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.

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”

Returning

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Last Friday was a gorgeous day in a string of gorgeous days. Warm and sunny, with an almost imperceptible breeze rustling the leaves. The petals on the dogwoods are starting to fall, which oddly look like snow and make me realize how wonderful New England weather is.

I picked S up at camp at 3:30. He is already tan, freckled, and blond. His little boy beauty nearly knocks me over. I am trying to enjoy these summer days, to relish in the tiny moments of  peace, to stop fretting about the job search. To relax and just be.

His backpack and his knees were filthy from kickball and hiking. He tumbled into the car, buckled his seatbelt while chugging warm water out of his purple plastic bottle and then asked, like he does so often, “What are we going to do when we get home?”

I can’t remember now whether I answered him or whether it was his idea, but before we got home it was decided that we would ride our bikes downtown to get ice cream. He got a new bike this spring, a seven-speeder, and we haven’t had a chance to ride it much. And we haven’t let him ride it downtown yet, because the traffic is often heavy and the roads are a little narrow. And I worry too much.

After pulling our bikes out of the basement, I grabbed the helmets, stuck my key into my wallet, pocketed my phone, took several deep breaths, and we were off.

He rode in front of me, a little wobbly, but with increasing confidence. He even stood up a few times. We walked our bikes through the big intersection, and when we got to the ice cream place we parked them outside by the window before going in.

We ate our sundaes at a little round bistro table on the sidewalk. I didn’t make him wash off his chocolate mustache before we headed back home. We went a different way, still choosing to walk our bikes through the busy spots, but taking a shortcut through a parking lot.

***

The parking lot is next to a municipal building and an auditorium, and as we pedaled through, scores of young girls in bright costumes were filing into their recital. The scene reminded me of my niece’s recital last week, and then I remembered my post from that weekend. I wrote an essay that came out of me in a rush as I tried to understand the catastrophic shooting in Orlando. I wrote it as a way to work through what I couldn’t understand. I still don’t understand, but a few people have reached out to me after reading it and said they felt that I had written a message about hope. I hadn’t intended it to be hopeful, but it felt good to give that to a few readers who were also feeling uncertain.

I know I used the word “hope” in the essay, but I wasn’t really feeling it when I wrote it. Hopeless is how I felt. Kind of empty and defeated. Angry. I used the word “angry” far more times than I used “hope.” No one remarked about that. I would like to think that means more people are drawn to hope than to anger.

***

Once we bobbed and weaved through the dancers and their families we stopped. We had one more major road to cross before we were home free. I patted down my pockets to find my phone and check the time, to get my key out of my wallet. I had my phone. But not my wallet.

My fingers went a little numb. My ears burned from more than just the sun. My heart pounded so loudly I couldn’t think for a moment.

“What’s wrong mom?”

“I lost my wallet. It’s not in my pocket.”

I knew I had to be calm, so I whispered the words “fuck” and “shit” instead of yelling them. We couldn’t just go home and make a few calls because I had stuck my key in my wallet. I couldn’t buy us water and time at a restaurant or café because I had no money.

I had to stay calm and make a plan. I didn’t want to upset my son, but I also needed him to know that this was important and I needed his help.

“Ok bubs. Here’s the plan. We’ll bring the bikes home and then we’ll walk back and retrace our steps. I need your help. Keep your eyes peeled and remember where we were.”

We followed our path all the way back to the ice cream shop. Nothing. We stopped into stores. Nothing. I could tell S was starting to worry; he was muttering about this being “the worst day ever.”

At the crosswalk I held his hand and thanked him. I explained that although this certainly wasn’t the best way to wrap up our day, it was really no big deal. I would cancel the credit cards, get a new license, and we would change the lock on the backdoor. What truly matters is that we are happy. We are healthy. We have bellies full of hot fudge. We are very lucky people.

“Let’s go to the train station and wait for Matt.”

My husband had left work early and it was almost time for his train to get in. Once he arrived we could get into the house. S’s dad was taking him for the night. Then my husband and I could deal with the credit cards and locks together.

I sent Matt a text to let him know what had happened.

He reminded me that he didn’t have a key, either. He had left them with me.

