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.