Tag Archives: Identity

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

17D CW photo

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

 

Biracial Identity: I Chose “Neither” before I chose “Both.”

My biracial identity? Black/white. As followers of this blog know, I am the product of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, who were happily married for forty-six years before my father’s death. Williamsons 1970

When I was in my thirties, my twenties, in college and younger, I faced a lot of criticism—was even attacked verbally—for identifying as biracial instead of black. This came from black people who felt I was rejecting blackness, but also from biracial people who felt I didn’t look “mixed” enough to qualify.

Evolving Biracial Identity on Campus

I remember walking across my college campus in 1987 with a white friend, chatting and minding my own business. Two black guys passed us, appearing to be deep in their own discussion. But once they were about a yard ahead of us, one threw me a glare over his shoulder, amplifying his voice:

“… except for those of us who forget what their color is.”

I had no idea what declaration had come before, only that this snatch of the conversation was directed at me. I had a white friend, meaning I had forgotten that I was brown? But my mother is white, I thought. How is white not my color too? Of course, that thought filled me with guilt. I knew the problem with claiming “whiteness” along with “blackness,” no matter how light or dark your complexion. You can’t have a biracial identify. There is no way to identify with your white side and your black side, the logic went. You have to choose, and you’d better choose black, or you’re abandoning your people. But my other people—the white, Jewish people—had also faced struggles and bigotry. The white ancestors on my mother’s side had never owned my father’s black ancestors. (Though the white ones on my father’s side–with whom I do not identify—clearly had.)

From other mixed-race people I heard: “I confuse people. No one can guess what I am.” For some, this was a badge of identity unto itself. To these multiracials, I lacked ambiguity, which meant I was not really mixed. For some of my black-and-white friends, race was a costume they could change at will. For others, blackness, not apparent to the naked eye, was an identity they had to fight to prove–just as I would have to fight to claim my mother’s heritage along with my father’s.

And here’s another twist to my identity: Since I was a ballet dancer and completely immersed in that world for so many years—from the age of seven until my late twenties—Ballet was my strongest identity. Ballet was who I was. I didn’t have time to focus on racial identity until later.

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Me in the center.

I entered college as an exile of the ballet world. I was at the university by choice, but ambivalent, missing ballet, searching everywhere for an ally who understood what I had left behind. Anyone who was unusually thin and walked with excellent posture and duck feet might be a compatriot. And yet, here was all this pressure to identify myself by race.

As I scoured my university town in vain for a halfway decent pointe class, I kept facing the question: “What are you?” more than I ever had.

The question came from blacks more than whites. White people just assumed I was black (they didn’t need my membership anyway). Blacks who asked really wanted to know: are you with us or them? Now I understand why they needed an answer. Blacks were outnumbered, talked over, dismissed, deemed undeserving of the Ivy League education we were getting. Numbers were therefore precious to the group. I was being welcomed, not challenged. Not that I understood this yet.

For me, it was simply too painful and too complicated to choose one race or the other. I loved both my parents. They loved me. They loved one another too, and had created a joint culture in our home. And now I was expected to reject this inclusiveness? Instead, I plunged myself deeper into the world of dancers and theater people, who identified first and foremost as performers.

Racially, I chose neither before I chose both. Neither allowed me to be Lisa-the-ballet-dancer. Which I still am. Which I will always be.

Today I embrace all of who I am, racially, ethnically. Awareness of being black comes first I guess, because that is how I appear, but I identify just as much with my mother’s Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. I am biracial, black/white, blanche-et-noir, both-and. To embrace my white, Jewish “side” is not a rejection of my proud black “side.” I am married to a white, Jewish man, whose heritage is similar to my mother’s. We have two children who know both sides of their history and will take both into consideration as their identities form.

Thankfully, the older I get, the less likely people are to tell me I am not identifying the way they believe I should. Or, maybe it’s simply that I take the criticisms less seriously. I know who I am. My identity is what it is: inclusive, unshakeable, me.

