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I Teach Her What to Fear

Vivi stood at the edge of the sand bar, tugging at her hair and shrieking:

“MAMA! MAMA! PLEEEEEEASE COME BACK! MOMMY! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!” 

I, already knee-deep in the low tide channel between the sand bar and the beach, turned back and watched her hysteria with my mouth hanging open.

“Baby! What are you talking about? This is the same water we walked across to get out there. You’ve been swimming in it all week. Come ON.”

A dad in a red UGA cap waded between us and asked me out the side of his mouth, “Is she alright?” I mouthed back, “D-R-A-M-A.” He chuckled and kept on going.

My daughter was beside herself with fear about stepping into the ocean water. Why? Jellyfish.

She wailed and howled and begged me to come back. She ran towards the King and Prince in hopes that the land bridge was solid. Nope.

I hollered across the 20 yards that separated us: “Honey, it’s the TIDE–I can’t do anything about it. Even if I walk back that way, we’ve got to get back to the beach through this water. There’s no other solution. I hear you, but you’re going to have to get in the water. It’s only going to get deeper the longer you wait.” She stomped and screeched and cried.

Not sure which of those tactics convinced her, but she finally started a shaky walk to me. I took her hand and we made it to the beach together…ALIVE.

What. The. Hell. This kid as grown up on that beach and in that water. Why now?

An hour earlier, we had left our stuff in the sand and waded over to the giant sand bar on East Beach at St Simons Island. We walked to the farthest tip of the sand bar, right out into the Atlantic. She found a hermit crab and named her Crustina. We put her in a shallow tide pool and watched how quickly she could scuttle around. Vivi dug a channel between two pools so Crustina could spread out. We came up with names for her crabby friends. We reminisced about a few years back when Vivi found her friends, Conchy and Nyquisha.

Then I looked down into the clear water of the tide pool and spotted a jellyfish, about 5 inches long. I showed Vivi how to see the clear jellyfish by looking for its shadow on the sand. We found another one in the same pool. As the tide waters rose around the edges of Crustina’s pool, we watched how the jellyfish moved and ate and even shook off some sand that one of us accidentally dropped on them.

Cannonball jellyfish on St Simon's Island sand bar

Cannonball jellyfish on St Simon’s Island sand bar (look for it right above the shadow)

But time and tide wait for no one, so with pink shoulders and wind-tangled hair, we scooted Crustina to the seaward edge of her pools and waved goodbye to the jellies. As we walked along the beach side of the sand bar in search of the easiest crossing point, I saw a REAL jellyfish in the shallows–one about a foot long, pinkish, with feathery tentacles fluttering behind it.

“Now this is the kind you don’t want to touch, even if you see them washed up on the beach. I once fell off of a jet ski in the middle of Chesapeake Bay and got one of these wrapped around my leg.”

“Did you have to go to the hospital???’

“No, Aunt Beth rubbed Adolph’s seasoning salt on it and made some pina coladas. It quit stinging after a while.”

And not two minutes later I started into the water to make my way back to our pile of towels and flip flops on the beach and Vivi started her meltdown.

Because of the jellyfish I had shown her. Not the goofy little cannonball jellyfish in the tide pool, but the menacing tentacled one…in the water that I then ordered her to step into.

Oh look. A very special Parenting Moment.

I teach her what to fear

 

Vivi is at that precarious age where we are beginning to give her more freedom, but that comes along with the responsibility for taking care of yourself. I need to show her the thing to be aware of, the place to be careful, but in doing that, I tipped the balance too far and taught her what to fear. 

While we held hands and made our way back to land, I talked to her about how feelings can get us all worked up and the only thing that will balance them out is facts.

“See all these parents taking their kids out to the sand bar? Do you think we would be doing that if it were dangerous? See that green flag on the lifeguard chair? That means the water’s safe. If there were a bunch of jellyfish around, we would see them washed up all over the beach–we only saw the one. And that’s the first one you’ve seen in TEN YEARS!”

She snuffled a bit and asked more questions about THE ONE JELLYFISH that was clearly plotting to take us down. I kept pointing her back to facts so that the feelings would have time to wear themselves down a little. I mean, I was annoyed as hell with all the hysterics, but Parenting Moment.

We made it to shore. Later that afternoon, we came back down to play in the big waves of high tide. She got in that water every day for a week.

I couldn’t quit thinking about it, though, how it was my pointing out the “bad” jellyfish that triggered her fear. Would it have been better not to mention the stinging tentacles? To let her learn about jellyfish the hard way some other day? Because knowing that a thing is possible invites it into her consciousness. That’s the hard balance of parenting for me–wanting her to be equipped with knowledge, but not knowing for sure if she’s ready for knowledge.

