Saturday, September 29, 2012

A meditation on family

It's easy for me to fall into romantic, maudlin moods when I can't sleep. The mood is why I find myself at my computer at almost 1 am, thinking (and writing) about my family, instead of dead to the world, beside my husband in our warm bed, where I should, and would rather, be after such a long work week.

I seem to think of my family a lot these days, now that they seem so far away. My parents recently emigrated to a small, wealthy nation on the other side of the planet. It makes the--what's the right noun?--the estrangement of our relationship easier to bear, knowing that there's an ocean and 1.5 continents between us, depending on which way the transcontinental jet flies. I wonder about them; until it happened, I never thought my parents, two people staid in their Midwestern, middle-American cautious and unadventurous lives, would ever have the courage or the willingness to relocate so profoundly and so thoroughly. As impossible as it is right now for us to treat each other in a way that is healthy and positive for all of us, I wonder about them. I dream about my parents a lot. I've been dreaming about them for months, years it feels like. They show up as themselves now; before they were archetypes: raccoons that were trying to destroy a puppy; disembodied voices; locked in the bodies of other authority figures. But I guess at this point I've done enough processing that when they show up, they look the way I remember them. My mother: large, surprisingly (to some, although she never sees it herself) attractive, profoundly impenetrable in her portrayal of a woman who has it all together. My father: stoic and silent, enigmatic; the same glasses and mustache; a voice that is both soft and terrifying when full of anger. I wonder what will become of the three of us.

I think about my cousin, a woman in her early twenties serving her country and stationed somewhere she shouldn't be. A stunner with an education who was raised in a military family: I admire her courage and commitment to serving. She is doing something I cannot conceive of doing, something I wouldn't have thought of at her age, and something I could not do at my age. I wonder about what made her decide to serve. I remember buying her a swanky black purse after she graduated from college, and now I imagine what a crummy gift it must have been: did she open it and think, "Jeez, Jess, you really don't know me at all?" I wonder what it is like to stand on a wall; I wonder what it is like to fire a weapon, and to practice so that if and when you have to, you can take someone's life with your shot. How does she do that? I am proud of her discipline and dedication. I'm also scared of what she has had to become to serve in the military. I wonder if she has ever had to ward off any unwelcome advances from senior officers; I wonder if she has succeeded.

I think about my grandmothers, one of whom seems to lose touch a little every day, the other who has buried two husbands and now lives alone downstate. She has a boyfriend, they keep good company. Do they think of their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids? Are they lonely? Are they scared? What does aging feel like, and does it have any dignity, or is it as undignified and shameful as it seems?

I think about another cousin, a man in his twenties, on an aircraft carrier somewhere. He has a wife. A child on the way. Another cousin in Michigan with a med school wife and a son he is determined to make a carbon copy of himself. I wonder about that boy, Junior, and I pray that he can be a version of himself that will make him happy, and not just satisfy his parents' wishes. Uncles and aunts cast to the wind like seeds, living their own lives, people with whom I share name, bloodline, genetic makeup. It all seems so remote now. Relationships are difficult (for me) to maintain even in the best of circumstances. Putting hundreds of miles, states, time zones, nations, between us makes it even harder. What do I not know about life there, or there?

What is this word, family? Is it people with whom you share blood? People who were there when you started your period, or graduated from high school, who held you, shaking, after your first car accident? Is it people who sit up with you when you can't sleep? People who respect your boundaries? People who tell you what  you want to hear, or people who fault you for not telling them what they want to hear?

I don't know what the word means right now. I know it's loaded. I'm in communities that use it, and frankly, it doesn't make me feel safe. It makes me feel primed to be used and taken advantage of. It makes me feel needed in a gross, phlegmy way. I know it is a word that means people who have your back, who you can count on, who insert positive platitude here. But sometimes that just feels like bullshit. It's hard to accept it from people who've known you three years or less, just like it's hard to accept it from people who've known you all your life.

I think I need family to mean listening. If there were anything I could ask for, if there is one thing I long for from those who call me family, it is listening. I feel so often our tiny brains and short attention spans and our need for things to just feel okay, drive us to fill up the space with noise, so that we can drown out the silence, or the wail of anguish. Just listen. Listen.

