Where Nothing Happens

Woke up this morning to another shooting, this time in Roanoke, Virginia.  All of it caught live on camera and documented by the gunman himself on social media.

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I check my social media feed. I am bombarded with dozens of photos like this:

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This piece documents the cost of gun violence in America.

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This is where Gun Control advocates like me say we need to do something about our fascination—our obsession—with guns, and write pieces like this:

Let’s Talk About Guns

Let’s Talk About Guns … Again

This is where the Gun Lobby people quote the 2nd Amendment and say Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

This is where nothing happens.

The Cycle — One Year Later

A year ago, I wrote THE CYCLE in response to the Ray Rice domestic violence incident and the question, Why does she stay?

 Here’s what I’ve learned since writing it:

I’ve learned as with every celebrity-centered event—even one as horrific as Ray coldcocking his wife in that elevator and dragging her limp, lifeless, unconscious body out the door—the news cycle moves on. One year later, the words “Ray Rice” has devolved into a single concern: What about Ray, will he play football again?

I’ve learned that, if there is no videotape of a domestic violence incident, the NFL continues to give the benefit, even in lack of much doubt, to the offender. (see Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, and Adrian Peterson)

I used to remember my grandmother most specially on December 7, her birthday. I’ve learned I will now remember her most lovingly, most compassionately, and most of all heartbreakingly, during the NFL preseason.

Brockmire Grandparents

My grandmother is about 35 years old in this photo.

All of the incidents I recorded below have already happened to her.

There is no video.

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THE CYCLE

When I was 16, my high school boyfriend backhanded me across the face, with a beer bottle in his hand. We were in his baby blue car, on our way to his house, and his father was the first to look up from watching golf on TV and notice my newly forming bruise, the swelling next to my eye. His father lost it. My boyfriend cowered and slunk down to the basement; his dad, apologetic about his son, drove me home.

It was never mentioned again.

But we dated for another year. Because, of course, I “loved” him. Awwwww. And, honestly, I figured my sassy mouth provoked him.

*

One of my biggest regrets is something I said to my mother right before she died.

She was in severe pain and respiratory distress, shaking and sweating, a good hour from her next painkiller. She said, “I wish you didn’t hate your grandmother. She had a hard life.”

To which I said, “Bullshit, Mom. Everybody has a hard life.”

‘Round and ’round we went until the nurse came and gave my mother her last morphine shot. I remember my mother’s last meal was meat-stuffed-peppers, in cold tomato sauce, nursing home style. And my bullshit words ended up being some of the last words I ever said to her while feeding her with a spoon.

*

My mother was right.

Her mother, my grandmother, led a horrific life. Her husband was older and controlling and mentally and physically abusive. Within a few months of their marriage, she tried to leave him, tried to go home to her parents. Her father said, “Go home. You made your bed, you lay in it.”

My grandmother had 9 children, which included a stepdaughter who was allowed to, and encouraged to, call her a “whore.”

My grandmother was not allowed to work, was not allowed to drive a car, was not even allowed to learn how to drive a car.

When my grandmother was newly married, she was out one day, laughing and having a good time, riding in a car with her girlfriends, when they missed a stop and ran up under a tractor trailer and, while they all survived, they were all seriously injured. I have the newspaper clipping.

My grandmother was in her early 20’s; her lower lip had been almost completely ripped off; her teeth were shoved violently up into her face; she was unconscious; they did not know if she would survive.

She survived. However, my grandfather would not allow her to have plastic surgery. As was his choice. He was, after all, “the husband.” He said, I heard, that this would keep her at home, keep her from “running around.” He allowed the kid-doctors in the emergency room to repair her lower lip, her face. She got false teeth. She was not yet 25.

She did not leave.

One time he came home drunk and threw her outside into the yard, in her night gown. Then he sat inside the door, all through the night while their children (supposedly) slept, with his shotgun and dared her to try and come inside.

She did not leave.

One time he threw her down the basement stairs, while pregnant, and her baby boy came too early. That boy, my Uncle Jerry, would grow to man-size, but would never speak, never walk, and never leave a crib. He remained in diapers for all of his 50 years on this earth.

She did not leave.

