July 9, 2016 - 8 comments
Thursday morning. Jill left the house early for a few days of work and work-related travel; Shiv, who seems to be in some sort of extended toddler/teenager growth spurt, was sleeping in—past 8:00 am, even. Normally, this would be a boon to me, time to get writing done in a quiet house, except: the news. The heart-rending, live-videoed, goddamn-not-again news.
It’s the most fucked up sense of deja vu, to feel like we’ve done this all before. There’s even a procedure: I obsessively follow Twitter, sign out of Facebook before I say something I’ll regret, follow links and re-tweet and weep because I let myself forget again; I let myself settle comfortably back into a life that doesn’t have to confront the world’s brokenness every day.
On my 32nd birthday, Jill & I came home from dinner to discover that a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. About a week after that, a grand jury in New York decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner. On my 33rd birthday, Chicago PD released the dash-cam video of seventeen year-old Laquan McDonald being shot sixteen times. On December 28th of this past year, the first day of Winter Break that I had set aside to work on my book proposal, a grand jury in Ohio decided not to indict the officer who killed twelve year-old Tamir Rice, round-faced and big for his age, like my son, whose growth percentiles are currently listed at “ > 99%.”
I like to think that, were I not Shiv’s parent, I would still be outraged, paying attention, learning, reading, altering my perceptions and perspective, listening to people who know much better than I do about what it’s like—what it’s been like and continues to be like—to be Black in America. I like to think that, but I can’t guarantee it.
It’s a futile thought experiment, in any case; not only is it impossible to separate who I am now with the fact of my son’s existence, and his Blackness, it would only be an attempt to redeem my hypothetical self, which serves nothing but my own ego. I am not going to be useful to him if I’m busy trying to look good. There is way too much at stake.
He doesn’t know yet. I am writing this at what I feel fairly certain is the end of his unawareness of the Truth About Things; he turns four in nine days and it’s coming. He will see something, or hear something, or experience something, and he will ask. He’s done it already with death and how babies get made, and it seemed right to follow his lead on those particular topics. This, this feels like something else altogether—because it isn’t some necessary “fact of life,” but rather a fact of life as we know it. As we have made it.
There’s been no colorblindness about his upbringing; we have no patience for that bullshit. Not to mention, kids figure it out on their own, regardless of whatever pasty Kumbaya diet you feed them. As soon as he could talk, Shiv began noting the different shades of members of his family, characters in books, strangers out in the world, often gravitating toward people who looked like him. Jill had a tennis match on a few weeks ago (she’s a rabid Serena fan, or worshipper, I should say) and it was Shiv’s first time watching the game. It’s not a simple game to explain to an almost four year-old, but when it came down to it, he really just wanted to know one thing: “Did the Black one win?” But oh no, kids definitely don’t see color!
Race is one thing. I’m not at all sure how to talk to a four-year-old about racism. But I know that I’ll have to. Neither Jill nor I believe in sugar-coating the truth; we don’t use euphemisms for body parts, and we won’t allow our own dread to dictate the terms of our conversations with him. To do so would not serve or honor him. We will do what we do what we try to do in all aspects of our parenting; we will tell him the truth, in whatever way we can figure out how to say it aloud, to his face. He has to hear it from us, and that fucking breaks my heart.
My heart breaks not only for my boy, but for all of the boys, and girls, for the parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and siblings who have to talk them through the truth that many of us are able to spend our lives avoiding. For the terror that people are living through. For the children who’ve lost parents. For the parents who’ve lost children. For all of us; those of us who believe this is not about us, and those of us who do.
For some time now, I have turned to listing “What I Know For Certain” as a source of comfort and healing. It was a tactic I first used after my father died, back when grief felt personal and specific, but it still works. Only now, the list is a lot shorter than it used to be. And basically everything on it is restating one thing: love. Love is all I know for certain.
I love all of the people I know (and some people I only know via the screen) who send messages of powerful solidarity, who use their privilege for good, who are asking all of the right questions, who read, who are smart, who want to be better, who make me better. I love my mom, who is as tough as she is generous, who isn’t on any social media but uses the internet to great effect and is proof that you can be almost seventy, always learning, and willing to break your worldview wide open. I love my friends Lisa & Christian, who invited me and Shiv out to the farm on Thursday, in case we wanted to “pet goats and be with people.” Why yes, yes we did.
