Evidently, John Sutherland makes a living writing about literature, so I was surprised by the obtuseness of his piece in Curiosities of Literature entitled “Milk of Kindness; Grapes of Wrath”. Operating on the assumption that Steinbeck meant to be showing us a poor woman saving a poor man, Sutherland informs us that this would have been impossible given the volume of milk produced by malnourished women and the amount of milk required by malnourished men.
I cannot imagine reading the Grapes of Wrath’s ending in the way Sutherland has, and I doubt that’s because I have only one degree in literature among my post-name letters, and that a bachelor’s. Similarly, I cannot imagine that I am the first, last, or only person to read Steinbeck’s closing scene as I do, but I’m enjoying chewing this over in writing, so I’m going to add to the pile without even exploring it first. As my maternal grandmother used to ask, “How ‘bout them apples?”
Back to the chewing – the more likely explanation for the former failure of my imagination is, I think, that unlike Mr. Sutherland, I have struggled with poverty for the whole of my life, and I lactated continuously for three years of that time. Mr. Sutherland’s misstep was clear before he got to listing milliliters of milk when he summed up Steinbeck’s thesis as “only the poor can give sustenance to the poor.”
Even without the filter of experience, I cannot imagine how the Grapes of Wrath can be read as tendering that message when it so obviously and emphatically and repeatedly SHOUTS a similar one that differs in one essential verb choice: “only the poor WILL give sustenance to the poor.”
From that verb of being springs more pathos than Mr. Sutherland is properly prepared to receive. To those among Steinbeck’s readers familiar with both poverty and lactation, Rose of Sharon is fully aware that what little milk she has to offer will not save the strange and starving man anymore than it would have saved her infant. She is fully aware that making such an offering from her own depleted body may mean that she joins him in his descent into death. So is her mother. Little Ruthie may know, too, on some level, and her protest may spring from that. More likely, though, she is there to break our hearts even more in the scene by being as-yet-innocent of the cruel realities with which her mother and sister and all their sistren have too long been intimates.
All of my life, I have heard poor folks pass this bipartite truth amongst ourselves:
The phrasing may’ve been a bit different depending on whether we were poor folks talking over the crack-of-fucking-dawn shift at the greasy spoon or the crack-of-fucking-dawn shift in the cornfields or the middle-of-the-fucking-night shift at the hospital while trying to earn a degree, but the gist was the same. Poor people have compassion for poor people. No one else does.
The best the rest can offer us is pity, and Steinbeck is guilty of that in moments. Fortunately, he transcends that resentment/justification cycle more than once in his writings about the lives of those of us literature would generally rather consign to the workhouse or raise up through glittering meritocratic tokenizing. The final scene of the Grapes of Wrath is one of those transcendences.
Rose of Sharon and her mother, like countless heroes of literature, are risking ultimate sacrifices because they are the sort of folks who do what is right no matter what. That separates them from the well-fed hordes who spit on their suffering. That nourishes them when the lack of material sustenance is such that the grave looms. Their choices in the context of their shared and sure knowledge is what brought me to tears reading their final scene the first and each successive time I revisited Steinbeck’s transcendence – not of their poverty and suffering, but of his & his ilk’s usual patronizing condescension toward both.
On another level, Rosasharn and her mother are also of people who have made “a way out of no way“ for as long as humans have permitted inequitable distribution of resources and before when there just genuinely wasn’t enough because Nature said, “Drought!” or “Flood!” or “Early Hard Frost!” On that level, their martyrdom is tempered by their perhaps even more heroic capacity to spark the sort of resistance to the inevitable that sometimes pays off and is always better than passive resignation thereto. If, after all, both the strange and starving man and Rosasharn are on the same road as the latter’s child, why shouldn’t they choose to face that fate with generosity and compassion, wrapped in the “comfort” left them? When the alternative is facing down the same fate grasping and alone, denying Rosasharn or even the starving man conscious agency is untenable.
Yes, perhaps the heroic martyrdom of Rose of Sharon* and her mother nudges Steinbeck over into a representation that Dorothy Allison might rightfully critique as flattening us into The Deserving Poor. Still, she forgave him, and I do, too. Not to mention, a reader can’t even get there if they’ve mired themselves in the unsupported thought that Rose of Sharon is acting with a certainty that she’ll both save the man and survive herself. I am both incensed and heartbroken to see such literary transcendence so misapprehended and diminished in a book (Sutherland’s) already read by more folks who won’t recognize the crime than this blog post ever will be. I’m not surprised, though. Ain’t like it’s the first time.