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Thinking Outside the “Other” Box: An Inclusive Mixed Identity

I am happy to announce that I have joined the blogging team for the Mixed Remixed Festival. I thank Heidi W. Durrow, best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Joy Stoffers, author of Whasian. for bringing me on board. The following appeared on the Mixed Remixed Blog on February 5th.
Thinking Outside The “Other” Box
When I think about my own multiracial identity, when I talk with other biracial writers and friends about the state of being mixed, I usually think of the cultures we inherited from our parents—what was represented in our homes and along the roots of our family trees.

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But a question posed to The Ethicist in last week’s New York Times Magazine made me consider blended racial identity on a broader scale.

“Can I call my Nonbiological Twins black because my Husband is?”

The author of the question was a white woman, married to a black man. When she and her husband had been unable to conceive naturally, she had carried to term a donor embryo—the biological parents of whom were said to be Caucasian and Hispanic. The mother noted:

I am not comfortable being open about the origin of my children, except with family and close friends, until they are old enough for me to explain it to them.

But, when a pre-k application form asked the children’s race, failing to provide a “mixed race” or “other” box, the mother identified her children as black. “Was this the right choice?” She wondered. The Ethicist—Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is himself multiracial, white British and Ghanaian—devoted much of his response to what he would have responded had the twins been the biological children of their parents, going into depth about this country’s frequently challenged “one drop” rule. He concluded:

 …our system of racial classification … presupposes an extremely oversimplified picture of the relationship among ancestry, appearance, biology and culture …

Dr. Appiah correctly faulted the preschool for not having a “mixed-race” or “other” box to check, and suggested that the mother demand one. He also affirmed the twins’ right to claim their non-biological father’s black heritage.

But what Dr. Appiah didn’t mention is an error the parents made long before the pre-k form appeared. Waiting until the children are “old enough” to have their heritage explained implies that there is something shameful about joining their family through donor insemination, something wrong with having a different racial background from their parents’. The time to broach such information is right away, using the simplest language possible—the same way you might talk to a baby about bedtime or the toys in his room.

Years ago as an adoption caseworker, I encouraged families adopting from China and Vietnam to learn about and incorporate their children’s cultures of origin into their family life. Even in domestic adoptions where the child could “pass” for their parents’ biological offspring, I urged families to begin sharing the adoption story immediately—before the child could understand. Talking about difference and culture becomes as natural as breathing. This is your nose, those are your toes, this is a photograph of the day we met you in a place called Guangzhou, where you were born.

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This way, there’s no fraught moment in the child’s life when parents must sit them down and reveal the Momentous Truth. Though less has been written about children born via donor insemination than adoption, I believe this same openness should prevail.

Where it gets tricky is the discussion of appearance. Going back to the twins in the Ethicist’s question, what will it be like for them to identify as black if they don’t look black? As Dr. Appiah points out in his response, there are many people whose African features are not visible—he names early N.A.A.C.P. director, Walter White—who identify as black. Besides, these twins are Hispanic, which is not a race, but in many cases includes some African ancestry.

My own experience is somewhat reversed. Many people perceive me as black—not mixed—so when I identify as biracial, I am often corrected: you’re black. In graduate school, when I identified as Jewish—an ethnicity as well as a religion—it meant to some African American students that I was denying my blackness. But to identify as black and only black would be to disregard my mother’s ancestry and half of my own.

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Another troubling issue: the mother who wrote to the Ethicist was given few specifics about the embryos’ heritage. Only Caucasian (Swedish? Dutch? Irish?) and Hispanic (Dominican? Venezuelan? Puerto Rican?). The parents are not to blame for this oversight. I know from my friends who have had children through donor insemination that you don’t get much control over how much genetic information you’re given, if any. But in an ideal world, these parents would be able to share the twins’ whole heritage—genetic and adoptive— with them.

One of my closest friends had her twin sons with the aid of an egg donor. Before her boys could understand the word “fertility,” they knew that somewhere in the world was a Very Special Lady who had made it possible for Mommy and Daddy to be their parents. Now the boys are three and the special lady is part of their family dialogue, as is her country, which the twins may visit someday. As they grow, these boys will have more questions which my friend and her husband will be happy to answer. These twin boys will know who they are genetically as well as culturally. One day, they too will be faced with boxes to check. They may choose one or more; they may choose to leave them all blank. Either way, by the time they are old enough to hold a pencil, my friend’s sons will understand that no box will ever truly define who they are.

