Monday, August 31, 2009

a girl can dream...

Things I fantasize about on a semi-regular basis:

  • being able to enjoy a red velvet cupcake without murderously ruining my digestive tract and feeling like I want to die.
  • scoring a full-time professorship at a major university somewhere were summer lasts more than twelve weeks, where there is lots of sunshine, where I can grow herbs and vegetables in a backyard, and where I can still live in an urban, interesting, diverse city center.
  • being interviewed by WNYY's Terri Gross on Fresh Air. (Seriously, if you don't know this show, you HAVE to tune in to your NPR affiliate and hear it; it's the greatest.) She asks me questions about a successful career as an essayist and short story writer, about my family and my upbringing. I am hilariously witty, my answers are thoughtful and compelling, and my pauses are loaded, and don't at all sound unprepared.
  • being graceful and strong enough to invert my body and do a handstand, forearm balance, and maybe even a headstand, with no fear and no pain to my body.
  • hearing my mother say to me, "I understand. I think you're right. I think your idea is wonderful, and I think you are wonderful."
  • hearing my mother say to me, "I'm sorry."
  • having health insurance I can afford.
  • watching my partner do a job that is an investment in his artist's soul and his skill as a writer, and not just that keep us in blue jeans and food.
  • the choice to do the thing that is good for my body and good for the planet not being the choice that is too expensive for me to make.
  • being able to afford the therapy I need.
  • his mother giving me a hug, and saying "I've been thinking about you."
  • being able to swim with grace and ease and strength, and always believing I will have the wisdom and stamina to put my head above water and breathe air, and never worry that I will try to breathe water instead.
  • choosing not to explain myself or my actions if I don't want to.
  • being motivated to make the planet a better place one small choice at a time, and doing so by myself, so I don't get caught up in what others are thinking of me, or how my work compares to their work.
  • gorgeous high heels I can wear for more than an hour without wanting to hurl them into Lake Michigan.
  • trusting the storyteller inside me and never having to fear that the fountain's drying up.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I am not my hair?

I woke this morning intending to skip blogging today. Several deadlines looming, including one for a storytelling cycle I've recently become a part of that has me a bit spooked, if only in a good, productive, "get off your ass and write" kind of way. It's the second day of rain here in Chicago, and summer's almost over anyway, which just adds insult to injury. And I'm nursing a sore tricep--working on building strength so I can balance upside down on my forearms is slow going. So I was going to skip the extended pointed journaling and try to get right to work.

But then my blessed, thoughtful sweetheart sent me this article. I squealed with interest, I read it quickly, and I thought, "yeah, I can't just skip this. I think I have to write about it." I'm not going to take for granted that the knowledge of black hair's volatility within the black community is as common knowledge as it is within my own heart and mind. It's as likely as not that "the black woman's hair question" is a brand new concept.

I chemically treated my hair one way or another for years, in large part, because I didn't know I could do anything else with it. My senior year in college I cut my perm (aka relaxer) off and went natural. It was the most liberating thing I've ever done, and I felt at my sexiest when my hair was that short. Sadly, I have no digital pictures of my hair at such a close, sexy cut, but those people who knew me when I wore it short will testify it was something like this.


I often wore sharp-edged stone and acrylic necklaces, too.

I started locking in 2005. I'd been back in Chicago a year, had been letting my 'fro grow in, but decided I wanted to do something to it, with it. I met a woman with absolutely stunning locks who put me on to a great book about natural hair care, and in March I took the plunge. That was four years ago. My locks are about shoulder-length now, the longest hair I've had since I was probably twelve, and they are a good two inches longer than the disgruntled photo of myself attached to this blog. (The face I'm making always cracks me up--so cranky!) I locked because I loved the idea of taking care of my own hair, as opposed to having to pay someone to do it for me: I liked the connection between my body and my soul, and frankly, I was a broke grad student and couldn't afford the time or money to visit the beauty shop and have it cut every three weeks just to keep it looking clean. I've since fallen madly in love with my locks, as an expression of a historical and cultural identity, as well as just a pretty cute style. And I love that there's no chemical at all that goes into my hair to make it do what it do. It happens by itself. Quietly.

I like the idea posited in this article that black hair is as often as not just what someone feels like doing with their hair, that it need not always be a fist in the air. It began that way for me, but it's changed now. I would love to say that black hair is not a political statement; I'm just not sure that it's true. If someone can get away with calling one of the First Daughters into question for wearing her hair in twists as a questionable representation of America, how can black women not feel like how we wear our hair is a political statement? (true, very few of us are in as much limelight as Malia Obama, but you get me.)

The thing that makes it a political statement is that there are always other people looking at you and trying to figure you out based on what they see. I feel this way about myself, all the time: whether I'm being sized up as an easy mark with a wallet full of cash, a single lady who might go home with him, someone who might stop and sign her petition, a teacher who won't enforce the College's attendance policy, or a woman who looks black but sounds white, I feel like somebody is always measuring what's on the outside and trying to determine what's on the inside. This is the thing that makes hair--like it makes language usage, or education, or dress or body language--a statement of politics and not just personal expression. I haven't read enough Malcom Gladwell to know what's the science behind what I'm putting down here. I'm just saying that whether you want them to or not, somebody's always going to assume something about you based on what they see. A lot of the times, they'll be wrong.

I also used to feel an incredible amount of consescencion toward black women who chose to chemically straighten their hair. I couldn't bear to think of what they were doing to the structure of their hair, what standard of beauty they felt they had to cater to, what they had been brainwashed into thinking was beautiful--which was not who they were--that they would try to become by straightening their hair. I know about the fact that for some women it's just more convenient to wear your hair relaxed, and that there are some women who feel like they want to but just can't break away from the thing they've been doing. And I get it. But dig the other side of that coin: my mom used to say to me, "Jessica, you should let your hair grow long. Black men love women with long hair. They like to run their fingers through it, you know? Reminds them of a white woman."

yeah, let that one sink in a bit.

Now, I've written before about the things my mom says and how untrue they are, how she's taking injury she suffered at the hands of someone else and trying to pour it into me so that I won't face the pain she did. But seriously? I'm going to straighten my hair so that it can remind my loved one of someone who's culturally and racially not me, of what is generally percieved as the paragon of the cultural standard? What the fuck!

So now, I try really hard to love black women and their hair, regardless of what choice they've made. It's easier if I hope that they're choosing to straighten their hair, and not feeling without the option of going natural. But I try really hard to let that "set your own standard" idea be true. I'm still pretty burdened by the amount of women I see with fake this glued to their scalp and acrylic that dangling from the tips of their fingers: but I guess that's just about personal aesthetics.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What have I become?

a fiancee.

oh god.

