On the suffering of others

When my child was three, he inadvertently squirted hand soap into his eyes. We were in the kitchen. He screamed. SCREAMED. I lifted him into the sink and ran water over his eyes, but when I had him open them, I hadn’t gotten all the soap out and he screamed again. The second time, I let the water run over his eyes for so long that I had time to watch his terrified face, the way he had my shirt in his fists, the tears down his cheeks. He still remembers it. I’ll never forget.

It is terrible to witness the suffering of others. But we are wrong to say that it is worse than suffering itself. I didn’t have soap in my eyes. I wasn’t lifted into the sink and in the hands of another person. I saw his fear, but I was not afraid. I knew I could get the soap out of his eyes. I knew I could help him. It just took longer than either of us wanted.

What does it mean to cut your children off from your love? The premise presumes, of course, that you have loved your child at all, but let’s say that you do. Let’s say you do love your child, but you don’t like something about them that you have defined as a behavior. You don’t like their addiction, for instance. You don’t like what they do when they’re high. Thieving. Promiscuity. Recklessness.

Or maybe you don’t like that they have compromised their soul by falling in love with someone like them. And maybe you have decided to shun them because god would have it so. The way Jesus shunned people whose behavior the Old Testament had called criminal. You are the image of Jesus, right? Casting out your child. And then you don’t have to witness any suffering. You don’t have to watch what happens to a child on the street. A child at the mercy of a world that may or may not have more sympathy than you, the parent.

I have hated these parents for a long time. These assholes who cast out their own children. Who claim to speak for god. Fucking girls when I was a girl will never be a greater sin than pretending you know the heart of god. Fucking women as a woman will never be a greater sin than crediting Jesus with a hatred he never expressed. I promise you. I promise.

Do you know what is worse than watching someone suffer? Suffering itself. And you have thrown your own child out into the world and told them the way they love is broken and wrong. And you have told them they are broken and wrong. And that you cannot love them. You have told them that even god does not love them.

I have hated these parents because they are evil. It is evil to speak for god. It is evil to cast your child into the world with judgment. It is evil to pretend that you know what salvation requires.

You are not the hand of god.

And I, happily, am not the hand of god either. I am just a woman doing the best I can. A woman who can still see her child, at three, in the large kitchen sink, my shirt in his fists. And I would do anything to spare his suffering. ANYTHING. Because his suffering is the worst thing I have ever experienced. And that is how I love him. I love him as though there were no other. There is only a child and my love.

So you throw your child out because you are wrong and you are cruel. But I will love them. I will love all of them. Because that is all the goodness that exists in this world. To love those around us, those in need, as though we cannot abide suffering in any form. As though our greatest desire is to help and heal and tend. Can you imagine?

Can you imagine anything closer to the heart of god?

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

Love Story, redrafted

The day marriage equality was approved by voters in Washington State, my wife and I were watching the returns online. She was lying in bed, recovering from surgery. I kept calling out numbers, and crying. It was 2012, when I still thought Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were the worst things that could happen to America. O nostalgia.

Mary got an infection from that surgery. And hefty medical bills. And no physical relief.

Fast forward four and a half years. Her symptoms have returned with all their friends to kick the fuck out of her uterus.

Can I tell you a love story?

I know this sounds like a medical drama, but that’s only because you don’t know that she fell asleep in her sundress last night. One arm cast over her head; the moon blurred in the sky outside our opened bedroom window. The dogs tucked around her. Crickets cricketing.

That I stood and watched her and was grateful. Not for illness. Not for health. Not for struggle or politics or addiction. Not for money. Not for the seven years I have stood and watched her sleep. My beautiful girl. I was grateful because this is it. To be with your person and love. This is the whole endeavor of marriage.

We can complicate it with millions of layers, but this is it. I got to marry my person and love her. And my whole life, I will feel blessed by that fact. The fact of her. The fact of our marriage. The fact of this body that I worship.

Yes, worship.

If you are a woman who has been to a doctor with a complaint, you already know that we are mysterious. We are unknown. We are misdiagnosed.

And we are powerful as fuck.

Could I live in a house with this woman and not already know that power, mysterious and solemn as it is?

I can feel it, always, drawing me toward her.

What I love best about my wife is that she is the woman. The Woman. I have built an entire life around this love.