This morning, a college sister who is also a reverend, shared a passage from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” that spoke to my mothering struggle:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart

and to try to love the questions themselves

as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

She has to live the questions now. We both do. I have to lead her into the water, dark and deep, even though I have been stung before. The world is out there on the other side of our fears.

 

rilke - i beg you to patient

Pour a Little Coke on Your Windshield

Saturday morning, when it was time to start the three-hour drive to fetch Vivi from camp, G handed me his keys. “You drive? I’m still eh-sleepy.”

Not a problem. Except I HATE driving his minivan. I can’t see anything in that vehicle. There are extra mirrors stuck to the side mirrors. DVD screens that block the back window. Paper and shit hanging from his rearview mirror (seriously, he still has the car rider pass from two years ago up there). The air conditioning is set on 62 and blowing hard enough to sweep Dorothy out of Kansas. Every control is opposite from my car. He puts the parking brake on even when he’s parked on flat ground. Makes me nuts but that’s why it’s his car and not mine.

I got over all of that stuff by the end of our driveway, but as soon as I started going up the hill to leave the neighborhood, the sun hit the windshield and I was blinded by…schmutz. Not rain or dew or ice…just blurry gunk.

I searched blindly with my left hand for the wiper/washer control. “What are you doing?” he sighed from the passenger seat.

“Trying to clean the windshield–it’s got crap all over it. I can’t see.”

“It looks fine to me,” he retorted, then showed me the wiper control. The wash helped some but I still felt like I was peering through a gray haze.

In the drive thru while we waited on breakfast, I kept squinting and bobbing around looking for a clean spot. “Is it on the inside?” I wiped the inside of the glass with a fast food napkin. It came away clean. I muttered, “It’s something on the outside…”

“DO YOU WANT ME TO DRIVE? IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT?”

“NO, I WANT TO CLEAN THE WINDSHIELD SO I CAN SEE TO DRIVE.”

“THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE WINDSHIELD.”

“Maybe you can’t see it…” I started, but G cut me off with a scoff-snorted “…oh for godsake! REALLY?”

I turned on him. “I’m serious! You forget I’ve had Lasik surgery! I have better than 20/20 vision! IT IS POSSIBLE THAT I ACTUALLY CAN SEE SOMETHING THAT YOU PHYSICALLY CAN’T!”

The sweet teenager with a blonde pony tail leaned out of the drive thru window to pass me our drinks with a worried smile. It wasn’t even 8 a.m. and she’s got people hollering about ghosts in a silver minivan. I jammed the massive cup of Diet Coke in the console and passed food and drinks to the boys.

dirty windshield

That’s when I remembered my Pop’s trick from his truck driving days: if your windshield is foggy, pour a little Co-Cola on it. So I pulled up to that spot where they make you wait when the fries aren’t ready and hopped out of the car with my Diet Coke and a handful of napkins. I poured a line of Diet Coke across my side of the windshield and started rubbing in circles. GUNK sluffed off of that glass enough to turn the napkin black on both sides. Pure-T GUNK.

I tried not to gloat.

(I think it’s the citric acid in the Coke that works the magic, so Diet works just as well as raglar. And I guess you heathens who drink gagPepsigag could try that. I would ask our resident chemist but he still swears there is nothing wrong with that windshield. AHEM.)

((Oh, and of course after all that drive thru drama, the story took a stupid turn 20 minutes down the road when Carlos announced he had a tummy ache which precipitated us turning right around for home, them staying there all day while I drove across the state in my own dang car. And damn if the windshield was covered in bugs but I was low on Diet Coke at that point and had to prioritize.))

Anywho.

This incident got me to thinking. I honestly do think that maybe this windshield thing that G and I have argued about every time I have driven his car for the last five years might be grounded in a very real physical difference. He thinks I’m just making it up because he doesn’t see anything there. I think he’s being a stubborn ass because IT’S RIGHT THERE. But the crux of our disagreement is data-based: my eyes take in a different range of data. My experience of the world is different than his when it comes to looking at things. He looks at the glass and sees the same level of gray as he does elsewhere (honestly, there are 40-11 pairs of reading glasses laying around this house and none of them are mine). I look at the same glass and see a problem that needs fixing. Instead of assuming that the other person might see it differently, we start arguing with each other about who is RIGHT.

There are people who can’t see the difference between red and green. I’m not going to argue with them about that in the drive thru. There are synesthetes who can smell colors and see sounds–I hope they wouldn’t blame me for not knowing what blue smells like. People lose taste buds as they age, so maybe the dinner really is too spicy for the kids.