When I came out on this blog as the marrying kind, I promised myself that this blog wouldn't become about me talking about which hip shade of pink I want my shoes to wear, or what Etsy shop I found to make my sweetheart the perfect groom's gift, or the DIY project I'd force my attendants to do, working them like 17-year-olds in Beijing who escaped the country just to live in a dorm and make place cards for me. I like taking apart the complicated stuff of life, I like pissing people off--because I hope after they're mad, that they can think about what I said--I like writing about things I don't understand, trying to find the answers, and I like the nudge from someone else who sees it differently.

But now. I've been on the phone to caterers and thinking (I mean, really thinking, even if it is early days) about floral arrangements, and fretting about others' hurt feelings if there's no liquor at our reception. Now I am a fiancee.

God help me.

I've been having kind of a tough time, feeling like the wedding blog world doesn't get women who look like me, and are doin' it like me. Here's part of an email I wrote to a handful of women who all write righteous blogs on theirs and others nuptials:

Here's my struggle: As much as I am looking for pointers and personal experience about djs, or centerpieces, or what to do if you aren't serving a cake at your wedding (I'm gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy free. If you've got an idea, holla back), I am also looking for diversity of personal story, and what I'm finding is generally homogenous in a discouraging way.

Here's what I mean: I'm a nearing-thirty black American woman with f*cking amazing locs, a writer and a teacher living in Chicago. I live with an American born Chinese man eleven years my senior who's also a writer and leads a double life as a
software-business analysis guru. I am an only child and was raised in a Christian home, and still consider myself a practicing Christian, if not the way my parents wish I were (a glimpse into my own family dynamic, eh?); he is the eldest of three boys by a non-practicing Presbyterian and a non-practicing Buddhist. He doesn't really have a whole lot of religious ritual, but I want our wedding to represent us as spiritual beings as well as relational and creative ones. His parents could take or leave me, though I have my suspicions that they'd rather leave me; my parents seem pretty warm to him, my dad esp., but my mom is being polite in the chilliest sense.

My point is, there's a whole lotta diversity, just up in my relationship. There's not a whole lotta diversity in the wedding blog world. I feel like I read a lot about white women who are marrying white men, or same sex white couples marrying. Why is that? Where is the diversity? I want to read about Chinese wedding traditions from someone who's practiced them and what they mean to her as a woman (or man), and not just what outfits got worn. I want to read about another black woman who's marrying a man of a different race, and how she copes with others' antiquated perceptions, not just about how the broom she'll be jumping is decorated. I want to read about the struggle of inter-racial, inter-religious couples and their families. I want to read about marrying couples of color, and I feel like I'm having a really hard time finding any on wedding blogs.


I'm sincere and I'm resourceful, and not too indignant, and I'm hoping to get at least a coupla hits back. I'm sure that the thoughtful writer over at Accordions and Lace, which one of my closest girlfriends turned me onto, can feel me, but about the others, we'll see.

I've been spending the last 20 plus years trying to figure out what it means to be a woman, a person of color in America, an artist. Now I have wife to throw into the mix.

I am so lucky God doesn't make me figure all this stuff out right now.

Otherwise I'd be screwed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You Lucky Girl

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
--Peggy McIntosh



I've been thinking about writing about privilege for a while. But thoughts recently have taken me in a different direction, so I'm going to do it today, but not the way I thought I would.

(I emailed a tinier, tidier version of these thoughts to my producer this morning. If she picks it up and airs it on Chicago Public Radio, I'll let you know when and how to listen in, should you be interested.)

I don’t tend to think of myself as a person of privilege. Privilege is a concept best reserved with white people who generally are unaware of the fact that their whiteness gets them a lot that others just aren't party to. The truth is, I am a person of privilege for a lot of reasons: I seldom worry about how I will afford to buy food; I have a good education and a job; I am loved by wonderful people. I just never thought of myself privileged.

And then I got engaged. I looked around and discovered another way in which I am privileged: I'm straight. Illinois legally recognizes my desire to marry, and I don’t have to deal with the marriage versus civil union versus domestic partnership argument. I have the privilege of marrying whom I please because the state has ok’ed the nature of my relationship. I've never felt quite so privileged before, in a negative sense. Marrying my sweetheart is something I can take blithely and entirely for granted, and that fact kind of upsets me. It upsets me that I can take for granted something so important, so intimate and powerful, that so many people in this state and others are denied.

I've heard it said that same-sex marriage is a states’ rights issue. This seems like a sloppy and dismissive means of dealing with a denial of civil rights. Slavery was a states’ rights issue: it was such a divisive issue that our country fought itself over a state’s right to abuse and dehumanize others for economic gain and social comfort. Slaves were legislated to be considered three-fifths of a man, and were treated like even less. It was illegal to teach a slave to read; they had no names of their own, according to the white American institution, and had to be given names by their masters. Slaves could not legally marry, because they were not legally people. This fear enacted into law didn't actually stop these men and women from learning how to read, or from marrying each other. An intended couple created their own ritual of jumping over a broom to signify their marriage, and in this way continued to create families. The idea of stealing someone's civil right just to preserve one's own peace of mind, and trying to sweep it under the rug as "a states' rights issue" strikes me as very dangerous, given our American history. In hindsight, we can all agree that slavery was bad, right? The latter 20th century was dominated by a dogged pursuit of civil rights to the descendants of slaves in this country. Slavery is so far in our country’s rear-view mirror that we can acknowledge the atrocity of denying basic civil rights, including marriage, to people because those in power were more comfortable perceiving them as less than human. Our nation has a history for legislating the human body, and now it wants to legislate peoples’ love; I smell blood in the water.

Same-sex marriage first entered my consciousness when I was 23 and living in southwest Florida. I was working for a non-profit, and my direct supervisor (whom I've written about before) was a tender-hearted, thick-skinned, smiling, conservative baptist woman who, when I raised the issue casually at work, told me it was really just all about stuff.

Stuff. Seriously? Now, let’s really think about that idea for a minute. When my sweetheart got down on one knee in the clear, dusky summer night and asked, “Jess, will you marry me?” I was speechless. My mind was racing, thinking about how much I love him, and about his supernatural capacity to love me, to make me feel safe and treasured, about how excited I am to spend the rest of my life with him, growing together. I could barely breathe for all the joy zooming around inside me. I screamed in surprise and delight and then whispered, "yes!" I was not thinking, “Well, this is actually a really good idea, because if he kicks it before I do, once we’re married, I won’t have to argue with his family over his sci-fi collection, his endless piles of tchochkes, and his boxes and boxes of papers that he cannot throw out. I’ll get to keep all that stuff for myself: I wonder if I could sell it on eBay.” Straight long-term couples are partnered because we’ve found someone we can commit to for the long haul; we want to share our lives and build families together. Why would same-sex couples want anything less, but instead care about who gets their old Earth, Wind and Fire records? Marriage rights aren't about stuff: they're about the same kind of care and consideration that hetero couples are given by marriage, about (cue self-righteous music here) the sanctity of commitment and the sanctity of family, and protecting all of the things that conservatives seem to think are in danger of being ruined.

