saying goodbye

Today we will road trip across a chunk of Texas to a little place called Bracketville. From from we’ll take side roads and some single track dirt road to a rocky, dry, desert ranch owned by some of our cousins. Slashed through by a river that always runs cold, the sun-blasted rocky desert landscape is harsh and unwelcoming. Dozens of years ago, scrappy goats disappeared into outcroppings of rocks scattered high on the property. They were found happily resting under a scraggy tree and just inside a human-size geode the tree roots clung to- a blister of crystals, pocket of cool. Bones from people walking up from Mexico, through a desert that draws every ounce of water from your body, prove not all are as fortunate as those scrappy goats. Other walkers have found the small house on the property, with its box of old shoes, socks, water, and pop-top cans of food put out to help the migrants and dissuade desperate break-ins driven by a human desire to survive. It’s a beautiful and raw place that strips its visitors of any pretense. The perfect reflection for the men who own it and their sister we are going there to say good-bye to.

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I learned she was gone by a 7am text from my mother, “Got call from her godmother, Jenner was hit by at car at 3am. Died instantly.” 

In death, it seems, we always find something good to say about those who have passed even if they were someone who always got under your skin or may have been just plain mean. With her, it’s the opposite. I can’t find anything negative to say- unless being too selfless is a bad trait. Now she is gone, suddenly, completely voided from the life she were leading with her usual sass and fullness. We always promised to spend more time together, but there was never enough. When we did get together it seemed we were forever setting up boots for her to sale or making food for people to share.

Her life was filled with complicated relationships and circumstances. It was loud and big and there were always so many people that I couldn’t keep track. As I watched from the shadows, her life made me smile, made me want to be bigger than myself. When I learned of her death the world stood still and then continued to roll. It’s been almost a month. We weren’t that close, so the grief is not the constant you live next to when someone very close dies, but it hits in strange ways.

There’s picture of us as kids that hangs on my kitchen wall. It’s faded with age. Taken in 1982, we are all so young and free of thoughts greater than when can we be back in the pool. We are wearing swimsuits- baggy from a season of use. Her mom is looking glamorous with blonde hair messily piled atop her head, oversized glasses reflecting the photographer, an arm draped around her strong, tan body- already a great swimmer at 12. I am a mess, sitting half-off my mom’s lap with my sister in front of me. We both have home haircuts and look like ragamuffins. My mom looks happy as she leans in toward her mom. Our grandmother is at the end of this pile of family looking very proud. No one knew what was coming for any of us. Things weren’t easy, but they were simple and that made life sweet.

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I get off the phone with my aunt. We’ve finalized our plans for getting to her memorial service. We’ve decided to stay at a place not too far from her brothers’ ranch. Her ashes will be spread on the bank of that cold river that somehow never runs dry under the hot desert sun. I created my calendar request to take the Friday off before the memorial, but couldn’t click the Create Event button. Tears began streaming down my face. A simple calendar update brought the reality home.

She is gone.

mug stability- a metaphor

I have a big, blue, flat bottomed mug emblazoned with a tie wearing flamingo. “Awkward as flock,” reads the multi-colored text around the flamingo. My daughter bought it for me. I felt seen.

It’s a bit wider at the base than top so won’t tip over no matter how awkwardly I sit it down. Even when I balance it amongst the shambles of sheets, to drink coffee from, while I write in bed, I can trust it to be stable. I have another, similarly solid mug. It was made by a friend of a friend whose name I’ve forgotten, but every time I see the mug’s Cookie Monster eyes and rough blue finish I am returned to the day we met. Both of these mugs are, frankly, quite ugly. But they are solid and stable and recently got me to thinking about the realities of shiny versus stable.

Stability and strength is rarely shiny. Stability is not sexy on the surface- it is not a pretty package with an easy answer. It is gained through hardships and buckling down. It arrives at the end of mistakes and scars taken by embracing the shiny- believing there can be an easy road in life. Shiny is fleeting and fragile. True power is in the faded and worn that can only be arrived at after a long road. Stability and strength- that power that can’t be tipped over- is beautiful because of what it has lost which is actually everything gained.

White Girl Race Talk

I got on the train and noticed only shades of brown from milky coffee to dark earth. No one seemed to notice me and no one made space for me. I had no expectations of either. It was my first day of work in this city and the train would take me from Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan. On the way home that same afternoon, I got on the train and noticed a lot more creamy beige to soft pink faces. We got to my stop, the first stop in Brooklyn, and it seemed all the fair-skinned folks exited the train. That’s when I realized, I’d moved into Honkey Heights. I thought sarcastically, “Well, mom would be glad. I found the one neighborhood in Brooklyn that is “White” enough to be safe.”

