The House Fire Chronicles: Homecoming

images[3]Just over a year ago, I went for a walk out in the bright autumn sunshine to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Though the fall colors were still vivid, the trees’ angles were all wrong.  Trees should be vertical, yet most tilted; many lay horizontal—a fall against the road having crushed someone’s  wrought iron fence.  The horror of it was breathtaking: all these magnificent sycamores and sugar maples and oaks, felled overnight to be sliced up and carted away in chunks.

Today, as I drive my son to school, what I notice most about the trees that still stand are the colors themselves.  What is breathtaking is the way they’ve burst into fiery reds and oranges, gold against the sparkling sunlight.  Life, they tell us—the seasonal cycle of our corner of the planet—continues.  And just because it is the anniversary of that natural disaster, when lives were lost as well as trees, doesn’t mean the survivors won’t put on their annual splendor.

A year ago, I had just learned that my house had been mostly consumed by a fire.  I was trying to keep my children calm and recreate some new normal for them, while my husband dealt with the insurance company and the fire department, and we both searched for a place to live.

We were not alone.  Countless others in the region had their homes destroyed by winds and floods, as well as some fires.  Schools were closed for days.  Most everyone had lost power.  Even those whose homes were unscathed had to regroup as the rest of us figured out how to rebuild our lives.

We have been among the lucky ones.  Our insurance was sound.  Fire, I’m told, is insured more easily and completely than flood or wind damage.  There were three categories of coverage: non-use, which meant our rent was covered, when we found a temporary home—contents, which referred to everything that was lost that we’d need to replace—and lastly, construction, which meant the costs of fire/smoke remediation (which was extensive) as well as rebuilding and renovating.

The good news is that one year, less one day following our fire, we moved back home.  My children slept in their old-new rooms in their new beds.  Our home was beautiful to me before, though nothing had been changed or renovated since it was built in 1958, but now, renewed and polished, redecorated, with the gracious aid of our friend Gina (and do check out her site, By Design Interiors) it kind of blows me away.

Here is the dining room before:

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And here it is today:

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The leaves are falling outside, but for us, it is the season of renewal.

On the eve of our homecoming, while I was shuttling our belongings from the rental to our “real” house, I had a moment of identity confusion, similar to what happened when I first saw the effects of the fire: where am I?  where do I belong?  Oh, yes, here.  Home.  For real.

There are so many still displaced by the hurricane.  Still homeless, still being shuffled from shelter to hotel and back again.  I listen to their stories on NPR while chauffeuring my kids around.  I know all those other mothers want for their kids what I wanted—what I have—for mine.  Normalcy.  Space to breathe and play, somewhere to put the donated items they’ve received during the course of the year.  This year we’ve been recipients of generosity but we’ve also done what we could to give back, making donations to the Red Cross and other organizations that help hurricane survivors, including those in Haiti (even harder hit than we were).  But we can’t give these families what they need most: Permanence.  I now have an inkling of what it’s like to crave that.

Sometimes I think, what did I do to deserve to survive this so easily?  Of course the answer is nothing.  We have amazing friends; there aren’t enough words to express our gratitude.  We have good insurance.  As I said, we are lucky.   And lately I fall asleep at night with this phrase on my lips: Thank you.

The House Fire Chronicles: The Things I Wore

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

I don’t write about clothes.  I’m not a fashionista; I don’t think I’m qualified to give anyone wardrobe tips.  But I’ve had to think about clothing—my clothing—a whole lot in the little-less-than-a-year since our fire.

What a strange almost year it’s been.  Living in a house that isn’t mine, several blocks away from the house that is mine.  So close to home but not home at all.  Everyone asks about the house (it’s coming along nicely; we’ll move back very soon) and about the kids (doing great considering.) Everyone asks how our insurance has been (pretty good—not perfect) and of course how we all are.  We’re doing really well, given the whirlwind it’s been.  I haven’t written about the fire for months and months, mostly because after the first few posts, I couldn’t.  I was sick of hearing myself talk about it.  I just needed to live and take care of my family and make the best of the situation we were in.  We’ve been so lucky, to have insurance that really took care of us, for friends that helped in too many ways to count.  For the supportive schools my kids are in, both of which cushioned the blow.  We are beyond grateful for this community.  We are more than fine.  My family is whole and mostly healed and poised to move back into our new-old house.

I wrote early on about the mementos and pictures and trinkets we managed to save.  Enough of us for us to feel like ourselves.  As for the little things we no longer have, we think of wistfully of them from time to time and move on.  Things occur to us, like the wall where we’d marked off our children’s increasing heights over the years.  We’ll never get that back.  But for everything we lost, it seems like there are many more important things we recovered.  Pieces of our identity.

