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.

Imaginary Men

images-3A few weeks ago I wrote a dud of story about a repairman who came to my house.  I posted it here for about a minute, a story that was so much a nothing I hit delete.  So this man came to my house.  So he seemed scary.  So nothing happened.  So what.  Who cares.

But after I took the story down and shoved it into the digital black hole  drawer, I could not stop thinking about it.  It woke me up at night.  It festered.

You can find the real story here, up today over at The Manifest-Station.

(with a huge thanks, as always, to Jennifer Pastiloff)

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Excerpt from “The Man In My House”

I grew up with my single mom, in a house without a man.  My mother was not a fearful person, nor was her mother, my grandmother, and we all lived on a diet of scary movies, movies where men like Dracula waited in the dark to abuse his women.  

We watched TV shows about terrifying men, like the one where Darrin MacGavin searched for The Night Stalker, and when I was ten and eleven I would come home from school in time to watch Dark Shadows with my grandmother in her cold, dark basement.  Fear, fear of imaginary bad men, was our entertainment.

And yet, when I was little, I had regular and vivid, terrorizing nightmares.  I screamed like someone was killing me.  I walked out of our apartment and knocked on neighbors’ doors.  I babbled incoherently to my single, sleep-deprived mother in our ever-changing string of new, and unfamiliar, apartments.  The most vivid and repeating nightmare, like a record player with a skip, had me staring hard out our window into the dark, my fingers crunched hard on the sill, while kneeling on my bed and seeing a strange man with white eyes staring back at me from the other side.  To this day I am sure I can smell him.

 

Trying On Swimsuits With Miss Kentucky

78319985Today is one of the first 90 degree days of summer, and I know what I have to do.  I have to buy a swimsuit.  I have to buy a swimsuit because it is June and 90 degrees outside and I don’t even have an old swimsuit laying around and last evening we went out on a boat with our neighbors and thank goodness we were moving along the the water the whole time and there was a slight breeze because I wore what has become my uniform.  The one thing it seems my closet is packed full of.  Black cotton sweatpants.

Which is how I find myself, weeks before my 50th birthday, in this freezing cold department store in Kentucky.  In the swimsuit section.  In a dressing room next to Miss Kentucky.

To be fair she’s only a Miss Kentucky contestant, but still.  The sales ladies are all giddy with excitement, crowding in like it’s a contest to bring her another suit, the right suit.  Girl! they exclaim, Pink is your color!

I try to remember the last time I bought a swimsuit that was not black, or some version of black, and I cannot.  When was the last time I bought a suit I loved, or even liked?  When was the last time I bought a suit without a “control” feature around the belly, without the words “Look 10 lbs thinner!” or “Miracle Suit” writ in giant bold letters on the tag?

In an effort to get dressed and undressed as few times as possible, I’ve dragged 9 swimsuits into this dressing room.  Six them are black.  As in ALL black.  They look hot.  90 degrees worth of hot.  They look like a woman in mourning.  I think about my sweatpants.  I think about Miss Kentucky, next door with her pinks.  I hear her yell, Nooooo, stop it!  No pictures! and I suddenly feel sorry for her, because Miss Kentucky or no, who in the world would take photos of a woman, any woman, in a dressing room.

I recall the last picture I saw of myself in a swimsuit.  The suit is black with one small green stripe and one small blue stripe across the top.  My son took the picture a few years ago right after I’d jumped off a catamaran into the Mediterranean Sea.  I am in the water and waving to the camera, and I’m wearing my black “Miracle Suit!” that seems to absorb every blazing ray of the sun and with a mid-section so tight, so restrictive around my ribs, I cannot take a single breath without feeling like someone has wrapped me in a giant ACE bandage.

Before I try on a single suit I yank my clothes back on and take all of the black suits back onto the floor and hand them to the sales lady.  She gives the sad frown face, lips puckered, and takes them from me, irritated I’m sure that she has to return them all to their racks.

I roam the floor alone.  I pull suits off the rack I’m not sure about.  I go for the colors.  I start over.

Back my dressing room, freezing cold with its white slatted door and its bright lights, I hang 14 suits of all manner of color — mostly, I note, blues and teals and greens — around my closet-sized room.  How little, I think, this room looks like my actual closet.  How bright it feels, how like someone I used to know.  I touch the suits, one by one, feeling their silky textures and the strength or weakness of their straps.  I tug on the bra-parts and wonder how they might hold up in water.  I decide to decide, before I try on a single one, that I love every last one of them.  And only then do I get to trying them on.

