Category Archives: Cultural Context

Integrating my Author and Therapist Selves

#Debut2022 #WritingCommunity

My father took my aspirations of being a novelist seriously from the start. His advice? “Get your first four chapters in, get your advance, and get to work.” Which was the way of the publishing world when he was Chief Art Director of Viking Press back in the 60’s. I don’t remember Dad ever using terms like “query letter,” “agent,” or “submission.” He certainly never mentioned “Platform.”

Today, you need a completed, polished novel and an agent to sell it in order to get an advance—which may or may not cover expenses so you can focus exclusively on revising your book. And you’re also required to have a platform, to put yourself “out there,” to maximize your social media presence. I cannot imagine what Dad—who died in 1995, before the internet dominated all our lives—would make of that last sentence, or why I need this very site.

And here’s the thing which makes expanding my online footprint daunting. I’m a psychotherapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to be precise. Being discreet—not “out there”—is part of my job description. Not just regarding the lives and identities of my clients, but also my own. Not that anyone expects therapists to be total blank slates anymore. We are no longer silent, bearded men upon whom patients superimpose whatever traits their unconsciouses desire. We’re people. Google-able people. Clients read our bios, view our profiles and photographs, learn about who we are from our practice mission statements, accessing anything about us that feels relevant to their therapeutic experiences.

In the 22 years I have been practicing, I’ve found that clients want you to be real with them, open to sharing bits of your story that may increase the connection between you without making it about you. It’s a tough balance, knowing when and how much to self-disclose. Many of my Black woman clients chose me because they wanted a therapist with first-hand knowledge of racism, particularly the racial trauma that comes from being an American woman of African descent. Again, many of my clients are mothers who appreciate knowing that I’ve raised children of my own. When I self-disclose, it’s usually in the form of a brief illustrative anecdote that relates to the client’s story, though I’m always clear that their experience is unique. It also depends on the situation and the individual. Some clients feel safest when they know something about me, others prefer to know nothing of my existence outside the office.

Another factor is that I live in the town where I practice. Over the years, plenty of clients have seen me out walking my dog or herding my children around a grocery store. The notion of being spotted by clients while I was out living my “real” life used to fill me with anxiety.

My finest moment was when my son, then two, completely lawless in the manner of two-year-olds, barreled into a client of mine at a swimming pool. The client was an older male—hence not a mom—and for what it mattered, I had on a bikini. Awkward enough to run into a client while your child is acting out, dashing the fantasy I believed clients had of therapists having their shit completely together. It was another thing entirely to stand in front of a male client wearing what was essentially underwear. Cringes all around.

My supervisor at the time, a lovely older woman who had raised two children while practicing therapy in the town where she lived, said, “You’re human. They all know you have a life.” She encouraged me to raise the encounter with the client when I saw him next, which I did. We both laughed about it. He asked how old my son was and I told him. No mention was made of the bikini. It would take me years for these encounters to stop rattling me, to stop trying to present a shrink-perfect image at all times.

Being a writer means making a conscious choice to present a public version of my private self. This process actually began with a talk I had been invited to give at a synagogue about the meaning of being a Black Jew, a member of two distinct groups—one ethno-racial, the other ethno-religious. An announcement of the talk caught the attention of author, journalist and now my friend, TaRessa Stovall, who is also Black and Jewish. I credit TaRessa with coining the term “Blewish”—an identity of multitudes, including Daveed Diggs, Rain Pryor, Rebecca Walker, and Tracee Ellis Ross. TaRessa interviewed me before the talk, wrote a piece about it for our local paper. While I ultimately published the talk in Interfaith Families Online, it was TaRessa’s article which gained the most attention. Some people got confused and thought I’d written it; others read it and googled me, turning up little besides a scholarly article—the first thing I ever published—in Social Work and Healthcare, about African American Women and their exclusion from the literature on body image disturbance and eating disorders.

But there was such a difference between a social worker writing about clinical issues and a woman sharing her personal story. The former was about research, interviews and observation; the latter was just about me. My visibility surged in a way I wasn’t sure I wanted it to.

Nevertheless, I started blogging a few years later, which was the biggest breakthrough for me. I wrote about my first career as a ballet dancer, my residual relationship with ballet, my subsequently complicated relationship with my body. I wrote about my eating disorder history, my experience as a Black biracial child growing up under the umbrella of my mother’s white privilege, how it vanished when I was with my Black father. I wrote about my parents’ marriage, my father’s death and, much later, my mother’s. I wrote from my heart, uncensored, sharing my raw, unfettered emotional core. I wrote about my grandmother’s rejection of me, my evolving Black identity, my evolving Jewish identity, motherhood, Obama, dogs, Betty Grable—you name it, I wrote about it. And … it was out there on the internet for anyone to see. Including my clients, most of whom frankly don’t read it. That’s not what they need from me. Either way, it’s okay. As my supervisor said, my clients know I have a life.

Soon online journals were publishing my essays. If you read those, especially the ones in Longreads and The Common, you know exactly who I am. Again, it has to be okay. At one point I considered a pen name to separate the writing me from the therapist me. That didn’t feel right.

By now, I’m experienced enough, confident enough as a therapist to handle the duality. As a writer you don’t want to hold back. You need to be real, not stiff or sanitized. You need to dig deep and notice what you feel. Which is why writing has made me a better therapist and vice versa.

