I Woke Up In This World

I’ve woken up with this pain before–the heavy ache in every muscle from carrying around a racing mind, a broken heart, and all on no sleep. I know this feeling.

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I felt this way the day after my first husband came home with lipstick on his collar. I felt this way the morning after we found out Richard had leukemia. I felt this way in 2000, when no one knew who the president was, even the next morning or the day after that. I felt this way on 9/12/01, stumbling through that day wondering what would come next. And today I woke up feeling this way again–this tired, this heartbroken, this confused. This surprised.

I always feel this way when I wake up to the reality that I am not living in the world I thought I had been. Where nothing adds up. Where being smart and working hard don’t lead to the job. Where being faithful and keeping your vows doesn’t matter anymore. Where facts don’t matter.

These aren’t the sleepless nights of tending to an infant or hot flashes or worrying about bills. This is the groggy feeling of being afraid to sleep because you never saw it coming. Think back to the last time the veil was ripped away, where the truth turned your world on its head.

I woke up in that world today. Shocked.

When I took Carlos to school, the teachers–all women of color–didn’t looked shocked. They looked tired and sad and angry, but not surprised. My darling friend, who just married his husband on the 20th anniversary of their first date, had encouraging and inspiring words to share about getting up and getting back to work. He was disappointed this morning, but not surprised. A college sister who wears the hijab was petrified to leave her home…but not surprised. Another friend wondered if she would be able to adopt her own children now, but she worked through her terror in that “been there done that” way of people who have had to fight for every step.

Clutching my pearls.

Clutching my pearls.

Only the white women were shocked. Surprised. Clutching our pearls. Aghast.

That’s when I realized–I woke up in their world. That teacher can’t walk to the grocery store without being called a n*gger bitch. I hear her. That man can’t kiss his husband on the sidewalk after a movie because they could be beaten, even though they pay their taxes and follow the laws, like good citizens do. My college sister knows that every time she wears her headscarf to graduate school, someone’s going to say something. I hear her. Their lives are up for comment and debate and remarks. Every day.

On Tuesday, I was so delighted with the high spirits of celebration, the GLADNESS and pride I felt in my candidate. I was running errands with the kids and decided to wear my Hillary hat and sticker. As vocal as I am on social media, in person, and with my yard signs, I hadn’t marked myself as “With Her” with clothing before. Within 15 minutes, I was literally shaking with fear from the snarling looks I got from angry white men. I’m sure they would have said things to me if I hadn’t had my children. For an instant, I thought, “This is what it feels like to be a minority–having to walk through a miasma of anger to get a sandwich.”

In the next instant, I realized how trivial and stupid it was to compare my brief experience to the experiences of those who live as Other in their own country. After all, I can take off my hat and slip right back into the invisibility of white womanhood.

My whiteness gives me the power to blend in when I don’t want to be bothered while also giving me the power to be noticed when I want to be seen or heard on issues. I can shift between visibility and invisibility as it serves me best.

I saw an explanation that said, “If you have never understood privilege consider this: if you don’t feel threatened today, you have it.” I live in many bubbles of privilege: a county that votes like me, a skin that’s white, a family that usually had enough when we needed it, an economic class that enjoys a cushion to weather storms. Even my accent projects that I am an educated Southern woman. I am connected and respected. Sure, I’m a woman in a sexist society–but I’m a white woman. I’m more powerful because of my whiteness in a racist society even as I am less powerful as a woman in a sexist society. In the big picture, it works to my favor and I can decide when to engage in changing these structures.

I cannot imagine how it felt to wake up today without my bubbles of privilege in an America that elected that person to be our First Citizen. To represent us on the world stage. To serve as the face on the coins or the voice of the Union. To know that 58,000,000 of my fellow citizens decided that whatever collateral damage he may wreak will be worth it in exchange for getting whatever it is they need to feel safe again. To “take back” the country from….inclusion? optimism? equal rights? complete sentences?

We all woke up to that America today. Now we have to decide whether to close our eyes again or stay awake.

 

Build Me a Son Like Joe

For 50 years, the world has been home to my brother Joe. For 48 years and 2 weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of being his little sister and sometimes making him cry.

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

When we were little, I’m sure I made him cry in frustration a time or two. Now that we are older (some of us more than others…), I like to make him cry happy tears by holding up a mirror to show him what a fine man he has become. I wrote that piece a few weeks ago called What Does Love Carry In Its Hands? My brother is the perfect example of how to be good at loving the world. His hands are never empty–he carries hammers and hams and small people who need strong men.

