A Sense of Place – and Race

When planning a trip to the shore, one usually worries about which towels to bring, bathing suits, sunscreen.

I did.

I thought of all the fun we’d have.

I also thought of what was outside the idyllic beach town to which we were headed.

See, we were headed south.

Where the weather is warm and the palm trees sway easily, but there is an undercurrent of racial tension that never went away and now pulls taut and bursts at the seams.

I didn’t want to bring my children to the whitest part of town and let them think these were the only faces that made up the fabric of place. This place. That this place, its history was all sunshine and roses – everywhere, for everyone.

Unable to curb the [English] teacher genes in me – no matter how many years remove me from the classroom – I dug up book lists, fiction and nonfiction, free verse and narrative, poetry and expository, picture book and novel, to give my girls a sense of this place to which we were going. Graeme Seabrook, a fellow Warrior Mom, posted Sara Makeba’s blog about her experience as an interpretive guide at a plantation that actually tells the story of the slaves’ experience. That became a destination and informed book choices for my girls to prepare them. I happened upon the online teacher’s guide of African American Historic Places in South Carolina. I read article after article. I planned discussions to have with my girls.

A week out from our trip, Charlottesville happened.

I’m not naïve enough to think that all the ugliness of our racial story is in the past. In my thankfully expanding circle, online and real world, it becomes ever clearer that, overt or insidious, racism is and has been alive and well. But in my bubble of privilege, I was still insulated from it.

As much as I wanted to open my children’s eyes to the injustices around us, my husband and I actually discussed revising our route to stay clear of Charlottesville in our drive south. How lucky, how privileged we were to be able to make that choice. It is my duty as a parent to keep my babies safe, but time and circumstance shouldn’t preclude all parents from having that choice.

I was headed back to the history of today’s problems, but still didn’t have a sense of the ‘unbending line’ between the two until our guide at the plantation finished his interpretation. He pointed to the rows of Sea Island cotton growing behind us, to the shore far behind the trees where slaves were expected to dig and drag mud to fertilize the soil, to the barn where they would’ve tended livestock, to the places they’ve would’ve picked seeds from cotton and jumped down into a huge sack of it to tamp it down. He described how nearly the very same jobs were expected of them as tenant farmers and share croppers. How ‘freedmen’ could be arrested for vagrancy while looking for jobs for which no one would hire them and then have a criminal record which would preclude their freedom. To the subpar education that followed even desegregation. To racial profiling. To white supremacy come full circle.

I approached him afterward with tears in my eyes and thanked him for speaking the truth. That it isn’t all history – even if some people think it is. That my friends are scared for their babies. He said he is, too; that he checks his friends’ tail lights before they leave meetings at night so they won’t have the chance of being the next statistic.

After the tour, my ten year-old daughter told me she understood all he said, but didn’t know what to say about it. I thought that was about the wisest thing she could have said.

On our way home, our highway route took us through Charlottesville. There was no sign of the violence two weeks earlier. In fact, the sun filtered through the clouds in an unworldly way. I hoped that meant God’s protective and healing powers were also shining down.

And yet, as I looked at those gorgeous green hills, I no longer saw just the beauty.   I saw the evil beneath the surface. Just like the palms and oak allees in the miles behind us, the natural beauty was tempered by the horror that took place right alongside it, within it.

I will never be able to unsee it.

It makes my heart ache for the injustice – and for the easy ignorance I’ll never regain.

But it’s a pain that people of color have been feeling and keep feeling everyday. With no choice. No chance to look away or deviate route.

Where I was born and the skin I’m in have given me the opportunity to not even realize there were atrocities happening all around us in the name of race. Without even realizing it, I’ve committed wrongs. I thought simply by giving my family a sense of the place to which we were travelling, I was helping us not to come in and exploit the area and people, but we were still privileged tourists – albeit sensitive ones, but tourists just the same. We drove through Charlottesville, but we continued on home where I can let my girls roam our street without fear of accosting or questioning. Where neighbors and even strangers won’t think they’re too loud, too much, too dangerous. Where I can sit behind the safety of my laptop and think this post will do anything to change anything.

Like my ten year-old daughter, I understand, but don’t know what to say.

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Driving through Charlottesville, August 2017, Jennifer Butler Basile

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Truly Nasty

It is a tough time to be a woman.

I would say that applies to this point in time, but really, it applies to all points in time.

Eve was blamed for the poor choices of a free-thinking man; Joan of Arc called a witch; Hillary Clinton, a nasty woman.

