American Elegy

black-boxThis is not an elegy for America, the beautiful; America land of the free. It’s not an elegy for  geography, latitude and longitude, tectonic ’tis of thee.

The land, blooded and let, bartered for pretty trinkets, stolen for a woolen blanket and a few bottles of booze–she will remain. Purple mountains majesty, fruited plains. Red clay, cityscape, amber waves of grain, corn-fed, big sky. The land, she will survive. She always has.

This is not an elegy for a nation. A nation steeped in blood, built upon the yoke of broken promises and broken backs. Founded in revolution, fed by division, fueled by that trickle of hope left in Pandora’s box. The ghosts of America Past keep that nation alive. They rise, clanking their rusted chains, shimmering like so much heat above those ribbons of highway.

This is not an elegy for a president. His name will stay marked, bold and black, in the history books. No legislation, no course of action can erase his existence from the march of time. It is not an elegy for a leader, an office, or even a string of promises amplified by a Greek chorus of millions.

 

In America that rich, red clay has soaked up oceans of spilled blood–on battlefields and city streets, on living room floors and dirty make-shift beds. In America, when a child plays under a chestnut tree, above her head there are ghosts swinging from nooses tied round its limbs. In America, the skeletons of all those left behind dance along side the movers and the shakers, the farmers and the cowboys. In America, history is sodden with trails of tears.

That spilled blood runs through the veins of all of us, no matter what our vision is or was. You can’t escape history, cannot twist away from the truth no matter which way you caress it in the text of your history books. No matter how many untruths you heap upon it, no matter which new phrases you coin–it won’t take the scorpion sting out of the truth. You can’t turn your eyes away from the bloated face of a black man swinging from a tree, the bled out body of a woman in a dark back alley, the ravaged body of a teenage boy tied to a paddock fence, or the bullet holes in a seven year-old girl on a classroom floor–you can’t turn away from that simply because the alternative seems too insurmountable or unpalatable or difficult or it’s not your problem. You may think you can. But not for long. Not before it rises up to haunt you like so many clanking ghosts.

This is my American elegy–not for a country or a people or a nation, but for the gauzy future of a country I held close to my heart, even when I was not there. In that future, we acknowledged those ghosts, paid homage to the land we’ve ravaged and raped, paid tribute to the broken backs upon which we’ve all walked to get right here. In that vision, the skeletons of the past rose up to dance, leading us forward in that arc toward justice.

Today though, the skeletons are still, heads bowed. One step forward and four steps back; not so much a dance as a stumble.

Today, I wail and keen through words, in an elegy for an idea which seemed close to bursting forth through the earth and into the light. Today I recognize that idea was further away than I thought. Today I apologize to all of those who understood that before I did.

Today that much vaunted arc seems pretty damn far away.

 

 

 

 

Dear 2016, Suck It

hangoverDear 2016,

Well, here we are. December 31st. If you’ve got any more surprises up your sleeve–say Harrison Ford dropping dead or Simon le Bon suddenly suffocating, the sudden annexation of Poland by Russian troops-you’ve got less than 24 hours to do your dirty work.

The (not so) funny thing is that you, 2016, you weren’t even close to my worst year. I’ll save that accolade for the Annus Horriblus of 2004-2005, 13 months in which I lost my uncle, my grandfather, and my father in quick succession. Oh, and my oldest son was born with Meningitis. Nothing says suck-ass year like learning your father has terminal cancer followed by wondering if your child is going to live through the night. But well, you were a doozy, 2016. Not only did you steal my favorite actor, you made me question my time left on this Earth by allowing the icons of my youth to shuffle-ball-change off this mortal coil one after the other.

Oh, and then there was all the political stuff.

In June my British husband and I picked our jaws up off the floor as the UK voted to leave the European Union, mere months after we’d finally secured our kids dual citizenship in the misguided expectation all of Europe would be held in those passport pages. In July I watched, with great, gulping sobs, the first American woman receive a major party nomination for president. In November….

Well, we all know how I felt in November.…and December. And possibly how I’ll still feel in January.

Then, a brighter side. In quick succession in November, a duo of writing successes: a big contest win and even bigger accomplishment, securing an agent for my novel. In December, news of a Pushcart Prize nomination. The champagne I’d been saving for a certain occasion (see November), sitting forlorn in the fridge, was put to different use.

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When I wake on Sunday morning a new year will have dawned, bright and beautiful. Yet, Alan Rickman will still be dead. Donald Trump will be even closer to being sworn in as he 45th president of the United States of America, LLC, and Teresa May will still be wetting herself trying to figure out how to extricate the UK from Europe. Putin will still be laughing into his vodka, Paul Ryan will still be looking as throat-punchable as ever, women’s reproductive rights will still be under attack.

hangovers

On Sunday, a child will accidentally shoot themselves and die. A woman will be violently raped. Another will be beaten black and blue. A son will overdose on heroin, a daughter will come out as gay and be disowned by her family. A teenage boy will transition to life as a teenage girl and wobble forward on Bambi legs.