He’s made me cry a time or two. Like that time when Richard was in the hospital and I invited the family over on Labor Day. When I mentioned how much I hated the chain link fence around the pool, he and Daddy set to work and by the time I got back from Kroger with dinner, my family had that fence rolled up and gone. I stood in the bedroom window and watched them, crying. Joe is the kind of man who always has tools around, in case something (or someone) needs fixing. After all that sweaty work, Joe manned the grill when it was time to cook dinner. I handed him a pack of tofu dogs. He cried.

Mr. Fixit

Mr. Fixit

A few months later, everybody cried when Richard died, but Joe didn’t show up with empty hands. We had planned to greet family and friends after the service at the church, so there were sandwich trays for that crowd. I hadn’t planned on all the folks who gravitated back to the house afterwards. We didn’t have much lying around to feed them. Then Big Gay opened after a knock at the kitchen door and there stood Joe with a glistening glazed ham. “Did you just drive around with a ham in your car?” she asked. “Yep,” he said. “Someone died…you make ham.” I cried.

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Now that I have a son of my own, I cry when I see my little boy run to his Unca Joe for a hug. Back when Carlos wasn’t very social, Unca Joe was the first relative that he identified with, that he sought out, who was allowed to love on him, whose name he remembered weeks later. Joe picks Carlos up and tosses him over his shoulder, toting him like a sack of giggling potatoes. That sight always makes me cry. Joe teaches Carlos that he is loved and he is safe. Last year, we were at Cowtail for Easter. Joe had a drill out, fixing an old chair. The loud noise made Carlos cry. Instead of telling Carlos to toughen up, or saving the task for later, Unca Joe called Carlos over and explained the drill to him. He helped Carlos hold the weight and aim the bit then let this little boy do the work. Carlos crowed with delight. I cried.

Sack of taters

Sack of taters

When Joe’s oldest son was christened, I didn’t know what kind of gift to give. Instead of a thing, I found this prayer and shared it with my brother. He cried.

A Father’s Prayer for His Son

By General Douglas MacArthur

Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee—and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here, let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those that fail.

Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously.

Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the meekness of true strength. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

He read it, standing there in the colorful nursery of his own tiny boy. He cried. He handed it to Daddy, and Daddy cried too. The only person in that room who understood how much Joe loved Grant was Daddy, because he could look upon a son who had been built strong and funny and kind and gracious and brave and gentle.

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

Joe, I hope that you know you are loved and admired every day, not just early in November. I hope that you know that, judging by the men you are raising, you have not lived in vain. I hope you know that our father, who loved you so, could dare to whisper, “That’s my boy. I have not lived in vain.”

Happy Birthday. Now let’s eat some smoked pig. We can blame the smoke if there’s any crying.

She Simply Needed to Rest

On the second night of my adventure to the beach, I lay tucked into bed with a book and five pillows. The hotel fan was set on Hi but I left the sliding glass door open to listen to the sound of the ocean.

My rest ended abruptly with an ominous THUNK followed by a frenzy of flapping. I peeked over the edge of the bed in fear that a bird had blundered into my space. But I saw nothing, and the room was quiet again. Had I imagined it in a half dream, like that falling feeling that startles me awake sometimes?

Another flapflapflap led my eye to the source. One large orange butterfly clung to the bright white sheet of the hotel bed. Something gentle that had wandered into a different world.

Gulf Fritillary at Tybee Beach

Gulf Fritillary at Tybee Beach

I scooted my hand under her feet–I decide it’s a female right away for no reasonable reason–but she flees from my touch and hops onto the sofa. I try again to shoo her towards the open door and back out into the dark night. She flies to the curtain, then up to the white coffered ceiling.

Safely out of reach of my helpful blunderings, she folds her wings together to reveal brown and opalescent white patches. As I stand on the sofa below her perch, I witness the moment when the energy of her body stills completely, as if she has flipped a switch to OFF.

After a while, I go back to my book and my bed, but I leave the door open all night so that she can return to the world if she needs to. I leave her unbothered so she can avoid the world if she needs to.

resting-butterfly

 

In the morning, the butterfly is still suspended from the ceiling, still folded. As I pack my bags, I make a mental note to carry her out onto the balcony before I leave. I couldn’t stand the thought that a harried hotel maid might swat at her. Someone else, with more on their mind, might see a bug instead of a butterfly.

I slip off my flip flops to stand on the couch but before I can lift myself up to reach her, the butterfly turns the switch to ON. With an orange fluttery flash that startles me from my wobbly perch, we both go tumbling through the air toward the door. She lingers on the railing of the balcony then takes off in circles of flight, off towards the sunrise.

Just like me, that butterfly needed a place to rest, a safe place to be still and turn the switch to OFF.