*

When my mother and her sisters divorced their husbands —- and there were A LOT of divorces — she had a hard time supporting them. I see, now, how jealous she must have been. It was the 70’s and 80’s, the height of feminism. How her daughters, unlike her, were allowed and even encouraged, to leave.

When I left my first young husband after barely one year, my grandmother was so angry. She called me on the phone, in my new single-bedroom apartment, and said, “What’s wrong with you?! You’re leaving him, and he has a good job, but he doesn’t beat you, or anything!”

*

I still think about that beer-bottle bruise, my boyfriend’s father, and how I didn’t take it seriously. At all. I figured I’d asked for it. I think about my last, thoughtless, words to my mother: “Bullshit, Mom. Everybody has a hard life.”

I was wrong.

 

The Tiniest Towel

 

IMG_2483In the small basement room of a Prague hotel, my young Thai massage therapist closes the door, dims the already-dim lights, and motions for me to remove my robe.

I hesitate. We stand for many seconds, each of us waiting for the other to move, facing one other next to the table which, I’d noted when I came in, did not appear to have a top sheet.

When he motions a second time I pull the belt of my robe tighter. He lights up and says, “American, you need towel,” before bending down to proudly hand me the tiniest possible piece of cloth, a towel so small it cannot possibly cover both my upper and lower private parts at the same time. And yet too embarrassed at this point to turn it down, I accept what he offers. I take the towel. I surrender.

For the last two decades getting regular massages—sometimes as many as two or three in a month—has become my go-to method for taking care of myself. The way I ease pain, physical and otherwise. When I feel bad I don’t wander the mall with giant shopping bags; when I’m lonely or have a headache I don’t run out for a grande triple shot mocha latte; when my heart is broken or my feet hurt I don’t shop online or fill my closet with the promise of cuter shoes. When I’m traveling and jetlagged and my feet ache from being a tourist intent on not missing anything, I don’t suck down the Ibuprofen and hope it works. What I do is call a spa and book massage appointments. And I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed at how easily I scan the menu of Swedish and Deep Tissue and Lomi Lomi and Hot Stone and Reflexology to figure out what I want. I feel ashamed of the implied privilege and luxury in the words massage and spa. I feel ashamed, even, to say the words “I’m getting a massage.”

I had my first massage in my mid-20s, and I was almost-literally dragged there. The woman working in the cubicle next to mine booked me with “her guy” for a $50 hour and drove me to his office in south St. Louis after I threw my back out (yet again) and could no longer afford the burly chiropractor who scared me more than I let on and, after six visits, was no longer covered by insurance. Still, I balked. I’d grown up in a family where money was never spent on a luxury and no one touched anyone. We waved our hellos and goodbyes from the door. We did not back-to-school shop or treat ourselves at Dairy Queen. Aunt Mary shoved toddlers off her lap because they were always “hanging” on her. If I sat too close to my own mother she pushed me to the other end of the couch saying, “You’re making me hot!” I was terrified at the thought of being touched by a stranger (how do you know they’re above board?), of being naked (could I keep my underwear on?) in a room (would it be light or dark?) with a strange man (big or small, young or old, burly like the chiropractor??) rubbing and pressing his hands on my exposed (would he touch my actual butt, what if I farted?!) body.

I survived that first visit and—when my shoulders, after so many weeks askew, fell back into place so I could travel again and sit at my desk pain-free again and sleep through the night again—I booked another appointment. I was hooked.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot of what I know about myself from my therapists, the massage version.

I’ve learned I’m not a klutz (as I’d always insisted) but in hurry. “You’re not constantly injured because you’re clumsy,” no-nonsense Ned insisted, his hand resting heavy on my shoulder. “You’re injured because you need to slow the hell down.”

I’ve learned I throw my back out doing ridiculously ordinary things, like turning over in my sleep or washing my hair. “You are a violent hair washer!” Seattle Sarah said.

I’ve learned that, as much as I want to believe I am open and trusting when meeting strangers, my public openness is often just a sneakier version of a self-protecting façade. “You need to relax,” said Kentucky Teresa the second time she worked on me, even as I happy-chatted away and insisted I was nothing if not relaxed. “Try and trust me,” she said, pulling the sheet up and around my shoulders. “Stop working so hard, trying to get me to like you.”