The longer I spent in the car by myself, the more I thought about how often we forget (or ignore) that other people might be experiencing the same world in a vastly different way. They’re really not doing it just to be stubborn asses or precious snowflakes or whatever word we use to mock those who react to the world in a different way.

If I, as a white person, have a hard time seeing racism, that doesn’t mean it’s not there–it means I don’t see it. It’s up to me to polish my lens so that I can see it. I sure can see misogyny that a person who hasn’t moved through the world as a woman might miss. No one can tell me that we live in a post-sexism world because I have a lifetime of experiences that are grounded in the inequal balance of power between the sexes.

We cannot argue people out of their lived experience. We shouldn’t even try.

Imagine how different our morning would have been if I hadn’t needed to make G admit that the windshield was dirty–that I was RIGHT. Imagine if he had helped me clean the windshield even though it didn’t interfere with his driving? What if we had met each other with grace and generosity?

Meeting people with grace and generosity, even when they are describing a world that is different from what you see. Helping fix a problem that doesn’t affect you. Asking questions to understand another’s experience–that’s like pouring some Coke on your windshield. Clears things so we can see each other better.

Your Children Are Not Your Children

I had three encounters today that brought to mind these words from Lebanese poet and artist, Kahlil Gibran:

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Khalil Gibran at the age of 15. Photograph by Fred Holland Day, c. 1898.

Khalil Gibran at the age of 15. Photograph by Fred Holland Day, c. 1898.

Vivi, Away

We went through this together last year, right? Vivi being away at camp during her birthday week? Me not being able to make a fuss over her, all that rigamarole. I’ve been doing a lot better this year. Even when I miss her, I know she is safe and enjoying herself. I’ve had very few moments of panic that she might be curled up under her bed in the tent, crying because no one has told her that they love her that day. I’m cool…really.

But it’s been FOUR DAYS and I had yet to see a photo of her posted in the nightly album of scenes from the day. On the first night, I was slightly alarmed at this picture of my firstborn standing in the center of a pack of somber girls:

They're either learning how to raise the flag or acting out Lord of the Flies.

They’re either learning how to raise the flag or acting out Lord of the Flies.

Then today I made a teensy request (with only a touch of hysteria), because it’s her birthday, for a photo of my girl. The camp director replied “We’re on it!” and soon I was holding back tears at the sight of this beautiful creature:

Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.

Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.

Who is this woodland spirit? This daughter of Life’s longing for itself, she reminds me every day that “life goes not backwards.” I may spend today thinking back to the moment she was born, how Daddy reassured me “She’s pinking up real nice” when her Apgar score wasn’t so hot the first time. For me, this day is about then. For her, it’s about TODAY–a crown made from pipe cleaners, a cake to share with her unit, a care package filled with books and glow sticks and confetti eggs. She spent today learning to paddle her own canoe, discovering who she is today and getting ready for who she’ll be tomorrow.

Dancing with Jack

“You want to hop out at the door or do you want me to walk in with you?”

“Walk wif me.”

Carlos is at Extra Special People camp this week, and even though he is comfortable and knows from last summer that it’s a fun place, he still needs a hand to hold when we first walk in.

The first activity of the day at ESP is “Flag.” All campers gather around on the lawn to sing, dance, and brag on each other. It’s pretty loud for Carlos, so he hangs back around the periphery with his coach. I tried to coax him up to the circle, and he managed it for a while, but he kept floating back to the shelter of the sidewalk.

Then along came Jack. I know his mother from work, so I know all about Jack but he doesn’t know me. Jack is autistic and doesn’t speak. He’s not a big fan of shoes, but he does like hugs. His shirt today said, “THUG LIFE – drop the T and get over here!” Jack likes to stay on the move during Flag, so his coach was following close behind him to make sure he was safe.

Jack walked past me, just a few inches away, and I reflexively leaned down to his eye level and said, “Hey, Jack!” As soon as I said it, I thought, “Oh, that’s right…Jack doesn’t talk,” and I scrambled to think of how to communicate with him since talking is kind of my thing. But before I could chase my rabbit too far, Jack looked me right in the eye for a moment and smiled. I stuck out my hand for a high five and got two. Then two more, then low fives, then middle fives, then around the side fives and pretty soon we were both giggling. Then I got a hug from Jack and my heart cracked wide open.

His bare foot scraped across my shoe and caught his attention. Jack turned himself around then carefully put his feet on top of my feet so that we could move together. He offered me his hands and I slowly began to turn in small steps, making a circle in the cool early morning grass. We danced for a little while then Jack went on his way.

I had assumed that I wouldn’t know how to talk to Jack because he wouldn’t talk back to me. But we figured it out when Jack showed me the way–start with love then take little steps from there. “You may give them your love, but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”

Thank you, Jack, for reminding me how to make a friend without using any words.