I’ve been off work this whole week, as a birthday treat to myself. I can’t recommend it highly enough! But even with the prospect of a week to do whatever I needed to do, I burned the first two days with errands and to-do lists. I voted, I donated outgrown clothes, I washed the car, I sold it. The pool project got finished and paid for. I polished that bracelet that has been needing attention. I got my toenails painted for the first time since July 4th. I bought a new car and read the manual to learn how the radio works. I bought the right kind of snacks at the grocery store and made sure the kids would have clean clothes for the week. I busied myself with getting ready to relax.

After two delicious nights on Tybee Island and hour after hour of reading and writing and laughing with old friends and eating shrimp at every opportunity, and taking naps, and sitting in the sun…I got back on someone else’s schedule and got myself to the dock to catch a ride to Ossabaw Island for a writing retreat.

I didn’t think I had a lot of expectations, but apparently I did. The island was still cleaning up after Hurricane Matthew. The air hung thick with mosquitos. There was no breeze. After the lush hotel bed, I was reduced to a bunk bed in a room with nine other women. Our lunch had gotten wet on the trip over. Someone drank one of my Diet Cokes that I had lovingly packed. There were many nice people and a couple who annoyed me right off the dock with incessant chattering. There was no place to hide except behind my rigid smile.

Oh, and that teacher I’ve been excited about working with? He couldn’t make it. There’s someone else and he’s perfectly skilled and kind and here, but I need a moment to adjust. I hit the end of my equanimity and I felt myself begin to flap, to wheel in crazy mental circles.

Like that butterfly, I needed a minute to myself.

I tried to go for a walk in the direction of the old tabby cabins, but the mosquitos threatened to carry me away, one drop of blood at a time. I walked around the corner of the wrap-around porch to find a place to cry but every Brumby rocker might invite a conversation. Finally, I grabbed my pack and walked back down the quarter mile track to the dock, the only stretch of this 24,000 acre island that I had already seen.

Ossabaw Island, 2 p.m.

Ossabaw Island, 2 p.m.

Just like the butterfly, I blundered into exactly the place I needed to be. Out on the dock, there was a cool breeze. No mosquitos. A wide blue sky. Space to breathe. Silence. Except for something big in the water that surfaced, flopped, and disappeared before I could spot it. Peace and quiet, rippling across the water and across my worried mind.

I folded myself and tucked my wings together. I hung there in quiet, as DNR trucks unloaded, a kayaker paddled by, a couple pulled up to the dock and unloaded. The chatter passed and quiet returned, every time.

After a while, with my wings recharged by rest, I went back up the dirt road to join my people. Good people, curious people, brave people who crossed the water to find a community of writers. We each stretched our wings and began to see where they might take us.

My neighbor on the dock.

My neighbor on the dock.

Agency and Archery

Yesterday, I wrote about kinetic energy and potential energy and how both can be seen in the image of an archer pulling back on a bowstring. By pulling on the bowstring while pressing against the rigid curve of the bow, the archer amplifies the potential energy of the weapon, all thanks to the magic of math and angles and physics and stuff.

Every element of the machine has an effect on the outcome. Is the bow made from stiff oak or rubbery yew? Is the string linen or rawhide or polyethylene fiber? Are the archer’s muscles tired or fresh? Does her breath make her wobble or do her hips make a steady base? Is her elbow at the correct angle to amplify the power of pulling back, or does some force dissipate? Are the fletching feathers on the arrow in good shape and positioned for maximum aerodynamics? Does the wind blow?

Which part of this machine is truly powerful? Is it the arrow with its piercing metal tip? Is it the curved bow–just a piece of wood with a string tied to it? Taken separately, the bow and the string and the arrow are harmless. It’s when they work together that they can feed a family or end one. They are tools for converting potential energy into kinetic energy and converting deer into dinner.

Artemis (later Diana). Goddess of the hunt.

Artemis (later Diana). Goddess of the hunt.

 

And that brings me to the idea of AGENCY. Agency is the ability of a person to act for herself. A child has less agency than the parent. A person who refuses to vote surrenders agency. Financial independence supports agency. Systems of control, like racism and sexism, try to strip agency from others. Energy is one thing–agency is quite another. We can expend all the kinetic energy in the world, but does it lead to or stem from agency?

Think again about the example of the bow, the arrow, and the archer. We spend so much time paying attention to ENERGY. The bow thrums with potential energy; the arrow slices the air with kinetic energy. These tools have energy, but only the archer has agency. Until the archer decides to nock the arrow, and takes aim, and pulls back, and releases…the bow and arrow are useless.

Forget about the energy and the noise and the angles. Forget that your muscles may be tired or the wind might be high.

