Category Archives: General Identity

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.

Spirit of 1976, A July 4th Memory (reposted)

I’m reposting last year’s Independence Day blog, just because it’s one of my favorites.  (Also still immersed in my “revise and resubmit,” so no time for a new one!  Happy 4th!)

bicent_disney2[1]It’s the bicentennial.  Our country is 200 years old which seems deeply significant to me because I am ten.  I feel this solidarity with the United States of America because we are both these perfect round figures.  I feel this bond with all ten year olds all over the country.  It’s as if we kids are the true Americans.  I don’t tell anyone I feel this way.  It is too momentous, too poignant to speak of.  To be ten.  To be an American. On July 4th, 1976.  It is a feeling I cannot explain.  It only is.

About a month ago—around my own tenth birthday—red, white and blue hats, flags, posters, beer mugs, buttons, t-shirts, sweatbands and sweat socks that say “1776-1976” went on sale and are subsequently everywhere.  My parents don’t buy any of it; they think the memorabilia is silly.  Are you a better American just because you wear a t-shirt that says so?  Still, when I ask for a Spirit of ’76 button and hat, they say yes.  Since I am a child, I’m allowed to be silly.

Since I am ten, and believe on some level that my being ten is as important as America turning 200, I think at first that when they say Spirit of ’76, they mean 1976.

My friend Tom—who is more a friend of the family than a real friend—is also ten.  My parents and his grandparents go way back; they have us out to their summer home on Fire Island for the July 4th weekend.  Tom and I might not otherwise be friends but we are routinely thrown together by circumstance.  Since we are kids, and there is a beach with sand and waves, since there is ice cream and a house with a cool balcony, this is okay.  Since we are not teenagers, the fact that we are different genders is not awkward.  Besides we’re not just the same age; we’re both ten year old Americans on the Bicentennial.

We arrive on the Island on Friday. Tom meets me and my parents at the ferry with his little red wagon and helps us carry our things to his grandparents’ home in Ocean Bay Park.  He and I take turns pulling the wagon as we chat.  We are eager to get into the waves, to go to town for ice cream, to see a movie, to do everything by ourselves, which we are allowed to do here on the Island, because there are no cars.

The independence makes me feel giddy.  Tom and I wake up at six for the next two mornings and go to the beach alone.  The adults are asleep, but told us we could go the night before.  No one told us to be safe.  We wade in up to our knees, looking for jelly fish, looking for special shells.

Later in the day we go to town in Ocean Beach to buy ice cream and Wacky Pack cards which we will trade later.  Tom gives me his bubble gum.

Saturday evening, while the grownups are having cocktails and recovering from a big day, relaxing on the beach, Tom and I are given five dollars apiece and sent back to town to see a movie which came out about a year ago: Jaws.  This is a big deal; to see a scary movie, a scary beach movie, without grownups to take us.  We walk along the beach to the theater: a big white house with a screen and folding chairs.  Ten dollars is enough for tickets, popcorn and sodas for us both.

The movie is truly terrifying.  Not just to a pair of ten year olds who know they’ll soon be walking home on the beach, but to everyone.  No one is jaded yet when it comes to horror films.  No one can predict that one day there will not only be Jaws 2, 3, 3-D and 4, but also Michael, Jason, Freddy, Chuckie, Saw and all their sequels.  We are not desensitized to the formula.  This stuff is all new.  So that every time the music reaches a crescendo and there is an attack, everyone in the house screams.  Loudly.   People call out urgent words of caution to the actors.  No one shushes anyone.  We are all in this together.

Later that night, I am afraid to go to the bathroom.  Fire Island is itself a sandbar, which means that in many homes, when you peer into the toilet, you are looking down a deep hole and can see the sea.  After seeing Jaws, peeing under these circumstances seems like a foolhardy thing to do.

I hold it in for as long as I can, then say some kind of prayer, sit and go.  No shark comes, so that the next morning, still alive, still gloriously ten, I am able to help the nation celebrate its bicentennial.  And at night, Tom and I run wild on the beach with a bunch of other kids.  We’re all holding sparklers which we’ve ignited ourselves.

