It’s darkest just before the morning, and I know they say
the cracks are how the light gets in, and that
God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle
and every living thing needs rain to grow, yes, I know.
But what about when morning doesn’t come, or
when the cracks turn into craters, and what about
when what you can handle would fit in a thimble
with room to spare, even, what then?
Too much rain can kill the roots, I read that, how
the soil suffocates them and did you know that
you can’t grow with no breath left to lift you up
out of the ground? You can’t grow with no breath.
I never knew how bones could hold on to every tear,
the weight of grief just building up inside them, never
knew how they could suck loss up like a sponge, calcify it,
crucify it, until your body becomes a boulder, this
entirely unmovable thing, too heavy to roll, withered
heart hardened at the center. The breath long gone.
They could carve statues out of me before I could mourn
enough to even lift one leg, to bend even one finger.
I simply sit still in this river made of tears and stare
into an unrecognizable future. Where would I go anyway?
There’s no escaping a broken spirit when the pieces of it
snake up your spine, when your cells attack hope like cancer.
When Artex drowned in the Swamps of Sadness, I was
six years old and I couldn’t stop crying. What a metaphor
for all my years, even then, already, and if you want to know
the truth, it’s that I haven’t stopped crying since then, not really.
Sometimes I think about slipping under that mud,
the cool kill of it in my ears and my nose, how the dark
of it would feel in the back of my throat, pressed against
my eyelids, but life always pulls me up by the reigns again.
The sunlight’s strong once you clear the cypress trees, it’s
hard to ignore air doesn’t taste like despair and decay. I guess
you can even remember that there’s goodness here,
on good days, beyond the bones of the horse who couldn’t make it.
The unexpected orphans, we do unexpected things.
I knock on wood so much that I keep splinters buried deep down
in my knuckles. I throw salt over my shoulder, a starving
rifle-toting soldier, at war with ghosts waving white flags of surrender.
I walk under ladders to dodge the other dropping shoe, its
perpetual fall, but black cats are a comfort, like the shadow of a
storm cloud overhead. I cross my toes and hold my breath
as my fingers do the walking over graves, over bridges.
I told my mom once, superstition is really nothing more than
saying a prayer with symbolism. Please don’t let life hurt me.
Please don’t let me be alone. Please don’t let the piano fall on me
from up above. Please Mother Mary pray for us sinners.
But some days are better than others. Even in the rain,
I can hear the crows and the cardinals. The Christmas tree
in the corner, lit up with my life story told in ornamental narrative,
I keep candles going around the clock like a rosary set on fire.
I go to sleep surrounded by the sounds of the house I
grew up in, the breath of the people who love me best, the
warm weight of life in my womb, one pound one ounce, in between
a coconut and grapefruit, a new forever measured out in fruit.
I heard a song this morning that made me cry, a hard cry, but with
the good kind of tears that feel like a baptism, a healing, an ocean
anointment. I yelled at the cats and the baby kicked me hard, once,
twice. And this is how life goes. This is how life goes on.
And then, suddenly, you can find the face of the Divine on a girl wearing a simple summer dress, the hot Southern wind blowing like the breath of God.
(image via Jonathan Bachman for Reuters)
Last summer, my three year old daughter told me she was going to her Noni’s house. At the time, my mom lived right down the street, an insignificant distance for me but a decent walk for her tiny little legs. I was in the middle of cooking dinner, and about ten minutes before that she’d told me she was going to “dance class”, which apparently was happening in the middle of the living room rug, so I replied with, “Oh, you are? Okay, bye!,” and continued on with my task. My husband arrived a few minutes later and we stood in the kitchen talking for a while before he asked where the youngest was. I shrugged and told him she’d been with her brother and cousin in the living room last time I checked. He called her, but there was no reply. We did a quick check of all the rooms in the house, thinking she was playing somewhere quietly, or engaging in a game of really poorly timed hide and seek. She wasn’t anywhere to be found.
And then I saw the open front door. The older kids had left the heavy wooden interior door open, and the storm door — the very easy to navigate storm door — was standing open a few inches. Panic blossomed faster than I’d ever imagined it could, and the next ten minutes or so were a blur of two frantic children crying and screaming as my husband and I raced around outside the house hollering for our baby, checking under cars, in bushes. One of the most awful things that has ever come out of my mouth was telling my husband, “Go check the pond!” It was right around then that I remembered what she had told me about going to Noni’s, and I took off running down the street, throwing open my mom’s door, panting, crying — and there she sat in the middle of the floor, quietly playing with my mom’s dog. I collapsed, relief like a punch to the gut, completely deflating me. Through sobs, I gathered her up and ran back down the road, yelling that I had her, that she was safe. We all hugged and kissed her and admonished her with gentle firmness to never, ever, EVER leave the house again without telling us and having our permission.
