Intimate Violence, the Trump Tapes, and an Apology I Didn’t Ask For

Trigger Warning: Violence Against Women

I have so many things to say about the Trump Access Hollywood tapes that I don’t even know what to say. I am tempted to say nothing. But, like Michelle Obama and millions of women all over the world, I can’t stop thinking about this. 

Trump’s words hit so close to home for me and for women, because we all know how true they are. It isn’t that Trump’s expressed beliefs about women’s bodies, that you can do anything you want with them, is so uncommon. Actually, this is the prevailing belief in our culture, as exposed by the fact that I don’t know a single woman who has not experienced sexual abuse or assault or domestic violence.

I am only 26, but I knew this by the time I was 17 and publishing my first zine with my friend Mary Downing. We called the zine Anonymous, and put out an open call for anonymous submissions, wanting to create space for content that would be censored if it was attached to a person’s name and identity.

The first submission we got was a page torn out of a journal: a story of sexual assault, and while this piece of paper weighed heavy in our hands, it did not come as a surprise. The teenage girl who wrote that submission understood our culture’s beliefs about women’s bodies as well. She wrote “I read a statistic once that stated that 1 in 6 women in America are raped. Numbers mean so little when they don’t affect you, hm? Five of my friends (six including K) have been raped, as well as my sister and myself. We are all under the age of 20. Does that seem like one in six? It doesn’t to me.”

I can’t believe I have to write this. I don’t want to write this.

The part that pisses me off the most is that I haven’t been pissed off (enough) before.

It’s not that I haven’t been angry. Almost two years ago I got out of an abusive relationship where my body was threatened in passive and active ways every single day. And trust me, after that I was angry. Inside my own head, I yelled at my ex for most of every day for many months. While I was driving to work, washing the dishes, walking down the street, mending a sweater.

That part, the overt violence, the literal abuse, feels at once too obvious to bother talking about and also still too raw to write down. We know that this kind of violence affects women in profound and devastating ways. There are resources for this kind of violence, not enough resources, but resources. The average person on the street will agree that it is not okay to hit your partner.

What makes me angry now is that for my whole life I have known that violence against women is not acceptable, and I have also known that the agency I have over what happens to my own body is minimal and will be ignored or removed by men in large and small ways at whim. I am angry because this has been presented to me as so absolute and so perfectly normal that I have accepted it.

Sure, I have protested. I have had fiery conversations with other women about our shared experiences. I have devised very clever responses to yell back at cat callers. I have been trained in and taught the comprehensive Sexuality Education curriculum Our Whole Lives, with a strong focus on sexual ethics and active consent. But still, deep down, I knew that at the end of the day, men could do whatever they want with my body, with no consequences at all.

Once, sharing a bed with a male friend in a room full of other sleeping people, he started kissing me, started to put his hand in my bike shorts. I turned my face away, took his hand and pushed it away from me, forced to try to communicate silently so as not to wake our sleeping friends. He tried again, and I again stopped him, pushing his hand more forcefully away. I lay there in the dark as he rolled away from me and eventually went to sleep.

The next day we got up and went on with our lives. There was no conversation about what had happened, but what surprises me the most in hindsight is that I felt no anger. I felt no need to initiate a conversation myself, to demand an explanation or apology. This person was and is my friend, is well-liked and respected in our radical activist community, and I took it as par for the course that “boys will be boys ” and men do this sort of thing. I just forgot about it.

Recently, this same friend and I were sitting on my front porch late at night and he asked me if I remembered this incident. I hadn’t thought about it since the day it happened, but I did remember once he told me the story again. He said, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. You tried to tell me to stop and I didn’t listen. That was fucked up.”

The act of this apology was a really humble and vulnerable and strong thing for him to do, and is a testament to his character and the thoughtful way he aspires to live his life. If you’re out there reading this and you think you owe somebody an apology, go do it today. If you don’t know how to apologize and you need some guidance, read this article.

This incident is a drop in the bucket when you look at the scale of violence women experience every day, or or even the scale of violence I have experienced as an individual. I tell it to say that this conversation is not just for people who wake up with bruises the next day. It matters the way we are treated, and the way we treat each other, and we don’t need to sit around waiting for something “really bad to happen to us before we get pissed off. We don’t need to excuse our friends from accountability because we love them or because they are good people or because they do good work.

If you need it, take this as permission: be mad about the ways you are disrespected and dehumanized, if they are big and if they are small. Demand better. Demand apologies. Or don’t, but know that you deserve them. Get safe, be safe, and take care of yourself.

Watch Out

When I was a student at Sequoyah Elementary School, I spoke so infrequently that my fellow students took to counting the number of words I had said to them each year on their fingers. Every once and a while, I would say something like okay, or sure, or no and they would run to their friends, wide eyed, holding up three fingers, She said another word!

This was the time when I began construction on the castle walls and moat that now stand around my heart. I drew pictures, and taught myself to believe that I would rather be on my own anyways. Outsider became part of my identity, but the hurt that accrued in all those friendless years affects my life and behaviors in powerful ways even now.

During free time in class I drew pictures of myself, alone in the jungle, or horses running alone on the plains. In the lunchroom I scraped the peanut butter off my peanut butter crackers and made tiny sculptures of cats and horses, wondering how it was that other kids could be so loud. During recess I sat alone at the edge of the playground, building tiny log cabins out of broken twigs. Every day, I hoped that this one wouldn’t get destroyed, but it always did.

One year, my school sent us off to Great Smoky Mountains Environmental Institute at Tremont, for an Environmental Education camp.

I had been camping plenty, so I wasn’t radically transformed by this contact with the woods. But one night, they took us on a flashlight-less Night Hike. The children gathered in a nervous group, clutching flashlights brought from home, flashing the beams around wildly – the gravel road, the canopy of leaves, each other’s faces – as though trying to take it all in one last time before the light was taken from them. I stood off to the side, holding a chunky yellow flashlight and trying to have a brave face about the whole thing. After all, I had been camping before, and I wasn’t anything like those other kids. I wasn’t scared of the woods.

But in truth, all I wanted was to grab a fistfull of someone’s T-shirt and not let go. I was terrified they were gonna forget about me out there in the dark woods, that I was gonna be left behind for good this time.

We were allowed to carry our flashlights, but were instructed not to switch them back on except in case of emergency. A few kids couldn’t handle the temptation, and had their flashlights confiscated.

If you have ever dared to turn off your flashlight in the woods at night, you will know that the forest develops like a photograph on the back of your eyes. Your senses can tell you more than you ever imagined and even some things made invisible by daylight. The group of boisterous and irreverent kids was transformed by the dark into a trail of attentive and agile creatures. We walked slowly, sensing. No one spoke louder than a whisper, as though the night was a presence so sacred we did not want to risk being discovered trespassing through it.

I followed the bobbing T-shirt draped across the shoulder blades of the kid in front of me, and listened for the steps that fell behind my own. Ahead, I could see that the trail bent to the left, and that there was some sort of obstacle in the path. As we approached, Jason – the coolest and most crushable kid in the whole third grade – stopped. He put his hand on top of a rusted pole sticking up at the bend in the trail, he turned back and whispered to us two words: watch out.

That gesture changed my heart.

Eventually we reached a clearing where we all sat in the grass, still clutching our dark flashlights, and listened for owls. We walked out of the woods. We turned our flashlights on, pointed them at the gravel, walked back to our cabins. The next day I still had no one to sit with at lunch, I still built my stick houses alone, still knew I didn’t belong, but I had seen something: for one moment, in the perfect wilderness of the forest dark, it hadn’t mattered. It hadn’t mattered that I didn’t dress well and didn’t talk like other kids and couldn’t play kickball, we had just cared for each other.

