I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head. A fragment here, a stanza there. It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.
Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic. We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.
There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep. Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.
And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law. In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man. I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking. A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.
As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there. I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people. He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.
Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore. Not this time, nor the next.
And I do not want that. I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense. I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.” It’s impossible. It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us. It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.
Cliché, cliché, cliché. But things become clichés because they are true.
And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.
And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death. The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do. You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life. You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you. And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem. And so I say, to all of you…
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
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’m on the downtown 2 train from Penn Station on a Monday morning. It’s summer and the trains have been bunching up, so I get lucky enough to find myself a seat. I settle into a book, half-listening to the announcements as we go from 34th Street to 14th to Chambers. At Chambers Street, the train doors open to a platform that has so strangely silent of all ambient noise that I look up from my book. The doors open on scene of a mother and a stroller and a baby on the ground. There’s a scream, then a chorus of screams as a rush of bodies move and surround the child, who is lying too still.
I have a perfect view of all of this. My seat is in the center of the train, aligned perfectly with this terrible drama. Or, I do for a moment, before half of the people on the train rush to the door to get a better view. The doors stay open too long, as the train operators call for help.
I stay where I am because I know that one more body in that crush will not save the child’s life, if it is still possible to be saved. The last thing that I see before my view was blocked was the back of a woman in a black skirt, who grabbed the child and rolled that tiny body onto its left side. The doors close. The train moves on.
I do not know how the story ends. My mind wants to give it a happy ending, if only to control my shaking limbs. As the train travels through the tunnels to Park Place, I have to move to escape the discussion surrounding me. “What happened?” a man asks. “Probably choking,” someone else says. “Or a seizure?” I walk to the other end of the train, because I feel like I might throw up and I know that I need to calm down before I get to the office. How could I even begin to explain to my young coworkers why I was so upset? It wasn’t my story. It is only the brushing of time and place, the overlapping of the coincidences of so many strangers in such a small place, that made me a participant at all. And yet, it was a public witnessing of the pain of another mother, a mother that is probably not so different from me.
New York is a strange place. The millions of people living and working in such close proximity means that our lives overlap with strangers in a much more intimate way than you ever see in less congested towns. This was actually the third medical emergency that I’ve been touching distance from, though this was by far the most horrifying. In the first, a young girl fainted on a subway car so crowded that we nearly absorbed the weight of her body before dropping her to the ground. When she woke, she cried, embarrassed, and begged to go home as dozens of water bottles were passed her way. A woman she had never met before put her arm around her and said, “Just take deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.” And, although I had held the weight of her body for a moment, I got off at my stop anyway.
The second time, I was buying a box of tissues for the office when a man in the line in front of me fell into a seizure. He was at the counter, his wallet out, when his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell, heavily, to the ground. He writhed, but I froze, not even certain why I was so frightened. And I was frightened, in the most primal and physical way. Just like with the subway today, others rushed to him before I did. When he stilled, breathing peacefully, I asked what I could do. “Go keep people from coming into the store,” someone said, so I went outside, only to discover that the job was more than adequately filled already. I looked around and hugged my shaking arms to myself and went to work, without the tissues.
Dozens of these experiences must happen across the city every day. And perhaps the strangest aspect of my experiences is that I would not recognize any of the other people in any of these scenes if I were to see them again. As a watcher, I don’t even feel the right to my own emotions. Who am I to get so upset, so frightened, so afraid? These are not my stories. These are just things that I saw, in an otherwise ordinary day.
Tonight I will go home to my Baba and hold her as much as she’ll let me. Without a doubt, I’ll be even more cautious of how small I cut her food and of the many dangerous things in the world that find their way into her hands, despite my vigilance. But what made watching that mother’s pain today so terrible was knowing how little control I really have. To love someone is to be vulnerable. To love someone the way that I love my Baba is to be very vulnerable. And the only way that I could handle that knowledge was to pretend that I know the end of the story that I saw today. In my version, that child coughed out a carrot and rose and held her mother until both of their hearts burst with joy. The end.
Since the day that Baba started day care, I’ve taken to driving to the train station. It is less than a mile from our house, but since I’m driving her anyway, it seems silly to go back home just to park the car. It is just as silly to drive to the station, but it means getting home 10 minutes earlier – and those 10 minutes are precious, because they are my only chance to play with Baba for a few minutes before she goes to bed.
