Monday, September 28, 2009

UPDATE: Relational.

A woman I work with, Mother of Big Star and Little Star, said about planning her wedding that she reached a point when she looked at her mother and said to her, "Planning this wedding is ruining my relationship with you. I don't want the cost of having the wedding to be my relationship with my mother." This naturally produced a flood of tears and a shedding of baggage from both women, and they were able to plan an absolutely enormous wedding--that looked tremendously fun, judging from all the enormous photos in her home--and do so with their mother-daughter bond intact. I recall this story and I sigh. Heavily. I fear that perhaps my own mother-daughter bond was too far broken before all this palaver started, and that there is frankly no place for it to go but down the pipes.

Next chapter: as I have stuck to my guns about not inviting all of my family, my parents have posited that they will choose to cut the financial aid that they planned for us in order to sponsor a party of their own. The barbecue idea went over like a lead... anvil. So, if I really do choose not to invite my family to my wedding, they will cut their money in half.
Which, without any shifting or stretching or finagling from the home team, cuts our budget by a third.

Okay, so this isn't really about the money: a bit perhaps, but not completely. People get married all over the world, and all over this heinously expensive city, for less than 20k. (A few of you have done it, haven't you, dear Reader?) It'll take some work, and cause me/us more stress than either of us wanted, but it's not impossible. Between the crafty, hardworking community who loves us and supports us in this, and the crazy thick network of artists and artisans we know, we can absolutely pull this off, look good doin it, and throw a really wonderful thing. I think.

This is really about feeling absolutely manipulated by my parents. Again. It's not a new song, so there isn't any naive sense of violation, not a whole lot of tears shed in the name of "How could they do this to me?" As long as money has been a useful and relevant fact of my life, my parents have been using it to manipulate me one way or the other: what college I choose; what job I choose; how I invest it; what their monetary gifts get me, and what giving me money gets them. It's not new. One of my best girlfriends is wise to point out that perhaps my parents are just thinking practically and not thinking that they're being hurtful or manipulative, and that if this solution were couched or offered differently, it might be entirely reasonable.

Here is the place where I get stuck. My parents and I have different perceptions of the same problem. I think the problem is that we have to provide a way for my family to celebrate with me the joy of my new marriage. My parents think that they need to shower their siblings with an experience that cost copious amounts of money in order for us to celebrate, and in order for them to feel valued. I am learning that my parents don't really want to provide a forum to for me and mine to celebrate with our family: they want to spend a bunch of money on "their" family, so that they will know that they are valued. (Nevermind the fact that the only fancy family parties I've ever been to have been the ones thrown at the hands of my parents, and that every other family shindig has had casual and fun written all over it. The only "right" way to do this is with overpriced chicken patties and lasagna, and money wasted on things to decorate a nondescript banquet room.) I'm finding it hard to believe that this isn't a response to the kind of distance and independence I'm seeking from my family in planning this wedding. If my folks can't share planning their kind of reception with me, then dammit, they'll plan their own reception.

I have been wrestling, and I mean eight rounds-KY jelly-folding chair to the forehead-Iwillnotletyougountilyoublessme-wrestling, with what happens next. This choice, the choice to pull the rug out from under me and screw my future husband and me just so they can do it the way they want to, it feels like a game changer. I'm frankly a little stunned that my parents don't see it this way--although, this is how they've operated all my life, and it hasn't changed the game thus far. But I'm surprised that I'm the only one thinking about relational consequences in all of this. I don't know how to bounce back from it, and I don't know if I want to. I don't want to put distance between my father and me, but I don't know why I should let him get close to me if this is what happens. I want to pull my mother in on all the Hallmark rituals she's been fantasizing about since I was three, but why would I if she'll just abuse my vulnerability? I might have the skill to feign politeness and civility, but I feel completely disrespected in all of this. How does something like this not have relational repercussions?

I have learned this week that my parents worked really hard at loving me, and that they did with me the best they could. I have also learned that their best kinda sucked, that they fundamentally missed loving me the way I need to be loved. Instead they are loving me the way they need to be loved.