I have carried this knowledge like a precious stone in my heart for all these years, because in this moment lies my hope. That no matter how divided we may be in the light of day, no matter how thick and high the walls around our hearts; when we are walking in the darkest night, swallowed up by sacredness and mystery and terror, we can still reach out a hand, we can still say watch out, and we can still take care of each other.

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They were there again today

They were there again today, across the street near an empty recycling bin. They are there every morning, this well-groomed dust-mop of a dog and the perpetually bewildered old man holding the leash. They must be out for their morning walk, but they do not ever seem to walk. Mostly they stand: peacefully in the first-fallen sycamore leaves, or smiling inanely at the end of the neighbors’ driveway by the crepe myrtles.

One morning they were at the end of Maryl’s driveway. The old man grinned while he held up a hand in greeting, palm facing away from his chest. The dog sniffed around the neatly arranged river stones in the ditch. They shuffled out of the way just in time.

The dog is as white as the old man’s goatee, the sort of docile and unintelligent dog bred to sit on the laps of aristocracy. Her flowing white fur hides her eyes and legs and drags the pavement when she walks. Her nose is pink, like the wad of bubblegum you find stuck to the bottom of a desk.

The old man wears his white tube socks pulled up neatly and as high as they’ll reach. Some days a car stops to talk to him, and he leans in the passenger window the way southern folks of a certain generation always do. When he steps away the dark and freshly waxed cars speed out of the neighborhood, rolling up electric windows as they go.

“Yea, I’ve seen them,” Maryl said, “it’s really sad actually. Cecily told me his wife used to always walk the dog, but she died.”

He raises his hand at each car that drives by, and he smiles. It is not the brief cordial nod that the power walker in her well coordinated active wear gives, nor is it the impartial two fingers lifted from the steering wheel by the drivers of those freshly waxed cars not obligated by politeness. His smile is wide open and honest, and his hand stays there at heart level until the car is out of sight. Once, he even gave a thumbs up.

The gesture wraps itself around you, gives you the kind of safety and warmth that you felt before you learned that safety doesn’t really exist, and at the same time the gesture is so honest and inarguable that it is almost confrontational. It demands a choice, and no matter how fast we drive away or how half-heartedly we lift our fingers from the steering wheel, this man and his dog will be there each morning, standing by the park, smiling.

 

Practicing Community as Spiritual Discipline

This is a sermon that I delivered at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (where I keep my day job as Membership and Communications Coordinator) on Sunday, September 18. Following the transcript are the readings referenced throughout the sermon.

When Chris asked me to give today’s sermon, it didn’t take me long to decide what I should talk about. Recently, I moved into a collective house where we deliberately share the work of living and seek to strengthen our community at large and my day-to-day thoughts and conversations are largely consumed with how to make community work in a society that almost prevents the possibility. On review, community has been the unifying theme for most of the work I’ve done in my life so far – in Montessori classrooms (explicitly named “communities” by Maria Montessori herself), my work as an activist and here in this church, as an artist with an interest in collaboration – in fact, the first time I was in this pulpit talking to you all I was in the Youth Group giving a homily on community building through collaborative mural project.

We know that community, and more broadly, human connection, is necessary to our survival – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We know that a human baby cannot live if she is not held, even if all her bodily needs are otherwise met. Brene Brown, the researcher/author famous for her work on vulnerability and connection, says “Connection, along with love and belonging, is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” I came to community building naturally and selfishly early on in my life, because conscious of it or not, I need community and it has not always come easily to me. Growing up in this church, beloved community has always been a value and an aspiration, but with the birth of my son, the need for community has been transformed from the purely emotional-spiritual, to a very concrete reality. It’s become a practical lifeline and also my most constant and important spiritual practice. At this point, there is practically no sector of Joseph and I’s life that doesn’t rely on a strong and supportive community – our housing, our food security, Joseph’s care while I am at work, and on and on. I see this as a great blessing.

We know that we need connection and yet when I look around at the world we live in, I see everywhere structures that create and maintain disconnection and isolation. It is in the external – the single-family house with a yard and a fence, the single-person vehicle as primary means of transportation, the commute to work outside of our neighborhoods, but these structures also exist in ways we cannot as easily see – it’s the way we as a culture prioritize independence and privacy, self-sufficiency, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality “I got where I am through my own hard work, I don’t need anybody and I don’t owe anybody anything.” We associate self-sufficiency with strength, and needing or accepting help is seen as weakness.

I grew up here in Bearden, and sometime around age 11 shortly after a visit to New York City I proclaimed definitively to my parents that I planned to move there as soon as possible. The main reasoning behind this decision was that NYC has art museums, and more importantly, sidewalks. The neighborhoods where I grew up (while I understand their other values as a place to raise a family) had no sidewalks. I never did move to New York City, but when I eventually moved into my first rental house with four friends in Old North Knoxville, I discovered with great joy that there are sidewalks here too. This was revelatory for me. I told my parents “You can walk places, and you see people that you know. Like, when they’re also walking, or sitting on their porches, or at the coffee shop. You don’t even have to plan to meet up, you just run into each other. Isn’t that cool?” I thought I had stumbled upon an anomaly; the experience of living there was so different from that of growing up in the suburbs. This ability to see and be seen, to know and be known, was so exciting to me and I would later understand it as the first step towards community.

One of my most powerful experiences of community was on a three-week long bike tour six years ago. Me and three of my friends packed our camping gear and food stash onto our bicycles and rode them all the way down to Savannah, Georgia, and back. Previous to this I’d never ridden a bicycle further than my daily commute across town. Setting out on our first 50-mile day, I wasn’t even sure I could actually ride a bike 50 miles in one day, but I set out anyways. We are often more able than we know especially when we have the constant presence and support of people that we love, and this proved true in this case as well. This was such a powerful community experience because in this situation we were forced to rely on one another for our basic material survival. The tent, our food, everything was split between bicycles. If someone got a flat, we all worked together to fix it. One of us making it relied on all of us making it.

One morning we packed up our camp site and had been riding for about 30 minutes when Bob suddenly announced y’all, I think I left the tent poles. There was nothing to be gained from any of us getting upset or frustrated – we just sat in the shade with his stuff while he rode his unloaded bike back to retrieve the poles, and when he returned we just kept going.

For these two-and-a-half weeks we were incredibly connected. I was valued and necessary, we were in this together, and no one was going to walk away if the situation became inconvenient or unpleasant (and trust me, it did). These were very grounded and safe-feeling days. Anytime I felt tired, there was at least one other person who was feeling excited, and I could soak up a little of their energy. When I wanted to stop, I found the energy to keep going because that’s what the group needed me to do. I always felt safe, because no matter what I had this community to rely on, who would stand behind me. I had a purpose, I had meaning, and I had acceptance without conditions.

Several years later, I took a trip to England to visit my good friend and past TVUUC Religious Education Intern Lizzie Roper. I stayed for 5 weeks, and during one of those weeks I planned another bike tour along the coast at the southern tip of the island. Lizzie was still working, so this time I would ride alone.

The experience was no less beautiful and no less powerful, but I found I had a complete lack of the emotional groundedness that was so present when I was traveling in community. When I wanted to stop, it was hard to find a really good reason to keep going instead. When I was tired, I was just tired. When I felt unsafe, I just felt unsafe. I was plagued by thoughts like Whose idea was this, anyways? Oh, right, it was my idea. Needless to say, I covered a lot less ground, and I slept restlessly.

