Dispatches from the South: Thirteen-Year Cicadas, Donald Trump, and Intimate Violence

This last week I had the pleasure of having my work published in the Knoxville based Foundling House literary collective. You can read it here:

Foundling House – Dispatches from the South: Thirteen-Year Cicadas, Donald Trump, and Intimate Violence

“On early evenings most summers, in this Southern Appalachian valley where I live, you can hear the sound of cicadas screaming. At times the sound is so loud, people stop their conversations and turn their eyes to the trees, looking for the bullet shaped insects. Sometimes you see one clinging to the bark, betraying itself with a grating wail. Other times, when the trees are full in the evening, the rise and fall is much like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby; it’s everywhere and everything, inescapable and indispensable, all at the same time.”

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A Word in Edgewise

This election cycle has hit hard and close to home for a lot of us. As someone who comes from privilege, I try to move through my sadness and fear as quickly as possible, and stay instead in the galvanized-to-action emotional space. But as a woman, it is impossible to ignore the overt violence against my gender that has been sanctioned by the soon-to-be most powerful man in our country and is now being carried out with renewed vigor and entitlement right alongside the violence against LGBTQ folks and people of color and immigrants and Non-Christians and so on.

Here’s a story:

Two years ago I was in an abusive relationship, living in rural Idaho about 30 miles outside Boise. My partner at that time – let’s call him David – got a job cooking at an upscale pizza & beer place on the State Highway about halfway to town from our cabin.

The place was run by two brothers, well-respected and well-liked good ole’ boys who grew up around there. They were good people, respectful, honest, hardworking. They took my partner under their wing, hiring him on to cook for them despite his being covered head to toe in tattoos and being unable to provide a solid reference. They were the sort of people who saw the good in people and didn’t make assumptions.

It was custom for all the restaurant folks to sit around on the patio for a beer (or two or three) after closing every night. I was always there to pick up David, and sat up with them each night despite the fact that I would have to wake at 5 the next morning to drive an hour into town to my job caring for babies in a childcare center. The brothers’ wives both waited tables at the restaurant, so most nights saw the six of us sitting around in metal patio chairs, trying to keep warm inside our winter coats, holding our beers with frozen fingers.

It could have been a good time. At that point in the abuse, I had lost all my friendships but one, which had to be maintained in total secrecy. I often arrived early to pick David up, bringing a book to read at the bar, just so I could have the passive social contact of at least being in a room with other people.

But here’s the thing about those long evening sits: The women did not speak.

Every night I was bored stupid, but it took me a long, long time to figure out why. I kept waiting, thinking eventually they’re going to ask me something about myself, like ‘So Lauren, what do you do for work?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ I would have been satisfied with only the minimum level of politely feigned interest,but even when the conversation turned to topics that I have a lot to say about – like Art (I had just completed a Bachelors of Fine Arts that spring) – the most recognition I would get is David bragging briefly ‘She’s a really good artist.’ Then maybe they’d look at me, smiling and nodding – Oh, that’s nice – and plow right back into the conversation.

Let me remind you that these guys were not assholes all the time. I often saw them being very loving and respectful to their wives in other ways. This was just how it was, this conversation was for men only, and it had probably never occurred to them that this was problematic.

One night when I sat inside myself watching the scene unfold with little interest I looked over at the wife of one of the brothers. She was hanging on the arm of her husband, smiling up at him, nodding in agreement as he spoke. This woman was not dumb or somehow soft – she was great: fiercely loyal, generous, engaging. This was just how it was for her, too. Every night she hung on her husband’s arm smiling while I sat in my chair bottling up my rage.

Susan Griffin writes in her 1974 essay “Feminism and Motherhood” (Mother Reader, ed. Moyra Davey, 2001), “…what one sees clearly is usually a way of life that is passing.”

Friends, let us see this clearly. This story is one of the least violent of my experiences that I can recount, but I tell it because it so illustrates the attitudes of our culture that make violence against women acceptable and even expected, even by the President-elect.

Despite all the so-called progress we’ve made, age-old narratives remain unchanged. Women have a place, our work is to support the endeavors of our men (like waiting tables in their restaurant), our selfhood is established only through our men, men can do whatever they want with us, and we are expected to sit still and be happy about it. Most importantly, we do not have a voice.

I don’t know what the partnerships of those two brothers and their wives were like. I know what my partnership was like, and I know that when you deny a person’s voice, you take away a part of their humanity. And there are very few steps between seeing someone as less human than you, and committing crimes of violence and hate against them.

I have been lucky in my life. The privilege that I mentioned earlier meant that I could leave my abusive partner, meant that I had a web of support to return to, means that I now have a college degree and have always been expected to take my intelligence and selfhood seriously by pursuing a professional career, and a professional career has always been a real possibility (even when I have actively not wanted one).

My privilege has meant that I was raised to know that I have a voice, and that I should fight back if anyone ever tried to take it away.

Not everyone is lucky. Not everyone can leave. Not everyone knows about their voice, and I was raised to know that we have to help them fight, too.

Once your eyes are open, you don’t get to close them again, and we have hard times ahead and much terrible work to do. We will want to turn away from the pain, but I urge us to keep our eyes and see clearly. Even 42 years later, Susan Griffin’s words ring true that “what one sees clearly is usually a way of life that is passing.”

 

“Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution” Might Not Apply to Your Toddler

*Author’s Note: I wrote this before the election. Beginning around 9:30 on Tuesday evening, as my friends and I gathered around my laptop screen watching with disbelief as state after state turned red on the map, I have felt a mixture of deep sadness and fear and disbelief, interspersed by occasional moments of fierce anger and galvanization, and intense tenderness towards my fellow beings. I am tempted to tear up and re-write this whole thing, but instead I will contextualize it this way: 

Our work for human rights and justice for all people is still in front of us, and is ever more crucial and immediate in the aftermath of this election. We do this work for our children and we must also do it with our children. I am also feeling very strongly the reality that the fear and hopelessness and anger that has been ignited in so many by the results of Tuesday’s election in the mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly straight, mostly educated community that I am surrounded by, while valid and justified, is only the tip of the iceberg of the fear and hopelessness and anger that folks in the minorities have been feeling for centuries, especially as it relates to our children.  

On Friday, November 4th, Joseph and I attended protest organized by Tennessee Says No Dakota Access Pipeline (#TNSaysNoDAPL) in solidarity with the Water Protectors gathered at Standing Rock (#WaterIsLife #NoDAPL).

The protest was set to take place during school hours, so I thought Great! Finally a protest I can show up to without worrying about my kid or being burdened by guilt. But Thursday afternoon when I picked Joseph up from school the sign outside the door reminded me: No School tomorrow: Parent Teacher Conferences.

Thus I turned inward to the same reckoning I have considered so many times since Joseph’s birth. This issue is important. It’s important to show up to this action. Is this action likely to become unsafe? Will there be other kids there? Will we be doing anything illegal? How is it going to impact Joseph? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? How will I feel if I don’t go? The thoughts bounced around and around in my head all evening.

I called a friend for more information and in the end decided that it really was very low risk, and Joseph could have his nap a little late this one day. So Friday afternoon found me strapping my baby to my back and walking up to Market Square from the old city. There was already a crowd gathered when we arrived, and I found happily that Joseph was not the only child this time – several other parents and their children were milling around. We formed a circle while organizers briefed us on the plan of action, how not to talk to the police, who had the medic kit, passed out leaflets and signs, and practiced chants. A legal observer serving the protest stood with his arms crossed outside the circle in a suit jacket. Cell phone cameras in every other hand captured the proceedings.untitled

The first stop on was Suntrust bank – one of the major funders of DAPL. We marched with banners and signs, a stilt walker, and four people beating drums harnessed to their chests. We gathered on the corner, chanting Water Not Oil, Keep It In The Soil! and Water is Life! Life is Water! I held a big foam core sign on a stake that read No More Oil Pipelines in big red letters and swayed back and forth to comfort Joseph, occasionally reaching behind me to pat him through the Ergo. We occupied the corner for some time while two delegates delivered a letter demanding that Suntrust divest, and waited for a meeting with the manager of the bank. We made enough noise that someone leaned over the rooftop and yelled, Can you all drum better?! To which our drummers responded, Can you come help us drum? We need some help!

Everyone greeted me and Joseph both, and everyone said to him Oh, look at you sleepy baby! It was true, I was keeping him up past nap time to show up to this action, and despite all the drumming and shouting it seemed like he might fall asleep on my back.

At one point I turned to my Minister, Rev. Chris Buice, and said, joking,

I think Joseph might sleep through the revolution.

Yea, maybe Dr. King needed to add an exception to that line: ‘Does not apply to one-year-olds,’ Chris replied, laughing.

We referred, of course, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line “Don’t sleep through the revolution,” which Chris had recently worked into a sermon and which had been on my mind for the past several weeks.

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Photo Lou Murrey

Growing up a Unitarian Universalist, Social Justice came to me more quickly than Spirituality in my formative years. Activism has been integral to my life and identity since those days, and that is still true after Joseph’s birth. With regularity, I drag my child to meetings, protests, trainings, and I have yet to escape the guilt that follows me no matter what choice I make.

Sometimes I bring Joseph along and it goes pretty well. Sometimes he sits and plays quietly with his toys or makes the whole group laugh with a particularly well timed and characteristically unintelligible statement. Sometimes people say to me I just love meetings with babies, they are so much more fun. I need more of these. Or they go out of their way to find me afterwards and say, I’m really grateful for your all’s presence at these meetings, even though it probably is hard for you. I just wish more people brought their kids. On these days I go home feeling triumphant, affirmed, and worthwhile.

Other times, Joseph takes my divided attention as an opportunity to fall and hit his head, and I have to carry him out of the meeting screaming feeling like the worst mother that ever was while all of my fellow organizers that I respect and love and admire look on. Sometimes he babbles so loudly or interrupts so frequently that I question whether our presence is doing more good than harm to the work. Sometimes I spend the whole meeting chasing him around, and afterwards I don’t even have a working memory of what was said, much less having contributed anything meaningful.

Joseph is usually (but not always) the only baby at any of the regular meetings we attend, although there are sometimes one or two other children. Most frequent is a two-year-old grandson of an activist acquaintance of mine. At an Anti-Racism training recently, this activist/grandmother gave a particularly eloquent and moving monologue despite being regularly interrupted by dinosaur noises from her grandson. In closing to her speech, she pulled a diaper out of her bag, sighed, and said…And, well, there’s things that need to be attended to, but…I am determined. Then she gracefully left the room to change her grandson’s diaper, returning after several minutes and staying to the end of the training.

This has been my internal rallying cry ever since. Every time I leave a meeting wondering whether I should bother trying again, every time I take Joseph to a protest and he misses nap time or I start to feel concern: I am determined.

I can understand why there are not more children and families in justice work. It’s hard. It makes you feel guilty. You have to leave to change diapers. You have to keep your kids up past bedtime. Even if there is childcare offered, you worry because you don’t know that person or maybe the work you’re doing is dangerous. You feel guilty because your kid interrupts the meeting, or you can’t work as quickly as is needed. Parents are often overburdened and under-supported just trying to get by. Who has time for unpaid activism? You feel useless even when you do manage to show up. And of course, our culture does not include activism in the job description of Perfect Parent. It includes safety and routine and in-bed-by-seven.

I do not remember feeling this way before. This work used to be fun, and if not fun at least exciting. I used to look forward to meetings, eagerly take on tasks and dive in to fiery arguments. I would go home feeling energized and empowered. But now it’s not fun. I don’t want to have to do this work anymore. I leave the meeting feeling defeated and tired. I know exactly how much I should say yes to, and even though it’s a fraction of the work I used to do it still feels like too much. I don’t get excited about it anymore, I just muster up the energy to do what I must do. The worst of it is I feel scared all the time. What kind of world is this to raise a child in? Full of violence and fear, poisoned and polluted and unstable.

I don’t want to do it anymore. But simply put it is what we have to do, as people alive today and especially as parents. What else can we do? Confronted by tragedy and injustice and violence, not to act is insanity or denial or both (and speaking honestly I have been guilty of both charges), and in light of the recent election, our work is only made more crucial, more real, more immediate. Charged with the protection of the fragile new lives of our children, anything but action makes us remiss in our duties. Even if we believe we will not see the change we work for in our lifetime, we still must show up and do the work.

In last Sunday’s sermon, Rev. Chris Buice read a list of the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for maintaining good mental health during the heightened stress and unique trauma of this election season. The most useful of the recommendations? Action is better than anxiety. Don’t sit around at home worrying, take meaningful action. In the same vein, on a post-it note stuck in my handwritten book of excerpts is the following words copied from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina: People don’t do right because of the fear of God or the love of him. You do the right thing because the world doesn’t make sense if you don’t.

I’m not here to make anyone feel any more guilt than you already do about your level of involvement in the Movement(s) closest to your heart. I am also not here to tell you the right way to work for social change. There’s about as many ways to do the work and as many things needing doing as there are people to do them. All I’m saying is don’t sit at home because you’re afraid you’re not supposed to show up with your kid. You are. And don’t worry, they are allowed to sleep through the revolution, especially if it happens during nap time.

Eventually, our delegates emerged from Suntrust bank after delivering their letter. As they emerged, with shoulders squared and beaming, the crowd began to cheer. They walked into the center of the circle and reported their conversation, that the manager had told them he did not know anything about the pipeline or that Suntrust was invested in it. Watching them, I felt a huge swell of affection and that mama-bear kind of pride well up in my chest. These are our folks! This is our family! I tried to tell Joseph with my thoughts, but he was too sleepy to even notice that they were back.

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Photo Lou Murrey

Get involved in #TNSaysNoDAPL – like the page on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

The Work Starts Here

Friends, I am afraid, I am afraid of the person and the ideology we just gave power to and I am afraid of what made that choice possible. I woke up this morning and apologized to my son. “I’m so sorry. I was supposed to keep you safe, and now this is the country you have to grow up in.” Friends, I mourn with you today. And friends, I feel hopeless too.

But if I know anything, hopeless is not a place for us to stay. Mourn what you need to, grieve for as long as you must, but then get up and get back to work. The work that we were already doing is still there, and just became ever more crucial, ever more real, ever more immediate. The only thing to do is keep working, keep organizing, keep raising our collective voices and bringing our collective bodies to strategic action. We must work for a world that is safe and just for all people – queer folk and people of color and Muslims and women and immigrants and anyone non-white, non-heteronormative, non-Christian.

After 1:00 last night, the last of my friends was gathering her things to leave. By then we knew that Trump was going to win. In farewell, she told me,
“Well Lauren, I’m glad to have you in my pack. Whatever happens.”
“Well, shucks, you too. At least we have our people,” I replied.
“It’s all we’ve got, isn’t it?”
“Yea.”

The work starts here. Don’t believe for even a second that you are alone in your fear and your despair. Hug your babies, call your friends, tell them you love them, and let’s get back to work.

In the words of Dorothy Day: “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

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The First Day of School

I’ve been reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott again. I’ve read it at least four times since Joseph was born, and it has become my go to Mother-Anxiety medicine. I love it for it’s total unmeditated-ness: it’s just a journal of her son’s first year. It is hilarious and true and excruciating and comforting all at once. Anyway, this go-round I’m grateful to it for reminding me that my writing doesn’t have to turn into literature or be very intellectual or be High Art or anything, Operating Instructions proves just how valuable it is to just tell your story exactly how it is. So in that spirit, reflections on the last 24 hours:

Yesterday was Joseph’s first day of school. I mean, real, big-boy Montessori school. And the night before that was Halloween.

Around 4:30 on Halloween day, my anxiety about Joseph starting school and my anxiety about the Halloween Party I had decided to attend combined to produce a scene of me drinking a beer at the kitchen table, confiding in my friend Anaiis all the various pressures I feel and ways I am sure that I am failing to be a good mother. She was a great sport about it, reassuring me for every claim I made about the ways I’m failing, that in fact I am not failing and everything is fine and is going to continue to be fine.

The conversation was kind of like this (with liberal paraphrasing):

Me: I just feel like I have to make sure he has a really fun time at Halloween, so he’ll have good memories about his childhood. 

Her: But remember, what it takes for him to have a good time is way less than what it takes for you to have a good time. We’re gonna go outside and he’s gonna be like, “Whoa! Hey! Have you all seen this tree? With the leaves? It’s AMAZING!”

Me: Yea, but I just feel like I have to work extra hard to make sure we’re surrounded by our friends at holidays, so he doesn’t notice that he doesn’t have a dad or a regular family.

Her: I think your life is totally like that already. And honestly, as a kid when my dad wasn’t around I care about it. I was just focused on how to get more of my mom’s attention.

Me: Yea, but… (etc. on and on and on)

For weeks I had been worrying extensively about all the ways I was probably going to somehow screw up this most basic of motherhood rituals. Like we were going to set out trick-or-treating on the wrong night, or at totally the wrong time, or that nobody actually dresses up for Halloween anymore and Joseph would be so embarrassed, or we’d have no-one to hang out with, etc. on and on and on.

Eventually we set out to the Halloween party, after suiting Joseph up in his homemade “Baby Gandalf” costume that I had sewn hastily but well in advance from a grey flannel bed sheet and a ball of wool roving fashioned into a long white beard. He toddled down the alleyway, looking very serious and making us laugh in his floppy wizard hat and grey robe. When we arrived, the neighbor’s yard was full of hip adults drinking beers and kids flaunting their costumes, standing around eating hotdogs and posing for pictures. Without hesitation, Joseph dropped my hand and toddled off into the crowd, being met as usual with exclamations of adoration: Oh, how cute are you!

At one point he picked a Saltine cracker up off the ground and held it up emphatically to a grey-haired man in an apron. The man, whom he’d never met before, understood his wordless communication and obediently bent down and took a bite. This is the sort of world that Joseph lives in, where you can offer a stranger a dirty saltine cracker, and they’ll take a bite just to humor you. If only we were always treated that way.

I didn’t know it when we arrived, but there was a costume contest in the schedule of events and when I asked Anaiis if she thought Joseph should enter she exclaimed, Duh! He was made for this!

So we wrangled him across the lawn to wait with the other bewildered and squirmy children-under-three, and attempted a parade that was so confused the judges had to ask us to do it again. We returned to the sidelines to watch, and as each age category held their own disorganized parade, I had to restrain Joseph from following them back up the ramp to pose in front of the judges again and again and again.

When it was finally time to announce the winners, a voice amplified by a rented PA system said, In the Pre-K category, the winner is….Baby Gandalf!!!

Anaiis cheered and everyone clapped while I carried Joseph to the porch to receive his prize (a box of twisty crayons and a wooden fox) and we stood up there while the announcer called the names of the winners in each age group. I held him on my hip and grinned while we were photographed (Joseph just stared seriously out into the crowd) and then, flushed and beaming, returned to the yard. Joseph immediately resumed his work of searching for Saltines on the ground to feed to his new gray-haired friend. He’s grown accustomed to accolades.

I, on the other hand, was more excited than is strictly acceptable for an adult who has just won the neighborhood Halloween Costume Contest. But I had been acknowledged for something I made. And while I recognize that the homemade Halloween costume is one of the most easily socially sanctioned creative outlets for mothers of young children and comes with a very low set of standards (at least for someone with an almost-lifetime of seamstress-ing and a college degree in visual art), this tangible recognition of my skill as a creative person had me floating.

We trick-or-treated at a few houses on the way home, Joseph toddling up the walkways with his basket in hand and hat askew. Back at our apartment, I put the very sleepy Baby Gandalf to bed, and after Anaiis and I had divided up the candy according to our favorites (mine is Milky Ways and hers is Reese’s Cups) she went home.

Determined not to allow the excitement and glory of winning the costume contest to get in the way of my anxiety and self-doubt, I set out to get ready for Joseph’s first day of school: pacing back and forth across my small apartment collecting items, checking and rechecking my list, writing J.O.H. on everything with a black sharpie, the whole time running through different worst-case scenarios in my head:

What if they won’t let me walk him into the classroom and I have to say goodbye to him while he’s screaming in carline?

What if he thinks I abandoned him?

What if he does everything wrong and all the teachers think he’s a bad kid?

What if all the teachers think I’m a bad mom?

What if I get there and I don’t know what to do?

What if I drop him off and he doesn’t have the right stuff?

As a last step, I wrote his new teacher a long note explaining the situation with Joseph’s dad: that he does not have custody or paternity or permission to pick Joseph up, that he can be identified by his facial tattoos and that if he arrives at school they should notify law enforcement immediately. Then I lay in be reading for a long time, until my brain settled down enough to sleep. In the morning, I raced around getting us breakfast and making coffee and packing lunch and taking a “First Day of School” picture and checking my list for the 37th time. We were ready to leave the house, with shoes on and everything, 20 minutes early which is when I realized I could probably chill out and wash the dishes or something.

I drove the route to the school, a path committed to muscle memory (Joseph is going to the same Montessori school I worked for for multiple years), and rehearsed the steps of drop-off, as though I was going to somehow forget an important step and screw the whole thing up.

We were greeted by familiar faces, and a few new ones. His teacher is a woman named Lyndsey who I worked with in this self-same classroom many months ago, and most of the kids are the same ones I knew then, only taller. When I set his bag of carefully labeled things down, Lyndsey pointed to his nap mat:

Oh, did you make that?

Yea, I did (blushing).

I love that, you’re such a good mom.

Aw, thanks (blushing harder).

The toddlers gathered around Joseph, Oohing and Aahing like everyone always does over him. He’s the youngest student in the class, and they were immediately so enamored with him that Lyndsey had to remind them he might not want to be patted on the head repeatedly, even out of sweetness.

Joseph did not bat a single eyelash. He walked away from me without hesitation, to join his new friends sitting on a low polished wood bench putting on their “inside shoes.” When I finished chatting with Lyndsey and it was time to go, I went to him and reached down, placing my hands over his ears and kissing the crown of his head. He turned to hug me, scrunching up his face and climbing into my lap, but after a good hug he returned with excitement to his new environment and new friends.

There was not a tear shed when I left, and Lyndsey’s mid-morning report was that he was doing just fine and I could get him after lunch. When I arrived he was in the bathroom at the sink with a friend, and when he noticed me observing him he smiled big and said something that translates roughly to, Look what I’m doing! Isn’t this awesome? and then returned to washing his hands mimicking the movements of the older child with heartbreaking gumption. He was in no hurry to leave.

The moral of this story: Every time you think you’re failing terribly, when you think you don’t deserve to be a mother, when you think that everything you do is dull and wrong, you’re probably actually doing great. You’re probably actually doing amazing. You might even be winning. But you are definitely such a good mother.

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