Grief does not work the same for everyone, but to anyone who’s experienced it, it’s universally recognizable. I know grief when I see it, and I see it in this moment. In the woman who caught my eye in the dressing room at the gym as we both looked away from TV coverage of you-know-what; in the texts between friends to share the acts of resistance and solidarity we have planned for the next 48 hours; in the deep exhalation of my mother’s breath as she hugged me goodnight.
This is my frame of reference, of course; there are lots of people who aren’t grieving, who are celebrating instead, because that’s how ideologies run: two ways. There are those who are “waiting and seeing,” those whose personal issues are so real and primary and in-your-face urgent that they can’t see or be concerned with anything else. I get that.
It’s complicated, and nuance matters more than ever; I know that there are legitimate concerns about the leadership and language and inclusivity of Saturday’s protest efforts; I know that there are many groups of people for whom this grief is old hat, who view these sudden and dramatic showings of outrage as privileged and lacking in self-awareness. I know that demonizing and painting with a broad brush, no matter which side is doing it, is dangerous.
But I’ve been listening to the voices who seem the wisest, both past and present; those who have stood inside of resistance for their entire lives, who have things to teach me and all of us who are interested in learning, who can offer some direction when many of us feel unmoored. Here’s one thing they all seem to agree on: calling things by their proper names.
I may lose some of you with this example, but hear me out. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort—the power-hungry villain—is commonly referred to as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” In the first book of the series, Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor, instructs him otherwise:
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
That’s one thing we can do. Stop equivocating things that aren’t equivalent. Stop using euphemisms because we’re scared of the truth. Stop wishing our way into cheap optimism.
We are so obsessed with positivity in this culture, to the point that we have and continue to erase narratives of whole swaths of people and refuse to make room for facts that don’t fit inside of our relentlessly cheery outlook. That is part of how we got here, and we have to stop. According to Vincent Harding, and I’m pretty sure he knew, “What is needed is more and more people to stand in the darkness.”
The other thing that I think I’ve learned—and this will seem contradictory, but I find that paradox is usually where the truth of human experience is located—hope is essential. An insistence on joy: not as a blind looking-away, but as a choice. Call the dystopian clown show what it is, then refuse to let it grind you down. Resist the bullshit narratives that want to cocoon you in fear, then go make some art. Let yourself be outraged by that which should generate outrage, even if it happens over and over and over again. Write down what you value, what you believe in—do it right now—so that you will not be normalized into someone your grief wouldn’t recognize. Create community around those values, if you haven’t already, or find one to join. Remember that you are capable of great kindness, and that, while it may not seem like it, care for the self and care for the other is a radical act.
Grief is often monstrous, consuming. But it can also be a teacher. If we’re willing, it can show us that we are all braver than we think.
“Resistance is the secret of joy.”
“[M]ake yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.”
“You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”
[Alice Walker / Rebecca Solnit / Run the Jewels]
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”
Today is a hard day, I know. You said in a text message this morning that “[from] Diwali on is kind of rough,” and I know what you mean; though your grief is its own creature, it is a cousin to mine, and they both seem to show up on our doorsteps this time of year.
In July, it will have been ten years, a number that I’m struggling to wrap my mind around. Ten materializes the distance between the time when Papa was still in our lives and now. That stretch of ten contains so much: I finished grad school and started teaching, Jill fought cancer, we adopted Shiv, you retired and moved to Houston, to fully occupy the role of grandmother.
What can’t be measured but remains constant is Papa’s absence. Having to learn, unwillingly, to work around the blank space of him. Fearing that we would lose our sensory memories of him—his voice, his smile, his smell. Realizing that we have managed to live without him, somehow, a task that seemed so impossible and has now become routine. Is that supposed to feel like a victory? It doesn’t.
