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.

 

 

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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.

Putting a cramp in our $20K vacation before we’ve even left

car-tripWe’ve been planning it for

Almost two years:

Our big family trip to Europe.

All six of us tooling around the

Continent and Scandinavia in a

Rented R.V. for three weeks

À la “Vacation” and “European Vacation.”

Particularly, for me, Chevy Chase’s epic rant:

“I’m gonna have fun and

You’re gonna have fun.

We’re all gonna have

So much fucking fun

We’re gonna need plastic surgery to

Remove our goddamn smiles!”

We’ve spent nearly two years and

More money than our wedding

On this thing.

It had better be

Fucking

Transformative.

The good news is,

I know me well enough to

Guard against my

Fun-fatal desire to control

Your

Good

Time.

And controlling everything

Isn’t even my biggest problem.

(Although it is one problem.)

I’m prepared for the possibility–

Nay, the likelihood–

That some part of the trip

Will be co-opted by a

Half-day visit to a

Polish or German or Swedish

Urgent Care

For an ear infection or a

Broken arm.

I get how my silly little plans can be

Flung and quashed like

So many cars in a

Godzilla-esque movie called

“Your Jet-Lagged Toddler.”

What I’m actually more

Worried about is that the

Trip will be

Amazing,

That it actually will be so transformative for our

Blended family that’s still

Melding and setting like a

Rainbow Jell-O mold,

That I won’t want to come home.

That I’ll want the experience to go

On and

On and

On and

On…

See, I’m the kind of person who,

Like all persons,

Not only avoids

Unpleasant experiences,

But clings to pleasant ones.

“Clinging” in the Buddhists sense:

The desire to make things stay the same

When in fact,

They’re always

Always

Changing.

This, supposedly,

Is why the so-called good things

In life cause suffering, too.

Kind of a buzz kill

If what you’re going for is a

Perpetual state of

Giddy, feverish

Happiness with a

Capital H.

Which is what I’m going for.

It’s that clinging tendency

That makes me want to

Marshal the six of us to a

Flawless experience of

Family togetherness

In a lovely field at the

Base of a German castle with a

Rainbow cresting overhead and a

Warm breeze tousling our hair and

I want to

Cryogenically freeze us there so

We’ll be deliriously happy in that

Moment of

Family togetherness

Forever and ever,

Amen.

So I guess the lesson here is,

Yes,

It’s about “being in the moment”

(Hate that phrase)

But it’s also about

Letting that moment pass into

The next moment.

And it’ll be about finding some

Goddamn little thing to be

Grateful for as I

Drag our overloaded suitcases and

Jet-lagged toddler back into our

Trusty, boring ol’ St. Paul house

At the end of our trip

And contemplate

Going back to work

Three days later.

Mindfulness and gratitude at that moment?

We’ll see.

Wish me luck.

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.

Even when it’s about you, it’s about us

CAM00318I’m one of those parents.

For gifts, I give people tchochkes

With pictures of my kids on them.

This year for Christmas

It was one of those mugs you can

Put pictures of your kids on and,

In just a few tips and taps of your keyboard,

Be done with your holiday shopping in like

Ten minutes.

Did I stop to think about whether

The recipients

Needed or

Wanted

Another coffee mug?

No.

I assumed that,

Because these are picture of

The Kids,

You know,

The Kids,

They’d be interested.

The grandparents,

I’m pretty sure,

Actually really like the mugs.

But I felt a little sheepish

Handing over the two

Uniform little boxes to my

Brother and his fiancee,

Who had gotten everyone in our

Family something

Individual they might actually like.

“Even when it’s a gift for you,

It’s about us,”

I joked as they

Very graciously

Admired the mugs after

Prying them out of the unbreakable

Styrofoam packaging.

It’s true.

I don’t have time to think about

Much else besides

Keeping my kids and myself

Alive:

No small feat.

But I do recognize that

It must get tiring for people to

Ask how things are going,

And have me talk

All about

My kids:

Ear infections,

New sports season starting up,

All the school closings this winter.

What’s worse,

When people tell me

About stuff going on in their lives,

I’m really good at

Co-opting their experience

And providing a corollary about my kids:

“You say you’re recovering from a

Car accident that almost killed you

And left you fighting for your very life?

My son’s favorite movie used to be Cars!

He was really scared of that scene

Where the semi-trucks fall asleep on the road…

I bet you get why!

Ha ha!”

Parenting,

I’m starting to realize

(And this is not to news to

Childless people, I’ll bet)

That most selfless of activities,

Actually makes people

MORE

Self-centered, not less.

How can this be,

You bluster,

Imagining scenarios in which you’d

Give

Up

Your

Very

Life

For your child?

Here’s how I see things:

I pretty much think of my kids as

Part of me.

Maybe it’s because they came out of my body.

This is mostly a good thing.

It’s what makes me sure I’d

Jump into oncoming traffic to snatch my child

Out of danger.

Or scrape poop off my 1yo’s butt with the

Edge of his wet diaper

(Because I can’t find the wipes)

Then go finish eating my dinner

Without gagging once.

Same with boogers.

Your kid’s boogers?

Disgusting.

My kid’s boogers?

Whatev. I’ll blow my nose in that tissue later

‘Cause they’re practically

My

Boogers.

See how this works?

So if my kids are

Part of me,

My self-centeredness

Has now expanded to

Include my kids.

Now instead of one

Self-centered person,

You get a three-fer.

I’m not really sure what the

Point of thinking myself into this

Paradox has been

Except to acknowledge the grumblings of the

Childless population who

Complain about how

Oblivious parents can be to

Anyone around them except their

Little precious.

I’m not wishing this parenting time away

Because I know these years and days and minutes are

So dear,

But it will be nice,

Once the daily tornado of child-rearing is over,

To come up from the cellar

And have a nice chat with my neighbors

About anything

BUT

My kids.