Recommitting to my gritty, authentic neighborhood: Hamline-Midway

P1050282Last weekend

Rocky, Victor and I

Walked around our neighborhood,

Hamline-Midway,

Me with my camera

Around my neck,

Bouncing on my chest

As I walked,

Pushing Rocky’s stroller,

Victor walking next to us in his

Swishy snow pants,

His begloved hand

Resting on the stroller handle.

The sky was utterly blue,

Cloudless,

And the winter sun was

Small and hard,

Throwing symmetrical noon shadows from the

Southern sky.

I was out looking for

Cool stuff to

Photograph

In my

Neighborhood.

In Hamline-Midway, this

Gritty,

Authentic,

Sketchy,

Dynamic neighborhood where

I’ve lived for

Six years.

Growing up in the suburbs of St. Paul,

I was restless for a more

Complicated ambiance than the

1980s housing tract

Surrounded by marshland

My parents lovingly provided,

And I rushed into the city

As soon as I started college.

But it’s taken me a

Long,

Long time to

Get a grip on the trade-offs of

City living.

When we first started looking for

Houses in 2008,

I’d listed to our realtor

All the neighborhoods I wanted to

Look in,

And seeing my price range,

He’d mentioned the

Midway.

“No way,” I’d said.

“Really? Midway?

Isn’t that kind of

Ghetto?”

“There are some nice

Neighborhoods back there,”

He’d said.

“Affordable.”

And so we’d bought our

Salmon-colored

1920’s bungalow,

Six of us in this

Little house,

Winter boots shoved in corners

Because there are no coat closets,

Refrigerator in the back hallway,

Visitors wedged

Hip-to-hip on the

Couches in the

Small living room.

And the neighborhood:

The empty shopping carts

Tipped over on snowbanks,

The pained stories on the neighborhood

Facebook page of

Home break-ins and

Cars rifled through,

The homeless folks with their

Cardboard signs

At the main intersections.

For the past couple years,

I’ve been

Planning my escape,

Emailing regularly with my

Mortgage banker and

Meeting with our realtor about

Plans and

Plans:

A bigger, nicer house in a

“Better” neighborhood.

But deep down,

I knew I hadn’t really given

This house and

This neighborhood

A chance.

And I suspected that if I

Moved to a

Beautiful house in a

Whiter,

Richer

Neighborhood,

I would realize too late how

Valuable to my

Life experience

This house and this neighborhood has been.

How the century-old buildings

Fascinate

For all the

Life that’s been

Lived in them.

How living as neighbors with

People who’ve had

Very few breaks in life

Has helped me find my

Voice as a writer who

Writes about

People of privilege encountering

Marginalized people

And having their worldview challenged.

I’ve always suspected that

This is a precious place in the world.

That there’s real life going on here,

Life that’s not always easy,

Life where things don’t

Fall into place,

Complicated life.

Rich life.

In a two-block radius from our house,

There’s a

Russian tea house with

Line-around-the-block pierogies,

A men’s drug and alcohol treatment center,

A pawn shop,

A porn shop,

The best Thai restaurant

In the Cities,

A surplus store displaying a

Real iron lung (not for sale),

An Ethiopian restaurant,

A drum shop,

A used book store with

Surly signs in the windows about

No bus waiting and

No kids without parents,

A 1940s-era nightclub with a

Mosaic scene of

Cowboys artifying an

Exterior wall.

Recently, we’ve decided to stay.

To add on to this house we might be able to

Actually pay off some day,

To recommit to this neighborhood.

And as soon as we’d made that decision,

My eyes started seeing it:

All the art that’s here.

The architectural details,

The mosaic designs.

And the funny,

Humble people who believe enough in

This place

To make this art.

I needed to act on my re-commitment,

And so the picture day.

The day I started seeing how

Rich this

Hamline-Midway is:

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My little white boy in an all-black program

Pixelation14There’s almost nothing

I’d rather

Not write about

Than this:

Race,

And the honest truth about how I

Respond to racial difference.

