The Beautiful and the Grotesque

I have not written in this space in months. Weeks flew by, filled with teaching, reading, writing elsewhere, preparing, planning, parenting, thinking. And now, on the precipice of a new year, I have this small swarm of thoughts. As I wait for the moment where I can change the date, as if turning the page on the calendar really propels us away from the things we want to forget, I write to make sense of things, and share them here to make them real.

I have three siblings and all we all of have children, so we have collectively decided that Christmas gifts are to be given to kids only. Every year, one of my siblings breaks that rule and I feel like a jerk.

We always chip in on a gift for my mom. This year we got her a record player. Her boyfriend is a wonderful man, and also a talented musician, so she is spending more and more time going to concerts and listening to music.

Before the record player idea happened, I was sitting in our newly finished office thinking about my family and holiday gifts. Our office is a room we have been converting for a little over a year. We knocked the shelves out of the closet in the tiny bedroom next to ours, took down its folding doors, sheet-rocked (for the first time ever), and built recessed shelves and side-by-side desks. We repainted every wall and bit of trim, covered the peeling brown ceiling with layer after layer of white paint, stacked my books on the shelves on the left and arranged M’s pop culture sculptures on the shelves on the right, hung some art on the walls and a new roman shade on the window. It’s beautiful and sturdy and we are still swollen with pride because we created this space with our own hands.

An old painting of my mother’s hung in this room when it was still brown-ceilinged and wallpapered. She painted it when she was in high school– two blonde-haired fairies standing atop a huge spotted mushroom. The grass is vividly green, the fairies’ dresses are pink and blue and sweeping, their facial features vague. I don’t know how I came to own it. It hung in the kitchen at my old house, and it’s in the attic now, and for a brief moment I considered gifting it to my brother or one of my sisters or maybe giving it back to my mother for Christmas. I thought it might be funny to start a tradition between us now that we are grown; perhaps we could rotate it. Every Christmas it would get wrapped and passed along, the receiver would display it for a year, and then give it to another one of us. Then I thought about how my mother would laugh, but probably secretly hate it.

Before school let out for winter break, S finished an art project he’d been working on for weeks. He nearly burst through the front door of the school with it clutched tightly in his gloved hand. His eyes were shining as he carried it to the car. The way he confidently yet delicately placed it into my ungloved hand reminded me of how a nurse hands surgical tools to a doctor. I examined it closely, the glaze still a little tacky, as he explained to me every step of his artistic process.

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It’s an incense holder in the shape of a hotdog. I have it displayed on the coffee table, protected from the new kitten by two large, heavy vases. Every time I look at it I get a little teary. It fills me with pride. Love. And reminds me of the beauty in creation.

My mother and her boyfriend came over for dinner on Tuesday night. It was odd and wonderful to have her as a guest, because so often it’s just her and S and me, a quick dinner of spaghetti while watching cartoons. But this night, with the holiday air still spinning magically, we set out a cheese plate and had wine, played music, lit candles. I made homemade split pea soup, M made salad with marinated artichokes and sliced olives, and we baked the kind of buttermilk biscuits that have to be popped out of a cardboard tube by pressing on the seam with the back of a spoon.

When we finished dinner, my mom helped us clear the table. She stood next to me at the sink, flushed from her second glass of pinot, and put her head on my shoulder.

“I wanted to have dinner like this for a reason. And there’s no easy way to say this, so I am just going to say it. My mammogram came back abnormal. I have Stage One breast cancer. I am going to see the surgeon on the third. Frank is taking good care of me. I am going to be fine.”

And then she hugged me around my waist and we blinked away the wells in our eyes.

After the table was cleared, we set up Apples to Apples and played with S until almost ten o’clock. We laughed, hard and often, and I never wanted them to leave. But S had to get to bed and the kitchen was still a mess and I needed to talk to my husband and I wanted to cry huge tears into the sink, so I waved them away into the cold December night.