She returns to the doctor again today. And all the tumult she feels is near enough that I can hear it breathing.

I’ll bike home in the afternoon, and we’ll have dinner at a small Mexican place near our house. And she’ll tell me stories. Just like always. And I’ll be tethered to her. Like two girls at the ends of a jump rope. “Come on,” we’ll say. “Come on! Jump, motherfucker.”

Or maybe the tether is a boat docked.

Or a kite straining into the sky.

A climber lifting, lifting.

It doesn’t matter. Do you see? It doesn’t matter how we are bound to one another. We are bound to one another. And that is the fortune.

Posted in Writing | 4 Comments

AP English

We didn’t sit at the back of the classroom, though we were closest to the door. As the classroom was long and lean, we sat at the outer edge. The two girls on my left were new to Hawaii for their senior year of high school. I can’t remember if they were military kids, but that seems most likely. The blonde told us, on the first day, that she was from Texas, and the other girl, whose posture was so upright that she could only have been a ballerina replied shrewdly, “Have you ever noticed that the first thing you learn about people from Texas is that they’re from Texas?” And the blonde laughed and said it was true, and they were close friends in that moment and for the rest of the year.

We had AP English in the afternoon, and our teacher loved to fuck with our nerd tendencies. Our spelling test was a list of definitions and you had to know not just how to spell the answer but remember exactly what the word you were meant to be spelling was. There are, after all, many answers to adj. tireless. Once, when asked to respond to a Steinbeck story, the beautiful boy in front of me, who inexplicably called me “Malone” as though we were in a frat, said, “It gives me this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as yellow. The landscape, the flowers, the woman, the entire story — just crushingly yellow.” And we all nodded, because he had captured it exactly.

I knew at the time that they were the smartest kids I had ever been in a room with: our valedictorian, and the five kids who were taking all seven of the AP courses available to seniors. Our teacher’s office was on the opposite side of the classroom, behind a partition, and when I had my first meeting with her, she took off the thickest glasses I have ever seen and told me she was grateful that any time I spoke, I prefaced my comments with, “Miss,” so that she knew who was speaking because she couldn’t see anything more than six inches away from her face. Posters of terrible hair bands covered her office walls; she was especially infatuated with Bret Michaels.

Later, in college, I realized that she treated us like we were already done with high school. That first month, she welcomed us all to the English Club, and assured us it was fine to declare ourselves English Club President for the sake of our college applications. That final year in school, I sat on the outer edge of everything. I dropped out of cross country, and didn’t even bother to try out for basketball. All year, I struggled with throat infections that ultimately led to having my tonsils out, missing two weeks of school, and losing 20 lbs. I was in love with a girl in college and the pull was always away, away, away.

Several nights ago, I had a dream about the girl who was best friends with the Texas blonde. I can’t remember either of their names. It’s been more than 24 years since I’ve seen them. I remember she was petite, her hair dark and stylish. She reminded me of Mary Poppins: pretty, bossy, upright, brusque, surprisingly funny. We sat next to each other the night of our graduation. And after the ceremony ended, under the football stadium lights, we were making our way to the giant M sign to meet our families and friends, when she gave me the most determined look. The stadium lights made everything dreamy, and we still had our caps on as we’d been forbidden from tossing them. Her dark hair fell down her shoulders, and beyond her the night held every possibility. We’d made it. We were done, at last. And I watched that look on her face as she suddenly sprang into my arms. Choreographed perfectly as though we had rehearsed it. Her face set, she sprang, and I caught her and lifted her up up up into the lights before slowly lowering her. She had her arms around me and dipped her head to my ear. “Have the most beautiful life,” she said, and then she kissed me.

I never saw her again. Not once until the dream. And I dreamt that moment exactly. I had forgotten that she kissed me. I had forgotten that I set her down and smiled at her, and she’d stepped back into the other Ms and vanished. It had been so dreamy at the time that I wasn’t even certain it was real. Have the most beautiful life. Have the most beautiful life. I wish I could remember her name. I wish I’d replied. And also I wish none of those things. She was so beautiful. So perfect. So light in my arms. Like a dancer.

Hundreds of people poured down from the stadium seats, and draped leis around our necks. Everywhere, the smell of flowers. Crushingly yellow.

Posted in Featured, Writing | Leave a comment

Stirrup

You have been ill. Your body wrung out like a wash cloth. The parts of your brain where the lights live have closed for repairs.