But for me, there’s something I realize I’m still mourning just a bit.  My clothes.  My boots and dresses and silly sweaters and jeans that might have been sort of out of date but who cared?  The things I put on every day that went into making me me.

There were the a-line skirts I’d bought in the 1990s at the Limited, which had held up for some reason.  There was the blazer I’d bought before my daughter was born, at a stoop sale in Brooklyn Heights, tweed, hip-length, by some German designer, which was just about the most flattering thing I’d ever owned.  It went with anything, could turn my casual-mom outfits into work-ready ensembles in the blink of an eye.  Utilitarian sweaters in abundance, one for every mood, every configuration of my body image, every kind of weather.  And dresses, little black ones, flowing, floral ones, more dresses than I needed, but a memory was tied to each.

Right after the fire, the insurance company gave us a lump sum that we were to use right away, a short term advance to replace what we needed immediately.  The fire took place right after Hurricane Sandy, on November 2nd.  Winter was coming, so what we needed were warm clothes.  For my kids, this meant replacing hoodies, easily done since the cut of zip-up sweatshirts doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year.  But I needed sweaters, and found nothing anywhere to replace a single one I’d lost.  (When I shop, first stop for me is always Target, then Kohl’s, before I’ll even consider moving up to Bloomingdales.)  All the sweaters I found were drape-y and thin: no buttons, not even a zipper to close and keep in the body heat.  Otherwise they were skimpy and low-cut with funny, asymmetrical ties.

Here’s the truth: I’d expected to show up at a store and find ALL MY OLD CLOTHES, waiting for me cheerfully from their racks, as if to say: Surprise!  Here we are!  We weren’t in the fire after all!  And there would be a big reunion.  Me and those amazing, quintessentially-Lisa wardrobe finds dating back to 1989.

Of course it wasn’t like that.  Nothing on the racks felt very much like me.  I spent the winter, and then the spring, in a few basics from the Gap and some hand-me-downs from a friend who is close to my size but way more fashionable.  It will take time to rebuild my closet, adapting what I have of a fashion sense to what there is out there now.  Slowly but surely I’m doing it.

I know I am very fortunate; our insurance company was good in terms of content loss.  This isn’t about money; it’s about missing old, faithful duds, my reluctance to replace them with strangers.  Almost a year later, I still remember how each piece felt, how it looked, what it went with.   Some of them I still see in the photographs we salvaged—not always flattering, but a record nonetheless of what I once wore.

White Parents and Black Stereotypes

DadBabySilhouette[1]In this past Sunday’s New York Times, is an incredibly honest article entitled Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents, by Frank Ligtvoet, a white father about the budding racial identities of his two African American children: a daughter, aged seven and a son, aged eight.

Ligtvoet describes how the children—who have gone through various feelings about their identities, from “I’m not black,” to “I hate white people”—are beginning to emulate African Americans they see in their community, in various ways, from gait to style of dress.  The children, Ligtvoet explains have come to a place of accepting that they do not look like their parents (both white dads) and that they do look like others who are not part of their family at all.  Lately, both kids are trying to make sense of all that.

Ligtvoet describes a walk he takes with his children to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn.  The children are wearing new clothes that they have chosen, in their father’s mind, to “assert their blackness”: purple canvas boots, tight jeans and a black t-shirt for the girl, low slung black and yellow basketball shorts and a cap turned backwards for the boy.  (Remember these kids are seven and eight).  Dad walks several respectful paces behind his children, amused by their independence, proud of their pride, and I imagine, at least a little proud of his own comfort with their experimentation.

The Fulton Mall, when I lived in Brooklyn, was shopping center frequented mostly by middle and lower income blacks and Latinos.  Though it was barely a hop, skip and jump from pricy, predominantly-white Brooklyn Heights, you were clearly in a different world here.  There were no posh bars or restaurants.  The smell of deep-fried fast food hung heavily in the air during all seasons.   The streets weren’t so clean either; garbage cans stayed full to overflowing and construction sites didn’t see much progress for months on end.  About once a week, I would take the long walk from our home in the Columbia Street Waterfront District over there, pushing my daughter in her stroller, aiming to check out the deals at the Macy’s of Downtown Brooklyn.

From the article, it sounds as if the Fulton Mall may have gentrified, like other parts of Brooklyn, but is still largely African American.  I can only imagine the reaction of two gaudily clad little ones being trailed by a white man.  (If he were walking by their sides, holding their hands, I don’t think they would get so many looks.  Brooklyn is fairly progressive.)