On Sunday, life will go on, the step from one year to the next no more than a countdown on the television, the ticking over of the second-hand on the clock. Bombs will still fall. Lovers will swoon. A heart will be broken, an engagement announced. A child will be born, a grandmother will die, couples will say “I do.”

Sunday will be no different from Saturday. January 1st no different from December 31st. It is both humbling and horrifying, the expectation held in that split second–as powerful as the Big Bang, as mundane as  8:43 ticking over to 8:44 on a random Tuesday in March.

I’ve always been a fan of New Year’s Day, the potential bottled up in a fresh new notebook page of a day. The feeling is muted this year. But, I won’t let you steal it from me completely, you son-of-a-bitch of a year.

You won’t be the last mostly shitty year, 2016. I imagine there will be years that seem tame by comparison and others that make this one look like a cake walk. I imagine I will look back at 2016 the same way I look back at pictures of myself in my 30s, laughing at how old I thought I was.

Thanks for the lessons, 2016. I learned a great deal: Don’t apologize for things that don’t need apologizing. Stop justifying. Stop asking politely, because while kid tested and mother approved, it doesn’t work when it comes to things like equality. Oh, and the most suck-ass-iest lesson of all? You can play by all the rules and life is still going to kick you in the teeth like a blue-balled donkey.

END OF THE NEW YEAR S EVE PARTYPerhaps it’s for the best. 2016 added a few layers of midlife fat to my midlife midriff, but it stripped away a few layers as well. Assumptions were shed like so many of Salome’s veils. Naive expectations crashed like so many tumbling bricks. You were the year, if not without a Santa Claus, than in which I felt like the foundation on which I stood crumbled away underneath me. But you were also the year I learned that I can regain my balance on the smallest of precipice, the tiniest bit of standing rock. Hell, there were days I felt like I could grab a broomstick and fly above the fire of my rage if I needed to.

I won’t lie. I’m not sorry to see the ass-end of you. But I’m ending it stronger than I’ve felt in a long time. Fatter, grayer, more short-tempered, but stronger for sure. If I’ve ever doubted my commitments before, my abilities, my intelligence, my voice than you, 2016–you shit-storm of a year, have taught me that I’m louder than I ever thought possible.

Love,
Me

 

How To Become Radicalized in Ten Easy Steps

f43d2d05a50cf51b2282509fca7df12aStep 1

The slow realization that something about you is considered not as good as, seen as less than. Even though you don’t feel less than, everything you read and see and hear, watch and listen to, screams and whispers it to your heart.

Step 2

The dissonance of questioning and doubting your own experiences. Making excuses for patronizing behavior, shushing. The strange discomfort of being patted on the head like a good, happy dog because everything you are seeing tells you that you are supposed to expect it and enjoy it–even though it makes your soul prickle. Denying your own emotions. Believing them when they tell you it will be fine, as long as you follow the rules.

Here is the list of rules. There are a million of them. They cover how to dress and talk and walk and act. They cover what not to do, how to do it, how to please, how to avoid displeasing. In between the lines it tells you how to keep your head down like a dog.

Step 3

Follow a million rules to the letter and wait for a validation which never comes.

Oh look, here are a million more rules. Come back later.

Step 4

Attack the rules with education and knowledge. Study the problem from a historical perspective. Immerse yourself in theory. Learn about the sociology and the psychology, the economics. The art and literature. Endure endless mocking and judgement for studying something invalid, some phantom, as if oppression and ghost hunting were Siamese twins.

Step 5

Surround yourself with like-minded individuals to stockpile comfort and succor. Armed with others like you, you bask in conviction. You are tackling age-old issues, but from a new angle, one which will work this time. It has to work this time. How can it not?

Step 6

Advance, retreat, advance. Repeatedly absorb and move on. Cling to the hope Pandora shut in her box despite being continually and perpetually let down. Learn to swallow the bitterness of betrayal–not only by those holding you back, but those who should be on your side as well.

Step 7

Realize everything you’ve done, have studied for, have worked toward has achieved absolutely nothing. Out of two million rules, you are at #67. They’ve rewritten them when you were not looking.

Step 8

Allow yourself to feel anger. Stop explaining. Cease apologizing. Begin actively demanding and agitating. Surround yourself in an echo-chamber of those who believe in the same things you do, who nod and agree and encourage.

Step 9

Accept your goals, once so attainable seeming–will never be reached peacefully, with logic or reason, with discourse or compromise. Shift focus from demanding acknowledgement and equality to plotting revenge and seeking payback.

Step 10

Jettison anyone who doesn’t fit your narrative. Escalate the rhetoric. Cocoon yourself in righteousness and anger. Hone in on the enemy. There is no longer a ‘we’, but an us. And a them.