Only later did I start to shake. It had been dinner time, people driving down our quiet street not really paying much attention because they were on autopilot so close to home. She was so small, anyone could have missed her. Anyone could have hit her. Anyone could have grabbed her. ANYTHING could have happened. And it would have been my fault, because I didn’t believe her when she told me what she was doing.
My mom’s house wasn’t a gorilla enclosure. But what if it had been?
Reading through numerous stories and comment sections today about the tragic incident that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo yesterday, I’m struck by how instantly we seem to need to form an opinion on any situation that comes to our collective attention and then shout that opinion from the rooftops. “WORDS!,” we yell, as we shake our fists at the sky and each other, “WORDS! WORDS WORDS WORDS!” We type furiously, banging at the keys with anger-infused fingertips, tripping over our insults, desperate to be the first one to crucify someone we don’t even know. I’m not immune to this. Outrage feels good. Moral outrage, especially, is a convenient way to feel useful when you’re saying or doing something that’s absolutely useless.
But man, does it feel empty.
And that’s because it is empty. It serves no one and nothing except our immediate ego. It’s like eating a plate full of angry pancakes drowned in disappointment syrup with a side of judgmental eggs, over easy. It tastes delicious going down, but I’m starving like two hours later. Uninformed outrage is the simple carbs of our emotional diet. If I’m striving to keep my spirit healthy and full, I can’t shove a bunch of garbage into my heart.
Maybe that sweet boy’s mom wasn’t keeping a close eye on him. Or maybe she was, and he just pulled one of those little kid Houdini moves where he was there and then gone, before she even had a chance to process what was going on. I mean, maybe he DID tell her he was going in the water….just like my daughter told me she was going to dance class, just like she told me she was going to her Noni’s house.
What happened here is that this woman failed at being a perfect mother in public. Her mistake didn’t happen in the privacy of her own home, where she could pretend it never happened, or talk about it with her husband in a shaky voice late that night after the kids are sleeping and it really hits home when you’ve fucked up and it could’ve been so much worse than it ended up being. Her mistake happened in a way that blew up big, and it still could’ve been so much worse but it ended up pretty damn bad even still, and there are millions of people the whole world over who will never, ever let her forget that.
I just can’t bring myself to feel anything but bad for her. I’m not mad at her, I’m not mad at the zoo, I’m not mad at anybody. I’m just sad. This lady lost track of her baby for a minute or two and had a front row seat to what I’m sure she thought would be the last moments of his life. The zoo had to make an incredibly difficult decision with not a lot of time to assess all the pros and cons, and I’m certain that every one of their staff is grieving the loss of a member of their family today. I’m also certain they will be thoroughly reviewing how this happened, going over the enclosure with a fine-tooth comb, figuring out the why and the when and the “what can we do to make sure it never happens again” of it. It really is just a shitty situation any way you slice it. Sometimes awful, horrible, terrible accidents happen with awful, horrible, terrible consequences. I think we’re almost always one or two lucky breaks away from being a national news story.
And listen, that’s pretty terrifying. I get it. I really do. I mean, I get it on an intimate level after last summer’s incident. I think maybe it’s easier to point fingers and pretend things happen because A led to B which then led clearly to C, when the reality that most things happen because Y led to P ran into Z which then collided solidly into K and M means we’re all constantly walking a tightrope strung up between two disasters, and who wants to contemplate that for longer a second or two? The constant internet refrain of “That would have NEVER happened to me” is basically a big old comfort blanket we use to lull ourselves back into the security of believing we’re ever really in control of anything.
Listen, everyone is allowed to feel what they feel, obviously. I’m not here to police your feelings, to tell you that you shouldn’t be angry or disgusted or signing petitions. Only, I just keep thinking how my mom’s house wasn’t a gorilla enclosure….but it maybe could have been. We’re all only human. We all mess up sometimes, and sometimes it’s in really big, ugly, tragic ways. And I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m working really, really hard at extending grace when my first instinct is outrage, because I think that’s something we all deserve.*
*Serial killers, rapists child molesters, Hitlers, etc aside because OBVIOUSLY but see above re: internet and outrage.
I have been waiting for this nondescript envelope for weeks, checking the mailbox Monday through Saturday with a little catch in my throat as the door dropped open, momentary disappointment when it failed to appear. And then today, finally, it arrived. It took all I had to not throw the car in park right there on the street and tear it open while people impatiently tried to maneuver around me. I had half the flap ripped open before I was all the way into the garage, flipping through the pages like a hurricane, scanning for “diagnosis” —
and there it was. Page 15.