In this election season, the vitriol aimed at the nation’s first serious female contender for presidency does not seem possible in our post-ban-bossy society. I’d like to say it is the opinion of one misguided and egregiously ignorant man, but I fear it is more than money that has allowed his rise to popularity.

In a world where our daughters, our students are taught they can be anything; encouraged by anyone, male or female, an individual asking to run an entire country of democratic citizens mocks and degrades a successful and powerful individual who dares challenge him – even more so because she is a woman.

And the mocking and degrading is not school yard quality. It seeks to degrade the very essence of womanhood. That to be a woman is somehow nasty and brutish.

Rather than counter policy with opposing policy, debate becomes a game of sexual power. Gender specific jibes become weapons, instead of informed discourse. Winning becomes the ultimate trophy – regardless of personal injury or insult, disrespect or demeaning.

Media are correct when they say Trump has created a sympathy of sorts for Clinton; a bond between all ‘nasty women’. But as repugnant as he is, Clinton is insidious.

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TeenVogue

I was almost tempted to pull the nasty woman t-shirt over my head – until I saw half of its proceeds directly fund Planned Parenthood.

While Clinton offers a face for the rallying cry of female power and pride, she does not offer a platform for all women.

The evil of calling a woman nasty is not countered by supporting an organization that denies the amazing capabilities of the female form.

To deny the claims of nastiness, all of womanhood must be embraced. Feminism cannot assert any sort of power if it seeks to destroy. It is not a matter of subverting individual choice; it is allowing all of the wondrous capability of life. The conception and continuance of life is the most beautiful occurrence in the universe. There is nothing nasty about it. If women want to show the true beauty and majesty of their form, of their essence, of humanity, they will not seek to snuff out life at its inception – simply to prove males like Trump don’t own their bodies and decisions. That is a hollow and soul-sucking proof of power. Death is not a victory. Bringing life into existence – that is power.

That is not to say that women who choose not to or are unable to conceive are not powerful. But we, as a society, cannot view such an integral part of the female essence and physiology as a stumbling block to power.

Women have been taught to fear their fertility. To see it as a barrier instead of a benefit. If we didn’t seek to meet men like Trump on their playing field, but elevate the arena to the full scope of what women are capable of, men would never dream of calling any woman nasty.

No woman deserves to be called such. I do feel sympathy for women mistreated by misguided men and women. But I also feel that neither candidate for president in this election represents the ultimate potential of women, of humankind.

 

Related Articles:

“Nasty woman” becomes the feminist rallying cry Hillary Clinton was waiting for by Liz Plank

There’s Already a “Nasty Woman” T-Shirt For Sale — And It Benefits Planned Parenthood by Phillip Picardi

Before Applauding Hillary’s Abortion Remarks, Know the One Fact She Ignored  by Christy Lee Parker

Nasty Women Have Much Work to Do by Alexandra Petri

Election 2016: Time to Decide by Fr. Bob Marciano

Silver Insomniac

There’s a pool of light in the backyard
It spills over the tree tops
but appears to be carved out of the grass
an oval grotto of white,
silver amongst the shadows

If it weren’t for insomnia
I wouldn’t have seen it,
Wouldn’t have seen the cool, clear light
bright amidst the dark

Being awake at this hour seems unnatural,
is unnatural
in terms of the real world

But in the magic of these moonbeams
I am wide open

No Time like the Present for an Epiphany

I’m sitting here reading about New Years’ resolutions in August.  No time like the present, right?

Seeing as how most New Years’ resolutions don’t make it out of January, maybe it’s not so bad that I’m considering fresh starts now, but the irony does not escape me.  

I’ve always loved the word ‘epiphany’.  My friends and family used to poke fun at my exuberant use of it and my claims that I’d just had one.  But they came fewer and farther between as I got older.  When I fought and focused for one or was unexpectedly blessed with one, I remembered the joy and wonder and how much I benefitted from their presence in my life.  Yet life always seemed to ramp up again and they fell away – or at least my vision did.

Now as I read about all the meanings of the word – including the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi twelve days after Christmas – I’m reminded again of how worthy a quest this is.  

In her article discussing epiphany, Effie Caldarola has this advice for fresh starts:

How about just resolving to keep our eyes open for the next epiphany God sends?  Do you think those storied Magi were expecting to find a poor baby at the end of their journey?  What an epiphany for them, the meaning of which they probably spent the rest of their lives trying to figure out.  Don’t ‘expect,’ just pay attention.

