One week ago, on a Saint Patrick’s Day spent here in the Manhattan of my adulthood, the urban village in New York City where we regularly meet, a parade of memories and impressions flooded into my mind. The theme unifying them was the difference between division and difference. That’s especially important since we are all meeting, seeing and living with the fallout of hyphenation in the America of 2017.
Not surprisingly, Irish-American came to mind as a 200-plus year old parade of examples of what that hyphenation stands for, made its way up Fifth Avenue between walls of snowbanks deposited by the week’s earlier blizzard. Behind banners naming counties that divide the land of the single Island of Ireland, but increasingly do not divide thoughtful people who take their stand on the productive truth that difference, when embraced, can enrich the hearts and minds of people who differ in large ways and small.
I must confess that I did/do not delight in all the symbols adopted to express the hyphenated reality of Americans defining themselves by their ties to Ireland. So, as a registered/card (or passport)-carrying hyphenate I give myself leave to register my reaction to some of the activities I observed on Saint Patrick’s Day 2017. And to comment on them knowing I do not speak for Ireland or the US.
A prime example was the “greening” of the pond in front of a White House designed by a brilliant architect who can only be described as an immigrant (from Ireland). I would have wished that the architect of the 2017 greening of that pond might have redirected the funds and a very well-funded propaganda machine would have been applied to life-saving work to cure the lethal water supply of Flint, Michigan and elsewhere. Or to “walk back” the potentially devastating dismantling of standards that honor and respect the sacredness of waters our land’s original dwellers experience as ritually holy.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a hyphenate, in fact several: a first- generation Irish-American thanks to a mother born and grown to young adulthood, much in the period before six of the 32 counties of her birth island took on a new and separate name (hyphen omitted at that time, in a political climate de-emphasized later by President Mary Robinson). The other half of my hyphenated self owes its debt to a second-generation son of Ireland who grew to young adulthood in rural and later urban Illinois. He served in the U.S. Army in a war still judged to be in opposition to an evil even more evil than war itself.
So, they became a hyphenated couple with four hyphenated offspring including this late appearing addition who went on to serve Ireland’s Trade Board in New York City. As a dual citizen with undivided loyalties I went on to form a marketing communications practice privileged to position and promote world class brands to their global constituencies. One case in point was an invention for which the hyphenate hand-held was a selling point for what at that point was the world’s first wind-and sun-powered generator. The only division those multiple hyphens were inserted to establish was between the Hymini and any other gadget that claimed to be “just as good as.” They illustrated the positive values of being hyphenated, as my parents’ choices and commitments illustrated in my own life. I lived every day my life with the gift of knowing that I was blessed by the fact that two people who were from significantly different worlds found wondrous ways of tapping into the strengths of both to give their children the gift of a hyphenated inheritance.
My professional life got a similarly rich gift of insight about Happy Hyphenation from a treasured mentor who gave me advice that enlightens me even today as to the path to the high road of distinctions that differentiate but do not divide. The late Tom Kennedy had become a friend before becoming a colleague. He was a man who defined and secured the profile of Ireland’s national air carrier, Aer Lingus, on the map in the United States. One of the coups he achieved was the NBC Today Show’s high visibility week of programming in Ireland. His partner in planning and achieving that was a Greek-American NBC producer Bill Cosmas.
As a neophyte PR agency person, I shared a tiny office and a “forever” friendship with Bill’s wife Farrell Fitch. That brought me my first invitation to an annual Greek Saint Patrick’s Day party of mythic, if not indeed of Olympian proportions. Grape leaves and Guinness shared the table with Irish smoked salmon and moussaka. At one of these, I told Tom of my decision to put off the launch of my own company and to join Coras Trachtala, becoming the semi-government Irish agency’s marketing communications voice in the U.S. His response? “Ah, that’s grand. And you will make a great success of it ….so long as you remember you’re an outsider!”
Now decades later, I still honor that advice as the best possible wisdom to convey to any job starter. And last week, awash among memories, it still stands out as wisdom that can enrich all “hyphenates.” As the Irish are fond of saying Tom “got it in one.” He cut to the chase and illuminated in a sentence the crucial distinction between what differentiates and what divides.
The starting place for that achievement is to recognize that you don’t have to try to pass yourself off as “just like all the rest of you” to be united and useful. Turns out you are much more useful to any corporate (or social, or familial) enterprise if you respect your differences and see them as something that feeds the work or group or society you have joined. It’s what nourishes the impulse to honor the clear-eyed realization that a bit of distance can lend a lot of enchantment when “the outsider” does not fall into the trap of mistaking a faction for a family; or a political point of view du jour for the building of a company’s inclusive identity.
The memories that day also included the honor of being named an honorary Oglala Sioux one summer when three Marymount classmates spent a summer as volunteers at the Mother Butler Center in Rapid City, South Dakota, Rosebud and Pine Ridge. Indulgently, one of the residents there explained some of the surprising surnames of our summer program students telling us that they reflected the custom of naming a child for the first thing the Father observed upon the birth of that child. Pearl Grey Cloud, Cecil White Bull or Freddy One Feather for example. She went on to say to me that since my father was unavailable to veto the choice, I might be called “Smiling Face.”
Sounds good to me. In fact, it’s the exact expression that was generated by my deepened understanding that there’s no justification for any mistrust of ethnic hyphenates. In this lovely mosaic of a country, everyone, except our Native Americans is a hyphenate.