My sweetheart and I talked about this issue recently (it resurfaces in our dialogue) and he has remained what I would consider sensitively ambivalent about it. He tells a story of being an undergrad at Harvard, which I have learned is not just a fancy-pants private uni for rich white kids and future presidents, but is also a wildly liberal and in some ways counter-institutional house of learning. He told me that someone who was fighting for the pink triangle cause on campus told him (this was in the literature) that the average gay person is white, male, college-educated, has a white collar job and earns an above median income. Are you kidding me?, he thought. The average gay person is in a better position than I am; what do these people need my help for?

We both received an email from the Courage Campaign about the fact that the campaign thankfully raised more money than it had initially needed. Writes Rick Jacobs in the form email, "I am shocked and amazed to tell you that Courage Campaign members raised $77,905 yesterday, beating our deadline by two days. You read that right -- $77,905 in just 24 hours, for a grand total of $135,998 that we will immediately invest in research, polling and focus groups to repeal Prop 8."
My sweetheart said to me, "you couldn't raise that kind of money for black unwed mothers in a year of campaigning. " His beef is that there are people being denied civil or human rights all over the country, all over the world, who lack the resources that may be available to and in the gay community.

He has a point. I mean, it's clear by now that I'm in favor of gay couples having the right to marry just as straight ones do. I hate the idea that any government, state or federal, is okay with snatching up someone else's rights, because it reminds me that my own rights might not be so safe. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"* and all that. But still. What would happen to problem like child hunger, or domestic violence, or the overwhelming ruination of the American justice system toward people of color, if people got as frothy-mouthed and riled up about these things as they do about gay marriage?

I’d love to say that out of solidarity for gay couples that my fiancĂ© and I are planning to opt out of state sanctioned marriage, that we're going to tell the state to take their institution, fold it in five corners and stick where the sun don’t shine; but I can’t. He and I want to be married, according to state and church. But I’m deeply aware that I’m privileged to engage in this ritual that others are denied. It hurts my feelings. It grieves me that people would deny marriage rights because gay marriage makes them uncomfortable. Love is such a complicated and rare thing in our world: I believe we have bigger problems than trying to legislate how others commit to each other. I'm sorry for the fear and ignorance that grips so many hearts, and I'm sorry for the absence of law that is fair and just for everyone in this state and in our country.

*The one, the only, the incomparable Martin Luther King, obviously.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Clay Feet

I've been thinking a lot lately about the space between people--not in a physical, tangible sense, more like the facts around one person that prevent him from being just like another person. I'm aware of a growing sense of frustration that more and more people in the world prefer to distance themselves from one another, then examine the space between them and judge themselves and others based on the nature of that space. Maybe this is an old lesson for some people, but to me it feels frighteningly fresh.

I used to be a part of this small group of women; we'd get together to talk about things of faith, and of life, of relationship and work. One Sunday afternoon the subject of pedophilia came up. I don't remember how, I just remember that we were talking about men who, for whatever reason, felt the need to sexually prey upon young children. I do remember that we talked about 20/20, and the episodes wherein the show would hire pedophile catchers to pose as teens and then the anchor and cameraman would humiliate the pedophile who thought he'd come for a prepubescent roll in the hay with Taylor or Carlie, or whatever made up profile they'd been attracted to.

The small group conversation was rife with judgement and vitriol for these men, calling them monsters and animals, completely deriding them. Some of these women spoke so swiftly about how awful they were and spoke without a trace of the grace that their God gifts to people if they just believe. I was stunned. I'd never seen these women go from zero to malevolently inhuman quite so fast. Yes, it's a deplorable subject and it's incredibly easy to find the bad guy in it. The bad guy is the one who wants to touch the kids, we've caught him red-handed, on video even, case closed, check please. What I was unable to understand was that many of these women seemed unable to recognize that it was only the smallest of margins that separated these men from themselves. If the world is truly a fallen place, then we who know Christ are only rescued from the worst that humanity is capable of, by His presence in our lives. There is nothing, nothing, that allows us to think that we are any better than anyone else; if we hold up our "good person-ness" or our ability to "give back to the community" or our good kind hearts, we're just fooling ourselves, because all of these things are able to be corrupted, to be ruined, and then we are no better than the very ones we sneered at in the gutter, who are ruled by their base natures and forced to feed their hideous deplorable appetites.

It could be that I'm biased. When I was growing up, an ex-con moved into the house next door; it was his mother's house, and he must have had no other place to go, so in he moved with the heavyset old lady with the cottony white hair. We got one of those Amber letters or Katie letters or whatever requires the state of Ohio to tell you when a sex offender is moving onto your block. Now, I have no idea what kind of law he broke. I read a story about a man here in the state of Illinois who killed a seventeen-year-old who attacked him, and the state registered him as a sex offender (which cut off a good bit of his life possibilities post-prison) because the victim of the crime was under 18. It could be that this man wasn't a sex offender at all, but was registered as one on a similar technicality. It could be that he made and distributed kiddie porn, or that he abducted little boys, or that he liked to expose himself to kids on playgrounds. None of it is good or appropriate, or healthy, and the good folks in Columbus mailed us a letter about it when he got out. I always felt sorry for him; we never met--my parents saw to that--but I thought he couldn't have had much of a life taking care of his infirm mother and being an ex-con. Notwithstanding, I saw the cannon of judgement that my folks leveled and fired at him over and over while we lived next door, and I thought every family on the block must be thinking things similar. It was as if whatever debt he'd paid to society was unimportant. There was no second chance, and everyone who knew was content to, perhaps wanting to, label him as a ne'er-do-well, a pervert, a deviant without hope of change.

Recently, I heard a woman on NPR who attended one of these raucous town hall meeting to discuss our President's plan for health care. It was a while ago, but she argued that some policy of universality would make this country, this proud bastion of democracy, "into Russia, or China." She said this with such derision in her voice, as if citizens of Russia are dogs, and Heaven forfend that we consider ourselves anything similar. We are Americans, and anything that does not look like our system is most certainly the dregs of society. Someone should remind her that these are people, people as we are people. They love their country, like we do, and they chose a system of government that they thought would serve their citizens in the best way possible. Unfortunately for them, they were wrong, and now, like just about every country in the world, they're trying to get their feet back underneath them.