How simply profound.  And it means I have the rest of my life to keep looking.

In the Market for a Mother

My pace was slow as we approached the store. Partly because I’d just filled my belly and bladder and couldn’t walk without a hitch, but also because I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to crossing the threshold.

My mother and I were headed to the baby superstore. She had kindly offered to supply our new little one with bed linens, mattress pads, etc. It would be fun to pick at least the patterns on the sheets, and it made sense to come to such a store with a ridiculous variety of options; still, I hesitated – and not just when I realized the restrooms were in the far rear corner of the store. (Seriously, people? Preggos and newborns? Damn the marketing man.)

The fact that this store had such a ridiculous variety of options was part of the problem. If I’ve learned anything after three babies, it’s that simpler is usually better. The addition and care of a little person complicates life enough. Why does a parent need a proprietary gizmo for each and every function? They only suck up money and space.

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Have you ever googled ‘baby gear image’?  Don’t.  (pearlsonastring.com)

One of the liberating aspects of this older, wiser, and unexpected pregnancy (ie gave away all our stuff) was that it would be bare bones. All that stuff I’d registered for and thought I needed and accumulated now was non sequitur. I could pick and choose what was truly needed to care for my baby. And really, that was not much of anything besides my hands and heart. (though, disposable diapers would be nice).

Especially after the rough ride with #3, I was looking forward to a pared down experience focused on the mother-child bond rather than the circus that can sometimes surround newborns and new motherhood.

So after my mother graciously offered to walk back to the front of the store to acquire a shopping cart, she found me staring glassy-eyed at the crib sheet display.

You’re overwhelmed, aren’t you?” she asked.

More than anything, I felt like I was in an alternate universe, never having expected to find myself in this aisle again. It had been years. I felt older. A little self-righteous in a been there-done that sort of way. Appalled – and again older – to see how much the prices had gone up since I’d last bought this stuff. Amused by the upper tier options people who didn’t have any frame of reference would actually spring for.

After choosing a good foundation of necessities, we wandered into other departments, which was probably a mistake. Bedding I could do. The child couldn’t sleep itself into a sweaty, sticky mess on a bare mattress. But cradles, and cups and spoons, and bottles, and little padded strap cushions. Mom and I decided to get a few nursing supplies since I’d need those right off and call it a day.

Don’t get me wrong, Mom and I swooned when we saw the adorable itty bitty sheep on a crib sheet. I picked up a little fox and she nearly hugged a fuzzy penguin. Humans love fresh starts, soft little fingers and toes, and the fragility of life we often forget otherwise.

But I feel like the culture of modern motherhood and merchandising drowns all that. Sure, it shines through in a precious petite bodysuit. But the rows of cribs, reclining chairs, canvas art work, and countless accessories? No mother needs all that. If she wants it, fine. But I think the first insidious brainwashing of the perfect mother myth is that she must have it. The material, the physical accoutrements must be perfectly laid for her to perfectly welcome and care for her baby.

For those times when the maternal bond is muddled, all that material just masks the root problem – and ultimate solution – further.

It’s time to get back to basics.

I picture myself holding my baby, swaddling her* close, and facing the world together – without the marketing man anywhere in sight.

 

*And no, this is not a veiled announcement of the sex of our child; female pronouns just roll off the tongue after three girls

Dirty Diapers

Do you need any help finding anything?

Simple query. Standard clerk operation. Yet her question left me speechless. I stared blindly at the shelves in front of me for a moment before I answered.

A staccato collection of tongue-in-cheek conversation ran through my mind in that brief silence, but I finally said, no, I didn’t need help.

For I realized that anything more than that would be too much information for this clerk stocking some manner of geriatric product next to the baby care section.

She didn’t need to know that my prolonged, slack-jawed stare at the array of diapers on display (which admittedly wasn’t even that extensive) wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge on my part. It was the realization that all that inane diaper information I’d chucked to the back of my brain, thinking I’d never again need to know how many pounds a size 3 diaper fit, would now need to be retrieved; that Pampers smell like poo before the kid even fills them; that Huggies now come in swaddlers and movers and shakers and trapeze artists. I peered at the tiny kg/lbs ranges under the big numeral sizes like an old woman who’d forgotten her glasses.

I did remember that the mommy-to-be for whom I was buying the diapers wouldn’t need newborn size since the hospital would send her home with a boatload.