While there is a different and equally powerful kind of connection resulting from being alone and very small in the wildness of the natural world, the moments of this trip that brought me the most joy were the moments of human connection, the random kindness of strangers which occasionally reminded me that we’re never alone, after all, we’re always a part of everything.

There was a train employee who stopped his work to draw me a map by hand on a scrap of paper, there was a woman who ran a coffee shop in a small town where I stayed for a few days and whom, after scolding me properly for applying my jam and clotted cream to my scone in the improper order, eventually divulged to me stories of growing up in Liverpool, her concerns about her adult daughter’s boyfriend, and her dreams of being a watercolor artist.

These are all moments in which I could viscerally feel the existence of our seventh principle: The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As Unitarian Universalists, we have plenty of different ideas about what spirituality is and means, but to me, this 7th principle is at the core. To me a spiritual practice is anything that helps you feel part-of that interconnected web of existence, to feel the sense of wonder at our connectedness to everything. We could name an endless list of potential spiritual practices: Meditation, hiking, roller derby, running, music, but also – choosing to deliberately practice loving community.

Through my experiences bike touring, I managed to stumble upon a profound manifestation of inter-reliant community quite by accident, and since then I have continued to ask: how can we build loving inter-reliant deliberate communities in a world where all the forces at hand are working to drive us apart? Bike touring was a great experience, but I’m not dying to take it up as a lifestyle.

Love is the force that moves us from isolation to connection, from individual to community, but to choose love, means going against the prevailing values of [our] culture. We live in a capitalist society which we see time and time again prioritizing economic gain above human life: I am thinking of the Native People who right now are fighting to protect their water and their sacred places, I am thinking of the recent price hike for the lifesaving EpiPen, I am thinking we could sit in this room for the rest of the day and not run out of things to put on this list. And no matter how consciously we reject these profits-before-people ethics, we often show up to community carrying an internalized version of the commodity based exchange-economy.

Most of us want this to be a fair trade. We want the good that we know community can give us, but we don’t want to give up too much for it, and we certainly don’t want to give any more than we’ll be getting back. But if we want true community, we have to make a conscious choice to make the radical shift to a love ethic.

Before the sermon we heard words from bell hooks on love ethics. She reminds us, “Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.” Sometimes a love ethic means moving to a town you don’t love to be close to your family. Sometimes a love ethic means not taking the better paying job that also means more time away from your loved ones. Sometimes a love ethic means spending a whole weekend helping a friend move or going to a two year old’s birthday party even though you’d really rather not.

The first time I encountered this idea of love ethics was in reading bell hooks’ book All About Love several years ago and in the time since this book has become my Love Textbook. It has been an important book for me precisely for the reasons that bell hooks testifies: we are not born inherently gifted at the skill of loving well, and our culture so often fails to teach us, therefore we must consciously make ourselves students.

Coming to loving community, we may be able to imagine what we are seeking, but have no idea where to begin to create it. I certainly find myself in this position often. Earlier, we also heard bell hooks’ argument for a common definition of love, and the definition she proposes from M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Perhaps the most important part of this definition is the word will. Will implies choice. Love is a choice we make, so is community, and it is not a one-time choice. In racial justice work, you might hear the phrase “you can’t be passive on a moving train,” used to explain the idea that in a society with such profound structural inequality, it is not enough to think simply well, I believe in equality and justice, and sit still. We’re all on a moving train, and if we’re passive then we are perpetuating injustice. We must deliberately and daily choose to fight against the forces that perpetuate violence in injustice in our world.

The same is true of love, and of community: it’s not a one-time choice. We can’t simply say “Well I believe in community,” or “Wow, I found this great community,” and then sit still on a train that’s driving us away from each other. We must make a practice of choosing community, and of choosing love. We must do it deliberately and every day.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a friend say “I’m looking for community and I just can’t seem to find it,” as though a community were some sort of lovely treasure that we’re going to stumble upon one day while we’re out walking the dog. I have often myself wished that community was something more like this, something permanent and solid, like a silver pocket watch or a stone that fits in the palm of your hand. We like to talk about love and community as a noun, I propose that we must consider community as a verb. Community is something that we do. If running is our spiritual practice, we know that we have to put on our running shoes and go to the trail and run not just once, but every day. Likewise, we have to continue to show up and practice community if we are going experience this interconnectedness that we all desire.

I’m not blind to the fact that being in community is sometimes unpleasant and often inconvenient: In the time since I chose this topic for this sermon, the collective house where I live experienced a week so difficult that I questioned whether I am even qualified to be talking about community at all. But if we look at any other spiritual practice – running, meditation, hiking – we know that the good part only comes if you stick through the part that’s terrible. Meditation doesn’t work if you get up the first time you feel bored, and any runner can tell you that you get the runner’s high until you’ve slogged for just a little bit longer than you thought you could bear.

One of the major historical conflicts of human communities worldwide is nicely summed up by a sign that hung for a time above the sink in the kitchen of the Birdhouse Community Center in 4th and Gill. It read: Are you leaving your dirty dish here? That’s fine! Just write the name of the person whose job it is to wash it for you in this blank. I am very familiar to the experience of walking into a community kitchen and thinking I will not continue to live if I have to wash one more dish.

This is when our capitalist ethic is quick to provide a convenient alternative: You’d be better off without those other people. You should purchase a house with a dishwasher, and then you won’t even have to wash your own dishes. Your life will be so convenient and you will finally be happy. It is a very tempting sales pitch, especially when you are looking at a sink full of dirty dishes for the 52nd time this month. It can be very tempting to throw in the towel, and walk away.

These are the moments when our practice becomes meaningful, when we are frustrated and fed up and we want to quit. This is when the responsibility is ours to create the lived reality of the values we aspire to. And while I have nothing against convenience, it is important to notice what we give up in exchange for it. We have to recognize that like any practice, a practice of loving community does not become meaningful until we have stuck with it when it got hard, which in some cases is every day.

Tomorrow night we welcome Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost on their #ReviveLove tour, a collaboration with the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, Black Lives Matter, and Showing Up for Racial Justice. The concert promises a powerful musical experience as well as political and spiritual sustenance for Movement. Caitlin Breedlove, the campaign director at Standing on the Side of Love, recently wrote an article called “Why Movements need to Revive Love” in which she speaks to the hard work of loving in community: “In my own life, loving has not been a set of syrupy experiences. Loving has been the hardest work of my life […] Love has asked me to stay in it with someone or something: to do things that are scary or boring. It has asked me to intervene or interrupt broken patterns in personal and movement relationships. It has made me come back after making humiliating mistakes. Love has made me more faithful to what I believe in word and deed […] Sometimes when I talk to groups about Movement Building and Love I ask: ‘Who here has ever really loved someone? Changed a million diapers or spent long nights by a hospital bed in the name of that love? Who here is a better person because of loving another that way? What if we loved our movements that way?”

This community that is TVUUC knows a lot about love. Many of us have loved this church through some of the hardest times a community can face. When I was most of the way through with this sermon, it occurred to me I ought to re-read our church covenant, which is if you ask me the cornerstone of deliberate community, and my thesis was right there in the last line: we covenant […] to understand that building our beloved community requires ongoing learning and practice of courageous acts of love and reconciliation.