There is a lot for me to grieve in all of this, and I'm doing it. I'm grieving the loss of hope that my parents will ever be able to treat me with the kind of respect that I deserve, and that our relationship will ever be the thing I need it to be. I know, it's a really dark fact, but part of my struggle is my frustration with my parents being people other than whom I want them to be. I'm working really hard at giving that up. I'm grieving the loss of a chunk of money that I needed to help create for my fiance and me the wedding day that we wanted. I'm grieving the Hallmark fantasies I've been having since I was 12 about my parents and their roles in my wedding. I'm grieving the absence of elders in my life who love me with their time and affection, and not with their coin. I'm thinking a good deal about what I'm losing in all of this, and I'm not spending a lot of energy thinking about how to get it back.

But I think I have my eyes locked on the prize. He's sitting at the desk facing the opposite wall in a black t-shirt and sweat pants, reading last week's mail and paging through Ohio State highlights on I am not yet able to say that all of this bullshit will be worth it once we're married, but I am absolutely certain that nothing is going to stand in our way.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Father, save us from ourselves. Rescue us from the fear and confusion that atrophies in our hearts into misunderstanding, contempt, hatred. Place in us the eyes of your Son and show us the amazing humility of our own humanity, and your boundless power for righteousness, justice and equality.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hump Day.

Outside my window this morning, crows were calling to each other. They sounded close, as if one was perched on the roof of my building, talking to another perched across the way, on the roof of the building next door. I was so disappointed to hear the sound. As if the gray blanket across the Chicago sky weren't enough, the sound of crows is a tried and true reminder that the season of closure, sleep, death of a sort, is growing closer with every night that dusks just a little bit earlier.

I closed my eyes and imagined one of my shoes, a loved red leather mule, flying through the air and catching this crow mid squawk.

"Caw, caw, c--"

He'd be caught in the abdomen by it, might see it coming, and would flap his wings frantically to avoid losing his balance, and the shoe would fall unceremoniously to the ground, landing in the bushes near the front entrance of the apartment building. Several oil black feathers would waft on the gray morning air to the ground, perhaps to be picked up by a child leaving home to go to Jordan Community School down the street. The crow would settle back down and preen a bit, and then, in about thirty seconds, start up again.

I don't tend toward cruelty to animals, so I'm hoping this attitude of shoe throwing is in response to students who make me want to throw them out of class, maybe unruly hormones, perhaps to a high level of anxiety with my parents, or frustration with trendy, edgy, snarky-voiced wedding blogs. (I may have reached my saturation point.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Homeword Bound

Negroes in the North are right when they refer to the South as the Old Country. A Negro born in the North who finds himself in the South is in a position similar to that of the son of the Italian emigrant who finds himself in Italy, near the village where his father first saw the light of day. Both are in countries they have never seen, but which they cannot fail to recognize. The landscape has always been familiar; the speech is archaic, but it rings a bell; and so do the ways of the people, though their ways are not his ways. Everywhere he turns, the revenant finds himself relfected. He sees himself as he was before he was born, perhaps; or as the man he would have become, had he actually been born in this place. He sees the world, from an angle odd indeed, in which his fathers awaited his arrival, perhaps in the very house in which he narrowly avoided being born. He sees, in effect, his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable indentity. And the northern Negro in the
South sees, whatever he or anyone else may wish to believe, that his ancestors are both black and white. The white men, flesh of his flesh, hate him for that very reason. On the other hand, there is scarecely any way for him to join the black community in the South: for both he and this community are in the grip of the immense illusion that their state is more miserable than his own.

--from "Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South" by James Baldiwn

Teaching James Baldwin this semester and reading an incredible collected nonfiction works called The Price of the Ticket. Sometimes the writing is so powerful I forget to breathe. Thank God for the autonomic nervous system.