After three years of testing and suspecting, hoping and waiting, anticipating and dreading, here it was in black and white.
Sensory processing deficits.
Delayed language pragmatics.
Fine Motor Dysgraphia.
So many terms and words, 22 pages of them, dense forests of Calibri size 12 seeking to define you. Much of it does describe you:
“a sweet child who struggles with communication skills and social awareness”
“significant anxiety symptoms in multiple areas”
“extremely sensitive nature.”
There’s no denying what my heart has known for longer than I’ll admit to myself, even now. For almost nine years, we wrote things off as you being sensitive, quirky, marching to the beat of your own drum, your mother’s child. And I mean. You are all those things as well. Your heart is as wide open as the sky. You experience things in a way that is uniquely you, and you’re not afraid to be yourself when expressing that. You have my hair and my eyes and my spirit. But there’s other stuff, too. There’s inexplicable meltdowns. Rage like a tsunami that you turn on yourself, angry fists on a shoreline of flesh. Noises that are too loud, food with too many tastes, awkward navigation through a social scene you just don’t get. Desperate tears and pleas for an answer to the heartbreaking question of “Why am I like this?”
At least now we have an answer.
And you know what? I’m so glad we do! I’m not sad about this. I’m grateful. This means we can make the years you have left in school so much more enjoyable and successful. Having a concrete diagnosis was just the first step. Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can make life so much better for you, which is what I’ve wanted all along. This was never about pasting a label on you. It was about finding ways to make this world work for you for once.
When I sat you down this afternoon to talk all this over, you got very quiet and your face looked very sad. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m…..autistic,” the last word almost a whisper. I started to give you a speech on how you can be an autism ambassador….but I had to back that up real quick when I actually thought about what you were saying. Ultimately, this is your journey. I’m here to help you carry your bags, and make sure you get to the airport on time, but autism is your plane and I don’t have a ticket. That means I don’t get to tell you how to respond to this news. I don’t get to push an agenda of acceptance. I don’t get to decide who you tell and who you don’t tell, outside of teachers and doctors. But let me tell you a little bit about why I want people to know you have been diagnosed with autism.
First of all, you are such a wonderful human being. I know a lot of people don’t get you, including me sometimes, but even misunderstood, you are amazing. You soul has been old since your first breath, and probably before. I read a quote once about how having children means forever walking around with your heart outside your body, and that’s right but not exactly right, because it’s really more like transplanting a part of your soul into another body, a spiritual graft, and for the rest of our lives, we’re just waiting to see if it takes. Except with you, I know we got it right, I know I never have to worry about you rejecting the best parts of us inside you.
Also, you’re different, but in the best ways. You like the things you like and our palpable disinterest doesn’t deter you in the slightest. You are honest to a fault. Whoever said that kids with autism can’t empathize clearly never met you, because you’ve inherited my overactive empathy gene, and feel things far more deeply than many people your age. I’ve never seen somebody try so hard to be funny, just because you want to bring a little joy and laughter to someone else’s day. You will meet any child right on their level – I’ve seen you play with kids from two up to twelve and beyond. You don’t run fast and you aren’t very coordinated, but that doesn’t stop you from running, hooping, hiding and seeking. You are incredibly concerned with fairness and justice, which the world could use a whole lot more of, if we’re being honest. You want to be heard, and you will fight for that right until we listen. You are so smart. Sometimes, the things you say, I just look at you and think, “I made that,” with a complete sense of disbelief. Your brain is big and beautiful and a fascinating landscape of topsy-turvy imagination, logic, creativity, and about seven million obscure facts.
See, the thing is, there are parts of you that are from me, parts from your dad, parts from like, a great-uncle three times removed, probably. And there are also parts of you that are autism. Does it make your life a little bit harder? Yeah, undoubtedly. Does it make our lives a little more difficult? Probably. But all those parts of you, even the stuff you might be embarrassed to talk about, it all comes together to make you who you are, and who you are is freaking fantastic. I am so glad I get to go through this life being your mom. So much of who I am today is because of you.
Yeah, these 22 pages have been a lot to take in, I’m not going to lie. But somewhere around page 12 or 13, tucked in among a bunch of big words exploring bigger concepts, I saw this:
“Quite positive is that David indicated that he likes himself, is a good person, and feels happy.”