Which brings me back to the Thai massage—my first.

It is one thing to have a sheet over you and a stranger’s hands working on your body, but it is in another stratosphere—especially growing up the way I did, waving hellos from the door and with a mother who insisted she adored me while shoving me to the other end of the couch—to have the therapist on the table with you, his body pressed against yours (I gotta be twice this kid’s size); his knees in your back as he pulls your shoulders to open your chest (is it dark enough in here?); his bare feet and toes kneading and digging into your butt and upper thighs (the possibility, still today, 25 years on, of errant gas to pass); and to top it all a voice with more authority than question, “I massage breasts now?” (where in the hell did that tiny towel go?).

For me, it is not at all about having the right sized sheet or towel to hide behind. It is not even about feeling physically vulnerable or exposed. It is about the questioning that continues to run like a tickertape through my head no matter my age—am I too fat or frivolous or judgmental or prudish or mean or naïve … or or or or or??—and how all of these questions seem to circle back to one central theme. Kentucky Teresa’s gentle massage therapist voice saying, “Stop working so hard, trying to get me to like you.”

Tiny towel or no, I remain a work in progress.

How to read THE SCAMP

9781941040119I’ve been looking for it and I finally found it.  My favorite read of the summer.

Thank you, Jennifer Pashley, for writing such an intense character-driven serial killer mystery in the dueling voices of Rayelle and Khaki, cousins from a vanishing small town.  Two girls fighting, in such different and frighteningly believable ways, to leave behind the damage done by those who were supposed to love them.

I highlighted so many passages there are too many to list.  Here are a few I can’t get out of my head:

You can’t escape anything in a small town.  The town knows everything, and not enough …

When girls don’t exist, they disappear.  They become non-people, people’s wives, and mothers.  People’s slaves.  They sell their pussies out of the backs of vans like stolen goods…

It makes you wonder what’s passed on through our blood.  What kind of sentence you hand a baby, just by letting her be born…

Here’s how to read THE SCAMP:

  1. On an airplane, because you will be so inside the story you won’t notice your irritating fellow passengers.
  2. On a raft in a swimming pool or on a lake or at the beach, but make sure you have plenty of sunblock because you will be there all day.
  3. In bed under the covers on a  stormy afternoon with the air-conditioning blasting.
  4. In the basement with your dog sleeping on your feet.
  5. Curled up first thing in the morning, at sunrise, with a whole pot of coffee just for you.
  6. Carried in your hand at all times because you can’t wait to read one more paragraph, one more chapter, to find out what in the hell is going to happen next.

Here’s where you can buy this incredibly smart, throat-grabbing thriller:  Independent Booksellers, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

You can read a review of THE SCAMP here.

The Goat

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Every morning I drive into town and he’s there.  The goat.  It doesn’t matter if it’s early or late, sunny or raining, sweltering or cold, this damn goat is right there, holding court over the hillside — his hillside — atop his hay bale.  Look at his stance, his face.  So sure, so stern, so “you lookin’ at me?”  He’s not messing around, this goat.  I keep thinking of what my grandmother used to say when the boys taunted me in 5th grade or when the girls at a new school made fun of my clothes or when my uncles would pin me to the ground and bury their knuckles in my chest until I cried: Don’t let ’em get your goat! 

I haven’t written much of anything for the last two weeks.  Instead, I’ve spent a ridiculous number of minutes and hours scrolling and scanning and looking at photos and mock-ups and memes of the confederate flag, reading phrases like “heritage not hate” and “southern pride” to the point where I just can’t look anymore.  I feel my uncles dig their fists into my chest.  I hear my long-dead grandmother’s voice saying Don’t let ’em get your goat! and I picture my cousin’s son with the confederate flag tattoo on his arm, the flag draped with a noose, and I think, does that noose also serve the “heritage not hate” banner?  Does that noose say pride?

I keep going back and re-reading part of an article by Kareen U. Crayton in The New York Times where she writes:  We can all respect that some people do not view the flag that way.  But the flag has also become inextricably associated with ideologies that most Americans should find disgusting.  Symbols embraced by the state ought to bring people together rather than divide them.  I see the South Carolina senate has voted today, 36-3, to remove the confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, and yet I’m starting to wonder if, for as much as we say we crave togetherness in these supposedly “united” states, we are, sadly, most at home in, most comforted by, our isolation and division.  Most at home in our chosen camps.