*Her name is “Rose of Sharon” in a book titled “Grapes of Wrath”, but she didn’t know she was making of herself nourishment?! The original audience for Steinbeck’s novel at the time of publication would’ve been intimately familiar with their bible, even if the Song of Solomon might’ve raised some blushes.
Once upon a time, I was playing scrabble with a friend whose Ivy League-level matriculation somewhat intimidated me. She played the word “segue”, and I laughed, so youthfully confident that I didn’t imagine the English language contained words I’d never heard or read. My friend was patient with my ignorance, and I accepted the edification with what grace I could muster.
All of which is to say that I’d been familiar with the meaning of the word “segue” for at least two decades before using it to title my last post here, so I’m clear that my next post should have been one moving on from the topic that has thus far consumed this blog space.
Fortunately, English is a flexible language and makes room for nouns also being verbs.
Still, though this post is stretching the term “segue” and possibly also the term “balm”, I do want to shift this space and will make the next post a turning point here and possibly also internally at last. That next post may not be much in the way of literarily-engaging or information-professionaling, but it comes from a place more nourishing for me at present than this one. I need to engage that place more and will do so here going forward.
And at last, after all that exposition, here is the gist of this not-quite-a-segue-yet post: I received another voicemail regarding the family-of-affinity situation I’ve written about here at some length. This one featured one critical difference that has given me the hope expressed in the title of this post: an acknowledgment of the issues I’d raised and an expression of a desire to further engage them.
Folks perhaps wiser and maybe even more misanthropic than I might not have allowed anything as dangerous as hope to be roused by such a slim bit of promising language, but I felt nearly giddy and certainly buoyed. I am glad of that, more than I can say.
At the same time, I am also literally trembling with exhaustion at the moment, so I cannot pursue that hope myself at present. Hope lives in me, though, that the folks on the flipside of this painful schism will find other suitable companions for this ongoing conversation, whether in person or in books or other media.
Please know that although I cannot be your companion on this part of your respective journeys, my thoughts are with you and with the possibility that one day we will be able to share our journeys again in substantive and sustaining ways. Much love.
On Winter Solstice last year, I received a voicemail that let me know that at least one of the folks on the other end of this family-of-affinity divorce had become aware of my decision in this matter. I wondered at the time if any thought had been given by her to what day it was. Scenes from the Winter Solstice celebrations we’d once shared flickered through my mind. All the hurt I’d been laboring through in earlier writings here and in what seemed like every other moment of my days flared fiercely. And I very purposefully set it aside. There were holiday traditions to observe. Presents to be enjoyed. Rat kings to see defeated.
In the months since, that every-other-moment thing hasn’t faded. I’ve written several pieces trying to work through this and published none of them because I want to be done. To borrow a cliche, I want to close this painful chapter in my life and move forward. As I observed in those unpublished writings, I expect this hurt will keep me company all my days. I hope, though, to get to a place where it’s not every-other-moment. Where I no longer wake too many mornings from nightmares about it. Where I no longer flinch at each photo, memory, association, song on the radio . . .
And then a few days ago, I got another voicemail letting me know that another of the folks involved thought I shouldn’t be done. And again with the flaring hurt. And again with the memories. And still with the every-other-moment. And more writing that won’t be published.
I want there to be a way out of this. My brain does that special thing that it does and follows the jagged loops of this situation around and around trying to find a way out. My ideal way out, though, is beyond my control. I cannot make people learn what they don’t want to learn. I cannot make people act in ways they don’t want to act. And years of experience make clear that this is not desired learning; this is not wanted action, this thing that I am needing.
So, I am doing what I can do. I am removing myself from relationships that hurt and exhaust me. Though brimming with blessings I count on the daily, my life of late has also brimmed with stressors – hell, sometimes they’re even the same things. And after over two decades of chronic illness, I am clear on my spoon count. I can’t sustain my presence in these relationships in their current states any longer. I cannot.
And perhaps more importantly, I will not.
If any of ya’ll read this, know that I wish you each and all well, and I’ll always miss the good bits terribly.