And that’s when I knew this was all going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. Better than okay. I love you. And I like you! I truly do. You add so much to our lives. And I want you to know that your dad and I, your friends, all of your family who love you beyond measure, we will work and fight and stand up for you and your rights every single day to ensure you continue to like yourself, to feel like you’re a good person, and to be happy.
We loved you yesterday without an autism diagnosis. We love you today with one.
Always and always.
I love men.
I have had good men in my life. I have good men in my life. Men as deep and open as the ocean floor, their strength sanding my rough edges. Men so warm and golden that lying beside them was like bedding the slow rising sun as it creeps over the horizon. Men as giving and good as human nature allows us to be, with reassuring hands and voices that bend without breaking, with patchwork souls made up of wit and gentleness and grace and realistic expectations.
These men were fathers, and friends, and lovers. They are teachers, and siblings, and artists. They’re #notallmen, if that were a real thing, and not a movement created by EXACTLY the #allmen we were bitching about to begin with. They are excellent people who are beautifully flawed and flawlessly human, and each and every one of them has played a role in molding me into who I am today.
And who I am today is a woman who is feeling fiercely protective of the women in my circle. Who I am today is a woman writing love letters, not to the good men, not to the men I have loved who have loved me well in return, but to my girls, to my tribe, to my sisters. Who I am today is a woman tired of seeing downcast eyes and coats pulled close and emotional bruises just under the skin, gathered like storm clouds at the furthest edge of the sky. Who I am today is an angry woman, an impatient woman, a woman who wants to beat her bare fists against crumbling brick until that wall of excuses falls down around feet kicking out against the stupid stereotypes perpetuated by men enabled to be boys. Who I am today is a woman talking to you, another woman, my comrade in this crazy world, and keeping my fingers crossed behind my back that you’ll listen to what I’m saying.
Because you don’t deserve this, you know.
I know that right now, just reading that, you’re going to come up with eighteen different reasons for why he’s the way he is, pulling from your playbook, used so often and with such fervor that the pages are dog-eared and sweat-stained, the words highlighted and underlined and spoken out loud like a prayer. I’m no stranger to what you’re saying. I’ve played defense before, blocking concern and shouldering compassion down to the ground. I’ve worn that helmet and those pads and I know how small you feel in there.
Take that stuff off for a minute. Set it down here. Breathe.
It might seem like I’m mad at you. I’m not. I’m not even a little mad at you.
I’m mad at him.
I’m mad at the guy who dims your shine, cupping your flame so it has just enough oxygen to burn but never enough to get brighter. He’s afraid to exist under the light of your full illumination, not wanting his secrets exposed to air, and he knows if he keeps you turned down low enough, he can still creep around the shadowed corners.
I’m mad at the guy who looks at you as a given, as an entitlement. You’re blooming right beside him and he barely glances at you. It’s not even that you’re invisible, it’s that you’re just there. You’re part of his scenery and he hardly sees you anymore. You’re drifting like a ghost across porn on the laptop, the right swipe on Tinder, the secret texts he’s too stupid to hide; you haunt your shared space with half a heart, blowing through the shrugged off hand, the face turned slightly to miss your kiss.
I’m mad at the guy who feeds your insecurities, sneaking treats to the monsters under your bed and in the closet. Don’t tell me he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he’s standing there with empty wrappers in his hands. He thinks he’s a mirror, tells you he’s reflecting back reality, and mirrors don’t lie, right? Doesn’t every little girl grow up knowing that? And maybe they don’t lie, but they can be broken, can’t they? They can be shattered into pieces, a hundred different versions of the story of your face, lying on the floor like a rainbow. A hundred different pieces that can be picked up and put together again to reflect who you really are, not who somebody tells you you are, or tells you you aren’t.
I’m mad at the guy who uses words as fists, words as punishment, words to withhold. The guy who throws punches with his mean mouth and deflects blows with his ego. The guy who tiptoes the line between asking and demanding, suggesting and insisting, talking and preaching. The guy who holds you hostage with his emotions, a rope of unresolved issues biting into your wrists and ankles. The guy who wears two faces and you can barely even remember what the nice one looks like anymore. The guy who would rather give you a withering glance than a helping hand, who expects perfection instead of humanity, who will passive-aggressively do the dishes since you’re obviously “too busy” being a mom to keep things cleaned up. The guy who is constantly bumping into you with his cold shoulder and the chip that sits on it. The guy who’s just trying to be nice, just trying to do you a favor, just trying to help, just trying to undermine the validity of your feelings, Jesus, he just can’t win.