Which brings me to now. I have a novel—a work of fiction—not a work about therapy or my own life—coming out in about a year.

Without using any “material” from clients, Embers on the Wind touches upon subjects I discuss with them daily—motherhood, family, race, gender, and identity. What does it mean to love and loathe a sister at the same time? What does it mean to be underestimated, undervalued, and yet resented for one’s perceived good fortune? What does it mean to struggle when others appear to have everything handed to them? What does it mean to be a modern Black woman living with the weight of the past, of your ancestors’ hopes, fears and dreams?

And suddenly, the overlap of all my work is clear, without need for compartmentalization. I wear multiple hats, but remain the same, integrated self beneath them.

It is in this spirit that my blog is reborn as my Author Website—the tagline of which I’ve changed from “Writings on Body Image and Identity” to “Stories of Motherhood, Identity and Being.”

This is the site where I can record my honest thoughts about life, parenting, race, and politics. It’s also for general therapeutic observations which readers can take as advice or leave. And of course, it’s for my new author life, my book news. It’s all here. It’s all me.

Thank you for reading and for accompanying me on this journey.

Orca: A Colonization Allegory from a few Years Back

Today Facebook showed me a “memory” which I had completely forgotten. On this day in 2015, I learned that the only flash-fiction piece I’ve ever written, “Orca,” was a semifinalist in the New Millennium Short Fiction Contest. I had written it on a whim, thinking about the story of Tilikum, the famed Orca from SeaWorld who, in 2010, had snapped and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau) and the 2013 documentary Blackfish which raised awareness about the abuse of these magnificent creatures. The whales’ plight has clear parallels to human oppression past and present. But I liked the story and wanted to share. I named my f-bomb dropping fictional Orca “Jonah.”

Orca

A Story from 2015

I swear I never planned it. I just had this idea that maybe I could make this day less of a suckfest than the ones before.

He’s on the edge of the platform, waving at the masses like they do, one slick, black flipper sticking out just enough. So I go for it. I grab his foot along with the rest of him in my teeth—one smooth pass, a rush of energy and the thrill of giving in to impulse. My heart beats in rhythm to the filtration pump, all twelve thousand pounds of me humming with possibility. And for one moment, this stale, lukewarm tank—chemically treated water, manmade current, synthetic seaweed—is enough. But here’s the wall, too soon like always. I flip and evade just before impact.

I can’t break out of here, but I can give the crowd a taste of my will. Look at me, assholes! High on my own will. It’s what keeps me from going nuts like poor old Thomas, who swims in circles all day, chasing imaginary seals.

Thomas is not his real name. He’s Naylu to the Humans, who like our names tribal-sounding and exotic—Naylu, Le’molo, Wailele.  At sea no one needs names. You’ve got instinct to tell you who you are, who you love, who to watch out for. Humans name us so they can tell us apart and more completely own us. We weigh what we weigh; they weigh what they weigh, yet we belong to them. Humans made this tank, brought in our mothers and fathers, forced them to breed amid the dank and scum. And if you think those of us born inside don’t have sea-instinct, that we don’t miss what we’ve never known, you’re wrong.

But names, yeah. I came up with the idea to take our own names—their kind of names, just for the irony. We stole the names of trainers who left and haven’t come back. There’s Thomas, the oldest, the only one born at sea—the psycho on permanent seal patrol. Then there’s Ed, Kathy, Mike, Liz and me, Jonah. Last is Allison, beautiful Allison.

The water caresses my skin as I move, prize on display. I’m calm and happy just this once, like I’ve never been before—not even that time with Allison, because we were forced together in that cramped shithole of a medical pool. Yeah, we both wanted it, but the Humans wanted it too and it was their wanting it—not ours—that made it happen. This moment is mine. As long as I have this guy by the flipper, I’m free.

My tankmates, Ed and Mike, cheer me on, Dude! Go! Wishing they’d thought of it first. Crazy Thomas goes swirling round and round, slapping with his tail, signaling his glee. But Allison trembles from the shadows, guessing how it’s all going to go down. She intuits things.  All the cows do, but Allison does it best.

Like what happened to the calf. Allison knew, before she saw the transport ropes, that they were going to take her baby. She went up on the platform, rocking and slamming her tail in protest. I never saw a cow act like that. After the calf was gone, Allison kept on going. She kept swimming, leaping, doing tricks for mackerel just like the rest of us. But her eyes were hollowed out and frightening. They’d lost their light.

Vengeance. Malice. Psychosis. These words will come up one day when the experts and activists try to explain my actions. But I’m not doing this for Allison. I’m not doing it because I’m tired of being penned in, or because of the calf, or the indignity of being named after a fucking seashell. I’m doing this because I can.  

Liz signals to me that I should cut the crap and let the guy go, and Kathy sounds, Jonah, you’re going to get busted!  Buzz kills. Eat my dorsal fin. Allison stays deep down, watching. I think maybe she’ll join me. I’ll toss him to her, see if I can bring back the shine to her eyes.

But first I take him up to the surface for a spell to show the crowd I don’t mean any harm. I keep his foot in my teeth, but we hang out. I let him breathe. Humans don’t have blowholes like we do; they breathe some other way that takes longer. So I give him time to get plenty of air in him, then take him back under.

The calf was beautiful, I remember. It was the first time I ever watched one come out into the world. Allison was cool with me watching. If it had been Thomas or even Ed, she’d have been scared they’d eat her baby or some wacko shit, but not me. I’m the one she could trust.