The first time I went to the south, I was most certainly a Northerner. Cincinnati may have some Southern parts, but it's a Northern city to be sure. After which I moved to Chicago, where I've stayed, excusing a two-year stint in Southwest Florida, which is truly not the South at all, but an entity unto itself. So after spending almost all of my life in the North, I had an opportunity to go south. In October 2005, I took a trip with a handful of other folks from my church to Gulfport, Mississippi to help clean and tend and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

I don't know what made me go down there. I know I was approached by church leadership to go, and I jumped at the chance; something went off inside my head that said whether it was for the life experience, for the good I could do and the community I might forge, or at least for the material, this is something I should do. So I did. I got a tetanus booster, I packed a sleeping bag and work gloves and hand sanitizer and work clothes and my bible and my cd player, and I piled into a 10-passenger van with eight white people and the leader of our group, an associate pastor, who was also black. We drove through Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee and into Mississippi and through the state all the way to the bottom, where the Gulf looks different than it did in southwest Florida. Quieter, more still and flat, with less tropical beauty and promise.

This kind of odd, out-of-body homecoming that Baldwin writes about in his account of his first trip South, it is exactly what I experienced. It's a strange feeling. I was so confused and so frustrated and so lonely for so much of my time there.

The Sunday we were there we went to the worship service for the church in the community we were serving. There were old black men in dark suits who sat in the front row and led the tiny body of congregants in hymns, hymns that I knew but hadn't heard since I was seven or eight, and I burst suddenly and joyously into tears at the sound. There were women beside me from my own church, sweet young white girls who'd probably grown up in a homogeneous, evangelical, complementarian Christian household, and so this experience was new for them, and no doubt fraught with a great deal of emotional volatility. For me it was Family. After church there was food. Barbecue, and beans and corn and potato salad: a party the community had created just for us. Someone made a Seven-Up cake. There aren't a ton of things I miss since going gluten free,only a few I think of wistfully as never being able to eat again, without doing damage to my body. Seven-Up cake is on the list. My maternal grandmother makes it: it's not really that special, just a pound cake with Seven Up in the mix, but it tastes amazing. Sitting in this church basement, eating barbecue and beans and Seven-Up cake, I began to see the place I had come from.

Gulfport is a small city right on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. There were a number of tiny houses raised up on cinder blocks. Lining street after street, they looked like squatting old ladies who had their skirts raised up to keep their hems from getting dirty. There were pecan shells everywhere falling off trees that littered the ground, and creepy palmetto bugs the length of your pinkie finger (not an exaggeration). They would skitter for the nearest shadow whenever you lifted a piece of roof that had gotten blown off the nearby house. I remember a nail went through the sole of my Adidas sneaker like butter and pierced my foot. I wasn't badly hurt, but was thankful for the tetanus shot. I remember taking a walk up the road from a site where we were working and having a chat with two National Guardsmen who were standing beside train tracks, presumably there to keep peace and order. One had a tight tidy blond moustache on his upper lip and wore dark sunglasses. He was from Arkansas, and seemed happy to have new people to talk to, even though he never smiled.

I remember feeling like I was walking through my own past, like I was looking relatives I'd never met in the face before. I knew my people came from Mississippi. My grandmother had said so, and recently my biological grandfather moved to Hazlehurst to be nearer to his folks. I could have met somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew my grandmother when she was a girl. Or who knew her still, despite her move Northward. I felt like I was soaking, at times even drowning, in a home that was so elemental to who I was in this country, a home that had made me the woman I am, a home that was in my hair and in the color of my eyes and the switch of my walk and the curve of my spine and the timbre of my voice.

Before going South, the facts and coverage of the hurricane had been brutal. Kanye West, for all his thoughtless, embarrassing, asinine behavior, I felt had gotten it right in his soundbite about George Bush and black folk. I was deeply saddened, but not at all surprised at the shitstorm that my own government had allowed to rain down on my people, due to a number of bad decisions, and one whirling category five that was worse than anyone thought. But now it was real. Now the spray-painted cryptography on abandoned homes had meanings, and people knew the family who used to live there. This misfortune had plagued the people I came from, the people I narrowly missed being myself.