Congratulations. You’re radicalized.

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Years of living in this woman’s body, where compromise is not only a natural way of living, but a necessary tool of survival, has given me an awareness and understanding of my mind and psyche. I know the map of my heart. Lots of therapy and a liberal dosage of Prozac over the years have helped as well. So when I feel the quiver of rage that shakes my very bones, I know I must be careful not to let it tip the scale to hate.

And right now, it is very, very close.

I am fortunate to have friends who are open enough and enlightened enough to have begun the healing. I am not there yet. I am not sure when I will be. Maybe tomorrow, I keep saying to them when they ask. Maybe tomorrow. Though it may be four years of tomorrows, or eight, or a forever full of them.

I know that feeding the flames of rage long-term will consume me. It will consume my soul and my writing, my family, my friendships, my life. And so I must let those flames die out eventually. Whether it burns itself out one time or I must put it out myself, what walks out of the funeral pyre on the other side will be a changed version of myself. A Phoenix. A woman formed in the ash heap of disappointment and despair, of rage and whatever borders on the thin line of hate. The question remains if it will be a constant struggle to tame the rage, to direct it instead, into something resembling determination and focus. Today, I don’t know the answer.

I understand now how easy it is to lose faith so completely in a system which has continually let you down. I understand how easy it would be to turn to an all-consuming darkness. It is hot enough in there to melt your very bones–but it feels good–like a dark sunshine burning in your blood. I understand now the desire to burn, the desire to exact revenge. To take. That desire is delicious on your tongue, though I know it will turn bitter soon enough.

I understand the appeal. 73623-phoenix-rising-from-ashes-quotes

It frightens me that I do, yet at the same time, I’m glad.

Facing some sort of darkness and making the choice to walk away is its own kind of power. Another one I will add to the notch on my witch’s belt. Ultimately I will do that. I will walk away.

But not today. Maybe tomorrow.

Maybe tomorrow.

An Otherwise Ordinary Day

butterfly 3
Mourning Cloak Butterfly

My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day.

As his body lay still, no longer hostage to late summer stickiness or mosquito whine, I was three states and a thousand thoughts and moments away. As the last thread binding him to me, to us, to this place and time finally tore free, I was stumbling to my son’s bedroom. My ten-month old was standing at attention, awake. Alert. I must have comforted him, laid him down and smoothed his hair, damp with the sweet sweat of baby dreams. Surely I shushed him, stroking my finger down the length of his nose before falling back into the expanse of my own bed, the expanse of my own oblivion. The truth is, I don’t remember. I remember only that he woke. I remember because it was unusual.

An expected death, a waited for death, a death which comes uninvited but not wholly unwelcome, drags behind it a range of emotions demanding admission. There are the tight contractions of your heart still beating like a traitor inside your ribcage. There is the leaden realization that nothing, not one single thing, will be the same. There is a sense of relief and a deluge of guilt and, if you are lucky, a quiet, enveloping numbness. There is a small pocket of air in which to breathe again.

Two weeks before that otherwise ordinary day, I said good-bye. My father knew he was loved; that his laughter, his stubbornness, his simply being would be missed. I needed him to know I was happy. A happy that went beyond the sickness, beyond the grief. A happy that waited, patient and quiet, to be reclaimed.

In our family, happiness is not a given. It is not a trait passed down like blue eyes and long legs, like heart disease or depression. There are several boughs of our family tree crumbling with rot. There is a real danger of breaking your neck on the way down. I wanted my father to know I had found my footing, my counterbalance: despite rotten branches and a dying parent, I had found a place of happiness.

My father was wasted away from the cancer. He had tumors you could see and touch pressing through his skin. Yet he understood. He was still, in every capacity, my father; slightly watered down, but my father nonetheless. He understood. For that small mercy, I am grateful. It is the only thing that allowed me to breathe when I got into my car to travel home. Those breaths did not come easily, but they came.

My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day. It was as peaceful as dying can be, the fleeting moment of time and breath that takes you from the living to the dead. The lights had flickered dim, then bright, my mother said. There were no storms, no faulty fuses, no electrical surges, simply a flicker. Dim, then bright. A small, wayward movement in the universe, a butterfly flutter between two worlds.

butterfly 2

Dim, then bright. The same time that my son had woken the night before.

That summer, I learned to look for the unexpected. What I found was my father: in the sweet night sweat of my son’s dreams, in the corners of a room that went dim, then bright, in the shiny copper of a forgotten penny. I found him in my own happiness. Though my foot sometimes slips on a rotted branch, he is always there to guide my way, his hand at my back.

First published on August 1, 2014 as the winner of Paste’s That Summer writing contest.

As August 2nd marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, I conintue to honor his memory by sharing this memory here.