My daughter lies on the floor of the hallway outside her bedroom door, an arm sprawled in front of her. The other is tucked in next to her side, her pale ruddy skin a contrast to the cheerful green of her dinosaur pajamas. She is soundly asleep and undoubtedly quite pleased at her independence.
I put her in bed properly a few hours earlier, of course. But Baba refuses to lie down in her bed, no matter how much you sweeten the deal. The very thought of it offends her, though she goes into it easily once she’s fallen asleep elsewhere. And so she has fallen asleep in protest on nearly every other surface of her room; the rocking chair, her personalized L.L. Bean couch and once, even on her changing table. For all of our sanity, I put a rug on the floor and it has become the favored location ever since.
But this night, when she managed to crawl halfway out of her room before giving in again to sleep, I turned on all of the lights and took a good picture. I put it as the wallpaper of my laptop, where it is displayed for all of my coworkers to see.
“What is she doing?” they ask.
“Being herself,” I say.
The most wonderful thing about young children is that they are so entirely themselves. Baba has no apparent self-consciousness. When she wants something, she’s willing to throw a fit over it, with no concern about the snotty mess that her face becomes or the unflattering way her skin goes splotchy. As soon as she has a thought, she tells you. When the thought was hilarious, as it often is, and you laugh, she laughs with you. When she doesn’t know a word, she doesn’t hide it – she just describes what she wants over and over until someone supplies her the word.
It’s so wonderfully refreshing to be around. Even when I just, desperately, want her to put on her socks and go out the door and all she wants to do is stop and play with….whatever…she has suddenly fixated on, I can’t help but see the beauty of her nature. Perhaps this is motherhood, this effortless sense of understanding. Although I try hard to extend it to everyone in my life, to know that a person is more than just their behavior in the moment, it’s so much easier with someone so innocent. And now that she is approaching three, I value these moments so much more, because I know that they can’t last all that much longer.
And how Baba makes me laugh, just by being her authentic self.
I had a dream the other night about a woman who was coming after my family. She was long haired and thin and she kept knocking on the door to our house, which kept opening, over and over and over. I tried relentlessly, but I was powerless to stop her as she walked in and she would touched my family, wrapping her long fingernails around the face of a child that I was supposed to protect. I was so afraid of her, because I knew that that this woman was a murderer — and try as hard as I might, I could not keep her out of my house.
I woke up, in the guest bedroom, terrified and shaking. It took me a moment to remember where I was, as I’ve only slept there once or twice. Each time was so that I could sleep with my younger cat, who has been very, very sick.
And that was when I realized that the woman in the dream was cancer, coming after my family again, so relentlessly. It has been less than a year since I lost my young uncle and my brother-in-law to different forms of cancer. And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, our vet told me that my cat Morghan had it too.
It could be cancer or a polyp, he said. And since she’s 18 years old, he said, we’re not going to do surgery to remove the tumor in her bladder.
No, I agreed. We all know that I’ve been lucky to have her in my life this long.
So you have two choices, he said, you can manage her pain or we can talk about euthanasia.
I opted for pain management, though I know I will spend many hours wondering if that was selfish. When I picked her up from her day of examinations, the vet who met me asked me if I had any questions as he explained the regimen of pills. I know she’s terminal, I said. I know that. But how do I know when it’s time…?
Oh, you’ll know when, he said.
This last week has been a hard one, as I woke every morning to check on Morghan and see if the tumor had done terrible things to her in the night. It hadn’t, and since she was still active enough to chase me around the house just waiting for me to sit down, I tried to convince myself that she would be okay, for a while at least. Then she stopped eating. When I took her back for her check-up a week later, she had lost a full pound, which she didn’t have to lose in the first place. When the vet tech weighed her in at six pounds, I cried again, because I had told myself that if she’d lost weight, then I’d really know that it was time. I took her and her anti-nausea medicine home with me, but I still could not get her to eat.
When had come.
Eighteen years is a long time to share your life with someone. I have no one in my life who has been there as long and as constantly, as steadily there for me as my two cats. The wonderful thing about a pet is that there’s no judgement; no matter how terrible your day was or what terrible mistakes you made, your cat just loves you. She has been there for my entire adult life, ever since I took her home as an 18-year-old to my first apartment. She fit in my hand that day, a tiny little creature that had been dumped in a parking lot, weeks before she should have been separated from her mother. I taught her how to bathe, to some extent, and spent hours and hours detangling her fur and picking out knots. She was never very good at being a cat — she never caught a thing in her life — but she was a wonderful companion and friend. She came with me when I moved around and then, finally, to New York. I cried in her fur at every terrible break-up I went through. No matter what the problem was, coming home to pick her up comforted me, because I clearly mattered so much to her. Her quiet purr, broken and nearly silent at the best of times, was always there.