I felt like my colleagues were really taken with the narrative of what they were witnessing. Houses were "charming", old ladies were "cute", there was just so much local color to be had, and so much charm and beauty to experience. I was absolutely furious that these young white men and women had no idea of the gravity of what they were witnessing. At the time I had no patience or understanding for them at all, I had nothing but fury and contempt. I know now that it isn't their fault. They were white. Their condescension came blithely and easily, and not out any place of malevolence. They just couldn't help themselves. But I couldn't take it. I felt like a granddaughter returning to help tend to a broken relative, in the midst of cultural ethnographers who were just using the poverty and injustice of this experience to fulfill some community service street cred, who came to get their hands dirty, and then hold them up to their white Jesus and say, "Look Lord, I care for the poor and the sick. I understand racial reconciliation." Something huge was happening inside me, and they were just looking for funny stories about poor black people to tell their friends back home.

I think perhaps that it is a wholly unrealistic expectation for me to expect that any white person--even one with the keenest and most salient racial awareness and sensitivity--could have understood what I went through on that trip. I know that. My struggle still, to this day, lies in the fact that some people, often but not always white, are able to look upon another human's struggle and suffering, and perceive everything except the tie that binds them both to each other. These kids (and they were, really, just big children) were completely unable to see the fate of themselves in the fate of the community of Gulfport, to see their own faces reflected in the faces of this community, and that is the thing that continually disappoints me. (Perhaps this is because these easy-minded white young people know in a way that I do not, that their country would never allow this kind of treatment toward them. Perhaps it is their whiteness which guarantees that quite literally come hell or high water that their privilege will protect them.)

A year later I went back with a Habitat for Humanity building project sponsored by a mega-church here in the Chicago area. We were in Waveland this time, less than an hour from my first trip, given the tasks of chalking lines and screwing 2x4s and hammering roof tiles putting up walls and doing the small things (and frankly, not doing them very well) that we could to do to put up homes for families who'd been displaced by Katrina and Rita. I had sufficiently low expectations of this trip, and was rewarded for them with much the same behavior.

I read James Baldwin and I feel as though he has seen into the wordless truth of my racial experience better than any person can. He wrote the essay quoted above on his first trip south, writing about desegregation in southern schools. I know about his career that whether in Harlem, Greenwich Village or in Georgia or South Carolina, he never felt safe, like he could be himself, and despite traveling back and forth to the States he settled in France, where he lived until he died. I haven't been back to the South. I don't know what occasion might take me there, and I don't know what I'll feel if I return. But the breathless feeling of being in a place that is at one and the same time utterly familiar and completely foreign is like living a memory and a nightmare. It is not one I will soon forget.


My sweetheart was in Prauge a few years ago, thinking on a chapter of a novel, or a short story, or some project ricocheting around in his head, and one of our erudite and gifted professors asked him, "So how's that story coming?"

I can see him nodding and pushing up his glasses with one hand. "Great, just great. I think I've got all the major kinks worked out, and there are a couple of really strong scenes. All that's left for me to do is to write it."

She looked at him, stunned, and then laughed.

A lesson that I am learning, and learning as the world requires more words from me and gives me less time to write them in, is that sometimes the writing happens before you hit the page.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who do you say that I am?

The cover story in last week's Newsweek started my wheels turning about stereotype. (It's a long article, but absolutely worth the read; will probably change your perception of how children view each other and form opinions about people. AND, it incidentally features research gathered and performed by my Best Friend from high school, but she goes unacknowledged in the article. Ultimately the best thing for her.) A close girlfriend once asked me how I rationalize the human mind's need to stereotype: "kids learn by making generalizations," she said to me, "it's a viable, practical means of learning about the world around you. How do you cope with the fact that people have to learn some things by generalizing?"

I don't know what I said then, but I think what I would say now is that while it's true that kids and adults generalize about the world around them, and that this is a helpful means of learning about some things, it's not a helpful means of learning about other people. It's a good rule to assume that if one stove can burn you, then all stoves have the capacity to burn you. It's not, however, a good rule to assume that if you encounter one white man with a shaved head who wants the death and demise of you and all your people, that every bare-headed white guy you meet feels the same.

