I’ve spent much of the summer not engaging with the Internet, which is only part of the reason why my last post was months ago. There is so much that the Internet brings to my life, but it also brings a world of distraction with it that gets in the way of writing.
And how I long to be the kind of writer that can pound out weekly blog posts and keep up her writing goals and also meet all of the demands of every day life. Do these writers have a potion that they drink to keep the words flowing? Where does the time come from? What is the problem always, but time, time, time?
I’ve thought of shutting down Ordinary Canary a dozen times over the summer. But every time I start taking the steps to do so, something in the back of my brain just won’t let me do it. It’s hardly a success, as far as blogs go. I have no sponsors. My regular readers number in the dozen and that’s only if you include all of the ones that are related to me.
And yet I have been writing journal entries on the Internet since 1997, since before there were fun little software packages like WordPress, before LiveJournal and Diary-X, when telling the world how I felt meant hand-coding the HTML for every entry. Updating links. Pirating pictures from a world wide web that was still a shadow of the information dump that it would soon become.
The Internet has grown up. So have I.
I have been hard at work all year on a novel that I’ve tried to write several times before, but this time I seem to actually be doing it. It’s a historical fiction biopic, based on someone that you might know about if you know your classical music history, but most people don’t. I don’t want to say much more than that, for I read some advice that the more time you spend talking about your project, the more energy you take away from actually working on it.
And working on it I have been. I’ve done two Camp Nanowrimos this year and fully plan to be writing the last chapters of my novel in the real Nanowrimo this November. I discovered a neat little tool that lets you run your own personal Nanowrimo all the other months of the year and track your statistics, and so for most of the other months, I’ve been doing that too.
That is to say, I write or edit nearly every day. I’ve passed 150,000 words and still have another part to go, which tells me a great deal about how much cutting and revising I will be doing. Perhaps this is because it is my first novel, but I am certainly not a very efficient writer. I never have been, which is part of what makes keeping to blogging deadlines so difficult for me. Writing takes time. It always comes back to time.
And so, Ordinary Canary has been put on the back burner for now, but for the absolute best reasons. For now, I just have to keep my head down and the words flowing. And when I raise my head again, finished draft in my hand, I can only hope that all of you will still be here.
This morning the news broke that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in a Paris hotel room. His death has been ruled a suicide, and although the details have yet to come out, it is inevitable that it must also be related to a mental health disorder. This is barely a breath after Kate Spade was found to have hanged herself off a doorknob in her Manhattan apartment, a result of a cheerfully hidden case of bipolar disorder. But her handbags were so playful!, said every single reporter, which tells me everything about what they understand about the manic part of manic-depression.
This has been a hard week for me.
I have no affinity to either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain, though it is always sad to discover how desperately someone was struggling, but, thanks to their suicides, I am now surrounded by self-appointed experts on mental health. In the elevator, they talk in respectful and solemn tones about all the people that they’ve heard about–and it is clear from the careful tones that they use that it is a subject that they get to forget about most of the time. Creatives, they tell each other, truly creative people often suffer from depression. Look at Stephen Fry. Look at Robin Williams.
When you are the child of a bipolar parent, this is enraging, even though this is probably just the way normal people cope with bad news. It seems impossible that someone with so much wealth and fame should be so unhappy as to want to end it all, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to look at their lives and say, oh, if I had a few million in the bank, then I wouldn’t have the worries that I do. Money solves so very many problems. Just not biology.
Like Kate Spade, my mom also died at a young age, and, bizarrely, ended up on national news media when it happened. Her death was not a suicide, but without a doubt was influenced by her bipolar disorder. Self-care is hard when you’re struggling to survive.
But I also know that she would have chosen to live. Some days that knowledge is heavier to carry than others. Listening to strangers talk about how sad it is, but also how unsurprising it is, to see someone with bipolar order take their life…well, it hurts.
Likewise, every time another school shooting/suicide happens, the people who want to own guns shout about how the problem isn’t guns — it’s just those people with mental health problems. I always want to shout back, to remind them that if they understood what it was like to live with someone with bipolar disorder, then they would stop thinking about mental health as something that gets cured through a one-time talking cure. They’d know the three states:
1. On meds.
2. Off meds.
3. On meds, but the meds have stopped working.
My mom’s life was dedicated to the balance of those three, though it was generally a balance between states one and three. She spent her whole life just trying to feel normal, constantly working with her doctors to find a pharmaceutical and therapeutic balance that would allow her to keep functioning. She constantly chased activities and pursuits that she hoped would bring her to a state of calm happiness. My earliest childhood memory is going to stay with my father while my mom went to rehab after years of self-medicating. Most of the next ones were entertaining myself in therapy waiting rooms and A.A. meetings.
Given a choice, she would have lived. And that is profoundly painful to know — that she would have lived, but wasn’t given the chance.
Some days, my dead are harder to carry than others. This week they swirl around me, because there is nowhere to go to escape the many reminders of their lives.