What I can feel good about is what we’ve done with ourselves, you and me, without him to referee us. There are times when I think to myself, Papa, we could use your help here!, but those are pretty rare, and I’m proud of us. He would be, too—I know that for certain. In those early days and weeks when he was gone but it didn’t seem real and it all had happened so fast and you went back to work (how?) but it was still summer for me and I could barely manage to shower each day let alone imagine a time when I would ever feel anything but completely devastated, it was hard to be around you. It was hard for you to be around me. That was an extra curveball, because usually we were pretty good at comforting each other (just as we were good at driving each other nuts), but when it comes to grief, the same rules never apply. You couldn’t stand for me to be sad. I couldn’t stand for you to be sad. You weren’t you without him. I wasn’t me without him. We weren’t us. There were supposed to be three.
I was so worried about you for so long, for all of those years between Papa leaving and Shiv arriving, worried about you alone in that big house, worried that I wasn’t visiting enough, worried that you would always sound terribly flat and far away and tired in your bones. I tried not to tell you when I was feeling sad, because that just seemed to make it worse. We didn’t know how to talk about him. We didn’t know what to say. So I wrote it all to Papa in letters instead.
Then I started to write my book, and so I needed to ask you questions, questions about meeting Papa for the first time and falling in love with him, questions about what it was like to learn to be married to a person you barely knew. He began to take shape again for me; I could close my eyes and see him, hear his voice. I asked you what he would think about certain things, and we would try to guess together. I learned how to make foods that he loved—many from you, some that I taught myself. We talked about what we missed the most, told each other (and were jealous!) when one of us had a dream in which he appeared. One day, I handed you the fat stack of letters that I had written him, and you read them.
Before Shiv came, you were so worried that he wouldn’t. You were so worried that something would go wrong—that “realist” streak of yours that Papa’s optimism always balanced out. And so, when that baby boy arrived in the world, we gave him the same initials as your husband—SCM—and you fell in love all over again.
This story is not some neatly balanced equation, of course; there is no fixing grief, only the changes in its shape and new points and edges to adjust to. Tonight, Shiv and I sat in your kitchen eating Vietnamese takeout, a weekday stop-gap anniversary celebration (we’ll do better this weekend, with a proper Italian sit-down meal of which Papa would have approved), and as he was getting sleepy, Shiv slid down from his chair and said, “Nani, hold you,” his signature phrase so sweet we all dread the inevitable switch of its pronouns. So you held him. And I thought, as I have many times before, what a gift it is to witness his fierce love for you, and the delight you take in him, and how not dissimilar your spoiling of him is to your spoiling of my dad.
And I wished, for the millionth time, that Papa could be here to see it.
I love you. So much.
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.
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
Last night, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction. At the request of colleagues and parents, I am posting a transcript of my speech below.
Good evening, everyone. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to this group of National Honor Society members, their friends & family, and my fellow faculty. I would like to thank the NHS Board for asking me to participate in this special event; it is always a huge compliment when students choose to listen to you more than they are already required to! I hope that what I say in the next few minutes doesn’t have you regretting your choice.
When I was first asked to give a speech tonight, my thoughts immediately turned to a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts within my own religion, Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita, which translates as “Song of God,” is a text within a text and consists of a conversation between Arjuna, an accomplished warrior from a noble family, and Lord Krishna, who has disguised himself as Arjuna’s charioteer. The conversation begins at the outset of a battle between two branches of Arjuna’s extended family. Arjuna, who has lived his whole life as a warrior, despairs at the thought of going in to fight against members of his own family. He starts to question his life’s path and meaning. If you remember, Arjuna’s chariot-driver is Krishna is disguise; it’s convenient when you have an existential crisis and an avatar of the Lord just happens to be nearby.
So Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna and the two proceed to have a conversation about the proper way to live one’s life and what it means to do one’s duty. This brings me to the quotation that I mentioned—at the apex of their impassioned conversation, Krishna assures Arjuna: Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. I have carried this quotation with me since I was in high school, and I want to share a bit about how I have interpreted it and what it means to me.