As I write this out now, hushed, like a secret, I wonder if art and motherhood and love and fear and life and death and creation and destruction are always this tangled, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, concrete and ephemeral, and delivered in a silent punch from a gnarled and knotty fist.

Spelling Hatred

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S has spelling homework now that he’s in third grade. Every Monday he brings home a paper with a list of fifteen words and each day he must practice them with a new exercise. Monday he writes each word twice, Tuesday he puts them into alphabetical order, Wednesday he writes them in sentences. Thursday, while we eat dinner, I quiz him in preparation for the test his teacher will give on Friday.

So far, he likes it.

I remember my second grade Spelling class. Instead of a weekly piece of paper, we had a book. The cover was glossy and fuchsia, a color that is the perfect combination of hot pink and cool violet, and there was a picture of a Dalmatian on it. The contrast of the black and white dog and the bright background drew me in and I hated having to cover it with a paper bag cover. I peeled away the scotch tape on the corners so I could look at it. The pages of the book were glossy too, the typeface of the words wide and round, and although it seems strange to describe a font as friendly, it was. I loved it.

Each Friday we would separate our desks to take a test, much like I imagine happens in S’s class now. My teacher would stand at the front of the room and read down the list of words, carefully enunciating each one. At the end, we would be asked to write a few sentences, and our teacher would speak slowly, repeating each one three times.

Her sentences were simple. “Peter asked Sue how to get to the pet store.” “Who let the jet get wet?” And even though I could breeze through the week’s list of short ‘e’ words, I would always get tripped up on the words “how” and “who.” I would write w-h-o and then rub what was left of my eraser (I ate them when I was nervous) over the newsprint paper, leaving skidded tears along the blue lines, and then I would tentatively write h-o-w over the mess. No matter how hard I studied, I could not remember the order of the letters.

As we are inching closer to the election, more and more signs are being pushed into lawns, and I’ve noticed more cars are being accessorized with bumper stickers.

This weekend, when running errands, we pulled up behind a non-descript sedan with a Trump sticker. I felt the red-hot daggers of anger pierce my guts. I asked my husband, “Don’t you feel like people proclaiming their support for him are really just proudly announcing that they’re racist?” This man’s platform relies on hatred, racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. A Trump sticker then seems to be just as offensive as a confederate flag, a swastika, or a white hood.

I am aware that my question to my husband makes a sweeping generalization of Trump supporters. An almost-irony, since I am making a broad generalization about people who support a man who makes broad generalizations. And yet, here I am. I was a hardcore Sanders supporter, and although I do not agree with many of Clinton’s policies, there is a chasm between her and the man who suggested her murder, who berated a woman with a crying baby, who mocked a Muslim family who lost their son fighting in Iraq, who failed to denounce the KKK. Those who stand behind this man are either ignoring his violence and racism, or they are supporting it. And neither of those options is acceptable. (Here is a listicle for a succinct, yet thorough overview.)

Now, when I see these supporters on the road, in my neighborhood, or in my newsfeed, and when I hear them repeat their “Make America Great Again” slogan,  I find myself reverting back to old habits. I am nervously chewing on pens and my fingernails. And I am struggling over those two little words.

Who?

How?

Judging Books by Covers

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If my bones were tree trunks, they’d have thirty-seven concentric circles inside. This is neither young nor old, and often I feel it is both, depending on the time of day.

Imposter syndrome is a real thing, and as I prepare for my first semester as an adjunct professor, I am wavering between excitement and nervousness, and often I feel it is both, depending on the time of day.

For years, I have yearned for my very own leather-bound, twenty-volume, tissue-paper-paged set of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since they cost around $2,000.00, my more realistic goal became to someday procure a condensed, leather-bound, two-volume version, complete with magnifying glass. They cost about $300.00, a sum I cannot see shelling out for two books, no matter how delicious they might smell. I’ve pictured their spines facing outward, sturdy and thick, on a shelf in my office, where I can reference them as I choose the perfect word for a story, or prepare a lecture that will disclose a word’s long-forgotten etymology, making a century’s old poem ring magically to a student in the back row.