I have never had to put a cat to sleep before. I’ve dreaded the idea of having to make that decision for years now, hoping that Morghan would pass the way my fifteen year old cat Mushu did right after Hurricane Sandy. My Beloved discovered Mushu outside, looking as surprised as a cat can. We presumed it was a heart attack and buried her under a pear tree in the yard, comforted knowing that her last moments were brief and out of doors. Selfishly, I appreciated that I did not have to choose when, that that decision had been made for me.
But not for Morghan. I said goodbye to Morghan in the car outside of the veterinary office. I had let her roam free in the car on the drive over, which she took full advantage of, peering out the window and making me wonder if I was making up how sick she was. But then I held her bony body, which had once been three times the size that she was on Saturday, and I could no longer deny that it was time. I thanked her and kissed her and cried some more, in the quiet space of the car. Then we went inside, where the staff were quick to usher us into a room.
Still, Morghan shook in fear, the tremors running down her thin shoulders. I put her in my lap so that she could put her face in my elbow, which has always calmed her down. Don’t be afraid, I said, petting her thick fur and desperately wishing that I believed in some sort of afterlife. Please, love, just don’t be afraid.
When the vet gave Morghan the anaesthesia that knocked her unconscious, I was holding her against my body. I felt her muscles relax as she crumpled against me, falling down onto the soft yellow blanket that I had insisted on. I gently caught her and laid her down, pulling her tail out from under her and settling her legs into a more comfortable position.
Don’t be afraid, I said. Please, don’t be afraid.
As the vet released a vial of bubble gum pink barbiturates into Morghan’s leg, I put my hands on her, holding as much of her as I could. She did not twitch or shudder and, after a moment, the vet put her stethoscope up to Morghan’s thin chest and told me that she was gone. My sweet girl had gone completely still, but her body was still warm and it didn’t seem like it could be true. I tried to close her eyes, but I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew.
I brought her body home, keeping a hand on the box she was in for the entire drive. I left her body in the car while we put Baba to bed for the night, and then my Beloved dug a hole in the front yard underneath the Japanese maple tree that made me fall in love with this house we bought. We put her in it, placing her carefully, since when my last cat passes, it will become a double grave.
And so I carry on, holding my sweet girl in my heart, since I can no longer hold her in my hand. When I walk to and from my door, I look at her grave and I am comforted that she is home.
There is a moment in Olympic diving that every diver takes as they walk out to compete on the world stage. They climb up to the diving board, then breathe in deep and square their shoulders. After this moment, they walk out confidently onto the board, which bounces predictably beneath their weight, the way it has done thousands of times before, and then they take their shot.
Although my athletic prowess is limited to being able to run three consecutive 10 minute miles without immediately dying, I love watching Olympic sports. The divers are a particular favorite, as they combine gymnastics and swimming — two areas far beyond my wildest dreams of ability — and fly through the air, bending their bodies in ways that seem impossible and then slip into the water with barely a splash to mark their passing. They inspire my imagination, even as they please my love of beauty. They are tremendous, frightening, inspiring people.
I’ve been thinking a lot of that sigh at the beginning lately. I haven’t spoken much of it here, but I am at a similar point in my writing. I’ve spent the last three months deep in research and plot, scrambling to work in the small bits of time that I have each day for writing, and putting together a framework that I can only hope will be strong enough to carry the weight of the story that I want to tell. It’s a story that I’ve already told many times, over glasses of wine and lunches, to friends and family who listen politely and nod and tell me that it all sounds very interesting and they can’t wait to read it.
And now it is time to begin the actual writing. Yet I’ve found myself delaying over the last few days, as I’ve taken a much needed break away from the ideas so that I can approach them again in a fresh and objective frame of mind. I’ve never been the kind of writer that falls in love with the sound of her own voice; I will actually cringe my way through most of the rereading that I’ll do before hitting publish on this post. And this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried to tell this story, so I keep hearing the echoes of where the past efforts have stuttered out, even though I know that my new angle is much stronger.
Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said he never failed, but just found a thousand ways not to light a lightbulb? I certainly have learned from the two previous beginnings, but there are only so many times you can take 40,000 words and throw them into a folder that you’ve named “Old Manuscript” without wanting to shy away from similar grandiose sacrifices.
And so, here I am, having climbed the rungs of the ladder, trying to take that deep breath that will propel me out onto the board, to bounce in a place that is more familiar to me than standing here on the edge, wondering if I have the courage to go on. In another day or two, I will come back to the page and take those first steps out onto the board, just praying that this time, my mistakes will only propel me forward, as I finally learn what it is to write a full novel.