Okay, and yeah. I’m also mad at the culture we live in that treats all this behavior as some variation of normal, as if all men have not only the tendency but also the freedom to act like petulant children. This is enabling, and it’s also insulting. Understand that I’m talking about patterns of behavior here, not the occasional bad day or mood swing, not the odd bit of pettiness, not the random papers-flying-in-the-air-fuck-it-all moment. I’m talking about grown men who make a daily decision to act like an asshole to you; subconsciously or with malicious intent, on more days than not, these guys are using you as their emotional whipping post. Men are not babies. They’re fully functioning adult members of society. We can’t infantilize the people we expect to be our equal partners. We have to give them the grace to be human, while giving them the responsibility of being a good one.
I’m not mad at you, though. How could I be? We are the products of all that’s come before us.They wanted Marilyn Monroe, but we’re Norma Jean. They wanted Donna Reed, but we’re Roseanne. They wanted lovers like prostitutes and mothers like Mary, and we keep turning ourselves inside out to let down our hair and wash their feet with it, seeking redemption but expecting rebuke. We’re taught to be pliable, to let their rough hands make us over into the image they desire, to fold ourselves up small enough that we don’t take up any space. They fill us with fear, then encourage us to settle –so we settle because we’re scared. We don’t know how to be alone. We don’t know how to take up an entire bed on our own. We don’t know how to run our own small, soft fingers over the curves and the folds and be okay with what we feel there.
But we have to get okay with that. We have to learn our own worth. We have to not only tolerate our own company, but enjoy it, nurture it, look forward to it with love. We have to unlearn the lessons that have shaped us our whole lives. It’s OKAY TO BE ALONE, through choice or because you’re already alone with someone in the same room anyway. It’s OKAY TO USE YOUR VOICE, to ask for what you need and to demand what you are deserving of. It’s OKAY TO SAY THAT’S NOT OKAY, when someone uses love like a blunt force weapon. It’s OKAY TO TAKE UP SPACE, because you are allowed exactly the same amount of air as everyone else. It’s OKAY TO SAY NO, politely or fiercely or shyly or angrily, because we all have equal rights to that word. It’s OKAY TO FEEL HOW YOU FEEL, and nobody else gets to invalidate that for you because how you feel doesn’t work out in their favor. It’s OKAY TO WANT MORE, because breadcrumbs shouldn’t be enough for anybody. It’s OKAY TO GET MAD, just like I am, and IT’S OKAY TO CRY, just like I have, and it’s OKAY TO LEAVE if that’s where you’re at. It’s also OKAY TO STAY, but I want you to know it’s OKAY TO DEMAND CHANGE, if that’s the only lifeboat left without a hole in it.
The other night, I made soup. My husband set out the bowls and spoons. After I got the kids settled, I went back into the kitchen to get mine. And he had laid out one big soup spoon for him, and one small spoon for me. He thinks I am a complete weirdo for not using the big soup spoon, and in over thirteen years of marriage, this was the first time he got it right without me specifically asking. So I took a picture of those spoons, because seeing them lying there almost moved me to tears. He might think it’s silly, but he listened. He did this really small thing, something he probably thought was totally inconsequential, that ended up being a big gesture to me, and if my eyeballs came with a heart filter, there would have been a giant one around those spoons. What I’m saying is, go with the guy that gets the spoons right. Go with the guy that wants to get the spoons right. Don’t be okay with the guy who gives your a fork to eat your soup with.
That’s the guy I’m mad at. You should be mad at that guy, too. YOU DESERVE THE SMALL SPOON IF YOU WANT IT.
Six years ago, I had a miscarriage that rocked my world with the simple, straightforward grief of it. The unexpected loss of potential we were only just beginning to process. The depth of feeling for this being who was barely bigger than a grain of rice. The ocean of tears I cried every night for a week, filling up our bedroom, setting us afloat as we held onto each other like life preservers. The puzzle of how we could be so separate in our sadness while we lay heart to spine, our fingers pressed together like coral reefs. For months, there would be days where I caught myself only going through the motions, barely present, hands pressed over my belly in a desperate attempt to deny its emptiness, and I would be stunned all over again by how much it hurt. I healed eventually, we always do, but it was a dark winter. When summer came, I would sit in the sunshine, and think of that Leonard Cohen lyric
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
A month ago, I had a miscarriage that rocked my world with the way it barely registered, a 2.9 on the Richter scale, “felt slightly by some people. No damage to buildings.” I was four days late, I hadn’t even tested yet because I just knew. I fell into a fitful sleep after sending my oldest to school, and it happened the way it happens so many months — a dream of blood followed by a first day flow like molasses. But by evening, it was everywhere, and I stood in my bathroom, holding the end of this particular path in a hand stained scarlet…and felt nothing. It could have been a pebble, it could have been a star, it could have been anything that mattered to me in that moment and it still wouldn’t have mattered.