Last week I found a condensed set on eBay. It was described as being in “near pristine condition,” save for a few scuffmarks on the blue leather of volume A-O and a missing magnifying glass. And they were…only…$30.00.

The dictionaries were being sold at this unbelievable price because, somehow, they had been bound upside-down. I didn’t even bid. I clicked “Buy now” and paid for standard shipping and let out a little squeal of delight.

Last Monday, S stayed home from camp and we planned a day of errands and fun. Errands first, he accompanied me to my alma mater/ new job so that I could untangle an IT issue, get my new photo ID, and secure a faculty parking pass.

The first two chores were completed quickly, but then I could not find the room where I was supposed to grab my sticker. As I stood near the window where I vaguely recalled signing for a commuter pass years ago, and as my eight-year-old boy chatted away about Pokémon and where he wanted to go for lunch, a man asked if I needed help.

I told him I needed to get a parking sticker. I asked if he knew what room.

“If you have a minute, I’ll walk you over,” he said.

We waited for him to finish up at the window and then followed him, a man twice my age, wearing shorts and running shoes, through the hallways.

About halfway down the main corridor, he looked at me and said, “Are you registering for classes this semester, dear?”

I said, “No. I’m going to get my faculty sticker.”

However, I did not say it with the power that I should have. My voice failed to convey the disgust I felt at being called “dear” by this man who was, I realized, now my colleague, and who had, I suppose, assumed that I could not be on his same level. My feminist pulse had stopped beating in that moment, and something else, something bigger, took over.

I am not completely sure anymore what he said after that, something about what department he worked in.

At the end of the hall I thanked him for his help and then found the room by myself.

As I have mentioned before, I was a student at this school, and not very long ago, because I returned to college the month after I turned thirty, on a quest to immerse myself in the study of literature and the craft of writing because it is a place that has always felt like home. I was a mother then, too, pushing against expectations about what it meant to be a student at a small liberal arts college. I knew my reaction to this man’s question was not because I objected to the notion that I could be a student, but at his assumption that I would be a student. And, most importantly, that I would somehow be okay with him calling me “dear.”

I hate admitting that my hushed reply to his question did not convey any twinge of anger. My reaction was, I think, the result of years of internalized misogyny and my own chicken shit fear of confrontation. The bitter taste that rose up in my mouth the moment this man uttered this question triggered a fight-or-flight response in me. Push back on his comment, or smile and answer politely? And perhaps because I was already feeling somewhat vulnerable, even in such a minor moment, I lost my nerve. Flight won the battle.

As S and I walked the rest of the way down the hall and then joined the zigzagging line of other drivers, I kept asking myself, “Is my outfit wrong? Is my hair too short? Too long? Is it because I am having a late-summer, stress-induced skin breakout, detracting from my wrinkles and making my skin appear adolescent? Is it my sneakers, a little too big, too squeaky, too strange-looking because I bought them on sale from my favorite boutique, and they are rope-soled and biodegradable, but in no way practical or comfortable? Is my posture wrong? My voice unsteady?”

Do I look out of place?

I got my parking sticker and took S out for lunch and back-to-school shopping. We went home and set up the sprinkler and both of us ran through it, jumping and laughing through the freezing cold spray. We played chess in the sun and saw parakeets in the maple tree. And I continued to ponder the morning, wondering how many times I fluctuate between young and old me-selves, the sprinkler-dancer and the academic, the mother and the child.

I wondered why I wondered what it was about my outward appearance that made this man make assumptions about me. I wondered how I often I make these same assumptions about others.

My upside-down dictionaries have been delivered. And they are huge and heavy and awesome.

 

“I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” –Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

 

On Bullies and Writing

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Sometimes, a series of tiny events occurs and bits of narrative and memory burrow into my brain and I know that they somehow link together. Sometimes, the tiny events even occur in one day, so the links, though still tentative, align a little quicker and the growing chain wraps around and around, squeezing me until an essay or a story is pushed forth. This post is, I hope, the beginning of links coming together.