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, for hope must not depend on feeling good and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight. You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future, which surely will surprise us, and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction any more than by wishing. But stop dithering. The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded, the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it as you care for no other place, this place that you belong to though it is not yours, for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor, who comes like a heron to fish in the creek, and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing in the trees in the silence of the fisherman and the heron, and the trees that keep the land they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land and your work. Answer with knowledge of the others who are here and how to be here with them. By this knowledge make the sense you need to make. By it stand in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you. Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it before they had heard a radio. Speak publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up from the pages of books and from your own heart. Be still and listen to the voices that belong to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields. There are songs and sayings that belong to this place, by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls freely upon it after the darkness of the nights and the darkness of our ignorance and madness. Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you, which is the light of imagination. By it you see the likeness of people in other places to yourself in your place. It lights invariably the need for care toward other people, other creatures, in other places as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world is no better than its places. Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue in them. When the people make dark the light within them, the world darkens.
-Wendell Berry, “2007, VI”
This season is not everyone’s favorite, I know—for many parents, it is a logistical and financial nightmare; for some students, it is a desert of uncertainty between the reliable if not necessarily beloved schedule of school. And for many of you, I know, it is just like any other time of year, only hotter.
Of course, I can’t pretend that, for me, the summer isn’t a very distinct time of year; I’m a teacher. Summer, while not so structurally helpful for the continuity of learning, is personally restorative for both faculty and students. It’s also a time period so mythologized in our culture—summer camp, summer vacation, summer road trips, summer romance—that it’s accompanied by the sheen of great expectations.
For me, this summer feels like an especially big one. There are no major vacations planned, no summer bucket list, no house projects, not even very many plans to leave the house. I’m being a little bit of a hermit this summer, but that’s because there is a new book to write.
Though my priority is to remain focused on the task at hand and take full advantage of the glorious, spoiling time I’ve been given this summer, I am trying to weave a few things into the hours that bookend work time. Sitting in the backyard with Jill, watching the purple martins fly in the darkening sky. Dance parties in the kitchen with Shiv before bedtime. Dinner with just-graduated students who have seamlessly transitioned to the friends I knew they’d be all along. Reading, reading, reading. And spending time with my mom in her kitchen, watching and taking notes. Shiv’s learning from her, too.
VEENA’S GARDEN TOMATO CHUTNEY
My mom got Jill into growing flowers, and Jill got my mom into growing vegetables. They are both instinctive, obsessive gardeners; whenever they talk about plants, it’s like observing a conversation in a foreign language. I just sit and marvel.
All of which means that mom grew the tomatoes and the curry leaves that she used to make this chutney. Jill & I liked the first batch so much (and consumed it so fast) that I asked mom to let me watch her make the second batch. For my benefit and the benefit of this blog, she kinda-sorta measured things, but as she would say, just go with it. You can’t screw this up.
Soak 1 T washed chana dal & 1 tsp. washed urad dal in a little bit of water for approximately 1 hour.
Make your vagar: heat 1 T canola oil over medium/medium high heat until it’s just beginning to shimmer. Add a pinch of asafetida & 1/2 tsp. mustard seeds—you want to hear the seeds pop; that’s how you know you got the oil hot enough. (If not, throw it all out and start again.)
Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the strained daals, along with a small, fresh chile pepper of your choice (my mom grows Thai bird chilies in her backyard, so that’s what she used). Cook the water off for just about one minute before adding: 1 T peeled & rough-chopped ginger, about 12-15 small curry leaves, approximately 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, & half of a large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks.
Stir everything together, add a bit of water to help soften the vegetables, then cover the pot. Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the carrot pieces are soft and the tomatoes have opened. Add 1 tsp. tamarind paste plus 1/2 tsp. each ground coriander and cumin, and process everything in the blender until it’s reached your desired consistency, adding water if needed. Salt to taste.
Will keep in a jar in the fridge for weeks, although at my house it doesn’t usually last longer than one or two!
You were right about the peanut butter, Court. Now that I’ve made my own, I’m never going back.
Now we can add “homemade peanut butter” to a list of ways you’ve made my life better for the fifteen-plus years since we became friends as the two least-naturally-mathematically-gifted students in Mrs. Stemmler’s AP Calculus class. Though we’d gone to school together since middle school, it wasn’t until senior year that we saw the inside of each other’s houses for the first time, conducting epic study sessions fueled by plenty of Diet Coke. We worked our asses off that year and got to know each other better in the process; then we made 4s on the AP, and you’ve been one of the most important people in my life ever since.
I wish everyone could see you the way that I do, which is I guess why I’m writing this. What everyone surely sees, because it is impossible to miss, is how stunningly beautiful you are, a beauty enhanced by your humility and deep inner goodness. But what I have been privileged to see and come to know about you is how rigorously you carry yourself, the richness of your inner life, your faith, your desire to learn continually and grow your heart. Your passion for teaching and desire for justice, your willingness to be uncomfortable and listen to views that contradict yours—you cultivate these traits with such deliberateness and carry them with such grace.