I was moved outside the tank as soon as she delivered, but she could hear me signaling that I was there and that everything was okay. The calf was small and perfect, just like Allison, but everyone said her little saddle patches looked like mine. Her eyes were bright and clear and so round. She stayed right up close to Allison, like a tiny shadow. Caught on right away how to swim and make it up to the surface. I just stared, blown away by this miracle that took place right in our own piss pot of a tank, so far from the real sea.

I let the guy up one more time—not for so long, though. I’m getting antsy. I dive back down and find Allison. She’s still in the darkest corner of the main tank. I shake my head back and forth, showing off what I have, but feeling desperate. I need her to play my game. Hey, Allison, take a turn. I let him go for a second, nose him in her direction. Come on, live a little. But she turns away. And now the guy is making for the surface like a bullet. Which pisses me off. This time it’s not so playful when I take him; I’m out of patience. I chomp on his body. Probably with more force than I should, but I’m past giving a shit. I swim with him back to Allison. Her eyes stay vacant. She signals: What can you possibly want from me?

 So I leave her alone, the guy’s limp body still in my teeth.  

That day, the day Allison’s calf was born, I remember thinking, I’m going to take that little girl out of here. Someday, somehow. Me and her and Allison, we’re getting out. Which I know was a crazy thought, because where the hell is out?  Old Thomas says when he was first captured, he lived in a sea-pen. There was the ocean, he says, and right next to it was his pen, just a thin net separating him from the wide open. So the water he lived in was real, one hundred percent, pure, blue seawater. One day some guys in a boat cut the net and a couple of the other whales escaped. Not Thomas; he was nuts even then, had agoraphobia or something. Anyway our tanks aren’t like that; they’re closed-off concrete and thick, high-tech acrylic, miles from the sea. Still, the calf made me want to find it.

When it’s over, it’s over fast. I barely know what’s happened. I’m taken out. Out of the shows, out of the main tank, kept in solitary. Specialists come and test me, over and over again, for months and months, trying to figure out just what went wrong. A couple of times I think I hear whale song. Allison, crying for the calf that got taken away before she was weaned, crying for me. That would be something, right?  But I’m wrong. It’s just my own signals, bouncing off the concrete.  

Trainers still come by now and then to check on me and say “hey.”  So what I do is wait.

A Mixed Marriage in 1950

Re-posting in honor of #LovingDay2021

This appeared on my blog about 11 years ago, when Mom was still alive. Thinking about them both today and wanted to re-share their story. #LovingDay #lovingday2021

My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties

People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman?  He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself.  The best I can do is the following.  He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother.  He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience.  Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.

Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance.  His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect.  When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”

Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion.  I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.

In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism.  My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands.  If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well?  What did he say about me?   Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.

My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it.  I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950.  She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement.  She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.

Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.

They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house.  In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends.  My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work.  My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?)  There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.

My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned.  For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius.  Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack.  (Nah.  Must have been the black guy.)

So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.

They found an apartment in Brooklyn.  My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons.  She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford.  The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them.  In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.

That happened a lot with my father.  People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.”  He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …”  This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement.  My father believed a racist was a racist.  Still, they needed a place to live.

My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends.  Soon my parents were established in a community of their own.  Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both.  Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).

So New York became less strange, more like home.  In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known.  Being Jewish was safer, for example.  My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German.  Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions.  Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked.  She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson.  It was less about shame than safety.  There was some pride in being Jewish, too.  My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.

So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated.  While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority.  That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.

And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together.  In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats.  In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.

Missing the Smile Behind your Mask

Even before the pandemic, I sometimes went days—weeks—without interacting with another adult who was not my husband or one of my psychotherapy clients. On the coldest winter days, even the neighbors I sometimes chatted with, met to walk dogs with, or invited over for a quick coffee would hole up and disappear. We’d call or text each other: “When it gets warm, let’s walk.” “When this snow melts …” “When our kids’ college visits are over …” But even then, life sometimes got in the way.

I am a therapist and a writer. My work is isolating, solitary, one-sided. Because I see people professionally, most of whom I truly enjoy, because I am fortunate enough to have a husband who is fun as well as kind, I sometimes get to the point of starving for my friends before I even notice I’m hungry.

The thing that sustains me, the thing that I would argue sustains anyone whose life is sparsely populated, are the daily, incidental interactions with strangers or lightly known acquaintances. A conversation at the grocery store with the young mother who’s trying to shop while managing unruly toddlers. I assure her that it gets better, that my kids were the same at that age. A brief lesson on drain-snaking from the friendly guy who runs the hardware store. A shared laugh with another dog parent as our pups become leash-tangled in effort to sniff one another’s rear ends.

As a sometime introvert, an only child who can tolerate solitude better than most, I once found these social exchanges sufficient to get me through a week. Now they fall short for one reason.

The smiles are gone, concealed by masks. With only your eyes showing, the crinkles at the corners are all I have to guess your mood, your level of appreciation for my dog’s silly antics, whether your return of my greeting is forced or genuine.

In Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist describes smiling as something universal to humans across societies, a muscular effort that unites us regardless of creed, class, or culture. Innumerable songs have been written about smiles: whether you’re never fully dressed without one, whether Irish eyes are doing it, or whether the whole world is doing it with you. The first time a baby smiles, it’s nothing short of magic. As much of a puzzle as your newborn’s crying may be—is she gassy? Cold? Wet? Hungry? But an infant’s smile is unequivocal. It says, “I love you.” “I’m happy to be here.” Smiles are versatile little buggers too: We share them, interpret them, grant them to others, and welcome them. Sure, sometimes we fake them, misconstrue them, try to hide them when they emerge at inappropriate moments. But our smiles are always beacons of ourselves. They’re emotional bridges, making us feel seen, acknowledged. When one person returns your smile, it gives you a boost. When another fails to do so, it hurts.

But now when we pass each other on the street, when we come face to face at the grocery store (meaning one of us has neglected to observe the now-fading arrows on the floor), we do so devoid of affect, cut off from one another. We are all masked islands amid the sea of Covid-19. Without in-person smiles, we are starving for one another. I see it in myself, my teenage children, especially in those of my clients who live alone and work from home. We must all toe the line on Zoom-contact, a poor substitute for the three-dimensional expressions we once took for granted.

In my Facebook feed, I recently saw an add selling facemasks with zany smiles painted right on. They were meant to be funny, to compensate for the current lack of in-person grins. But even the reactions these decorative smirks might provoke would be hidden.  

People talk about what they miss about their pre-Covid lives: the travel, the visits with loved ones, the hugs, the movie houses. What I miss most of all are the incidental connections with strangers, reminding me that we’re all in this crazy thing called life together.

Maya Angelou once said, “if you only have one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” I would add that a smile from a stranger just might unearth one you didn’t realize you had to share.

My story, “Coffee Shop” in @LiteraryMama

Posting a little late, but I am very honored to have my short story, “Coffee Shop” published in Literary Mama today! Wonderful working with editor Felicity Landa.

When two isolated Black mothers meet in a Brooklyn coffee shop, just one has hopes for friendship …

https://literarymama.com/articles/departments/2020/11/coffee-shop

Apartment #17D – An Ode

nick nacks 17DThis is the site of my childhood. Notches on a closet doorway mark my growth. Outside, on the balcony, a dark stain on one brick betrays the spot where Teenage Me hastily stubbed out a cigarette as I saw my father approaching. This apartment has seen my first steps, heard and felt an ocean of my tears, witnessed my friendships and my loves—wholesome, thrilling, sometimes toxic. I said my last goodbye to each of my parents here. For Dad, that was twenty-three years ago. For Mom, it’s been two months.

And now I face the task of packing up, clearing out, cataloging the pieces of our history. The estate sale “specialist” broke it down for me. Everything—every thing—can be placed into one of four categories: Sell, Donate, Trash, and Keep. A simple formula. But wherever I turn, something indispensable catches my eye: An ancient datebook, a ring, the sort of icepack they no longer make. A telegram sent in 1947—my father assuring his mother that he had arrived somewhere safely. I have no idea where or how to start.

We were the Williamsons—Dad, Mom and me. The only family who has ever lived here. Mine is the only childhood these walls have held. The building went up in the late fifties, part of a complex of four red-brick structures with one- and two-bedroom apartments to rent. My parents chose one above their means at the time: A two-bedroom at the end of the hall on the seventeenth floor for two hundred dollars a month. It looked out on the corner of One Hundredth Street and Columbus Avenue, boasting a balcony from which you could see Central Park if you craned your neck. From the dining room window, you had a red-and-orange steam-bath of a sunset in summer; cool, lavender twilights in winter. From one spot behind our dining room table you could gaze past rundown church steeples and the dingy sides of housing projects to catch a glimpse of the Hudson River. Everyone who visited would remark on the view I took for granted.

It took cunning to rent such a place back in the nineteen-fifties. My parents had a system for apartment hunting. Mom would view each place by herself, my father’s long list of preferences and aesthetic requirements in mind. Dad knew about real estate. His parents had owned two homes back in Chicago: One that they rented out, and one where they lived with their sprawling family of children and grandchildren. But Dad could never accompany Mom to view any apartment until she had signed a lease. To rent the apartment of their dreams, my mother needed to present her prime qualification: whiteness. Her husband, she would tell the building manager, was at work—which was true. What was also true, but what she didn’t share at this point, was that her husband was black.

Mel and Lorraine

Mom and Dad moved here ambivalent about children, but not entirely opposed. When they wed in 1950, friends who were interracially married and parenting mix-raced children didn’t recommend it. Their kids were picked on at school, accepted by neither the black kids nor the white kids. No. Best leave well enough alone and enjoy one another without children. My mother was a teacher, surrounded by kids all day long. She claimed that she had no need for her own. Her work taught her all the things that can go wrong with children, the risks of illness and disability, the emotional turmoil they could face in the best of circumstances. Best not, she agreed with my father. Best enjoy the children of friends, to be God parents, to be free. Then Mom turned thirty-nine and changed her mind. “I want one,” she told him. “I want my own.” “Let’s have one then,” Dad replied. And crossed his fingers, hoping for a girl.

Here is another box of photographs, starring me as a newborn, an infant, a toddler. It happened easily considering their ages, the pregnancy, the birth, though my early months were marked by colic. No one slept much until I was at least a year old. But in the pictures of that year, my parents’ faces betray nothing of the challenges, only the joy. In me, in one another, in the life they’d made from scratch. Together they created a joint culture in our home, made of art and music and books. Made of black and Jewish heritage, made of Chicago and New York and Louisiana (from his parents) and Russia (hers). And that was our place.