I (of course) can't remember any young, really really young practices that helped me form ideas about people of other races. I can remember being told things about being black, about white people, from both my parents. My father would tell me that he was always chronically early for things--as much as he could help it--because he never wanted to give anyone reason to think he was just another late nigger running on c.p. time. My mother filled my head with various stereotypes, that black men only like women with long straight hair or light skin, or both, that black men only want what they can't have, which is the only reason any black man would ever date a white woman in the first place, that the only reason white men date black women is because they think black women are raging nymphomaniacs (a stereotypical sentiment that I learned is echoed in certain perceptions of Asian women as wives). This kinda shit will really fuck up a girl's dating life, you know what I mean?

This hyper-awareness of stereotype breeds, and has bred in me, a painfully high awareness of what other people think. I think all the time, more often than I would like, about what other people think about me. I know more than I wish I did about what's proper and appropriate, and don't get me started on how loaded those two words are for me. I'm finding that as I slowly but surely make plans for big day, that what I want is sometimes at odds with the voice in my head that says, "but this isn't how it's done. What will people think of you if this is the choice you make?" (This voice sounds suspiciously like my mom. Hmm...)

I wrote a thesis in college based around Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This novel is one of my favorites because it discusses in what continues to be deeply affecting and familiar way to me, the journey of race in America, and how one perceives one's self, relative to how one perceives the rest of the world, and how he sees others perceiving one's self. I wrote about this man's journey relative to my own and others whom I knew while in school. I discovered that all of the black students that participated in my thesis were aware of their race (duh, impossible at a school like NWU, and frankly in a country like this one), and could turn up or down their own race depending on how they want to handle the situation. They could become more or less visible as "black" (however that reads to them) as they saw necessary for a situation. Students talked about the times when they felt like no one could see them for who they are, or moments when professors looked to them to comment on behalf of all black people, or when all they were was a big black thug on the sidewalk. I know about this. I sometimes feel like flaunting my race for others to notice. I've been pissed off and wanted to bark at white folks, to play right into the stereotype of who they think I am, to scare or upset them, just to scratch some itch.

But more often I just want to be myself: whether that person is angry, or tired, or brimming with joy, whether she listens to the Rolling Stones, or Dave Matthews or Miles Davis or Midnight Star, whether she wears giant hoop earrings and a head wrap or a sweater vest and mary janes, I just want to be myself.

Recently, my sweetheart and I went to talk to a caterer about out big day. For a number of reasons we're only partially in the driver's seat in this deal. This caterer is great and we're really excited about working together, but we might be making some compromises, and we have a finite amount of information, which makes us feel less powerful than we might like. The other day we were strategizing about how to get what we wanted from the caterer without unrealistic expectations of how they run their business. He asked me, "do you want to rely on their perception of you as 'The Bride' and voice the things you've just communicated to me with them? It might get us farther."


I wasn't pissed at him--although he might argue otherwise, because in that moment I had a huge emotional reaction. But I could see his motivation through the question: he wants me to be happy and he wants us both to have a wedding we're happy with. Still, I felt like I was being asked to prance around in a tiara and a sash and bat my eyelashes and pout. I was afraid of me being perceived as a princess and he being perceived as The Big Man with The Big (ahem) Checkbook.

Princess. This is a word my father would poke me with, teasing me, whenever I would express what I wanted. Not when I threw temper tantrums, which never happened in my childhood because my mother wouldn't take that shit. I didn't pout and make fusses until I got my way. I wasn't even allowed to express a "my way". I had my first legit job at the age of 15, and before that I only got any money from my folks for doing chores. Nevertheless, my dad would call me "Princess" any time I would talk about how important something was to me, and how I wanted it: things I would prepare to eat; exercise, yoga; the way I wanted to dress. Qualities about myself that I could acknowledge and say "yes, that's me" or "nope, that's not me".

So no, I wasn't prepared to own the stereotype of bride, to cloak myself in it and use it to negotiate with a vendor. I lacked the skills and the safety to be good cop to my sweetheart's bad cop. I was afraid that instead of being able to manipulate them, that I would be manipulated by them: I would be perceived as the thing they could use to get what they wanted, namely our business, Honey and I would get played, and I'd wind up objectified. Ultimately, I didn't play any role by myself, and Honey and I communicated very honestly, and I think we struck a deal we can afford financially, and one we're excited about for our big day. But the idea of prancing into a stereotype really shook me for a while.

