have taken some of the sting out of his abandonment, but I fear that this knowledge would have made her overwhelmingly sad more than anything else.

Neither of my parents had formal education past the 8th grade but both eventually got their GEDs. They had seven children together, eight including me. Dad had a hard time holding down a steady job. He was a long-haul truck driver for most of his working life. Mom was left to raise all those kids alone much of the time with very little money. She grew a garden, baked bread, and made all of their clothes.  After she died, my dad liked to say, wistfully, “That woman sure could stretch a pound of hamburger.” When Dad was gone for long stretches neighbors would sometimes leave sacks of flour and potatoes for the family. They moved A LOT. Most of the kids, much to my mother’s chagrin, inherited the Gilmer temperament and raised quite a bit of H E L L. She was terribly embarrassed by this and it affected us all, even me, as little as I was. 

I tell this story to demonstrate the ways that perceptions about work, wealth and worth manifested in the ways that my family was treated in rural Minnesota. Everybody in a small town knows when you pay with food stamps and the judgments–communicated in whispers and askance glances–were particularly hard for Mom. Dad used to say, “There’s no shame in being poor people.” Mom used to say, “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you have to act poor.” By the time I was becoming a teenager, they were both in very poor health and there was very little money. I moved in with my birth mother, Lisa, the winter before I turned thirteen, just after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, to Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose. 

I very much preferred living in California. My origins didn’t matter so much there, almost everyone came from somewhere else–my friend Smiley’s family was from South India, Jeni’s family was from the Philippines, lots of my friends’ families were from Mexico or were Californianos. Most had arrived in the U.S. recently enough that they were raised in their language and culture of origin at home. We all tried to figure out the rest together at school and sleepovers. I can’t express how different this was from my life in rural Minnesota.

I had been raised with my Dad’s racism and homophobia. While most of the rest of the country was laughing at Archie Bunker, he was saying he was a man with good sense. It was difficult to square how someone that I loved and was loved by so deeply was so cruel. He was typically genial and talkative with almost everyone he encountered–except for gay men, for this he had no tolerance. He taught me that I should treat everyone with respect and that my estimation of them should likewise grow or decrease depending on their behavior and my judgment. We all loved him, especially for these lessons, his humor, and the sweet things he would do or make for us. We laughed at his racism, we scolded him, and were also afraid of him. To so thoroughly dehumanize other people cannot but mean to dehumanize one’s self. Those wounds run deep in my family. He worked so hard and yet had so little material wealth to show for it, he clung to whatever sense of worth he could, even if it was simply being born white and a man. Women were good in so far as they pleased and served men and so we had to seek our worth elsewhere. Being treated the way we were, or for some other reason I can’t yet fathom, it was too hard to think of hurting others just for the accident of their birth. It was easy to be not racist in reaction to Dad. 

Most of my family has stayed in rural Minnesota. Like many others, they have taken a conservative turn–I can’t help but think that Mom and Dad, well, mostly Mom, would be turning over in her grave if she knew her kids had voted Republican. So many of them have inherited and perpetuated Dad’s racism in ways that I’m not always sure they are conscious of and some in ways that they are very conscious of. This, along with a lot of other stuff, makes it real hard to call them family. Since Mom died in 2004 we haven’t really been a family anyway. There are some good reasons for this–addiction, abuse, anger–too many bad things have happened. Everyone showed up for Mom when she was dying, but not for Dad. Most of the girls showed up, but I suspect that the wounds that our brothers had suffered at his hands–largely invisible in comparison to the way he treated women–cut too deep. They didn’t show up. 

This is how I remember it. I also remember being loved and cared for deeply, lots of laughter and big tasty meals around the table, sometimes a campfire. I remember how hard it was. I know that it is a lot harder for people who don’t fit the U.S. American definition of whiteness. I learned this from my friends, from Jack Weinstein, my AP English teacher. He taught us about genocide in a deeply personal way. From the Amnesty International student group I joined my Freshman year at Milpitas High. And I learned about it when I moved back–quite unwillingly–to Minnesota to finish high school. I remember that first day, looking down on the crowd of students passing through the commons on their way to class. Almost all of them were white and, strange as this is to say, it really scared me. I’m still more afraid of running into a group of young white men than anyone else. They know what they can get away with. My Dad got away with it, my brothers, and so many others in subtle and overt ways every day, all the time. 

I was just coming into a consciousness of my own attraction to women towards the end of high school and this made it all even scarier. I still can’t believe I made it out without getting my ass beat. I hightailed it back to California as soon as I could. I lived in Santa Cruz, I came out as bisexual and became a vegetarian. I got what I call my first real job at California Peace Action when I was still newly eighteen, knocking on doors for peace, for demilitarization. I learned so much. I got to meet Grey Panthers, cool Quakers, Zapatistas, and hear Delores Huerta speak at rallies for farm workers. I had friends who went to UCSC and I tagged along on their education. I read Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Leslie Feinberg, Alice Walker, Michel Foucault. I marched, I participated in acts of political vandalism. I felt safe enough in Santa Cruz and San Francisco to laugh or flip the bird when passersby shouted out homophobic invectives or someone in a women’s bathroom mistook me for a boy. Eventually, all that intensity caught up to me and I sought something slower. I moved to New Orleans where it was cheaper to live, where I could maybe have more time to write. I learned a lot of things in New Orleans. How to be part of a neighborhood, how to spot muggers and run, how to trust and love people that my family and so many others categorized as dangerous. I had so much fun. And I also sunk real low into my own shit. I left New Orleans with a plane ticket bought by my sister’s boyfriend. I landed in Minnesota in the spring of 2003. I thought I’d be back in New Orleans or maybe San Francisco after I picked myself up, but–strangely enough–I’m still here. Mostly because I kept deciding to go to school. I had promised myself at some point that I would go to college by the time I was thirty. I registered for classes at MCTC just before my 30th birthday. After a few rough years of learning how to be a student while also being a bartender, I transferred to the University of Minnesota. I wanted to know what made white people so rotten. I figured it out and thus began a whole new way of learning how to unlearn so much about myself. 