I would walk down the streets of New York and see so much diversity. It was a thing I’d never really known growing up in Texas, then being in Colorado and stationed with the Navy in Washington. I’d worked with many people from the Philippines, as well as African-Americans and Latinos. I’d always gravitated toward people from other cultures and had dated many guys of varying skin tones – often not bothering to ask about heritage because it would come up in due time if there was reason. And let’s face it, in this world, sooner or later there would always be a reason. I had experienced huge fights with my mother over dating “Black” guys, but that didn’t push me one way or the other because I gravitated to the people I liked – smile, smarts, eyes. Who made me think and laugh, that was who I wanted, regardless of skin tone.

My grandmother grew up in Arkansas in the 20s. She was unapologetically racist and I called her on it, but of course it was a quiet “house racism.” She may have been racist, but she sure would be friendly face-to-face. Afterall, “Times have changed.” But through all that I’d never personally felt uneasiness or openly, public race negativity until I moved to Brooklyn.

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Once in Brooklyn, I heard race. Shopkeepers and customers switched languages and dialects between each other with what felt like a magical ease until I learned more. What they were doing, with the dialect switch was code switching. Code switching is a tool to flow between the culture you are part of versus the cultures where you feel like a visitor and so switch into the guest dialect- totally an oversimplification and just writing about it make me uncomfortable. I can’t imagine doing it with the smoothness of opening a door. Customers made barely under-the-breath comments about the immigrant shopkeepers trying to gyp or jew them out of change. High school kids hooted and hollered on trains, laughing about their day, or commiserating about having been slighted.

Kids threw around color descriptors (which while not negative, I’d never heard in public).

“You know that new girl?”

“The coffee baby?”

“No, fool, the darker girl with the tight baby dreads.”

A couple years in, we rented an apartment further into Brooklyn from a Hasidic family. The wife refused to shake my husband’s hand when we signed the lease and the husband would not take my rent check from my hand. I had to place the check on a counter and he would pick it up. They were not culturally permitted to touch Gentiles or opposite sex. 

I spoke to a shop owner who wanted me to be sure to know we had moved into a Puerto Rican neighborhood, not Dominican. (Which is also very different than a Dominica area, do not be mistaken.)

Cops would get on trains and I would see darker skin folks avert their eyes. Blue intimidation had arrived.

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This blatant race talk and behavior of cultural division shocked me. I thought I’d moved into one the most diverse places in the country and with that I somehow expected there would be openness and acceptance. Was I ever naïve.

The thing about it all however, was I never knew how to Talk About It. I was the white girl from Texas, what did I know or what could I possibly contribute/change and more immediately was it any of my business? I was just one, insignificant, uneducated voice. Now, ten years later, as a mother, having grown through a divorce, our return to Texas, and a country stirs with ongoing racial tensions, I have that question even more.

As a white privileged (need we even put those two words together?) woman, I am intimidated to talk about race. I’m afraid I’ll insult someone or be misunderstood. I fear my good intention will lead to no progress so trying seems almost pointless. And before you tell me my fear is nothing compared to the fear of living Black in America, let me say I know I am being a fool to think all the things I think. I recently read an article that pointed out white people are “deathly afraid, even if unconsciously, of falling off the pedestal.”

The balanced and sane amongst us so badly want to be in the moral and ethical side of race politics that we are frozen in a place of inertia that appears apathetic. I want to fall off that pedestal, but the problems of race in this country are So Big that I don’t even know where to start a conversation on race. Sure, I talk amongst my white friends and we wring our hands and say things need to change, but then we go back to sharing videos of cats smacking dogs.

And that might be just the thing we do not get as a country. As a social majority, white folks are like a bunch of damn cats running around acting like they are sharing space, but in truth getting everything they please and leaving the leftovers for the systematically disadvantaged. And minority groups are those poor, beaten dogs who get fussed at if they ever bark at the cat or growl when the cat, once again, steals their bed. They are told to be happy with having a new bed to share because they no longer have to sleep outside, but the problem is the bed isn’t really theirs and can get taken at any time for no good reason. And our police and laws keep the imbalance in motion. 

White folks are running around, perching high on our pedestals, and burying our shit so it don’t stink. When anyone tells us we should clean out the litter we give them a self-important swipe:

“Oh, but that’s not ME. I accept everyone.”

“I would speak out if I saw a cop out of line.”

“But the Civil Rights movement brought equality.”

“But I do everything I can.”