Happy Independence Day to all.

A Tribute on Father’s Day

“I love her.”

My husband Jon said these words with a sense of awe as he held our four day old daughter, whom we’d just brought home from the hospital.

zoe baby (2)

“Well, of course you do.”  I said, smiling at his bewilderment.

And he was bewildered.  Jon knew intellectually that he would love our child when she came into the world.  We had planned to have children from the get-go; both of us frequently speculating about “Junior and Juniorette” imagining what they would be like, what we would all do together.  Jon got excited when we’d “visit” with the baby each time there was a sonogram.  That was how it stopped feeling to him like just “my pregnancy” and evolved into “our child.”  Having a kid was exciting.  Or would be eventually.

The thing was, what exactly did you do with a baby?  Jon wondered.  How was a guy supposed to fall in love with someone who just lies there and cries, nurses or sleeps (hopefully)?   Jon was nervous about what it would mean to be the father of a newborn.  It might take at least a few months to connect with our child, he figured, at least until she could smile.

But four days in, Jon was holding Zoe, bouncing her just a little, when it hit hard.  Cupid’s arrow for new Dads struck with such force it brought tears to his eyes.  And he said it:

I love her.”  He was so startled and overwhelmed by the feeling, my eyes filled with tears too.  And from that moment on, a powerful new identity took over my sweet, funny, loving husband.  He was now Daddy.  Which is how he frequently referred to himself, even before our little one could vocalize her first string of da-da-da-da’s.

And two and a half years later, when my son was born, there was no surprise at all.  When the doctor handed him to Jon, Theo rested peacefully in the gentle, adoring hands.  “Daddy’s got you.”  Since I had had two C-sections, Jon held both children before I was allowed to.

As  mother, I have always been very involved with my kids and their lives–some might say too involved (but that’s for another post).   All along, Jon has been the best partner I could imagine on this journey of parenthood.

Today, I think my children are  the luckiest kids in the world to have a dad like Jon: the perfect balance of smart, loving, silly and respectful.  He teaches them complex board games, plays sports with them, reads to and with them, takes them on hikes, helps with homework, has high standards for them, but understands when they need to take a break and be a little wild.  He knows our children so well: how they’ll react to things, what their strengths and weaknesses are, when to stand back and give them the space they need to grow.  Best of all, my kids know how much he adores them, how special he thinks they are.  His love will strengthen them and impact who they are throughout their lives.


Happy Father’s Day.

Emotional Scar Tissue

??????????????????????????????????????I write a lot about body image and identity–the connection between the body—shape, weight, height, physical capacities—and the self.  The body you live in is a house for the self; from
your body you negotiate the world.   People make inferences about you based on what they see, and those inferences, whether you believe them, whether you know them or not, are part of your ascribed identity.

But today I’m thinking about the pieces of identity no one can see on the outside.  The Trials, losses, illnesses, upheavals.  Though people can’t necessarily see the tough stuff you’ve been through, it’s part of you.  Being bullied as a child by a “best friend,” losing a parent, enduring the aftermath of a house fire—these are pieces of my baggage, which I’ll carry to my grave.  They are not all of me, but are included in me, inextricable parts of my identity.

I’m thinking about loss a lot lately.  Last week, my husband lost his aunt, a brilliant, wise and sensitive woman.  I’m thinking about the way her illness and death have affected those who were closest to her, her children, her husband, her beloved sister, how the strength of her love and the beauty of her memory will one day heal them.

A week earlier, tragedy struck our town not once but twice, as a college-bound high school senior took his own life, as a terrible accident took the life of the parent of one of my daughter’s schoolmates.   Our town feels like a different place today.

You are forever changed by your experiences of suffering.   You may be far into the healing process by now.  Possibly you have finished healing and are happy despite your suffering.  But you are YOU because of it.

Sometimes the strongest layers of the self come from our emotional scar tissue.

For so many artists, poets and writers, this scar tissue is one of the richest sources of creativity.  Though I am not blogging much these days (my energy is focused on a “revise and resubmit” arrangement I have with a literary agent), over the next few weeks, I am going to devote some posts to fellow bloggers who have channeled their life-trials into creative works—books, blogs, blogs-that-will-be-books—that are sure to touch and enrich the lives of others.