And so. Anthony Bourdain. I actually know very little about him — he had some TV shows that I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I can’t pretend to know what was happening in his life. I certainly don’t judge him for it. Life is hard. But there are people whose passing creates ripples in the larger wave of humanity. His is one of them – and the waves have brought on more grief than I was prepared to handle this week. And so, I cannot help but be angry, because anger is so much more comforting than despair.
I’ve been torn in many directions over the last few months; trying to find time to work on the novel that I have been writing in bits and spurts, exhausting myself with my family and work responsibilities, cramming friendships into the bits of space left over, picking up projects here and there to help this one or that. In the middle of that, grieving the loss of a good friend who I still cannot believe is gone. And still beyond all that, the steady guilt of ignoring this place, of letting another month go by with silence here.
In January, in the middle of a blizzard, my kid brother moved out of our house in the most painful way. He’s been our charge for the better part of a decade, so the schism was not without grief and bitter feelings. And yet, we carry on. Worrying from afar and hoping that it will all work out. Trying to ignore the pain that we all inadvertently cause each other as we bumble about our lives.
This is just life. Whether you will it or not, you move along on the ebbs and flow of its waves. Time and tide wait for no one and you can do nothing about the words that you should have written yesterday. Or the day before that. Or the day before that.
My friend Del died in February, which made everything else seem very trivial. Life simply stopped for me for a while, as my everyday duties became complicated by grief. He has been in my life for my entire adult life, so it took me some time to adjust to who I might be as an adult without him there as my constant friend and support. I found out at work, so I locked myself into an empty office and sat on the floor for a long time, until I figured out how to stand again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a metaphor for the days to come.
My Beloved, when I told him, just said, “No, it is too awful. It’s just too awful,” which I still can’t help but agree with him. It’s just too awful.
At my friend’s funeral, the pastor read an Auden poem — you know it — the one with the final line about how nothing now will ever come to any good. My friend, sacrilegious at best, would have deeply enjoyed a pastor reading a gay love elegy at his wake, once he got past the idea of a pastor showing up for his wake at all. But it was a good poem to choose, because Auden had the right of it. I was, at best, semi-functional while my mind struggled with reconciling the impossible (he was now dead) with the possible (and yet the world went on without him). I spoke at his funeral to a crowd so large that it was standing room only in the biggest room the funeral parlor had available. He was not a famous man, and yet, he touched people. He was a sincere man, who cared about people, who was good at loving people. That — and a puckish, adventurous nature — made him so special.
Loving people is not something that comes easily to me, but my friend made me better at it. When I heard the news, my first thought was, “But who will love me the way that he loves me?” And what I meant was that he loved me without expectation or judgment, which is an incredibly rare way to be loved. Being around him was like slipping into your comfy slippers at the end of the hard day, after you’ve locked your house’s doors against the unsafe world outside. And you just couldn’t help but love him back.
That would explain all the people at the funeral.
Under ordinary circumstances, I do not enjoy speaking in front of people. But I could have spoken for hours, telling stories of how my friend has touched my life over the 20 years of our friendship. But each of his brothers was to speak after me, so I kept it short and told only one story, which thankfully made the crowd laugh, because they knew him the way that I knew him. By the time we made it to the party after the reception, I so exhausted that I fell asleep sitting up in a living room bristling with people.
The depth of my grief in the first weeks surprised me. I have lost so many people and animals over the last two years that I wondered if it was cumulative grief, but I don’t think so. My friend was a part of my past and my future, and to have that lifeline removed so suddenly was enough to bowl me over. He was always there for me. Now he can’t be.
His death was so sudden that my calendar is still marked with the plans we had together. We had been trying to have a shared house vacation together for years, but our plans kept getting marred by other obligations and, even once, a surgery. At last, this summer it was finally going to actually happen, and I was so looking forward to exploring a new place with him. Those days, the ones where we had already had plans to be together, are going to be hard days. He was going to be visiting me again in another two weeks, for the wedding of one of our many shared friends. That will be hard too.
My friend is gone, but I hear him all the time. When I open the pantry to pull out an onion, I remember him telling me to keep the onions and potatoes in separate baskets. A stainless steel pan comes with a reminder – in his voice – to heat them up before you drop the oil in. He helped me set up my first fish tank, and I cannot think of undergravel filters without thinking about him teaching me about why I needed one. My oldest fish, a pleco named Socrates, is now eleven. In my music room, I have a Japanese fan that he bought me a lifetime ago when I moved into an apartment, which has followed me to every house since. I have so many of these physical momentoes — a bottle of mead, giant spools of yarn, bottles of Scotch. But most valuable to me is all of the advice that he gave me over so many years, which I always hear in his baritone voice in my head. And the love. He taught me that I was worth loving, because he loved me without wanting anything from me.
And so, he is gone, but he is not gone too, not in the way that other people I have lost have gone. I touched his body, but a world without him in it seems impossible. He will be in mine forever, because he helped make me who I am. I’ve returned to the waking world again, but I am glad to have been able to stop – to call in too sad to work, to have been able to think about all the people that really matter to me and how lucky I am to have such love in my life. I think it was his last gift.
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.