Most people don’t realize this, but Hinduism and Judaism actually have quite a lot in common. Each tradition emphasizes food, both for use in sacred ritual and in daily life, prescribing rules for proper preparation and consumption of food in observant homes. Hinduism has an incredibly strong cultural and geographic tie to India, while Judaism, of course, is inextricably bound to the land of Israel. And both religions use a modified lunar calendar, which means that our holidays almost always overlap. But the similarity that I love the most, personally, is the way that both religions emphasize the potential sacredness of everyday life. Ritual and goodness are built into the nooks and crannies of our seemingly mundane existence; we aren’t just spiritual when we go to temple or synagogue. Connection to God isn’t limited to one day of the week—every time a Jew says a blessing (which is why there is one for every occasion), or a Hindu chants a mantra silently in their head—they are honoring this emphasis on everyday goodness. Within both of these traditions, there are many different versions of what it means to live a good, noble life. Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way.
I find this notion incredibly comforting. Often, we find ourselves frozen by the idea that there is a “right choice” to make, and if we don’t identify that right choice, our lives will be ruined. This pressure is particularly acute, I think, during the period of life you all now find yourselves in. There is this notion—and I think it’s important to acknowledge that we as adults and teachers often perpetuate this notion, even without meaning to—that your task at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, is to plan out your life, set goals, and then go about achieving those goals. As if it worked like that for any of us! What talk about much less often is the fact that, ultimately, none of us have that kind of control over our own lives. We think we do, but that control is an illusion, an illusion that’s revealed whenever things don’t go the way we planned. We cannot control our circumstances. We cannot—fellow parents, I’m looking at you here—control other people. All we can control is our own reaction to what happens around us.
Personally, I think this is good news. Though I am a recovering control freak and can relate to some (many? all?) of you sitting in this room, I have come to find that many of the best things that have happened in my life have been things that I never, ever could have anticipated: coming to Houston to go to Rice, my relationship with my partner of thirteen years, my beautiful son. Of course, some of the unexpected pieces have been incredibly trying—losing my father very suddenly nine years ago—and these things will happen to all of you, if they haven’t already. In the midst of those kinds of moments, I turn to Holocaust survivor and writer Viktor Frankl:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This is perhaps the most powerful force we as human beings can exercise in our lives. Even when we have lost all other avenues of agency, we can choose how we respond to whatever is happening around or inside of us. To act with intention is, I would suggest, one of the key cornerstones to living an honorable life. Whatever it is that comes to you in your future, choose it. Choose it fully and commit yourself to it. Don’t allow others to make your choices for you.
Personally, I believe that in order to choose most powerfully, we have to know what we value. Some of the students sitting here may remember the Moral Courage unit from my eighth grade class. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we also studied historical figures who had taken incredible risks in order to stand up for their beliefs. The key is that they had to know what they believed ahead of time, so that they could identify when those values were being compromised in a way that they would not tolerate. We can all-too-easily lose our focus in the heat of the moment; that is why it is important to articulate and commit to one’s core values ahead of time. Focusing on our core values can offer a very powerful framework for our daily lives. The code of the ancient Japanese samurai states that one should be able to make any decision “in the course of seven breaths.” A warrior—or a student, or a parent—who is deeply rooted in and committed to their values is able to assess each situation in light of those values, allowing decisions to be make not merely quickly, but thoughtfully. There is tremendous freedom in this.
One more ingredient that I will assert as key to living honorably: managing one’s integrity. Often, we speak of integrity as a moral virtue, one we certainly wish to possess but which we can’t really define. We know it when we see it, and we can identify those who have it, but we’re not sure how to get it ourselves. As an English teacher and writer, I am fascinated by the way words can have multiple meanings. So while one definition of integrity is “the quality of being honest or having strong moral principles,” the lesser-known definition is the one I find most compelling: “the state of being whole and undivided.” We use this second definition more to think about buildings and machines than people—does the roof have structural integrity, will it hold, will it do what it’s meant to do?—but I have learned that a similar principle is applicable to each of us as well. Have we done what we said we would do? Are we dependable? Is the structure of our selves whole, or are we saying one thing and doing another? Just as a roof will eventually go out of integrity—losing some shingles and causing a leak—we will, too, inevitably, act in ways that are “out of integrity”—at odds with what we say or believe. But we do not despair over the moral infirmity of a leaky roof; we simply do what we need to do to fix it, put back shingles, clean up the mess. And so we, too, as human beings are responsible for cleaning up our messes. When we make mistakes, we must acknowledge them. When we screw up, we apologize—genuinely—and work to be better. We put systems into place to restore integrity to ourselves.