But here goes.

After searching online,

I found a new after-school program

For my 9-year-old:

One that’s affordable and

Convenient,

That his school will bus him to,

And that had an opening.

I went over to

Sign him up and

As I was standing there

Waiting for the director to

Get some paperwork,

I read a brochure about the program

That I hadn’t seen online.

I learned that this program is

Intended to demonstrate and teach

African-American heritage to its students

Through different art forms.

And then I looked around and realized that

All the staff and kids

Were black.

I had two nearly simultaneous reactions:

Wariness–

Actually,

Let’s just call it what it is:

Fear–

Of putting my little white

Finnish boy in an all-black environment.

And then,

Immediately,

Shame for feeling that way.

For the next couple days before

He started there,

I thought about my son.

At nine, he was too old now to

Not notice race,

But not old enough to have

Too many culturally prescribed

Notions about it.

It was going to be something

New for him,

Something I’ve never experienced

In my life

Ever.

For the first few weeks

Everything went great.

Everyone was friendly and welcoming,

The kids calling out,

“Bye Victor!” when I’d come to pick him up,

The staff giving me an

Indulgent play-by-play of his activities.

In the car,

I’d ask him how it went,

And he said his usual:

“Fine.”

And then one day,

When I came to pick him up,

He was sitting on a bench

In the playground

Instead of playing with the

Other kids.

In the car

When I asked how things had gone that day,

He said,

“I dunno.”

I tried to probe a little, and he finally said,

“I don’t wanna go back there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I feel embarrassed.”

“Why do you feel embarrassed?”

“Because I’m the only white.”

So.

Here we go.

At that moment,

There was a part of me that wanted to

Yank him out of that program

To protect him from ever having to feel

Unsure of himself,

Or wary,

Or out of place.

But I knew that wasn’t

The answer.

He was going to stay in that program.

And we were going to talk about this.

“You know, buddy,” I heard myself say.

“A lot of black kids in Minnesota

Experience it all the time,

Being the only black kid in the room.”

I named a boy in his class at school

Who is one of a couple black kids

In his class.

And I told him about the

Handful of black kids at my

White suburban high school.

And I told him about how

I wish I’d had an experience

Like his

When I was his age.

What became clear as I

Stumbled my way through this

Conversation,

Watching him through the rear view mirror

As he gazed out the car window,

Screwing up his nose to push his glasses up

The way he does,

Was that I had

No

Answers

For him.

Just a handful of experiences

And a freaked out

Willingness to

Discuss

If he wanted to discuss.

Now when I come to pick him up

I find him out of the playground with the

Other kids,

And he went back to saying,

“Fine,”

When I ask him in the car

How it went.

It’s no big deal to him again.

Me?

I feel unsure even writing about this.

I brought up Victor’s situation

To a black girlfriend of mine,

Seeking some input on how to talk about

Race

With kids

Respectfully

And honestly.

She was utterly gracious.

We laughed about how Victor used to call

Black people

Brown people,

Because,

Well,

Their skin is brown,

Not black.

And I confessed that once,

At the height of Victor’s struggles in school

When the district changed its busing policy

So that he might have to go to

Our neighborhood school,

I vowed not to send him there.

“He’ll be the only white kid in his class.

I won’t put him in that situation,”

I’d said then.

“I just won’t.

I’ll take him on the city bus myself

To a different school

If I have to.”

This is my liberalism:

Words, ideas, good intentions.

But when it comes to my family,

I stay where I’m comfortable.

I’m dismayed to think that

I don’t even know how to

Talk about this,

Or write about it,

That it feels like there’s no language

That strikes just the right tone.

I want to

Bear witness to the

Differences between

My experience and

Yours.

To acknowledge past and present

Pain

And beauty,

And the commonality of daily living we all share:

The sleeping,

The eating,

The breathing,

The raising kids.