The saying “get your goat” is said to have originated in horse racing, where goats were kept with nervous racehorses to keep them calm.  The urban dictionary says the goat is a metaphor for peacefulness. When your goat is with you, you are calm, and “the best way to get someone’s goat is by means of clever annoyance.”  This morning, as usual, I drove by my goat.  There he was, right where he always is, and for the first time in these months I pulled my car onto the dirt road next to his hay bale.  I’ve stopped scrolling and scanning, shifting my focus back to my own center.  I parked and stepped out of my car.  I stepped forward.  When the goat saw me coming his way he stood up and leaned my direction, holding our ground.

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I Have Not Actively Worked. I Have Sat Quietly.

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In times like this, white people are quick to throw their hands up and dissociate themselves from racism and the person accused of the racist act. But how many of them can say they have actively worked to challenge the racism in the people around them? How many folks have sat quietly as Uncle Jimbo tells the story of the time he put that one nigger in his place at work?       ~~ Jamilah Lemieux, Ebony Magazine

 

Within minutes of seeing it, I send a message to his mother, my cousin. Have you seen your son’s new tattoo?

There is a flag. There is a noose. There are the words Southern Justice scrolled across.

 I’ve seen it, she says. But he just turned 18. He’s an adult. What am I supposed to do? I want to scream, You are supposed to act like his fucking mother! and You’re supposed to tell him this is hateful and that you don’t approve and that he could get himself killed displaying a sign on his arm like that! but instead I wait a bit, gather myself up in southern politeness, pull up her son’s Facebook page again, stare at the large, shiny tattoo covering his shoulder.

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You realize what this symbol means, right?

Oh, he doesn’t mean anything by it, she says. He just likes the rebel flag, he just likes the Dukes of Hazard.

There is a flag. There is a noose. There are the words Southern Justice scrolled across.

I let it drop.

Letting it drop is not enough.

I have not actively worked. I have sat quietly.

***

The man of the house tells a joke to the little kids. It goes something like this. Little Black Sambo is sitting on the toilet, sick with diarrhea, screaming, Mom! I’m melting!  The man of the house laughs. All of the little kids hoot and giggle.

I recall hearing Maya Angelou speak to a live audience. Used to be, she’d said in her low-timbered voice, when someone told a joke about blacks or Mexicans or Catholics at some dinner party, I would show my disapproval with my silence. Didn’t want to rock the boat. Didn’t want to make a scene. Didn’t want to call attention. But now!—her voice thundered with the now—now, I turn on my heel and take up my pocketbook and my wrap and out the door I go! Even if I’m the guest of honor! 

The man of the house tells his joke. I leave the room.

Leaving the room is not enough.

I have not actively worked. I have sat quietly.

***

My family goes to mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church every Sunday morning. After church, Mom makes a big breakfast while her husband rants and rages for a good hour about how much he hates all of the neighbors he has just seen in church, how all politicians and niggers and spics should be lined up and shot down with machine guns, and how those cock-sucking fags with AIDS got what they deserved. Put ‘em on an island somewhere, he says, and set it on fire. That’ll teach the dumb bastards.

My mother and I remain silent. We exchange glances. We say a prayer.

Showing up in church every Sunday is not enough.

Prayer is not enough.

I have not actively worked. I have sat quietly.

***

I am in Aunt Mary’s apartment. Aunt Mary is diabetic and has, within the last few years, survived breast cancer and a tumor on her heart. She has six grown children and several grandchildren, all of their pictures prominently displayed on many shelves.

Where are the pictures of Rae’s kids? I ask.

Aunt Mary leads me into her bedroom and opens the top drawer of her dresser where she pulls out and hands me a stack of baby photos and grade school photos and high school photos. Rae’s children. Rae’s mixed race children. When I raise a brow she says, Don’t look at me like that. These are my grandchildren and I love them just as much as the rest.

I raise my brow again. Aunt Mary sighs, You don’t know my neighbors. They’ll call me a nigger lover behind my back. They’ll make fun of me. I’m sick and I live alone and I need my neighbors to help take care of me.