 

I’m on a Podcast!

So I’m on a podcast! (As you can guess from the title of this post). I am honored to have been interviewed by Alex Barnett, Comedian, blogger and Multiracial Family man on his podcast, aptly named Multiracial Family Man.

Alex is the white, Jewish husband of a black woman (who converted to Judaism) and the father of a 3 year-old, biracial son. Each episode of his podcast is devoted to the issues that confront multiracial families and the experience of being biracial.

In my interview, Alex asks me basically everything about my experiences of being mixed and part of a multiracial family—from my parents’ marriage to my own, to how I handled my multiracial identity in college, grad school as well as in the ballet world.

Here are the links to the podcast:

On iTunes:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/multiracial-family-man-ep./id969793342?i=341813854&mt=2

And on Libsyn Podcast Network: http://traffic.libsyn.com/multiracialfamilyman/Lisa_Rosenberg_Podcast.mp3

By the way, Alex is smart, funny, down to earth and very candid about his family’s experiences. (Fun fact: it turns out he also went to college with my husband, though they never met!)

Make sure to check out Alex Barnett on the Web:

www.alexbarnettcomic.com

Youtube: www.youtube.com/alexbarnettcomic

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexbarnettcomic

Twitter: http://twitter.com/barnettcomic

To Dance Again: Return to Self

teaching at MAD LOM

A few years back, when I started this blog about body image and identity, I was thinking a lot about my relationship to ballet. It defined me from late childhood, though adolescence and into my late twenties. It was my niche, my career, until I left to find out who I was without it.

To recap: some time in 2012, after who-can-even-count how many years of not dancing, a friend lured me back to ballet class. I was flooded with all kinds of emotions—excitement, dread, nostalgia—but most of all, an overpowering sense of return-to-self.

Return-to-self isn’t anything I learned about in social work school, but I’d have to define it as a process of acute identity repair.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a sixty-something-year-old guy on the table next to mine at physical therapy. I was there for my knees—the culprits who’d distanced me from ballet. He was there for a leg or back injury, I never asked what. I should mention that my physical therapist, to distract patients from their agony, has large-screened TVs on every wall, all synced, streaming sit-coms from the 1990’s—Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond. Depending on the hour of your appointment, you can usually predict what will be playing.

At the time of my narrative, Will and Grace was on. After my neighbor and I shared a chuckle over Karen’s alcohol-fueled antics, he mused about how the country had changed since the show had aired.

“You can’t make cracks about alcoholism anymore,” lamented the guy with the back-or-leg injury. “You can’t even say words like Jew or Black on primetime without a lawsuit.”

Whether that’s true or not, I kept listening. Soon, the conversation led to the guy sharing some of his history with me.  He’d been an outdoor sports guy, he said. Hunting, boating, motorcycle racing. Sure, he’d suffered various wounds from these high-risk diversions. He’d been shot Cheney-style more than once (he showed me a shoulder scar), thrown from bikes and boats—all minor events he’d shrugged off at the time. But the injury he faced now (again, he did not specify, but later I saw he walked with a severe limp) had sidelined him from everything he loved to do. Everything.

“But my faith is in him,” he aimed a thumb at our PT, “and Him.” He re-directed said thumb toward the ceiling. “You watch. I’ll get back on that bike if it’s the last thing I do.”

I could see he meant it. Getting back on his motorcycle was worth that much to him. Life just wasn’t life without the thrill-rides he loved. That I understood.

For me, the sine qua non endeavor was ballet, as I wrote back in 2012, when I went back to ballet for the first time. I didn’t stick with it back then; my knees wouldn’t permit it. But I kept ballet in my heart, blogging about it, watching my favorites on YouTube, penning a novel about teenage ballet dancers in New York City. Through my characters, I still lived ballet, still danced in my mind and through my fingers on the keyboard. I kept thinking, should I try dancing again? Or should I let this be enough? I ran for exercise, so it wasn’t like I was completely sedentary. (Running, oddly, has no negative impact on my knees.) But every so often I’d wonder: is it really over? Will I never dance again?  That sounded so sad, so final. I pushed the thought away, rather than try to challenge it.