They aren’t always the best part of my day, but I spend my afternoons looking forward to them. When the train is late and she’s melting for bed by the time I get home, I’m always hugely disappointed.
My street is near the center of town, which means that parking is often at a premium at six in the evening. And on the bad parking days, I get frustrated, because those extra minutes matter. But now that we’ve had an offer accepted on a house in a less congested part of town, that frustration has turned into daily rants, even though I once enjoyed living on such a community-minded street. It has been this way with all the little things in our house, which I loved in the way that you can only love the first place you live that’s really your own. Now, it’s maddening that the upstairs toilet takes an extra half-second to flush, because I didn’t make the chain short enough the last time I replaced it. There’s a scuff near our skylight that I used to be able to ignore, but now can’t wait to never see again. Walking down two flights of stairs to do my laundry is just impossibly aggravating, because this maybe-ours house has no basement.
Soon this won’t be a problem, I tell myself every time I encounter some new aggravation that never bothered me before. Soon this will be all behind us when we are at our new house.
We’ve been trying to be careful not to call this new house ours. Our offer was accepted so quickly that we’ve been wondering when we’ll find out some dark secret that will make the deal fall apart. It’s a lovely house, with a grand demeanor and oversized rooms with a delightful snob appeal. The front porch is welcoming and warm; it just begs for a swing and pitchers of iced tea on summer afternoons. The interior is finished enough that you’d only have to do projects that you wanted, which is a fine change from our current century-old plasterwork house. It’s on a quiet street just three blocks from the train station. The lot is oversized…and yet we can afford it.
Something seems badly wrong here. Is this still New York?
So we started stalking the house. We sneak up on it, checking to see what it’s doing at different times of the day. Does it disappear during the night? Are there ghostly lights? Was it perhaps part of the growing heroin problem in our county? It feels like it must be something, so we’re trying to dig up all the information we can. Stalking the house helps, because it gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the one neighbor that we’ve seen anywhere near the house (and thank goodness for dogs and their walks). He tells us that no one has lived there since before Hurricane Sandy.
Oh, I see, we said, while congratulating ourselves on our cleverness in having already ordered our mold test. We knew the house had flooded, like most of our town. But no one living in it to pick up the mess? That’s a terrifying thought. Most of the homes in that situation now sport special red signs on them, with big warnings that it’s not safe to go inside. Almost four years later, the neighborhood wears them like pimples.
We were supposed to have our structural inspection done this week, but the owner cancelled on us last minute, which gave us all sorts of fuel for speculation. Yesterday my Beloved drove by the house and caught the owner cheating on us showing the house to someone else, which makes it pretty clear what the delay was about.
Still, a showing is not an offer. Any new offer may not be better than ours; we went in high, because we understood that we wouldn’t be the only ones to notice that this house seems like a steal. So it may end up being our house yet, without contest. But I admit that it feels very much like the beginning of a romance, when the stakes are just getting high. We feel very vulnerable as we wait, wait, wait and hope and dream that this might be The One.
In 1992, my mother really liked Denzel Washington.
Like, really really liked him. She liked him enough that when a movie studio was recruiting for extras for a scene in The Pelican Brief, she signed herself right up. To our great amusement, she was assigned to be in a crowd protesting gun control.
I can’t quite tell, but I’m pretty sure that the lady in the lower right corner with the blue and yellow shirt is my Mom. Denzel Washington ran through this crowd. My Mom was only a few feet away, which absolutely made her month.
The scene was funny, of course, because my Mom was absolutely for gun control, long before it was an acceptable thing to say out loud. She was an Army veteran, raised in a county so rural that one of her chores was riding her bike to the farm next door to pick up milk bottles for her family. She knew a little bit about guns and counted the time she had to throw a grenade in basic training as the absolutely most frightening moment of her life. She certainly didn’t see a reason why just anyone should have access to weapons.
No doubt, her experiences as a special education teacher in inner city D.C. contributed to her feelings. She specialized in teaching emotionally disturbed children. These are the kids who had been kicked out of all of the other schools, but still needed an education. Given their behavior problems, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that their home lives were not the greatest. Many of the children had been abused. All of them had parents trapped in poverty and plenty of her students had parents in jail. Some of her students, by the age of twelve, thought of jail as a place where you could go to get three solid meals a day. I can’t remember exactly how many funerals for her students that she went to during her years in the city, but it was far, far too many. Guns were a big part of all of that.
