Author Archives: Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

A community relations director in higher education and mother of two adult sons, Amy Gage spent the first 20 years of her career as a journalist and public speaker in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The issues addressed in her award-winning newspaper column, "On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home," remain relevant today. In "The Middle Stages," she continues the vital conversation about women's work and lives, with a focus on the challenges and contradictions of aging, the mixed blessings of forsaking family time for the more immediate rewards of a career, and how middle-aged women can continue to forge full lives even as their priorities and sensibilities change.

Why privileged people must keep talking in troubled times

White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.

This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)

As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:

  • How white names have erased other cultures.
  • How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
  • How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.

And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.

Here’s what I am learning:

Lesson 1: Do your homework.

During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.

A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.

“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.

The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.

I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.

Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.

I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.

As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?

A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.

I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.

This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.

Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.

Three ways to wring some good from the grief of 2020

It was the year we couldn’t wait to see end, even though most of my siblings and friends and I are so deeply into middle age that we’re not sure we can call it that anymore. We’re supposed to savor time, at this stage of life, not wish it away.

But this was 2020, the year of Trump. Of COVID-19. Of a nearly recalled election. Of George Floyd getting murdered and Twin Cities businesses getting burned. Of debates about policing as armed car-jackers were targeting and terrorizing women. Of we white people talking earnestly among ourselves about privilege and our overdue awakening to racial inequities. A year when food lines, tent encampments and rising unemployment brought those inequities to public consciousness and squarely to our doors.

“What will you miss about 2020?” someone asked me on (of course) a Zoom call just as the year was about to turn. “Is there anything you’ll want to take with you?”

Outside Fireroast Coffee and Wine in south Minneapolis

My facility for thinking on my feet failed me (“COVID brain”). I couldn’t come up with an answer. And so, as experience has taught me, I turned to the wisdom of trusted friends. Since we’re all going to be masked and socially distanced for a while, their insights can apply equally to 2021.

1. Isolation can also yield peace

“Everyone’s narrative is so negative with COVID,” one friend told me. Instead, consider how working from home, enforced isolation from family and friends, watching movies on Netflix and concerts on our computers have “slowed things down,” he pointed out. During a recent medical appointment, a nurse told him she had gone sledding with her daughter, that COVID restrictions helped her be a more present mom. “We’re not rushing,” she explained.

More time for family was a theme of my friends’ responses. “One thing I will miss when it is all over is time with my kids,” said a member of my weekly women’s group. “I would not want this to go on forever — it would not be good for any of us. But I am very aware that I will never spend this much time with them again.”

Stay-at-home orders “brought a forced simplicity due to isolation,” said a woman who was widowed last year. Another woman, mother to 4- and 5-year-old girls, has enjoyed being released from the pressure “to do-do-do: swimming lessons, gymnastics, dance, soccer, birthday parties, church.”

My most culturally connected friend filled the empty space with reading. “I will miss the luxury of being able to spend time with authors I love and ones I’ve just met,” he said. “I have never read so many books in one year in my entire life!”

Dogs and being outside in nature are even more important than I had thought (and I had already thought they were very important).

Northfield, Minnesota, volunteer and civic activist

2. You get to reframe your own world

A woman who describes herself as an “extreme introvert” would like the less chaotic version of Christmas 2020 to continue. “There was so much less commercial onslaught,” she explained. “I didn’t go to stores with cheesy music, nasty people and buy-buy-buy messages, did not have to navigate the food and drink and noise at parties, and could just be with my little family.” This year’s downsized Christmas reminded her of Chanukah, celebrated by her husband’s side of the family.

The “low-key social life” that comes with COVID restrictions were a blessing to a friend who gave up alcohol more than a year ago after some months of struggling to stay sober. “No pressure to fit in and no drinks to turn down,” she said. “Instead of feeling left out for not being invited to the bar or the club for drinks, I feel like everybody else.”