I still dreamed I was dancing, though. One night I even dreamed I was still good. I got back my arabesque, my turns, my elevation. The very next day, I got an email from a friend, a former dancer who runs a dance, theater and drumming school in town. Would I teach ballet for her one night a week, she wanted to know? Two classes, for ten to twelve year old girls? I thought it over and rose to the challenge. How could I possibly say no? Especially after the dream I’d had.

So back again I went. It’s been over a month. I never thought I’d love teaching children to do something that could be painful and frustrating as well as beautiful. But, guess what? I do. Because I value ballet for its elegance, its purity and the way it lets you merge with the music, I believe I’m giving these children something precious. I’m stricter than I thought I’d be, but also loving, because I can see that they love what I’m sharing with them. I don’t allow them to not point their feet; I don’t allow them to give up. But I do lavish praise on effort and hard work. I say things my teachers used to say—grow taller as you plié, drop the tailbone, roll back your shoulders and keep breathing!—and I mean them.

I have begun taking a weekly ballet class in addition to the ones I teach. What has happened is curious and hard to describe. I don’t do everything full-out, but as I dance, I can almost hear my soul clicking into place.

I still have my psychotherapy practice; I am still writing fiction—both of which I love. But now, the dancer in me is back from hibernation.

So what about you? How many years has it been since you did that thing you used to live for? It might have been a hobby or a passion—dirt-biking, fly fishing or found-object sculpting—any activity that completed you, that was your dessert after a hard work week. Maybe you performed with a band whose members all had day jobs. Maybe you wrote poetry you never shared with anyone, but that sustained you nevertheless. Or maybe you were one of the lucky few whose passion—be it acting or football—was once your career.

What took you away from that passion? An injury? The practical reality of needing to make more money? Lack of time? Maybe you can’t immerse yourself in the activity like you once did, but there might be a way to reconnect yourself with it. For example, one woman I danced with years ago, benched by a back injury, became a dance photographer. A friend and former performer—another psychotherapist—writes plays in her “spare time.”

If you ever look back on the days when that activity was part of your life, and think: That was when I was most fully me, you deserve this. Dust off your old passion and find a way to take it back, in any way you still can. Whatever it is, I wish you hope, courage, and a safe return to your Self.

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.

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?

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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.

CONTINUE READING

The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

It is a strange feeling, for a mostly home mom to be displaced, living with your family in the home of another family with another mostly home mom.  My host is the best imaginable.  Not only is she generous enough to put us up while we look for alternate housing for the year (minimum) that it will take to rebuild our house, she is also flexible enough to let my family’s schedule and quirks melt naturally into the flow of hers.  Somehow a routine is forming for us all.  If your house is destroyed in a fire and your kids are in school and you need time to find a big-enough-for-four, comfortable-enough-to live-in-for-a-year rental, there simply could not be a better situation.

Still, the fact remains that I cannot go home.  Not all the way.  I can go look at my home, I can smell my home, but I cannot provide a life for my family there.  And that’s a big piece of my mother-identity, on hold until we can go back.

People are amazed at how upbeat I seem, how well I’m taking it, how calm  I am.  They say this because I am not usually calm.  I am normally type A, with a long checklist of daily rituals and  requirements—for exercise, productivity, family care—in order for  the day to count.  But now that I’m removed from all that, I am indeed surprisingly calm.  I’m able to be so thanks to our god-sent host family and also to the fact that I have to be calm for the sake of my kids.

Still, the loss hits me in strange ways when I least expect it.  For example, our local paper ran an article about someone else’s generator fire.  In it was a flippant mention of another freak fire that had taken place the week before.     Something about “a house fire, just last week, when a family went out, leaving a lighted candle.”   By “a family,” I realized they meant us.

We hadn’t gotten the fire report yet, so it was news to us that we’d left a lighted candle.  The truth was we’d blown the candles out before going upstate and checked the house twice for stray ones.  However, there was one big pillar candle, a fat one—the kind you don’t think you need a base for—which we had blown out, but apparently NOT WELL ENOUGH.   There was still an ember, deep inside where we didn’t see it, an ember just strong enough to reignite.  It took all day and probably most of the next night to melt all the way down to the dining room table, for the wax to melt, serving as an accelerant, igniting the table, which burned through the floor, which fell into the basement, and so on, and so on.