“You just need to decide what you want,” friends have said. Just. A word offered to simplify, minimize the effort involved. These friends have been supportive, accompanying me to my mother’s place (it hasn’t been Dad’s for twenty-three years), they have washed, folded, tossed and recycled, and again and again, held up some vase or salt box or kitchen tool, eyes questioning.

As my friends exhume relics of our life, as they dust, shine, wash and dry, our dining room table fills with the mismatched decorative pieces—Dutch cookie jars, Egyptian Scarab beads, and Senegalese wooden masks—looking like a life-raft packed with strangers thrown together after a shipwreck.

But through the chaos and clutter, I still see us three, sitting here: Mom to my right, Dad to my left at the head of the table. They trade sections of the New York Times, talking politics over my head.

“That S.O.B.” My mother says, which I know means Nixon. She begins to read aloud, but Dad cuts her off.

“You see? You see?” He sets down the second section of the paper to drum an index finger on the table. “This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

Williamsons 1970It was part of an ongoing discussion in which terms like race and fascism and civil rights were thrown around. When the discussions were too intricate, the words became a soft, spring rain on my shoulders, nurturing, soothing. Because even as they ranted, their joint indignation would keep me safe from whatever evils were out there. It’s what I believed unequivocally.

What do I want? I want my parents back. Of course. But I’ll settle for the obvious things, like my mother’s photo diaries, my father’s memoir, his unsold screenplays, his short stories and articles. The sentimental things. My father’s Panama hat—straw with a colorful pink and green band. My mother’s gold chain belt from the seventies. I want the photographs with all three of us together, but also the ones that predate me, documenting those first sixteen years of their marriage. My parents, living it up at the Vanguard in 1952. With friends on the Maine coast in 1954. I want the photographs that date back even further, to the years before they met. My father at the back row of Class 5B at the Willard School. My mother and her little sister at the 1938 Chicago World’s Fair. Dad in the army, Guam World War II. Mom as the Queen of Hearts in the University of Illinois Hillel Stunt Show, 1945.

Time is running out quickly. The place must be emptied by the end of the month. My parents are gone. I live with my husband and children in another state where we are rapidly accumulating our own memories. It’s time for this apartment to hold someone else’s stories.

There is healing in the going-through of my family’s past, in touching each treasure, each building block of our existence. In both hands I cradle a stone water-buffalo that my mother acquired on a trip to China. I breathe life into it for one final second, then set it down for good.

Me 17D

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Image above: me photographing “Nobody Knows My Name” by my father’s friend and mentor, the great Charles White

 

Our Stories Make America Truly Great (Repost)

I’m reposting this one today because I was in a hopeful mood when I wrote it, believing it was possible to learn and grow and find common ground by listening to “the other,” whoever that might be.

Because of my mother’s health and other life complications, I’m not blogging a whole lot these days. But today, in light of dueling memos in Washington, dueling worldviews–on multiple topics–in this country, I’m feeling a desperate need for reconciliation. The opening of ears, hearts and minds. So here’s this, once again …

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If you voted for Donald Trump, we have our differences. I did not support your candidate; you did not support mine. But I do not hate you. I cannot hate you, because I don’t know your story. I’d be lying if I denied I was judging you, but my judgment is rooted in my own life’s narrative.

By the same token, if you judge me by my gender, by my speech—unmistakably Northeastern, liberal, educated—or by the brown of my skin, your judgment comes from within you. Any assumptions you make about me stem from the fact that you do not know my story, the story of my parents, the stories of my grandparents, any better than I know yours.

As a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a parent, I believe stories are the most important element of the human condition. We each come with our own and that is the magic of being human. Sharing our stories—trusting one another, listening with our whole hearts—this is also the key to reconciliation.

An acquaintance of my mother’s, who—like my mother herself—is white and Jewish, had a childhood marked by loss, struggle and misery. She and her sisters lost their parents early and grew up in an orphanage. Through enormous sacrifice, work, as well as the grace of strangers, neighbors and government programs, she and her sisters were able to get their education, including advanced degrees, find meaningful work, and in her case, a marriage that lifted her out of the middle class into affluence. Now in her late seventies, this woman owns her own Manhattan apartment, loaded with beloved books—stories, which include her own European and American history.

Several years ago, my mother shared with this woman a story—just one—about my father, whom she had already outlived.

Dad was an artist from early childhood. As a high school student, unable to make his mark as an athlete, as the other four black students in his otherwise white high school had done, my father gained fame among his peers as chief cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to receive an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and ultimately, was offered a job at a large, “Mad Men” style advertising agency in Manhattan. The date was 1964—smack in the middle of the famed television show’s timeline.

As I said, my father was offered a job at this agency. Dad was highly qualified in terms of education, experience and talent. He was also stylish, a trend-setter, who would probably have fit in well with Roger Sterling, Don Draper and their set. He was offered the job on a Wednesday, to start the following Monday.

There was a problem, however. The CEO—the big cheese, the head honcho—of this firm had been away on a business trip while the offer was being made. The subordinates had, of course, discussed my father’s candidacy with their boss over the phone, gone over Dad’s resume, raved about his qualities and exacted the director’s enthusiastic OK before offering Dad the job. The only thing they neglected to share with their boss was my father’s race. That was a detail the subordinates knew would be disqualifying, so they figured they wouldn’t mention it until Monday, when my father shook the hand of his new boss, who was, they thought, too much of a gentleman to reject him face to face. My father’s work would then speak for himself.