Twilight Rockets

End of the day fatigue led to a parenting mistake: I opened a box from Amazon in front of Carlos without remembering what was in it. Along with a Brandi Carlisle CD for me, I had ordered some Rocket Copters with the aim of taking them to the beach. They’re little plastic darts with wings and LED lights that you launch from a slingshot. They sail 120 feet in the air, spinning/blinking/whistling then plummet down to land on your roof or a nearby tree. Hence my aim to keep them a secret until we were at the beach and had a wide open space.

“Can we do them now, Mama?”

“We have to wait until dark.”

“Is dark now, Mama? When’s dark? Is dark after dinner or after bath? Is dark at bedtime or book time? Is dark now, Mama? How about now?”

I was so tired and so not wanting to have to put on bug spray and shoes to shoot a stupid rocket ONCE before I had to dig out the ladder to climb up on the roof. I hid the rockets in my room in hopes that he would forget about them.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…RIGHT.

After bath time and before book time, with his wet hair slicked down like Rudolph Valentino, Carlos came into the den and chirped, “Is it dark now, Mama?”

Dark enough, Baby.

We went out to the deck and I shot the first one straight up…and into the pool. While I went downstairs to fish it out (with the LED light still blinking, so these are actually pretty sturdy little toys), G shot the second one…onto the roof.

I stayed down by the water to rescue any that came my way and G stayed on the deck with Carlos to fetch the ones that hit the roof. For a good 10 minutes as night fell around us and the bats flitted through the graying sky, we shrieked and squealed and laughed. After a few duds, Carlos eventually figured out the magic of a slingshot, how the power is in both the hand that holds steady and the hand that pulls back.

Each needs the other to work. “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” All this bending that we have to do as parents, it’s so that our children can fly strong and true to the horizon.

Let our bending be for gladness.

carlos tribal summer esp

Living or Nonliving

How do we know if it’s living?

A few weeks ago, after he had spent an afternoon with me at my office, Carlos and I stepped off the curb and cut a diagonal across the parking lot towards my car.

“Mama? What’s trees–living or non-living?”

“What do you think?”

“Living.”

“What tells you that they’re living?”

“Trees can grow. They drink water and eat…what trees eat?”

“Um…They absorb some nutrients from the ground through their roots. And I guess you could say they eat sunshine–they can turn it into energy like you turn food into energy.”

I pointed to a sleek gray Tesla parked in the spot reserved for the radiation oncologist. “What about a car? It drinks gas and it can move around. Living or non-living?”

He giggled. “Cars are non-living.” Before I could ask him, Carlos asked, “Why cars non-living?”

“They can’t grow or change or make more cars.”

He clambered up into his car seat and while I fixed the tangled straps he pulled his prized rocks out of the cup holder.

“Rocks are non-living.”

“Exactly. They don’t eat or grow or change.”

“There are fwee types of rocks,” he told me. “Igmeous, selementary, and mectamorphic.”

“Good job, bud.”

I love kindergarten science.

 

beach-2217043_1920

 

The Thin and Sudden Line Between

A few hours after Carlos and I talked about living and non-living in the hospital parking lot, I got word from my cousin that her mother was going into hospice care. Aunt Dixie, who baked the prettiest pink cake that ever was, had been sick for over a year with a lung infection that just wouldn’t give in. But even as sick as she was for as long as she was, she was still 100% living. I pictured the delicate green chair that she had been sitting in on Christmas Eve. Everything else in that room is the same, the chair waits for her, but she is gone. That’s the way it goes–we’re absolutely alive and suddenly we are absolutely not.

I was there when Richard slipped across that profound line between living and non-living. When I leaned over him to check his oxygen cannula, he was living. The strange clatter of his ragged breath disappeared into the air between us. I straightened the clear plastic tube under his nose to make sure he was getting all he needed. Was it the silence or the stillness that I noticed first? He took no next breath.

I think now about that first blustery day when we met on the side of the highway, the first time we stood close to each other and our breath mingled in the living air. Saying hello, and help, and thank you for the first time. I value every breath from that first March day to the last March day. He was 100% living and NEVER gave up. I suppose that’s why, even after 10 months of watching cancer eat away at him cell by cell, the moment when he slipped across that thin line took my breath away.

 

Left: Beach gravel Right: Leukemia cells

Left: Beach gravel
Right: Leukemia cells

Some Things, Say The Wise Ones

By Mary Oliver

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
You live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said, Thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

The last trip Richard and I took together was to Maine. We sat beside a harbor like the one Mary Oliver captured in this poem. He ate a cinnamon roll that was bigger than his head. I took a picture of our feet with the boats as a background. Richard had burned with a strange and painful fever the night before, but that morning we were 100% living.