“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I heard of the success of the student protests at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I wrote this: Jonathan Butler referenced “a poisonous infestation of apathy” that his hunger strike challenged. I’m so heartened to see his challenge succeed. Mere moments later, or seemingly so, Mr. Butler and his fellow activists were facing down death threats and still more institutional racism and indifference to their well being.
Today, when I saw a familiar name turn up in my call history, a perfect tempest of tangled emotions swept through me and settled in my anxious gut. I took in a quiet breath, restarted the streaming content that had timed out, and put the phone back down.
After doing a few busy-busy things in the kitchen, I took the phone into the bathroom with me and closed the door to listen to the voicemail. Would it be an angry response to my writings, finally read? Would it be a compassionate, supportive call in the wake of what’s going on a few hours drive away from her and could be going on still more intimately for me in a few years when my daughter is matriculating at a university somewhere? Would the latter indicate that my writings hadn’t yet been read? Or had been read with honesty, courage, and love? How would I respond in the last case? Why did my heart still leap like a fish with hope at that last thought?
None of the above, as it turns out. Just a chatty message oblivious both to my wrenched-heart writings and still and always to the immediacy of racism and the toll it violently forces black people to pay in this country day by day, moment by moment (and to a lesser extent, extorts from any non-black people who genuinely love any black people).
None of the above, and thereby, a reminder, a reinforcement of my choice. I cannot trust my heart any longer to folks who cannot be bothered with even registering racism consistently, nevermind confronting it, directly or indirectly or at all. My heart is abraded day by day, moment by moment by the potentially fatal and always damaging blades racist America aims at my family. I cannot bear any longer to hold that pain in the company of those who cannot offer even the most basic of solidarities with it.
None of the above, and another precious layer of scar tissue closes over the heart’s wounds made of these familiar names gouged deep with the blades of silence, indifference, cowardice, and complicity. My heart aches for those brave and terrified human beings at Mizzou and on campuses and in churches and in workplaces and walking down streets facing down homicidal anti-Blackness day by day, moment by moment. My heart clenches with terror and resolution at the prospect of one day sitting at home waiting for a good word while my baby girl faces down some similar trap set to derail her access, her education, perhaps her very life.
None of the above, and I know on yet another level that I hold no quarter any longer for anyone who would pick up the phone and call me in the middle of that day by day, moment by moment experience of terrorism with no good word to offer on the subject.
None of the above, and that day is this day, and that moment is this moment.
None of the above, and that day is every day, and that moment is every moment.
None of the above, and as I keep saying, I’m done.
. . .
I’d like to be done processing this toxicity in writing, too. I can’t say for sure yet whether that’s finally true, but I can close this piece and possibly this chapter of my life with some words from some other folks who knew too well the cost and the wages of silence:
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Oppression can only survive through silence.” ~ Carmen de Monteflores
“Your silence will not protect you.” ~ Audre Lorde
“I don’t want an apology; I don’t want anyone to make it up to me. But I do want people to be accountable for their roles in oppression, and to respect me as the arbiter of my own experiences. I want people’s conversations with me to force them to think, rather than be defensive. As the late poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote in her essay “Uses of Anger”: “my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way that I have used learning to express anger for my growth.”” – Rebecca Carroll
Though I knew from the outset that this would be a process and a painful one at that, I’ve been feeling mired and impatient to be across this burning bridge and done with it. As is so often the case, my impatience seems to serve no end other than to exacerbate my suffering, both in the Stoic/Buddhist/my mama sense of the word and in the plain old pain&suffering sense. I have grief. I am lonesome. I am heartbroken. I am angry. I am saddened. These things do not become less true because I am impatient with the experience of them.
The other day, I came across this potent piece by Aya de Leon that spoke to me of the fundamental, and it seems, foolish hope that I had around how the folks I’m stepping away from would’ve responded to their responsibilities as presumably-good humans in a white supremacist context. This passage in particular –
“I will learn what I need to learn, change what I need to change, braid what I need to braid, move where I need to move, build community with whom I need to build, and confront what and whom I need to confront, even in my own family. I can see that the real problem here is racism.”
– resonated with me on a number of levels.