Guest Blog on Magic and Fantastic

I’ve just had the honor of writing a guest post on my multitalented friend and fellow writer-blogger, Louella Dizon San Juan’s blog, Magic and Fantastic. Louella is one of the most multitalented people I know: working mother, businesswoman, playwright, author/illustrator and advocate for women and girls in math and science.  Louella recently published her first middle grade novel, The Crowded Kingdom, which my son and I loved!  (Available on Amazon).   

I was thrilled when Louella asked me to write a post for her guest series: Reboot: Start Up Your Life Again. Owning the Gift, my first guest blog, is about the life-changing moment when I realized that writing was no hobby, but part of my identity. 

Here’s a sneak peak:

Owning The Gift

“So you call yourself a writer?”

Am I a writer?


Without a doubt, though it took me years to say it so emphatically.  Writing was always background music, my secret identity, like a private security blanket that accompanied me through my every incarnation.


Tuesday Tale of Identity

imagesCA4BU1Y3This story was in Sunday’s New York Times and it inspired me so much; I can’t stop thinking about it.  Overcoming Addiction, Professor Tackles Perils American Indians Face.  The article, by Alan Schwarz, describes the journey of Dr. David A. Patterson, a social work professor at Washington University in St. Louis, from the throes of addiction and hopelessness, to a full life of teaching, researching the difficulties facing Native Americans, seeking solutions and changing lives.

Patterson was a young man on a collision course with disaster, a step away from taking his own life, when he was rescued by an uncle who taught him something precious: his own Native American heritage (he is part Cherokee), about which he knew nothing.  This gift, an understanding of who he was and where he came from, made him value himself for the first time in his life.

The notion of being part of a group with deep, meaningful traditions, that had endured despite years of marginalization, gave Patterson the strength to overcome the challenges holding him back.   I believe this is true of any group that has suffered oppression–anywhere–and managed to survive nevertheless.  Somehow it made me think of the Bob Marley song, Buffalo Soldier:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me,
Who the heck do I think I am.

Of course, my description doesn’t scratch the surface, read the article for yourself.   (See link above.)

Reposting: Just What Kind Of Mom Are You Anyway?

This post originally appeared in March 2012.  I’m reposting it today for Mother’s Day.    Enjoy!  Hope my followers who are also moms had a great day!

images[1]Boy we American mothers are hard on ourselves!  No matter how much we do, it’s either too much, or not enough.  We work, work out, shop, cook, do laundry, clean (sometimes), garden (sort of), manage everyone’s schedules, carpool, volunteer for school events, remove splinters, banish spiders, read stories, perform monster-purging rituals, walk the dog, rescue the cat, and—if we’re lucky enough to have partners who help out a lot—find time to secretly re-fold, re-wash and re-neaten the stuff our helpful partners folded, washed and neatened. (We still appreciate it, fellas.)  THEN, when we actually find time to sit (HAH!) and put our feet up, we have to read all these new books about how much better people from other developed nations are at mothering, how much more time everyone else has to enjoy la vie!, how much better everyone else’s kids are—whether at playing the piano, not getting pregnant, or eating coq au vin—AND how much more fun all those moms are having without us.

American bookshelves are buckling under the weight of all the parenting advice, each expert swearing by opposing tactics.  Even though American parents know What to Expect at every stage of the game, we still don’t trust our instincts.  It still seems that our neighbors, our sisters, the French, the Dutch and the Chinese are doing everything better.  But no one tries harder than we do to parent right.  We nurse on demand, then on schedule; we switch to formula so our partners can share feedings; but worry about what’s in the formula; we switch to soy, then abandon soy because it shares properties with estrogen.  We co-sleep, then Ferberize, then count to three for Magic!  , we tame our spirited children, bless skinned knees, give time-outs, then take them back in favor of “positive discipline.”  We say “good job!” because we want our kids to have high self-esteem, then stop saying “good job” when we read that empty praise leads to anxiety.