But can someone tell me what makes democracy and capitalism so great? I don't know if I'm a socialist or not, mainly because I don't understand politics or economics that well. I love my country, because I can write this kind of a blog posting, and I know that the odds are good that the government won't completely edit it out. I love that I can be grateful for the people who are serving in my military, I love that I can choose to protest the war they fight in, and I love that I don't have to go. I love that I am absolutely doing my duty by disagreeing with the way my government runs, and anyone who says that questioning authority of government it unpatriotic can sod off. Our government does its best for its citizens, but it fucks over just as many as any communist or socialist country. We Americans aren't really as free as we think we are, are we? Isn't that the dirty little secret of our free market, one man one vote system over here, that it's really all a big machine that makes the same kind of scary and sobering decisions that happen in countries we love to pretend we're better than? That the manipulation and movement is so stealth and so swift that if we blink we miss it? The system works us all over, and flying red white and blue instead of stars and scythe is just a technicality.

My point is this: inside, where all the labels don't matter and where very little distinguishes one from the other, I am no better than he, and you are no better than she, and we are no better than they. We are all human, and we cannot rely on the flimsy idea of "I could never do that," or "I don't understand how anyone can be capable of such things" to make us feel better. The fact is that you are lucky enough to have avoided the acrid, eye-watering mixture of things that makes men into pedophiles, that turns women to rock hoes, that ruins governments. To pretend anything within ourselves has made us better than them, is deception. Perhaps it is the kind of deception that people need to tell themselves in order to sleep at night. But I fear this pervasive dehumanizing of others. No good can come of this.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Open Letter to My Future Mother-in-Law

Dear Mrs. C--

It was lovely to visit with you on your recent trip to Chicago, and to spend time with your three sons. You must be so proud of the way they turned out, three accomplished men, hard workers with a strong sense of duty and responsibility.

And now your eldest son has found a woman he wants to marry. I can imagine this step in his life, and in your own, fills you with a flurry of emotions that almost anyone wouldn't know how to handle, but that you seem to be doing your best to ignore. It occurred to me recently that perhaps you're frightened of something about my relationship with your son; perhaps you have an inaccurate and disturbing perception of who I am and what I want with him. Perhaps you'd like some reassurance as to who I am and how I relate with your boy.

Mrs. C---, I love your son with my whole heart. I love the generosity of spirit he has, and the humor, and the ardent profound affection he feels for those closest to him, and the need within him to take care of them. Surely you can acknowledge these things in the way he treats you and Mr. C--- as well as his brothers. You may not know that he treats me with the same care, the same thoughtfulness and consideration. He is a funny, open-hearted, hardworking incredibly kind man. Not only that, but he is a talented artist. This, Mrs. C---, is perhaps the part of your son which you and your family appreciate the least about him, and I say without exaggeration that it is this part of him with whom I fell in love first. His writing has taken my breath away before; he is so pensive, and so provocative, and so subtle and subversive as an artist, and listening to him talk about art, or read his own writing, always causes me to reflect on the truth he illuminates that I never saw, as well as to reconsider my own truth that I posit. I pity you, Madam, for not knowing or rejoicing in this part of your son. It is as rich and verdant a part of his heart as any other, and your ignorance of who he is as an artist and a writer gives you only a truly shallow awareness of his self.

Mrs. C--- I want nothing from your son but to love him and build a life with him. I want to stand beside him and watch him create, and hear the call of his voice over the din of words in my own head as I create. I want to lie beside him and listen to the echo of my heartbeat in his chest. I want to travel with him, to experience the things he know of which I am ignorant, and to show him the places I have been that he has yet to see. I might want to raise children with him, watch how he will joke with his son and teach his daughter; I don't know yet.
I do not want to sit in his home and allow him to take care of me. I want to work as hard to support our family as he does. I want to earn enough money so that he can quit the jobs he hates--jobs he is encouraged by you and your husband to continue working--and write, happily, wholly, with dogged focus and furrowed brow. I want to knit my life to his. I want to promise him that if he is ill, or in an accident, that I will spend all that I have and all that I am taking care of him.

I can promise him all of these things with a light heart, Mrs. C--- for I know without doubt that your son has already promised them to me.

I also want something from you, Mrs. C---. I want you to care that I am here. I want to matter to you because your son matters to you, and whether you like it or not, whether you understand it or not, I make your son so happy he could cry. I want to be acknowledged by you as a useful, viable, functioning source in your family dynamic. I want to be considered a member of your family by you, not just "that woman who is married to my son." I want you to treat me with love and kindness, with respect and consideration. I feel that these things must be possible; after all, your boy treats me with these things: he had to learn them from somewhere. I would like to consider you a second mother, and not just my husband's mother. I would like for us to enjoy each other, to consider each other, to care for and listen to and engage with one another, and to hold each other in a special place in our hearts.

I believe, Mrs. C---, that these things I desire are impossible. I believe that you will probably never care about me the way I'd like you to. This challenge makes it quite hard for me to feel kindness, affection, affinity for you. Truth be told, I struggle often with impatience, with frustration, weary of waiting for something (I don't know what, God knows) to dawn on you and soften your heart and loosen your tongue. I want to bang my head against walls sometimes: spending time with a woman who treats me quite like she couldn't care less whether I was present or not, whether I was well or not, is incredibly difficult. Perhaps the kind of warmth and affection I speak of and ask you for is simply beyond you; perhaps your life experience has caused you to harden your heart and toughen your skin so thoroughly that you are unable to allow yourself any vulnerability at all. That would be sad, I think, for both of us. If a woman like you can raise such an amazing son--flawed, to be certain, but absolutely lovable, nevertheless--there must be something good in her. If a woman like me can love your son, there must be something good in her. If we were unable to hold each other in the kind of intimate way I hope for, we would both be worse for it. However, I fear that it is simply not possible for you to access the kind of feeling for which I hope. I have learned that it has nothing to do with me, that despite my attempt to soothe you, you will still be abrasive and apathetic, and that it isn't a response to me at all, but to something inside you that still tortures you. I am sorry for that also. I only hope that my love of your son can give you some comfort, that you can rest easy knowing that your boy has a woman in his life who loves him well, who takes good care of him in more ways than you can conceive, and who will continue to do so, despite whatever hardships may exist for the two of us.

With much sincerity and affection,
Jessica M. Young

Monday, August 17, 2009

Just. Say. Yes.

About two years ago I stopped eating meat. I've written about this before. It was a choice not really motivated out of any need to protect fellow creatures on the earth; my sweetheart eats meat, and I don't shed tears for the beloved cow who gave its life. I like knowing that vegetarianism is good for the environment, although I can't prove that, I just read somewhere that the land used to feed animals and the gas used to transport them is bad, and that if more people were vegetarians the planet would thank us. That feels good inside me, so I dig on it, but I don't know for certain that it's true.

Mostly it was just about my body; my body didn't seem to like digesting meat, so I stopped doing it.