On a silent night in the center of Chicago, I know there is much to be grateful for: at the top of the list is the fact that in the other room there is someone who, through his love, made me feel like a real and valued human being. He never asked me to do better, to clean up, to act right or to hurry up. His love was like light, like a great warm light that shined on a shadow of myself that was covered in ash and soot. There is something in me that is beginning to grow again, and his love is the reason why. I'm grateful that he is my family.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Urbaness

I've recently had the great fortune to begin working on a new creative project. It's called The Urbaness: it's a lifestyle guide for pursuing a rich, balanced and sweet life here in Chicago. A dear friend, great writer, lovely woman and Columbia College alumna Lizzie Duszynski is the editor-in-chief, and she's collected a posse of artists, designers, photographers and writers who explore Chicago and share its wonders, secrets and precious (and not-so-precious) offerings with the reading public. It's an online magazine designed to help us all make the most of this fantastic city, and enjoy it the best we can.

The website is officially live, so make your way to The Urbaness to visit and to share. If you like it, tell your friends.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Remember what apples smell like?

This week I heard an interview with one of my former professors (and Tony-Award winning director) Mary Zimmerman, who was talking with Steve Edwards about remounting The Metamorphoses at the Lookingglass Theatre this fall. I remember Mary fondly: I was always astonished that she always wore skirts to class, even in the winter time, which seemed inconceivable to me because the winter was So Cold. I liked listening to her talk about art, and I liked making art in her class. I liked listening to her and Steve Edwards have so much fun with each other, and I liked the line she offered from Ovid, a kind of grounding in the natural world, when so much around us feels far from the seasons, the planets, the dirt and the bugs.

Every now and then I pick up this book and read some of it to students or friends as a way to stoke the writing. Coupled the assignment I gave one of my classes this week, with Zimmerman and remmebering the apples, I thought I would do this again.

I remember the burgundy jars of perfumed cream my mother would buy from her church lady friends, who also sold Avon.
I remember thinking Campbell's canned tomato soup was gross.
I remember Cap'n Crunch.
I remember Garbage Pail Kids.
I remember jellies.
I remember Chinese jump rope.
I remember the one year (third grade) I learned how to double dutch. It was maybe the first time I felt like a black girl.
I remember when I cut off my perm and wore my natural hair short. It was among the first times I felt like a black woman.
I remember the tremor in my husband's voice when he made his vow during our wedding.
I remember the last time a man asked me to marry him.
I remember the first time a man asked me to marry him. I didn't think he was serious, but he thought he was.
I remember the first time a boy touched me sexually and I didn't want him to (also third grade). We were both in trouble for something, and sitting in the time out chairs near the teacher. He reached across me, shoved his hands between my thighs and said, "Nice la-gitis!" and laughed. I pushed his hand away and told him, "It's Va-GI-NA, not la-gitis." Somehow, his mispronunciation of the word was a bigger deal to me than the fact that he'd just touched my privates. We were probably in trouble for talking about privates in the first place.
I remember hyperventilating after I came out of the anesthesia after having my wisdom teeth out.
I remember my first rock concert.
I remember my first cigarette.
I remember how often my mother had to tell me to stand still, and not to dance to the music they piped into the supermarket sound system. I still can't do it, but I don't have to stand still anymore.
I remember learning about the civil rights movement.
I remember being the first black family on my street.
I remember when the next door neighbors egged our house.
I remember my first car accident.
I remember my cousin. I don't know where she is anymore.
I remember how beautiful I thought my mother was.
I remember how tired I got of other people telling me how beautiful my mother was.
I remember my father's absence.
I remember wishing for a brother.
I remember wishing for a dog.
I remember the smell of my clarinet's mouthpiece.
I remember how much I loved to play the clarinet.
I remember how large the football field seemed when you were standing on the goal line waiting to march onto it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I Forget (hopefully.)

After I graduated from college, I went on a Kundera bender: I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and probably in the span of a year or two. I'd started reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the behest of a friend from high school (who went to Smith College and wrote her thesis on Kundera and Rushdie, which made her super-smart and super-cool as far as I was concerned, and whom I've since--sadly--lost touch with), and that one book was enough to get me hooked. I bought some cheaply, I checked some out from the library, I found every book he'd written that I could get my hands on. In one of them, I remember him writing: "Memory is not the opposite of forgetting; memory is a kind of forgetting." I don't know what book this is in. You'd think it'd be in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, right? But I can't find it. For years, I've been doing searches online for this quote, and while I can find plenty of other people quoting Kundera (which makes us sound erudite and considered, but also, frankly a bit like a pompous douche), I can't find which book it's in. I've reread The Book of Laughter and Forgetting trying to find it, as well as Unbearable Lightness, and I keep coming up empty.