My first reaction to this article was: good for this dad, he is letting the children discover who they are, letting them explore and experiment with their identities.  I still think that, though after sitting with the article for a bit, I found myself hoping that Ligtvoet and his partner aren’t embracing stereotypes and confusing them with black culture.  For example I don’t think shorts pulled down to the hips are “pretty cool” on an eight-year-old.  Ditto tight pants on a seven-year-old girl—particularly if she is walking far ahead of a parent, appearing to be alone.

But I am not one to judge.  As a parent, you choose your battles and your priorities.  Every parent in a multicultural family has to strike his or her own balance, particularly when it comes to the culture that is not his or her own.

The comments following the article were also fascinating, some of them laudatory, but many others harsh and chastising.  Two examples:

 “…these children are emulating gangsters, not “black” people.  Hats need to be worn outside only by men and boys and brim should face forward, any other way is a gang symbol in the black community, same with the yellow(gold?) and black shorts.  Wake up before you get these kids killed.”

“As an African American who grew up in the ghetto …my mother would have never allowed us to wear pants partially sagged and tight jeans … Be the parents of your children regardless of skin color.”

These readers do have a point.  I cannot imagine any of the affluent, black parents I know allowing their children to wear the kind of clothes mentioned in the article, especially at such a young age.  These parents are all too aware of the stereotypes of blacks in the media as lazy, dumb, violent—even if that very image is celebrated by many white teens (and some adults) as “cool.”   Black parents do what they can, as soon as they can, to keep their children from emulating this image, pervasive as it is.  They know it is not just a “cool” costume their kids can remove when it’s time to apply to colleges and interview for jobs.

Nevertheless, I understand where Ligtvoet is coming from.   As parents, we’re supposed to smile when our kids let go of our hands and stand alone for the first time.  This is true whether our kids come to us genetically or through adoption, whether they resemble us or not.  What I think this dad is proud of is the fact that his children are safe enough with him and trust him enough to experiment.  They know, regardless of how far behind he walks, that he is truly in their corner and that his love is unconditional.

Multiracial? Or Multicultural?

imagesCASDTSYLA few months back, I wrote a post called A Daughter by Any Color, about the experience of parenting a child who looks like me, after being raised by a mother who doesn’t.   Today, I wrote another post for the Montclair Patch, our local online paper, that addresses this issue from a somewhat different perspective.  You can read it here.

So far I have one comment from a reader who objected to my use of the word “Multiracial,” suggesting (very respectfully), that I use “Multicultural” instead.   As it got me thinking a lot, I responded (equally respectfully, I hope).  I would love to hear what followers of this blog think of the discussion.  Comment here on this blog to weigh in.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Lisa

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Guest Blog: Louella Dizon San Juan: What I Learned When You do it Yourself

As promised, today I am thrilled to announce a guest post by my friend and fellow blogger, Louella Dizon San Juan.  Louella is an author/illustrator and playwright. Her staged and published dramatic work, as Louella Dizon, includes The Color Yellow: Memoirs of an Asian American at La Mama Etc., The Sweet Sound of Inner Light at The Public, and Till Voices Wake Us at the Soho Repertory Theater and, more recently, the Echo Theater in Dallas, TX. Louella’s work is featured in the collection, Contemporary Plays by Women of Color, edited by Kathy Perkins and Roberta Uno, and is archived at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the Roberta Uno Asian American Women Playwrights Scripts Collection, 1924-2002. The Crowded Kingdom is her first children’s novel and the first book in the children’s fantasy series of the same name featuring the girl heroines, Jada and Jinny.

As a working mother and businesswoman, Louella is an active advocate of empowering girls and women in math and science, and holds both a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Princeton University and a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from New York University. She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, New York.

What I learned when you do it yourself:

Part I — The Self-Publishing Leap

Dear Louella,

Thank you for sharing The Crowded Kingdom with us.

It was not the sharing of the stories, nor the drawings, nor even the insights into my life, that was most difficult.

It was finding someone or some thing, some entity, to take a chance on me — more specifically, The Crowded Kingdom.  I kept a spreadsheet of literar210px-And_to_Think_That_I_Saw_It_on_Mulberry_Streety agent and publisher names:  address, status, contact information, and preferences.  I kept in mind that Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) was rejected 27 times; Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time rejected 26 times, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rejected by a dozen houses until the young daughter of the CEO at Bloomsbury persuaded him to accept the wizardly manuscript.  I kept typing “Query…” and pressing “Send.”

The responses started coming back.

Several came with requests to see more.  As time went on, the dialogue with the outside world began.