And, what’s that you say?  One in three American children is overweight or obese, at risk for all kinds of bad stuff?   Well, we can’t realistically cut down on sugar or increase vegetables unless everyone else does too—otherwise our kids will feel deprived, miserable and be more likely to gorge on sweets when we aren’t looking. Plus, we don’t want to restrict our children’s access to the American bounty of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, because that might lead to an eating disorder.  So, we focus on health and sign our kids up for sports.  Then we read about head injuries from soccer and other sports, as well as the fact that our kids are overscheduled and lack the time to just play freely outside.  So we cancel the sports and discover that no one else’s kid is playing outside, because they’re either at soccer practice getting a head injury or inside playing computer games (with an IV feed of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup).  So we throw up our hands and let our kids go inside and play computer games.  Then feel bad about it.

It’s not just being American parents that makes this so hard; it’s being American parents right now.  Who hasn’t heard an older person—someone who raised kids in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, for example—marvel at how orchestrated parenting is today?  Whose mother-in-law hasn’t observed that, all we did was open the door in the morning to let the kids out and make sure everyone made it back for dinner at night?

Yes, I know, many of our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, gave us a steady diet of red meat, whole milk and all the outdoor freedom we wanted and we turned out okay.  But things were different then.  People weren’t so worried about abductions or skin cancer or bullying or all the other things that keeps us heli-parenting.

Besides, as a parent, sometimes you have to go with the flow and do something close to what other parents are doing—get with the program, as it were–because rejecting the program is not always worth making your kids feel like freaks.  For example, a very loving, nutrition-conscious mother I know instructed her child’s teacher—anytime there was a class birthday party or another occasion involving cupcakes—to scrape the frosting off her child’s cupcake.  This way, the child wasn’t forbidden the cupcake, but was spared the oodles of extra high-fructose corn syrup that everyone else ate.  Win-win, right?  Possibly, but I can’t help wondering how the woman’s daughter felt about the whole frosting-extraction ceremony.  (Healthwise, I am with that mother 100%, but emotionally, not so much.)  Maybe the kid didn’t mind, but most would.  Not only was she not getting what other people were getting, but she wasn’t getting it in a very public way.  If she asked why, did her mother say, because I care about you more than the other mothers care about their kids?  And if that was the mother’s response, what was the little girl supposed to do with that information?

My point is that it’s often hard to break with parenting norms, even when you know it would be way, way healthier to do it your own way.  Because it’s not always fair to ask your child to be an outsider.  It’s a tough choice to make, but sometimes bad nutrition, for example, can be the better parenting choice in the long run.

There are so many opportunities to judge yourself as a twenty-first century American parent.   But here’s the good news.  Being American makes us inherently eclectic in everything we do, including parenting.  For example, a few days ago, when I wouldn’t let my son give up and walk away from the piano after making the same mistake in the same spot, six times in a row, I was a Tiger Mom.  Well, minus the verbal abuse.  What I actually did was sit beside him on the piano bench and make him play right and left hands separately until he got it right, then try the whole thing from the top.   He protested and protested; I insisted and insisted and finally got him to agree.  Theo felt proud and victorious when it worked out and I felt glad that I’d made him stick with it.

Last month, I was Cool(ish) Mom, when I took my daughter and her BFF to the mall and pretended I was shopping on my own when we were in Abercrombie and Fitch, so all the other eleven year old girls would think they were there on their own.

On Mondays, when my son and his friends have basketball and chess and my daughter and her friends have tap and jazz dance, I’m Carpool Mom.  When my daughter and I have long talks over emotional stuff she brings up at bedtime, I’m UP-ALL-NIGHT Mom.  I wear dozens of hats, as I’m sure you do too.

(And as I write this, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I’ve been French Mom: cool, hands-off, yet lovingly supportive with a fool-proof approach to nutrition that fosters a life-long love for, as opposed to obsession with food.  Kick-ass wardrobe.  But alas, sorry to say, I’m never French Mom though, after reading reviews of the book, Bringing Up Bébé (but not reading the actual book because I know it will make me feel even worse about not being French than French Women Don’t Get Fat), I often wish I were.  But c’est la vie!