As a culture, we don’t do mistakes well. We expect our celebrities and public figures to never make a misstep, and we often shame each other publicly for poor choices. It’s impossible to overstate the damage this does to all of us. When we aim for perfection, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure—I say “we” because this is one I’m still very much working on. There is no day on which you are going to look around your life and say “Yep, today’s the day, I did it, I’m done growing!” That may be something you have to accept over and over again—I know have had to—bu you have to give yourself room to get it wrong. Certainly, there is work we can do to minimize our messes, but we are all going to make messes. The important thing, and the thing that will distinguish you from others, is how you take responsibility for those messes. Beating yourself up doesn’t actually make a difference, as it turns out. The most powerful response you can offer when you are out of integrity is to acknowledge it and to take action to restore that integrity. This you can do. It is both incredibly simple and the hardest thing.
Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. Choose deliberately, honor your values, and manage your integrity. These are things you already do so beautifully, which is why you are sitting here today. Hold onto those pieces and trust yourselves. Everything you need is already inside of you.
A friend of mine became a father last night
When he spoke, in his voice, I could hear the light
Of the skies and the rivers, the timber wolf in the pines
And that great jukebox out on Route 39.
–Bruce Springsteen, “Valentine’s Day”
You were born today, ushered to the outside via fluid and effort and love, cheered on by a village full of people obsessively checking phones and laptops for email updates from your dad. The framework of you turned this day from ordinary to extraordinary.
I listened to Waylon Jennings with new ears, thinking how you will get to hear him for the first time someday, the way his voice opens and echoes with knowing, like a well-worn piece of leather: full of feeling, but never sentiment. After the dreariest morning, the sun finally came out and the day of your birth became one of the best that a Houston spring has to offer, breezy and blue; I thought of you someday, barefoot in the grass, giving name to cloud shapes, face sticky with popsicle. I thought of all of what’s ahead. You don’t know what pineapple tastes like. Or what it feels like to fall in love. You haven’t yet felt your stomach drop out on a roller coaster. You’ve never read a poem! Or been to a baseball game! Or seen the ocean! Baby peanut, there is so much good stuff ahead, you don’t even know.
Of course, the world you just arrived in is inexplicably ugly sometimes, and the work of being a person inside of it can be daunting and draining. Your little tiny personhood is so fresh and so new and so miraculous, but the fate of human hardship is your birthright and eventual destiny. There is, I’m afraid, no way around this. But the good news is, so too will you inherit the astonishing beauty that this existence has to offer—moments that will take your breath, full of finger-tingling connection and warmth that spreads through your chest, feelings that cannot be explained. It is our most ordinary and our most precious miracle, this life, and it is what we have to offer you.
The thing that is both weird and amazing about being a baby is that people love you before they ever know you. I am one of those people. I love you because I love your parents—because I know that they are two of the absolute best human beings this world has to offer, that they make an incredibly good pair, and that they will give everything that they have to the raising of you. I have watched them nest and prepare and worry and ask questions and beam with joy at the thought of you. I may or may not have screamed and cried and literally jumped up and down when they told me that you existed, tiny zygote of hope and uncertainty and life-altering potential. Honestly, I’m crazy about you, and we haven’t even met yet.
Welcome to the world, sweet peanut. It is a wild, strange, and woolly place, but you’ve got yourself some excellent tour guides, and I think you’re going to like it here. I’ll be the auntie who gives you books on your birthday and who always has snacks in her bag.