I’m not saying you have to wash the dishes. I’m just saying we have to keep practicing. As uncomfortable as our conflicts can be, as frustrated and fed up and burnt out and tired as we get, I know that the best moments, the moments when I feel most loved and connected to my community and Creation, are the moments when we wanted to give up but we didn’t. When all we had to offer was showing up, and we showed up hungry, but we showed up anyways.

Readings:

From All About Love, bell hooks

Our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving. If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying. […] The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb. I spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word love, and was deeply relieved when I found one in the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Traveled […] he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

TVUUC  Congregational Covenant  

We covenant with each other, promising our goodwill and honest effort, pledging our care and support to one another and to our church community, challenging one another to live in accord with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

With this common purpose as our source, we covenant:

to welcome all who come to us with acceptance and respect for the differences among us, and to remain open to the richness and discomforts of diversity;

 to listen with sincerity and love;

to foster trust, practice patience and speak one’s truth directly and with compassion;

to reflect carefully about the potential results of our words and actions before we speak or act;

to assume the positive intent of others and keep our discussions to topics and issues rather than personalities;

 to acknowledge that we may not always agree with the group decisions, but we will support and participate in decision-making processes that are collaborative and democratic; and be open to compromise;

to pursue mutually satisfying resolution when there is disagreement, and seek help when needed;

to speak directly to those with whom we have disagreements and encourage others to do the same;

to speak out with loving kindness when we witness disrespectful interactions, acknowledging our fallibility and practicing forgiveness;

to act with loving kindness, seeking to promote justice, equity, and compassion;

to understand that building our beloved community requires ongoing learning and practice of courageous acts of love and reconciliation.

From All About Love, bell hooks (on love ethics)

Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions. I chose to move to a small city so I could live in the same area as family even though it was not as culturally desirable as the place I left. […] Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.

I know no one who has embraced a love ethic whose life has not become joyous and more fulfilling. The wide-spread assumption that ethical behavior takes the fun out of life is false, in actuality; living ethically ensures that relationships in our lives, including encounters with strangers, nurture our spiritual growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Bad

Frequently, I find myself walking past the lit up display of movie posters on the side of the theater downtown. While I haven’t been to see a movie since my son was born (a year ago), I didn’t really go to see movies before that, and even when I did it was generally at the theater that favors independent film and documentary. Blockbusters have rarely had any appeal to me.

But one day a few weeks ago I was walking down this familiar stretch of sidewalk, one of the lit-up posters was for “Bad Moms.” The poster shows Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell & Kathryn Hahn with their hands in the air in a gesture of alcohol-induced abandon, at the center of what appears to be a house party in someone’s straight middle class home (white walls, crisp beige curtains, etc.). The image is full of half-drunk beers & open liquor bottles, and one of them even holds a can of whipped cream.

I laughed out loud. That looks like a movie I need to see.

For months I had walked past these billboards without seeing a single film I could even basically relate to, but this image of three moms getting wasted in the name of independence and freedom hooked me immediately. Bad Moms, that’s me.

A few days ago, I got a babysitter for Joseph and my friend took me out on his motorcycle for the evening. Even though I know that I am a steady and responsible mother who works an office job at a church (the least bad job I can think of) and spends her evenings scrubbing crusted over pureed peaches off the high chair, it’s impossible not to feel like a rampant badass on a motorcycle.

Riding down the road next to the river, the sun setting behind the city on the horizon, the wind just warm enough on your skin, the engine rumbling – it’s every bit as exhilarating and romantic as my fifteen-year-old-girl self fantasized. We stopped in the middle of downtown and I had to try really hard not to look around to make sure someone saw how cool I looked getting off the back of this vintage motorcycle, taking the helmet off and shaking out my hair, walking across the street like we own the place. We bought some beers and drank them in a park after dark, an act which has a delicious resonance of non-legality, but which really lacks any quality of meaningful disobedience.

Recently I’ve been wondering what this is, this desire to be bad. What is this glorification of badness about?

Raised in a white middle-class home, I was afforded every comfort, convenience, and opportunity. For as long as I can remember, it was taken as fact that I would finish High School, go on to college, choose a career, and produce for myself a stable and comfortable lifestyle like my parents had.

This is, I think, the standard of excellence that our culture offers us. The American Dream, as they call it. A good single-family home and a good job and a good husband and two cars and two kids and a labrador retriever, and if you can manage to be a good citizen and volunteer a few hours for some uncontroversial local charity on the weekends then you get a gold star.

The only alternative presented to us is to be bad. Being bad means primarily, as far as I can discern through my (albeit somewhat limited) observation of mainstream media: staying out late partying, indulging in as many vices as you can lay your hands on, practicing recklessness and abandon. It means shucking off security and stability, not giving a shit, generally doing whatever you want whenever you want, and making sure to never grow up.

I have heard people call this freedom. We don’t want to get tied down to a job/house/partner/kid, because what if we want to travel/move/sleep with someone else someday?

To be clear, I don’t have anything against practicing a bit of recklessness and doing what you want. There’s a lot of good to be had from those things when they’re done well. I think good vs. bad is a false choice. If we don’t want to accept outright the values and expectations of our culture, we don’t need to be bad, we just need to invent a new definition of good.

To me, one of the most radical things we can do in our world is fight to create a happy life for ourselves, one where we feel safe and secure and stable and loved, to take care of ourselves, to be good. To me, this is freedom.

This lesson took me about 15 years to learn. From the first moments I was able to look critically at the world we live in, I knew my path would run counter to the mainstream and my nature is such that I have taken this to the limits of my imagination.

I have been as bad as I could manage, in as many different ways as I could invent. I have stayed out until the bar closed only to ride my bike home, sleep for three hours, get up and go to work. I have chosen to sleep in a tent or a barn, to spend winter with no heat, to eat only what I could scavenge. I have not taken care of myself. I have cultivated a lack of stability in my material life and my emotional life, I have chosen partners who cannot or will not commit to me or love me, I have systematically sabotaged my ability to excel at my work and my creative pursuits.

I have made meaningful choices as well. I have organized and protested, I have grown food and commuted on a bicycle, I have painted murals and worked to build community. But somehow I have always chosen to leave out the part where I also take care of myself. The part where it’s okay to be happy.

There’s something else at play here, and it turns up most often and most profoundly in my choice of partnerships. I choose people who treat me badly, who cannot commit to me, who are unstable and needy and struggling. There is more than one reason that I do this, but one of them is that I have internalized badness. I believe that I am bad, and when a person believes that they are bad there is a certain kind of pleasure when that idea is reinforced.

When a child in a school system is labeled as a “bad kid” they almost always internalize this message, even if it is never explicitly stated. When everyone always anticipates you behaving badly, it’s hard to imagine anything else. So you keep behaving badly, and the self-image continues to be reinforced and your understanding of reality is maintained. Likewise, I tend to believe that I am bad, so when I find someone who treats me that way I get a certain satisfaction, a certain level of comfort when my negative self-image is reflected back at me. In my life, this has presented itself in a string of partnerships that run the gamut from just-not-knowing-how-to-love-somebody all the way to domestic abuse.

What I’m describing is that old adage You get the love you think you deserve. And while I resist the way this statement puts the responsibility for abuse on the shoulders of those being abused and the responsibility for mistreatment on the shoulders of those being mistreated, I’ve seen the truth of it in my own experience. I’d even extrapolate to say that in some cases (like those in which folks who were raised in privilege choose to instead create instability and suffering): We get the life we think we deserve.  

There’s a certain kind of safety in not trying too hard at happiness. If you set out to fail then it’s not so bad when you fail. If you set out to be good and you fail at it, then you’re faced with your inadequacy.