“I don’t understand,” your boss says, “why we aren’t all in the streets. Why aren’t we all in the streets?”

You are too tired to reply, “Many of us are.” Or, more truthfully, “Because we have to last out this work day in our air-conditioned building.”

“Because we are busy typing our outrage.”

“Because we are consumed with making the same amount of money go on and on.”

“Because we are still reacting to yesterday’s calamity.”

“Because we haven’t recovered from this morning’s news.”

“Because we have been beaten up so thoroughly that holding our phones in front of our faces feels like complicity.”

“Because today I just can’t.”

I am 42 and more contented than I have ever been. Can I tell you that I wake in a room filled with art — women and wolves — skeletons and cemeteries? The push of small dog paws against my legs. To a wife so warm that even her murmurs are musical.

My city is under construction. It doesn’t seem like we have a single road that is intact or unimpeded. The angry man with terrible hair is yelling into the wind again; my entire feed is consumed with his latest catastrophe. But it’s the same smash-up as before: the abuser goes on being abusive.

Outside the 13th floor, I watch the clouds press wherever they are headed.

My child with his trumpet and top hat on stage in the spotlight.

Everything in fractions now as we try to solve for x.

My weariness like a cape. Is it keeping me warm, or making it harder to escape?

I wanted to tell you that I still can’t be hopeless.

Even now, as I hold my shoulders together in what I’ve decided to call a huddle, I feel a little more like laughing. Maybe it’s hysteria. I can only do what I have always done. Shop in local stores. Buy used. Repair. Help wherever I can. Refuse to abandon my joy. I am near tears when I feel the lights switch on, and the chairs come off the tables, and the steps in the kitchen that mean we’re nearly there. We’re a little closer. We are together in this.

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

The giveaway

The kid had already performed St. James Infirmary for Talent Show tryouts. Yet, we sat in the audience anyway. Maybe this year they were required to stay until the last performer had auditioned. His buddy was called to go home. And still we stayed. I sat on the back side of the lunch table, with my son and two girls in front of me.

The girl on his left kept asking questions. I’d see the dip of his head toward her, and then the deepening murmur of his response.

My god! I thought. We’re staying for a girl!

Again the dip of his head. More questions. More responses.

Forty minutes of children performing at the piano, on stage with hula hoops, dances choreographed to pop songs from two years ago. On and on. Still his head dipped toward hers.

Is there a better giveaway than the dipped head? The way one person seems to drink in the other. A face dipped into a pool of light. A gift still in its wrap and ribbon.

The next evening, we headed up to an after-school event. The kid had surprised us by asking to attend. He vanished after we fed him and reappeared a moment later with the girl who asked questions.

Marvelous.

The dip is also discovery, isn’t it? A kind of attention usually reserved for examination. For research.

I hope I never stop dipping to my wife. My head turned slightly to whisper something to her alone. To rest my forehead against hers for a moment and reinvigorate myself there as though love were a resource we need only bow toward. An attentive, curious supplicant.

My attention is entirely on you. You. With your questions. All of your questions. I will make it a habit to listen. To listen. And respond.

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Child

Years ago, my coworker had this sad, half-broken smile on her face when she told me that her 26-year-old son had survived for two years playing online poker because jobs were for suckers. “My son is a mystery to me,” she said.

And I had this terrible urge to grab her and yell, “Do something! Fix this!” Which means that I was thinking about my own relationship with my son, rather than her relationship with hers. It frightened me to think that one day my child might be entirely inscrutable to me. This child with a delicate scar across his cheek from the time his cat slipped off the roof of his fort, and scrambled for purchase. This child who listened to me say, last weekend, “My allergies are terrible, and I hate everything.” And responded with, “Would a hug help?” And when I blurted out, “Yes!” because I needed a hug more than anything, he jumped up and hugged me for a long time.

When I was 31, listening to my coworker’s story about her relationship with her son, I kept comforting myself with a story about how I was different. How I felt connected to and certain of my son in a way that I have always found miraculous. Improbable. Startling. The best and most astonishing joy of my life is my child.

But he is twelve now. And takes his job, being twelve, seriously. I have found myself, repeatedly, saying to him, “I don’t understand what you are doing. Why are you choosing this?” I have found him, careening over and over into my boundaries as he tries to develop boundaries of his own.