The reality is I might accept everyone, but what do I do to embrace those I do not know, those whose struggles I’ll never be able to truly sympathize with? How do I learn?

The reality is if I ever saw a cop behaving out of line, I’d likely be terrified to intervene. They carry guns and have no remorse over using them.

The reality is the Civil Rights movement started the change, but government/finance/private business continues to put barriers in front of equality.

The reality is I do not do everything I can because I am comfortable, scared, and embarrassed. I was born into that golden ticket of white privilege and I don’t know how to use it to leverage for others. What can I do? I suppose, to start, I will work to find that edge of the pedestal and dive off. I will make an effort to be part of hard conversations. I will not wait for those conversations to begin, but I will work to read and learn more history and start those conversations. When I see something that is unequal, whether local or distant, I will speak up and ask why. I don’t know if falling off the pedestal and making a fool of myself through my ignorance will help, but it high time I try harder because staying on the pedestal will definitely not create change.

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I lived in Brooklyn 2005-2008. This post was originally written in 2015, but feels too fresh. I continue to do work, learn, react, and listen better.

Bully Pulpit

A bully has taken the game. A game of power where bullies excel, all the others sit dumbfounded because this bully that has been placed in power is louder and brasher than all the other bullies. The others look on and can’t imagine how this bully can be so impossible. They had the game rigged with keeping up appearances and subtle nods to equality that would keep their constituents just satisfied enough to look past the underlying manipulation, but their bluff was called and an “honest man of the people” was put in the President’s chair. Finally, the people, though not the majority, pulled the mask off Washington and showed them what we already knew was true. Though no one dared speak it. The game is not only rigged, most are only there to serve themselves. And no one really wants to change the rules. In fact, what are the rules to those who can make and take them in a day? So now the junior bullies look on in disbelief, but won’t take impactful action to throw the President out because they may show or may themselves be revealed as the manipulators and self-serving grabbers they are.

Oh, but there are a handful of good ones. Presently, the number of good folks in Washington may be the highest number in history. Those voices (most female) are making quite the fuss- turning over tables and announcing the king has no clothes- but as they’ve always been, they are shushed back and asked to be respectful. After all, no one wants to truly upset the status quo (read majority White patriarchy). Besides, there are so many checks and balances, how much harm could this imbecile of a President possibly do?

Minimalist Travel With Joan Didion

I love to travel. Everything about travel makes me happy, even airports (TSA not so much) aren’t so bad because they all hold the job of presenting the first look at their town. While it is rarely a glorious presentation, rather the rough around the edges in fact, as if to say, “This is a little of us, but it’s the airport so we’re kinda the dogs who’ve been kicked away, but loyal to you when you arrive because that’s all we know how to do.” Austin, Texas has musicians playing in the airport. JFK just never seems to ends and is a poster cacophony to the joys of The Empire State. Charlotte, North Carolina has her high back chairs inviting you to sit a bit through a layover. Portland, Oregon still keeps a bit of old carpet, but all the new is reaching out to welcome you.

Then there is the actual travel of travel. I love getting a seat toward the back of the plane- but not over the wing- so I can watch the ground crew prep our metal bird for the stretch across the sky. I’ve always loved it, but after spending time as ground crew in the Navy, it brings a whole new joy and connection. I know the feel of the metal under gloves as panels are opened and closed. The fuel nozzle being locked into place. The static through headphones during the simple exchange between ground crew and pilot to check the flaps, slats, rudder and other essentials. Then the greatest part happens. The place is pushed away from the terminal and begins to taxi. Soon, it will be taking off, there is the thundering rolls of wheels speeding against tarmac until enough air pressure builds that the split second explodes and the plane slips its surly bonds of gravity. That is pure joy.

In planning for a trip, there’s a great deal of not planning that makes travel so necessary for my well being. A place is chosen or assigned and I explore it a little bit online, but ultimately I like to go in not knowing a whole lot of the present day. I’ll research history and perhaps some regional politics, but I seek the visceral surprise of the real place presented to fresh senses. I need to explore and uncover without a filter of google search or expectations. I want to find out where conversations will take me and how people will answer questions about how to see their city. What will jump out and what will fade away?