If you watched Mad Men, as I did religiously, you will remember the premiere episode of season five, where Sterling Cooper—an exclusively white agency—puts out a mock ad seeking to hire blacks. While the waiting room fills with people of color, partners Roger, Don and Burt cower inside, trying to figure out how they’re going to get around this hurdle, without compromising the Old-Boy, scotch-at-ten-am-sex-with-a-secretary-at-three culture of theirs. In the end, they hire a single African American woman, Dawn, who becomes Don’s secretary.

And what of my father and his shot at Mad-manhood? Someone—no one knows who—squealed. Whoever it was got a message to the CEO in the lounge where he was schmoozing potential clients.

So, boss. The cracker-jack new art director you can’t wait to meet on Monday? He’s a negro.

Which, no doubt, led to the CEO sputtering on his martini, spitting the olive clear across the room.

A what?

You heard right.

That Friday evening, my father received the call. He would not be integrating the ranks of the agency after all. The man they hired, though he lacked my father’s experience and credentials, possessed one qualification my father could never aspire to. Can you guess what that was?

The epilogue to the story is bittersweet. Shortly after losing this opportunity, my father was snapped up as art director for a major publishing house. It was a wonderful fit for him, a job that introduced him to authors such as Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and even Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy). His first assignment was designing the cover for Bellow’s bestseller, Herzog. My father worked at the publishing house for most of my childhood. He resigned in the 1980’s when I was entering college, due to his failing eyesight.

Dad was replaced by a younger man who was his friend and mentee, though nowhere near as qualified. Dad vouched for this man—who was white, by the way—and trained him in the practical work as well as advising him on publishing house etiquette.  Soon after relinquishing his position, my father learned that the young man’s salary would be on par with other executives at the publishing house: four times what my father had been paid.

When I learned about this, I was already an adult and it shocked me. My father had asked for raises every year, but was denied point blank. The publishing house knew Dad wouldn’t leave. Even if he could find another house to hire him, that one wouldn’t pay him any more. My dad was highly skilled, cheap labor.

When my mother told this story to her then-friend, the woman grew indignant, but not in defense of my father.

“Why didn’t he stand up for himself?” she demanded. Her personal story had taught her that no failure was insurmountable as long as one applied sufficient elbow grease. The moral she took from my mother’s tale was that my father had been weak or lazy.

What this woman failed to understand, or did not care to learn, was the story of being black in twentieth-century America. When my mother told me about this interaction, I thought about the woman’s ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ story and the glow it cast on my father.

If I could have spoken to this woman, heard her tale first-hand, here’s how I would have responded to her:

“Try that life again—the parental loss, the orphanage, the cruel streets, the poverty—all of it. Try it again, only this time, do it while black.”

She probably wouldn’t have agreed with me that the outcome would have been different, but the discussion might have given her pause. Maybe she would have considered that going through life with black skin is quite different from ‘living while white.’ But the woman’s judgment came from her story. With all the pain she’d grown up with, she couldn’t conceive of a life harder than her own. What she lacked was curiosity about other worldviews.

One of my main criticisms of the Donald Trump Campaign was the rationale behind his slogan, Make America Great Again. Who was it great for? And when was this “great” time to which we want to return? The Jim-Crow era? The 1940’s? The era of Japanese American Internment Camps?  The late 30’s? When America turned away 900 asylum-seeking Jews aboard the SS St. Louis? I could list countless stages in our country’s past when things were less than great for many.

Trump supporters talk about opportunities that were once readily available in exchange for hard work and determination.  ‘If you applied yourself in the good old days,’ that story goes, ‘you could get ahead.’ What I question—and I am far from alone in this is—is the identity of the “you” in that statement. My father worked hard, was determined and applied himself. But blackness was a huge barrier to his success. The truth is, during the Good Old Days you could count on whiteness—the state of not being non-white—as a leg up, a handout. On the other hand, if ‘you’ were not white, you were out of luck. Pull all you like, your bootstraps would not have the elasticity to overcome discrimination.

Let’s not forget the role unions once played. Unions protected their members, increased job security and insured a living wage. Yet historically blacks were—and in some cases still are—excluded from unions.

Some things have changed in our nation. For better or for worse, the class you were born into limits your opportunities as much, in some cases more than your race. Race no longer corresponds directly to class, though frequently it does.

In any case, our multiple experiences, our pluralistic narratives—these are what will make America truly great for all of us. A first step is to listen to one another, to be eternally curious, and to challenge ourselves to exchange judgment for understanding wherever we can.

At this critical juncture in American History, we need nothing so much as an appreciation of one another’s full American stories.

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Keep Quiet and Stop Violating My First Amendment Rights

Certain people of a certain generation–my generation frankly–seem to have had it up to here with the “rules changing.” I hear it. The sighs, the expletives, the tongue clicking, the venting:

You can’t say anything to anyone about anything anymore. If you do, you get accused of triggering someone, being bigoted, or not checking your damn privilege. Well, privilege THIS!