But we didn’t know that yet, and reading the quote in the paper felt so demoralizing.  Careless couple torches own houseGoes up state to do laundry.

This enormous sense of helplessness hit me while I was driving, running some post-fire errand.  Helplessness because I could not undo this horrible thing, which was such a fluke, after all.  Helplessness because it was now something that felt so public casting a harsh, cold light on what should have been our private pain and loss.  Helplessness, because no matter which way I drove, I could not drive home.

As I came to one of the town centers, I noticed a small, white dog—a poodle mix of some kind, running across the street.  She was alone, no Frisbee in her mouth, no leash dragging behind her.  She scurried through the traffic, now up on the sidewalk, now back into the vehicular current.   Clearly frightened, she ran in circles; I was terrified that she’d get hit.  Now I noticed three young men in pursuit of her, meaning to stop her and keep her safe, but the dog didn’t understand.  All she knew was that three big humans with deep voices were chasing her.  She turned a corner and they followed.  I thought fast, made a three point turn (on a busy street), and drove around the other way, where I hoped to head the dog off and save her myself.  Surely she wouldn’t be afraid of a nice lady with a soft mommy voice, right?

Suddenly I knew: I had to save this little dog, whom I took for a stray.  I wanted to take her home, though I myself had none to share with her.  It didn’t matter; I had children, a husband; we were the perfect family for this animal (who looked like a non-shedding mix, which would be okay for Jon and Zoe’s allergies).  In fact, it was kismet that I had seen her on this day, of all days.  She was my phoenix, rising from the ashes of our home.

The morning after we learned our house had been destroyed, before we returned to New Jersey to view the damage, my husband and I had taken our kids to brunch at a little Rhinebeck diner.  We’d been talking about the year ahead: where we would live?  What we would do, while our home was being rebuilt?  We’d all cried and bemoaned the loss and now were at a new stage of grief: crisis management and making the best.  Without consulting one another, my husband and I had made the same, seemingly spontaneous promise to the children:

“When this is all over and we move back in, we’re getting a dog.”  The ultimate silver lining, as far as the kids were concerned.   My gaze had met Jon’s over the remains of an omelet.  Did we mean this?  Yes we did.

It wasn’t that spontaneous an idea.  Unbeknownst to the kids, we’d been thinking of it for almost a year, but now, we felt suddenly ready.   Partly, it was the loss of our gerbils in the fire, the tiny triumvirate who were themselves dog-placeholders.   But the fantasy of family life, complete with dog, somehow eased our homesickness.  As if having a dog in place would make our new home more solid than the one we’d lost.

The runaway pup had disappeared around the corner of Walnut and Christopher, where there was a big, leaf-covered schoolyard.   Once I’d made my illegal three-point turn, I sped ahead, whipped around Label Street and then onto Christopher, anticipating that the dog would be running toward me.  She was, with the three young guys still in hot pursuit.  I stopped abruptly, which startled the dog.  She froze, staring at my car.  I got out, approaching her slowly, one hand extended, addressing her in the gentlest tone I could, as I might talk to a lost toddler.  The guys followed my lead, but this seemed to make the dog even more uneasy.  She cowered just a little, black eyes darting from me to the guys and back.  I asked if they knew her; one guy said he’d seen her
around.   But when he took a bold step toward her, the little dog growled at him.   The young man jumped back as his friends chuckled.

“Uh—she really doesn’t like people.”

I refused to believe it.

“Hi sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice high and soft.  But she was afraid of me too:  the crazy lady with a minivan who seemed to be sniffling for some reason.  I knelt and repeated my words until she began inching toward me, meaning to sniff my outstretched hand, anxiously seeking  someone to trust.   How I wanted to be that someone.  But then, one of the guys made a sudden move which spooked her again.  The dog bolted, ran through the school yard, across the street and up the front steps of a house on the far corner.   By the time we caught up with her, she was pawing at the door, though no one seemed to be home.  The guy who knew the dog explained: he’d seen her there before and thought she lived there.

So the dog had a home, a rundown little home where no one seemed to be missing her at the moment, but still, a home with toys out front: a red wagon, a Little Tikes house and truck.  A home with children.  And now I could see that the dog had a collar and tag: a red, heart-shaped tag.   Someone had taken the care to provide her with that.