At a beach made of smooth pink stones in Acadia National Park, I slipped two small rocks into my pocket. All these years later, those rocks are asleep upstairs in a bowl on the book shelf. A pair of ancient and silent stones that aren’t living and never have been, but when I hold them in my hand, something else comes to life, a memory. A memory of living, a generous time when I lived my life my way and cheered on the clouds. A memory of the days when our life was blindly and blandly about living. A few days after that, Richard was diagnosed with leukemia and our days became consumed with staying alive.

Given the fear and sadness that entered my life on Richard’s last breath, given the hollow fact that Carlos won’t remember his Papa, my Daddy who would have been 75 today…How will I teach Carlos about living? Not just the facts about living, but the giddy joy of living? The living in a world of pink smooth stones, whether we can say if they are igmeous or mectamorphic. The living in a world of roses and starfish that are always going to die, every one of them every time.

I will teach him to love it all. Oh, my dear boy, the easiest way to tell whether something is living is to know that it can die. Love anyway.

18922053_10211322459570270_2852039268482776682_n

I Miss You So Much

March is a tough month for me. It’s filled with days that mattered to Richard and me, days that have become sad milestones since…well, since March 16th, 2005. The day he stopped breathing while I was looking at wedding pictures from March 5th. Our eleven days we got to say “husband” and “wife.” Only eleven days of that privilege after Just four short years together. We met on March 6, 2001, or “Alternator Day” as we called it because if it weren’t for the crapped out alternator in my Ford Escort, he never would have stopped to help me on the side of the highway on that blustery March day. March will always be the month when we said hello for the first time and the month when we said goodbye for the last time.

March is spring break, too. These days, spring break is about keeping the kids occupied and edified. When I find myself in the screaming pit of LEGOLand or trying to explain why a tomahawk might not be the best souvenir for a 6 year old, it’s hard not to pine for the days when spring break meant exploring Roman ruins in Germany, or scootering around Bermuda, or searching for Icelandic food in Prague. Comparisons are odious, but chicken nuggets and french fries for every freaking meal are too.

March is when the azaleas bloom. The ones we planted. This year, they bloomed while we were away on spring break, then the late freeze got them all. I missed them.

March is about missing.

Last Friday, my department went on a retreat to an indoor skydiving place in Marietta. Before we talked about goals and expectations and team building, we sat around the conference table for breakfast. Max laughed about his fear of jumping into the wind tunnel. I started to tell the story of that time that Richard and I went skydiving.

When I was done with the part that I do tell, I bit into a catering strawberry and remembered the part I don’t tell. The part where Richard and I went back to my house with all that adrenaline and we sat on the floor in the kitchen and drank a bottle of tepid champagne while I giggled over my first freefall. He had leapt from planes with the Army, but never done freefall from 15,000 feet, so we both did some giggling. We lay in my backyard hammock under the dappled shade of oak trees and when I said I was hungry, he returned from the house with a silver footed bowl filled with strawberries. I laughed at the ridiculous pomp of that bowl and he said he had seen it on top of the refrigerator and thought it suited the day. It’s been years since I’ve thought of those strawberries. That day was in May, strawberry weather. We spent the whole afternoon in that hammock, eating strawberries and being more alive than we had been the day before.

strawberries-1390893_1920

 

Last week, I sat in the conference room and my mind went back through the pictures of that day. As is my habit when I summon up those images, I look for Richard and I think about how much I miss him now that he is gone.

But something shifted that morning. When I summoned up the picture of us standing in the hangar, suiting up, my mind’s eye drifted from him…to me. My bold and smiling self. Me wearing lipstick because I had paid extra for the in-air video. Me walking towards the plane on legs that wobbled with fear. Me checking Dan’s wrist altimeter and the pro skydivers laughing that I thought 1000 feet was high enough.

I saw that woman in my memory, my boldest self, and I blurted to her, “I miss you so much.”

sky diving

I miss her.

I miss being the kind of person who can live out of a backpack for two weeks. I miss eating strawberries out of a silver bowl. I miss riding trains and ferries and buses. I miss eating at restaurants that serve foods I can’t pronounce. I miss cathedrals and kayaks and funiculars and Korean barbecue. I miss lipstick.

Yes, I miss Richard, especially in March. But I have fallen into the habit of looking at my memories of adventure and only seeing him, that part of the picture that can never be again. I miss him, but I miss her, too.

Maybe I miss her even more than I miss him.