Then, this winter I found out that my body also doesn't like digesting gluten, sugar, dairy products, food dyes and cumin (of all the random and beloved spices not to tolerate, bloody hell!).

So eating--the simple act of preparing food to nourish and love my body--has suddenly become hella tricky. Eating out is a nightmare. Sometimes I get a server who knows what's in the food, who can answer questions honestly and purely, and who doesn't mind running to the kitchen twice to find out what he doesn't know. Sometimes I get a server who doesn't really care that eating the wrong food could make me incredibly sick, and sometimes I get the server who just lies to me so I'll order already and they can get the hell away from the table. This means I try to eat at home a lot, but my sweetheart likes to eat out, so where to go becomes a dance of which place has the menu that can accomodate me.

It's a different ball game when dining with friends.

I often feel like I'd rather just have them over, that way I can cook and know what I'm putting in the food. But I love breaking bread with people and when they invite us over, I want to say Yes! But it's hard to; it's a qualified yes. I feel like such a heel saying, "well, sure, but I can't eat half of what's in your cabinets, so if you're willing to be creative, read the labels of things exhaustively and prepare most of the food from scratch using fresh, or sometimes alternative, ingredients, then right on!"

More often its,
"So it's just red meat you're off, you eat chicken, right?" No.
"I was thinking of doing a teriyaki stir-fry, how does that sound?" No. (Sugar and gluten both in the sauce.)
"What about pasta primavera? A light olive oil sauce?" No. Gluten in the pasta.
"Sushi?" No. Sugar in the sushi rice, gluten in the soy sauce, no fish.
"You don't eat fish?" No.

No. No no no no no. I get tired of saying it. It's one thing if you're just gluten free, because you can eat a giant hunk of pork if you choose, provided you know how it's been prepared. But with the other dietary choices I've made, I often feel like I'm walking through the grocery store or looking at a menu and just saying No No No.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, I decided to start eating fish again. In the evening sweetheart and I were planning on eating out, and I opted for catfish tacos.

"Really?" he asked.
"What the hell. I've been talking about saying yes to fish for weeks now. The acupuncturists seem to think it's a good idea. I might as well just do it."

So I did. And it was great. Heaven did not descend, there was no glow or angelic music, and my body didn't snap to with a renewed sense of vigor and verve. It was just good catfish and I digested it just fine. It felt really nice to look at something listed under sandwiches (which for so long has just felt like enemy territory) and point at it and say yes.

So now I'm saying yes to fish. I can eat sashimi, because there's no sugar rice underneath it. I can say yes to just about any fish dish, depending on how it's prepared. I can say yes to the man across the counter who asks if I'd like to try the catch of the day. It hasn't opened up the floodgates of food I can eat, but it has made me feel just a bit freer as far as the food I choose to put inside me, how I choose to nourish and love my body.

I'm getting pretty good at saying yes. When the sweetheart asked me to be his wife, I said yes, too.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

you're a what?

Yes, the great artist, and by this I mean the poet as well as the painter
and the sculptor, finds even in suffering, in the death of loved ones, in the
treachery of friends, something which fills him with a voluptuous though tragic
admiration. At times his own heart is on the rack, yet stronger than his
pain is his own bitter joy which he experiences in understanding and giving
expression to that pain.

Auguste Rodin

I'm wrestling with a crapload of artist's anxiety lately.

I am ridiculous for wanting a life as an artist: a life where I make Art, Capital-A Art, as life. I am ridiculous for wanting a life where I can write about that which confuses and frustrates and arouses me, where I can write about my anger and my shame and my joy, and I am ridiculous for hoping the challenge and discovery I awake will be valued to such a degree that someone will pay me anything for it. I am ridiculous for wanting to pursue the relentless fear that I feel from being an artist, for having the mediocre jobs I must keep in order to afford the moments I snatch to jot these things down, to jot other things down, to try and string thoughts together to create cohesion and beauty and opposition and the icy poking finger of perhaps an alternative at someone's status quo. I should have gone to law school. Or majored in marketing.

I am ridiculous for wanting to make a life with my sweetheart, wherein he can do the quiet, esoteric artistic work, where he can have a process that is markedly different from my own, that I don't understand, but that he must pursue because without its pursuit, he will die. I am ridiculous for wantning the artist's life, a life that so often seems fraught with fear, uncertainty, self-doubt, poverty, inconsistency, rejection and compromise.

Writing has so rarely felt like it was not work. Not white collar work, but dirty work, sweaty, complicated, drops of blood on the paper, fuck-why-can't-i-think-of-the-word/image/object/gesture work? I often feel like I should be doing something else with my life, something that my family won't hint at being a waste of time, or won't ask when I'll be able to acheive the next thing that is maybe less creative and more practical. If I were doing something else with my life, somethng more tangible and left-brained, I could make enough money for my sweetheart to feel like he could create the way he needs to.

A quick tour around the Loyola Museum of Art this weekend, with Rodin and photography of Paris and Chicago. It stirs around the parts of me that make things, and the parts of me that resent the rest of my life for preventing me from making things. Now I have a man in my life--and have had for some time--who, despite his blessed creativity, and his ardent appreciation for my life and work as an artist, is at times a distraction, a prevention from the work. And I am the same: as much as I love and want to make possible his ability to make things, sometimes I am just another burden on his list, just another thing that keeps him from his journal, from his sketchpad, from the page.

I love the work. I love my partner.
I do not love the life of the artist.
I don't know if I would know what else to do with myself if I didn't create. My life would be infinitely harder if I'd gone to law school, or if I worked in journalism or PR.
But this life... I am stumbling and struggling and failing often at making this artist's life.

Friday, August 14, 2009

writing time!

A number of factors getting in my way this week about getting words down.
But,
a friend of mine produced the following PSA for the US Dept. of Health and Human Services contest on flu PSAs. Dig it, and if you like it, tell him so.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhnTcRA4PDc

Monday, August 10, 2009

Teach your children well.

While at a festival at Millennium Park with some friends recently, I took note of this chubby sweet little white girl. She was probably four or five, with thick braided pigtails and cheeks that were round and ruddy like something out of an antique comic strip. She was playing with her grandmother, who was holding a piece of fruit out of her grasp, and shrieking with giggles, “I want the banana!”

Her mother, laden with a shoulder cooler and trying to fold up a captain’s chair one-handed, took her daughter by the arm and said to her, “NO, you let Grandma keep that. A stranger gave us that banana, and we don’t eat fruit strangers give us.”

The statement hung between my girlfriend and me for a brief moment before she verbally shrugged, saying, “It’s probably good advice.”

And it probably is; this is the reason we check apples for razor blades when our little ones go Trick-or-Treating. There’s no telling what some sicko might have injected into a banana and then will pawn off on some hungry child who’s depending on her cuteness and the kindness of strangers.