Underneath it all, I was freaked out that maybe I am a princess, and that the stereotype of bride that has seemed so abhorrent to me, the woman who demands her attendants wear the same 'do and the same shade of pink nail polish and requires a calligrapher to address her invites and must have an ice sculpture, is lurking somewhere inside me, and something's going to trigger her release. Which is worse, for me to think about myself that I actually am this woman--demanding, unreasonable, immature, self-centered, bratty--or that others might perceive me as such?

I don't know what things black people can and can't do. If you see a black man on ice skates shoulder checking some dude in pursuit of the puck, then you can no longer say black folks don't play hockey, 'cause here's one in the flesh, doin it and doin it well. I do know that trying to put people into boxes usually backfires in a bad way, whether the box is one about racial consciousness, societal propriety, or whether or not you can wear white after Labor Day. Maybe our brains are traitors, taking a useful way of learning about the world around it and carrying it to a place that encourages prejudice, and that life is a constant untying of those knots. Not all who wander are lost, not every black man has kids out of wedlock, and not every woman in a white dress is a bride.

Friday, September 11, 2009

You Can’t Say That at School

It could be that you haven't guessed this about me, but I'm a potty mouth. I swear all the time. I swear at while holding a tough yoga pose; I swear at bad drivers when I’m in traffic. I even swear around my college students. I’m not gratuitous; I’m calculating in my profanity, and it has a crucial purpose in my classroom: I want them to learn that sometimes it’s okay to swear. Yes, it’s true that as writers, we should be mining the English language for words that are so original and inventive that we don’t need profanity. I know this is an unpopular practice, in terms of classroom decorum, and might make parents uncomfortable. But I believe that the classroom is a place for questioning and discovery. The thing that’s elemental to this discovery is making sure each person feels like her voice can be expressed and be heard, regardless of its message or delivery. This isn’t to say I don’t create a place of safety for my students, safety as artists and as human beings; but every voice is allowed to be heard, and no voice is censored.

When I was in eighth grade I had my first brush with censorship: a parent of a girl in my social studies class discovered that we were reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The woman discovered a scene of sexual assault, was outraged that her daughter would be assigned such filth, and made such a stink over our class reading the book, that we had to cease immediately, or the teacher would forfeit his job. I was really disappointed. This rape scene had been written with such subtlety I had completely missed it; but regardless, I didn’t see why one uptight mom should ruin it for the rest of it. Okay, if one mom doesn’t like it, she ought to be able to say so, especially at a public school; but why the school would allow one person’s morals to dictate everyone’s education was beyond me. The copies of Caged Bird went back into their cages. But I never forgot how upset I was at that mother for forcing her agenda on my social studies class. As soon as I could, I went out and bought a copy of that book, read it from cover to cover, and began reading banned books precisely because there was some establishment telling me what was and wasn’t okay to read.

Now the school year is barely a month old, and already there are heated debates about who and what to censor in classrooms. Political pundits and conservative groups got themselves all frothy about a speech President Obama delivered to the nation’s kids. There are probably a number of them who didn’t see it, because their parents kept them home, wanting to preserve their pure, virgin brains from the President’s offensive words. I suppose I should be happy that I don’t have to worry about this: I’m not being asked to sacrifice teaching time so the President’s voice could be heard, although if I were, I certainly would. But I’m happier that I don’t have to worry about forty sets of parents with their panties in a bunch demanding me to censor Obama’s voice in my classroom. To me the whole thing doesn’t sound like parents caring about kids’ education: it sounds like censorship. Education sometimes means exposing a mind to a line of thinking that is challenging, that is unusual, perhaps even downright offensive: you have to learn about the whole world in order to understand it, to ask questions of every system, not just the ones you disapprove of, and to read and communicate with those who disagree so that you can understand each other clearly and respectfully.

That, or you can just censor the bastards, bury your head in the sand, and pretend everything’s okay.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fiction: For my Tuesday afternoon class...

"Here honey, try this one, it'll look lovely on you."