She’s still here, still living a life filled with chances to giggle and be astonished, but she’s spending hours sitting on the couch playing Scrabble on a phone. There are Ethiopian restaurants and glamping yurts and jazz combos within 20 miles of my bedroom. There’s a kayak in the basement and a river in the backyard. There’s a university down the street and I can skip out of work an hour early to go hear Nikki Giovanni read poems about falling in love. There is grace and there is love and in a few weeks there will be strawberries.

I miss her so much. Tell her I’ll be there as soon as I get my lipstick on.

I stayed giddy for days!

Relics: Artifacts My Daughter Doesn’t Know How to Use

Trigger warning: I’m going to refer to some racially offensive language (and high fat content foods) in here.


“Why does every show start with the stuff we JUST WATCHED on the last show?” Vivi asked me in frustration. She was several episodes deep into the Transformers.

“Well, sweetie,” I chuckled, “back in the OLDEN DAYS before Netflix, TV shows only came on once a week or once a day, so they did that to remind you what had happened last time.”

In a world of binge-watching streaming video and On Demand cable TV, my daughter has never needed the “On our last episode…” recap to pick up the thread of a show. We had discovered a relic.

rel·ic
ˈrelik/noun
  1. an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
  2. an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.

She is growing up in a different kind of life, a life where recaps are “now outmoded.”

This has not been lost on my family. I remember when she was about 3 and we were all sitting around the dining room table at Daddy and Gay’s house. Her Uncle James looked at Vivi across the table and blurted, “That child does not know how to eat a drumstick.”

Every head turned to witness Vivi gripping her fried chicken leg by the meaty end while she gnawed for purchase on the bony little knobbly end. My firstborn, not one generation removed from walking out into the backyard to procure a chicken for the frying pan, didn’t know which end of the drumstick was the handle.

Daddy was aghast. “Don’t you feed this baby CHICKEN?”

I rotated the drumstick in her hand and Vivi bit into the meat like she had struck gold. “Of course I do! It just…doesn’t have any bones in it.” I bake chicken breasts or chicken tenders or chicken nuggets. I don’t cook non-specific chicken parts chicken. I don’t fry it. And I sure as hell don’t cut it up.

Daddy set his own drumstick down on the edge of his plate. “How do you make STOCK if you don’t have a carcass???” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t make stock, I don’t own Crisco, and I have never in my life cooked a dumpling. And as God is my witness, I will never be hungry enough to mess with giblets.

That night taught me that drumsticks, a staple of my life, might be a relic for my daughter. An object of purely sentimental interest.

She figured out the business end of a drumstick.

She eventually figured out the business end of a drumstick.

So many things that are normal to me don’t really make sense to her. The other night we were out of body wash at bath time. I handed her a bar of $8 goat’s milk and honey soap that I get special for myself from the farmer’s market. This child who is in the gifted program at school did not even know how to work up bubbles with a bar of soap–all she could do was stare at it and chase after it every time it slipped out of her hand. She sat there in the tub with her Mr. Bubble, Kidz 2-in-1 Shampoo, a pink sponge…and a relic.

Photographic evidence of how little my children know about bar soap.

Photographic evidence of how little my children understand bar soap.

Remember that story from last summer when she was away at camp and I couldn’t wait to get a letter? Then when it arrived I realized that I had never taught my daughter how to use an envelope, so an unsealed envelope was all I received? She has two different email accounts in fourth grade and takes coding classes but doesn’t know that you have to lick the envelope to make it hold the letter inside. Envelopes are from an earlier time.

Oops.

Oops.

My kids don’t know what a phone book is, much less how you can use the Atlanta Yellow Pages as a booster seat when you are eating fried chicken around your Grandmama Eunice’s Sunday table (but you better wash those hands first and use SOAP).

Relics. I get sad when I consider how differently my children are growing up. We had it pretty good, what with the drumsticks and the rotary phones and the weekly episodes and the Ivory soap that was so pure it floats.

But it’s not all wistful memorializing of my glorious past that she won’t ever experience. Some relics are signs that we are making real progress.

Like the day Vivi and I went to a Sunday afternoon showing of Hidden Figures. We had seen the preview at Moana so she recognized the early scene of the three women repairing their broken down car. Vivi leaned over to me in the dark and whispered, “Three neh-GRO women chasing a white police officer…”

From "Hidden Figures"

From “Hidden Figures”

I didn’t understand her at first and said, “Huh?” with one eye still on the screen.

“Remember when the lady says ‘Three neg-ROW women chasing a policeman…'”

“Oh right!” I laughed quietly with her and nodded. She went back to watching the movie while I had to put my hand on my heart and catch my breath for a second.

My Georgia-born-and-raised daughter doesn’t know how to pronounce “Negro.” That word is a relic to her.