Go vote. It’s your agency and a lot of people fought long and hard for you to have it.

On another note: Have you ever wondered why British people make a rude gesture by holding up a reverse peace sign? Two fingers up with palm facing in and fingers slightly curved? In England, it’s called “flicking the v’s” and it’s similar to Americans shooting a bird. Those are the two fingers you use to pull a bowstring. English archers destroyed the French at Agincourt, so legend has it that the defiant sign for “piss off” hearkens back to English soldiers waggling those two fingers to remind the French who won. It’s an expression of agency AND archery!

Kinetic Energy and Potential Energy

Think back to elementary school science class. Remember learning about kinetic energy and potential energy? I was smitten with the word “kinetic” from the moment I heard it–that word is not one you bump into by accident. It is a book-learning, SAT kind of word. I’ve been thinking a lot about kinetic energy and potential energy this morning as I try to get myself packed to go to a writing retreat. I have re-organized our silverware drawer, talked to my insurance agent, folded everything that needs folding, and even done a few chores for other people because I am a bundle of nerves. I am downright kinetic.

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So, in case you are having trouble finding that fourth grade science part of your brain, a refresher: imagine an archer, pulling back the string of a bow. Potential energy is “the energy possessed by a body by virtue of its position relative to others, stresses within itself, electric charge, and other factors.” So when the archer pulls back on the bowstring, the string possesses a great amount of potential energy, all derived from the force the archer’s muscles can pull, the tautness of the string itself, the angle at which the string is stretched, etc. When the archer’s fingers let slip, we are watching kinetic energy as the arrow is pushed forward by the released energy of the bowstring. Kinetic energy is the energy of being in motion.

For potential to move to kinetic, the archer has to LET GO.

Last week, when I wrote about the challenge I’m facing with writing, Margaret reminded me of something our boot camp coach Tami used to say: if you want to run faster, you have to run faster. Simple in words, but hard in dead…right? Margaret pushed through her PhD with those words. Tami moved herself from a nursing career to an interior design career. To achieve the thing you want, you have to DO the thing you dream of. The only way to train your body to run faster is to push it to run faster. Not to talk about running, watching Chariots of Fire every night, join a running list serv, or shop for new shoes. You get better at running by running.

That got me thinking (see how I’ve been doing allllll this thinking but no writing?) about Wise Heather. Heather has been training for MONTHS for the Marine Corps Marathon. It’s her first full marathon and it’s this weekend. She’s running in memory of her father. She has hit every mark of her training plan, mile after mile after mile. She’s run in wind and rain and heat and other cities and other races. She knows the course elevation. She knows the forecasted temperatures. She knows she has to “beat the bridge” at mile 18 and she has practiced running that far, that fast.

Then her training plan told her to quit running. Not quit altogether, but quit pushing herself higher. This is the dreaded “taper” that runners have to do before a race. Cut the mileage back, let your muscles rest, all with the aim of going farther and faster because you slowed down.

Heather is pulling the bowstring and it is HARD. Building up potential energy requires those stresses in oneself. Waiting to let the string go and see how far it can push the arrow, in the right direction, if the wind is right.

I am writing these words, right now, about her, and about math and science and Margaret and Tami and elementary school, because I really want to be writing a book and it is HARD. I think about writing and talk about writing and read books written by people who know how to write. But the only way to write more is to write more. In sun and wind and rain and in other cities.

So. My car is packed. The string is pulled. Now I just have to let go. Change potential into kinetic.

This Saturday, think of Heather and remind her that she can do this. At the same time she is running her race, I will be writing mine. We can do this. Potential to kinetic.

Let’s go.

bullseye

Opening the Book

Laocoon Group

Laocoon and his sons. Ancient statue unearthed in 1500s and now on display in Vatican.

This is what my writing ritual looked like this morning:

