A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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What’s the Point of Having Rights if You’re Not Going to Use Them?

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
-Donald Trump

Last year Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, refused to stand during the American national anthem. Several other high-profile athletes such as US soccer star Megan Rapinnoe followed suit. The backlash was quick.

A year later, it hasn’t abated.

Looking past the fact that blind allegiance to a nationalistic symbol is about the most Un-American thing I can think of, that forced standing, saluting, singing, and pledging are exactly the sort of things that Americans abhor in other places, because you know…freedom….the bigger point is this:

The whole point of having certain inalienable rights as defined in the Constitution is to USE them. If we’re not going to use them, why spend so much time, energy, blood, and lives defending them?

People are getting their Kaeper-knickers in a twist about utilizing rights. Are rights merely meant to sit on a shelf somewhere, kept shiny but never used? Because if so they will atrophy. They’ll wither until they are of no use to anyone. Until they die.

Service men and women have fought and died to protect the rights Americans hold dear. Those rights are whispered into the ears of American children at night. We grow up on them. We eat them at greasy spoon diners and wash them down with Bud Light. They are our bread and butter, our meat and potatoes, and apple pie for dessert.

Rights.

Not a flag. Not an anthem. Not a pledge.

Protests, such as that of Colin Kaepernick and fellow athletes do not dishonor those sacrifices. In fact, I can’t think of anything that honors them more. Citizens using the very things so many gave their life to protect.

Rights.

It may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guarantee that bitterness still tastes sweeter than what Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are protesting: daily witnessing the fact that your life doesn’t count for as much as it does if you’re white.

Of course this is not about utilizing rights. This is about certain groups using their rights. When tiki-torch carrying white supremacists march en masse we hotly debate ‘rights’. When toddlers are routinely shot dead by unsecured guns, we wring our hands over ‘rights’. When statues glorifying slavery-supporting generals are questioned, we hem and haw over ‘rights’.

But when black Americans protest? Suddenly it’s not about rights. It’s about dishonoring. It’s about disrespect. It’s about refusal to bend the knee (oh, the irony).

They may as well be calling black NFL players ‘boy’.

America! Land of the free and home of the brave! Yet the landscape of my country is very different depending on who you are. And who you are has a lot to do with the color of your skin, your biological sex, and who you love.

As a white educated woman, I lead a different life than a woman of color of the same educational background. My life is very different life from that of a white male, a hispanic homosexual, a transgender female, or a white woman living below the poverty line.

I know it’s hard to see that. It’s easy to assume that everyone else out there has the same experiences –not only the day-to-day ones, but the overreaching ones as well, the ones that link together to make up the concrete foundation of your experience. That we all have access to the same raw materials. That those bootstraps Americans love to fetishize are available in one size fits all.

But that is simply not true.

Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennet and other black NFL players protest because their America is not the same as mine. Megan Rapinoe knelt because her America is not the same as mine. Their opportunities are not the same. Their access, their power. Forget pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps. What happens when you’re not even given access to the materials to even fashion them?

Yet when they use non-violent means of protest to call attention to these very different experiences, they are criticized, told to be quiet, threatened, and called unpatriotic.

I ask you, what choice have we left for those whose experience of the United States is not the same as yours, or mine? What choice have we left for those who keep trying to pull up the damn bootstraps only to find the ones we gave them are shoddy, damaged, or non-existent?

What choice?

What are people supposed to do? If you find protests so unpalatable, so offensive, then what course do you recommend? Because nothing else has worked. Nothing.

Racism, sexism, homophobia–they are all documented issues. Yet we continue to shuffle them under the rug and stuff them in the closet. We deny, deny, deny. We shift the blame and blame the victim. And then–and then!–when people use their rights to call attention to these problems, we tell them to find another way to do it because it’s “offensive”.

For real?

260 years ago, the idea of taxation without representation was enough to go to war.

We celebrate that uprising each year with fireworks and backyard barbecues. We celebrate those protests, many of them violent, which led to the birth of a nation. But when a non-violent protest asks us to look at the messy afterbirth of that same nation?

We can’t handle the truth.

We hide behind a flag, an anthem, a pledge.

The United States of America is not post-racism. There is literally no legitimate recourse if you are a person of color.

You’re beat down, then told you’re not. You’re told to use the right channels, but those channels are blocked. You’re told it’s all in your head, it’s not as bad as you think, it doesn’t exist. And when you stand over the dead bodies as evidence, you’re told it must have been your own fault.

How are you supposed to affect change if there are people who won’t even admit change is necessary?