Would that everyone be as lucky as I am to have someone like you, who listens to me without judgment and so consistently offers me your love, compassion, honesty, and respect. You have cheered me through every victory of the past fifteen years of my life, prayed with me through every worry, soothed my panic with on-the-fly parenting advice, and inspired me regularly by your example. You also once made me go to two spin classes in the same day and can run a faster mile when you’re five months pregnant than I can on my best day. That all might be annoying except that you manage to stay super down-to-earth, the kind of woman who brings a six-pack to dinner and plops onto the grass in ripped jeans.
We don’t have a lot of occasions, culturally, to celebrate our friendships the way we do our other relationships, and that’s a shame, because if we’re lucky, our friends serve as our witnesses and our teachers, collectors of past memories and cheerleaders for what’s to come. Having known us for so long, they can appreciate who we’ve become in a way that we sometimes ourselves miss. And it’s worth honoring, I think, the work that we do to maintain these friendships – letters and emails and text messages and plane flights and the rare opportunity to get drinks together, sans children, scheduled-ridiculously-far-in-advance.
Court, there’s a reason that The Eagles’ song “The Long Run” always makes me think of you. Because all the debutantes in Houston—or anywhere else, for that matter—really couldn’t hold a candle to you. I love you & I’m so grateful for your presence in my life. And also for peanut butter.
HOMEMADE PEANUT BUTTER
If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s so stupid-easy that I almost couldn’t believe it. This post from Green Kitchen Stories breaks it all down for you, but the shorthand of it is that I used my food processor, roasted peanuts from the bulk bin, and a little bit of salt. It took me about ten minutes, and the resultant PB has stayed creamy for over a week in the fridge—no separation, no hard-as-a-rock texture. Basically a revelation. I recommend it.
While I’m making recommendations, allow me to point your attention to this strawberry ginger punch from a few years back; made it recently with gin, and it was very well received. Perfect for your Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps? And while you’re buying basil for the punch, go ahead and make some of these lemon-lime basil shortbread cookies, too. You’re welcome.
This little piece of the internet turned seven today. Kids, man, they grow up so fast!
It’s so humbling for me to think about all of the things that have resulted from this blog, which I started at the urging of friends and family who thought it would be a great outlet for me as a writer; I was two years out of my MFA program and two years into teaching middle school English and I hadn’t been writing much beyond lesson plans. That break was necessary in some ways, I think—it was also a period of mourning for my dad, who died in the middle of my two years of graduate school—but I don’t do very well when I’m not writing. I don’t feel like myself.
This blog became a way for me to return to writing on my own terms, to puzzle out my voice and audience, and to wed myself to a regular writing commitment. Little did I know that, through this outlet, I would also meet people who would become close friends in real life, connect with a whole community of amazing online readers, finish my first book, and start working on another.
Though this space has evolved over the last seven years in tone, approach, and even content, the core of it remains the same—an extension of me. It’s changed as I’ve changed, and I feel so lucky that those of you out there reading have been willing to go along for the ride.
To celebrate, I’ve got a drink for you…I mean, have I got a drink for you. My friend Greg introduced me to this one, a riff on a drink they serve at Lucy’s Fried Chicken in Austin. The original calls for rum and Domaine de Canton; Greg used bourbon and homemade ginger liqueur instead—the results are ridiculously drinkable and so, so gingery. I served these to Jill & our dear friend Courtney, who’s visiting us right now, and they both quickly asked for seconds. As you can see, I subbed in whisky from South Carolina for the bourbon, since Courtney had just gifted us a bottle and this seemed like the perfect reason to open it! Therefore, Courtney is also responsible for coming up with a name for this cocktail, stolen from what she claims “just might be the best Willie Nelson song ever.”
THE RED HEADED STRANGER
Originally, I wasn’t planning to make my own homemade ginger liqueur, because that just sounds like something a crazy person does—sorry, Greg—but it turns out that the whole process only takes a few days, unlike other infusions, saves you a fair amount of money (as opposed to buying Canton outright), and yields an incredibly delicious end product that I plan to use in all kinds of drinks all summer. In short, I recommend doing it, unless you already have a fancy bottle of Domaine de Canton on hand.
2 parts bourbon
2 parts ginger liqueur
1 part simple syrup*
1 part lime juice
ginger ale or ginger beer (we used the latter and it added extra ginger spiciness)
lime wheels, to garnish
Combine the above ingredients in a shaker over ice and shake vigorously, to cool everything down. Pour into a pint glass or tall water glass (strain if you’re feeling fancy) and top with ginger ale/beer. Garnish with a lime wheel and enjoy!
*I used the leftover orange syrup from this dessert, which really complemented the flavors of the ginger liqueur.