Dear Louella,

Thank you for sharing The Crowded Kingdom with us.

We found the story interesting.  I think it will make a fabulous 
illustrated chapter book. As much as I would love to work with you, 
and while I believe that your ideas might have market appeal, 
unfortunately...
I don't feel I'm quite the right agent.
I'm regretfully going to pass.
The novel is not in line with our current publishing goals.
We just don't have the resources right now to do it 
justice.

Best of luck with this project and all your endeavors.  
I really hope that you find a great publisher for this!

I began to get nervous around Query Number 26.  The dialogue had not changed.

But I had written and published before, and had seen the impact of my written word on stage.  I took to heart the feedback that this little fairy story was something different, something that grownups and kids could both like.  It seemed to delight my peers in writing workshops, and my teacher, who was a respected and beautifully accomplished writer.  And it delighted my children, my girls, my first and true audience.  Could it not delight other little girls and boys too?

And then my dear spouse gifted me with an iPad Mini for Christmas.

fred_wilma_flintstones_arguingMany a time my electronic gifts from my husband are the modern age equivalent of Fred Flintstone giving Wilma a bowling ball for her birthday:  something truly cool and useful for one human being — “something that I would use myself” — bestowed on another who is, at best, mystified.

But the iPad Mini opened my eyes to the beauty of the electronic book when I downloaded and read Gone Girl from cover to cover.  Of course, Gillian Flynn‘s acclaimed suspense writing stood on its own, independent of the media.  But I loved how the pages languorously turned at the flick of a finger; how I could bookmark pages with an electronic sticky or electronically jump back to a previous page as I easily as I could a real book.  It felt like reading a book when you looked past the flat plane of the screen.

I downloaded a sample of Alice in Wonderland for the iPad and loved it.  It promptealicescreen480x480d visions in my mind of being able to hyperlink and browse other fanciful things if this were that kind of children’s story.

So…

…as you know, I made the decision to self-publish The Crowded Kingdom as an e-book.  I felt that the chance to publish what I wanted, when I wanted, given the outlets now available today through Lulu, Smashwords, Amazon Createspace, Lightning Source and Vook  — among many other options — were too prominent a growth channel to ignore.  On the one hand, I couldn’t quit my job as primary breadwinner and devote one hundred percent to the production and marketing of my craft.  On the other hand, perhaps naively, I thought I had the focus and financial independence to leverage third-parties that could do it for me.

And I assumed that somehow, deep down inside, I had no expectations.

The reality was quite different.

Make sure to Follow Louella’s blog to read Part 2  – Making Contact.  And click here to buy The Crowded Kingdom.   Now out in paperback as well as e-book.

Connect with Louella Dizon San Juan

The Alchemist of Time

images[3]Forgive me O blogging muse, for it has been over two months since my last post.  In the meantime, much has happened.

Our house, which suffered a terrible post-Hurricane Sandy fire is nearing the point where we will be able to move back into it.   My children had an incredibly eventful summer, mostly in the form of day camps to which I sent them so I could finish my revision.  And speaking of the revision, I don’t remember whether I mentioned it here or not.  In any case, I was offered—not representation—but a “Revise and Resubmit” by an agent with incredible vision regarding my book.  She gave me a ten page document on what I needed to change, so I spent the summer changing it.  Exciting, yes, and downright scary, to essentially lop off the second half of your book and write it all anew.  But it’s done-ish, not yet submitted, but in the hands of “beta readers” who have been reporting back bit by bit.

So that’s me.  How are you??  Because, the thing is, I haven’t just not been blogging, I’ve also not been reading many blogs, and not commenting at all.  It was hard to let go; I missed my fellow bloggers and was curious about what they were up to.  But I know myself; once I start reading and commenting, it leads to more reading and more commenting and I often lack the discipline to stop and get back to work!  It had to be all or nothing.  So I gave myself permission, not just to step back, but to step out of the blogosphere altogether for a summer.  As Jodi Aman noted in her guest blog several months ago, we all need to prioritize without second guessing ourselves.

And just yesterday, the inspiring Dahlia Adler did a post on time, specifically making time to write when it looks to the naked eye as if there is none.  Working, writing mothers are known create time out of the ether.  How do they do it?  All too often my way of making time is to rely on the wee hours when everyone else is asleep.  But when you’re parenting, working and trying to be a decent human being, when your life requires you to drive, or otherwise operate machinery, not sleeping can really backfire.  So you find other things that can give for a while.