She watched in the mirror as the pear-shaped woman slammed a clear plastic comb attached to a veil into her hastily-made ponytail. She felt something in the back of her head snap and break, and prayed it was a tooth of the comb.

"Thank you, but I already told you, I'm not interested in wearing a veil."

"Oh nonsense, dear, everyone needs a veil. It's just a matter of how long and with what hairpiece." The woman crossed in front of her and fluffed the layers of tulle out around her confused, sweaty face, each arm at her side like a wing flapping an enormous white trail. "There, that's much better."

She noticed as the woman adjusted the veil that her mouth was hanging open and she could see her teeth: they were yellowed and kind of scummy, as if she'd been a smoker for most of her life. As the bridal consultant moved around her, she could smell something on the woman's breath: was that pot smoke? It had the earthy, acrid pungency of marijuana smoke, and was mixing with a heavy feminine note: Chanel No. 5. Her eyes darted upward to the eyes of the consultant, who was frowning at her, checking one side, then the other, for evenness. Her eyes were bloodshot, but seemed as open as any sober person's.

"There," she said, and stepped back off the pink carpeted riser the girl was standing on. "You look absolutely beautiful. See?"

She looked in the mirror and sighed. She was about four feet wide on the bottom, ensconced in a white bell skirt trimmed with crystals at the hemline that abruptly pinched in at her waistline, making her look the dome of a lampshade. The bodice of the dress had been too big for her, and was cinched at the back with giant, industrial-strength clothespins, to give her an idea of how a gown in her size would fit. On the bodice was an asymmetrical beaded design that drew attention to her flat chest. The consultant assured her that "with the right foundation garment, you'll be able to fill this dress out just perfectly." It was a strapless and as she looked down, she could see halfway to her navel down the front. Perched on her head in the center of her afro was a veil that reached past her shoulders and stopped at her elbows, attached to her head by a comb camouflaged by a trio of white silk roses.

She sighed again at her reflection, and felt her stomach flip. "You know what? I'm not feeling so well. I think I have to go."

She looked around and realized that she was standing there by herself. The gown saleswoman had scurried off somewhere, to help another customer, or perhaps to pack the pipe that she was carrying in her pocket. Blowing a huge sigh of relief, she twisted and tugged at the clothespins until they popped off one at a time, and then pulled the dress off quickly and kicked at it until her legs were free of the skirt. She shimmied back into her jeans and sneakers, yanked the t-shirt over her head, and grabbed her bag.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Back to School Blues

So remember the grasshopper who partied all summer long, doing tequila shots and making out with the cute butterfly who was migrating through town, while the ants dutifully stocked away the season's harvest, and then the fall came, and he was chilly and hung over and hungry?

Yeah, that's me. Suddenly it's fall and nobody told me. I only did a fraction of the planning I swore I would do this summer, and this weekend (yay!) I get to play catch-up.

A meditation on Mary Jo Kopechne running through my brain, but no time to pen it now, there are passwords to reset and syllabi to design and lesson plans to write.

So, in parting, Reading Rainbow, rest in peace:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I wanted to sit down and write about my weekend, about sailing on Lake Michigan, and how my sweetheart managed to take some beautiful headshots of me despite my profound discomfort in front of a camera.
But those ideas are right out. Instead I'm going to write about family. and community. and my mother.

I come from a hideously large family. My mother has two brothers and two sisters that she is in touch with and another estranged brother, and my father has four brothers and two sisters. Many of them have kids, and second spouses. It's just fuckin' huge; because it's so fuckin' huge, when family gets together, (by which I mean either side, because both sides together has happened once in my lifetime that I can recall) it tends to turn into one of those stereotypical black family thing. Probably a cross between Good Times, Ma Deah and Soul Food.

(Dear God, I never thought I would ever reference Tyler Perry in this blog.)

This dynamic, for what it is, can be generally fun. But it is not good for fostering relationship with anyone. Therefore, any relationship I've fostered with my family has been against the current of the big family gathering. For some of my family, it has been easy to do: I have visited uncles while traveling, and written letters and cards to aunts and cousins, you know, the thing. But then there are other members of the family for which fostering relationship, much less keeping in touch, has been impossible.