There’s a new coffee shop by the train station that opened over the summer. In a world of Starbucks and Walmarts, it is a welcome relief to the monotony of grande cups and jazzy backgrounds. It is in a tiny space, which previously belonged to a failed news stand and, before that, a coffee stand that only served cold bagels.
Sometimes I think that I have been in this town too long, now that I can remember the history of spaces.
But I like this shop. It’s taken the craft approach, offering everything that you’d find at Starbucks at higher quality. The pumpkin latte leaves a smudge of actual squash in the bottom of your cup. The baked goods are kosher yogurt muffins where you can sink your teeth into the actual fruit. I’ve been determined to help it thrive, which is helped by the fact that I’ve been horrible at getting out of bed lately, and often arrive at the train station needing breakfast.
The baristas take their jobs as coffee artists so seriously that I imagine that they’re all part owners. It might be so. Every morning that I forget my breakfast, I go and choose between the big muffin and the small muffin, and I make such a stink out of it that the big blonde fellow grins every time I go for the big one.
One morning, a new customer came in behind me. Most of America would know the type. He was dressed for work, in an outfit that tells you that this is a man who worked with his hands. Perhaps a mechanic, perhaps in the trades. His jacket was the tough rough leather of a welder’s jacket and he wore jeans made for work. When he ordered, he asked for a small coffee with sugar and a corn muffin. He pointed at the glass display.
“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s a lime coconut yogurt muffin,” my favorite Viking told him.
“What?” He looked closer at the muffins, where a sign declared the new world order in a bubbly script. “Don’t you have corn muffins?”
“No, sir. Just what’s there, sir.”
The man looked over the selection, then shook his head. “Forget it. Just the coffee.”
When he left, he was shaking his head. And, because I am in Trump country, I thought, Is he a Trump voter? Is this the demographic? The man just wanted a corn muffin and a coffee, like he’s probably been ordering at his favorite deli for 30 years, but now he can’t have it. He could have lime coconut or apple yogurt or pumpkin spice loaf, but the classics have disappeared from our offerings.
I watched him walk away without his breakfast, embarrassed for the coffee shop, although it is just a symbol of its time. Why should they carry a product that isn’t exciting and new? They have to compete with the green mermaid machine, like everyone else.
Before Hurricane Sandy, there was a real New York deli right there that would have blown this coffee shop out of business in a matter of weeks. But their store was destroyed by the storm, so they packed up and found a new location two towns away, much too far for the commuters at my station. We have had to shift without our classic bagels and eggs and plain coffees with milk and sugar. And the world that rebuilt never filled those needs again. My new little coffee shop is the closest, but it doesn’t suit everyone.
And watching this man, I understood a little better about all the people who have been left behind by our shifting economics.
The man just wanted a corn muffin. What’s so bad about that?
Living through this Presidential election season has been hard for me. I have been joking-not-joking that 2016 is the year that White America discovered that racism is still a thing, as Trump’s candidacy grew ever more blunt about its willingness to incite anti-immigrant fervor. As the wife of an immigrant and the mother of a child with dual citizenship, this has been terrifying. Even though I know that no one is thinking of the big Irish guy when they’re spouting off about “the Mexicans” or “the terrorists,” it’s hard to watch the violence and the ugliness of the rhetoric. And it has been surprising to me, even though I live in a neighborhood that is deeply religious, to find out how many people have been willing to give a pass to the nastier things that he’s been saying because of how much they hate Hilary Clinton.
As the election progressed, Trump signs sprouted like daffodils on the lawns of my neighbors. Every time I passed one, it felt like a slap in the face, as people that I’d liked shouted their support. And I am trying to be better than this, but it’s difficult for me to look past a willingness to ignore such dangerous rhetoric.
Except there is a part of me that must be honest enough to myself to admit that there have been times where I have reacted to the injustices suffered by Black Americans with gratitude that that sort of thing was not my problem. Until not so long ago, it happened every time an unarmed Black man was shot by the police under suspicious circumstances. It happened when Rodney King was beaten in the early 90s. I would shake my head and be enraged by the injustice of it, by how unstoppable the system seemed. And then I would think, “Thank God that won’t happen to me,” and go on with my day.
I don’t feel that way any more.
Thanks to Trump, I have discovered just how many of the people in my life are okay with the way things are. That is white privilege in a nutshell. The Trump supporters that I know are not evil people. But they are people who have made peace with a man who says vile things, who are content to let the problems of other people be their problems. And they have made me feel afraid, in a way that has opened my eyes to the feelings of many dark skinned Americans.
And that was before his tape with Billy Bush leaked.
It is good that we are having big national conversations about sexual assault. One of the best parts of the way that our culture is changing is that we’re starting to talk about rape culture, which was a phrase I’d never even heard until I was in my 20s. I remember the epiphany, as a young woman, that we should be asking men to talk to men about rape, rather than spending our lives trying to protect ourselves from it. It was a radical notion, this thought that men could be responsible for fixing this problem that predominantly affects women.
Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have come, in a relatively short period of time. It was only a hundred years ago that we even gained the vote, much less the right to sue for sexual harassment or spousal rape.
Since the tape leaked, I have been thinking of the times when a man has forced a kiss on me, in the way that Trump described. I spent about a week vividely reliving those moments — the fear and the anger that came with it. When a coworker made a joke about locker room talk, I know I was supposed to laugh, but I could only shudder. I’ve been fortunate in my life and have only suffered the garden variety level of sexual harassment. I don’t consider myself traumatized in any way by these experiences, though I am nervous when I encounter strange men. The events that I’ve been thinking about were both strangers, who pushed themselves onto me in public places. In the first, I was a sixteen year old girl sitting at a bus stop. The man had been bothering me for several days, so I asked him to just leave me alone and to go away. There were others there, and I remember their faces distinctly because after he kissed me, I jumped up and screamed at him while they stared at me like I was the problem.
And not one of them got up to help me, because it was not their problem. It was not happening to them.
The second incident happened one night on the subway here in New York. It was about ten o’clock at night on a week night and I was coming home from a dinner out with friends. Sitting in a nearly empty train car, I was studying for work. The man approached me and asked for money, over and over again. He wouldn’t go away, so I finally gave him some change to make him leave me alone. When I did, he decided to kiss me. Years later, I can still feel the wet imprint of his lips on my forearm, which I threw up above my head to deflect him and defend myself. I remember the faces of the two women who got on the train at the next stop, who I asked to switch cars for their own safety.
Garden variety harassment, as I mentioned. I do not know a single woman who has not had multiple experiences like these.
No real harm done, except…except that I have a certain distrust of men that I do not know, because of all the times that men have behaved this way around me. When I first heard “The Story,” a song by The Great Ani, I thought, “Oh. Oh yes, this. This is exactly it.” The lyrics are a bit of poetry:
I would have returned your greeting if it weren’t for the way you were looking at me this street is not a market and I am not a commodity don’t you find it sad that we can’t even say hello ’cause you’re a man and I’m a woman and the sun is getting low there are some places that I can’t go as a woman I can’t go there and as a person I don’t care I don’t go for the hey baby what’s your name and I’d alone thank you just the same
Since the tape leaked, the Trump signs in my neighborhood have come down. I am filled with gratitude for that, as it lets me stop thinking of the men that have objectified and attacked me and all the people that look like me.
Maybe that is a start. Maybe it’s a move towards the empathy that we need to create a kinder world where your problems are my problems. I can only hope that at the end of all this ugliness, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves and the country and culture we want to create.
As the Great Ani sings:
we’re all citizens of the womb before we subdivide into sexes and shades this side that side and I don’t need to tell you what this is about
Undressing for the fan Like it was a man Wondering about all the things That I’ll never understand there are some things that you can’t know unless you’ve been there but oh how far we could go if we started to share I don’t need to tell you what it is about you just start on the inside you just start on the inside and work your way out
It is Monday morning, on the sort of fall morning where rain comes by in unsuspecting gusts, drenching any commuter that was brave enough to put their umbrella away during the brief periods of dryness. On the train, freed from the drama of the rain, we are hurtling towards Penn Station, racing past the sleepy yellow houses of Queens that quietly witness the thousands of people that travel past them each day.
Then the phones begin to buzz, first a single alert, then an unignorable clatter of sounds, as Verizon and AT&T and TMobile send out a law enforcement alert. Without glancing at my phone, I know that they must have found the person behind the bombings of the last 24 hours, the set of trash can and pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have scathed passer-bys, but not yet killed anyone. They’ve gone off in empty neighborhoods, late at night and early in the morning, just a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it is to dare to be in a crowd.
How much worse they could have been.
My kid brother came over last night for dinner, as is his habit on Sunday nights. “Did you hear about the bombings?” he asked, worried that people are once again attacking our city. He is young – 21 – the same age that I was on September 11th, 2001. He was six at the time and living in England, so I know that the stories about it sound like people landing on the moon or the assassination of JFK did to me.
“It’s scary,” he says.
“Yes, but,” I say, “if you lived in Baghdad, this would be something that happened every week.”
“That’s true,” he says.
“It is scary,” I add, belatedly. “And New York will always be a target. That’s just something you have to deal with, living here. And oh God, tomorrow’s commute. It’s going to be awful.”
“Ugh,” he says, sympathetically. I know that he is glad that he works nearby.
I am not, you may note, the most reassuring person in a crisis.