I read somewhere that you shouldn’t make fun of a person who mispronounces a word because it means that they learned it by reading instead of by hearing it. I’m sure Vivi has read “Negro” in books, but she’s never heard it in conversation while sitting around her grandmama’s table at Sunday lunch.

By the time I was her age, I had heard enough to distinguish the difference between Negro, n*gger, nigra, black, colored, redbone, high yellow, and blue gum. And that was from listening to mostly nice people talk.

We didn’t say n*gger in my family, not even in the older generations. Only coarse people used that word. My grandparents said “colored” or “nigra.” After my wedding to Fartbuster, I blanched when my grandmother–a self-taught painter–recounted a delightful conversation about painting she had had with “that nigra art professor” at the reception. “His name is VINCENT!” I scolded her. Grandmama didn’t understand why I was getting worked up. Mom reminded me that, for their era, using “nigra” was polite.

Not good enough for me. I lived in the modern world and their terms were relics. The world changed around them, yet they held on to their words. My beloved great aunt even coined an adjectival form: when I bought my first car, she said, “I wouldn’t buy a red car. It’s too nigra-ish.”

The one and only time I got my mouth washed out–speaking of soap–involved these n-words. Coming home from school one day when I was 5 or 6, one of the older boys dared me to say n*gger. I didn’t do it then, but once we got home, I said the word within earshot of Quicker, who looked after us. My memory of the event may be hazy, but my memory of the taste of Ivory soap is 99 44100% Pure, because my mama soaped up a blue wash cloth and had me sit there and suck on it until I had learned my lesson.

I did learn my lesson that day. Flash forward 40-something years to that dark theater, where my daughter puts the accent on the wrong syllable of Negro. I felt something move, something shift across generations. One word. It’s such a small thing, but it gives me hope.

 

Women’s March Part 2: Can I Swap Places With You?

I wore my new shirt to the Y to walk today. Yes, it’s been THAT long since the March that my shirt has already arrived.

Women's March: Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Women’s March: Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

This part of the story has taken me a while to stew over. All of those things I was worried about? None of them mattered.

I didn’t hear a single dynamic feminist icon or fired-up celebrity because the speaker near us was broken. I couldn’t see the stage or a Jumbotron. Jean and I got separated and it took two hours to find each other in the throngs of people. The cell service crashed so we couldn’t communicate. Jean dropped one of her bottles of water in the portapotty not 15 minutes into our day.

None of that mattered.

Because I have never experienced such love in one place. Such fellow-feeling. Such kindness among strangers.

You’ve seen photos of the crowd size and read the statistics. I would not be surprised if the DC crowd alone numbered 1 million people. I’ve been in football stadium crowds before, and London Underground at rush hour crowds. This crowd was different, not just because it was 10 times larger than any crowd I’ve ever witnessed. This crowd was NICE.

The Mission Statement of the Women's March. I saw it played out in real life.

The Mission Statement of the Women’s March. I saw it played out in real life.

Jean and I got there early but it was already crowded. We staked out prime seats on 4th Avenue, on a low wall outside the Museum of the American Indian. Great people watching. Jean decided to make one last potty run before the line up started. Being people who are older than technology and therefore aware that it can fail, we agreed that if we ever got separated for more than an hour, we would meet at the tall totem poles by the museum.

Pick a landmark that is tall enough to be seen from a distance.

Pick a landmark that is tall enough to be seen from a distance. Raven and Bear.

Good thing we did. I didn’t start looking for her until after the speakers had begun. I craned my neck to the right and scanned the ever-growing crowd for her…pink hat. Yeah, that wasn’t really helping. And y’all…Jean is SHORT. It’s easy to lose our pocket-sized friends in a crowd like that.

I started getting nervous after she had been gone an hour. I checked for a text–nothing. Then I realized that the cell service had given up because there were just too many people. Jean could have been calling me and I wouldn’t have known. I slipped into Southern Mama Mode: SHE COULD BE LYING DEAD IN A DITCH AND I DIDN’T PICK UP THE PHONE!

Finally, I got to Facebook and saw that Jean had posted a message that she couldn’t get back to me and she was going to the totem poles. Sweet relief–we had a plan. Unfortunately, our plan lay on the other side of this:

march wall

I gave up my prime position on the wall to a nice older lady (I mean, older than me). But there was nowhere to go. Jean and the totem poles were only about 50 yards away. That day? It took me 45 minutes to go 50 yards. CRUSH. People weren’t moving at all because there was simply nowhere to go.