And the other day, when my kids had been playing outside with the other kids from our idyllic little cul de sac, when they’d been playing for hours and it was beginning to get dark, I opened the front door and hollered down the street:

“Zoe!  Theo!  Dinner!”  And wiped my hands on my apron as I watched the two of them scoot up the road, shouting farewells over their shoulders.

Okay, so I didn’t have on an apron–I don’t even own one.  But still, at that moment I was Quintessential American Mom From The Middle Of The Last Century … back when people read Dr. Spock and left it at that.

[Please note that I will be away for the next five days and may only have sporadic access to the internet.]

Boston’s Journey Back to Itself

images[1] (5)Just over a week after the Boston Marathon bombing, I learned about her.  I’ve been thinking about her ever since: Adrianne Haslet-Davis—the beautiful, young ballroom dancer who lost her foot to one of the blasts.   Her foot.   A dancer’s connection with the earth–the very foundation of her career.  Haslet-Davis may not be unique among Boston’s recent amputees; many were runners, people for whom athleticism and movement were part of their identity.   But she stands out for me.  As a former dancer, I know what the loss of a foot would mean.   According to the articles I’ve read, Haslet-Davis has bouts of sadness and rage in the face of her lost limb, but holds onto hope.  She is determined to some day get back to the dance studio, to make a comeback with the Viennese Waltz.  Haslet-Davis survives, believing in herself and her future, thanks to her faith in advanced medicine, science and technology.  I have no doubt that she will dance again.  But her reality has changed; she must adjust her physical identity accordingly.  She and the other amputees embody the mission faced by Boston itself: a journey back to its post-bombing future.

When disaster strikes—natural or manmade—it shakes up a community.  Things you’ve always trusted—that your neighbors are your neighbors, not hostile strangers; that law enforcement is sufficient to provide safety—gets shaken up.  Home is suddenly not home, not quite the place it once felt like.  The rules are changed; daily life takes more thought, simple movements are now belabored, shrouded in fear and mistrust.  I remember the weeks following nine-eleven, when the world felt different: so unsafe, so newly dark and uncertain.  I remember the days after Hurricane Sandy and—more personally for me—the period right after our house fire.  Our identity as a family had changed.

Just as Boston’s has now.  More than lives were lost in the bombing, more than limbs; something deeper and less tangible was taken.   The nation has mourned along with Boston, but now we must watch and cheer the town on as it clamors to its feet, purging what one Boylston Street business owner called “bad energy.”

I lived in Boston for a year, back in 1989-1990, as a member of Boston Ballet II, and though I was in rehearsal most of the time and made too little money to partake of what the city had to offer, I remember its character.  Old American beauty thrown up against a bare toughness that rivaled the bare toughness in sections of Brooklyn—only with pinker cheeks and flatter vowels.  There were the Public Gardens, evoking memories of history lessons as well as my favorite children’s books, from Make Way for Ducklings to Trumpet of the Swan.  A mere stone’s throw away was the “red light” district, disconcertingly close to where we performed Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet.  Like New York, it was a great walking town, with ethnicities and neighborhoods on display as you walked, as varied as those in my home town.  Like New York, but unlike it, too.  A little shorter, a little slower, a little less of a chameleon.  I haven’t been back since I left twenty years ago, but still I remember the Boston-ness of the town, how I knew I’d always be an outsider, but appreciated the fact of calling it home for that season.

Things are getting back to normal there, but because of the bombing, they will never quite be the same.  Like those who lost limbs—each of whom must now face different lives and find their own, new versions of “normal,” each day will be marked by the triumph of overcoming unimaginable loss.

Writer of Color, White YA Protagonist: Where Weightism cuts deeper than Racism

I had the idea for this post a while ago, after reading a few articles about whether white writers have the “right” to write from the perspective of a black main character–see The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Help.  Both books have been both widely admired and scathingly criticized for their respective authors handling of the “white author/black protagonist” problem.   I have also read a number of blog posts and articles encouraging authors of YA fiction to diversify their books, including characters that reflect the mosaic of our nation. Justine Larbalestier, a white author and blogger, is so committed to this purpose that none of her main characters are white.