To just see you

And acknowledge you

And say,

“Yes, I see you.

I see you.

I don’t know what to say

And I don’t know what to do,

But I see you.

We see you.

My boy and I,

We see you.”

It seems like a start to

Me, who has

Lived long in

Shame and

Obliviousness,

Who doesn’t want the same

For her boy.

 

 

My brother’s wedding: first big family event since our mom died

10672363_10204471243522534_8656715992297499162_nIt was the

First big family event after

My mother’s death:

My little brother got married.

Doug’s now-wife,

The incomparable Sarah,

Had come into our family

Three months before our mom

Died of Alzheimer’s.

Unfazed by the

Slow-burn trauma

Our family was slogging through

At the end of Mom’s

Long

Long

Illness,

Sarah plunged right in.

She and my brother exchanged

The giddy first Christmas gifts

Of their relationship

In the sick room where we

All had gathered.

No squeamishness,

No wariness,

Just a deep empathy,

And an intuitive sense of what

Needed to get done–

Meals cooked,

Thank you cards written after the funeral.

During those dreadful last months

Of my mother’s life,

There were flickers like

Lightning bugs of

Laughter and lightness and

Hope for the future,

And Doug’s relationship with Sarah

Was one of them,

And Sarah herself was another.

WP_000005The day of the wedding,

I carried in the palm of my hand a

Small, round picture of my

Mom and my brother

When Doug was probably about five,

His hair white blonde,

Sucking in his bottom lip the way

He used to as a child,

My mom in her late 30s–

Probably my age–

Pretty and happy to have her

Favorite little boy in her lap,

Looking slightly above the camera,

Expectant.

As we walked to the wedding together,

I silently showed the

Picture to my brother,

And we put our arms around each other

And he said,

“Thank you, Jen.

Thank you,”

Blinking tears.

I’m the one who cried for

Much of the ceremony,

Looking down into my palm

At the picture,

Or at the empty chair in the

Front row

Laid with a bouquet of yellow roses.

It was Mom’s little boy

Getting married,

The one she got to care for,

Who let her care for him,

Making sure he had flannel sheets

On his bed in the winter,

Patching up his

Favorite blanket over the years.

My brother gave

My mother the kind of

Motherhood she was suited for,

And now there he was,

Under a pure blue sky,

Starting on the next part of

His journey,

With Sarah.

With my mom, too

In a way,

But also very much

Without her.

Later at the end of the reception,

In the soft,

Other-worldly glow of the

Tent lights

It was me and a dozen or so of

Doug and Sarah’s friends left,

Dancing to an iPad playlist.

It was fun and wild and

Most people were pretty wasted and

Feeling the music in that

Drunken way

I remember

(or don’t remember).

There was my little brother and his

Wife,

Their friends gathered round and round,

Laughing and moving their alive bodies,

It was a joyful and sweet moment,

But what would’ve been just a

Tinge of nostalgia about

Change and

New life journeys

Was instead a wave of grief.

Our mother,

Doug’s mom,

Was dead.

She was dead.

Her ashes moldering in a

Cemetery 80 miles away.

And our lives progress on.

Grandchildren born and

Children married.

There will only be more and more

Events and even

People

She will have missed.

This: Doug and Sarah’s

Life together,

She won’t see it.

They won’t get the

Benefit of hearing her say,

“I’m so proud of you.”

And indeed,

For all of us young,

Laughing,

Healthy people

Dancing under the

Glowing tent,

This is our moment to be

Heedlessly alive in this world,

But it’ll pass.

We’ll die, too.

Grief,

I’ve learned,

Is a voluminous container that can

Simultaneously hold

Sadness and joy,

Bitterness and gratitude,

Fear and faith,

Pain and freedom.

And that night

Dancing with my little brother,

I was buffeted with them all.

It was almost

Too much to bear,

But as we do,

I bore it.

And I laughed,

And I cried,

And I danced,

And I cheered their dancing:

Doug and Sarah’s.