I had a hard time making the transition from service work to something else after I finished my undergraduate degree. I continued to work the service industry, I made it halfway through a Master of English program at St. Thomas–an experience that I cannot speak well of–in hopes that it would help me get into a good Ph.D. program. Eventually, I landed a gig at the James J. Hill House in Saint Paul as a historical interpreter. I started a job at The Sioux Chef that same week. The narratives that were told at the Hill House were so deeply intertwined with those we told at The Sioux Chef. I learned to talk to a lot of different kinds of people about genocide, theft, and the formation of the state of Minnesota. I got myself into a new program at the University of Minnesota that helped me learn how to do antiracist and decolonial work in cultural institutions. I did a bunch of community organizing work. I landed this job at Augsburg two years ago in March. This is the first salaried job with benefits that I’ve ever had. I’m making more money than I ever have and, most shocking of all, I’m doing work that I really love. It is such a privilege to do paid work someplace that aligns in any way with my own personal and political values. My best friend is still worried that I’m going to get myself fired for raising too much hell–I am, after all, still a Gilmer. 

There are a lot of things that have been hard about my life. I wouldn’t take any of them back. All that came before has made me what I am today and I can say, unabashedly, that I’m real proud of myself. I’m sure that my Mom and Dad are proud of me. Even my republican brothers and sisters are proud of me! Of course, they are quite confused as to why I got two such useless degrees, but it feels pretty good to have a college graduate in the family. 

Most of my family didn’t graduate high school, I did by the skin of my teeth. I sometimes think about things that I’ve done in the past and I am AMAZED that I’m not only alive, but doing all this cool shit with you all here at Augsburg. As an institution Augsburg is and has been better than most when it comes to issues of justice and equity. It has also failed in a lot of ways. There are some parallels between my family and this institution, largely to do with settler colonialism. Augsburg Seminary opened in this site in 1872 with the intention to train ministerial candidates to go into what they perceived as wilderness and make it God’s country. Our archives contain early documents that disparage Native peoples. The College isolated itself from the surrounding neighborhood after Scandinavian immigration waned and people with whom they didn’t share language and culture with began to arrive, especially those partying Bohemians and their wild ways. It took well over twenty years for the university to implement some of the changes that students demanded one day in May in 1968, and still some of those changes have yet to made. Our student body is quite different now than it was for most of this institutions history. That calls for changes that we might not know how to make yet, but I’m bettinng that our students have some good ideas, that you and me and others who work here have some good ideas about how to go about that work. Experience (and a whole lot of reading) tells me that the more voices that go into making those changes, the better and more long-lasting they will be. 

In upsetting the patterns of pain that I’ve inherited–flat feet, acid reflux, and a healthy dose of self-loathing–I’ve had to give a lot up. Changing some things about myself isn’t enough, I’ve had to fundamentally shift the way that I know and perceive the world and myself in it. This is super hard, I’ll be working on it forever. And I wouldn’t dream of giving up the knowledge and awareness I’ve gained about how others walk through this world, how I contribute to making that more difficult or easier for others. There are parts of myself that I’ve had to excavate that I really haven’t liked. It’s painful. I’ve lost friends and family because of it, I live in the liminal space of class jumpers where I’m never quite comfortable where I’m at now and I can’t quite find the same comfort that I used to in working class, neighborhood bars. 

I’m making a lot of this up as I go along, with the help, love and kindness of so many people–some are dead, some are alive, some I’ll never know and yet their words shape me in incredibly intimate ways. I continually remind myself that the best thing I can do is lead with love–for myself and others. Not the Pollyanna kind that glosses over a lot of important stuff, but the kind that lives in my guts–alternately suffusing me with the warm and buyont feelings and really twisting my organs around–which hurts a lot. 

In order to fully reckon with our past and imagine new futures, we, everyone who makes up Augsburg, needs to give some things up. Probably some things that feel fundamental to the institution’s identity. But identity doesn’t stay the same, it’s always changing. We need to make sure that we’re being real intentional in the ways that it changes if we’re to live up to the mission of this place. 

I’d like to finish with a short passage from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands–a text that has fundamentally shaped me and that I continue to grow with: 

“I spent the first half of my life learning to rule myself, to grow a will, and now at midlife I find that autonomy is a boulder in my path that I keep crashing into…I see a fine crack growing on the rock. I see the fine frenzy building. I see the heat of anger or rebellion or hope split open that rock, releasing la Coatlicue. And someone in me takes matters into our own hands, and eventually, takes dominion over serpents–over my own body, my sexual activity, my soul, my mind, my weaknesses and strengths. Mine. Ours. Not the heterosexual white man’s or the colored man’s or the culture’s or the religion’s or the parents’—just ours, mine. 

And suddenly I feel everything rushing to a center, a nucleus. All the lost pieces of myself come flying from the deserts and the mountains and the valleys, magnetized toward that center. Completa. 

Something pulsates in my body, a luminous thin thing that grows thicker every day. Its presence never leaves me. I am never alone. That which abides: my vigilance, my thousand sleepless serpent eyes blinking in the night, forever open. And I am not afraid.”