  1. Eat all the carbs left over from the Leukemia Society bake sale.
  2. And drink two Diet Cokes.
  3. Feel all the guilt for abandoning my beloved children for a few hours so I can go downstairs and write. (They were both staring contentedly at their respective electronics.)
  4. Gather more carbs, the computer, a 44oz plastic cup of ice water, and that book written by the guy I get to study with in a couple of weeks.
  5. Plug in computer, eat a caramel apple (simultaneously).
  6. Stand in the morning sun as it makes shadows of the heart-shaped redbud leaves and read the last 10 pages of The World’s Largest Man. It’s so good, I can’t sit down. So good, I want to stand in the sun.
  7. Snot up 5 tissues because it’s over, along with so many other things in this life. Cry for my daddy, cry for Richard, cry for all those chipmunks that Biscuits has brought to the back door this week. Cry for autumn. Cry for carbs. Cry because the kids might be up there right now eating the last of the fudge cake that is supposed to be my reward for writing. Cry for my kids because they have an awful selfish mother like me.
  8. Climb quietly up the basement stairs to listen to the family up above. I don’t want to go up there and have to explain the red face, but I need to get close enough to hear three sets of footsteps (or at least the buzz of three screens) to confirm that no beloveds have died while I took a few minutes to pursue my dream.
  9. Skulk back down to the office and wake up computer from Sleep mode. Beg Facebook friends to harangue me into writing.
  10. Look up Harrison Scott Key on Facebook then suffer mild panic attack because this uproarious and visceral memoir that he’s written has won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I sent him 25 pages of my manuscript to critique about a week ago. He’s probably at the store to buy more red pencils.
  11. Pull up manuscript. Spot every obvious flaw. Gnash teeth.
  12. Put on some music. Shuffle lands on Counting Crows “Long December” just as I’m thinking about almost writing that part of the story from December 31 of that awful year when Richard called from Baltimore, heartbroken because a doctor had told him it was time to go home and die. I sat in the sun on the last day of that longest December and didn’t know what to say to him. But I knew that this year would not be better than the last.
  13. Pace around small office. Lean in corners to cry. Rest head on molding around door. Crawl into grandmother’s platform rocker and try to remember what it was like before life got big.
  14. Sit down at the fucking hateful computer again.
  15. Glance up to the bookshelves and spot the green Mead notebook that I wrote in when Richard first got diagnosed. Take it off the shelf and contemplate opening it for the first time in a decade.
  16. Chicken out.
  17. Chicken back in.
  18. Step back into July 4, 2014.
  19. Wish I hadn’t.
  20. Distract myself with googling images of the Laocoon group because MAN, I GET THAT GUY. He was a Trojan priest who tried to warn them that the Trojan Horse left by the Greeks shouldn’t be allowed into the city. Athena, protector of the Greeks, struck him and his two sons with serpents. Basically, he tried to tell the truth, he tried to expose the lie that would kill them all….and died for it. Some say that he didn’t die from the venom. He was left to live and carry the loss of his sons, his city, his position, his everything. Telling the truth gets you snakebit, kids.
  21. Conclude that maybe I’m being a bit grandiose and should just get back to writing the simple story of a woman who made it through a couple of snake fights and might have some teeny grains of wisdom to share with other, equally snake-grappling folks.
  22. Write two paragraphs.
  23. Erase one.
  24. Listen to Bonnie Raitt sing “Not the Only One.”
  25. Write another paragraph.
  26. Call it a day.
  27. Climb upstairs, broken but unbowed (maybe a little bowed).
  28. Kiss children on heads.
  29. Eat some cake.

Ready I’m Not

Carlos invited me to play Hide and Seek in his room yesterday afternoon. “Mumma? Mumma? I count to ten and you hide, Mumma.”

Ten? That didn’t give me much time to find a hiding spot. I tip-toed across the hall and hid behind the open door of my bedroom.

“Seben, eight, nine….TEN! Ready….” He paused then shouted, “Ready I’m not…Here I come!”

My son, trying out a new game and trying to remember how the words are supposed to line up. And BOOM–his version was even better than what was supposed to be. My heart cracked open with a little more love for him than I ever thought possible. There we were, filling up a Saturday afternoon with playing. Him using new words. Me letting him boss me around. Shrieking and giggling and tumbling around, together.

Ready I’m not…Here I come.

Hide and seek

Hide and seek

That’s how we head into parenting. I don’t care if you’ve been a big sister to twelve kids, or spent 10 years as a nanny, taught second grade, worked as a NICU nurse–not one of us goes into parenting READY. For the first couple of years of Vivi’s life, my therapist’s main message to me was “You don’t have to be perfect, just good enough. Good enough parenting is what parenting is. Stop trying for an A+. Shoot for ‘Satisfactory.'” You’re in it, ready or not.

I had spent the first part of my life hiding. Hiding anything that I messed up. Hiding from anything that I might mess up. Hiding my shame. Hiding my own needs. Hiding myself because I had become absolutely convinced, somewhere along the way, that I wasn’t enough. Good enough, kind enough, smart enough, pretty enough. So I hid. Ready I’m not.

But here I come. Parenting is urgent and tedious, immediate and theoretical, all in one moment. It’s incessant. Still, I keep showing up. Less hide, more seek. I get up every day reminding myself that my good enough is enough. We’ve gotten this far and we’re having a pretty good time of it. I pour the milk and I add a blue bendy straw because blue is his favorite color.

So, today? Ready I’m not…here I come!