It was also the nineties, when D.C. was commonly referred to as the murder capitol. I remember joking about that with my friends, as though we were somehow tougher because we were living in such a dangerous environment. The summer of 1994 really sticks out in my memory, because it began with a Romeo-and-Juliet style suicide between two twelve-year-olds that were forbidden to see each other. After that, it seemed as though there was a drive-by shooting at least once a week. It was the first time we’d heard the phrase road rage, where people were so angry at being cut off in traffic that they were pulling out their guns and shooting people. To this day, I still cringe whenever my Beloved loses his temper and shouts out the window at other drivers, because I presume that they will have a gun. It was that frightening to live through.
Right before I left D.C. for New York, the tri-state area was brought to its knees by a 17 year old with a rifle. Just reading through the Wikipedia article now, fourteen years later, leaves my heart pounding in my chest. The list of shootings read like a geography of my childhood. The first shot, through the window of a Michael’s store, is the store I used to walk to as a kid. I spent hours there, looking at all the craft items that I wanted to try but could not afford. Two of the victims were murdered on the streets where I grew up. Another was shot only a block and a half from where I was attending college at the time in Virginia. The management of the apartment complex that I lived in sent out a memo to the residents, urging extreme caution as we went about the neighborhood and recommending limiting our time outdoors. I remember people volunteering to pump gas wearing bulletproof vests, because folks were that scared. One morning I was over two hours late for work, because the police had stopped the eight-lane Beltway and were investigating every single car in their desperation to find the killer. When we learned that it was a teenager pulling the trigger, it was simply impossible to process. That is how a single gun ended sixteen lives and brought an entire city to its knees.
When another murderer walked into Pulse in Orlando last week, I was on a plane home from Ireland, where I’d just spent a week trying to answer the question of why Americans are so in love with their guns, because Irish people simply don’t understand it. Irish law is very restrictive with guns, while still allowing some shotguns for hunting. Most knives will get you in trouble, if you don’t have a really good explanation for having it, so the idea that we can walk in to a store and buy a gun that’s advertised to be able to shoot 13 bullets a second is simply incomprehensible to them. (I have since learned that pragmatically your finger really couldn’t fire 13 times a second, so the real rate would be more like 3 bullets a second. I remain in awe that this is what we’re talking about.)
I have watched the public mourning of the Pulse attack with no small amount of sadness, but mostly I have watched it with a deep and intense anger. Is it any surprise that we’ve had another shooting on this scale? Is it any surprise that eventually it would target LGBT folks, given a political climate where anti-trans bathroom bills are not only voted on, but actually passed? The mourning is proper. It is good. This is a national tragedy. It should be mourned loudly and publicly. But what bothers me most is that in the last 72 hours, as I write this, 56 people have been killed by guns, per the Gun Violence Archive, which syndicates and counts reported incidents of gun violence in the media. Over 6,000 people have died so far this year. 1,200 teenagers have been injured or killed, as have 262 children under the age of 11. 148 police officers have also lost their lives.
And it’s only June.
Where is the outrage? Where is the mourning?
We are in the middle of a rise in gun violence across this country. According to a recent DOJ study, homicide rates have jumped 17% in the nation’s 56 biggest cities. In my home town, after a decade of falling crime rates that almost created a sense of normalcy, violent crime has increased every year since 2011. That’s the just the crime rate. It doesn’t count suicides or accidents. Reported accidents accounted for nearly 2,000 incidents nationally last year. In April, one of those accidents injured two people right on the same floor of the same building as the pediatric office where I take Baba. Because, apparently, responsible gun ownership means bringing your gun into the same building as a pediatrician’s office. In talking to gun owners, I’ve heard a lot more stories about accidental discharges that weren’t reported. Accidental, that is, if you get over the intentionality of having a gun in your hands in the first place.
Forgive me if that sounds bitter. I am bitter. I am bitter because I’ve been watching people shrug their shoulders at gun violence for my entire life, as if it is some kind of natural force that we can do nothing about. It is not a hurricane or cancer, which, as it happens, are problems that we spend millions of dollars each year to address. It is a problem entirely of our own making.