So let’s create a new definition of good.

Being good is different for me than it is for you, but at the heart being good means self-care. Too much of the time we dilute this idea of self-care to mean splurging on a $4 bottle of kombucha every now and then or maybe taking a hot bath when we’re worn down. Those are fine and good things to do, but what I’m talking about is a radical restructuring of our priorities in the way we create our lives.

It is not a new idea that if what we want is a more just and loving world, we have to learn first how to be just and loving to ourselves, and that means rejecting our culture’s versions of good and bad both and instead forging a path straight through the middle – following what’s in our heart to live a life that makes us happy.

vintage-harley-girl1

 

Giving Birth

Several months ago I made up my mind that – beginning on my birthday in August- for one year I was going to read only books written by women. In a world where men’s voices constantly tower over women’s for the amount of attention they receive, credibility they are granted, and space they take up, it was easy to see the merit in a project like this. What would my internal and intellectual landscapes look like for a year if I intentionally removed the dominant male voice from my personal literary world.

Since my writing is largely (if not exclusively, at this point) autobiographical, the project quickly morphed into a year of women’s memoirs: women’s stories, told by their own voices.

So far, it’s been great – a grounding, affirming, enlightening experience. I’ve read four and a half memoirs in the last weeks, each of them wildly different from the last in both form and content, and in each one I saw pieces of my own story. This is what excites me so about writing: that it can be such a great humanizing force. In writing our individual stories, we can reach through to some little piece of the universal – the threads connecting us all to each other and to the world at large.

One of the strongest threads that has already shown itself is childbirth. While the trappings of childbirth undergo continuous evolution it remains true that women’s bodies labor and give birth much the same as they always have, and whether or not a woman is able to or chooses to give birth to children the topic will occupy space in each of our stories. Of the four and a half books I have read thus far, every single one has either told that woman’s birthing story or explained why that woman did not have children at the time she was writing

In the days and weeks after my son’s birth, I told the extended version of the story, sparing no detail, to anyone who even casually asked how the birth went. I couldn’t seem to stop myself, the need was bodily and strong. That powerful need to tell our birthing stories seems to be a common experience of women who have given birth, especially the the traumatic ones, and often to the dismay of mothers-to-be.

With Joseph’s first birthday approaching next week, I find myself transported through my days to these same late-August days last year, the days I spent swaying a big belly up and down the neighborhood streets, the baby still a mystery cradled in the bowl of my bones.

And so I cannot stop myself from telling the story of his birth again, knowing that the need to tell it will likely never fade. I’d also like to share with you birth stories told by two women whose memoirs I have read in the past weeks: one by Mary Mann Hamilton (Trials of the Earth), a woman who pioneered in the Mississippi delta and wrote of her life as an old woman in 1933; and one by Luretta E. Hulse, my great-grandmother, writing in Merchantville, NJ in 1921.

But first:

Joseph’s Birth: Lauren Hulse, Written August 26, 2016, Knoxville, TN

 The contractions began on my birthday, mild ones, but regular. We sat and timed them obsessively until they reached the proper length and frequency to call the midwives. But this was what they call prodromal labor, or Braxton Hicks, or practice labor.

The night of August 29th was placid and warm. I was feeling antsy and I knew the moon was full – the last of three super moons that summer – so I packed my dog, Anna, in the second-hand Subaru I’d just bought to carry the car seat and drove us out to Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge.

Seven Islands has always been a special place, and that evening it was in full glory: the sky blushed pink over the wide brown loop of the French Broad river, long shadows the color of polk berries spread over the brambled hillsides, the crickets rasped out their dry songs in the grasses. Anna and I walked until dusk and drove home in the dark, feeling peaceful and totally in love with this gentle valley.

Around 1:30 I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. This was a common occurrence in those days, so I went back to reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which had soothed me to sleep once that night already. I read for hours, at one point noticing that I was having contractions, somehow steadier and more purposeful than the ones before. Inside I smiled, finally.

Every so often I’d time the contractions, writing them down on a scrap of paper under the lamp light. Deep in to the witching hours, my body reached the marker again and I called the midwife. We talked for a few minutes, and she reassured me and told me to call her again when they got a little stronger.

I didn’t call my birth support – fully expecting a long labor I thought I’d let them sleep ’till morning – but stayed in bed reading Little Women. As the night wore on I remembered to repeat my affirmations and breathe to steady myself through each wave. I felt grounded and strong, eager to commit to the birthing process, immersed fully in the only task ahead of me.

Then very suddenly I was no longer a consenting partner in the process, it was as if the birth swept down and took hold of me, whether I liked it or not. I found myself puking in the bathtub and thinking calmly Isn’t this supposed to happen when you transition? I can’t be that far along. The contractions were powerful now, bigger than anything I had previously known to be contained by my body. They moved through me, rocking me back and forth on my knees and elbows, and came out as sound. Still I was glad to be present.

That was when I called the midwife again, speaking in breathless rushes between contractions, and my best friend Maryl who had agreed to drive me to the birthing center.

Maryl drove us to the birth center somewhere around six in the morning, the street lights were still on but the night given way to the blue stain that precedes dawn. In the car I turned to Maryl and said I think I’m pushing. We both laughed, she ran stoplights.

We beat the midwife, Danna, to the birth center, and when she got there she moved quickly to check my cervix: fully dilated. She pressed the doppler to my belly to listen to the baby’s heartbeat: a solid and steady beat racing through the water. But when another contraction came, the beat slowed to a sluggish thunk-thunk. Anybody could’ve known that wasn’t how it was supposed to sound.

She asked me to try a different position and then a birthing stool, but still the heartbeat slowed with each contraction. She explained that maybe if she ruptured the amniotic sac, the baby could be born quickly, and the risks would be low enough to stay there. I consented and pushed hard for a few contractions, but he was still high in the birth canal. She explained calmly that we needed to call a transport to the hospital, since he wasn’t getting the oxygen he needed during the contractions. She said If birth was imminent, we could go ahead and have the baby here, but since it’s not we’d better go to the hospital. If he needs some extra support when he’s born, it’ll be there.

I didn’t feel at all scared or sad except for one moment when I realized Danna might not come with me, but she assured me that she would.

She rode with me in the ambulance and then I was covered in crinkly white sheets being wheeled through the hospital hallways under all those fluorescent lights. There were what felt like at least eight nurses around me from the moment we arrived. One asked me very politely if I could hold my arm still so she could get an IV in it, and I told her perhaps not so politely that no, I couldn’t.

All this time the birth is still occupying my body, and I’m just trying to keep my brain out of the way. I stayed open to whatever was going to happen, and I never once worried about the baby’s safety or mine. I just knew we were gonna be okay.

They listened to his heartbeat and heard the same slow thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk. This worried the doctor very much and after a few pushes with lots of cheering from Danna and the nurses and my friends (Oh my god I see the head!), the baby was stuck and he decided we needed to expedite the process. The baby’s oxygen is being impeded, they explained, this is an emergency situation.

I was on my back on the table and the doctor sat between my feet, small and tidy, with white hair and small round wire glasses. I watched him between my knees as he explained very calmly and gently what my options were (vacuum extractor or episiotomy) and what they would do. From so far inside of myself and being so occupied by the birth I couldn’t reach out to make a logical choice, and I turned to Danna. She suggested the episiotomy, since it’s safer and they might have to do one with the vacuum extractor anyway.