And so here we are again, with another frightening drama unfolding on streets so familiar that they feel like home. The mayor and the media were quick to respond, to reassure us that the first two bombs were “intentional but not terrorism.” I laugh a bit at the language, because the way the media restructures words. Of course it is terrorism. Anyone planting bombs in public spaces is trying to terrorize the public at large. And, hardy as we are by now, it’s working. The kids are scared.
And so I wonder about this name that has just shown up on all of our phones, as we go about our lives and continue on to offices with bosses that would not understand if we “let the terrorists win” (whatever that means) by staying home. We’ve seen this play out before, in Boston, and we know that he will be found. There is not a scenario where you draw this kind of police attention and walk away free. And, is that the point? Is this kid — only a handful of years older than my brother — testing himself? Is this a question of wits, inspired by a thousand and one blockbuster action films? And is he alone? Will we be safe, as he runs for his freedom?
In the seats in front of me, a woman wearing far too much perfume is peacefully playing Candy Crush Saga, whiling away her commute as though today were just an ordinary day. At the other end of my subway ride, I will come out of the World Trade Center subway stop, thinking as I queue up for the exit of how vulnerable we are, standing trapped underneath such a world-famous target. I feel the echoes of the dead around me, as I emerge into the sunlight and pass St. Paul’s, the three and a half century old church across from Ground Zero, where some of the first European inhabitants of Manhattan are buried. The grass grows long and wild at the edge of the graveyard, where it curves down to the meet the street. I wonder about the groundsmen whose job it must be to worry about this small detail.
I keep trying to write to you. I do. I’ve started and discarded no fewer than four posts, on various topics that are filling my mind these days. But now it is spring — and allergy season — and Facebook has just reminded me that I haven’t posted anything in twenty days. Twenty days!
That is a lifetime in the Internet world, is it not?
We are so busy here at the moment. We are very close to putting our house on the market, so every spare second over the last few weeks has been spent in a wild effort to paint all of the things and finish all of the projects. Last week, I came home every night to work on our entry way, which is now much prettier than it ever was. We hired cleaners to come in and give the house a scrubbing of its lifetime. My Beloved installed new stone steps and finished a million other little projects around the house. Our back yard has become a summer oasis, blooming with begonias and fresh paint and tidy trimmings. Everything is now so spot on that the thought of selling the house and starting it all over somewhere else rather makes me want to cry.
I have problems with change. It’s true. I am trying to see past it, although the thought of moving has opened up all kinds of possibilities that have made me feel rather lost. When I moved here, my only thought was having a back yard near the beach with a mortgage that I could afford. Having a child has complicated things. Now I worry about things like local schools, population diversity, the political environment. I grew up outside of Washington D.C., in one of the two most diverse counties in America. I had friends from all over the world. Through friendships and school projects, I visited the homes of Muslims, Protestants, Catholics and Buddhists as a matter of course. I knew that when you went to Korean or Russian homes, you had to take off your shoes at the door. I learned soccer basics from a woman who had played on the national team in Honduras. I recently found a mix tape that friend made me in middle school, with tracks on it that her Vietnamese parents grew up on. I learned to jump double dutch and braid hair from all the Black children at the summer day camps I went to while my mom was at work. When I think about the kind of education that I want Baba to have, growing up in a culturally diverse school district is a big part of it.
Here in Long Island, things are more segregated. I imagine it is much that way across most of the country, but it seems an odd way to grow up. The town that we live in is particularly severe this way — the local elementary school is 95% White, even though the surrounding neighborhoods are more integrated. That concerns me, even more so because of the racist sentiments I see openly expressed on the town’s Facebook parenting group, which I like to tell myself are only possible because these people choose to be socially isolated. How can you believe in stereotypes once you’ve made friends with people from that group? And yet, while I try not to condemn them, the thought of Baba going into their homes, as she makes friends with other children, gives me the willies. These are not the adults that I want in her community. I certainly don’t want her to grow up seeing children of other ethnicities as foreign or different or wrong.
I’ve found myself researching nearby neighborhoods strictly on their demographics and trying to find an acceptable intersection of diversity, similar incomes and safety. Long Island, like much of the country, is seeing a huge surge in the heroin trade. As the dealers have moved in, they’ve brought their guns and their gangs. Our new District Attorney is doing a great job of cracking down on them and so we see arrests in the local papers of all of the towns around us…but never in our town. In our town, the biggest crimes being reported are all the forty-something women stealing from Kohl’s.
This makes the decision of whether to stay or whether to go so much harder. I grew up in a poor section of town, in clustered apartment complexes where the kids were often unsupervised while their parents worked multiple jobs. There were pot dealers in my middle school and more than one student was expelled for bringing in a gun. I learned, by the age of twelve or so, that walking down the street without a male friend would inevitably mean harassment from men much older than myself. By the time I was fourteen, I carried mace, just in case the creep that hung outside of the high school where I was taking a summer class decided to try anything worse than just following me and talking to me.