Too often, I’ve had conversations about what it means to parent children of color in a white supremacist-context in which my experience and perspective and ongoing efforts at self-(re-)education were pushed aside in favor of excuse-making for white-identified parents and grandparents and caregivers who don’t bother to educate themselves, provide essential contexts of validation for the children of color in their care, or do fuck-all to equip them for or defend them against the racist shite, micro and macro, merely wearing or actively life-endangering, that is coming their way on the daily. And of course, the whole topic of the responsibilities of white-identified parents raising white-identified children was avoided or elided assiduously. Each time, I began the conversation with the same frail hope of solidarity and ended with the same intense fatigue, pain, disappointment, betrayal, and yes, anger.
Humans will disappoint. Humans will not live up to their own standards of human decency, and yet will insist that you are violating those same standards when you call them on it. Humans are too often self-interested cowards with little to offer each other except shared lies. I know this. I’ve long known this. I learned it at my Ma’s knee, though I’ve been running from the knowledge of it for almost as long as that.
So, why have I insisted on pretending otherwise so often for so long with these particular folks? Why am I wallowing through this grief as if it is the first such mire I or any other human has encountered? Why do I keep circling ‘round to compassion for the pain my boundary-setting will likely cause these folks should they ever actually read my words despite not expecting that they will actually do so given how much of what I’ve had to say on these topics has been shoved away or stepped over in face-to-face spaces and utterly ignored in virtual ones? Why is their pain staying real to me when I had to draw this boundary because I could no longer ignore the real pain – and danger – their insistent passivity brings to the lives of my children, grandchild, partner, self, and more folks than I can count? Is this in itself evidence of how successfully socialized in white supremacist ideologies I’ve been? Internalized racism at work? Is it genuine compassion that I need to find a way to balance with that I have for those of us endangered by such shirkings of reality? Is that especially true given that white supremacy and the larger kyriarchy it’s part of and the violences necessary to maintain them actually threaten our entire species and certainly poor folks, women, and neurodiverse folks whether or not they remain ensnared by the lies of Whiteness? Or is it merely the reflexive priortizing of White feelings over Black and otherwise non-white lives?
I don’t know. I don’t feel that I have any satisfactory answers to these questions. I do feel that even asking them is in some way a betrayal of my children, my grandchild, my partner, myself, and all those more immediately in danger from the brutality of inequality, of actual death and unrecoverable loss in a culture built on an utter disregard for black and otherwise non-white lives and humanities. Some part of my interior conversation about all of this includes a voice carrying all the caustic sarcasm inherent in me (which is quite a lot). That voice keeps snarking about what a good handmaiden I am to be so concerned about the well being of Miss Ann and her children even at the expense of my own. What am I resisting here? Is it just my own foolish sentimentality? Or is it an inculcation to favor Whiteness that runs so deep it shames me as a mother?
Again, I don’t know, and perhaps I won’t know. Perhaps what I can do now is simply keep my life moving down the newly-fenced road I’ve made for myself, my daughter, and the rest of my loved ones whose humanity never quite made the cut on that old, boundary-less path. After all, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” ~ Megan Devine via Tim Lawrence
Sooner or later, the price of those tickets to Whiteness may well become too much for the folks on the other side of this divorce to pay any longer. Or it may not given that “The force of self-deception is strong within” them as Son of Baldwin so eloquently addressed recently. I can’t wait any longer, though. If they ever want to catch me up, the path I’ve taken is clearly marked with those sturdy fence rows now, so I’ll be easy enough to find.
Some existentialist or other once wrote about the nausea that existential crises can summon, right? When I wrote the preceding posts about this transition that I’ve initiated in my life, I did it with the tidal force of broken-hearted so-done-ness carrying me through them. As I wrote, though, I was also aware that tides ebb and that I’d ridden that particular one back out to sea too many times already. Publication presented a way to mark that high tide indelibly, finally.
Before taking such a step, I discussed the decision with my daughter. Telling of my Ma’s decision to separate from her entire natal familly for about five years when I was about 10 and from most of it for most of my life, I explained that I didn’t want to take this step without giving her a heads up. My original intention was for her to have the option of continuity if she so desired, despite the very reservations that undergirded my own decision. I said I’d make arrangements for her when we were visiting her maternal grandmother if she so chose. In retrospect, both my decision and how I went about concretizing it will probably preclude her exercise of that option. Good intentions, roads to hell, and all that.
Back to nausea. Right. So, yeah, I knew about the tidal flow, so I decided to throw up a dam and publish. The tide has ebbed and crested several times since I clicked ‘publish’ on Nothing More.