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I know, sweethearts. It’s hard having to be so careful not to offend someone. It’s stifling to be so PC. I get it. When we were kids, back in the eighties, the seventies, the sixties and earlier, political correctness wasn’t even a thing. I am well-versed in the Good Old Days Sing-Along, which goes a little something like this (in the key of tone-deaf):

Things weren’t always fair in our day, but you knew what to call everyone. (Waves index finger in air.) You knew who was a boy or a girl and if you didn’t, that was the fault of the person you were looking at. Maybe they should have dressed differently or gotten a better haircut. (Pounds fist on table, nods agreement with self.)

People could take a joke back then too. You could make fun of anyone you wanted for any reason you wanted: their accents, their weight, how they walked, the sound of their last names. And race? You could say what you wanted about the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Indians and the Asians. No one meant anything by it and all the minorities were fine, unless they had anger issues. (And only the Blacks had those!) No one went around calling you a racist for it!

Nowadays, everyone’s so goddamn sensitive. Everyone’s a SNOWFLAKE. 

Whew. Now that that’s out of our system. Here’s a newsflash: As much as it sucks to be called out for racism, misgendering, and heterosexism, it’s even worse to be the recipient of those things. It’s the difference between someone questioning the motivation of what you SAID and someone reinforcing society’s denigration of what you ARE.

The attacking “ism”—be it racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, cis-ism (because it is an attack, whether it’s intended as one or not; that’s how it feels)–is likely rooted in years, decades, centuries of habit. Which is why it feels normal. Which is why, when challenged, it feels like a cruel affront.

Male chauvinism, for example, was the way of the world since the beginning of humanity. Women were the second sex, the weaker sex, the fragile, and yet the toxically seductive, blame-worthy, (how-dare-she-let-me-get-her pregnant??) sex. And, if you were a guy, it was cool. What was the issue? Nothing! Until those uppity females began clamoring for rights. Why would they DO that? The roles had been clear. Women took care of the kids, the household, the animals, the men, their needs, their whims, their laundry, their messes. And men did the important stuff. Sheesh! What did chicks ever have to complain about? Everything was so easy before. Now you can’t even say anything nice about their body parts without being labeled a misogynist!

Think about it. Let’s say Person A is a member of a dominant group and Person B is a member of a marginalized group. Now suppose person A says something about B’s marginalized group that offends B. If B sucks it up and doesn’t tell A, A can keep going about his life, none the wiser and A is just fine. Status quo, right?

Maybe, but for B’s people, the status quo has been causing collective injury for decades. When people like B “let it go,” they’re not really letting anything go, they’re swallowing anger at being negated and disrespected. They’re usually experiencing guilt and remorse over not standing up for their group too. This leads to feelings of shame, as Person B internalizes a bit of the negativity and disrespect Person A has helped to spread around.

If, Person B decides to confront Person A, A might be annoyed at B, annoyed at the situation, or possibly just embarrassed, leading to temporary discomfort around people in B’s group. On the other hand, B must be prepared for A’s defensiveness in the form of further insults, or the denial of B’s right to feel offended for something so small. That’s often the response when the once-voiceless find their voices. Like I said in the title: Keep quiet and stop violating my First Amendment rights!!

To be fair, it is possible that Person B’s standing up for herself could go well. Person A might see where Person B is coming from and accept the criticism with an open mind. Then Person B feels heard, Person A learns something new, and the world becomes a teeny-tiny bit better. (Of course, Person B may still be pretty exhausted and just a little resentful that this lesson still, in 2017, needs to be taught.)

Personally, I think about this jockeying for position a lot. I know both sides from experience, being both an A and a B. I am Biracial: Black and White. Jewish. Female, cis-het. I have never known poverty. The A in me has taken things for granted that the B in me never can.

In any case, things are changing. These days, Person B is working up her courage to speak out more and more. She’s got more advocates, more allies as it were. And Person A has no choice but to listen and, when possible, accommodate. Is the process easy? Is it seamless?

No, my dears it is not. Person A, all too often grows frustrated with his own inability to remember the new rules and blames—what?—the new rules. Person A remembers when he did not have to be careful, when Person B just swallowed whatever feelings she had about equality and left well enough alone. When America was just this Great, effing country where everyone lived together in peace. And, as long as you were like A—the right gender, color, orientation, accent and religion—all you had to do to get ahead was work hard.

I know not all A’s feel this way. In fact, most I know are aware that, back when America was Great, it was only really “great” for the A’s among us. B’s generally had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Or, if possible, work twice as hard to be taken for an A (by staying closeted, for example, dropping the “stein” from a last name, or simply writing under the name of “George”).

But now, with many barriers to opportunity lifted, Person B can pull even and gain the rewards of her hard work. To many a Person A, who has always taken his elevated status for granted, Person B’s rise feels like an unfair loss.

Equality is sometimes, very, very hard to share. If you achieve it, my standing diminishes. We’ve all known this since kindergarten: sharing is by nature a zero-sum game. If I give you some of my candy, I’ll have less for myself. I might tell you to stop asking for some. It is my right to have all the candy I’ve always had. Find your own, only please don’t be loud about it. (And please, please, try not to kneel.)

But in the long run, if I share, if you flourish, the peace it reaps, the increased strength of our bond is always well worth the trouble.

O Distraction!

O Distraction, against thee, I am powerless.