Sunday night, on our way upstairs to put S to bed, I caught my bare foot on a nail that had popped out of the floorboard. Our house is one hundred and forty years old, and one of its greatest glories is the honey-colored hardwood floors that stretch through the original rooms of the house. One of its many quirks is the way these floorboards swell and shrink with the seasons. The staircase is in the front entryway, where the floor has heaved into a small hill by the door, and the old square-headed nails often rise out of their holes like the automated gophers in a carnival game. Most of our socks have small holes in the bottoms. Now my right foot does, too.

Despite my minor injury, we had had an incredible day. A friend stayed with us, visiting from Nova Scotia. The weekend was filled with pizza and outdoor movies and ice cream and harbor-view dining. For our last day, we first visited a park in a nearby town and then headed back home to show Katie the boardwalk that runs along a chunk of our shoreline. Two places that seem unrelated save for the fact that they are close by, free, and beautiful.

What spun out from this last day is puzzling me.

Boothe Park is an expansive piece of property with rolling hills, an observatory, and the old Merritt Parkway tollbooths. There are tours of the Boothe homestead, and visitors also wander through the park’s smaller buildings– a working blacksmith, a clock tower, a miniature lighthouse. The property was owned and then donated by two altruistic brothers who lived there together for most of their lives, and who willed the entire estate (and a maintenance fund) to the town in 1949. Because their nineteenth-century house looks a little like ours I couldn’t help but compare the two— the large front porch, the narrow stairways, the remnants of the old dumbwaiter. Our tour guide walked us through the main house, revealing all of the peculiarities of these charitable brothers. The men were very religious, and patriotic, and had a tendency to hoard seemingly random objects. Curio cabinets on the main floor are crowded with seashells and taxidermy turtles, and an entire room on the second floor is filled entirely with baskets. Perusing these collections of eccentricities, I recalled the two brothers who own the house next door to us, who have also lived together all of their lives, who also claim to be devout Catholics, who are also hoarders, and who also fill their yard with eccentric knickknacks. However, our brothers-next-door show no signs of altruism, for they patrol our street like a couple of aging Skut Farkuses.

While exploring a barn filled with at least a dozen looms and lined with shelves piled high with torturous-looking devices once used for combing wool or stripping pork fat, my husband said aloud exactly what I had been thinking. That we were standing in a bizarre land of what-could-have-been, learning about brothers who lived to help their community, while we live next to brothers who live to haunt their community.

I held this paradox in my head. Mulled over it when we stopped for sandwiches and iced tea before heading to the beach, these ideas about two sets of brothers, dyads connected by genetics, two pairs of men with similar traits and peculiarities, seemingly parallel interests and beliefs, and yet starkly opposite relational skills. Perhaps it is strange to consider the similarities, since eight decades separate men that are, by all accounts, complete strangers. And yet, I wonder, how is it that some of us are motivated to be charitable, and others are driven to bully?

The beach was crowded and the sun was pelting, almost brutal, except that the breeze and the view were strong enough to make us forget. On our first pass down the boardwalk we walked by a man I instantly recognized because as a teenager, this man was part of a larger group of boys who ruthlessly teased me in high school. My throat tightened momentarily. I no longer live in my hometown, and yet I am not so far away that run-ins with old classmates are impossible. We walked by him on our way back too, and again my stomach turned and the boardwalk became the locker-lined hallways of my small-town high school. Twenty years separate me from that experience, and still my body viscerally responded as I walked past him.

That night, after I stepped on the nail, as I ran icy water over my foot and watched the blood turn pink as it mixed with water and flowed down the drain, I thought about bullies, and about being bullied. I put Manuka honey and a Band-Aid on my foot. Then I started researching genetics.