My neighbor, who strolls to work

e7c31270d4edaa92_barefoot-walking.xxxlarge_1There he is,

Across the street,

Emerging silently from his house

(Confederate gray with

Neat navy and burgundy trim,

And flowers–

Pink and white and alive–

Spilling from the window boxes).

Every morning he comes out as the

Sky is pinkening,

The eastern exposure of the

Neighborhood houses

Glowing softly,

The various greens of the grass and leaves

Hazy and still.

It’s 6:25 a.m.

In the summer,

I am on the front porch at this time,

Doing my writing

When he steps onto the sidewalk,

Slinging his backpack over his left

Shoulder like a

Teenager,

In a t-shirt even on the cool mornings.

He steps out of the house

Where I’ve seen him

Watering his flowers with a

Girlfriend, or maybe now a

Wife.

“There he is,”

I whisper to Joe

Who’s come out to

Kiss me good morning.

“Look how he walks.”

And we watch him.

His walk is gentle,

Gentle.

Watching him is like

Listening to a delicious voice speaking.

He strolls silently and slowly,

Looking around the

Treetops of his neighborhood

Like a visitor,

Taking it all in.

His left hand

Loosely clutching his backpack strap,

His right arm swinging mildly.

“I love watching him walk,”

I whisper to Joe.

“He walks so slowly.

And I think he’s on his way to work,

Probably to the bus stop.”

Who, I always think

When I see him,

Strolls

To

Work,

Looking around his neighborhood

As if he’s

Never seen it before?

Walking for me is

Charging.

“I recognized you by

Your walk,”

Joe said to me recently.

“How do I walk?”

I’d wondered.

“It’s…

Purposeful,” Joe had said.

“That’s how I walk,”

Joe points out on the porch this morning,

A little piqued,

Because I’m always telling him to

Hurry up,

Or I walk ahead of him,

And then wait impatiently for him to

Catch up.

Walking is all about

Getting somewhere,

Doing something,

Especially on the

Way to work.

Supposedly,

There is such a thing as

Walking meditation,

Where,

Ever so mindfully,

One places one’s bare foot

On the grass,

Relishing the

Textures and

Temperature and

Aliveness,

Observing how one’s

Arms and

Shoulders and

Torso and

Hips respond to the

Movement.

I’ve tried it

Once or twice.

It’s lovely and

Difficult.

These days,

I experience strolling

Vicariously,

Through my neighbor.

I take a long breath and

Watch him walk and

Think how lovely it must be to

Just stroll.

 

 

How’d that happen? My 20-year high school reunion

10527756_10152590765660960_2524194636405812403_nI recently went to my

Twenty-year high school reunion.

The jitteriness of the old

Teenage insecurities mostly

Dissipated as soon as I walked in the door

And was overcome with a

Flurry of hugs and squeals.

Some of these people I’d known since

I was five years old.

And now, incredibly,

We were standing around with

Drinks in our hands

Talking about our own five-year-olds.

Culturally, it’s easy to

Delineate a generation by its

Trappings:

Gadgets,

Clothing styles,

Current events at

Formative times.

But that night,

There was no talk of

Gas prices in 1994, or the

Clinton presidency,

Or that new “email” thing.

That night, the talk was about

Friends who couldn’t make it,

Our young children,

Astonishment that our

Parents were aging,

Some of them even

Dying.

In high school,

We had no idea that we

Wouldn’t always be

Supple and

Healthy,

With the world laid at our feet.

Twenty years on,

We were starting to understand

The truth

That’s made it easier to relate to

People in other stages of life:

We were once like you,

And we will one day be like you.

Leaving my child by boat, like my ancestors did

P1040960I had never left

My first boy

In such an ancient way:

By boat.

Shiny, modern airports

Have always been the scenes of

Our parting.

Tears in the security line,

And then the suddenness

Of a plane trip

Away from my boy.

And a mere few hours later

I’m eight time zones,

One ocean,

And half a continent away from my son.