One woman described “an emotional flash of thankfulness” every time her furnace clicks on. It reminds her of the creature comforts she can enjoy while she cocoons. “I hope I can keep that visceral association with that sound,” she said.

As for me: Aside from running shoes and Smartwool gloves, I haven’t updated my wardrobe in nearly a year. Dresses and dress pants gather dust in the closet. I maintain a skincare routine but rarely wear makeup. I am now so accustomed to dressing for warmth and movement first that I can’t imagine reverting to dressing for professional appearance, for someone else’s notion of what women are supposed to wear. I want that liberation to continue.

I’m feeling connected to the world in a scary but important way.

Minneapolis writer, mother and naturalist

3. Getting rested but staying woke

One friend answered my email query on January 6, the afternoon of the armed insurrection — the revolting revolt — at the U.S. Capitol. “We’re so ready to move on from 2020 that it would be easy to leave behind what we can learn,” she said.

Here are her lessons:

  • “What I do impacts others and they impact me. COVID has brought that message home. Who knew as simple an action as wearing a mask could literally save someone’s life? Or livelihood?”
  • “I’ve learned that a significant part of the population sees the world very differently than I do,” said this woman who, like me, was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood with quiet streets and good schools and assumed safety. “It’s more than having differing political persuasions or religious beliefs. They are working with a different fact set and underlying assumptions about the nature of our society.”
The author, distracting herself in nature before the election last November

Another woman, a former politician who remains civically engaged, said that George Floyd’s “public, brutal, coldly cruel and unnecessary” killing makes her want to work harder for civil rights in 2021.

My strongest memories from 2020 relate to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25: seeing billowing smoke from a torched Walgreen’s less than a mile from my house during the civil unrest, walking through the Floyd memorial at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis on my birthday, biking past the destruction on East Lake Street in Minneapolis and the Midway business district of St. Paul, alerting neighbors to wheel out their hoses and put their garbage bins away after a Speedway in my neighborhood got firebombed.

I finished a book in December about historic and contemporary racism in Minnesota, my home state, the place I have always lauded as progressive. I’ve been donating more money to more diverse causes, watching as the neighborhoods around me reboot and rebuild.

“What I want to take with me is the awareness of how the year demonstrated both the fragility and the resilience of human beings,” a friend said. For me, 2020 threatened to upend everything I once believed in. I guess that’s how a more enlightened perspective starts.

Gratitude: No action is too little, or too late

I wake up early every morning, before 6 a.m. This time of year, in Minnesota, the place where I was born and raised and choose to stay, that means doing battle with the reality that it is dark and cold outside, that I am trapped indoors until the surprisingly late sunrise because it may be dangerous to run or dog walk when I can’t see the ice.

Call it 90 minutes of forced reflection, made more poignant as the holidays wind down.

To wake up the day after the final Christmas celebration and know that the warm glow has extinguished, that the heartfelt expressions of love and affection with siblings and friends and the thoughtful texts from coworkers will not converge again for another year, to feel the deadweight of all the sugar that has come into the house from well-meaning neighbors’ homemade treats (“old people cookies,” my sons call them) and then to see only blackness outside and feel the sting of cold air — and to recognize that this is life now, for another three months — well, the only way out of that sinking morass is gratitude.

In order to face the cold and darkness, I must examine my life. Count my blessings, as I was taught as a girl. Practice gratitude, in today’s parlance. Surrender to the season and the stillness and the solitude.

Speak it, name it, write it down

Gratitude gives life a richness that has nothing to do with wealth. That has everything to do with relationships and paying attention to the world around you and finding purpose beyond yourself. I first learned about the practice of keeping a gratitude journal when I was treated at Hazelden in 2010 for a drinking problem, that most obsessive and self-centered of addictions.