Some scientists have found an altruism gene, and others have pinned neurobiological markers to bullies. But this isn’t without complications, for how easy is it to shirk the blame for actions when they can be tied to biology? And nature does not discount nurture, for there are equally as many case studies suggesting that depravity might lead to bullying. Or that nurturing can curb violent tendencies. Can I explain the Boothe brother’s altruism and our neighbors’ bullying through this research?

What do I do with these nuggets that have wormed their way into my brain? What story am I to tell from this day of pasts and presents, of charity and chastising? Is this nature v. nurture debate they key, or at least a piece, to understanding the larger issues we face right now? Can we understand Trump and Trump-supporters the same way I am trying to understand the bullies of my youth or stifle the effects of the bullies of adulthood? Is it productive to think of bullies and their desire for domination and control as we push back against people who continually treat women, or people of color, or people with disabilities with derision? Would this be productive?

Or is this a story about human connection and disconnection? Is this series of events a storyline about the strange way a single day can transport you back in time, connecting homes, people, and experiences? Is this a story about bullies, or about what could have been, what was, and what is? Is this finally a way into the story I have been wanting write about our neighbors, whose antics have puzzled us for two years, and who have provided me with enough fodder for a thousand stories, but no framework through which I can share them?

There’s something happening here. I will keep writing it, molding it and submitting it as I push forward to my 100-rejections-in-a-year goal. I still need ninety-eight.

On John Donne and Fish Pedicures

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In an earlier post I mentioned worrying about landing a job. (I think I’ve written about worry in every blog post, but I won’t in this one!) I am grateful to say that the Fear of Unemployment ship has sailed for me. I landed a job as an adjunct, teaching one section for now, at the school where I did my BA, so the whole thing feels a little like coming home. With the remaining weeks of summer, I am sifting through the stacks and stacks of books heaped in the tiny room that will one day have shelves, and making long lists of poems and short stories and essays and maybe even a novel that I will teach to a classroom full of freshmen to spark their curiosity and make them fall in love with the written word. I hope.

I’m late (again) on my internal deadline of one blog post a week, but this time only by a few days. I have been working on an essay, which is finally finished and has been sent off to three literary magazines in the hopes that maybe one will pick me. I recently read this article about embracing rejection letters and I am going to try for a hundred, too.

Yesterday, S and I went to see a friend who is renting a beach house. An up-on-stilts, ocean-in-the-backyard, all-tile floors-to-easily-sweep-the-sand-away, beach house. They live in this town, so the rental is like a hybrid staycation/vacation. They can go home to feed their cats and don’t have to stop the mail, but they sleep with sliding glass doors open to the sounds of the waves crashing and hang soggy towels off the veranda to dry in the sun.

It was high tide when we got there and the view from this side of town is completely different, so we went for a swim. S and my friend’s niece joined us. It was late afternoon, when that pink beach light makes everyone’s skin look luminous.

We waded in waist-high and I was telling my friend about my new job while we watched the sun-baked kids with their primary-colored buckets and swimsuits try to catch the transparent little bodies of minnows swimming around us in schools.

The tiny darting fish reminded me of the fish pedicure trend that I read about a while back. A fish pedicure, or fish spa, is a treatment that involves submerging one’s feet into a tub of water filled with Garra rufa fish, also known as “doctor fish,” and then allowing the fish to eat away the dead skin.

The CDC website lists seven reasons why some states have banned this practice. The third reason is that the Chinese Chinchin, another species of fish, is often mislabeled as a Garra rufa and is then used in these fish spas. The problem with this mistake is that the Chinchin grows teeth and can draw blood, which is not only terrifying, but also increases the risk of infection.

With my mind on both flesh-gnawing fish and syllabi, I am reminded of John Donne’s “The Flea.”

 

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

 Yet this enjoys before it woo,

    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

    Though use make you apt to kill me,

    Let not to that, self-murder added be,

    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:

    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,

    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

I wonder then, in the parts of the world where fish pedicures are practiced, are the Garra rufa like Donne’s flea, mingling the dead skin cells of strangers in their bellies in a way that some might say is like an act of love? Are the poor souls (my apologies for the pun) who accidentally dip their toes into tubs of Chinchin fish anything like Donne’s seventeenth-century young couple? There is no lover in these spas, I guess, only the starving fish pedicurers and the rough feet of the pedicurees, but the grotesque intimacy is there.

And as I edit this post and fidget with all of the open tabs on my computer, I receive an email from one of the journals I sent my essay to. A rejection. My words squashed between the fingers of an editor.

Only ninety-nine more to go.

The World is a Suckfest Right Now

horseshoe-crab-589914_1280I haven’t written a blog post in eighteen days, which is maybe no big deal, but when I started this project I intended to write a post a week.

I am not alone in my sea of wordlessness. So many other writers I am friends with or admire are floating alongside me. And other non-writers are bobbing along, too.

The world is suckfest right now and I am terrified and I have been hoping for some little ray of light to illuminate a wave of change and give me some sort of something to say that won’t be filled with lead.

It’s not happening.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been added to the disgustingly long list of black lives lost at the hands of police. A sniper shoots at police in Dallas during what should have been a peaceful protest and five officers die. A terrorist drives through families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice and eighty-four people are dead, ten of them children. Turkey’s military forms a coup and over two hundred people die.

I don’t even know why the flag is at half-mast. Which tragedy are they honoring? Do we even bother to raise it anymore?

On Saturday, we went to the beach and on our way out of the waves we saw a horseshoe crab belly-up on the sand. It happens a lot, especially during their mating season. They get flipped and if they can’t get enough traction with their tails to turn right side up, they die.

We looked at it closely, sad. And then my husband noticed it move. Just a little leg flicker. He picked it up so so so gently and we three walked back into the water and let her go. Before she scurried out to sea she walked over each of our feet. I wanted to think it was some sort of animal-human connection. A thank you, maybe.

She was probably just confused from being upside down. I was certainly touched by the event, but too jaded for much hopeful introspection.

S spends Saturday nights with his dad, which makes me sad but also gives me time alone with my husband. We walked downtown and there was a man with an acoustic guitar playing in the courtyard of the little café on the corner. He was great. He sang everything from James Taylor to Soundgarden to the Indigo Girls.

I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I’m crawling on your shore.

We had wine and laughed and enjoyed the weather and our beautiful town and each other.

On the way home we saw Walt, a homeless man who always greets us with a fistbump and has the clearest blue eyes. Over the winter, my huge-hearted husband picked up Walt and his best friend Thomas and put them up in a motel to get them through a particularly brutal cold snap.

We asked about Thomas and Walt told us that he had died. He died in the street after getting yelled at by the landlord of the large harbor condominiums with the secluded parking lot where these two often slept. He died with a skin infection that went untreated because homeless people don’t get medical insurance. He died without his family.

Our walk home was silent as we let our tears fall.

And then there is a shooting in Baton Rouge. Small anguishes and big ones have gutted me.

I wonder about PTSD and wonder if anyone has thought about how both of the police shooters were former military. I wonder if our increasingly militarized police force will ever become a peaceful force. There are dots to connect here, but I don’t have enough facts to connect them.

I wonder if marginalized people will ever feel unafraid. I wonder if we will ever stop calling people who aren’t straight, white Christians “marginalized.”

I am watching people divide about whether #blacklivesmatter is undermining other lives and I wonder why people don’t get it. There are essays and memes and comic strips delineating what the difference is, explaining how important this is, not because other lives matter less, but because Black lives don’t matter right now.

People only don’t see the difference. And the divide is getting wider.

(This article so beautifully explains the difference between #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter.)

And this:

“Because it (dehumanization) is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both”

The first sentence succinctly describes what is happening now. The second statement is what #blacklivesmatters is, a seeking, though not to regain, but to gain humanity, not by violence, not by oppressing the oppressors, but with peace and education. This excerpt, though, is from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written in Portugal in 1968.