As I try to navigate the shifting depths, other aspects of my life have continued apace: parenting, grandparenting, homeschool-educating, working for pay, managing household finances, managing my chronic illness-related issues, taking care of pets, household chores, et cetera. In that mix, my waning mindfulness efforts have begun to wax again in the face of this latest version of No Way Out, but all Pema Chodron seems to be telling me is that I’ve fucked up by losing my cool. Maybe that’s not what she’s saying, but that’s what I keep hearing. The ongoing pursuit of understanding around neurodiversity and its ongoing presence in my life and self has taken me over terrain that also seems to be pointing my own finger back at me, so to speak. Per various writings and vloggings by folks on that spectrum, we’re collectively prone to being rigid thinkers, self-righteous moralizers, unforgiving loners, judgmental narcissists, and an array of other variations on holier-than-thou. Okay, yes, some of those variations in phrasing are shaded by spikes in my self-loathing, but still. And Seneca’s On Anger might as well have gone straight through my eyeballs and out the back of my head for all the good its done me in this.
Woven among these aspects of my life are many teachers. As my always incomplete and too often inadequate self-education continues, I am listening to voices of too much experience in these matters; I am reading words that push back against my personal failings to center the persistent insistance that this country walk its talk when it comes to liberty and equality. I may or may not fill this paragraph with hypertext links to those voices, audible and textual, but either way, they abound. Folks reading this interested in understanding my decision to publish a dam against the ebbing of my personal tide of ethical outrage have the answers at their fingertips.
In any case, it seems safe to say that my previous writings on this matter were not penned by a Laughing Buddha. Also seems safe to say that my cognitions and emotions are both shaped by the place on the spectrum I occupy. Is this what is causing the nausea?
No, I think not. Instead, I think it is rooted in the morass of this moment in other ways. Even in light of these aspects of my mind and my aspirations to mindfulness, even if being carried by my tides rather than riding them was not the best of means, I cannot truly second guess the ends.
No, the nausea is similar to that described by wossname, the existentialist. In its own way, it’s the nausea of desolation, of facing down Meaning and finding only being. Whether that being is transcendant or banal or both, it is dynamic as fuck. Like the flu that had my stomach in my throat the other week, the pain of this will inform my experience, but not define it. In the soup of being, Meaning is what we make of it. However Ozymandian my decision, it means something to me.
Having been racked with existential angst from before I knew the phrase, having known the absurdity of proclaiming, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” for almost as long, I nonetheless stand here now resolved. My feet are firmly rooted in the earth of my decision, and my eyes are turned to the sea . . . dramamine, anyone?
Yesterday, I spent the day nursing my almost-eleven year old through a particularly noxious bout of stomach flu. Today, it’s looking like I may have my turn at the bowl. Both days, I’ve found myself thinking wistfully of how much easier it all might be if there were someone I could trust who could turn up and help us when we’re sick. My partner left work early yesterday to attend his daughter’s sick bed, but he’s not expected back today until after the late news, and we can’t afford for him to miss more work. A good friend across the bay would come if she could, I trust, but she has her own health and fiscal challenges, and I don’t want to add to her already-full load. So, here we are, snugged up with the dogs, “Firefly” streaming, and the in-case-I-vomit bowl close at hand, ready to wade through another day.
Strangely – or maybe not so strangely, this experience clarifies for me aspects of the family-of-affinity divorce I’m currently processing. I’ve lamented for years that if those folks just lived closer, I’d have practical support for days like these. Whether or not that’d actually be true, it hasn’t been my reality ever, so why have I given it so much space in my life? In my thoughts? In my heart?
When I first moved to California, I imagined the sort of relational continuity that would realistically only be possible if we all had access to upper middle class resources. I thought on earlier generations of internal migrants who, however much they were agents of Euro-American incursion into Indigenous territories, were also humans who left their kith and kin behind knowing the odds were they’d never set eyes on them again in this life. I thought of the letters they wrote back to their mamas and their sisters, and I was grateful to have been moving in the jet age.
That’s how foolish I was, how insistently naive.
