DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Former first lady Michelle Obama steps up with memoir

“Becoming” finds common ground across the country

HAVING WALKED FOR 19 hours with Michelle Obama — listening to her read the audiobook of her memoir “Becoming” — I looked at some online articles judging her as a hypocrite and “guru for sale.”

I’m utterly uninterested in passing more judgment.

I am keen to find the soul food in “Becoming.” Obama heaps it into every chapter, in her reflections on womanhood, marriage, children, music and love.

Most of all, I learned from this book the ingredients of resilience.

Yes, she’s a supremely privileged woman. No, that privilege hasn’t spared her from torrents of criticism.

Ever since she stepped into the public eye, hate has flowed from citizens and congressmen who slammed her for nearly everything from the size of her hips to her White House vegetable-fruit-herb garden.

Obama schools us on standing tall. For her, many things strengthen the backbone: close, cultivated friendships; time with children; fighting off negative thoughts and replacing them with practical ones.

She recalls the day when a stranger asked her daughter Malia, who played on her high school tennis team: Aren’t you afraid for your life while you’re on the court near a public street?

The teen’s response: Nope. She proceeded to keep practicing.

Mom writes: In the midst of this crazy world, all one can do is get out there and hit another ball.

There were passages that brought me to tears.

Obama visits many wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Some are heavily sedated or just sleeping, a wife or parent keeping vigil beside the bed.

Their grief was so acute, she writes, “All we could do was lace our hands together and pray silently, through tears.”

At public appearances, some froze upon meeting the first lady. So Obama would start with a hug to slow down the moment.

Visiting London’s ethnically diverse Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School for girls, she drops her prepared remarks and just starts talking.

About people who stereotype you based on appearances, she writes, don’t let them define you. School is where you begin to define yourself.

An old tape that played in young Michelle Robinson’s head resurfaces.

“Are you good enough?”

To the girls, she responds: “Yes. You are.”

Dave McInnes of Sequim shared with me his response to Obama’s story.

“It was written in her beautiful voice,” he said, adding that he admired her respect for her upbringing on Chicago’s South Side, and most important, “her ethics. Her love.”

A longtime teacher — of math, now drama — at Sequim Middle School, McInnes quoted a resonant passage.

“Now that I’m an adult,” Obama writes, “I realize that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness. It’s hardly their fault.

“They aren’t ‘bad kids.’ They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances.”

Obama doesn’t shy away from describing circumstances, bad to horrific. The country and her family have been beset by trauma and tragedy.

I had to stop and breathe deeply as she described her father, 55 and dying in a hospital bed, bringing her hand to his lips to kiss it.

It hurt a lot listening to her recall the dark day in December 2012, when she learned of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

How do we make it through?

One answer is to turn toward one another, Obama believes.

“There is power in allowing yourself to be known and heard,” she writes. In doing so, she’s found common ground with people across the world.

_________

Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be March 6.

Reach her at [email protected]

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