The one thing I used to hate about travel: packing. I am a minimalist, so packing should have been easy, but it was always stressful. I wanted to take as little as possible, yet be prepared for any opportunity that might cross my path. Then, a few years ago I discovered Joan Didion’s essays- yes, I was late to the game. In the volume White Album she wrote about how she traveled- more precisely how she packed- during her busiest years as a journalist in the 70s. Amongst the pages of this amazing tribute to the culture and societal upheaval of those changing times, she included her packing list. If you haven’t read it, I implore you to go and find this book- enjoy it. Savor it. See these United States of those years through her eyes. So much is different, yet so much remains the same. But in between all those important stories, consider taking a cue from her packing list. Her additional commentary is fantastic, but here’s the basic list:

To Pack and Wear:

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown
robe
slippers
cigarettes
bourbon

Bag with:

shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap
razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

To Carry:

mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads
pens
files
house key

slow roads

I want to drive through the small Texas towns, stopping to capture all the shuttered railroad stops and drugstores. Finding grand old homes on dust burnt corners- walking the abandoned grounds to capture images of slender, wavy glass holding shadows of a long ago occupant. I want to capture beds of iris, once common, but now with roots so thick they are called heritage- their flowers no longer bloom, but given proper space would again shout with color. There will be ancient oaks groaning against the earth and finding support from abandoned metal roofs. White, maroon and pink crepe myrtles reaching raggedly toward the sun that beats their edges to a crisp, whilst flowers within the canopy still mist the memories held within the abandoned and shuttered past.

13 reasons and then some

Great swaths of silence engulfed our footsteps as we hiked to the top of Raspberry Peak.

My child does not chatter in nature, for that I am grateful. She is a ponderer and that is a gift.

A gift –

for the world will never be small in her heart or mind –

but also a burden –

for a world so deep and wide and real is filled with the pain from which joy is taken –

and so delivered.

We did speak some – about creation and how words come to be and the place of ancient trees and first paths taken. I told her I am cautious with my writing- in what I share with the world because I want to protect our stories and privacy and some of my writing might be too much. It is a selfish fear and a protective device to keep from challenging myself- I am aware. But she just looked at me and said I shouldn’t be cautious- I should put it out into the world and not worry about her. Yet I always will.

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Later that night, we began watching 13 Reasons Why. It provoked some serious emotions and riled up the hurt of youth that silently rests in my skin. Those things you think you have gotten past- until a hidden scab is scratched.

What kids deal with today is, at the root, what we dealt with 30 years ago, but bullying today is often more sophisticated, subtle, and hits in ways that potentially damage on a level we did not experience. Kids are still developing and growing in high school, but the world comes at them faster, harder, and pushes them to Be Adult far before their emotional intelligence can comprehend what is transpiring. Hell, I am 45 and still working out how to navigate people and positions in the world. This living thing is not easy.

Bullying is and always will be scared and insecure people developing false situation and creating stories by omission of facts or allowing others to make negative assumptions about others. There is physical bullying as well- sexual and non-sexual intimidation. The pain and illusion of life is amplified with no greater contrast than in high school. Personally, I couldn’t do it- there were one or two people who made me so anxious and scared that I would be in tears nearly everyday. I look back now and wish I could have just told them to fuck off, but I was taught to “take the high road” and not make trouble. With that, however, I was also lucky enough to have a mom that didn’t believe in the system and allowed me to drop out of the pressure cooker that was high school. I home schooled- what is now called unschooling- and managed to start college at 17. I survived those years by avoiding the walk through fire. But at some point, everyone must walk through their fire- it can not be avoided. The fire is what turns us into the best or worst versions of ourselves.

My daughter is a very different person than I am. She has the same pondering nature, but has learned to navigate in ways I did not learn until recently. She has already experienced fires I never had to deal with and they have aided in the creation of a beautiful person. Her sense of independence is different than mine and I witness a security that I never felt- but perhaps my mother thought the same of me. Looking back to who you were is always different than someone, of the age you are looking back to, looking out from their present day. So to the children of the present day- I say:

Value being on the edges and pulling strings between groups rather than ever getting locked into a single social circle.

May your expectations always fall to the future.

These years are short and you will hold a greatness beyond now in so little time.

Find your quiet, find your voice, know that you are the only person you should ever fear disappointing.

You showed up in my dreams last night-

chewin’ on a cigar, shaking your head in a bemused manner.

My child gown, but still 11, was trying to make change using a “Trump Dollar” that she’d “earned” by collecting cereal box tops years before.

She said, “C’mon. It should have some collector value at least. I mean it WAS entertainment.”

hours

by the keys they are moments

the world is an updosie place

with people calling it “new normal”

but far from normal is any of it

a system built on broken backs

breaking down

an unseen virus collecting souls

of those who can’t play well with others

and collateral angels fallen

for the hubris of others

days lost to the gains of time

doors allowed to slowly open

barged down and barred again

as the new new life preys

upon our lives

we will adapt and overcome

or we will hold on to the past

and decay in the arms of change