Today thirteen+ years on, as I try to will myself not to permit the drawing in my throat to become the hellishly involuntary reality of vomiting, I’m settling more fully into my life as a Californian. As the Bay area writhes around me in the most recent of its cyclical contests between too-too-too-much-money and more-fierce-refuges-than-any-other-metro-area-can-offer, I’m finally feeling the truth of being an internal refugee, driven West by Eastern/Midwestern/Southern suffocating indifferences and sweeping passivities. One does not get to be both here and there. Coming here means leaving there. Leaving there means leaving there. Coming here means being here. Being here means being. Here.
Given my frequently infinitesimal attention span, you’d think I’d be better at this Now of Wolf-Thought thing. You’d think I’d be better at being mindfully present in this moment. But of course, you’d be wrong. I’m absurdly attached to the familiar, resistant to change, and comforted by routine. Just as when I was getting divorced those earlier times, I’m finding breaking the habits of mind involved in long-term, emotionally-intimate relationships the most difficult aspect of the transition. Just as in those earlier circumstances, though, the relationships are ending because those habits of mind had proven themselves to be habitually bad. The change is in skipping the expectations that they’ll be otherwise and then letting them go altogether.
Today, I’m sitting with that. Bee and Puppycat are keeping the still-sicky-but-no-longer-retching kid entertained. Focusing on writing this has kept the contents of my stomach in my stomach so far. If they eventually escape, then they do. Today will become tomorrow. I’ll manage as I have done for a dozen years and more now – without any substantial daily participation from the folks I’m divorcing. I’ll manage as I’m just learning to do – without any expectation of said participation whether in an imaginarium of stopping-by-with-soup or in an imaginarium of creating-lives-that-are-built-on-a-willingness-to-fight-for-what-you-know-is-right.
Part of me very much wants to hang on to a big-eyed and notional future in which the Work is being done in ways that make these folks, their lives and homes safer for me, mine, and millions of our fellow humans, and thereby, in ways that have a similar effect on our culture as a whole.
The rest of me knows better, is not holding her breath, and is making the peace necessary to keep it moving in world where the Work goes too much undone.
I’m tired and lonesome, but an old and festering set of wounds in me seems to be beginning to scab over at last. I look forward to the day when those miraculous things – scars – lie faded and smooth in the much-marked geography of my heart. I expect they’ll always be a bit tender, but the healed-over pain will be much easier to live with than the picked-raw-always-and-again pain has been, I trust.
I’ve been “sad-mad” for long years now. Moving on to merely wistful or even someday, rueful feels like a good moon rising.
Before I turned thirty, I’d already been divorced twice. The first one was opposite-sex and included the joys of wading through family court. The second one was same-sex back before that was legal, so I got to skip filing suit and appearing in court. Though they differed in that practical aspect, they bore definite similarities to each other in emotional aspects. I felt bereft, not just of whatever companionship I’d thought I’d found in the relationships that were ending, but of any sense that I was competent to assess the trustworthiness of my fellow humans.
After both divorces, I nonetheless trusted in those fellow humans I understood as chosen sisters. Those two romantic relationships each lasted roughly four years, but those two platonic relationships endured for decades. Now, in a time enriched by the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of the death of my eldest chosen sister, as my daughter embarks on her twelfth year, I’m getting divorced again.
Not, this time, from my (primary) romantic partner, even though we’re nostril-deep in what seems like a supermajority of Biggest Marital Stressors (financial strain, chronic health issues, financial strain, moving house, financial strain, multiple jobs, financial strain, et fuckin’ cetera). Instead, this time, from those very humans I’d once trusted so much. Once again, I’m feeling bereft, not just of whatever companionship I’d thought I’d found in the relationships ending, but of any sense that I’m competent to assess the trustworthiness of my fellow humans.
Now, as those times before, I am nonetheless trusting some of the humans in my life to listen, to understand, to comfort in this time of hurt, of grief, of loss. Now, as those times before, I find myself reflecting on the emotional histories of the relationships ending. When my first marriage ended, those reflections left me with nothing I wanted to keep. Every part felt stained with the coercion that poisoned the whole. When my second marriage ended, those reflections left me with some memories that still glowed, but like roses on a bush gone mostly to thorns.
As I move through the process of this more complex untangling of relationships, I’m feeling as if there’s a shimmer over it all that once I would’ve mistaken for moonlight, but now see as radioactivity. When I try to move closer, try to rediscover the Moon’s presence in these memories, the faces of my daughter and granddaughter, my partner and (step)son coalesce between that shimmer and my heart, and the light fractures. Lunar, radioactive, or both, the light is now broken across shards of glass and bone that litter this emotional landscape.