So I nodded, they gave me a shot of local numbing agent, and the next time I pushed I felt the baby slide out. (Maryl would tell me later that she saw the doctor reach in and unwrap the umbilical cord from around his neck: this was the reason for the emergency.)

Everybody was screaming. Maryl and Jessica and Rose were all at my bedside, gripping the bedrail, and if my memory serves me right at least one of them was jumping up and down. They lifted him up and he let out the tiniest little cry, someone said it’s a boy! and they put him on my chest. He snuggled down and drifted right back off to sleep.

He was slimy and soft and beyond perfect. He was divine.

My friends were all saying over and over He’s so little! He’s so beautiful! He’s perfect! He’s so little!

But I kept thinking how big he was, and complete. I had known that there was a whole baby inside me, but somehow when he was on my chest it was amazing all over again. A whole baby, this big whole perfect baby, I just gave birth to this big whole perfect baby.

sleepingIt was 8:30 the morning of August 30th.*

I just held him on my chest as everything else happened around me, the nurse rubbed him down and draped him with blankets, the doctor caught our placenta in a white plastic tub, gave me another shot and sewed up the cut he had just made. Danna suggested that I try nursing him, and he latched on easily the first time with little help. They didn’t ask me to let go of my baby until they wanted to weigh him, and then the nurse promised she’d give him right back. He weighed 7 lbs 6 oz.

Eventually they wheeled us down the hallway to a room on the maternity ward, where Maryl gave me my pillows and the quilt I’d made for Joseph and my bathrobe she’d packed from home. Everyone came and visited that first day, and I felt full of energy, bright and wonderful, telling this story over and over and over and passing Joseph around all wrapped up in a big bundle of blankets.

We stayed for a day and a half and I was as happy and content as I have ever been, just looking at Joseph laying on my chest and telling the story of his birth to everyone who walked in the door. Even though I hadn’t wanted or planned to go to the hospital, I felt safe there and cared for, with someone to bring fresh ice water every hour and my friends and family all gathered around me.

 

Excerpted from the diary of Luretta E. Hulse: Dated December 29, 1921 , Merchantville, NJ

[edits are original to the text]

This is a new sort of diary in this household – one to record the arrival and the events of the early life of John Keith Hulse, Jr., a much-wished-for baby.

We began to suspect that he was coming early last April. We gave a party on the evening of Apr.9 (a little dance) and that was almost the last of our participationin social affairs. On July 3, early Sunday morning he (the baby) began to move for the first time. It was only six o’clock but I did so wanted to waken John to tell him. When he did wake up, he was incredulous – that “it must be my imagination.” But in the following days, we were convinced that life had really arrived in the little being.

On Sunday morning Dec. 4, 1921 we went in to Cooper Hospital. When the taxi stopped in front of the house, and I was hurriedly trying to finish dressing, I looked at John. He seemed to be stunned. He looked as white and moved with such an effort. When I laughed at him, he said “I think I am more excited than you are.”

He stayed at the hospital most of the day with me. When at last he had to leave for the night, I cried after he was gone. I felt so lonely to be away from him, but I finally cheered up and went to sleep.

Dec. 5 – John came with the nurses when they prepared to take me to the operating room, and kissed me “good-morning.” To my surprise I did not cry at sight of him, but felt the comfort of having him near. He talked and cheered me up after we got to the room where they give the ether – and he kissed me again.

I tried to take the ether bravely but when I was too far under its influence to control myself any longer, I began to cry and cry. I knew I was doing it, but couldn’t stop. Then I heard Dr. Lee’s footsteps, and he said “She is terribly frightened” and Miss Andres said, “I know she is. She was asking me to be particularly kind to her —-. ” And that was the last I knew until sometime in the afternoon. I remember hearing the town clock strike two just after I first saw the nurse in the room with the baby. I had been conscious before that – but only enough to ask “What is the baby?” and “Is he all right?” Miss Bacon brought him to the side of the bed at 2 o’clock and let me see him, but wouldn’t let me touch him. She said “You must rest.” At 4 o’clock they brought him again and let me kiss him.

He weighted 7lbs 6oz and looked like his Daddy the very first day. The next day, they put him to the breast to try to let him nurse. I will never forget how sweet he seemed to me. His little mouth reminded me of a rosebud, so soft and pink and warm. He had no strength in his lips but one day later his seemed to know how to use them.

 

Excerpted from Trials of the Earth, Mary Mann Hamilton: Published 1992, written 1933, and taking place cerca 1883

…Two weeks later Frank took me to Mrs. Green’s. The first thing we did after Frank left was go shopping. Such an outfit as we got. What joy I took in making the little clothes, or rather big clothes, for every little dress measured fifty inches long. Fine tucks, then inserting, then more tucks, and so on to the bottom of the dresses, and there they were finished with a wide ruffle of embroidery. White linen underskirt was made the same way but finished at the top with a broad band five inches wide; white flannel underskirt made as long and finished with the same kind of band, then the usual muslin band to wear next to the little body. We made several suits and bought a ready-made cloak and cap of white cashmere, silk-lined; that, with forty yards of heavy white cotton flannel for diapers, was the whole outfit. It cost forty dollars. That was the first money I got out of my year’s work. It kept me busy sewing up to the twenty-fifth of July, when my first baby, a fine eight-pound boy, was born. Frank didn’t get there until after the baby was born. I wouldn’t let them wire him till it was almost over as I couldn’t bear to have him see me suffer. But, oh, the joy I felt when he came and saw his boy! When the doctor asked me what I was going to name him, Frank spoke up so quick and said, “She doesn’t have to name him. He has been named quite a while.”

I said, “We are going to call him Frank.”

Frank said, “My dear, you have nothing to do with it. His name is Jim Hamilton.”

He had had a drink or two, just enough to loosen his toungue. Mrs. Green looked at him and said, “What is the idea of ‘Jim’! You mean ‘James.'”

“I mean for Sir Jim Hamilton, the greatest friend I ever had, madam,” Frank said.

Again the past! I changed the subject. My baby was mine anyway.

Mrs. Green brought me a bowl of weak toddy, smoking hot, with crackers broken up in it, and Frank left. He came back for me when the baby was just two weeks old.

I had just one week’s rest after I got home when our cook took sick. The German cook they had got to take my place had gone a few days before with some of the men, laid off for a month on account of repairs at the mill. That left us thirty-five men at our home house with no one to cook for them, so there was nothing for me to do except go to work and do the cooking with the help of my dishwasher and one boy.

 

 

*As an aside, Joseph was born on the same day as my dad & Joseph’s granddad, Keith Hulse. I can’t pass up the opportunity to send a birthday shout out, so: Happy Birthday dad/granddad, we love you!

 

 

Hope for Humanity

Yesterday was my birthday. A few nights ago I went out for a beer and a burger to celebrate with a friend. We sat on the familiar concrete patio, supported by wobbly metal chairs – the kind that leave imprints like fishnets on the backs of your thighs – enjoying our conversation and trying to keep Joseph from climbing out of his high chair and onto the table in pursuit of home-fries.

While we sat, the patio slowly filled around us, the cicadas began their screaming song, trains passed on on the tracks two blocks away. Well into the evening, I left Joseph with my friend and went to the bathroom.

As I was walking out, a woman who had been sitting a few tables away on the patio passed me in the doorway. With the assumed intimacy that often characterizes the conversations that take place in the women’s restroom, she put her hand on my arm and with her face lighting up all over the place she said You all are just the most beautiful family, really!

I just laughed. Oh, well thanks.