I don’t know what to say. I was planning to blog about turkey pot pie this week, but my God, who the fuck cares about turkey pot pie when we are living inside of, as my friend Mark put it, some kind of midnight? How can I write about re-purposing Thanksgiving leftovers when I am so unspeakably angry that I don’t know how to think about anything else besides Eric Garner, gasping for breath on that New York sidewalk? About how I live inside of and am implicit within a system that makes it possible for the man who killed him to walk free, without having to face trial? About how mind-boggling it is that so many people I know don’t seem to give a shit? About how profoundly grateful I am that my son cannot yet read the news? About how Jill turned to me last night in bed and said “I would say we should move, but I don’t know where to.” And I said, “No, we have to stay. We have to stay and fight.”
For many years, I was accused of being a Pollyanna: optimistic to a fault. I grew up inside a lot of privilege, protected for many years from most of life’s truly awful things. Those things existed for me in a mainly theoretical way, in the way of a kid who read a lot, and empathized a lot, and cried a lot, but who didn’t have much more than feelings at stake. I cared and despaired and I went about my life.
Much as I liked to think I wasn’t naïve, I certainly was. And I’m probably not alone in saying that it was grad school that disabused me of my self-conception as a worldly and sophisticated person. I went straight from undergrad to an MFA program and quickly became aware—was made aware, by some brutally honest workshop critiques—of my tendency to wrap things up into nice, neat little bows: pat endings & pretty morals, easy answers and “everything’s going to be okay.”
I was also, no surprise, someone who avoided conflict like the plague; I liked being liked, even (especially) on the page. Unconsciously, I suppose, I didn’t want to upset anyone—I didn’t want to tell unpleasant tales. Or if I did, I wanted them to have hopeful endings.
Except now, looking back, I think that I have been guilty of confusing hope with wishful thinking, a distinction beautifully meditated on in this post by Debra Dean Murphy. I am learning, in these heavy days, that my desire to focus on the positive comes with a price. When I tidy up endings, I do violence by sawing off and discarding the pieces that do not fit. When we prefer to post the heart-warming photo of the tearful young, black protestor embracing the white police officer, we draw our attention away from the deeper issues and fool ourselves into thinking they can be solved with a bunch of hugs and fuzzy feelings.
“We must acknowledge—with eyes and minds wide open—the world as it is if we want to change it,” Charles Blow wrote in his column this morning. “Reality doesn’t bend under the weight of wishes. Truth doesn’t grow dim because we squint.”
I feel like a woman with new sight, and that sight comes with a heavy burden, a burden I know many others have carried long before me, and long before that. I do not yet know what to do with this sight except for to keep looking, and listening, and asking questions, and resisting the easy answers. For once, I am not seeking succor or balm. I believe these wounds need to fester, need to be made visible and brought into the light for a while yet, before they can heal.
all images in this post courtesy Amanda Raney
“Arizona took those broken birds / a wingspan away from the end of their world/ now they ride that thermal wind and we watch with open mouths”
You guys, my friend Emily wrote that line. It is gorgeous, and she wrote it. She, the girl I met at middle-school summer camp nearly two decades ago, with her guitar and her long hair (she still has both), the Indigo Girls obsession that she passed on to me; a friendship that grew into passed notes and sleepovers, concerts on Mud Island, obscenely long instant message conversations in the early days of AOL, and so much ubiquitous high school driving—the kind you do at night, with windows down, belting song lyrics that you feel certain were written just for you.
Now she’s the one writing those kinds of lyrics, and I could not be more proud. (The song is “Arizona” from the forthcoming album “Staking Flags in the Valley” from artist Emily White and you can listen to it here.)
You know how we all have a couple of really big, legitimate screw up moments in our lives? The ones that can’t be excused or explained or contextualized to make them sound less awful, because they are, in fact, pretty awful?
I have my fair share, and one of them involves Em. The summer before she went off to college, I fell for the girl she was dating and subsequently behaved pretty badly, and instead of taking responsibility for my dishonorable behavior, I acted like a jerk about it instead.
Not my finest hour.
Understandably, Emily cut ties with me and we remained out of touch for years while we both were in college, though mutual friends meant we both stayed on each other’s radars, at least peripherally. But here’s what really special about this story—she forgave me. Like, fully, wholly, and completely forgave me, beyond even my own capacity to forgive myself. Opened herself back up to me, sending letters in her familiar, small script, and gave me the gift of knowing her again.
If we’re lucky, our friends teach us simply by letting us witness their lives. They humble us with their goodness. They make beauty, and we are inspired to do the same.
The record that Emily has made is beautiful; I had the privilege of listening to a demo cut this summer while I was driving to Memphis, the place we both grew up, and it made me cry—in a good way.
Em has just launched a Pledge Music campaign to raise the remaining funds needed to print & promote “Staking Flags in the Valley.” (Because she’s a badass, she actually funded the majority of the album’s production herself—pretty damn amazing.) For as little as $5, you can receive a sampler of tracks from the album, with bigger contributions netting some pretty sweet swag—including t-shirts, prints of the album cover artwork, and signed copies of my book, The Pomegranate King! I’m so honored to be included in this project, and amazed by my friend’s generosity in promoting the work of others even as she works to put her own work out into the world.
Please consider supporting my amazing friend. Back at you soon with an end-of-summer pasta!
We took you to your first rally tonight, a peaceful protest. We put on red shirts (yours new, acquired at Target just an hour before), held a homemade sign that read “With liberty & justice for all,” and stood in a public park with Houstonians of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors.
You didn’t know what was going on, of course—I had told you on the way there that we were going to see a lot of people, for something important—but you were content to watch from my shoulder as half-a-dozen individuals got up to speak and tell their stories. You peeked and flirted with nearby faces. You made friends with a little girl and chased her around a tree.
When we got back home, I held you in your room and we sang “This Little Light of Mine” before going to bed. You have always loved listening to music, but only in the last few weeks have you really begun to sing, renditions of tunes recognizable enough for us to join in. Tonight, you kept repeating the line “I’m going to let it shine,” over and over and over again, your enthusiasm bending the words to sound like I nama nennit SHINE!
You didn’t understand why I started crying, fat tears rolling down my cheeks while I kept singing along with you, my mind a mirror that sees not my own face, but that of Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, tears rolling down her own cheeks as she deals with a reality that I’m terrified may some day be my own. You didn’t know any of this. But when you saw my tears, you held your hand up to my face, palm cupping my cheek, and said Mama. Mama, heart.
Before you came into our life, when you were just an abstract notion, the sentence “We’re hoping to adopt,” I worried about becoming the mother of a black son. I worried because I wasn’t sure if I were the right person to do it. Could I do right by you? Would you someday wake up and think What the hell am I doing with these people? More than anything, I was determined to not be ignorant about the world in which we live, this world in which we would be raising a black son.
I am not an essentialist; I do not believe that your blackness defines you any more than my brownness defines me. But I knew that, in the sight of so many, your color would define you, would become the only thing that people saw. Black male equals threat, equals thug, equals less than, equals other. I knew that you would be forced to reckon with realities that no one should ever, ever have to explain to their child.
I didn’t know the half of it.
Still, when it came down to actually filling out the forms, the one where they ask adoptive parents to mark which babies they’re willing to adopt, with boxes for gender, race & ethnicity, possible drug exposure, I didn’t think twice. I was the one with the pen, and with your Gigi looking over my shoulder, I checked all of the boxes. Every last one. And then, against every odd & adoption industry statistic, your birth mother, Mama D, chose us to be your parents.
Tonight, I am heartened, if only for the briefest moment, as public outrage seems to have brought a shift to the situation in Ferguson. There are many people fighting the good fight—and so many people paying attention—that I can’t help but have hope. That our tweets and our journalists and our witnessing and our solidarity can actually affect change—this has always been the promise of America. It is a promise I still so desperately want to believe in.
My son, I can’t promise you that things will get better. There are so many layers of hate and injustice and willful ignorance and systemic inequality that I don’t even know how to realistically envision improvement at this point. Here’s what I can promise you, though; I will shout, shake with anger, write, pray, petition, protest, cajole, debate, inform, disseminate, rally, cry at my desk, and whatever else is within my power to do, for all the rest of my days.
And you, my son? Promise me you’ll keep singing. Nice and loud, so everyone can hear.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.