That brokenness is made of all the work-not-done on behalf of those coalescing faces, not-done on my behalf. To my way of thinking, of feeling, love means solidarity, means ally, means work. If I love you, I love you in your entirety and cannot look away from those aspects of you that I find challenging or inconvenient or discommoding while still using that verb to describe how I feel toward you (which might explain, at least in part, the years I’ve put in trying to cope with such aspects in these relationships).
In those terms, if you love me, you love challenging the system of raced oppression that informs every aspect of life in this country. You love that challenge because you know that the “nuclear” family I’ve made is endangered every moment of every day by that system of raced oppression. You love that challenge because you don’t want my heart ever to be broken like the hearts of so many mothers of Black children and lovers of Black adults have been broken for longer than this country has existed.
Might’ve been a good if you’d’ve loved that challenge on my behalf pre-this-partner and pre-parenthood, but that work-not-done preexists my current famlilial realities. Throughout my life, I’ve been making my own way through a generationally mixed blood experience with little other than indirect dismissal or direct denial of that experience from these same once-trusted folks. The pain of that dismissal and denial of my experience was nothing next to the pain that came as I watched that work and more go undone from the perspective of a parent.
From before my daughter was even conceived, I found myself fielding deeply painful work-not-done from these humans I’d so long and again trusted overmuch: “It’s just a fling, right?”; “You don’t want to have a baby with him. It won’t look like you.”
From her infancy, I wept. My efforts to make this family of affinity I’d put so much of myself into a safe place for my whole child were generally met with remarkably familiar indirect dismissals and direct denials at worst and tepidly-mouthed platitudes at best. I wept at the idea that she’d likely encounter Otherization at the hands of folks I was raising her to understand as family more times than I’d care to count over the years.
Too many years. Why so many? Now that I’m come at last to this divorce, I find myself looping through self-flagellation and castigation because it took me so damn long to get here, to take this step with a will. How could I play at family with folks whose behavior I’d already firmly rejected in my actual blood kin? How could I give latitude to the platitudes of whiteness-ensnared folks who could not and cannot be bothered? How could I trust my only daughter’s childhood visits with what I framed as her maternal family to these folks? Folks whose notions of anti-racist allyship left me walking in minefields of entitlement and microaggressions, getting washed in WWT and variations thereon when I had the audacity to point out shrapnel wounds, or worse yet, tried to keep those wounds from being topics of conversations in spaces where my levels of vulnerability – created and maintained by their insistent ignorance – were enormously triggering and unsafe for me?
No, you don’t have a proprietary interest in my suffering, and no, you are not allowed to poke me with sticks to see how I twitch in the name of allyship.
Yes, ‘colorblind’ rhetoric is racist (& ableist).
Yes, this comic is representing a reality just described to me by you from the perspective of an enabling authority, and no, that’s not okay, and no, it’s not okay that we’re re-enacting a variation on that scenario while discussing it.
No, for the eleventy-millioneth time, I don’t want to watch the Wire with you. In case me getting up and leaving the room and the house and the yard didn’t make that clear enough the last time you asked me again.
No, it’s not okay to describe houseless people of color as frightening, predatory animals.
No, it’s not okay to opt out of standing against racism and other systems of oppression because you’re afraid what folks will think – maybe that you’re a “crazy lady” like that one got herself killed? You recall her? Shot by some of those genuine white racists who are not like you at all given they use their tongues to speak their minds, among other things.
No, speaking of those genuine-types, it’s not okay to attend militia meetings in the state giving Mississippi a run for its money on the Most Racist Shithole front and then bring it up in conversation as if it weren’t loaded as fuck.
No, it’s not okay to dismiss the self-determination of a whole people in order to insist on using the racist epithet that was hurled at them while they were being murdered in the Third Reich’s death camps and is still hurled at them in the streets of Europe today because said racist epithet “means something else” to you. Not a valid argument for that football team. Not a valid argument for Norman Mailer or his heirs. Not a valid argument for you.
Et fucking cetera. What the hell was I thinking all these years?
I don’t have any good answers to these questions, no matter how many times I follow them around inside my head.