I don’t know where that black Miracle Suit! went.  I knew I’d never wear it again, it was that miserable, especially in the high midday sun, and most especially when it got wet and felt so glued to my body I wondered how much muscle I would need to peel it off.  I suspect this suit found its way to the Goodwill.  I didn’t need a suit.  I had solved the problem.  I stopped swimming.

In my dressing room I count how many times I’ve worn a swimsuit, how many times I’ve jumped in the water and felt free, in the last 5 years.  The last 10.  The last 15 years.

I do not need both hands to count.

In the dressing room next to me, Miss Kentucky has had enough with the swimsuits.  And there are more photos, but I understand it now.  Stop it, grandma! she yells. That’s my fat part!  The sales ladies laugh and tell her how good she looks in ALL of the suits, so good she should just buy them all!!  Grandma laughs, agrees.  Grandma takes more pictures.  Grandma tells her that oh honey, she can take as many suits as she wants because that way she will be able to make choices when it comes time for the stage.  Because that way she can wait until she sees what all of the other girls are wearing and decide at the last minute what will make her a winner with a Capital W!

The sales ladies cheer along with Grandma.  I never hear Miss Kentucky say another word.

At the checkout counter, I lay out the 3 suits I’ve chosen.  You did good! the lady says.  I pull out my credit card and I tell her I have never, never in in my life, bought 3 swimsuits at the same time, but she does not respond and as I watch her ring them up, one by one, I suppress the urge to change my mind; the urge to take two of them back; the urge to take ALL of them back; the urge to be sensible and find those black suits again; the urge to keep looking for the Miracle.  I think about 90 degrees and the Summer before me.  I think about my piles and piles of black sweatpants and how I have let them take over my wardrobe.  How I’ve let them take over me.

And when Miss Kentucky and her grandma get in line behind me with their armfuls of pink suits and their happy chatter, I hear myself saying to the sales lady, with a confidence I do not yet but so hope to feel: Three new suits because it’s my birthday.  I’m turning 50.  Happy birthday to me.  And I turn around and wish Miss Kentucky good luck.

My 3 Winners with a Capital W

My 3 Winners with a Capital W

It Never Happens the Way We Think It Will Happen

imagesI am walking my dog when it happens. The woman does not see me. The woman does not see my dog. The woman points her car my way and guns it, and when I see she doesn’t see me—doesn’t see my bright blue shirt nor my arm waving ‘hello neighbor’ in the air nor my big yellow lab standing at the side of her driveway—I dive to my right and the bumper of her car clips my hip and I tumble down and over the newly-mowed grass of her lawn and the next thing I know I’m lying there, just lying there, pushing to get up and looking at my dog looking down at me with her tail wagging, wagging wagging wagging. The dog licks my hand. We are alive, the dog seems to say. We are okay.

For the last decade I’ve been walking my dogs in a downtown neighborhood, and at least once a week I hear myself screaming, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” at some giant SUV with a mom driving her kids to school (coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other), certain that one day this composite character of a mom is going on take me out. And yet it is not until today, this day of me tumbling on the grass, focused on a wagging tail, when I feel the constant anticipation in me. When I start to think about how much time and angst and exactitude and energy I spend laying out blueprints that say: This. Yes this. Surely this is how it is going to happen.

I do not think of myself as a worrier, an anticipator of disaster. In fact, in my fantasy mind of who I am, I am the opposite of this. I am the positive thinker. I am the dreamer. I am the Annie song ‘Tomorrow’. I am the woman who banks on today and hopes all good things for the next, the lighthearted comforter patting shoulders and holding hands, telling those panicking around me, “Relax, really, it will be what it will be. It will all be fine.” I remember telling my mother this when she was dying. “Don’t worry,” I said over and over again. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. And I will take care of everything.” One night while my mother was sleeping, I was on the phone with a friend whose mother had died the year before. “Watch her feet,” she warned. “We all die from the ground up. If you think your mom is getting close, check her feet. If the bottoms are turning any shade of blue, be ready to call people, to say your goodbyes.” For the next many days I was a vigilant, albeit sneaky, foot-checker, wafting sheets at the end of my mother’s bed when I was sure no one was around. I imagined the possible shades of blue. I imagined the time I would have with her at the end, the people I would call and in what order I would call them, and how fast they would all get there and how we would surround my mother in a giant circle while she passed on.