Sometimes it’s just easier not to make the correction, and her assumption was clearly bringing her a lot of joy.

I rushed out, stifling my giggles, to tell my friend. We both had a good laugh about it before the woman came back, stopping at our table as she passed. Seriously, she said you all give me hope for humanity!

 [Hope for humanity? Really?]

I laughed again. Well, that’s an awful lot of pressure. She seemed to think we were up to it.

It’s not hard to understand why she thought what she did. My friend and I, on reflection, do look pretty good together, and wouldn’t make an unlikely couple. Add a charming baby like Joseph, and you get the most beautiful family, really!

I found it hilarious that she so drastically misinterpreted our relationship. This particular friend and I are actively not-partners, and while there has been a romantic intrigue and maybe even a kiss or two, on review our history doesn’t present a picture of happy-settled-young-radical-family-hope for humanity that this woman saw in us.

My next thought was God Dammit, I wish I was actually part of a family that someone would say this to and it’d be true.

It’s no secret that our culture doesn’t exactly love single mothers, and not once in the last almost year of Joseph’s life has a stranger come up to me and said the way you are mothering that baby on your own gives me hope for humanity. Hearing these words of affirmation and praise for my friend and I, even though misguided, felt so wonderful, and I wished that I had more opportunity to feel so bubbly and proud and admired.

Affirmation and praise for couples with babies is implicit everywhere. Advertisements for – you name it, toothpaste, home insurance, house paint, Nyquil – feature well groomed, attractive, smiling young couples with their chubby and perfectly dressed babies. Even the socially conscious and women-centered birthing center where I had my prenatal care, every question and pamphlet and book and class almost completely ignored the possibility that someone might have a baby without a partner.

The message I get is that monogamous married couples are doing it right, and the fact that I don’t have a partner means I have a gaping hole in my family that I should probably not let too many people know about and patch it up quick as I can.

That night at home, after I got Joseph bathed and dry and finally asleep in bed, I told Rose my story and how I’m so far from being hope for humanity.

But we are a beautiful family, Lauren! was Rose’s reply.

It’s a testament to the power of what is considered normal and right that it hadn’t occurred to me to look at it that way until Rose said it.

Of course. The fact that I have not had a partner through the crazy tumult that has been the last year-or-so has forced me full throttle into community life. I was in a position of need that required me to ask for help, and this dynamic of asking and reliance created bonds that are real and strong and intimate and not going anywhere soon.

Had I been a part of a nuclear family, these bonds would not have been possible. While I would still have my loved-ones around me, we would not have had the opportunity to build the structural interreliance that we have, and which continues to build day by day by day.

Yesterday evening was Joseph and I’s joint first and 26th birthday party. I invited everybody, because there are so many people that I love, and to my happy surprise everybody actually came. We worked all day at the house, cooking food and sewing bunting and filling washbasins with water and toys. By six o’clock the living room was full of toddlers sharing Joseph’s toys, the kitchen was full of adults returning again and again to counters heaped with offerings of food. Outside my little brother had made friends with another boy and they took turns soaking each other with water toys. As the sun sank we gathered on the wooden platform, as my dear friend, who has been a steady presence since I was six years old, performed the most beautiful silk marionette puppet show.

If ever there was a gathering to show me just how beautiful our family really is, this was it. What I have is not a gaping hole, what I have is a happy family made up of some of the most wonderful people I could hope for, a family that is wide and deep and generous and committed. Hope for humanity is still a tall order but nonetheless, I can’t help but feel like we’re on to something good.

 

c puppet crop

 

 

Forgetting About Baby

When I was pregnant, I dreamt often of forgetting my baby, as many pregnant women do. In one dream, I frantically retraced my steps through SanFrancisco, alone in a strange city, and finally determined that I must have left him at the restaurant. I called them from a pay phone: I know this is sort of strange, but by any chance have you all found a baby? They had.

My theory is that those dreams are a function of the pre-motherhood self being unable to fathom how one could possibly ever keep track of anything 100% of the time. Just think how many times you have lost your keys, phone, wallet, and you can imagine why one would worry.

This is of course all before you give birth and discover that you are inherently connected to your baby as if by a powerful spell, that you cannot re-orient the internal compass that always points to him and fires the alarm if ever you step too far away.

It is not fail safe, nor is it impossible to lose your baby. But it’s a lot harder than losing your keys.

A few weeks ago Joseph had a play date with some of my friends’ kids, two twins who are just a few weeks older than him. I was stunned by how independent he was, completely happy to explore a totally new place without my help, and form his own friendships with the other babies.

I came home and reflected that he’s becoming his own person more and more all the time, that he’s about to start walking and then he’ll be a toddler, and I’ve still not even come to terms with the fact that I’m a mother and a bona-fide adult. Somehow even his existence still manages to shock me.

Once, I was sweating in the mid-afternoon sun in the yard in front of the Birdhouse, talking for a moment to Charlotte and touching a beaded sweater hanging from a wire hanger on a rack of yard sale clothes. When I looked down Joseph was standing there holding on to the edge of a faux wood end table, his bare shoulders sweating under the straps of tiny blue jean overalls. He was looking up at me with such intentness — huge dark eyes and small open mouth with the corners turned down just so, the sun lighting his hair up copper.

For that split second it is as if I have never seen him before, this small person who is searching my face and wondering how to feel. I stare at him dumbfounded, so he tries a smile and a small half laugh, hee! I remember to smile back, Hi, bub! Whatcha doin’ down there? And the unshakable intimacy of our relationship floods back.

I experienced this one other time, back when we lived with Elizabeth and Ruby. Joseph had fallen asleep for his nap on my bed and I had gone to work elsewhere in the house. He slept for so long and I became so engrossed in my work that I was actually shocked when I walked back into the bedroom and saw his naked sleeping body sprawled on the lavender colored sheets. For just that moment, my mind reeled, Where did this baby come from? And then I placed him. Right, he’s MY baby.

At the time I filled up with all kinds of shame and guilt. What kind of mother is actually shocked to find her baby still sleeping where she left him? Can I really so easily forget his existence entirely?

But now, many months later, I ask different questions.

Do we ever really come to terms with the existence of our children? Or will the unlikely miracle of their existence continue to astonish us to perpetuity? I kind of hope it does.

Do we ever really come to terms with Motherhood? Or do we on some level always see ourselves as we were before? As just Lauren: Lauren who loves finding a perfect watermelon or a gallon of fry oil in the dumpster. Lauren who loves crashing around in a mosh pit on the floor of the Pilot Light, who places her half-drunk beer on the ledge over the door before stepping out onto the sidewalk to bum a cigarette. Lauren who loves to ride her bike as fast as she can over the Gay Street bridge, green painted iron flying by, Lauren who spends days on end sewing a dress by hand.

I am all these still even though I can no longer practice these happinesses in these forms. But I am also the mother of Joseph. My compass points towards him as irrevocably as the mapmaker’s points north. This has been one of my harder tasks of motherhood, to understand that who I was before my baby was born and who I am now is really, truly, actually, the same person. It’s been me all along, and at the same time there’s versions of myself that might as well be dead for how close I can come to touching them again. I am slowly regaining lost bits and pieces, gathering them in the basket of my skirt as though for a witch’s brew that will somehow produce a version of myself that I can recognize. But it’s not likely, is it? We are brand new and recreated every day, and this is something to feel joyous about, and unafraid.

Joseph is my son.  I can still barely believe in the reality of this statement, and I’m starting to think that that’s just fine, that in fact I might count myself lucky to have the privilege of living in touch with this staggering and unresolvable mystery.

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My Blue Coffee Cup

There is a blue coffee cup sitting on my writing desk. It is chipped at the lip and I like the feel of the small rough spot on the tip of my tongue as I pour into my mouth black coffee that has not been hot for hours.

The mug was my grandmother’s, part of a set of Bibey pottery that was divided among her descendents at some point in the long slow process of losing her. It is a sort of murky version of robin’s egg splattered with royal blue spots.

It is clunky, unrefined, heavy. Impossible to set down on any surface without it’s making a solid clunk. Certainly we have more beautiful mugs in the cabinet, more carefully made, more aesthetically pleasing. Mugs with thinner walls and finer lips, more perfectly rounded and trimmed. The bottom of this one looks as though it was scraped carelessly from the shelf, dipped in the nearest bucket of glaze, “BB” scratched on hastily for good measure.

Still, every morning this is the mug that I choose. How attached we become to our objects.

When Joseph was in the hospital with RSV, tubes coming out of his head running to the plastic IV bag and wires dangling from his big toe to the wall, I nearly lost track of myself. We were only there three days.

The room was decorated with an “outer space” theme which meant that the walls were dark blue and they’d glued a border of planets around the room at the ceiling. The crib was designed as though they wanted it to look like a jail cell, and his wires made it impossible for him to sleep next to me like we did at home. Most of the day I sat in the one green plastic chair, holding my baby carefully so to not bother his IV, and staring at the empty TV screen.

The hospital brought me meals on a tray the color of yesterday’s oatmeal. Underneath the Tupperware lid left over from the 1970’s, there was a white plate with a single slice of white bread, a perfectly round scoop of mashed potatoes (the kind that arrives as a box of powder), and a piece of meat drizzled in something brown. Mostly I ate the snacks that friends brought from the outside.

One morning my friend Rose brought me a cup of black coffee from the Hawthorne House in this goofy chipped mug the approximate size and shape of a soup bowl. There was a big triangular piece missing from the rim so that I had to sip carefully from the other side. I was so happy to see that broken mug, I laughed out loud. I kept it by my chair all day, the coffee in it slowly reaching its familiar room temperature.

I’m not materialistic and in the grand scheme I don’t think our objects matter very much. But I do have to recognize that sometimes our objects talk to us, or perhaps that through them we talk to ourselves. That mug was such a comfort, such a reassurance that I am still who I am. It gave my heart a point of reference and kept me from losing track of myself inside that hospital which housed me and my small son but refused to acknowledge the human beings that we were. Even the fluids that supported his weakened little body, the careful monitoring of his quickened heartbeat, were accomplished without a human hand.

In to that void came this silly broken cup, this message from our home, our community, our microcosm culture, that said: “Hey, we see you. We know who you are, and we’ll be here when you come back.”

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Falling In Love With Letters

 

Once I fell in love via a correspondence of letters.

Well, maybe “fell in love” might be a bit strong language. I had met him only briefly, we had both stopped our bicycles at the same stoplight. I told him his bicycle was beautiful (which was true) and he told me it was borrowed (also true).

Turned out he was only visiting an old friend and was leaving town in a few days, to return to his job leading groups into and out of the backcountry of Colorado.

The correspondence lasted a number of years. There were some periods when we did not write at all, and other periods when I would stay home for a whole day when his letter arrived reading it again and again and crafting the words to send back.

The experience was powerful, dreamy, romantic. There was a winter that he wrote me many letters from an observation tower, where he sat watch over a horizon of snow covered forest. The latent fiction writer in me writes Rapunzel on a chalkboard and draws an arrow pointing to the word, crossing their arms in front of their chest.

There are pieces of myself that can only really be reached with the written word, parts of the human experience that can’t be testified in conversation. These are the parts that I sent in my letters, and these are the parts I received back. We wrote of dreams and ideas, thunderstorms and runes in canyon walls, mountains, hope. What we exchanged were prose poems, were symbols and images. I came to know him through the shapes of his letters on the page. I came to imagine his hand, pausing uncertainly, leaving a small bleed of black ink into the fiber of the paper. It was an intensely intimate relationship, an exchange enacted entirely through a language of papers and handwriting, envelopes and drawings, scraps, poems.

Although no word was ever written explicitly acknowledging so: I was entranced.

One day I opened a letter that said he was coming back to Knoxville again, to visit his family. My heart raced. I looked around the bedroom beyond my desk. Coming here? It was impossible and thrilling

It was fall, the grasses dry and rattling, the sky constantly looming grey. We walked the mowed path along the bend in the river that holds Seven Islands Wildlife Preserve, hands swinging uneasily at our sides. Later we sat at a booth in Pres Pub until the bar closed, drinking pints and arguing amicably with my friends. Even later we hiked the 12 miles to Mt. Cammerer fire tower and back, digging our boot toes into the snow and watching the spindly trees emerging from their crusted white blanket, tracks of animals long gone preserved in crystal and filled with purple shadow. We tried hard to find it, but we were left grasping at straws without our language of papers and ink.

In the end we had to resign ourselves that something had been lost forever when we met in presence. The relationship that had sustained itself in deepest intrigue for as long as it existed in written word had instantly crumbled at the physical meeting of two incongruous individuals. We have not written since.

 

 

Do I think that our letters lied? No, nor do I think our relationship of correspondence any less true or valuable.

For the last six weeks I have sat with an amazing group of writers as led by Holly Haworth in a writing intensive held at the Birdhouse Community Center in 4th and Gill. One of the gifts of this experience has been an essay entitled The Limit by Christan Wiman. In it, he tells us:
To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.

 

The act of writing shapes our memory of our experience in the world, but this is the way that our memory is structured, as well. The act of remembering deteriorates our memories, and every time we revisit a favorite moment the experience becomes less the reality of what it was. Over time it becomes a story that we tell ourselves. It becomes part of our personal mythology. I do not see this as a loss, I see this as meaning-making.

 

 

I have been writing for my whole life. I can remember a lined journal bound in blue denim printed with glitter stars full of wild and looping little-girl handwriting telling the stories of my dreams. I wrote a heap of mediocre five paragraph essays in High School, a heap of slightly less mediocre 5-7 page essays in college. I have written scores of letters, and many of my favorite relationships have been sustained in this way. And all this time I have kept a journal.

Mediocre assigned essays aside, all of this writing has been only for me. Even the letters were mostly for me. Writing has been the way that I transform the infinite and disorganized information of my experience of being alive into a mythology of sorts, into a set of stories that I tell myself, into who I am and where I come from.

When I started this blog it was mostly for myself, too. I wanted a reason to push myself to a sort of coherence in my writing. My journal is, as it should be, full of half-thoughts and half-sentences, streams of consciousness and the occasional seething rant or wallow in miserableness. Sharing my stories seemed like a great way to push myself to the next level of crafting them.

Last I checked, 170 people read my last blog post. Frankly speaking, that scares the shit out of me. The first post I wrote two months ago got six views. All of a sudden people are calling me a writer, and at least once a day in the middle of a conversation someone will say, “Yea, I know. I read your blog.” Somehow it dumbfounds me every time. “You read it? Why?”

Just to be clear: I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing here. I’m just trying to make some sense out of being alive, the same as everybody else.

Just to be clear again: I’m so glad you all are reading this. If the sense I make is of value to you, too, then I am so happy. Just don’t go getting any funny ideas like I’ve got it all figured out, cause I can assure you I’m just as muddled as the rest of us.