I hand the stack of pictures back to her. She returns them to the drawer. Aunt Mary punches me in the arm.

Raising my brow is not enough.

I have not actively worked. I have sat quietly.

***

I am reading an essay online by a prominent black writer, a writer I follow and admire. The essay is about discrimination against black women in the workplace, and I want to comment in the comment section but can’t figure out exactly what to say, can’t decide what would be an acceptable-enough response. Type-delete-type-delete-type-delete-type. Nothing I type is right enough, nothing I say says what I want to say because, I eventually realize, I don’t understand enough to know how to engage in any part of this particular conversation. I feel shut down.

Shutting down is not acceptable.

I have not actively worked. I have sat quietly.

***

I am visiting my mother’s husband in a sterile room at St. Francis Medical Center. He has had open-heart surgery and developed an infection, so the doctors have removed the staples and re-opened his chest. I can see that his chest is, in fact, agape, split open and stuffed with thick mounds of white gauze. My mother is dead, but here he is. My charge. He is happy to see me but in a foul mood. A black nurse is working this shift and he swears she’s trying to kill him. That nigger bitch is got-damned worthless, he yells, not bothering to wait until she is out of earshot.

Hey! I say. Shit. Enough.

***

There is a flag. There is a noose. There are the words Southern Justice scrolled across.

He just likes the rebel flag, he just likes the Dukes of Hazard.

I read these words by Deray McKesson @deray: Racism is irrational. Sometimes we exhaust ourselves “trying to make sense” of it all. But it is irrational from the onset.

I have not actively worked. I have sat quietly.

I read these words by Ben White @morningmoneyben: Sometimes there are not two sides. The confederate flag is one of those times. There is right and there is wrong and that’s it.

There is a right and there is a wrong. I can do more than let it drop, leave the room, show up in church, pray, raise my brow, shut down.

I can say, Enough! I can fucking scream.

White Fog

Ten feet away the solid earth


Changes into melting cloud, 


There is a hush of pain and mirth,

No bird has heart to speak aloud.

From “White Fog” by poet Sara Teasdale

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Yesterday I had cataract surgery, and when I woke up this morning, for the first time since I can’t remember when, the constant blur, the white fog, has vanished. The world it seems, overnight, has gone shockingly clear.

In my kitchen, I pour a cup of coffee. With my new eyes, I sit down to read the leading news out of Texas.

I read and read and read until I can’t read anymore.

I take a walk.

For the first time in years I can see the curve of each individual stone along the sidewalk. A woman walks on the other side of the street with her tiny white dog and even from this distance I can see the pattern of ladybugs on the dog’s leash. A police officer in a patrol car hides in his usual spot past the corner, waiting for someone to run the stop sign. He waves as I pass by.

I think about the time I got pulled over at dusk and the officer gave me two tickets, one for speeding and one for failure to yield to an emergency vehicle because I had my music on so loud he chased me with sirens blaring for 3 miles before I finally pulled over. I think about how, while giving me my two tickets, one at a time, with ceremony, the officer laughed about how I made him “chase me down” and “was I playing hard to get.” I think about how I smiled to hide the sick sinking in my gut as he flirted with me and I calculated how and when and if he was going to let me leave.

I think about how that was nothing.

Back at home, I read more news. I watch the just-released video.

I picture my young mother in her car, smoking a cigarette. I think about how, even at the end, when she was dying because of smoking and on oxygen 24 hours a day, all she wanted was a cigarette. Only a cigarette could calm her nerves, her fears. I think about a man I know who rarely uses a turn signal and has never, not once, been pulled over by a police officer.

Back home in my kitchen, I scramble some eggs but by the time they’re ready I can’t bear to eat so I slide them straight out of the skillet and into the trash.

I watch the video again. I read this.

I pour another cup of coffee and I step outside. I sit down on my doorstep. I can clearly see the jungle gym in the park up the street. I can see all the way into my neighbor’s garden, the patterns in tree bark and the shades of green in each leaf and the maze of color. Was it just yesterday I had surgery?  And I can see.  Ten feet away the solid earth.  The news out of Texas.

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