But I couldn’t help thinking that maybe not all strangers are at home sticking razors and syringes full of poison into fruit to give to our kids. Maybe some strangers just have extra fruit that they didn’t want to pack and take home at the end of the concert.

I’ve been thinking about how adults teach children: how, when we are young, they teach us to consider others’ needs ahead of our own; how they teach us to fight for our rights, or to stand up for what’s Right; how they teach us to show love, or how to cope with what happens when the world doesn’t do what we want it to; how to respond to someone who treats you mean, what to do when you encounter someone who is different than you, or how to take that difference and use it to your advantage and against their own. What are we teaching our kids explicitly, when we say, Let me tell you something, or Are you listening? What are we teaching our kids when they are silent, retreating into the woodwork, and observing our behavior as adults?

(Incidentally, if you ever wonder what kind of behavior is being modeled for kids, just play Pretend with them. In a quick minute you will experience the adult behavior that makes an impression on them, whether it’s having a purse with stuff to put in it, or the nature of talking on the phone, or any number of other behaviors we as adults take for granted. I recently had a play date with Little Star and one of her friends, and we played Family. While I tried to put together a Strawberry Shortcake puzzle, the two mommies, or rather, Mommy and Big Sister—the daddy was absent—forced me into bed. Mommy then came in and woke me up, to tell me that my grandpa had died in the war. First? Second? Vietnam? Gulf 1 or 2? I never found out. Her Sissie found out from calling Grandma, I was told, but don’t worry; she would never let anything like that happen to me, and would always keep me safe.)

I have no memory of what kinds of adult behavior I modeled after my mother and father in my own private games of Make Believe. But I learned about c.p. time from my father. He taught me that he did his best to be on time or early to anything and everything, because he didn’t want the world to watch him stroll in fifteen minutes late and think, “Look who runs on c.p. time.” (Is it possible you don’t know what this is? “Colored People” time? A belief that black folks always run shit, arrive for shit and start shit, later than advertised? It’s impossible for us to be on time ‘cause we’re so lazy and we’d rather eat watermelon and tap dance than keep our word?) I learned how to make tuna salad, and how to bake a cake. I learned about Marvin Gaye and about James Baldwin.

From my mother I learned a number of things, some of which I wish had remained locked in the vault of ignorance. My mother taught me how to clean a house and bless it before you move in; she taught me to clip my ends once a month at least to prevent breakage (God, I do not miss straight hair); she taught me how to use clear nail polish to stop a run in your pantyhose; she taught me how to interrupt someone while they’re talking. And she taught me how to fear. Whether I was worried about washing my hands correctly after a pee to wash Hepatitis down the drain, or worried about whether this seat was clean enough to sit on or if I should squat, or worried about whether this guy who’d just brought me this drink from the bar had dissolved something in it first, she taught me how to fear, how to worry about what was outside my control, and how to try to control everything so that I would have less to worry about.
My mother taught me about white girls.

What’s wrong with white girls?

A specific kind of white girl. I call them nice-nasty girls, because they look real nice on the outside, but on the inside they’re real nasty.

Nasty how?

Like, they share combs and brushes, and you should never do that because they could have lice and then you would have gone and got it in your hair—you use your own comb only. They share mascara wands, spreading pink-eye and other germs all over the place. They use the bathroom, and don’t wash their hands after they come out, even when they're on their period. And everybody thinks they’re so sweet and so nice, and they smile so pretty. But nobody knows that they’re nasty inside.

I didn’t know if any of this was true, when my mother taught me this lesson; I’d seen white girls in school, but never in such intimate quarters that I’d know about their hygiene or beauty habits. I was a child and she was my mother: she always had the answers for everything, and this was no exception. I secretly suspected white girls of running around, obsessively raking their combs through each other’s heads, rooting their fingers between their legs and then smearing them all over various surfaces and substances, laughing maniacally, their blue and green and honey brown eyes rolling around in their white faces, laughing at the marvelous dirty trick they were playing on the whole world, appearing so nice, but secretly being so nasty.

Now I know that the lesson my mother was teaching me, as many are, was based in some experience she had, some awful myopic injustice she felt committed against her by some white girl who was the apple of all else’s eye, but my mom knew to be dishonest and untrue. Perhaps it was some girl who crossed her in the pompon dance squad at her high school, or someone who cheated off her on a History test, or some snotty fellow reporter from her journalism days. But whoever hurt her, she was determined to teach her daughter to watch out for these women, innocent as doves, wise as serpents.

This lesson that my mother taught me, about never trusting white women, has almost been exorcised from my head and heart. My best girlfriends in the whole world are white. I seldom forget their whiteness, but that seldom makes a difference. My best girlfriends--blond, curly, alabaster, fair--love me, and I love them. Our minds and hearts and world views are close enough that when difference of experience or opinion arises, it is merely that, and not a division within our relationships.

I said almost. Because some days, when it’s been a bad day, and I’ve been reminded that although I have great relationships with white women, there are some who treat me rather snakelike, or some days, when a friend says something well-intentioned but thoughtless, my mother’s lesson is still inside me, insisting, see I told you, that’s how white girls are, that’s what they do.

A friend of mine recently forced me to reconsider this struggle, of having so many loved ones as members of the majority culture, and still being so angry with the unjust, unkind, thoughtless and ugly acts performed by other members of that majority culture. It’s made me realize that while my mother has tried to protect me with her lessons, the guarded mistrust she sowed in my heart (that’s been fed and nurtured by negative experiences) has grown into a hedge inside me that I have to choose to jump. I have to choose to ignore what my mother has planted in me, and try to make my own decisions about how to process interracial conflict and how to respond to it.

I know she was just trying to protect her daughter from the world. There are people in the world who put razor blades in fruit and give it away, who need to make you feel worse so they can feel better, who delight in our misery. God bless us and our mothers, they try to protect us from getting cut. But sometimes that protection can metastasize into fear and mistrust, and then it’s a lot harder to get rid of. I don’t know what my mother was trying to teach me when she warned me about the Nice Nasty Girls; but her own struggle has become part of the baggage that every day I am trying to yank out of my own heart so it won’t grow back.

She planted the seed a long time ago, and fed it well. I’ll be on my knees, gardening, for a while.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Part II: so, are you related?...

What I didn’t say in part one is that it is hard to be a black woman taking care of white children.

Forget, just for a moment, that I might be worried that I’m using up my reserve of mommying capability on kids that aren’t mine, and by the time they do come along that I don’t know if I’ll want them (or if I ever did).