There are some parts of motherhood that are like the proverbial riding of the bike.

However, there are some things not even a conscientious, helpful clerk can help an expectant mother find in the baby care aisle. A cure for her feeling that she was done with this a long time ago. A settling of the ambivalence toward starting the whole process all over again. A certainty instead of the disbelief at the surrealism of it all.

All these certainly aren’t on the shelf. They’re not even in the back room. Only the mother herself is the purveyor of these goods – and they’re not one size fits all.

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from healthytippingpoint.com

Heaven or Hell

 

This is heavenly.

 

That was the thought and feeling that flooded through every part of my body as I sat under a grove of trees a few miles from the shoreline yesterday.

 

I was with two women I didn’t know particularly well, my children playing with five other children, only two of which they knew particularly well – but so go play dates when you join a new group, I suppose. At least I could relish the gorgeous weather and spot for what it was. A quintessential coastal breeze in the shade of old growth trees. An hour of my three children not waylaying each other and my own ear drums and patience.

 

How odd, then, that conversing with these two women, watching our children twirl and loop around us, that I made the decision to love my life.

 

I’d asked them the ages of their children, which led to a clarification of grade levels just completed, and then, a conversation debating the merits of forcing kindergarten for children with birthdays on the cusp of the cut-off and/or waiting an additional year. I’ve had this conversation countless times the last few years, starting with other people’s children all the way to my own four year-old. It’s never cut and dry and the anguish is always apparent on the parent’s face – that they might somehow harm their child’s entire educational career for the sake of a start nine months too early or late.

 

But that’s not what this post is about.

 

I’ve come to terms with our family’s decision to keep our precious little pea home another year for the sake of six lousy days.

 

It’s the nature of that additional year that this conversation affected. The nature of life now.

 

There will come a day when I have to work outside the home. When I won’t be able to see my babies at 10 AM just because. When I won’t be able to sit at a park with virtual strangers/possible friends and discuss issues for the age and stage we’re all at.

 

There will always be dishes and laundry. There will always be exhaustion. There will always be the guilt of the unwritten chapter lurking somewhere behind the keyboard. It will always take more energy and effort to pack the kid(s) and all their crap up and go on an outing than it will to stay home.

 

But there won’t be the brush of feathery grass on the backs of my thighs. The rustle of wind through green leaves. Legs long and lithe, short and compact, darting and weaving. The call and answer of hide and seek. The heavy weight of a tired child solid against my side.

 

We travel through this world from start to finish regardless. It is totally within our determination to make it heaven or hell.

 

 

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image from wallpaperscraft.com

 

Wavelength

There comes a time when you see your mother as a being separate from yourself.  It’s not as an infant when you realize you exist outside her body.  It’s not when, as a toddler, you assert your independence.  The tumultuous teenaged years don’t do it.  Even becoming a full-fledged adult doesn’t do it.

She will always be your number one fan, miracle-worker, therapist, and helpmate.  She will always allow you to be self-centered when you come calling because you are her world.  She is your MOM.  (No Pressure 😉 )

But there are moments when she does something on an even more amazing level of awesome – perhaps even sublime – in which you see in crystalline form what a perfectly human and beautiful individual she is.

The first time this happened was when I was an early teen.  My parents, consummate do-it-yourself-ers, were in the middle of some household project that necessitated the transit of a long ladder through our tiny kitchen.  One inadvertent swing of the ladder swept the decorative items off one of the display shelves surrounding the window.  A crystal-clear unicorn, whose knobs and nodules captured and refracted the sun’s rays into rainbows, shattered against the stainless steel of the sink below.  I heard my mother scream like I never had before: a desperate, anguished wail.  She cried as she gathered the pieces.  This was another thing I rarely – if ever – had experienced with my mother.  These were not the welled-tears of sentimentality; these were big fat gobs of grief.

Being a young person, with no framework within which to place this, I asked my mother what was wrong.  She explained that the unicorn had been a gift from her sister when she had lost a baby.  Four years prior to my birth, my mother had delivered my would-be sister, stillborn.  This was my first encounter with this information, with this grief.  While I now had a framework, it was shaky.  I knew it was tragic.  I knew my mother hurt.  But I had no idea to what extent.

Years later, as a mother myself, now accustomed to grief, but still not of that magnitude, I sat with my mother in the parking lot of a botanical garden.  We stared out the windshield at the glass squares of the greenhouse.  ‘A woman in my writers’ group has written a memoir about her family, Ma,’ I said.  ‘About her journey through love and loss.  She had a stillborn, too.  Much the same circumstances as yours.’  There were some eerily similar details in their stories, though my mother never got the legal vindication that this woman did.  ‘Would you read it?’