I have a friend whom I’ve known since college, who has always seemed to me an alchemist of time.   At school, what she accomplished in a day, took others a month.  She aced her courses, wrote plays, acted in them, participated in many student-run organizations, managed a relationship here and there, and taught herself to play the guitar.  Really well, as a matter of fact.   How did she do it?   With a lot of creativity.  Which is how she did everything.

Fast forward twenty-some-odd years: my friend is a successful corporate executive, managing a large staff.  She is also the mother of two little girls.   Spare time, needless to say, does not exist.  Nevertheless, out of the ether, my friend has managed to publish a novel this year.  Her first, but certainly not her last.  I don’t know how she did it.  But I do know that her creative side could not be silenced.  Her imagination was too entwined with her identity to be forgotten.  She had to do this.

(Spoiler alert: this very friend same friend, Louella Dizon San Juan, will be writing a guest blog later in the week!)

There are always things in your life that you can skip, at least temporarily, for the things that matter most.   You might feel guilty at first, for not volunteering to be class parent this year, for dropping book group for a month or two.  But in your heart, you know what you can’t sacrifice.  Your family, for example.  And the pieces of your identity that you hold most dear.   If you are a writer, professional or aspiring, one of those pieces is writing.  You have to do it.  You just have to.

A View of the Ball

In keeping with the theme of Childhood in America, here’s a piece about a boy struggling with vision loss in Depression-era Chicago. (A slightly fictionalized account of how my father got his first pair of glasses).

Drawing by George Ford from "Walk On" by Mel Williamson (my father)By the time Melvin was five the world had begun to fade.   It happened bit by bit in subtle ways. Lines of things once solid grew feathers; faces once withered and angled grew soft and smooth.  A golden lump in the middle of the rug stirred from a nap and became his dog.   Melvin had no language to describe to his mother and sister what was happening to him, no inkling it didn’t happen to everyone.  In 1928, routine vision checks were not performed in the public schools, not in Melvin’s public school.

Then came a day in 1931, when he was eight.  It was a beautiful day which for Melvin meant warm and light, the same day other people saw only through a scrim, a thin film of cotton.   Had it not been Sunday, it would have been a perfect day to meet the boys for a game—Melvin could run fast, even if he couldn’t see or hit the ball.  But there was no playing for Melvin on Sundays.  After church they all came home to feed the poor.   While his mother fried and baked and boiled and sautéed, Melvin and his sister would lay the banquet out on the front porch for the neighborhood children and families who had nothing—no money, no food, no father like Melvin’s father who worked six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday) as a porter on the Georgia Pacific, putting food on the table Depression or no Depression.    The poor neighbors would gather hungrily, collective gaze cast down in shame and gratitude.  Melvin was glad then, for whatever kept the world’s sharpness from his view.   He never wanted to meet the eyes of classmates who turned up.

Downstairs he heard his mother and sister chatting as they dressed, choosing hats.  His sister’s would be modest and yellow to match her dress, maybe a bit of lace and a small satin flower.  His mother’s on the other hand would be white with pink and lavender rosettes—brim half a mile wide so as not to be outdone by the other church ladies.  On the stairs now, Melvin heard the curtains swish aside, the window hinges creak, his mother inhaling deeply of the spring air.   Her assessment of the weather:

“Yes Lord; here’s a day made for praising Jesus!”

followed by his sister’s amen, which Melvin echoed entering the room.   Though he’d secretly espoused his own brand of atheism a few years earlier—(how to believe in a God who sets rich against poor, white against black, Gentile against Jew?  A God who cast a ball-playing boy’s world in fog?)—he wasn’t above feigning devotion to make his mother happy.  Her smile—especially up close, when she held his face and told him how good he was, how smart, how handsome—was one of the few things Melvin was sure his eyes still had right.

Melvin’s mother was in high spirits after church, feeling magnanimous enough to let Melvin go play ball instead of helping with the porch spread.   Down the church steps he raced, around the corner, past the library across from the empty lot.   He lunged into the street without checking for cars—there were so few in the neighborhood that looking both ways before crossing wasn’t a habit for most children.  In any case, had Melvin taken the trouble to check, what would he have seen?  In all likelihood he’d still have been hit by the 1928 Ford as it lumbered up South Parkway.   His mother would say it was a miracle he wasn’t killed, that his injuries weren’t even serious.   And no one could argue with her that He does work in mysterious ways.  In the hospital, Melvin was put through a series of tests to which he’d never have been subjected otherwise.   Including an eye exam.  A week after the accident, he was up and running as fast as ever before, only now he could hit the ball, thanks to his new eye-glasses that lifted the scrim revealing a world more detailed than Melvin could have imagined.