Because the only thing of any importance that night was that my mom was dying downstairs. I didn’t know how close it was, yet, I couldn’t know that less than twenty-four hours later, I would be without a mother, rudderless, utterly at sea. Her cancer a cannonball, a direct hit tearing through the sails of my soul. I found myself looking out across the horizon for something to hold on to, mouthfuls of tears filling my lungs, the burning beat of a heart with no air. Pulling these tired limbs up out of the water, washed up on the shore of somewhere empty, but achingly familiar. Words falling flat on paper, ashes made of mountains: after dinner, I passed a huge clot of tissue and blood. a tiny death, a palm of unspoken promise. this is my life, in this season of grief. And it was. And it is. It was a crack, a deep one.
Yet another crack this morning, sitting on a cold toilet seat, slants of early morning sunlight creeping in around the windowpane. Miscarriages can wreak havoc on your hormones in subsequent cycles — I’d been halfway convinced I was pregnant again, allowing myself tiny slivers of hope here and there, babies coming to me in my sleep breathing their names in my ear. Symptoms I hadn’t had in years showed up in spades. The drive to create life again in the face of death is fierce, and I clung to the possibility of it in the darkest hours of the night, the whispers of this old house a lullaby.
But I knew last night when I went to bed: the heavy pelvis, the aching sacrum. I woke up with that peculiar sense of loss that accompanies most months on mornings like this — the biological imperative denied, how it sits in your heart like a stone — and I cried with ugly abandon. I cried for my mom. I cried for that first miscarriage and for the second that I barely had time to acknowledge. I cried for promises broken and plans gone awry and I went ahead and cried for myself, for once, at last, I let pity for the lost parts of me wash through my bones like salt water in a wound.
I’m so sorry you are entirely motherless, self.
I’m so sorry you are entirely fatherless, self.
I’m so sorry you are two babies short, self.
I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
And I don’t know, there’s some kind of magic in apologizing to yourself for things you can’t control. It’s permission to grieve in wholly unlovely ways. It’s offering a handkerchief you know you’re not going to get back. It’s not minding snot stains on your shirt. It’s saying, unreservedly, yes, this is terrible, and not following it up with a “but…” It’s accepting that some valleys go on for miles and miles but if you squint your eyes and look really hard, you can still see the mountains. It’s being still and knowing that this, all of this, is how the light gets in.
And I am one bright motherfucker.
When I was twenty-two years old, I drove thirty miles each way to work in downtown Memphis. It is a straight shot up and down the highway, the same route my husband now takes for his job. I was working at the bar of a very popular hotel, and most of my shifts ended with the bartender and I partying our way up and down Beale Street before I drank a bunch of water in a bid to sober up, and then stumbled to my car to drive home like the young, reckless, drunk idiot I was.
Part of this drive is through a rundown part of town. There are always stray dogs running out into the road, empty and broken shopping carts turned over on the sidewalks, old men sitting on overturned crates drinking from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. When you live in the South, and don’t surround yourself with overt racists, there are code words for the areas populated mostly by black people. The ghetto. The hood. Places that are “rough,” places where you better make sure your windows are up and your doors are locked. This stretch of highway was a code word.
I was driving home one night. It was one or two in the morning. I was mostly sober, had my music turned up loud, was probably going five miles over the speed limit. A police car turned off a side road onto the highway and began to follow me. The longer he tailed me, the more paranoid I became. Did he know I’d been drinking? Was he going to pull me over, ask me to step out of the car, have me walk a straight line with my finger on my nose? My heart thumped painfully, and I broke out into a cold sweat. Then he abruptly moved from behind me, pulled up alongside my car, and when I glanced over at him, he made a motion for me to roll down my window. I did.
We both slowed down to a crawl as he hollered at me from his car, “You alright, ma’am?” I shouted back that yes, I was fine, just making my way home from work. He eyed the streets around us, and turned back to me. “This is a real bad part of town, young lady. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You go on and hurry out of here, it’s not safe for a girl like you to be out here this late at night.” Then he tipped his hat at me, rolled up his window, and drove off, leaving me dumbfounded and grateful and irritated and sad.
In the wake of the grand jury decision in Ferguson to not indict Darren Wilson, I thought about that police officer. I thought about the way his eyes looked when he surveyed the scenes around us, shifting quicksand that held a mixture of contempt, fear, and utterly sincere concern, and I wondered if my eyes have ever looked like that. Eyes like that are a code word. Eyes like that really believe they aren’t racist. Eyes like that are earnest when they talk about reverse racism.