To this day, I am still wary of men, though I have long passed the age where I draw the kind of attention that I did as a teenager. That’s precisely the kind of world that I want to protect Baba from. I know well how blessed we are, because we’re in a position to be able to do so. And yet, I feel guilty at the thought. To be able to buy safety for her with such relative ease, to get her into a well-reputed school district with ample financial resources, feels like such a betrayal of where I come from. And selfishly, I worry that I will have a hard time making friends with people who look on childhoods like mine with pity. When I walk among such people, as I did in high school when my high level of academics put me among the privileged, I feel like an imposter.
I have had to face the fact that we are in a position to give my daughter a whole lot more, in a material sense, than I grew up with. Money absolutely buys access to a better education and a safer neighborhood. I hear my own privilege in this post. I do. It bothers me deeply. Americans aren’t supposed to be class or race conscious, but of course we all are. I remind myself that this is the world that I want for everyone — a world of prosperity and safety, where we can have authentic and honest relationships with people very different from ourselves. I remember well how old I was when my school divided into cliques that were formed on the lines of skin color. In the 90s, we all became color aware when we were twelve. I remember it as a time of deep hurt for me, when many of my friends drifted away to new friendships, formed with people that looked more like they did. Could it be different for my daughter’s generation? Every time someone takes my pale skin as an invitation to air their prejudices, I have to wonder.
The political primaries this year have made it very apparent that these race and class issues are boiling across my country. Today, Donald Trump — an actual contender for the Presidency! — denounced the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill. Who could argue with Harriet Tubman? Every time I pass a Trump banner in someone’s yard, I want to run as far from here as we can, even as I know that there are plenty more people that think like we do. I hope.
In any case, we’ve pinpointed a few areas that I hope can give Baba the sort of childhood that I want her to have. I have no doubt that our research will keep on for the next few months, as neither of us know the area well. This will be our forever home, as hard as it is for me to admit to committing to New York, and we want to do a good job of picking it. We will land somewhere or other, at the end of this temporary and uncomfortable time of uncertainty.
Baba and I have the next week off, as her day care is closed for the week of Passover, and the weather is finally shifting into a gentle and warm spring. The house is finished and photographed for sale, so — at last — all we need to do is entertain ourselves and relax, as best we can.
I spent the last day of 2015 switching between taking care of a sick baby, a sick cat and sorting through boxes of my mother’s things. It’s not just my mother’s things — we are hoping to move in the spring, so I’ve spent the last week decluttering our basement storage so that when we show the house to potential buyers that it looks like a place where you can put things. I’ve been going through all the stuff that we’ve forgotten that we owned, like fish tanks and snorkel fins and Halloween decorations, and trying to find new homes for them so that our house looks like a place where someone else can put their forgotten stuff.
Ironic, isn’t it?
The upshot is that Baba and the cat are both on the mend. Our eighteen-year-old tabby tore out the dew claw on his hind foot on Christmas Eve, which led to him spraying blood all over our kitchen floor and being very indignant about all the antibiotics and pain medication that I’ve been force-feeding him for the last week. He’s also been cordoned off from the back yard, which wasn’t too big of a deal until he started feeling better. It has been Howl O’Clock ever since. On Thursday, I strapped Baba to my chest and slung the cat carrier over my shoulder and went back to the vet for the follow-up exam. Baba ate much of the furniture in the exam room while we waited, but the cat’s prognosis is good, even if he is still forbidden from his backyard prowling for another week. Howl, howl, howl.
Baba is a little slower to heal, and we’ve spent most of last few nights attending to her cough. It wasn’t exactly my plan for ringing in 2016, but it is what it is. In a sense, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to ring out 2015 than to stumble around with exhaustion after a long night of baby tending. Here’s to more sleep in 2016.
After a hard week’s work, I am also beginning to see an end to the basement clean-up. It is a fitting project for the end of the year — trolling through old photographs, journals and letters puts me in a deeply reflective mood. I’ve now outlived enough of my relatives to have accumulated generations of memories, so many of the letters and photographs that I’m rediscovering aren’t even mine. Now, I am saving them for Baba, in the hopes that some day she will care as much about our family history as I do.
I did find my childhood diary, which has only fuelled my recent desire to take up journalling again. For a writer, the benefits are obvious. I have journalled privately on and off through the years, but it has been off again since Baba was born. I already struggle with finding enough time to work on fiction and this blog, and journalling was competing with that time. Time may be a finite resource, but I find that I’ve missed the clarity that journalling gives my thoughts and emotions.