Of course that’s not how it happened. It was noon on a Sunday. I was sitting there alone with my mother when her breaths became shallow and sporadic, sometimes gasping. She scared me. I backed away and leaned against the other bed in the room. At some point a nurse came in, put her stethoscope to my mother’s chest, listened, waited. Minutes passed. I moved closer. The nurse told me to sit down, though I remained standing. The nurse turned off the beeping machines. Silence. Out in the hall I called my brothers. “Mom’s gone,” I said, “can you come over?” One brother said he would see me later. The other brother said, “Why would I come now if she’s already gone?” I called her husband. No answer. So I stopped calling people. I walked back to my mother’s room and, standing in the doorway, saw that the nurse had pulled away the sheet.

Maybe this is the story. It never happens the way we think it will happen. I am 36 years old. I am 36 and alone with my dead mother and I am wearing the soft purple shirt she gave me that I only pretended to like and that I will put in the trash at my hotel and I am staring at, taking inventory even, of my mother’s naked body, at her open, thick-looking eyes, her shoulders her breasts her stomach her hips her knees, the palms of her hands, open and still. The nurse comes back. I never even make it all the way to her feet.

All that I time I wasted in the planning, in the imagining. All that time, wasted.

I think about the conversations I have in my head that I never end up having with another human being. The constant inner-planning. The scenario staging. My fear of the ever-dreaded surprise. When I was growing up there was no such thing as a good surprise. Lack of planning, lack of proper and thorough anticipation meant falling off a cliff. Surprise meant moving towns or changing schools or the child support check showing up late or wondering if I could afford school lunch. As an adult there is still no such thing as a good surprise, and yet I still refuse to see myself as that person, as the worry wart (what a horrible name), the multi-scenario imaginer of events that I so very often am.

I recall another story told by the friend whose mother had died with blue feet. She and her sister are sitting on either side of their mother’s bed, each of them holding one of their mother’s hands, and as their mother takes her last breath the sister slides Mom’s wedding rings right off and onto her own finger, admiring it, watching it sparkle, then looks at my friend and says, “It’s mine. Mom always wanted me to have it.”

How, I think, could my friend have ever imagined her mother’s last breath would happen like this?

Within minutes of my being knocked to the ground, the woman is out of her car, hand over her mouth in shock, apologizing and sobbing hysterically. I am hugging and comforting her. “It’s okay,” I repeat as I rub her back, “and I’m okay. I really am. I’m okay, see? I’m sorry this happened too, but here we are.” I gesture to my dog, my yellow lab at the end of her leash, panting and smiling, wagging her big yellow tail. “See, we are all okay.”

Eventually I let go and turn to brush grass clippings and leaves from my sweatpants. I check to see if there are any rips or tears, and there are not. I rub the bottom of my leg and feel a hot stinging sensation, a burning, down the side of my calf. But I don’t pull up my pants leg because I don’t want to scare her, to worry her.

Days later, I will be thankful for emails I sent within the hour because once I get over the shock of getting hit by the car, the terror of what it feels like to see a car barreling straight for me, I can barely imagine it. No matter how many times I try to reconstruct the stage, I can’t do it. I am mostly blank. I have what think is a road burn on my lower leg, but it is healing and will probably not even leave a scar. My ass aches a little where her bumper knocked me to the grass, but mostly I feel fine.

More days pass. I simply feel lucky.

The woman calls and tells me she has a confession: she never saw me at all. Never saw me, even though it was 9:30 in the morning on a bright sunny day and I was wearing a blue shirt and waving ‘hello’ and walking a big yellow dog. Unlike me, she never imagined this could happen. She tells me she only stopped because she heard a thud, and it was only when she saw me lying in the grass with my dog that she realized what had just happened. I listen quietly, but what I feel is enraged … not at her, but at her lovely lack of forethought. This is what normal people are like, I think, and this is what I envy: the luxury of true spontaneity. The lack of expectation of impending disaster.  How comforting it must be to never imagine and imagine and imagine such an event. The lack of worry and anticipation. The lack of mentally creating and dreading what-might-be.

I think back on all the energy and time I’ve spent imagining such a thing, all the times I’ve screamed at some mom driving her kids to school, imagining a very real someone running me right over, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” and I pause. I want to scream, but what’s the point? Maybe it never happens the way we think it will happen. I think about the time I was alone with my mother, and time wasted. I remember my mother’s last day on this earth, my purple shirt, her exposed body lying atop a white sheet, and yet what I remember most clearly, most vividly, are my mother’s hands. Her open, unassuming hands.

Is It Mother’s Day … again??

 

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I swear these Hallmark-holidays creep up so quickly, so quietly, it feels like someone’s hiding in the thick, peaceful woods and sneaking up on me with a load of curare darts.