I agree that this is important, as long as it’s organic and feels natural.  (As opposed to every non-white character being beautiful and/or noble.)  And, I agree that the world American teens live in is not monochromatic; YA authors therefore need to show diversity in their work.  As a non-white writer, I have the advantage here; white is not my default, I experience the world through a non-white lens.  So, why is the protagonist of my first YA novel white?

I think when an author is black, we expect the protagonists to be black, the story line to deal with black themes.  As a biracial author, shouldn’t I deal with racial identity somehow?

The fact is, I do and I have—in this blog, in the adult books I’ve yet to complete, as well as the adult novel I spent six years writing and three years submitting.  Birch Wood Doll, which sits in my hard drive, awaiting a big revision, a WIP I refer to as The “Eddie” story, involving a guy with dissociative identity disorder, and Big, Black Woman Mad, the one I’m determined to finish a draft of by year’s end, all have protagonists who are mixed-race.  The characters cope in various ways with being non-white in mostly white ballet companies, universities or families.  What does it mean, for example, that your white birth mother chose to parent your white half-sibling, but placed you for adoption?  These adult characters wear their races like coats that don’t quite fit.

For Second Company, however, my focus—like that of this blog—is on body image and identity, just not racial identity.   Yes, there are non-white characters in Second Company.  For example: Lynette, whose story is coming in a sequel.  She gives a few hints that she’s struggled with difference as the only black girl in NYBT II, but Lynette is fortunate to have the ideal ballet body.  She has therefore escaped the mistreatment her best friend, the novel’s female protagonist, Livia, suffers because of her weight.

Second Company started with my wish to write about the experience of being a member of an elite society—the ballet world—who barely fits in because of some difference.  This was me back in 1989, when I joined Boston Ballet II, Boston Ballet’s own “second company.”  How was I different from the rest of BB II?

*I had graduated from a four year college (I was keeping it secret, because back then, college was considered the death knell for an aspiring ballerina; ballet companies wanted you at seventeen, so they could mold you, intellectually as well as physically.)

*I was over twenty-one and lying about it. (Really, twenty-one was way too old not to be in a first company.  I claimed I was nineteen and mostly pulled it off.)

*I was black (okay—biracial, with a fairly European body type, but still, the only woman of color in BB II.  The one Greek girl who’d had a tan when the contract started had lost it by Nutcracker season.)

*I had real boobs.  (In a world where a girl with a b-cup was considered top-heavy, I was a C-D.  This disqualified me from being considered thin.  I had a petite-enough frame; most costumes fit me with no problem, but people usually expressed uncensored surprise that I could get into small sizes. At 5’3” and 101 lbs., I was considered chunky.)  Oh, I have a photograph:

Me in the center. Lying about my age, weight and cup size.

Me in the center. Lying about my age, height, weight and cup size.

So—for review—I was “old,” over-educated, dark and curvaceous.  Which of these differences do I write about now?  Well, all of them, I think—just not all at once.

My adult novel, Birch Wood Doll was swamped with too much subject matter—biracial identity, eating disorders, the clash of socioeconomic classes, the collision of the dance and academic worlds.  In Second Company, which I intend to be part of a series, I’ll take the issues one or two at a time.  Livia may be white—Irish and Italian American–but she’s short and curvy-to-zaftig in a reed-thin ballet company.  (Her twin brother Oliver, also white, is gay, dealing with homophobic Dad’s efforts to stop him from dancing.)

The ballet world isn’t—let’s face it—especially diverse.  In a corps de ballet, the girls are supposed to look fairly interchangeable on stage.  Standing out isn’t encouraged, but skin color is less likely to be held against you than weight, which is supposedly in your control. You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day).  But gain weight and all bets are off.

There may be racism in the ballet world, but it’s quiet—an assumption here, a hushed comment there.  Weightism, on the other hand, buttism, boobism, shortism—that stuff is expressed loudly, welcomed and condoned by those in charge.  This is the difference I chose to tackle in my first YA book.