It was on a Zoom call this past Thanksgiving with other women in recovery that I became reacquainted with the power and simple pleasure of hearing people speak aloud what is good about their lives:

  • “I am grateful to have the quiet life I have.”
  • “I am grateful for my dog and cat.”
  • “I’m grateful that I’m no longer reliant on other people’s opinions of me to validate my self-worth.”
  • “I am grateful that I have hope now, even though it comes and goes.”
  • And mine, eight months into COVID lockdown: “I am grateful for the mistakes and the growth and the uncertainty.”

November was National Gratitude Month. That dovetails nicely with Thanksgiving, just as Dry January naturally follows from New Year’s Eve (complete with a #soberissexy hashtag on Instagram). But gratitude, like yoga, sobriety and other disciplines, is a practice, not a once-a-year social media or Hallmark card event. To offer thanks or count your blessings only on Thanksgiving would be the equivalent of declaring love to your special someone only on Valentine’s Day. It becomes an external obligation, rather than a habit that you integrate into your daily life.

Unsure how to seek gratitude when you are struggling with one of the most difficult years in modern history or when, like me, you are waking up to your unearned privilege? Start with the internet. There, you can:

Here’s a real-world example: After my boss died unexpectedly in July 2018, at an age younger than I am today, I endured months of uncertainty at work. The champion for my unconventional job was gone. My future in the organization felt precarious. I was afraid, and my instincts told me to bolt.

Instead, I made the wiser, more difficult choice of staying until the situation sorted out, which it did eventually. Meanwhile, I forged those roiling waters by building a bridge of gratitude.

Every morning as I walked to work, I counted off on the digits of one hand five things about the job for which I was grateful. From the large (I have purpose and opportunities to learn) and the lucky (I like the people I work with) to the seemingly insignificant (I no longer have to commute by car), I reminded myself daily why the job was worth fighting for.

After proposing an enhanced role some months after my boss’s death, I got a new manager, a better title and a generous raise. A more conventionally religious person might give the credit over to God. I say it was the habitual practice of gratitude that reshaped my attitude, helping me gain perspective and a patience I often lack.

“Gratitude is a magnet,” says spiritual director JoAnn Campbell-Rice on the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation website. “By focusing on what I do have rather than on what I don’t have, gratitude draws the best of any given moment, person or situation.”

‘Gratitude turns what we have into enough’

What is good about my life today, in this moment, right now? That question is at the essence of a gratitude practice.

After nine months of knitting and Netflix, “Zooming” as a verb, too much home cooking and too little sleep, I am keenly aware of what my daily life lacks. The usual wintertime distractions of going to a museum or the movies, reading at a coffeehouse, lunching with friends, hosting neighbors for brunch — those outlets are closed amid COVID’s still rising deaths and case counts.

Still, I remain grateful. I am grateful for a home that allows me to shelter comfortably. I am grateful that no one in my family has caught Coronavirus. I am grateful for the strength and agility to get outside, to walk and run, even to shovel my own sidewalks. I am grateful, at 63, to have a job.

“Gratitude, just as philosophers and psychologists predict, points us toward moral behaviors, reciprocity, and pay-it-forward motivations.”

Christina Karns, Greater Good magazine

But gratitude — at a time of high unemployment, record numbers of homeless encampments in my city and more COVID-related deaths than any of us thought possible back in March — feels like the embodiment of white, middle-class privilege. What did I do to deserve any of this?

A friend and Unitarian minister recently flipped the question back at me: What’s the alternative to gratitude, some unspoken belief that you deserve your good fortune? “Gratitude is related to humility,” she explained. It’s less an exercise in entitlement than an awakening to the imbalance of opportunities — the systemic inequalities — in a country that feeds on excess. For a few.

Gratitude leads to action. It moves me toward simplicity, inspiring me to recognize when my own needs have been met, to stop when satisfaction morphs into greed, to know when enough is enough. And then to step outside myself, and be of service. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself,” said C.S. Lewis. “It’s thinking of yourself less.”

And that practice, if sustained and multiplied by millions, could literally change the world.

End note: The “End in Mind” Project featured this blog post on February 4, 2021.