And the worst part, of course, is that our Congress has enacted legislation to prohibit gun violence from even being studied. I laugh when I hear people talk about Hilary Clinton’s terrible complicity and corruption in giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, because that seems so trivial compared to such an outrageous law. Why aren’t we marching in the street and screaming about the incredible pull the NRA has on our politicians? It is literally killing our kids.
I am not a gun owner, nor will I ever allow guns to come into my home. You can undoubtedly tell me a million ways in which my understanding about guns is wrong. I know this, because I’ve been talking to gun owners endlessly to try to come up with some sort of meaningful change that would actually work. But without the ability to even study the problem, we are all making wild guesses at to what would actually help. Ban assault rifles? Sure. It seems like a reasonable step. Limit the number of bullets you can put in it at a time to ten? Sure. That would give the victims of mass shootings a greater opportunity to overpower their attacker. It just doesn’t address the bigger problem, where over 31,000 Americans are shot in an average year. A national database for background checks would have saved the eight lives in Charleston. National gun laws, rather than the regional hodge-podge that makes the stricter laws completely useless would also be a great step. D.C. has a handgun ban, after all, which means nothing when you can drive 10 miles in any direction and legally purchase one, then drive it right back over the border and into your home.
Even just instituting licensing and training, like we do with driving, would be a huge step in the right direction. And that’s something that most of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to can get completely behind. I know that I live in a democracy, and that compromise is the name of the game. That has to come from both sides. We seem to be stuck on the first step, which as any addict could tell you is recognizing that we even have a problem. When you start looking at how we compare to other countries, I don’t see how you can possibly deny it.
And maybe, when we’ve actually managed to get fewer guns on our streets, NYPD recruitment posters won’t have to look like this one any more:
There’s just got to be a better way than this. Doesn’t there?
Selling your house is a strange business. We’ve had our house on the market for the better part of a month now. Another way of phrasing that is that we’ve had our home on the Internet, where strangers get to casually thumb through pictures and judge our furnishings taste. Nearly every day, people that I don’t know have walked into my bedroom, taking a look at some of the most personal details of my life. For the first two weeks, before we saw any offers, I have to admit that this idea of judgement was laying heavily on me. I am not generally a very self-conscious person, but day after day of knowing that my house was not good enough for the many people that walked through it left me feeling strangely vulnerable.
That’s emotion for you. We’ve been going to open houses, so I know well how the psychology of a buyer goes. We have yet to see a house that has really excited us, for some pretty arbitrary reasons, so it’s hardly surprising that other people would feel the same about ours, is it?
We are in a buyer’s market, as well, so I know that my strange little house, with its unique architecture and zoning, isn’t going to be for everyone. We’re in a semi-detatched, which means that we’re one side of a duplex. It’s like a townhouse, but not when it comes to appraisals. And that’s going to make the next week or so really interesting.
We’ve had a decent offer. It should give us just enough money from the sale to find a house with most of the things that we’re looking for. There are no guarantees, of course. An offer is not a sale. Our realtor is currently negotiating with the buyer to see if we can’t inch up the purchase price. They could walk away. Since there are no comparable sales, the appraisal could come back with a weird enough number that the buyer’s mortgage falls through. Still, we’ve gotten hopeful enough that we’ve started the motions towards a new mortgage. I’ve been looking at houses for sale for so long that I actually got bored of it, but now I’m trying to convince myself to start doing my research again.
Long Island is insanely expensive, so we’ll undoubtedly have to make compromises. We’re not afraid of renovations, but I have to admit that there’s a part of me that is mourning the idea of leaving my renovated and finished house and starting all over with another fixer-upper. Our home, at this point, is perfectly customized for us. Who wants to start that over?
I keep coming back to this image that I had as a girl of what my life would look like when I had it all figured out. It’s just flashes — a house with a waterfront view, where waves break against a rocky cliff. My legs, in grey leggings, underneath an oversized blue sweater. A desk facing the window, where I would spend my days quietly writing.
In none of those images were there other people or houses. I longed for space in the way that only a lifetime apartment dweller can. To have a home where you don’t hear the arguments of your neighbors, imposing on your solitude?