Is that how Darren Wilson’s eyes looked as he pulled the trigger half a dozen times?
Yesterday a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who literally choked the life out of Eric Garner. What did Daniel Pantaleo’s eyes look like as the cries of “I can’t breathe!” echoed around him?
When I moved to the Bronx, it was the first time I’d lived outside of small southern towns. Suddenly, shockingly, blindingly, I was thrust into the role of the minority. I walked down the streets and went fifteen blocks without hearing one word of English spoken. I wore my whiteness like a coat, dragging at my feet, tripping me up. I was shy in the bodegas, silent on the trains, an awkward ghost of a thing sliding under the streetlights. “Blanquita!” “Hey, little white girl!” Sneers from the sidewalk, an aggressive face pushed into mine, daring me to do something about it. I was Other. I was indefinably out of place, and when I would lay in bed with my arms wrapped around myself like loneliness, I would think about all the black kids I’d known back home. Was this their reality? Was their reality even worse than this? When I exited the subway station in Manhattan, I could shake off that trailing sense of less-than, pick up right where I’d left my privilege. But what about the girl in my chorus class, the dishwasher at my old job, the mechanic who changed my oil? They couldn’t cast off their coat — it was meticulously stitched into their skin.
This was the first time I really understood racism. Not because I experienced it, but because I didn’t.
We get so comfortable in these white skins. It’s easy. History is on our side. The odds are ever in our favor. Books, television, movies — our stories are everywhere, familiar faces telling us how brave and bright and daring we are. Lullabies of how high we can fly, how big we can dream. Even when we’re poor, even when we’re sick, even when we’re ten years old carrying ninety-nine pennies to school in a sandwich bag to pay for our lunch.
My mom kissed us all goodnight and never had to worry about stray bullets piercing our bedroom walls, piercing our bodies, piercing her soul.
I will never have to tell my son to leave his hood down and his hands out of his pockets when he’s walking down the street, even if it’s cold.
My husband will never have to talk to our children about how to walk in a store, how to talk to a cop, how to hold in all those years of emotion because you don’t want to come across as angry, you don’t want to be seen as a problem, you don’t want to give someone a reason to suspect you, or hurt you, or kill you.
I won’t ever go to bed with the legacy of centuries of tragedy lying on my chest like a stone, suffocating under the weight of it.
“Use your imagination! Color outside the lines!” We encourage our children to flex their creative muscles for all they’re worth while they still can, before the realities of being human in this beautiful mess of a world begin to creep in at the corners, cutting off that instinct to make the world over in your own image.
But what if we could do that now? What if we could pretend to unzip the skin we’re in and step out of it? What if, in our minds, we could pull on someone else’s and walk around in it?
Could we stop seeing ourselves as saviors? Stop defending ourselves so vigorously? Stop talking and just listen?
If the eyes that looked at us in our borrowed skin were code words, would we understand the bright burning anger? Could we see how the residue of resentment calcifies around the heart? Would we get a taste of the shame that coats the throat, the hurt that makes it hard to swallow, the fear like a live thing jumping in the pulse? Could we understand the exhaustion, endless and bone-deep, the lethargy of living while black? Would we get a glimpse of how every celebration, every joy, every moment of pure unfiltered happiness has just the faintest shadow behind it — a shadow in the shape of little boys shot down, baby girls dead where they lie sleeping, men who had their hands up, men who had their heads down.
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe that’s not the way it would be, not the things we would feel. Or maybe we would tear ourselves out of that haunted home, throw it to the ground, jump back in our own comfortable skin and stand shivering while we struggled to acclimate. We can do that, you know. We can stop thinking about it. We can turn off the TV. We can shut down our imagination and power off our laptops and tell our Facebook friends we’re overwhelmed and we need a break. Our whiteness allows our escape. Their blackness prevents it.
It isn’t just about Ferguson. It isn’t just about Eric Garner. It isn’t just about Aiyana Stanley-Jones or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice. It’s all the names we don’t know, all the names we’ve forgotten. It’s endless messages that begin with RIP. It’s systemic violence and undercover oppression and a society with subconscious undercurrents of racism so insidious that many of us don’t even realize we contribute to it. It’s so many things that it honestly feels like an avalanche of emotion, but white friends, can we just let ourselves feel it for once? Can we just let ourselves be buried underneath it, crushed by the weight of it, feel the terrible burden of it in our nose and in our mouth? Can we accept that it’s the inherent privilege we are born with that allows us to free ourselves, to claw our way out and mostly avoid anything more than a slight case of frostbite? Can we just own that? Can we just stop saying things like
but I have black friends
they’re just playing the race card
I don’t see color!
but reverse racism
and open our ears, and our hearts, and then just shut up and listen?