Finally–since no one seemed to want to harm her–the dog allowed one of the guys to get close to her.  First he let her sniff his hand, then gently he patted her.  She didn’t growl or otherwise object, though her tail did not wag.  The guy rose to ring the doorbell.  We all waited.  No one came.  The dog seemed to relax nevertheless, trust growing; we might be her friends.

The guy rang the bell again and still, no one came, so he called the phone number on the dog’s tag.  By now, I knew they had her under control.  There was no reason for me to stay any longer.   I was glad the dog was safe, glad that I might have played a role in her rescue.  Though as I walked back to my car, I felt this overwhelming sense of empty-handedness.

Here was my real fantasy of the rescue: I whip my car around the corner of Label and Christopher, the little dog stops, unsure, but sensing a loving presence behind the darkened windshield.  I get out, slide open the side of my minivan, crouch down to her level and say:

Here, Sweet Doggie.  Come: be safe and loved.   I have a family who needs you, who have lost a home just like you have.  Together we can make a new one.

It doesn’t take much coaxing, because her instincts are strong and she understands truly who I am and what I mean.  With a little yip and a wag of her tail, she hops inside and rides shotgun as I bring her home to begin a new life for us all.

Race 2012 Post #2: “A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

The following is my second (technically third) post for the blogging project affiliated with Race 2012: A Conversation about Race in America, the PBS Documentary that airs tonight, right after the presidential debate, and will be rebroadcast on October 19th.  Check your local listings; the air times are approximate and different everywhere.  Read more details about the blogging project on my friend Monica Medina‘s website.  Tune in!

“A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

You are on the subway, on your way to work, the train hurtling through the tunnels, when suddenly it screeches to a halt.
“We are experiencing delays,” the conductor announces over the aged, whistling speaker system. “There is a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us.  We expect to be moving shortly.”  Maybe he expects to be moving shortly because he’s new in town.  You, however, have been riding the subways for 20 years.  You know that “a sick passenger” on the train ahead equals roughly a 45 minute wait.  So you settle in.  You sigh, you look around the train car for a kindred spirit with whom to make eye contact, share a sigh and a headshake.  You’re a woman in your thirties.  Chances are the one with whom you make eye contact is also a woman, also in her thirties, or else forties, or twenties.

Or maybe you’re not heading to work; you’re going to the zoo and have your child in a stroller.  Your child fusses with the sudden motionlessness of the train, the noise of the speaker.  Some riders glare at you as the baby gets louder: maybe it’s not your fault we’ve stopped, but it is your child making the wait less pleasant.  But now a woman, clearly a mother herself, smiles at you.  It helps because you guess that she’s been in your shoes.  Another woman offers a baggie of crackers she usually saves for her child in situations like these.  She asks how old your baby is and tells you a story of her child at that age.  And just because of who you are and what you represent: a mother with a child, you have a community.

Your child is calm now, munching away on crackers.  You look up to notice that two elderly black men who did not get on the train together, who were not sitting near one another, seem to have introduced themselves and struck up a conversation.  Now they are laughing, warmly, with the acknowledgement of some shared experience.  They are too far away for you to hear what they’re saying but you can feel it between them: community.

And those college age girls, both dressed in black, eyes outlined in thick kohl—now they’ve exchanged the eye roll, the headshake.  Community.  You’re like me; I’m like you.  We’ll be here for a while.  But at least we’re a we sharing this nightmare.  And that we-ness, belonging to a group defined as much by who we are as who we’re not, really helps you get by sometimes.

Sometimes the we-ness comes from age, gender, being a parent or not a parent, sometimes from religion, class or marital status and sometimes from race.

Ah, race.  I see it as just one of many aspects of the person, but it’s often the one you see first, the one that’s most loaded, hardest to talk about and therefore the one I’ve been asked to discuss in the context of this current election.

How much does racial solidarity impact how we vote?  How important is it to have a “Like-me” president?   And when a candidate reflects our race, are we more likely to approve of him?  Are we more likely to find fault with a candidate of a different race?

In some ways, this election, like the last, is all about identity.  The issues that matter to a voter depend on his or her personal history,  socioeconomic status, education level and yes, in some cases, race.  Each of us wants our president to suit who we see ourselves as being.