“Why would you do this?”

“What are you thinking?”

It is my job to model the values I believe in. It is his job to discern his own values. Sometimes, our jobs put us at odds.

And I catch myself thinking, “If he just chose this rather than that ….” Like a fixer. Like a person who knows better than everyone else. I’m sure people marveled at my choices (and still do) because they would choose differently. And sometimes I was wrong. But my wrongness was still mine. And worth whatever happened because I chose it myself. Messes I made were mine and necessary. Not just to learn, but to be. We go on, making and unmaking ourselves. Grasping, in our efforts, for things that are mysterious. The way I lived in my twenties made sense to me at the time as the best of my options. I would not choose those things now, which is quite handy, because I no longer have those choices to make.

“I don’t understand what he’s doing,” has become the motto of this phase of my relationship with my son. I find it a little scary. I find it exhilarating. I find that he is, as he grows and pushes, and grows and pushes, more himself. When my coworker said her son was a mystery to her, I was afraid that she really meant he was a stranger. I worried that a child could become so foreign that we might not recognize them. The way that my parents do not seem to recognize me.

But I forgot about the looking.

There it is, the scar on his cheek. There he is, the boy whose first response is to comfort me. He is there whenever I look for him. Working his shit out. Just like the rest of us.

“Why do I expect to understand him all the time?” I asked my wife last night. “I don’t understand anything. I keep looking around at the world going, ‘What the fuck is happening?'” The old fixer in me just gets anxious sometimes. I could spare you all this if you’d let me make your choices for you. I could spare you all this because when I was young, I threw myself against boundaries, too. Against and through them. Over and under them. Nobody could tell me anything. The whole world was filled with liars. People not brave enough. People settling.

At some point, I’ve made peace with not knowing. I just don’t know. I wonder. But I have no idea.

My life. My country. My neighbors. My future. My family.

I love them. But I don’t know what will happen.

And I have so much hope. And so much anxiety.

I have a fire that I let burn down to embers before I remember to search for more wood.

Outside my bedroom, the birds are singing in the tree nearest the window. They have been singing this entire time. My wife is asleep. The dogs, eyeing me, are wondering if they can press for food though it is 5 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. What is the worst that can happen? We will all tuck back in to the covers and wait out the last of the night. Or slip in to sneakers and walk through the neighborhood before anyone else.

Or.

Or.

Or.

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

I just can’t decide how much humanity you deserve

In the new age of acceptable fascism, I guess the thing I find most troublesome is how familiar it feels. I stood in Dachau Concentration Camp as a child. I looked at all the photos and the ovens. I stood there as a five year old and have never been able to shake that feeling. I loved Germans. I spoke German fluently as a child. How could they have done this? Or stood by and let it happen? And the rest of us? Where were we?

I sat in a Southern Baptist Church in Arkansas for the last time as a young woman while the minister spat into the microphone that all the gays should go back into the closet with the other skeletons. I grew up around the kind of Christianity that refuses to acknowledge the full humanity of Methodists, black people, brown people, immigrants, Catholics, Mormons, rich people, anyone on welfare. Jesus, the list goes on and on. My family thought the KKK was horrible, but warned me never to go into the black neighborhood two streets from my grandmother’s house.

You can’t have fascism without bigotry. They are intertwined. And being stared at in a restaurant because I’m laughing with my wife hadn’t happened for a number of years, but man, when it happened this summer, all the hair on my neck stood up and I kept track of that guy until he finally left in a huff. How dare those queer people enjoy themselves in front of my family!

Finding and loving Mary, and being loved in return is the best of me. It’s neither a shameful thing nor an immoral thing. And you’ll have trouble arguing that Jesus supports you if you disapprove of my relationship when that is clearly not the case. I promise you, the Jesus from your book is a fan of me, and my love. He would eat at my table; he would hold me in his arms. He would stand in my wedding party and bless us.

Dude was a radical. A proponent of love and the impoverished. A warrior against the rich and the greedy and the corrupt. He did not dig the self righteous.

Do not be silent now in the face of fascism. Do not be silent. This is no time to let the most vulnerable be terrorized because you don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Fuck your comfort. Morality is not relative. What we are witnessing in America is wrong. And if we refuse to act, if we only watch and do not speak, do not organize, do not protest, then we have failed one another. And we have failed ourselves. You have to invest in seeing people around you as the other. You have to invest in that. Or you can choose love. A lighter burden. A better path.