This time was different.

This time, at the end of our

Big family trip through Europe

The five of us

Said good-bye to Victor for

His summer in Finland with his dad,

And we got on a boat

In a harbor in Helsinki,

And set off into the

Baltic Sea for Germany,

Where we would fly home.

Once on the ferry,

After the craziness of getting

The rest of the kids out of the

Car hold and

Our stuff deposited in our

Cabin for the 30-hour trip,

Joe took the kids

And I had a few minutes alone.

I sat on the bed and

Watched out the window as

The boat chugged along the

Pine-forested coast of Finland and

Out into the Baltic Sea.

The steady rate at which the boat moved

Me away from my boy

Felt humane and natural

Compared to the

Otherworldly shock

Of the airplane lift-off.

With every few meters and

Knots the ship moved,

I acclimated to my boy’s

Physical absence.

It was a slower,

Gentler parting.

And I realized,

As I sat cross-legged on the bunk

Watching the sea swirl and foam,

One that I’m not the

First in my family to have made.

At the turn of the century,

My Finnish great-great-grandparents

Left for America

By boat,

Leaving behind their

Teenaged daughter–

My great-grandmother Selma–

And her younger brother Toivo.

A year later, in 1906,

The siblings would make the

Trip together:

A 16-year-old and a 12-year-old,

Traveling for weeks across the

Atlantic to

Meet their parents in

Their new homeland in 1906.

So as I sailed away from Finland,

Leaving my son behind for the summer,

I thought of my great-great-grandparents

Doing essentially the same thing

110 years earlier.

My situation,

Of periodic, international separation

From my little boy,

Feels abnormal from my

Low-boil heartbreak perspective.

But I know it’s actually not.

Parents and children

Are separated in our world

All the time,

And they always have been.

Whether through

Wartime chaos,

Arbitrary national boundaries,

Military service,

Difficult circumstances and decisions,

Sickness and death,

Addiction,

Incarceration,

Parents parent from a

Distance as best they can–

Or are unable to parent at all.

I think about the

Parents I know who

Don’t experience separation from

Their minor children

Sometimes with envy,

Until I remember that

Those of us who do

Endure it

Are only experiencing a

Premature and

Exaggerated

Version of what every parent

Eventually has to do,

Which is

Let

Go

And turn our children over to

The world and

The universe with

Trembling hands.

Whether they’re eight or

Eighteen or

Twenty-eight,

It has to be done.

What was that like for my

Great-great-grandparents,

I wondered as I watched the

Sea pass beneath our ship.

Did parents experience the

Maternal and paternal instinct in the

Same way back then

And back there,

When infant mortality was

30 times higher

Than it is today

And many families lived in

Third-world conditions?

I imagine they

Loved and grieved their children

With the same ferocity

As we in first-world modernity,

But perhaps there was a

Certain resignation

We don’t have today

To the fact of

Tragedy and pain,

Such as through separation from

A child.

It’s always been a comfort to me

To know that,

Though it feels like it sometimes,

I’m not the only one

Enduring the absence of my child

In this world.

The idea for

The novel I just finished the first draft of,

Firebird,

Comes from the stories of

Undocumented worker parents in our country

Deported,

Leaving their children behind,

Sometimes separated from them

Forever.

Those stories hurt my heart

So I wrote about them to

Soothe myself.

I’m fortunate.

I know I can get out my credit card

And my passport

At any time

And be with my boy within

24 hours, if I really needed to.

Not every parent in my

Situation has that luxury.

And certainly my

Great-great-grandparents didn’t.

In a few weeks, it will be time to

Go to the airport and

Wait outside the frosted glass

Sliding doors of

International arrivals,

Craning my neck to watch for him

Every time the doors open.

Maybe this time I’ll

Think about my great-great-grandparents

Waiting at the train station in

Waukegan, Illinois for their

Children whom they hadn’t seen in

More than a year.

How much taller would they be?