I called my mother-in-law to meet us with her spare key. I told S we had to walk back home and wait for her to unlock the door, and then we could go inside and have huge glasses of water and relax on the couch. He hadn’t complained about the heat or being thirsty. He nodded and slipped his hand in mine. I repeated to him that this really isn’t a major catastrophe. I reminded him that in the big picture, this is only a drop in the bucket. He stayed quiet. I stopped talking. We walked the nine minutes home hand in hand.

***

Maybe I was surprised by people’s reactions to my Pulse post because the word “hope” sometimes connects me, uncomfortably, to religion. When I hear that word, I see stiff felt banners with white doves and dark stained glass windows of saints proclaiming miracles for those who have hope and faith.

I am agnostic. I haven’t attended or believed in church in twenty years, and somewhere along the way I even started to avoid the vocabulary. But I haven’t let go of some of the traditions. There are little stones of my Catholic upbringing rolling around in my shoes and I can feel them when I’m worried. When I realized my wallet had dropped out of my pocket, after I whispered four-letter words, I  prayed to St. Anthony. A vestigial reflex from my childhood.

***

When we got home, S and I clamored up the two steps of our front porch, sweaty, frustrated, and defeated. And there it was. Looking a little limp, the gray zipper closed, the patterned fabric dirty and frayed. My wallet, tossed up on our doorstep by some honest stranger.

We were both wide-eyed. I picked it up. It was hot from being in the sun. My credit cards were in there. My license. Three wet, wrinkly dollar bills. Wadded up receipts. Our house key.

***

Some people say “lucky” and others say “blessed.” Some look for hope and faith, others for charms and signs. One person’s “Do unto others” is another person’s Karma.

What matters is kindness.

 

 

 

 

 

Pulse

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Last night we went to my niece’s dance recital. It was three hours long. I learned that she is a very talented gymnast and I envy both her flexibility and her confidence. The theme of the night was “Dancin’ Around the World,” and we were supposed to imagine that we were following three women vacationing on a cruise ship. At each “port” a dance class performed to a song, which was or was not specific to the “country” the dancers were in, while wearing costumes that were mostly also supposed to reflect the region. They danced to songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Can-Can. At the end, the longest set was focused on the ship’s return to America, and six classes now joyfully danced to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” There was a huge flag unraveled at the end. As I watched, I thought about how I was going to write about how uncomfortable I was. How the songs and costumes seemed to be based solely on stereotypes, essentializing cultures and people and customs, and how the culmination of exaggerated fanfare about the “homecoming” to America and the patriotic songs that tout peace knocked me off-kilter, because I feel so much turmoil right now. That the unwavering patriotism at the end seemed fluorescent, neon, and too bright and too false, even for a dance recital in for a dark grammar school in the valley of Connecticut.

But when I woke up this morning, like everyone else, I checked my phone, and, like everyone else, I was rocked. I read NPR first. It said up to twenty people had been shot and killed in a bar in Orlando, and maybe it was a hate crime because it happened in a gay bar, or maybe it was terrorism. Maybe more people were dead. Maybe the shooter was a member of ISIS. Lots of maybes. Lots of speculation. I stopped, my body frozen in disbelief. I kept reading. Pulse, they reported, was the name of the club.

I didn’t cry. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t. I floated above it, unsure, afraid. I had coffee with my husband. We talked about it briefly. We left the house to run errands. To have a Sunday. But it stayed there, in my head, in my heart, shaking my day, as I stopped to check my phone, read the headlines, watch the number of fatalities increase, read comments that disgusted me. Read political tweets that terrified me.

This Slate article reveals that five of the most recent mass shootings used the same type of assault rifle, and all were purchased legally. The One Thing that Five Recent Mass Shootings Have in Common.

Stop there for a minute. Think about that headline and let that sink in. That there have been five recent mass shootings to make this connection.

All day I felt…heavy. As I checked the news, standing in line at Ikea, trying to wrap my head around this tragedy, this devastating slaughter, I thought about the families that are waiting, hanging, suspended in a grief we can only be so lucky to escape, while I hold flower pots and my husband’s hand. The death toll climbed. I tell my husband that the reports now state fifty people are dead.