I remember reading in The Black Notebooks about the luxury of forgetting: how nice it is that some people can forget things--in this case it was race--because others of us cannot forget. It was a book written by a black poet who can pass for white and struggles to integrate her racial identity in a world where white people treat her like she's not black and black people treat her like she's white. (As an aside, it's an amazing book, and that really mediocre description I just offered is, well, really mediocre. Go look.) Anyway, she was talking about the luxury of forgetting, and how some of us--who've experienced neglect or abuse, who've witnessed atrocities, who are daily confronted with relationships or institutions that rob us of our humanity--lack that luxury. We can't all forget. So when I hold this beside the phantom Kundera quote, I wonder what it really means to remember. Experiencing is one thing: when you walk down the street and a man hollers at you something gross and offensive, or even something that sounds innocuous but still objectifies you, you experience your feelings, you don't remember them. But remembering is different. The process we go through of sorting out our feelings on losing our virginity to That Guy, or the first time we read That Book and finally felt like someone understood us, or the last time we saw That Person alive: these feelings color our memory of the guy, the book, the person. So they exist in our memory not in a factual state, but a fictional one, or maybe a creatively nonfictional one: this really happened, but the truth of it is wholly subjective, bound by our own experience and reflective only of our own thoughts.

I sat on my mat this morning, post-yoga, thinking of forgetting and remembering, and thinking how much I dislike remembering September 11, 2001. Not so much my truth of the experience, as much as the posture of remembering. I dislike the flag posters that state dogmatically, We Will Never Forget, and bear Stars and Stripes whipping poetically in wind. I dislike looking at square-jawed individuals in dress military uniforms shoot bullets into the air as a kind of salute. I dislike hearing Amazing Grace or the Star Spangled Banner. I intensely dislike the camouflaged, target-sign, right-wing bullshit I can't even conceive of, that I know is a part of how some people remember. Part of the reason I don't like remembering is because it was a really sad day, a really difficult experience for all of us to witnessed, and because, without exaggerating, it changed our world. But the larger reason I don't like remembering is because it pulls out everyone's jingoistic baggage and turns our American spotlights on and I have a low tolerance for that.

I have spent a significant part of the last few years of my life working hard at remembering. Remembering who I was when I was a girl, remembering the happy moments I had, moments when I felt like a real person, and how those might differ from moments I remember when I felt like someone's puppet or doll, or wastebasket. The writing helps; therapy helps; my friends often (but not always) help. These days I remember a lot, and because I remember and want to talk about it, I have estranged myself, and been estranged from, two people with whom I had the most formative relationships in my life, my parents, because they would rather would rather forget. Some of these things I can't forget; I have to take them out of myself and run my hands over them, examine and understand them, so that ultimately I can set these aside and forget them. Once the sting has been pulled out of these memories, they can achieve a kind of balance.

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating the kind of return to the past that I hear coming out of the Republicans, where things were good if you were a white man, where women were under the control of their husbands and people of color were servants and degenerates who were thankful for the charity benevolent white men offered them. I just mean I have the chance to feel less bitterness about some of these memories if I can actually remember them, and not just forget so fast.

So there are two ways to remember: remembering to acknowledge as much of the objective truth (if it exists), to own mistakes we make, to feel emotions we haven't yet processed, and to bear witness; or remembering to reiterate the narrative we tell ourselves over and over, to throw ourselves further out of balance and to heighten the subjective experience we have about a thing, which actually seeks to hide it more, rather than to uncover it.

So I am remembering sitting in my pajamas in the house I grew up in watching on TV as planes flew into buildings, as they collapsed. I am remember how empty the house felt. I am remembering being home trying to work on my senior thesis and driving out to a Starbucks in a neighboring suburb, trying to focus on the writing, and not on the attack that scared me, but that I also understood. I am remembering the hug my father gave me that day. I am remembering how glad I was that he was home, and not traveling for work, like he did so often. I am remembering my mother's lust for blood in the weeks that came afterward, and how I thought she was a Republican, much as she tried to argue she was an Independent. I am remembering the ways in which, for years, we all tried to comfort ourselves, even when it meant using each other, or hurting each other. I am remembering my father, and my mother in all of their earnest and desperate hard work, and I am remembering all of the pain that has passed between us. I am remembering so that one day I can forget.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


It's that time again. Fall approaches. It's consistent as ever, much to my chagrin. With it come classes, new students and awesome opportunities. It makes me sad that every time my work gets going I find it harder to write here, but I'm nothing if not a writer of pattern.
I'll be back soon. I have so much on my mind.
I love this photo, because it makes my neighborhood look like some corner of Tehran, and not the flipping student-populated city center that it is. Also, I think public art meets street art meets vandalism is FASCINATING. I don't know any theory, but I still love it.