Forget that I have a degree from Northwestern University and an MFA, and instead of making art, I spend my days making snacks and silly faces and pretending to be rapt by songs made up of gibberish. Forget even that sometimes the kids are rotten, that they don’t always listen or share with their siblings, that they always, always prefer their parents to me—quite naturally, of course—and that they take the slowest and most roundabout way to perform the task you’ve set for them, such as washing hands before lunch, or picking up toys.

All I can think about is my flesh.

I have learned in recent weeks that I will almost always prefer the safe, cozy chrysalis of my charges’ homes, with their toys and puzzles, and Dora the Explorer DVDs. I did not know how much I preferred home before, it often never occurred to me to take kids out of their homes; home always seemed the best place. Homes have all the solutions to what problems kids have. They have the favorite toy and the first aid kit and the pudding cup you forgot to bring with you, and what’s more they are not the world. I do not like to take the kids out, to the park, to the movies, to the neighbor’s house. I never like to leave the house because I get the look.
It happens that I am old enough to have a six-year-old daughter, but I am too dark for that light-skinned child in my tow to be mine, biologically. So I get the look, sometimes gently masked in politeness and interest, sometimes nakedly nosy. It’s a quick glancing, sizing-up kind of a look that happens—incidentally, the look a man gives a woman as he’s walking past her and checking her out is similar, although tinged with a different agenda. Moms, other nannies, kind strangers, the girl behind the ice cream counter, they all let their eyes land on me, flit down to the face of the white child whose hand I am holding, slide up over my own body, and come to rest again at my eyes. Sometimes they look at me as if to say, “Oh that’s nice, you’re the nanny, you two seem so sweet.” Sometimes they don’t look at me, the same way you avoid meeting the eyes of any hired help, like the gardener or maid. Sometimes they can’t quite figure it out, and they look at me quizzically, saying, “So what’s the relationship here? Are you two blood? Or what?”

The first caveat I have to make is that I stare--just as much as anyone else, and probably more--at children and their caretakers. Whether mom out with the brood, or Ms. Lupe playing with Pete at the playground, or Aunt Terrie with her niece and nephew, I stare with interest and delight at the relationship between adult and child. I like kids, and I like watching them do life with grownups. They walk funny, they say exactly what’s on their mind, they are the only people I can rely on to need and want things as passionately as I do. So when I am the caretaker I think it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of being watched. I take care of some really bright, funny and entertaining young women, and if I were someone else, I’d love watching them interact with an adult.

But something different happens when I get the look; it’s not a look of entertainment at the joy and discovery of relationship between adult and child; it’s a sussing out of what a black woman would be doing holding hand and taking care of a white child. When I get the face, the “hmmm… is it, ah, I see” face, I feel my flesh in an intense way, as if of course, of course, I am the hired domestic to take care of the young’uns.

Years ago, I worked in childcare at a non-profit in Southwest Florida, and my supervisor there noticed that I was having a ton of problems connecting with the young people at one of my schools. Her advice, simply put, was to black myself up.

“Adele!” she exclaimed, only she pronounced the first syllable long, so it sounded like Ay-dell. “What you need to do is make yo’self mo’ like Ay-dell!”

“Ay-dell?” I repeated, utterly confused.

Her round white face beamed, and her speech pattern fell into a sloppy English. “Of COURSE, Ay-Dell! She use to take care a me when I was a chile, and she was black, and she had a special way a talkin’, when she use that voice on yuh, you knew not tuh mess wid her. You need to start talkin’ more like Ay-Dell, that’s the way to get this young’uns heah.”

Shit. At the age of 23, I thought it was a reasonable expectation that in the real world, out of high school, away from college, that I’d be able to be the woman that I was without needing to fall into someone else’s stereotype of what black or woman should be. The real world is full of adults; they don’t buy into all that horseshit, right?

Wrong.

Now, when I run the streets with Big Star and Little Star, or when I’m tugging the Only Child along in a Radio Flyer, and I get the look that’s trying to figure out who I am and what I am to these children, I feel reduced. I feel like the stereotype. I feel like after hundreds of years and all the struggling and climbing and marching and sitting and beating and murdering that my ancestors were party to, that I’ve come absolutely no farther than continuing to take care of white folks’ kids.

Gosh, I wish it were just that simple, but I know it’s not. I don’t have to provide child care to people as a means of supplementing my income: I could sling coffee, or beer, or stock shelves, or any number of comparable things. I could choose to leave this world behind, as a matter of pride, or a matter of artistic integrity, and devote myself to taking the best writing job I could find, even if it means I’m editing newsletters about pet stores or surgical tools. There’s a reason I keep saying yes when moms and dads keep asking me to look after their kids. There’s a part of it that I really like. My best friend from high school says that spending time with children can be very healing, and sometimes she’s right: when I’ve been embroiled in major conflict, or been up to my ass in writing that just wasn’t working, the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a girl who wants nothing more than to color with me, build a fort out of squishy blocks and hear me read Caps for Sale over and over, it just feels nice.

This work gives me the opportunity to meet other women who make the same choice. I’ve met women who’ve come to this country from others, who have been working as personal childcare professionals for years, quite like Mary Poppins or her international down-to-earth equivalent. I’ve seen other black women like myself, my mother’s age, my grandmother’s age, pushing strollers with cherubic white children in them, slung off to one side in sleep. How does a sixty-seven year old black woman wind up taking care of someone’s kids, I wonder. What about her own kids? Where is her family, and don’t they miss her if she’s spending all her time with Charlie and Dakota? And what about me? When, where, how do I make a clean break out of the childcare industry? Teaching is one thing, and I’ll probably teach the rest of my life; but I can’t do this forever. It means sacrificing too much. My family, my writing, my self will begin to miss me if I allow myself to get sucked in to this industry. How do I work here without feeling less, and how do I get out when the time is right?

I have not figured this out. I do not know how to solve this discord. I don’t resent the children, because they can’t help it that they need so much. I don’t resent their parents, because they treat me so well; any struggle I face of being someone’s domestic has never come because a mom asked me to vacuum and dust, and pick up her dry cleaning while her daughter was down for an afternoon nap. Maybe I’m angry with the fact that I live in a country that can’t pay a teacher and a writer a wage she can live on. Maybe I’m mad at myself that I can’t seem to take the leap of faith away from supplemental income, that I’m not working hard or fast enough to support myself as a writer; you know, if I were a more dedicated artist, I wouldn’t need to take care of anyone’s kids. Maybe I’m mad at myself because providing personalized child care is a great way to earn a wage, and there’s no reason for me to want to do anything better or more, and if I didn’t have such racial or artistic pride, I wouldn’t have any problem with it at all.

I love the children and families that I work with.