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

Do you have a maroon jacket?

There are only two people in the band who are under 70, and one is my son. He plays third trumpet, and watches the bandleader and the first trumpet for signals. You’d think he’d been doing this forever. Swapping out mutes, keeping time with his foot.

The first trumpet is 90. During the break, he tells me my kid is an exceptional young man. He shakes my hand as though we’d both been in the navy, and almost doesn’t glance at my tattoos.

“You’re counting two, but it’s written in 4!” the saxophone player had hollered at him during the first set.

“It’s written in 4, but you feel Dixie in 2.”

Yeah, bub. You feel Dixie in 2.

These old dudes can swing. And the kid, too. He can swing like a beast. He’ll be playing in his room, and shout out, “Do you know that one? Can you name it?”

And when I do, he’ll come to the threshold of his room, and say, “Do you know the lyrics?”

And when I start to sing them, he’ll join me. Yeah, kid, I grew up with swing. Jazz and blues and Dixieland. We could all agree on dance music. Marches. Waltzes. I used to Waltz in my room with my teddy bears.

“Have you heard of this song, Moon River?” he asks me. “It’s so beautiful.”

I start singing the lyrics and his face brightens. He sings, too. I mangle a couple of them. “You need practice,” he says.

I do. I need practice. And it’s all I can do not to dance during his. You feel it in two!

They tell him what he’ll need for the gig. “Do you have, by any chance, a maroon jacket? Or red? A red or maroon jacket?”

“Definitely not.”

“I think maybe if you just wear a white shirt, black tie, and black pants, you’ll be fine. Yes. Let’s do that. As long as you have the white shirt, black tie, and black pants, there’s no need for the maroon jacket. Or the red one.”

“Oh, good,” the kid says.

His first Jazz uniform. His first gig. With his first solos. Swing kid!

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

So shines a good deed in a weary world

“What,” I ask my wife, “do you consider your moral imperative?”
“Be good.”
“That’s the whole thing?”
“Be as good as I am able in every situation.”

Be good.

We live in a time where “Don’t be evil,” and “Don’t be a dick,” fail to capture the range of assaults we face. It’s not enough to hold back from the worst behavior. We should be out there shining a goddamned light on the good and the vaginal.

Yesterday I kept thinking about this superhero: Super Queer. Her only superpower is goodness. Goodness is the whole thing.

Have you helped someone today? How have you helped?

It is time to seize our moral imperative.

Be good.

Stand in solidarity.

Fight.

March.

Make signs.

Persist.

Make phone calls.

Show up.

Be the toddler the world needs. Fucking resist.

Obey little.

Say NO. Shout NO.

Make yourself hard to manage.

Hard to lull.

Hard to herd.

Be good.

Be filled with love.

Celebrate every achievement.

And raise your goddamned fist. The world needs all of us. This tired world. Watch us shine.

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

The dog alone in the house

The family had a house in upstate New York, and an apartment in the city. They left the dog in the house because he was such a bother in the apartment — shedding, barking, needy. He was left alone, and they paid a stranger to walk him twice a day. She said he cried every time he had to return to the house and be alone again.

There is a man deep in the Amazon. His entire tribe is dead, and when researchers stumbled upon him, they estimated that he had been alone for more than a generation.

We are communal, humans. We are like our pets. We need the company of one another. In the old days, it was for safety. One tribe to fend off another.

The dark is different when we are not alone.

I think sometimes I am not as smart as that dog. Not as willing to cry out against my loneliness. My isolation.

I need you, fellow humans. Even in my despair. And my joy. I need you around a dinner table. I need you to tell me a story of the thing that happened to you one time, many years ago. I need you at the fireplace. I need you in the office, with the coffee cupped in our hands. I need you on these snow-burdened streets. In the club, our heads nodding in rhythm to the bass guitar. Our hips urging us higher, higher.

In this cellular age, I miss you. Like a dog alone in a house. Like a man left in the Amazon. Like a woman nearby, overly fond of solitude, and not always wise enough to tell you. Happy winter, friend. Have you noticed how the snow bends the trees, and urges us to go slowly, to let the quiet be quiet, to stretch as insistently as ever toward one another?

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment