Communion and Record Keeping

In 2005 I climbed in to a tiny metal boat on the sea near Baja, Mexico with my mother and 10 other people. We all balanced our seat bones precariously and pretended we got into tiny metal boats every other day, with our chests squeezed by scratchy orange life jackets. I was 15, and my mom was turning 50. We had come to see the grey whales, and after a motored ride out into the sea, our guide killed the engine and the boat just drifted. There was a time of waiting. Two other boats were small dots on the rolling sea. Then the whales came. As one after another surfaced next to our boat, revealing a smooth barnacled nose, skin grey like the stone on the floor of the creek bed, every person in that boat started snapping photos. I sat sullenly, wanting to touch the whale (and I did, and so did others), furious in that way you can only be as a young teenager that all these people had come so far only to refuse the experience, only to take a pile of photos that we all knew weren’t going to come out very well anyways.

This is how we rank value in the western world: what matters most is the prize you bring home, the evidence that supports the case, the line in the resume or the photo in the album.

We have forgotten how to sit in a tin can on the surface of the ocean while the great grey whale surfaces. We have forgotten how to reach out our hand, how to place it on the cold barnacled nose, how to accept an offering, how to take communion.

Earlier this week, a friend gave me an old smartphone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice one, and it works great. Up until this moment, I had only ever used clunky and near-obsolescence ‘dumb phones,’ or ‘basic phones’ (if you talk to a Cellular Sales Agent). I still use a ‘basic phone,’ for phone calls, but now I have a smartphone camera  and an Instagram feed (@lwhulse) at my disposal and let me tell you, it has changed my life in only a few days.

With a camera constantly in hand, everything becomes a documentable moment. Joseph in the window, Joseph in the rocking chair, Joseph scribbling on a sketchpad with a pen, Joseph asleep for his nap.

But the choice between experiencing and documenting is ever present, especially with my son: when he sees the phone, everything stops for him to try to get it. When I ultimately won’t let him have it, he dissolves into tears (greater or lesser depending on his sleep and hunger levels). He always recovers quickly, but the offering of communion is long gone. To make the choice to document means to actively destroy the experience.

I would never go so far as to say that you should not photograph your children. Part of our work as parents is to hold the memories of their early lives for them, until they can be gifted into the child’s hands when they care old enough to carry them themselves. And it is custom to document our children at every turn: in photos and on growth charts, in footprints and handprints and scraps of paper with first drawings, first letters, first words. We keep baby books, irregularly perhaps but earnestly, frantically, between nap times we record their first words, first foods, first adventures.

I have not learned yet how to tread the line between communion and record-keeping. I know that I love to look at photographs of our life and to remember. I also know that I love to wake up in the morning with my son next to me, and to just lay there next to him marveling at the inexplicable numinous.1209160746a

A Red Dress

Once you live in a place long enough, you don’t just walk down the street anymore. You walk down the street accompanied by the memories of every other time you walked down that same street. You live in a place long enough and you start to walk down the street trailed by the past versions of yourself and imagining all the future versions. Sometimes I imagine us as a graceful promenade, behind me the people I once was, and before me the ghosts of the people I might become. Other times I imagine those selves as so many tin cans, tied to my ankle by twine and rattling along with every step.

Every once in a while, a person or a place or an object will cut so suddenly through the layers that you wind of confused about which part of your life you are actually in after all. One of these such experiences happened because of a red dress.

The fall after I finished High School I spent one semester at the small private school Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York state. The reasons I chose not to stay warrant another story, but while I was there I became very close with my dorm-mate Diane, and so the year after I left I planned a visit.

While I was back in New York, we went to a thrift store in the rural small town nearest the college, and that was where I found the dress. It was red, with white flowers all over it and big mother-of-pearl buttons down the front. It falls in to a particular genre of vintage dress that I loved then as now, short-sleeved rayon with long skirts and laces in the back to draw it in at the waist. In Diane’s dorm room, I cut the skirt off unevenly and put it on.

Diane and I at our friend’s birthday party.

We went to a party in someone else’s dorm room that night, a mutual friend’s birthday. There was pyramid of green glass beer bottles stacked on the ground against the wall – 100 bottles of beer, they told us proudly. Our friend had painted a David Bowie lightning bolt on her face.

I wore the dress for the rest of that visit, and most of the next few years. When I departed on a bike tour from Knoxville to Savannah, Georgia, I packed the red dress along with a similar dark green one. Worn over bike shorts it was the perfect uniform – lightweight and comfortable. I believed that I was more visible to cars wearing red, and in the evenings I would change into the green dress to be less noticeable as we set up illegal camp spots in the woods at the side of the road.

On bike tour, with our new friend Garrett (center) who put us up on his farm. 

We rode for two and a half weeks, all day in the sun. The dress became stiff with dried sweat and road filth. We washed our clothes only once during the trip, when a couple put us up in their camper and the wife offered her washer & drier. By the time we returned from that trip, I was tanned dark gold and newly muscled, the dress was ragged at the edges with seams beginning to pull thin and the roughly cut hem fraying wildly.

Clothing becomes a part of our identity, and for years after it stopped feeling quite right to wear that dress, it hung in my closet. It had become more than a piece of clothing, it had become a relic of an era. It connected me to a part of my life and a person I once was that had faded away to make space for the new version of myself. I couldn’t just get rid of it.

It wasn’t until I was moving out of my house on E. 5th Avenue, the house I had lived in for the last three years – most of the time I was working on my degree in painting – and purging my belongings down to what would fit in my VW Jetta for the trip cross-country to Idaho, that I held the dress in my hands for a moment and then tossed it into the garbage bag of clothes to bring back to Goodwill.

A lot of things didn’t survive that purge: clothing, old sketchbooks, journals, photographs, furniture, books. I brought only enough clothes to get a new job in Idaho, a pile of blankets, a crate with a skillet and a few dishes.

That move took place just over two years ago, at the beginning of October. A few weeks ago I was digging through the dresses on the rack at an AmVets in West Knoxville, and I almost jumped out of my skin when I saw a corner of a very familiar red and white flowered fabric sticking out of the racks. Seeing that pattern was like hearing your favorite song from eighth grade on the radio at the grocery store, it cuts right through where you are and transports you completely and instantly to another time, without asking your permission.

I pulled the dress off the rack. It can’t be. Oh my god it is. It was the exact same dress. Short sleeves, mother of pearl buttons, laces in the back. I tried it on in the dressing room, laughing at myself and at the same time knowing I’d have to buy it, if only to recover the lost link to that past self.

In the last few years my identity has been broken down to nothing and built back up again, stone by stone, twice: Once at the hands of an abusive partner and the second time through the process of giving birth to my son. The separation between the selves I have been seems complete, and yet when I turn around I see that I am holding yet on to the same threads that have tied me to them all along: graceful promenade or rattling trail of tin cans.

Staying in your hometown is like this: parts of you, your community, and the fabric of the city march irrevocably forward, and other parts remain obstinately exactly how they have been all along. I write these words from a table at Old City Java, in the very same room where I danced in my first ever mosh pit, in the very same room I have been writing for the last decade.

But this time I didn’t cut the hem of the dress, it just seems more right to wear it long.





Like A Walking Skinned Knee

Yesterday afternoon a church member walked in to the office. Our talk turned immediately, as it does so often these days, to the despair at the events in the world around us. This day we talked of wildfires.


We both did a lot of rubbing our eyes, spreading our fingers across our faces, pressing the pads of our fingers agains our temples. One of the signs of our times is that I am becoming more and more familiar with my friends’ mannerisms of desperation.

And then she said, But blessed are those who bring children up in this world. They’re the ones who are going to grow up and change all this.

I hope so, but more often than not I ask, ‘what was I thinking bringing a child into this broken world?’

Yes, well, it takes a lot of heart. A lot of heart. She clasped her hands together at her chest and smiled at me before she left.

I like to think that the word heart and the word courage are interchangeable. It is often noted that the etymology of “courage” can be traced to the latin “cor” meaning “heart.” Courage comes from the heart, and yes, it takes a lot of courage to be raising a child in the middle of these fearsome days.

Sometimes it is crippling. I once told my counselor that having Joseph feels like I have a raw nerve, like a skinned knee, just out in the world bumping in to things. I am so much more deeply affected by the pain of the world than I was before I had a child. I am forced to feel it because now, through Joseph, I am irrevocably in relationship to the world outside my body, my self. Now there’s a part of me that’s out there, literally physically bumping into things, interacting no matter how hard I try to disconnect. That kind of rawness makes you guarded, makes you protect your wound with your hands, makes you try to keep the pain out. I recall the time my bike tires caught in the grooves of a train tracks and I found myself suddenly on the side of the road bleeding and cursing, holding my knee and gritting my teeth just trying to feel a little bit less.

At the same time Joseph’s birth has forced me to keep my feet on the ground, forced me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, in a powerful way I never could have before. The weeks since the election have been increasingly strenuous, and this last week is no exception.

The mountains burning, our neighbors losing their homes, Charles passed away, confronting partner abuse in our community again, a live shooter at OSU where my youngest cousin goes to school, Dylan Roof goes to trial for the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Zion church in Charleston, four of my friends get arrested in a protest in downtown Knoxville. On the phone during the protest I hear the words I’ve never seen the police behave like this, Lauren. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

The post-election adrenaline is wearing off, and I am left staring at the pain around me with no defenses. Each morning I have woken up and thought I couldn’t take another day of it, I’m just not ready. I wasn’t ready when this week started and each day has been more than I know I can bear. And yet each day has come and each day I have borne it and done what I could and gone on anyways.

Last night I went to my book study group and when our facilitator asked us what we wanted to during our meeting that night, I was tempted to pull my sweater over my head like I did as a child, close my eyes tight and try to reach deep for that safe place that I once believed in. Instead I breathed in and then out again, and we went on with our meeting, each of us speaking candidly to these feelings of wearing-thin. Afterwards I took my son home, dressed him in pajamas, read him a story as he fell asleep.

These are dark days, and there is not much light ahead. I would much rather write that things are going to get better real soon, but we all know that’s not true. I would much rather write a rallying cry, and maybe another day I will be able to do that. But today I know that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and we might not be lucky enough to see that turning when and if it happens.

I am not a brave person. It is not easily that I find strength to do the next right thing. I don’t always find it. But in these days, I find that I must have courage. Courage is what we have when we love, and in these days to love is to have skinned knees. I know I am lucky in so many ways. One of the ways I am lucky is to have my son Joseph. He brings me back constantly into the present, forces me not to unravel when all I want to do is pull my sweater over my head or sit on the side of the road bleeding. Because I love him, I get up in the morning and make breakfast even when the hills are on fire around us.

I don’t believe that you have to have a child to have this kind of courage. I see it also in so many of my friends who choose day after day to keep their hearts open when they could be closed, who choose to love each other when they could choose instead the relative safety of distance. We keep our hearts open, and we suffer the consequences, but I can’t see any other way.


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.”


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.

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.

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?”

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.”




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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Artist In Residence In Motherhood

It’s no secret that becoming a mother changes your life. In fact, the wordsIt’s gonna change everything! were perhaps the most often said to me while I was pregnant with my son and to which I developed a response that was a polite smile and nod disguising teeth set in annoyance. I know I know enough already! I was half irritated by the general disposition of people to tell pregnant women all about what it’s like to become a parent, as if they know exactly what you’re going through because they have a kid already or their sister had a baby last year or something. The other half of my irritation came from fear of this certainty of radical change in the makeup of my life and self, and the uncertainty that surrounded what would come next.

I didn’t want the change, at least not all of it. I wanted to become a mother and not let it change me without my consent. I wanted to have this baby and fit him right into my life. Sure, I knew I would have to carry diapers in my backpack alongside my journals and steel water bottle. I knew I would have to trade my cherished Datsun pickup for a car with working seat belts. But I could still do everything else the same, right? Yes, sort-of, and also not at all.

In the early spring of Joseph’s first year, I sat with my mother and my friend Rose on the in the window booth of an ice cream shop in Hot Springs, North Carolina where we were spending the weekend. It was still too cold for ice cream, really, but I had insisted. Rose and I reminisced through laughter about the nine months of my pregnancy. We had done a lot in that time: attending the earth-skills gathering Whippoorwill festival, visiting another friend at Wild Roots — an off-grid homestead in the mountains of North Carolina, riding in the annual 4th of July bike parade Freedom Thighsand starting a Bike Collective to name a few.

Rose congratulated me: Damn, you did a lot for a pregnant lady!

She didn’t want her life to change, my mom stated simply.

I said nothing and after a moment of silence promptly changed the subject.Don’t speak for me, I thought, My life hasn’t changed! Look at me, I’m in the mountains right now doing what I always do! I couldn’t have admitted it at that time, but I had an active resistance army building a fortress against the upheaval around and inside me, and I didn’t appreciate someone else pointing out what I wasn’t allowing even myself to see.

Many months later I knew that her analysis was spot-on. I didn’t want to lose my old life, so I sunk my teeth into it as deep as I could. Not knowing what could come after, I didn’t want to lose my identity and my community, which for much of my young adult years was defined by a decidedly not-kid-friendly lifestyle. We were a community because we rode cobbled together bicycles, because we went to punk shows and cooked for Food Not Bombs, because we ate food out of dumpsters, because we went into the woods with tarps and hand-me-down-camp-stoves, because we mended our socks and were vaguely reckless. None of us had kids, and for good reason.

In a certain kind of youth culture, “mom” is a derogatory term. As in the sarcastic Thanks, mom. Even as recently as a few weeks ago as I moved into a new one-bedroom apartment, a friend who helped me load boxes up the rickety staircase laughing said, You’re such a Mom, now! Look at you, you have a Subaru and an apartment and a grown-up job and everything! He was just teasing me in fun, and I didn’t take any offense, but he articulated an ideal that still exists in our community and, when I’m honest, in me. Mom means boring, means safe, means mainstream, means responsible, means grown-up, tepid, meaningless.

In my life, in times of sadness or deep turmoil, I take to the woods walking. My feet on the packed earth path is the only thing I have found that can hold me while I mourn, or while I search, or while I worry.

I spent a lot of time walking that first year of my son’s life, with his small body slung against my chest in the Ergo-baby, trying to understand what it meant to be the mother of this new life and be a person I can recognize at the same time.

Becoming never happens all at once. Becoming a mother doesn’t happen at the moment of birth, or at the moment of conception, it happens the first time you imagine yourself with a child in your arms. It grows the first time you look at your partner wondering if you could raise a child with them and think yea, maybe. It sparks at conception (you can feel it) and incubates right along with the baby (what kind of mother will I be?). You build a space for the child in your life. You buy diapers and blankets and onesies. The birth comes and you leap together across the threshold, jumping with both feet into the deep end, where there is no solid stone to be found anywhere.

It is like the riddle of the frog that leaps accidentally into a bucket, and as he treads the liquid he calls for help, but there is no one to hear him. Just as he thinks he is too tired to tread anymore and he thinks he will drown, he begins to feel something solid under his feet. He hops out of the bucket. The liquid was cream and he has churned it into butter.

This is how the early months of my child’s life felt to me, but months go by — you go back to work or you don’t, you learn the rhythm of the dance that soothes your baby best, you learn to leave the house with everything you need, to change a diaper on your lap. A new kind of normal emerges. You start to think you might make it after all. People say, You are such a good mother, and they are right.

The first time I had something solid to stand on and a moment to look around, it was easy to see that things in my self and life were different but mostly for the better. I had left my abusive partner, broken up destructive patterns of behavior, asserted boundaries, forged new friendships and restored old ones. I had to stop smoking and drinking and I even gave up coffee. I had a beautiful and safe place to live and a job that paid my bills.

Whew, I thought, glad that’s over. And part of it was. I had made space forMother alongside the rest of my identities, just like I made space for my son alongside the rest of my life. But between that first look around and the moment I am writing these words there were three moves and two job transitions ahead of me. I was and am clearly still in the throes of figuring out what it means to be the mother of this new life and be a person I can recognize at the same time, and suddenly I can see that this will probably be true for the rest of my life.

Unexpectedly, it was in writing a manifesto for an open-source, self-directed Artist In Residence In Motherhood that I was able to identify and name this new acceptance of the complex part of my life that I am in the middle of. I based my manifesto heavily on that written by Lenka Clayton, the multidisciplinary artist and founder of this residency. It reads:

Like all new mothers, the birth of my child ignited a process of transformation — both internal in my person and external in the structures of my life — that is ongoing still even as my son has crossed into his second year. Among the tectonic shifts has been in the way that I myself and others see my career as an artist. It is a commonly held perception that the serious artist and the good mother are mutually exclusive endeavors. I actively reject this notion and choose to instead present the idea that my work as an artist strengthens my capacities as a mother and my life as a mother deepens my work: that they inform one another. I undergo this self-imposed Artist Residency in order to fully experience the unique challenges and structures of being both a Working Artist and a Single Mother, to make the best use of the material and resources at hand, and to allow these circumstances to shape the direction of my work rather than doggedly attempting to work “despite” them.

I have been trying to live my old life despite my new identity and responsibilities, fearing to feel the pain and loss and look clearly at all that I am no longer able to do, the people I am no longer be able to relate to, but this resistance is the very thing that causes the pain. Hoping to live and work and be in the same ways as old days only serves to make me angry and resentful of what is in front of me, to see motherhood as a limit instead of as a catalyst.

Naming this acceptance of transformation as a strategy for my work as an artist shifted immediately my conception of my role as mother. I can now see the new potential that is available to me because of my son, not despite him; different from the old to be certain but no less and very likely more — new kinds of beauty that permeate every moment, deepness of experience that is new material for my work, raw nerve endings illuminate new knowings about the world without and within, demands on my time create new ways of working breaking up habits that no longer serve my process.

Perhaps most profoundly, and most terrifying of all, are the new capacities of self unearthed by the demands of mothering. Motherhood has brought me to my most vulnerable places, but it has also brought me face to face with how strong I can be, how big I can be, and the sorts of superhuman feats I am capable of pulling off on five hours of sleep and whole lot of coffee.