And yet, after finding my mother’s diaries, I am not certain about leaving behind such a detailed written record for Baba to find one day. My mother died suddenly, decades before she expected to. Her journals are filled with beautiful writing, but it is clear that they were an outlet for her when she was troubled or struggling with the depression that always chased her. This isn’t the picture of her grandmother that I want to leave behind for Baba. Every time I find my mother’s journals, I can barely stand to read more then an entry or two, because I know they weren’t meant for me. I know that I should destroy them, but I also can’t seem to bring myself to do so, knowing that they might have answers to some of the questions of my early life. They provide context to my memories, which my mother might have been able to do if she had lived longer. I was raised thousands of miles from our extended family, so I don’t have the network of shared memories from cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents that so many people do. I just had my mother, who died too soon.
In this cleaning, I found a baby memory book that she wrote for me, which has satisfied my curiosity about many questions that I’ve had this year. No one remembers when I began to walk, but my mother wrote it down for me. I found when I got my first tooth, grew my head of hair, began to sit up. I’ve wanted to know this all year so that I might know what to expect with Baba’s development. And here is a book that tells me everything! I was so excited by this that I turned around and ordered a memory book to fill in for Baba, in case she finds herself in the same position that I am in now.
What if there are more answers, more context, in my mother’s journals and letters? I remember my mother, mostly as the grinning, silly, playful person that she was much of the time. But Baba would only know her through these very painful journal entries. That isn’t a fair picture at all. And yet, my mother kept journals from 20 years before she died. Did she want us to find them? Could she just not stand to them go? There are some questions I just can’t answer.
For now, I’ve put the journals and letters back in labelled boxes and pushed them to the back of our storage area. I tell myself that after we sell our house and move that I might pull them out and read through them, but I know that a thousand things will take a higher priority. They are journeys into the past and it is, after all, a new year now, ripe with the excitement new stories and memories to come.
Earlier this week, Baba crawled right out of her pants. She was nursing, which gives you an idea of what nursing a very active baby is like, and I didn’t immediately notice because I had covered us both with a sheet. I laughed when I discovered her bare, chubby thighs and tried to hold her as close to me as she would allow.
This last month has been filled with moments like this — as the world has literally and metaphorically darkened, tiny moments of beauty keep filtering through. My neighborhood is covered with an impressive array of Christmas lights, which make driving home through the darkness a delightful experience. It is the first year since Hurricane Sandy that I’ve seen such an impressive display, and I am deeply grateful to see the world return to normal. It is so reassuring to contrast the rising hatred in the world with festive frivolity, with beauty, with art.
It has been a remarkably sane holiday season for us. I made a conscious decision to keep it simple this year. Instead of trying to do all of the things, we picked the ones that mattered. Cards, because sitting down to write my extended social circle once a year fills me with joy. Small presents for family. Our own contribution to the neighborhood lights. Visiting with friends. Loving our daughter in the fierce way that has become normal. Bringing food to share with people that we love.
It is Baba’s first Christmas. We went last night to a Christmas Eve dinner at a friend’s, in what has become a treasured annual tradition. The food itself comes from the American Italian tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes, where seafood is served to both celebrate bounty and because it is a period of fasting from red meat in the Catholic tradition. It is not my tradition, by heritage or religion, but it has been such a part of my experience since moving to New York that it has come to feel like mine. Last night, as I fed Baba fish cakes and pasta baked in clam sauce, it felt like even more like home.
We let her stay up hours past her bedtime, which is why I can write this in the sweet silence of a sleeping house. She took her first steps last night, after dinner and in front of an audience of kind and fine people. We clapped and cheered for her, while her face exploded in glee at her new freedom.
Today, we will go to celebrate with a different set of lifelong friends, as we always do. I have bought a cake for dessert that is covered in a more traditional design that I could have ever imagined picking out before — and yet, I found that I could not resist it. I have, perhaps for the first time in my life, put on Christmas music in my home, just like my mother always used to do.
It is a season of music, of eating, of feasting, of remembering what is important in life. This year, for me, Christmas is about love and charity. It is about the ideals of a peaceful world; it is a reminder of what we must continue fighting for. I can only hope to share this peace and joy that I feel in my heart with you.
I was thrown into a whirlwind of self-doubt last week, after seeing a single photograph. If you’ve paid attention to the news at all, you already know the one — a drowned toddler, clothed in vibrant primary colors, washed up on a beach. You probably know the story, too; another migrant family, desperate to escape the civil war in Syria, put their trust (and their savings) in the wrong boat captain. Half the family drowned and, because of the death of a child, the world is suddenly paying attention. This is the power of photography – to capture human suffering with a strength that makes people pause their lives and actually do something.