When will it stop?

What world is this?

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.
—Warsan Shire, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

Photographic Memory

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My paternal grandparents on their wedding day, 1950.

My paternal grandmother was in a car accident before I was born, or shortly after, which is why she had braces on her legs and walked with a crutch. Her maroon Buick was outfitted with a device that allowed her to drive using only her hands. She had been married two or three times, so her last name was different from ours, and every August she would take us, one at a time, back-to-school shoe shopping at a local shoe store called The Little Red School House. It was a squat building and dark inside, and although it was little, it was neither red nor a schoolhouse. Inside, a man with thick, nicotine-stained fingers that looked like my dad’s would press my socked foot into a cold metal cradle lined with black hatch marks to determine my shoe size. He always gave me a piece of hard Bazooka gum after ringing us up and then I would climb into the back seat of her modified car, sucking on the gum and then scraping the left-behind sugar from the Bazooka Joe comic strips with my teeth. We would go to Duchess for lunch, eat plain hot dogs and salty crinkle fries dipped in room temperature ketchup and my grandmother would ash her long Newports into the silver foil ashtray on the table.

I remember very little about the concrete facts of her life. I know she was from Rhode Island but I don’t know how she came to live in Connecticut. I don’t know how she met my grandfather or when they divorced. I do know she had three children and that my father was the youngest. I can’t recall where she worked or what her favorite food was. I can conjure up the image of the brick apartment building she lived in when we were small, that her couch was covered with a plastic slipcover, and that she collected bells and kept parakeets as pets.

I have a photograph of her and my grandfather, taken on their wedding day. It is one of those retouched old pictures, lightly painted, so it becomes something in-between a black-and-white photo and a color one. The hues are all pastel. Their teeth are very white. Nothing about it seems real, because the paint covers any natural lines and creases on their faces. When I look at it I see two young people I only knew as old people, people with traits that are familiar because they are mine, and foreign because they aren’t. As I stare at it longer I notice my grandmother’s left hand is curled, her fingers are pressing into her thigh. Why is she doing this? Was she nervous? What was she thinking about? This small pose makes me see the whole picture in a different way.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

My grandmother slept over our house every Christmas Eve and would read us The Night Before Christmas before bed. She bought us red fleece one-piece “feetie-pajamas” and we would zipper ourselves in and line up neatly on the sofa. From far away, we probably looked like a holiday card. On Christmas morning my grandmother would watch us open gifts and then she would join us for Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house. She would follow us up their front stairs, one arm’s tricep cradled in the upper part of her crutch, her gait balanced by the weight of the overstuffed handbag slung over her other shoulder, where inside a dozen other cousins also called her Grandma Peggy, even though they weren’t related.

“The dominant ideology of the family, in whatever shapes it takes within a specific social context, superposes itself as an overlay over our more located, mutual, and vulnerable individual looks, looks which always exist in relation to [the]“familial gaze”—the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term.” –Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

As time wore on and we grew up, I saw her less and less. I went several years or maybe a decade without visiting her at all. I don’t remember her at my father’s funeral, although I am sure she was there. I can’t recall whether we mailed each other holiday cards or if she ever called me on the phone. I do know that she developed emphysema but still smoked. That she had a stroke. That she had dementia. I also remember that she loved “Danny Boy” and I can still recall the sound of her laugh.

My mother is the one who called to let me know when my grandmother was in a nursing home not far from where I lived and that she was dying. I visited her on a chilly autumn evening. She was lying in a hospital bed with a corded remote. Her hands were in splints to prevent atrophy and she had tubes in her nose to help her breathe. Her skin was oddly smooth. She looked small and far away. I stood next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her forehead and say hello, my chubby infant resting on my hip, balancing my tilted frame. She looked up at me and smiled and called me by her daughter’s name and told me I had a pretty baby. He grabbed at her fingers and laughed.

 “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography