June 26, 2015 - 6 comments
I’m usually pretty good with words. They’re kind of my thing.
Today, though, I can barely form a complete sentence. I keep bouncing distractedly from task to task, totally unable to focus. I got halfway through folding the laundry when I went to unload the dishwasher but only got halfway through that before realizing that I was really hungry and needed to eat and then, while cleaning the counter, noticed that I’d failed to plug in the crockpot that I’d filled with a chuck roast an hour before. I may or may not have bounced around Costco while whistling “I’m Getting Married In the Morning” to myself & loading my basket with a giant box Kleenex, of which I’ve already used an alarming amount. Thanks a lot, SCOTUS!
Here’s the thing—it’s not like the world stopped being an awful place today just because I can now get married. We still live on a planet that blooms with suffering, and in a country ripe with injustice, deep-seated and complex, to which many are blind. Even within the LGBT community, there is much more work to be done: protecting transgender men & women from violence, making sure queer kids are safe at school, and ensuring that refugees fleeing persecution in other countries due to their sexual orientation or gender identity actually find the asylum they seek here in the United States.
I know all of this. I know that this emphasis on marriage equality reifies notions of the “right kind” of gay, that there’s still a ridiculous wage gap based on gender, that I will have to raise my child inside a society where, as I write this, hundreds have had to gather for the funeral of a Senator who was shot inside a church because of the color of his skin, in an act some people “just really don’t feel comfortable” calling terrorism.
But still, I cannot help myself. Today, I feel deep and profound joy. Today, thirteen years and one kid and one bout with cancer and two years of long-distance and numerous career changes and dozens of hairstyles and the death of one parent and the aging of the other three later, the law of the land where I live—and which I love, though not at all blindly—says that I can get married to Jill. That we will have access to the privileges and benefits previously, and according to the court wrongly, denied us. That our son’s parents will have the same piece of paper his friends’ parents have. Not that we will have something new, but that what we have long had is finally being recognized.
Last night, I had the pleasure of participating in the Poison Pen reading series here in Houston, which takes place monthly at one of the city’s best dive bars. Standing out in the sweaty back courtyard, I read from an essay I wrote for Issue #4 of Sugar & Rice magazine, “Stolen Rides.” The piece chronicles a road trip Jill & I took in the summer of 2011, to attend the wedding of my high school friend Kristen. It was our first time leaving town after Jill’s cancer treatment, and her head was just beginning to bloom with the first of its post-chemotherapy hair. Everything about our time together felt sacred and precious and blessed.
As a bridesmaid, I sat up on the altar during the ceremony, away from Jill. But during the vows, I searched the pews for that fuzzy head and caught her eye. They say that attending a wedding as a couple makes you feel like you got married all over again, and I guarantee that no one in the sanctuary that night felt the power of the words “in sickness and in health” more than we did. I am so ready for us to finally get to say them to each other, in the presence of a judge and with our son as a witness.
Let’s get married, Jill Carroll. I love you like crazy and it’s about damn time.
Dear Class of 2015,
Graduating from high school is like having a baby in at least this one way; you get a lot of unsolicited advice. And in both cases, you figure out whom to listen to and whom to ignore—just like you learn in writing workshop who “gets” your voice and who doesn’t.
The thing is, I know you all well enough to know that you don’t need really need advice from anybody. You are some of the most thoughtful, reflective human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing; you have plenty of sound advice of your own to give. So instead, I’d like to share some of the lessons that I have learned from each of you. You know how you always hear teachers say, “My students teach me”? I thought I knew what that felt like, but our time together this year has blown all prior knowledge out of the water. Not only has this been my most meaningful year of teaching, it’s also been one of the most personally and professionally rewarding periods of my life. This, I have no doubt, is because of you.
Over the last nine months, you have reminded me what real vulnerability and risk-taking look like; you have inspired me to pour myself out onto the page, to do the very thing I asked you to do—step outside your comfort zone. Your willingness to tackle whatever assignments I threw your way, even in the midst of college applications and living full, vibrant teenage lives, pushed me to bring a matching level of integrity to class and to my writing. Your trust, enthusiasm, and warmth have brightened each & every day.
The greatest gift of all, though, is the way you have allowed me to see you—to see the way you struggle with families, with relationships, with illness, with disappointment. I am so moved by the scars you’ve shared: the missteps and misjudgments that you transformed into opportunities to choose the person you want to be. I have seen your indefatigable hard work, your dogged determination to grow as writers and people, your resilience in the face of life’s bullshit and people who judge without truly seeing. I have seen you care for each other so gently, and I have witnessed the deep love you share, the way you know the shape of each other’s hearts.
You won’t be surprised by this, but I’m going to break my own rule and give you some unsolicited advice anyway:
1) Trust what you know to be true about yourself, but don’t limit yourself based on an old idea of who you are. We are all constantly inventing and reinventing ourselves; give yourself room to be surprised by your own capacities, passions, and interests.
2) Find out from upperclassmen who the good professors are—the passionate ones, not the easy ones—and take their classes.
3) Don’t shy away from hard things or difficult feelings; you are built stronger than you know.
4) Figure out the difference between feeling lonely and being alone.
5) Last but not least, remember that the trick of your early twenties is to acquire the kinds of stories you’ll want to tell your children, students, nieces, & nephews someday, not the kind of stories you’ll have to explain on a job application.
Thank you for the pleasure of being your teacher. I am so unspeakably proud of you, and I love you very much.
In one of Shiv’s current favorite books, The Hello, Goodbye Window, there is a line that reads “You can be happy and sad at the same time, you know. It just happens that way sometimes.” And since these bars are a little bit tart & a little bit sweet, I thought they were just the right fit for this bittersweet occasion.
for the crust: 1 cup AP flour ½ cup almond meal pinch salt 10 T butter, soft
Preheat oven to 375°.
Combine all ingredients with your fingers, cutting the butter into the dry ingredients. Dump the mixture into the baking pan and press into an even layer with floured fingers. Freeze for 15 minutes; bake for another 15 minutes; cool slightly.
for the filling: 12 oz. raspberries (~1 pint) 1/3 – ¼ cup sugar, depending on your preference juice & zest of 1 lemon 2 T flour
Fold all ingredients together with a spatula and allow the mixture to sit while you make the crumble topping.
for the crumble: 1/3 cup flour ¼ cup oats ¼ cup chopped almonds 3 T brown sugar 3 T butter, soft pinch salt
Once again, mix all ingredients together with your fingers until, well, crumbly. Gently spread the raspberry mixture on top of the pre-baked crust, then dot with clumps of the crumble topping. Bake the whole thing for another 20-25 minutes. Cool the bars as much as possible before you attempt to slice them—ideally, you would cool completely, but we both know that’s not realistic. If you’re willing to have more of a falling-apart-bar, these are delicious warm and I’m sure they would do well topped with ice cream. But since you’ll need to store them in an airtight container in the fridge anyway, I recommend eating at least one cold with a large glass of milk.
After peeing in the potty—an activity he sometimes feels the need to strip all clothes off to complete—he ran to my closet and said “I wanna wear a dress, Mama!”
“You want to wear a dress?” I echoed. “A towel dress?” (We have gotten into the post-bath habit of wrapping and tucking a towel around him, just under his armpits, which he calls his “towel dress.”)
“No, not towel dress. A dress!” He was insistent.
Though he now stands nearly 3 ½ feet high and weighs a whopping 41 pounds, I knew that all of my dresses would still be too big for him. So I did what all parents and caregivers of toddlers do—I improvised. Pulling a tropical-patterned summer shirt from the hanger, I fashioned my son a dress. He immediately pranced to the full-length mirror to admire himself and move around in his new attire. He was delighted.
There are a lot of things that scare me about being my son’s parent, but they aren’t the stereotypical “helicopter” worries that get depicted in the media. I am often the only mom not shadowing her child on the playground; I let him eat food that’s fallen on the floor and drink out of the hose in the backyard. I let him climb on things and cook at the stove and cut vegetables with a real knife—I show him how to be safe, of course, but I’m not interested in trying to protect him from all danger. Danger is a part of everyday life. It’s inherent in the bargain of living. While I would never encourage my child to be reckless or to take unnecessary risks, I also don’t want him to grow up being scared of the world around him. I want him to feel capable of engaging wherever and however he wishes.
Which is why I’m scared of a much less tangible and more insidious set of dangers—the cultural norms and pressures that would cause so many people to be alarmed and disturbed by the idea of my dress-wearing son happily admiring his image in a mirror. It’s the same set of norms and pressures that had me hesitate for 2 seconds in Target the other day when Shiv & I were looking at shoes and he pointed at the pink, Frozen-themed “girl” shoes and said “I want those.” Literally checking over my shoulder to make sure no strangers were about to swoop in and impose their gender norms on my child, I helped him look for his size, which they did not have, so he happily settled for a pair of more boring but still pretty cool “boy” shoes.
I am so tired of the mechanisms that snap into place to enforce and reinforce what we as a society have decided are acceptable, the mechanism that causes people to balk or laugh when they see that my son’s toenails are sometimes painted—at his request, and usually in his favorite color, green. It’s the mechanism that thought for sure we would switch out the few non-gender-neutral onesies we had acquired for our child when we were told we were getting a daughter, once we discovered that we had a son. Because bows and flowers and hearts and kitty-cats and pink are for girls and dogs and dinosaurs and ships and robots and blue are for boys, even though newborns can’t see in color for the first few months of their life anyway AND even though it totally used to be the other way around. It’s the mechanism that causes us to forget that we made up all of these social norms in the first place, that they were INVENTED by human beings, not handed down by some power on high, the mechanism that enforces a binary even though we know scientifically that human gender and sexuality exist on spectrums, not in neat little categories of black or white.
It’s this kind of categorization that will cause some people to say “Oh look how those lesbians are screwing up their son,” because he is imitating what he sees around him, like all children do, and what he sees is his two moms, so when he pretends to “go to work,” what he puts on are high heels and a purse. It’s this insistence on monolithic constructs that will see something wrong with this scenario, or wrong with the fact that my son currently uses female pronouns exclusively for everyone, even though we as a society routinely use male pronouns as if they are universal. It’s the violence that comes with these narrowly-defined boundaries that keeps all kinds of kids (and grown-ups) to venturing into territory that is appealing in their hearts but forbidden by the society around them. That lack of room to move around, to breathe, to experiment and risk, hurts and limits us all.
Am I saying it’s bad if a girl wants to wear pink or a boy wants to play with a truck? No, of course not. Children should be free to play and dress as they wish. Shiv loves to dance AND he loves to wrestle. He has a play kitchen AND toy trucks. The problem is that often what children end up wanting is what we have taught them to want; they do what we have shown them to do, what we have modeled for them as acceptable. They learn, very early on, to hide the parts of themselves that are deemed unacceptable by the world around them, to subvert interests and desires that we are unwilling to make room for.
I don’t think it “means anything” that my son wants to wear my shirt as a dress, other than that he wanted to wear my shirt as a dress, but if it does turn out to mean something more than toddler dress-up, he will have the room to explore whatever that may be. This is my commitment to him—that his self-expression is far more important than my comfort or discomfort, that I will push past my own limits and reject whatever conformist BS I have to in order to make sure that he is boundaried as little as possible. I know that I cannot protect him from the rules and norms that will work to trap him, but I believe that I can help him stay joyful enough in his own being so that he has the strength to carry his beautiful self in whatever way he sees fit.
For more about gender & sexuality spectrums:
The Gender Spectrum [excellent topical overview + resources for teachers], via Teaching Tolerance The Spectrum [extremely useful graphic] -via The Trevor Project Understanding Children’s Gender [resources for parents] – via GenderSpectrum.org
For more about gender norms:
Gender Roles Affect Everyone [blog series], via National Conference for Community and Justice How To Shake Up Gender Norms, via TIME magazine It’s Time…talk about gender norms, via National Sexual Violence Resource Center
For clothing & toys that buck the trend:
12 Brilliant Kids’ Clothing Lines that Say No to Gender Stereotypes, via Huffington Post The 20 Best Gender-Neutral Toys for Toddlers, via Babble What the Research Says: Gender-Typed Toys, via National Association for Education of Young Children
It’s that time again. The annual mid-to-late-May, scattered brain blog post.
After nearly three decades spent lived inside of school years, I feel the rhythm in my bones, in my marrow. Most people catalogue their lives by calendar years, January to December; I think about August to May. This 2014-2015 school year has seen 3 weddings attended, 2 showers thrown, a dozen writing deadlines, a record-breaking 11 sick days, 1 appearance on the NPR website, and 1 potty-trained toddler. Moving from middle to high school, teaching three new classes, creating two of those classes from scratch, relishing the tremendous opportunity to teach many of my students for the second or third time—it has all yielded more personal and professional reward than I could have imagined. I am grateful, proud to have survived, and very, very ready for June.
My juniors are ending the year with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection that draws heavily on his experience fighting in Vietnam. Structurally, it is a brilliant piece of work, each story like a spoke of a wheel that circles around the themes of memory, ambiguity, truth, and fiction. Each piece is a masterclass in how to write about things that matter, without knowing exactly how they matter or why. About how to tell the truth without being sure that there is any objective truth to tell.
Line after line, even though I hadn’t anticipated that it would do this, this text is forming the perfect bridge between the end of one season and the start of another, allowing my students and I to reflect on what’s been and what’s to come: the seminal experiences that shape us, the ways we decide who we are, who we will be, what we will do with what life presents us. “That’s what stories are for. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
Summer is coming; there are stories to tell. There is a new book to write. There are plane tickets: to the west coast for a graduation, to the east coast for (another!) wedding. There is a road trip planned, practically a summer requirement. There is a little boy who loves to swim and consume epic amounts of watermelon. There is okra coming up in the backyard.
(^tiny photo-shoot-interrupting okra thief)
PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES
Source: Tom Hirschfield via Food52
Jill and I fell in love with this dish last year, but each time I made it (and there have been many), we ate it all before we remembered to take any photographs. This dish is truly more than the sum of its parts—doesn’t sound like much when you read through the recipe, but the method transforms the ingredients, yielding perfect texture on both the okra (no slime here!) and the potatoes. The hit of garlic at the end is just right, and while the original recipe calls for a finish of fresh basil, we found that we like it better without.
Pair this dish with another sublime-and-crazy-easy seasonal dish—this blistered corn-off-the-cob—make a caprese salad with beautiful, fresh tomatoes, and call it dinner. Man I love the summer.
PS: If for some reason you end up with leftover okra-and-potatoes, it makes a wonderful bed for a fried egg breakfast.
russet potatoes* okra* 1-2 cloves garlic, depending on your preference salt & pepper, to taste canola or another neutral oil, like peanut
*You want equal amounts of small-dice russet potatoes & sliced—thin but not sliver-thin—okra. Scale however you like, but it’s easiest if you have a pan big enough to cook everything in an even layer. I usually use 2 small russets & probably 20 okra pods.
Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat and add enough oil to generously coat the bottom. Add the okra, spreading them out evenly, and season with salt & pepper. Leave the okra alone until the undersides are brown, then add the potatoes, tossing everything around and breaking up any chunks of potato. Add a bit more oil to the pan, if needed. Season again with salt & pepper.
Keep an eye on the potatoes, turning down the heat so that they don’t burn, and turning them occasionally. Remember, they won’t brown if you mess with them too much, so keep an eye on the pan but mostly leave it alone to do its thing. (In my experience, the dish takes about 20-25 minutes on the stove from start to finish.)
Once the potatoes have browned and are tender (fork test!), add the garlic and mix it in well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for just one or two more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed. Serve hot!