I didn’t know if I was overstepping my bounds, if I was being too forward, pushy.  Was I dredging up feelings that my mother had gladly put to rest years ago?

‘I suppose it might be good for me,’ she said.  ‘Therapeutic.’

Months later, I took my mother to the launch party for that book: Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict by Kelly Kittel.  The day before Mother’s Day, we spent the afternoon of the launch together.  Ironically, though we were celebrating the ubiquitous holiday, I saw my mother as ‘other than mother’.  Hearing her speak to Kelly and share her story, I saw the profoundly deep wellspring of strength my mother’s been drawing from all these years.  I saw her as a woman, fighting a soul-crushing battle and winning.  I saw her as someone – like myself – who has been curled up on the floor crying, but she got up!  She went on.  And gave me the best, most important parts of herself.  All while, unbeknownst to me, she was suffering a tremendous loss.

It was hard for me to not insert comments or explanations as she spoke.  I felt the intermediary between these two women and wanted to help forge the link.  But the link between these two women had nothing to do with me.  It was in their tragedies and victories, their similar experiences with death and inextinguishable life.

I saw my mother as a distinct individual, a woman with her own suitcase of memories and maladies, a human being with a suit of armor and the soft underbelly of a mother.

Image

Photo by John Butler

It’s a $%#@ vacation

“There were constant battles . . . between those who had chosen to have children and those who had chosen not to – all ostensibly for the sake of our publication, but more accurately as a way to work out personal differences under the cloak of business discussions.  Our boss was happily childless (“When I see children, I just want to put them in cement,” she once admitted), and she was unimpressed with the fact that mothers needed to return to their families earlier rather than later each evening.  Her right-hand woman also had no children.  They didn’t like to do extra work to make up for the women who went on maternity leave, and they didn’t appreciate having sacrificed portions of their personal lives to the office when others hadn’t.

“Well, what does the woman who chooses not to have kids do?  asked the boss.  “She should take a maternity leave to fulfill herself.”

A new mother grunted from her position at the table, her breasts sore from pumping milk into bottles, her eyes swollen from nights awake.  “Right,” she said, “it’s a fucking vacation.”

— from Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love by Justine van der Leun

 

The Zen of Shuffleboard

Hanging out in a 55+ community can teach you a lot about life.

It’s never too early for happy hour.
It’s never too early to paint a driveway.
It’s never a good idea to force the disc in a game of shuffleboard.

I’d never played shuffleboard before. I had images of straw-topped gentlemen sipping gin and tonics smoothly gliding the disc as if across a sheet of ice. Tropical printed shirts in a calmly boisterous competition. Just the lines of the court themselves, all crisp and geometric, spoke to me of an art deco paradise.

And then I picked up a cue.

While my husband attempted to reign in our three spastic shuffleboarders, akin to three ninjas on speed on their first day of weapons training, I quietly sneaked to the adjacent court. I pulled the cue behind me with the gusto of an archer and swung my arm forward toward the disc, visualizing a tremendous skim to the far end of the court. Instead, the disc flipped back onto the golden shaft of the cue before smacking the ground with a clang like a dinner plate on the kitchen floor. This scenario repeated itself, with ever more epic flips, flops, and failed forward motion. I figured the more oomph I put behind it, the better the outcome.

Until I actually paid attention to the lessons my husband was trying to impart to our tiny samurais.

“Don’t push it.”
“Hold the grip lightly with one hand.”
“Rest the guide against the disc and slide it forward.”
“Take a few steps toward the disc and move your arm in one fluid motion.”

When I worried less about sending the disc into kingdom come, it went farther. When I forced it less, I got more. When I thought of the cue, the disc, as one long extension of my arm, my effort spun itself to the far end of the court.

When I got all amped up, when I tried to muscle things to my desired outcome, it flopped. All that pent-up energy, all that roiling muscle mass did nothing. It actually hurt my efforts. When I put in what my wound-up self would consider a failed attempt – no gusto – I had more success.

On the hollowed court of the silver-haired, I learned that nothing good comes of forcing an outcome. One must work in concert with the circumstances placed on the playing field. For the force to be strong, one must focus intentionally and let go of force.

Who would’ve thought a retiring past time would hold such potent lessons?

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