My co-parent and I frequently discuss the importance of both our own ongoing unlearning of the oppressive bullshittery we’re all inculcated with in the U.S. and deprogramming, as we call the constant work parents in this country have to do if they want their children to grow up with an understanding of themselves and the world that is something stronger, truer, and more nourishing than the shit-cicle of the kyriarchal status quo. At some point, I realized that these were not priorities in the same ways for other folks/parents in my chosen family, at least not insofar as race was concerned, or gender, or gender roles, or sexuality, or disability, or even, remarkably enough, class. Maybe somewhat in terms of an utterly essentialist notion of sex. That was about as far as that all went, and from where I was standing, that wasn’t very far at all when declarations like “Boys will be boys.” “He’s all–boy.” were still being made generation after generation.
Yeah, their lives were full with surviving, with doing so while being ill and poor and overworked and underpaid and mired in the sometimes-delicious muck of living. Mine, too, though.
No, I’m never doing as much as I think I ought as a parent, as a deprogrammer, as someone whose self-education and self-reeducation is always ongoing, and therefore, always incomplete and too-often, inadequate. Yes, I have fucked up. Yes, I will fuck up again and again throughout my life. Yes, it sucks when I inflict my unexamined biases on other people. Yes, I’m always working on interacting with the world in a more conscientious manner, but no, that’ll never mean I get shit right all the damn time.
Perhaps that was what held my tongue for so long. I know myself, my own limits, and I want them to be understood with compassion, to be respected instead of scorned.
But that was never a good reason because everyone is a work in progress. My inadequacies are no excuse for coddling me or anyone else. Compassion for anyone’s stumbles on the hard and endless road that is solidarity cannot, by definition, outweigh the realities of injustice. Beyond that, the realities of life and death in the schools, streets, offices, houses, prisons, and playgrounds of this country cannot wait for everyone to perfect themselves before they’re directly engaged.
At some point, something clicked over in me – in my heart, or my mind, or perhaps my gut. In the midst of being present for these chosen families in one of life’s most difficult passages while protesters in Ferguson resisted police murder and martial law, I viscerally understood that far beyond doing this work, or not doing this work for me, for my daughter and her brother, for my partner and granddaughter, they weren’t doing it for tens of millions of their compatriots, of their fellow humans. Hadn’t been and wouldn’t be. Instead, they’re enabling the systems of order that endanger us all and raising their children to do the same, whether by persistent passive inaction or active modeling of acceptance of the status quo.
In yet-another pain-wracked processing session with my partner in the wake of that obvious epiphany – a processing session that had to wait for many days and hundreds upon hundreds of miles because I didn’t trust myself to begin it until I was safely home – I determined to turn my face to the sea when that most difficult passage was done.
Months passed, and yet I didn’t. Perhaps because the passage wasn’t done. But when, really, is death done? We carry the deaths of those we’ve loved with us until our own comes, and then we are carried in our turn. Death is the endless passage down which life trundles, now determined or indifferent or melancholy, but always in there.
In those months that passed, moments came and went as they had done for decades previous. Moments when people said things to me I’d invited in-laws to leave my house over, things I’d walked away from blood kin over, things I’d most certainly challenged other friends and coworkers and workplace policies and strangers in public spaces around. Moments when once-trusted people gave a nod to the wrongness of those things while simultaneously dismissing them and asking me to grant absolution for that dismissal as had happened so many times before: “You understand why I’m not saying anything, right?”
Yes, of course, I understood, but the thing they wanted me to understand was not the thing that I understood. When I said, “yes, of course,” and mouthed the absolution charms being asked of me, something in me gave way. When it happened twice in a matter of weeks, something began to reorganize itself within me, and eventually, that new structure changed the shape of the words coming from my lips, from my fingers, from my heart.
So done. That’s what I want to be with this. I want to be done because it’s the sort of tearing pain that generally accompanies divorce, the bereftness often inherent in the parting of paths, whether in a wood on a winter’s eve or in the heat of a global-warming summer in Oakland.
I’m not yet, though. Not yet done with this. It’s a process, and having been through it a couple of times before, I know that. That knowledge helps. I remember how raw both of those divorces left me. The seismic shifts they resulted from and created in my life were relatively minor next to the changes in internal geography being wrought in this one. Yet, that is negligible next to what chasms might be opened by the work not being done, not to mention those already enabled, opened, widened, and maintained by that same passivity.