I don’t have an answer. I only have a voice. It’s a small voice. But if I said “I can’t breathe” in that small voice, I bet someone would listen to me. If I said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” in that small voice, I bet someone would listen to me.
If I say “empathy and action are your birthright and your duty”, will you listen to me?
“What is the meaning of this life? Why is it so fucking hard? Why is it that when something good happens, something bad comes along to wipe it off?”
The times I write the most – when I write the hardest, the most eloquently and fiercely and fervently – are the times of greatest personal turmoil. The words come easier when I am lost in the woods in the deepest, darkest night, the kind with no moon and only a smattering of stars to light the way; the kind of night that breeds timeless tales, grim and sparse and gray, stories sung around fires and whispered to small children with saucer eyes and the thrill of adventure creeping up their spines as they try to sleep; the kind of night that makes you believe the trees have teeth and the stones have ears and the creatures whisper, whisper to each other in the wake of your passing. In that place, in those moments, all the things I want to say appear like constellations above me, even though I am a Hansel-less Gretel, with the taste of too much candy and too much fear in the back of my throat, witch-shaped shadows on the walls around me; even though I crouch in a corner and pull my red riding hood down over me, making myself small and invisible, smelling crumbled cakes and unwashed fur and dirty flannel ripping at the seams; even though there are wild wolves and black bears and faces in the leaves, I look up and up and up
……and eventually I get where I am going, whole, and safe, and sound.
We are born naked, fragile things, full of so much undiluted life that it overwhelms us in our first breath; forever seeking out a space as impervious and unassailable as our mother’s womb, we make our way out into the world, and what we find is a place so beautiful and terrible and bright that it almost hurts to look at it with our eyes wide open. We wander lost for so long, seeking out the solace of souls made up like our own, and we brush flower-tops with our fingertips and taste thunder on our tongues and we take love in and try it on for size. And then one day when we’re eight or eighteen or eighty, we stop short and lift our heads and see our stories up there in the sky, floating around unformed, and the sun shines like a divining rod onto our spirits and the epiphanies come spilling out: we were made in the murky shadows and birthed into light, and everything in between is about bringing those two together in a delicate dance, one in which we are both hunter and hunted, predator and prey, omniscient and eternally unknowing. Without the villain, there can be no hero. Without the monster, there can be no slayer. Without the clammy desperation of what we imagine to be ceaseless dark , there can be no joyful exhalation as the first rays of light run golden fingers over the distant horizon. When we swallow up that blackest night and breathe in the brightest morning, we exhale the most beautiful shades of gray, dove-colored and downy soft; existing in this place, even if for but a moment, means setting fire to the fables that don’t apply and making up our own myths as we move through life.
“You think that it’s not magic that keeps you alive? Just ‘cause you understand the mechanics of how something works doesn’t make it any less of a miracle, which is just another word for magic. We’re all kept alive by magic, Sookie. My magic’s just a little different from yours, that’s all.”
a. A reverent petition made to God, a god, or another object of worship.
b. The act of making a reverent petition to God, a god, or another object of worship.
c. A specially worded form used to address God, a god, or another object of worship.
a. A word or formula believed to have magic power.
A tiny green shoot pokes its head up and peeks out at the world from behind baby leaves only now beginning to unfurl, tasting the rain and stretching its roots deep into the dirt; Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, feeds thousands from five loaves and two fish, raises Lazarus from the dead with love, touches the eyes of the blind and opens them wide; wet and slick, the child emerges from his mother’s womb, moving past the dark into her hands, feeling air on his skin for the very first time, and as he begins to cry, so does she; wrapped up in grace with both hands held tightly, in a quiet room where they can hear the snow falling, the brow softens, the breath slows, the heart under her breast stops beating, and her soul spreads its wings and soars.
Miracles are just another word for magic. Prayer is just another kind of spell. Every breath we take is an exercise in mysticism, and we don’t have to believe in that to live it; our birth marks the beginning of our pilgrimage, and whether we ignore it as we journey, or call it by another name, or catch it only from the corner of our eye, we are all magic in the making, carrying enchantment in our blood and bewitchment in our bones. We are the second sorcerers, our bodies our wands and our hearts our cauldrons; from these, we call forth life, and knowing the mechanics doesn’t make it any less miraculous. It only makes it all the more so.