Whether trivial: a click-bait suggestion about Kylie Jenner’s alleged pregnancy—or weighty: panic about an unaccounted-for friend in Puerto Rico, or gnawing uncertainty about my mother’s health—I am unable to regulate my concentration these days.

distracted

Even if I weren’t riveted to the news reports about hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires striking close to the homes of people I care about, terrified that people who have not yet declared themselves SAFE are NOT SAFE—I would still be distracted right about now. (By the way, friends in disaster zones, please, if you have power, post to let me know if you’re okay. I will be on Facebook waiting until I hear that you are.)

Where was I? Right. Distraction.

Aside from the confluence of natural disasters that have absolutely nothing—no, of course not—to do with climate change—there are plenty of man-made ones on my mind too. Not the least of which is THE man, made about seventy-two years ago by Mr. and Mrs. Fred C. Trump. Whereas I once opened a newspaper or a magazine and read an entire article, I now click on, read a paragraph, lose patience with the information I am taking in—because I can tell within three words that the article isn’t going to conclude with the sentence, “So it turns out, the 2016 election was a total sham and we’re scheduling a do-over”—and click something else. Click, scan, click, scan, then click again. Check social media to see if anyone there has insights to sample before my fleeting focus shifts elsewhere.

And then, Facebook, my reliable friend, my chief brain-appropriator, lets me know at least once per day that the followers of Lisa W. Rosenberg haven’t heard from me for a while.

Dear Facebook. What would I do without you? Who would entice me with photos of my friends’ teenagers learning to drive, or the same teenagers turning sixteen, seventeen, juxtaposed with adorable baby photos of said teenagers—stirring in me the nostalgia to post baby photos of my own teenagers?

Who would cleverly draw me in and obliterate endless hours of my day, usurp acres of my mental space, while daily enhancing my skills of procrastination? My tolerance for dog videos? Impromptu math challenges? On-the-spot invitations to describe the president using one choice word?

Aside from all that’s going on in the world—natural and unnatural—I have my own personal preoccupations. I’m in the sandwich generation, with teenage children and an aging parent. My worry ranges from mild to catastrophic in proportion, but is always present.

Not at work. I’ve been a therapist for almost twenty years and I know how to be present with my clients, shutting off my own life when I’m in session. In fact, what I love most about my work is helping others to identify their own inner resources, master their own obstacles to fulfillment. In other words, helping them do what I’m currently struggling to do myself.

But I’m a writer as well—or so it says on my blog. I have an agent who believes in me, three novels and a book proposal—all at various stages of revision.

But my creative energy is sapped at the moment. I face this fact for my own mental health, just as I encourage my clients to face their own realities. Some things simply ARE. It’s best not to hide from them. It weighs on you to hide from them. So, with this statement, I shake off the guilt and shame of being a “writer who isn’t really writing right now” (except for my column and sometimes this blog). This is my “I forgive you, self” moment, that so many of us need and deserve.

So—I forgive you, Me! For focusing on your children, your mother, your clients, the news, your friends. And I encourage everyone reading this, everyone who has a Self that they’ve been judging for not being enough—in every way, at every minute—to forgive that Self as well.

I’m not suggesting checking out and binge-watching reruns of Friends or That Seventies Show. Forgiveness-of-Self doesn’t mean avoiding the stuff you have to do. I’m talking about finding a balance, however you can. Sometimes you’re extra-energized, well-rested, or at least hyper-caffeinated and ready to take on the world. Other times, you’re more vulnerable—tired, overwhelmed, overwrought by the news, preoccupied about the safety and health of loved ones. At times like that—and it’s a time like that for most people these days—you need to breathe. Be. And pace yourself

Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

Today I’m doing something I don’t usually do on this blog, which I should do more of: post a book review. I just reviewed Hunger for Goodreads, and I was thinking back to the original tagline of this blog: “Writings on Body Image and Identity.” Nothing could be more fitting than a review of Roxane Gay’s heart-searing new memoir. I highly recommend it to anyone following this blog.

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I finished Hunger three days ago and am still reeling from Ms. Gay’s incredibly candid, courageous memoir. This book is hard to read, mostly because it is so honest, but I found it impossible to put down. It is beautifully written, but Gay never hides raw emotion behind flowery language. Her words are pure, true and vivid, bringing you inside her mind and her world.

By now, Gay has been interviewed about the book so many times, I think most people know something about the story of her body, but briefly: Gay was horrifically gang raped at the age of twelve by boys she knew. She blamed herself and could not bring herself to tell her religious parents or seek help from any significant adult. Instead, she submerged her pain in food, overeating to make her body into a fortress so no one could touch her or harm her again. As she moves through adolescence and young adulthood, she continues to eat, arriving at a point her doctors refer to as “super morbidly obese.”

Gay presents a window into the complications of life as a woman of size, about how cruelly fat people are treated, how painful it is physically, psychologically and emotionally to be extremely large in an unaccommodating world. Gay touches on many “isms” from fat-phobia to sexism to racism.

However, the book is so much more than that. It a book about devastating childhood trauma, the way it arrests the victim’s entire life, coloring her self-concept, worldview and relationships for decades after the event. Gay is very clear that this not a story with a triumphant ending, where she loses all the weight her doctors and parents want her to, or where she finally comes to accept and love herself as is. But she does evolve from a place of self-loathing and self-abandonment to an adult self-love that is indeed a victory.

I recommend this memoir to anyone who has lived through trauma. I also think every woman, every person of color, everyone who has experienced isolation, will be touched by Gay’s powerful new work.