Then I see an article about Donald Trump’s statements in the aftermath of this tragedy. My stomach lurches. Yankee Doodle, keep it up. He is using the actions of a hate-filled man to build up a case against an entire population of people. He tweets; “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I am furious.

There are news reports about the shooter beating his now ex-wife. His 911 call pledging allegiance to ISIS. Articles are focusing on his past. On his guns. And also on the victims and their families. People are dividing.

Fifty people died because one man believed a group of men and women were doing something he believed was wrong.

One man is using this tragedy to underpin his argument that an entire group of people is wrong. Mind the music and the step.

When we got home, we went out back to do yard work. My husband planted some climbing hydrangeas along the split rail fence. I weeded out the two rectangular patches where the vegetable garden should go. We planted a garden here last year too, but nothing grew. It was either too shady or the soil was depleted from a large Hosta that had been growing there for years. I transplanted the Hosta last spring. In the fall we had the walnut tree trimmed back to allow for more sunlight. We have almost two years worth of compost in the bin at the edge of yard. This year, our second year in this house, I hope we can grow our own veggies.

I pulled and pulled at weeds that were nearly as tall as I am. Some of them resisted, clung to the earth. Others slid right out, root balls covered in dirt, huge clumps of mud stuck to the white clawing roots. I pulled and pulled, angry at the world. Angry at the hate, at the ignorance. Angry because people call this terrorism because it was committed by a man who claimed to be a Muslim, but when white men commit these crimes they are described as lone gunmen, as mentally ill, as products of failed parents, failed systems. I live twenty minutes from a town where a young white man shot and killed twenty six and seven-year olds and six educators. My nephews live in that town. I pulled, angry that we don’t have stricter gun laws, furious that the ignorant and vicious comments of one man are backed by millions, that this man could be our president, my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. I have family members that like him. I pulled harder. I shook earthworms back into the soil. Watched them burrow their shiny bodies deep into the ground, hoped they would help this part of my yard to yield broccoli and tomatoes and beans. Hoped they would live even though I had disrupted their lives.

I threw weeds into piles, watched as they wilted. Fuming. Again. Swarming with feelings. Sadness. Thinking about the gravity of that many lives, the ripples through families and communities. Seething. Devastated. My hands filthy, my knees and feet caked with mud.

I heard tapping and looked up. My neighbor was standing there, watching me, softly drumming her fingers on the fence rail and smiling. I don’t know how long she was there. She had also been doing yard work and had stopped to talk. I stepped out of my fog, away from the weeds, stomped over the pile of curling leaves and exposed roots, pulled off my gloves to say hi. To talk about our kids, our summers, when we would get together for a glass of wine, what we wanted to plant this year. She saw my pile of weeds and told me she had the same type.

“Didn’t you notice the little purple flowers at the top?” she asked. “I thought they were too pretty to pull just yet. So I left them.”

She invited us over for a BBQ next weekend, Father’s Day, because her son is graduating from high school on Tuesday. I went back to work, hoed the two plots flat. Went to the compost bin to shovel two years worth of eggshells, teabags, apple cores, and coffee grounds into this barren space, hoping it to make it fruitful.

I finally understand, I think, Homi Bhabha and his idea of the third space. I’m here, but not, existing somewhere between my physical world and a remote place in Florida where life has changed.

I shoveled and raked. My back ached. My jaw hurt because my anger was settling in my bones. Hard work is a distraction and a release within this weird space of normalcy where things are anything but normal.

I spread mounds of dark wet scraps into the garden. Each time I returned to the bin I had to push away at a patch of scratchy leaves towering over me. They made me jump. I felt like bugs were crawling on my face and body.

Rake. Dig. Pull. Shovel. Dirt and kitchen scraps. Death and decay into growth. Hope.

The scratching leaves, I noticed, as the sun started to set, as dusk settled in, as the last moments of Sunday slipped away, were more of the towering weeds I’d spent my afternoon pulling out. Their small flowers with delicate purple petals and fuzzy yellow centers were growing with wild abandon on the small hill, proud, stretching, swaying. I stopped. They were beautiful. Alive.

I left them there.

 

“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” –Edward Said