I am learning that a wedding is a special thing. It isn't just a time for you to gather every person you ever met in a church, mutter some words to your sweetie, slap a chicken pattie in front of 400 of your closest friends, and then watch them do the Electric Slide. It's a vow--a public rite of a private vow that you make with another person, and the people you surround yourself with, agree on that. It's a time for you to look with joy and sobriety at the commitment in front of you, and to have people flank you on all sides who can affirm that commitment, and who bear witness to your choice, to your love.

So initially, I sat down and made a list of people to invite to our wedding, and it (like my family) was fuckin' huge. Then a couple of realities caused my honey and I to need to cut the list.

I looked at it, thinking that I'd wind up cutting all the people I actually wanted to send us love because I'd have to fulfill all these family obligations. And then I looked at the list and thought, "Okay, who do I want around me on this day, who do I want to be with me and support me in this step?

Suddenly, making cuts became a whole lot easier.

Almost half my family fell off the list, like California into the Pacific.

Ouch. You notice a chunk of loss that big, right? I fretted for days about not inviting my family to our wedding. Last night I told my mother that almost all of her siblings and many of my cousins weren't on the list of guests.

It was an awful, painful conversation.

My mother is a complicated woman, and I have only just begun to understand what it is about her that makes her treat me the way she does. I have so much trouble in my relationship with her, and right now, today, there is not enough distance I could put between the two of us. She held only me accountable for the fact that I don't have a relationship with most of my relatives: she didn't acknowledge that she doesn't know very well (or particularly like) her siblings, she just guilted me for thinking this was a reasonable choice. She argued with me for quite a while about the sanctity of family, and how you can't choose whom you are related to, and that even if you don't have a relationship with your family you still have to love them and do right by them.

I just don't think so. I can't accept that. I'm almost thirty years old. If I haven't established even a seedling of a relationship with my relatives at this point, and what's more, if my relatives haven't even tried to establish one with me, I don't know why I should pretend they are my intimates and pull them into a ceremony where I frankly don't want them. If I were having the 200-person wedding that I thought I was going to have, that isn't so much about the intimacy, but is more about fulfilling family obligations, then I'd sigh and put them on the list and just ignore them all night. But that's no longer the case. My sweetheart and I are making one kind of affair, and we don't want to cater to family obligations to do it, especially not with family who doesn't know us, who doesn't seem to care for us, whom we don't know.

It was ludicrous for me to hope that my mother would understand what I was saying, would remember the apathy and thoughtlessness in our family, and see my perspective. I wasn't hoping that she would get it, I knew she wouldn't. Yet, I am still disappointed that she doesn't. It's clear to me now that if I do choose only to invite certain members of my family, that my mother would hang me out to dry, not help or support me at all, and perhaps even join other members of the family in their pain and judgement.

Today, after many tears and a night of puffy-faced sleep, I am flirting heavily with the idea of crossing them all off the list and having a reception in my family's hometown that is just for family. Something low tech, wherein honey and I fill the trunk with catered barbecue (some stereotypes are based in truth) and drive down for a few hours, and we smile and let my family ignore us, because that is by and large what happened the last time my family got together. Only my grandmother from this side would attend the actual ceremony, but everyone else would get a family reception. After all, this is the dynamic wherein everybody is happiest, so why not give the people what they want.

I'm having a really hard time with this. I do not want to make my wedding with the man that I love into something other than what I want it to be. I do not want to surround myself with people I barely know, who care so little for me "because I should." I am sad that acknowledging the truth will hurt other people so much, but I resent to high heaven that this is a bad, or wrong, or inappropriate choice.

If you disagree with what I'm saying, convince me. I can't afford to feed my family and the friends I want around me, but if you can convince me I should, I'll find a way. But I need a better reason than, "invite your family because they're your family." I've had it up to here with that shit.

But if you can say anything that will encourage me at all, or give me perspective I lack, now is the time. Speak up.

And just so you don't say I never gave you nothin, a picture of the two of us, all squinty eyed, on a friend's sailboat, and one of the favorite headshots he took that I'm using.