 

Somewhere out there there’s a child sitting and watching these athletes saying, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not alone and here is someone willing to stand up for me.”

And that is how it begins. A teabag thrown into a harbor doesn’t make too much of an impact. A ship full of tea does.

But it all has to start somewhere.

What’s the point of having rights if we’re not going to use them?

What kind of message does it send when we value a symbol over a life?

And what does it say when we have a leader who refers to someone using their inalienable right as a son-of-a-bitch?

 

 

 

I’m With the Banned

kidreadingSomewhere out there right now is a child or a teenager or young adult about to pick up a book which will change their lives.

Maybe it will be the book which cements a love of reading. Maybe it will be the book which opens new worlds, or sheds light on something they’re struggling with. Maybe within those covers, within sentence and story, they will find a character who seems familiar; one in whom they can recognize part of themselves. Maybe they will read a scene which will strike a familiar chord, dissonant or not. And maybe–just maybe–because of a book (a book!) that child or teenager or young adult will open a window to a new way of viewing the world.

A book.

Somewhere out there right now is an adult or a school board or a group of parents who want to remove certain books from libraries and book stores and class rooms. Who want certain books banned because they feel the stories they contain are sexually explicit or contain scenes of alcohol use or masturbation or nudity or racism. Sometimes they want them banned because they feel those books promote ideologies different to their own. They feel they are anti-family or promoting an agenda of homosexuality, politically offensive or culturally insensitive.

A book.

Yet…every time you challenge a book because you don’t like the brutality of its truths you are invalidating the experience of someone who has or is experiencing those truths. Every time you challenge a book for inappropriate values you are implying the thousands who are living knee deep in that value system are not worthy. You are insinuating their lives are somehow reduced because they are not “appropriate”. Every time you challenge a book you are telling kids and teens and young adults their stories are not valid or valued. You are telling them they should be silenced and shelved because they don’t fit into some manufactured, imaginary mold.

Yet books continue to be the one place those marginal voices can still be heard, loud and clear.

Thank goodness for books.

We cannot shy away from the bad and the ugly and only focus on the good. We can’t do it in the present and we certainly cannot erase it from the past. Our literary past is just as important as any history book. It’s why Huckleberry Finn is still a meaningful teaching tool more than a century later. It’s why Gone with the Wind, that love song to the Confederacy, is a cultural spring board for conversation. It’s why Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americannah is relevant today. Is it uncomfortable to see the word ‘nigger’ in print? I hope so. It should be. Is it uncomfortable reading about the way we enslaved a population? I hope so. Is it uncomfortable reading about how skin color is just as marginalizing as an identifier in today’s US? I hope so.

Trying to ban those books from classrooms and shelves is not going to make the past disappear. It’s not going to change the experiences of those who are going through it every day now. Banning books about teens who are molested, who grow up in dysfunction or poverty or amid drugs and alcohol, sex and violence is not going to erase the very fact that all of those things exist. Painful or not, they exist and there are lives which are defined by them. Lives that just maybe find a modicum of solace in reading they are not alone.

Two boys reading outdoors

Thank goodness for books.

How dare we try to dictate the experiences of others. How dare we force all the squidge and squash into a cookie cutter mold and cry foul when it overflows. We cannot change our pasts, but we can learn from them, we can better ourselves from them. We cannot take all the bad things that happen in the world out of it, but we can shine a light on them. We can let those who recognize themselves in there know they are not alone.

How dare we try to silence them.

Reading a picture book about two male penguins who adopt an egg is not going to make your child gay. Reading a young adult novel about a high school kid who views his life through a filter of alcoholism and poverty is not glorifying alcohol. No, instead those books are saying ‘hey you out there–you who hasn’t led a life of black and white, but of gray–you who doesn’t have typical, Redbook approved family or a perfect life–hey you! Your life counts too!”

Thank goodness for books.

Imagine how the landscape of your own literary history would be different without having read books that have been challenged over the years. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Outsiders, Blubber and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. In Cold Blood. A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, The Kite Runner, Brave New World. The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, The Color Purple. Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen.

The point is, if people had succeeded, the map of my literature would be completely changed. GWTW, which led to Rebecca which led to Jane Eyre which led to the rest of the library, which opened up the world to me. It never would have happened if a challenge to ban had been successful.

bbw2012-2013_imageThank goodness for books. For the power they contain between their covers. The power to inform, to educate, to include and expand and illustrate and incite; to light a fire under our passions and ultimately to connect us to one another. Sometimes slowly, sometimes painfully, one page at a time.

Thank goodness for books.