Was everything okay on the trip?

And most importantly,

Which train car would they step off?

There my boy will be,

Bigger and wearing new clothes,

Pulling his suitcase and

Pushing his glasses up on his face.

When he sees me

His mouth will twist up into the

Sly, embarrassed smile he gets with a

Rush of strong feeling.

I’ll squeeze his bones like a

Bundle of long sticks

And lift him off the ground,

Which I can just barely still do.

On the car ride home,

I’ll tell him about his

Great-great-grandmother’s journey from

Finland to America.

He’ll probably have questions about the

Boat and the

Train.

Logistics are important to him.

And he’ll know

That he’s not alone

In this family by

Splitting his life between two countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midlife crisis? But I’m not… oh fuck

dbe02bc194a8af59659c70c4466378e2412209fa6e94806369f84b5212b12813I did the math

The other day.

I was assuring myself of

The vast stretches of time

I have left to

Accomplish all the things I’ve

Set out for myself,

And I was thinking,

Why,

I’m not even

Middle-aged yet.

I have plenty of time.

But then I thought,

Wait a minute.

If an “age” is,

Say,

Ten years,

And the actuarial tables say I’ll live to 86.

The range of me being

Middle-aged is about

38 to 48.

And I’m 38.

Also,

I used a cat meme

As the photo for this blog post.

Oh my God.

I’m

Middle

Aged.

I was talking to

My friend the other day

About how I was

Regretting old,

Highly impactful decisions,

Panicking that I might not

Accomplish everything I mean to,

Feeling envious of friends

Who seemingly have

More more more

Than me.

“Sounds like you’re

Having a midlife crisis,”

She observed.

Huh.

It’s true.

I have been ruminating on

Decisions I made at

18,

21,

25,

27

Which at the time

Looked like little adjustments but

Which sent me off in the most

Head-scratching trajectories.

I can see it now:

The decisions I made that were most

Impactful of my life

Were made

Completely impulsively.

On a whim.

Just because.

Or even out of spite.

My trajectory has been a

Bizarro one,

Leaving in its wake

A couple of unpublished novels,

An international co-parenting arrangement,

Membership in a recovery program

And a resume that takes longer to

Explain than to read.

I heard someone recently read

Robert Frost’s

“The Road Less Travelled”

And I was swooning until

I realized mine is the

Road Never Travelled.

I bushwacked my way into such a

Heart of darkness

Of life experience that I could

Barely find my way out

(Once I’d sobered up enough to

Get myself turned back around.)

And I know I sound insufferable.

The saddest part about a

Midlife crisis is

You just sound so whiny and

Narcissistic.

But the most painful part

Has been this new

Envy.

Watching other people

Blast off in a

Straight line toward

More money,

Bigger houses,

Better careers–

Or at least it looks that way in

Facebook-land.

The envy is

Literally

Physically

Painful.

It hurts

In my chest and my gut.

And it puts up walls between

Me and people I care about.

It has helped,

Though,

To just acknowledge what’s

Going on.

Oh.

I’m having a midlife crisis

Because I’m middle-aged.

I keep thinking of the

Motto for G.I. Joe

(Which my brother and I used to play

Three decades ago (!)):

“Knowing is

Half the battle.”

Just a little reductive,

But it’s true.

Knowing is truth.

I’m in this

Perfect storm of

Wisdom and experience

Shelf-clouding against my old naivity

With lightning strikes of

Overwrought survival instinct.

Ergo,

I’m having a mid-life crisis.

I don’t know much

(That’s part of the whole

Wisdom piece)

But I do know that what I’m

Freaking out about–

Stuff and money–

They’re

Not

The

Answer.

I’m pretty sure I know why

I was put on this earth:

To create kids and books and friends,

And sidle up a little closer to the

Force that made me.

These days,

My decision-making is much easier:

Will it help my kids and friends

And help me write books and

Get me closer to my higher power?

If not,

Then no thanks.

Simple.