Now the real estate market is down, which will help us in buying, but certainly isn’t going to net us the hundreds of thousands in profit that people enjoyed during the real estate bubble. And, even though it is a buyer’s market, I see house after house where it’s clear that the sellers still are thinking in terms of housing bubble prices. We’re trying to be more realistic in the hopes of selling reasonably quickly, which does seem to be working. Still, it’s depressing to look at the top of our rather generous price range and see 70s fabulous houses on tiny lots, with neighboring houses clustered all around. That mirrored wall in the bathroom is retro, right? Who doesn’t want to watch themselves…well…
Obviously I will not get that wood-floored ocean-facing desk of my dreams. I certainly won’t get that isolated house on a cliff, where I can ignore the world around me, while watching the most peaceful part of nature. And why should I? Wouldn’t it be selfish to hog such a view? But I can’t help but dream of a room of my own, a space where my desk will look at something more beautiful than a basement wall. We have to be in the New York area for now, because our careers need it. But it won’t always be this way. There will be a time when I can step away and find a little town where I can have my house on a hill, where I can replace my crowded train commute with a walk to the garden.
In the meantime, we’ve just booked a quick trip to Ireland to celebrate a family wedding. Although I really wanted to go, I initially found the idea overwhelming, because there were things to plan and sort and figure out. Then I found an apartment in Malahide, which is a quiet suburb of Dublin that’s right on the coast. We’ve rented it, because it is near friends that we have not spent enough time near in years. Today I found that I could think of anything but getting to it and listening to the quiet inside it. Our house will come and go as it will, but one thing that I can count on is that I’ll be walking along the shore in Ireland in just three weeks time. I can’t wait.
The moment is right. The days of slow percolation are over, as the months of procrastination disguised as thinking have finally come to a close. The notebook with the rapidly jotted notes is taken from the commuter bag and consulted, with a final nod of satisfaction at the contents.
The writer has an hour, a simple hour before her train pulls into the terminal, before she has to turn into someone else for an entire work day. She competes for a seat by the window, in a carriage with few people in it, in the hopes that no one will talk to her. The train whishes-whishes-whishes as it speeds along the miles, and she focuses, thinking about the plots and the scenes and the characters that she’s imagined for weeks prior to this final moment.
At last, she begins. She opens her computer and clicks open the program that she’ll spend the next year working with, gnashing her teeth at, sweating blood on. It pops up a dialogue box.
“File name?” it asks.
“Crap,” she mutters. The entire process grinds to a halt, while precious minutes tick by.
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 am pleased to share with you the news of my short story “El Presidente,” which was published at Punchnel’s a few days ago. It is a lightly fictionalized account of some true events and I hope that you will enjoy it.
This is exciting news. As this is my first professionally published piece, I am amused to find that all I can now see in the story are things that I would change. I have a bad habit of dwelling in editing longer than I probably should, to the point where I find myself alternating between the same two edits on subsequent revisions. When I’ve reverted the same sentence back to its previous form multiple times, then I know that it’s time to put the story away and let others see it. I hadn’t read “El Presidente” in six months, so reading it again now makes me itch to edit, even though I know it is really time to move on and celebrate and work on different things.
So, fly away, little finished story. I wish you well, in your new home out in the big, wide world. This author has other stories to tell.
“I don’t know how he did it. Our father used to take us fishing and let us wander through the woods after we got bored of it. We’d fish for maybe twenty minutes, and then we were off for our adventures. Just free, like. But now I don’t understand how you could do it.”
We are lying in bed with the lights out. It’s late and I can feel the sleep drawing on me, which is just the hour when my Beloved is most prone to reminiscing. “Maybe he secretly hoped you’d be eaten by bears.” I suggest. “I know the kind of child you were.”
“Ireland doesn’t have bears.” He pauses and thinks. “Or snakes. Or large cats.”
“This sounds like a very pansy sort of island. Don’t you have any real predators? What about wolverines? Or maybe wolves?”
“There’s badgers. But they’re mostly underground during the day.”
“Badgers! I said real predators. Not ones that just slap their tails at you.”
“Badgers can really hurt you!”
“What about foxes? They have sharp little teeth.”
“Oh, those would be well off, gone before you even saw them.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fox, outside of a zoo. Isn’t that sad?” I pause. “You must at least have seals. Or selkies. Or trolls.”
“That’s hilarious.” The only sound in the dark is the cadence of fingernails scratching against a day-old beard. “Well,” he says, his voice hitting that special soprano pitch only available to Irish men, “we do have nettles. You’d be sorry if you ran into a patch of them, to be sure you would.”