Last time around each ticket had its own flavor.   We had the dynamic, black community-organizer-attorney and the older white guy with down home appeal.  On the other side was the aging, white war hero and the plain-spoken hockey mom who said things like “you betcha”?  Which ticket felt like YOU?  Were you one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies?  Or were you an Obama Mama?  Were you a member of the chai-drinking, tree-hugging liberal elite?  Or were you a gun-loving bible thumper?  Wherever you stood, whatever the candidates’ styles and values, right there in all our faces was this brand new development that meant something in history and to most everyone in the country as well.  The next president might be a black man.  A big deal, no matter how you felt about it.

Before 2008, only white, straight, Christian men had the option of picking a “like-me” candidate.  But with the last election, for the first time in history, it seemed that people of other descriptions might get that choice in the near future.  Those who supported a “liberal agenda” (and I mean liberal in a good way, going by the dictionary definition which is something like “applauding progress”) came in all persuasions, all races, orientations and religions.  Many saw themselves in Obama.

For affluent, educated blacks, Obama was more than a black candidate, he was a stereotype buster.  He made very public the image of a black man that we identified with and wanted the country to see.  Educated, well-spoken, passionate and above all, a family man through and through.  That the number one criticism of Obama, as he campaigned through the grain belt and the rust belt, was that he was too elite, too aloof, didn’t understand the concerns of the “working man” (remember Joe the plumber?).  For all of us who’d been living in the shadow of the angry-lazy-violent black stereotype, this was vindicating.  So you guys don’t want him because he’s too smart to be president?

Jump ahead four years.  It’s 2012 and we’ve been living with a biracial president for four years.  The fact of his race is no longer a novelty, but  there are those who still see the president first and formost as a black man.  He has been accused of hating white people, and at the same time, due to his mixed heritage, of not being black enough.

In any case race still matters in this country.  I know this when I Google words like African American, or black women, or interracial families.  I come up with blogs where strong opinions are voiced on everything race-related.  Some of it’s intense: white-separatist, Afro-centric, and everything in between.

Alas, we are not a post-racial society—as some jumped the gun in declaring, back in 2008, popping open the champagne bottles, tossing the confetti, cheering not just the election of the first African American president, but also the end of the Age of Race as we know it.   I think it was foolish to believe that electing a black president might somehow make racism a moot issue.  The higher any minority rises, the more of a threat he is to bigoted haters, the more vocal those haters will become.  All over the blogosphere are so called “patriots” who “love” the country and are heartbroken to that anyone with roots in the African continent should be running it.  They openly admit to hating Obama because of his race.  They call him horrible names, and the caricatures—don’t get me started.  But I believe those so called “patriots” (who flaunt their rabid disrespect for the president of our country) are on the fringe.

For the many of us who want him around for another four years, I think it’s less about Obama’s race these days than what he stands for. This time, it’s about the president’s policies.  How do you think he handled the mess he was handed?  Do you believe Obama truly saved us from another Depression?  And what about his approach abroad?  Do we want to keep him at the helm going forward?   Regardless of race, I do.

I won’t vote for Mitt Romney—not because he is white or Mormon or rich.  I won’t vote for Romney because I have no idea who he really is.  I don’t believe a word he says; I don’t trust him.  And maybe I think it’s cool that the president is biracial like me, but it’s not why I’m voting for him.  I’m voting for him because his worldview—not his skintone—matches mine.

Snapshot of Innocence

Who is that kid?  No it’s not another picture of my daughter.  It’s another child I care for quite deeply, actually.  I’ll give you a hint.  It was taken in 1970.

Yes, it’s me.  Looking pretty pleased with myself, my life and the mess I’ve made of my milk and strawberry ice cream.  My best friend Claire still lived on the ninth floor of my apartment building, I still went to the Manhattan Country School.  My favorite toy was a big, green and white corrugated cardboard puppet stage and I still believed I was going to get a dog and a baby sister one day, somehow.  I didn’t hate my hair.  I didn’t think I was fat.

The reason I love this picture is that I can see in my eyes all of the above.  I can see how safe I felt, how trusting and truly innocent I was.  When I look at that picture, I see the good, sweet, silly little girl I was and it makes me want to be good—to her and for her.