The other day I felt such a surge of rage on a stroll through Walgreen’s and their onslaught of Mom Cards — cards I no longer need to panic over buying (the right one) or mailing (way early so as to be On Time!) — so that as I stand in line waiting for a prescription to be filled all I can think about is that giant bank of sweet, colorful cards and what I really want to do is walk over all nonchalantly-like with my basket of waterproof, every-size Bandaids and hormones and Neosporin and Advil and knock down the whole damned display, ala that killer from No Country For Old Men, and then walk right on out and down the sidewalk and pretend it wasn’t me.

But today.

IMG_2127Today it’s the Friday before the Sunday of Mother’s Day and what I’m remembering is how funny my mom was.  How sharp.  Sarcastic and witty and irreverent she would fall down laughing — and scared of getting caught, too, like me — if we knocked down the Walgreens card display.  It’s sad for me to realize that hardly anyone I know now, 13 years after her death, knows my mom that way.  Not most of my friends.  Not my husband nor my kids.  When I got married, when she met my kids, she was already sick.  And even though she would live another 5 to 6 years, she was so tired, so beyond exhausted, so not herself.

One of the incredible things my mother left me was a book of memories, one of those silly things most people don’t bother to fill out, where there’s a question for every day of the year.  And so this Mother’s Day, to keep me from knocking over the Walgreens display, I’m going to share a few of my favorite answers to those questions:

What do you remember about your first day of school?  I cried!  I did not want to go!

Tell me about how you first knew my father (note:  I don’t know my father).  I thought he was gorgeous.  Our first date we just rode around and talked.  He was very good-looking.  Witty and fun to be with and a very good lover.  

Share a memory about a power outage.  We had power outages all the time.  Especially in the summer.  Dad would get drunk and he’d turn off the power!

What did you want to be when you grew up?  An airline stewardess.  But I was too tall.

Tell about some advice your mother gave you.  (she left his page, hilariously, blank)

___________

And on that note, I’m sending an extra dose of love to all of you who have lost your mothers.  It never gets easier, it just gets different.

This year, I’m saying cheers to the end of curare-dart season, and to the end of that haunting, ridiculous Walgreens display.

Today I’m remembering my incredible mother.  My mother who raised me mostly on her own.  What a talent you were; what a quick wit; what an overwhelming loss.  I miss you so so much.

On The Porch

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I first read Herman Wouk’s THE WINDS OF WAR about 15 years ago, and I loved it.

I loved it so much that the minute I finished its 900 pages I picked up its sequel, WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, and polished off its 900 pages too.

But 15 years ago I was not yet hooked on World War II history or its literature; I had only been to Europe for work, which is to say I had not seen much, if anything, of Italy or France or Germany or England or Poland; I had not yet signed up for a class called simply “The Holocaust”; I was about to sign up for my first college French class, where I would stay for 4 years; 15 years ago I had not yet been to Auschwitz, nor had I read any of the 34 books on my shelf about Hitler’s rise to power, the Nazi machine, or accounts by Jewish survivors.  As I sit here this first of May 2015, re-reading one of my favorite sprawling sagas, I wonder, “How could I have loved this historical novel so much when I knew so little about what’s in it?”

Sitting here on the porch with my same old broken-in 15 year old copy of THE WINDS OF WAR, I realize it was this book — this very book — that set me on my path.  So often I hear someone say the words, “I don’t read,” and yet as I sit here I wonder:  what would I have studied, where would I have traveled, whom might I have not met, what books would I have bought instead, what would I have learned, who would I even be if I had not started right here?

___________________

Tell me about a book that set you on your path.

Oh! You Pretty Things

Teri:

This is officially my favorite author interview, ever. And it doesn’t hurt that Shanna Mahin‘s new novel is one of those books you can’t stop reading, your nose pressed up hard against the bulletproof and yet fragile glass called “Holllywood.”

Originally posted on Betsy Lerner:

Author Photos 005OhPrettyCover

Remember when I was blogging every day and this beautiful creature left the most amazing comments on the suck of life, the agony of writing, the sporn of love and then just us chickens traded missives about calories and other counts. Well GIVE IT UP FORShanna Mahin who has crossed over into the even purer agony of being a published author with her first novel, Oh You Pretty Things.  Only look at our girl all Elvis Costello meets Michelle Williams with that super sexy smart look.  I couldn’t be happier for you Shanna. Congrats. Yes, I’d love a comp. Hello??

And now, a little Q&A with the AUTHOR:

How old were you when you started writing.

I can’t remember when I started writing. I really can’t. I also can’t remember a single birthday party from my childhood (surely I had at least one?), half the men I slept…

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