 

September 27 through October 3 is Banned Book Week. Use your Freedom to READ.

American Library Association’s list of the top 100 challenged books from 2000-2009
ALA’s list of the top 100 challenged books from 1990-1999
ALA’s list of the top 10 challenged books from 2014

I shamelessly stole this post’s title from the Robert E. Kennedy Library (and very possibly others.)

And finally….this is W&C(D)’s 300th post! Fitting it should be about books as I’m just about to embark on the 3rd and hopefully final draft of my own before starting to shop it around. Happy reading to all!

 

The Expat Snail and the Whale

tumblr_ma9h300v121r167axo1_500Marilyn Monroe famously cemented the idea of the seven-year itch in our collective psyche with a billowing skirt above a New York City subway grate. I don’t have the legs for that. Or the dress. Or the extra four years. Increasingly I’ve been experiencing the three-year expat itch.

When we first said goodbye to Lady Liberty and embraced the expat life (in my case, clung to with ragged fingernails would be more accurate than embraced), I couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t run back to the Big Apple in my Prada flats given half the chance. Though I struggled to find my footing among the Kalamata groves of Cyprus, eventually I found a solid olive branch to stand on. A fitting metaphor for the peace I made with myself and my temporary home. But after three years of Byzantine ruins and rocky beaches, of Mediterranean confrontation and truly abominable parking, I was ready to move on. Physically, emotionally, geographically.

We’ve had a long breather here in CPH. The job is steady. The kids are settled. Even though Denmark recently slipped from 1 to 3 in the Great Happiness Scale, it’s still #3. Life is good. In fact, it’s likely we’ll never have it so good again. So no one was more surprised than me when I started to get twitchy. Like Julia Donaldson’s snail with an itchy foot–waiting here on my slick, black rock, I find myself thinking about hailing a whale tail to take me on to the next stop.

The sea snail slithered all over the rocksnail
and gazed at the sea and the ships in the dock
And as she gazed she sniffed and sighed
The sea is deep and the world is wide!

If you’ve ever moved, you know what a hassle it is. Even moving down the block is a pain in the ass. Wrapping and packing and culling and drowning in bubble wrap is no one’s idea of fun. If your kids are switching schools it gets more complicated. If you’re swapping languages, currencies, customs and continents, the confusion just multiplies exponentially. It’s not something any sane person looks forward to.

And yet, for the past few months, I’ve been feeling like it’s time to pack up and move along. While we haven’t yet slimed a message on a rock looking for a lift, my foot is most definitely getting itchy.

We hit our three-year anniversary here in Denmark in December. And while nothing is rotten in the state of, since we met that milestone, the idea of moving has put down roots in the fertile soil of what’s left of my mind. Last year was a tough one for me. I lost a big chunk of my social circle to the revolving door of contracts and repatriation. This year I will lose a few more. By next, I will likely be one of the last left standing. Like a mosquito bite that you can’t stop scratching, the idea of standing alone in a sea of new faces, no longer a Nancy but firmly a Greta, makes me itchy.

There is more to it of course. We knew from the outset that Denmark was never going to be our forever home. Like ripping a band-aid off in one quick motion, part of me wonders if it would be easier just to get the next move over and done with. Settle, put down roots. Plant an olive tree that will eventually produce a branch strong enough for my family to stand on.

The_Snail_and_the_Whale_bookcoverimage_50a25068a4a99

There’s nothing wrong with our rock out here in the Øresund Sound. Sure, in the next two years we won’t be able to afford the rent on it, but still, that doesn’t account for all of the itch. A lot of it has to do with the idea that within this strange life we lead, sometimes sunny and blue and warm, sometimes filled with a thunderstorm, these places are, as much as we call them home for a while, stops on a journey rather than the destination. Sometimes when you start to get itchy, you know it’s time to move on to the next stage of the journey.

It’s difficult to contemplate moving once again. It makes me tired just thinking about it. The thing is, once you’ve experienced a bit of the world, it changes you. At the very least, it makes you realize how much more of it there is to see.

And she gazed at the sky and the sea and the land
The waves and the caves and the golden sand
She gazed and she gazed, amazed by it all
and she said to the whale, “I feel so small.”

snail1Am I ready for the destination rather than another stop on the journey? I can’t answer that just yet. Sometimes I am. I think I’m ready to plant my feet above a NYC subway grate and feel the breeze up my skirt, legs be damned. Other times I’ve got an inkling to see a bit more of those far away lands with fiery mountains and golden sands.

Lift wanted around the world?

I’ll keep you posted. Until then, I’ll keep scratching away at my three year itch.