Suddenly, the world has been afire with criticism for the European reactions to the millions of Syrian refugees. Perhaps it is because I am now a mother, but that image has haunted me in a way that I can’t remember another photograph doing. Every child, no matter their nationality or language or ethnicity, has become mine. It is only chance that my Baba is safe in her crib, while so many Syrian children are still in danger. To be a parent is to be so aware of how vulnerable you are to great loss, at any time. It is to know that your heart walks around outside your body — and to fear what will happen to you if you live long enough to see tragedy strike. This child, Alan Kurdi, was born during the civil war that has torn Syria apart. He never experienced the safety that I have been able to give to Baba, simply because she was born here and not there.
It is an awful thought. My heart breaks for his family — for all of the families that have had to make such desperate choices.
One of the members in an online mothering group that I belong to posted about having a feeling of gratitude that Alan Kurdi’s mother also drowned. At least she was spared the pain of living, after the drowning of her sons. It’s an awful sentiment, a terrible thing to say out loud, but also a feeling that I fully understood. If I were unable to keep Baba safe, but I survived….living would be the harder course, by far.
When he was interviewed by the press, the words of Alan Kurdi’s father really struck me. My wife, he said, my wife was everything to me. How do I go on? How does he, after the death of his life partner and two of his children?
How do you go on in the face of such loss? Your children, your wife, your community, your home. What do you do when your entire world has become a place of danger, a place of loss?
It puts the trivialities of my daily trials into a certain perspective.
What can I do from here? I can donate money. That’s easily done. But what can I do? Do my daily efforts contribute to making the world a safer place, a place where “the refugee problem” is solved not by finding refugees new homes in new countries, but creating a place where we don’t make refugees in the first place? In my job, I build a communications network, but that seems feeble. My writing…well, I have had an artistic crisis, as every trivial scene I’ve ever written feels empty and hollow. I haven’t written a word all week, because what could possibly be the point of it all?
I’ve read that there are more people on the move in Europe since the end of World War II. Armies of people are sitting in camps and at checkpoints on national borders. Vivid photographs of their marches through fields and along highways have made it across the world. It’s touching — and frightening — to see just how many people have had to give up their lives. My heart goes out to them. It makes everything I do to get through the day seem meaningless. What does a clever story matter, when there are people who have lost so much, suffered so much, through no fault of their own?
What am I doing with my life that really means something, when there are such problems in the world? It’s a question that has lingered with me, ever since I saw a single photograph.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I’ve had the passage above stuck in my head for most of the day. It has been a challenging week at work, which, combined with the discomfort of late summer, its constant social obligations, and a baby that stopped sleeping through the night, has put me into an asocial mood.
Last night, our neighborhood church threw a fabulous foam and water balloon party for charity. As our windows continued to rattle from the DJ’s bass through our dinner, dessert and bedtime, I turned to my Beloved and asked him when we became the kind of people that hated a party.
“Since we had a baby,” he said sensibly.
“I wouldn’t mind*,” I whined, “but on a Wednesday? Who hires a DJ for a Wednesday?”
* this is a lie
When I woke this morning, after two overnight interruptions, I found that I walked with Ishmael. When one of my neighbors gestured angrily at me to back up my car so that he could pull a completely illegal u-turn in front of me, I considered pulling forward. When the train was crowded, I considered leaving my bags on the seat to discourage a neighbor. When I needed to buy some breakfast — having rushed out the door this morning without any — I considered skipping it because the idea of a polite interaction with a cashier seemed far too difficult to manage.
Just call me Ishmael.
I think Melville could have rewritten the opening of Moby Dick for writers; Ishamel writes about going to sea to solve his funk, but I turn to writing. I suspect Melville did too. When I find myself exasperated by the crowds of people that I wade through each day and fantasizing about moving to an isolated mountain top — possibly without my family — I know that it has been too long since I’ve done something that’s creatively satisfying.
And it’s true. I haven’t written any new fiction since May, and I can feel the tension of my ideas building up in my neck and stuffing themselves down into my trapezius muscles. I haven’t neglected my writing, but my efforts have been focused here on the blog and in revising my portfolio of short fiction. The drafts that I wrote over two years of graduate work have been read and revised and revised and read again until I can barely stand to see the same paragraphs even once more. At the same time, I feel the pounding in the back of my brain of the story that I want to write for Baba, the pressure of the novel that’s screaming for an ending. I am bursting with creative energy, but trying to be responsible and finish what I’ve already begun before giving in to the urge to burn everything to the ground and start again.
I stretch my neck to try and relieve the tension that grows there every day, but there’s really nothing to be done for it other than to finish revision, send out my portfolio and go back to inventing the ornate lies that soothe my soul and make me a reasonable person again.
Balance is hard. Throw in my job and the responsibilities of motherhood that limit my writing and I feel like I am going to burst out of my skin. Add in all the other people and mundane errands that are demanding my time and attention and I can well understand why Ishmael wants to knock off people’s hats. This is my substitute for pistol and ball, he says.