This is where I learned my first lesson from the crowd. I couldn’t ask people to get out of my way. I couldn’t just bull my way through to my friend. Instead, I would touch a person on the elbow and ask, “Can I switch places with you?” We would literally pivot in a tight little circle to swap places then I would repeat the maneuver on the next person. That way, no one felt like they were getting shoved or had to fear that they would get separated. All I was asking was to swap places.

One step at a time got me to the totem poles…but no Jean.

march lost

I knew she was too smart to have given up and abandoned the plan. She had to be there but she also had to be SHORT. I climbed up onto a low wall around a flower bed. And bumped into the hilarious political comedian, John Fugelsang, which was highly entertaining. Y’all should follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and through a crowd because dude is TALL. Seriously, in this next picture, I was on a wall and he was not.

march john

 

I spent another 30 minutes balancing on that wall, slowly rotating in search of Jean. A tiny lady next to me introduced herself as, “Penny, from Raleigh, North Carolina–but I ain’t like most of ’em down there.” I told her I couldn’t find my friend and she said, “Well, why on’t you wave your sign around? Surely she can see that easier than she can see you.”

That’s when I learned my second lesson from the crowd: when you are in need, tell someone. Other people have different perspectives and can offer solutions that haven’t been obvious to you. They want to help. Thank you, Penny! Within a couple of minutes of waving my giant neon green sign in the air over my head, I heard several people not 20 feet away scream, “ASHLEY!!!”

There was Jean!

Reunited and it feels so good. I'm Peaches and she's SHORT.

Reunited and it feels so good. I’m Peaches and she’s SHORT.

Once we swore to never leave each other again, no matter what, Jean left. She had found a nice stand of bushes that kept people away from her so she planted herself right in the middle of them and got some breathing space. Because see that crowd over our heads? That’s the Mall and it was FULL. I stayed on the wall with my new friends Penny and John.

Here’s the part of the day that I don’t ever want to forget, so I’m writing it down here.

As I teetered right on the edge of the wall, two young people came up to the edge of the flower bed and tried to climb up. I said, “Oh honey, there is nowhere to go up here. There’s a line of shrubs right here and people as far as you can see.” The girl in front didn’t answer. She ducked her head farther into her hoodie and stared at her phone. Her jacket was mint green and the other kid’s was blue.

They both froze there, stopped by the wall and the crowd…and me. They didn’t say anything, just kept fiddling with their phones. I figured they were just hanging out like the rest of us, waiting for the crowd to start marching.

Twenty or thrity minutes passed by. Since we couldn’t hear what was happening on the stage, we chanted “Let’s march now!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” and Fugelsang started “Impeach Pence FIRST!”

During a lull, another message got passed along by the crowd. Just like Jean had asked strangers to yell my name, people to my right started yelling, “Zoe and Bobby! Zoe and Bobby!” I turned to my section of the crowd and yelled “Zoe and Bobby!”

The girl right there next to me jumped like she had been shocked and looked straight up into my eyes. That’s when I realized how YOUNG she really was–about 13.

“Are you Zoe and Bobby?” They both nodded urgently but still didn’t say a word.

I turned back in the original direction and yelled, “We’ve got Zoe and Bobby here! Zoe and Bobby are here!” The message traveled through several people until it stopped at one man. He was a dad-aged African American man, as tall as Fugelsang but as wide as a bear, and wearing a hot pink Women’s March shirt. We made eye contact and I nodded as hard as I could and pointed down to the kids. The look on his face, the relief that transformed his entire body. I’ll never forget that moment.

Every person in that flower bed pulled themselves in a little bit and swapped and wiggled until a path was cleared between Zoe and Bobby and their dad. Once they got to him, all of that frozen fear melted away. There was a big family hug and dad started crying. Hell, we all were, even little Penny from Raleigh North Carolina because she ain’t like most of em.

I’ve lost Carlos in a crowd before for 30 minutes. I know that feeling of scanning every face and not finding the one I need to see. I looked at that dad and thought about that method I had used to move through the crowd–Will you swap places with me? For an instant, I swapped places with him and the only natural response, one parent to another, was to help.

march moms

Zoe and Bobby and their dad taught me the third lesson of that crowd: THIS is who we are. It didn’t matter that I didn’t hear a word from the speakers or see a single performer. I got to meet US, the U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of people in one place can be a dangerous situation. We could have gotten angry or selfish. We could have panicked. We could have shouted each other down. Instead, we got kind. We took care of each other. We sang the national anthem and we cheered when the trans flag flew from a light post. We chanted and we shared water and snacks. We didn’t bump the old people and we watched our language around the kids, mostly.

We practiced being our best selves in challenging conditions. We the people.

That’s what people who weren’t there will never get. We chose to be our best selves, to each other, and for each other. That’s what America can be.


Gate A-4, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those otherwomen, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.