But sometimes it is hard taking care of other people’s kids.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Playing Communion

This past Sunday, my sweetheart and I went to services at a Presbyterian church in the neighborhood. I’ve been a reluctant first mate in this search for a faith community, while he is an open-minded foretopman, eyes open for opportunities he sees, willing to go just about any direction. So without a captain, we do a lot of wandering; I suggest a place, he willingly accompanies, and there’s not a lot of leadership or direction, unless I see it and steer us away from an iceberg or island. Once or twice we’ve definitely plowed into some pelicans.

So, this Presbyterian church; I think I was hoping for something that was a little less denominational than the Catholic church we’ve been visiting. I don’t know much of anything about denominations of Christianity. I know about differences between Catholic and Protestant sort of: I know about the Apocrypha, and I know about confession, and a handful of other strange little quirks that are observed on one side of the religious aisle, and not on another. I grew up in black churches that had “Church of God” tattooed after some street or region or number, and I was baptized in a Baptist church. But as a child I had no idea what was so special about these places, what made them different than Catholic or Methodist or Episcopal churches. It seemed to me that everybody did the same thing, that within the discount bin of Protestantism, really the only difference between denominations was the color of different flip-flops. As an adult, the denomination doesn’t really make such a difference to me until I run into it; while living in central Florida I attended a Baptist church, that despite its monolithic size and homogeneity, I had no problem with, until it started telling me how God wanted me to vote, what God’s opinion of me was as a woman, and how God wants me to educate my children. (The President of Bob Jones University came and gave a speech there, asking for money; at the time I knew nothing about Bob Jones. I’m surprised I lasted there as long as I did.)

But recently, I’ve taken some small pleasure in attending a Catholic church: I’m pretty sure that my individual needs would never be met there, but I like going because when I get the thirsty feeling in my soul that needs church and I can’t think of any place else to go, I can go to a Catholic service and know what I’m getting. I don’t have all the response stuff memorized, but for me, Catholicism is kind of like bikram yoga: any house I step into anywhere in the world, the program is always going to be the same. In the midst of this worship wandering, that’s comforting.

I thought that maybe Presbyterians did it differently. The first major surprise was that the service was just as liturgical as a Catholic one. The Lord’s prayer was recited, there was a good bit of quite orderly call and response, printed in the program, and when we greeted each other we did so, “in the peace of God”, wishing “peace be with you” to one another.

That was the first surprise. The second was that my sweetheart, a non-Christian who did not grow up in the church, took communion.

Instead of going up to take the elements this church passed them around the congregation. I whispered to him as they were being blessed, “I’m not going to take it today, but you can do whatever you want.”

I don’t think I really thought that he would want to take communion.

When I was a girl, I had no idea what communion was. I remember reaching for the plate of tidy white squares of wonder bread that passed under my nose from mother to father, and having my hand snatched back with a harsh reprieve whispered in my ear. But I never got an explanation of what communion was, or why I couldn’t have any. I remember being six, sitting on the barstool in my parents kitchen-- they were somewhere else, locked behind the dark door of My Parents’ Bedroom,--making my own communion. I would break up saltine crackers and pour Strawberry Kool-Aid into a blue plastic cup, and then mutter my own made-up words of blessing and holiness over them, and eat and drink. It was great fun. But this was all I had until about six years ago. There was never any “First Communion” for me, with a frilly white dress and a nice new Bible with my name on the front in imitation gold leaf. My first communion was at the aforementioned sexist, conservative Baptist Church in Sarasota, Florida. It was just me and God, a short walk to the altar, a thought and a swallow. That was it.

I remember attending a wedding where the bride and groom took communion, but did so in a way I’d never seen before: they opened a bottle of wine and poured two glasses, and ripped a loaf of bread in half, and gave each other communion. They did so with their backs to the congregation of celebrants and none of us got the chance to share in it; it was entirely a private affair that we witnessed. Initially I thought it was a little rude, but after the impression of that subsided, what was left was the brilliance of that metaphor for marriage: that two people are in relationship with each other, and responsible to each other to share their faith with each other. The rest of the world has nothing to do with it. I was convicted for thinking that I had any right to use someone else’s wedding as a vehicle for my own communion with the Lord, and I thought their private observance was really cool.

But my sweetheart’s not a Christian, I thought. If we do get married, when we do get married, if we include the Eucharist in our ceremony, it won’t function as anything but a metaphor for him. It won’t mean to him what it means to me; it won’t remind him of anything except maybe a nice bottle he had at Webster’s Wine Bar, and he’ll wonder whether or not I should eat the bread because it might not be gluten-free. No communing with the body, blood, or sacrifice of Christ at all.

Something about this attitude felt all wrong. I was ashamed of myself: how would I know what he might process while observing this ritual? What gave me the right to assume that if he doesn’t know Christ the way I do, that this ritual of closeness and gratitude with Him would be nothing more than a snack before a meal? I felt like I was taking the thing that Christ is, that he came to be for everyone, away from my loved one on a mere technicality. But that feeling was up against a ton of religious pedagogy that’d been planted in me by various sources (I’m still pulling weeds out of that garden). This was a real problem for me; I couldn’t make peace with the question about whether or not I wanted my sweetheart to observe this ritual if there’s a whole layer of it that I thought maybe he just didn’t buy into.

And then I read this:

“…I have shared the Eucharist with Father Daniel Berrigan,
and our worship became possible because of the sufferings we Vietnamese and
Americans shared over many years.” Some of the Buddhist present were shocked to
hear I had participated in the Eucharist, and many Christians seemed truly
horrified. To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s
whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by
the best values of many
traditions.

From Living Buddha, Living Christ
Thich Nhat Hanh

I was stunned. And convicted. Communion seemed such an intensely personal thing, and so patently representative of Christianity; it was difficult for me to conceive that any non-Christian would be nourished by observing a ritual that was so clearly not a part of his own religious tradition.
But here was more evidence that I was wrong. I’ve been considering the possibility of communion as more than just something those of us who walk with Christ do to remember Him. Maybe it’s something anybody can do to remember Him. Maybe it’s a door, a way in.

So a few days ago, when the opportunity came up, I abstained for my own reasons, and told my sweetheart to just do what he wanted. I was completely surprised when he chose to take the elements.

I asked him later what made him decide to do it. He said that the orientation, of having elements passed around, made it easier for him to say yes. If he’d had to walk up to the altar and take them, he probably wouldn’t have gone, but since they were being offered to him, reaching his hand out was the least he could do.

Maybe this is the way we all need to receive Christ: offered to us from someone nearby, rather than handed down from authority, so that the tiniest reach that we can muster is all we need to do to receive him.

He is a simple man, and it was a simple first communion. There was no mention of any inner transformation. (There was also no frilly white dress and new Bible with his name on the front in imitation gold leaf.) He hadn’t been thinking about it for weeks, as I had, and had decided this time to observe this ritual as a part of his worship practice; it was just convenient. He probably hasn’t thought about it since.

But my thinking about it has changed completely.