I know the expression “inner-child” has been used ad nauseam, fodder for cheap sit-com laughs for more than thirty years, but there’s something about remembering who we were as children, and how we were back then—that goes a long way toward banishing negativity in our present lives.

If you can, go and get a picture of yourself when you were little, say four or five.  Still the age of magical thinking, but old enough to have the language to order your thoughts, and an idea of what was going on around you.  Look at the picture for a minute.  A whole minute and see what you’re feeling.  Imagine that the child can see you and your life.  What conversation might you have?  I know what you wouldn’t say.  You wouldn’t tell the child she’s stupid or worthless or an idiot or a fat pig or ugly or incompetent.  You’d never tell her: “I can’t believe you screwed that up!”  “What’s wrong with you?” or anything so harsh.

I hope you don’t talk to your big-adult self that way either.  But sadly, a lot of people do.  Not all the time, but sometimes and sometimes is enough to count as beating yourself up.  Now think back to the last time you put yourself down, called yourself dumb or fat or anything intended to hurt yourself.  Imagine what you’d do if you saw someone treating the child in the photograph that way.  You’d probably defend the kid.  You’d stand up to the bully on the child’s behalf.  And finally you’d try to rectify the situation by building the child up, telling her something positive and hopeful.  You’d work at it until you saw her smile again.

Why?  Because children are all potential, all hope, all beautiful dreams.  No matter what their circumstances, they are blameless and deserving of the chance to be and do anything.  As adults, we have to recognize life’s and our own limitations.  We set more realistic goals, but strive, hopefully, to be the best we can at what suits us.  Sometimes there are false starts, unfortunate career choices, misguided relationships.  From every experience, good and bad, you learn and use that knowledge the next time you’ve got a choice to make.

I love that everyone is writing letters to past versions of themselves these days.  I think it’s such a wonderful mix of reflection and self acceptance.  Oprah had a whole section of her May 2012 issue devoted to  letters written by celebrities to their younger selves (hers is first).  And there’s the upcoming Dear Teen Me, to be released in October, edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, an anthology of YA authors’ letters to teens they once were.

All these letters are full of advice and reassurance: It’ll get better, don’t eat so much sugar, don’t smoke, have more fun.  The idea is to look back tenderly at your old self, nurture Kid You with the perspective Grown-up You has gained over the years.  Since we’re generally nicer and more patient with children than we are with adults, this might be a step toward showing yourself love.

When I’ve done trauma work—with teens and young adults who were victimized as children— there is a visualization exercise we do.  The following is a generic, sketch-description (and note that this kind of exercise is never done too soon in the therapy, never too early in a support group).

Close your eyes and imagine yourself a small child again, at the time when [the abuse] took place.  Remember yourself, your room.  Tell me some of the details, what toys are around? What’s on the walls?  Where are you in the room?  Remember the place where [the abuse] happened.  Tell me what is happening.  Now, I want you to choose someone from any time period in your life—even the present—an adult who is strong and loyal and can protect and defend you.  Now bring that person back with you.  Let that person protect you and stop [the abuse/abuser]. (Can you tell me what’s happening?  How the protecting adult stops [the trauma]? 

Now, Can you tell me who it is that saves you?

More than once, when I did this exercise, either with an individual or with a group, the answer to the last question was:

MYSELF.  That’s who saves me.  Myself as an adult, how I am now.”

There is something very powerful in the notion of you—the grownup—saving your past self.  Only you can be that loyal to you.

You are not that child anymore.  You are not reliant on other adults to guide you, nurture you and cheer you on.  (Maybe you’re parenting kids of your own, caring for your own parents at the same time.)  But that child is still part of your identity.  You carry her with you always.  Remember her: the hope she had, the small joys and big dreams, no matter how much they’ve changed over the years.  You can honor her by being true to your current goals, your current dreams, by believing in yourself.

So have standards for yourself, for your work, for your parenting and treatment of others and care for the environment.  But don’t make those standards impossibly high, and don’t chastise yourself on those days when you fall a little bit short.  Instead, look at the picture, look into the child’s eyes and believe you deserve the same love she did.