Raft of Books

ship book

First I picked up the books. Then the books carried me. The past several months have tried to push my head under. I could barely trust my own breath. So I read. Some came recommended. Mostly I stumbled and grabbed. Books by authors of color, books about the dangerous future. If the book didn’t buoy me, it went back in the library bag and the next one had its shot.

Dozens of authors worked their magic craft, quieting the inner cacophony. They nudged me across the churning waters into places where everyone speaks in a voice other than my own.

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King and Queen

Mahalia

The trick is to tell him the dog can stay in bed with us for the first book. We settle down in the nest of pillows and blankets. Poor, long-suffering Noodle is crammed into my boy’s insistent grasp.

We begin with Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens. The illustrations are rich and the story simple enough.

Simple does not always mean comfortable.

Bug listens and the dog drifts into a warm stupor.

Ms. Jackson left school in 4th grade to take care of her baby cousins and only returned when she was 16 and living in Chicago. She soon had to quit yet again to work as a maid and a laundress. Through all this, she sang in churches, she lifted congregants to their feet. People joined because her voice called to them.

When we finish the book, Bug asks, “What is gospel?”

I give him the barest definition then search up a video on my phone. There she is, young and vivid, her voice weaving in and over a gathered crowd’s soulful noise. She vibrates, filled with light and bright as the sun. The hall is an unnamed church. It is crammed with people, white and black both. At the lectern on the other side of the room, Martin Luther King, Jr. waits with a patient smile.

Bug knows that face, of course. From his first years, King’s image and his words have           stood with those of the founding fathers and the flag to which he pledges allegiance.  They are basic building blocks in the canon of his education. For him, “I Have Dream” is a prayer both fixed and abstract existing in another time and context. King is prophet from first introduction, forever commanding an elevated position above a faceless crowd.

Now, on my tiny screen, the man, real and revenant, young again. The camera pans from Ms. Jackson’s crackling energy to Dr. King’s measured calm. Heads bop in and out of the frame. My son is transfixed. On the jumpy, amateur film, King steadies himself and seems almost uncertain where to fix his gaze. The force drawing people into jubilation is not him but this woman who opens her voice, this surge of power in song.

Bug is up on his elbows, staring with wide eyes into the screen. “Who is that?” he asks.

“That’s her,” I say. “That’s Mahalia Jackson. This is during the civil rights movement.”

Usually when we do what Bug calls “learny things,” he is more than willing to roll his eyes and tell me how boring it all is. He endures until we can get back to the fun stuff, to Rick Riordan and teen demigods doing battle with gorgons.

For this moment, Poseidon waits. Bug watches, immersed. The camera turns to the room as the song quiets. Young folks and old, black folks and white, faces alive on the long-ago film. They are crammed in together, expectant, ready to step through the door one voice has throw open.


Image from Reed Magazine

 

 

Book a Ride

A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination.


– Doris Lessing

I forgo my usual lunchtime inertia and go for a walk instead. It helps that the sun is peeking out today. It helps that I decided to quit bitching and do something about my stalled commitment.

This walk is no stroll across campus. I’m on a mission.

The downtown library is 1.5 miles from my office. My empty shopping bag flops against my side as I pass the fire station and the Thai restaurant. The library door is narrow but opens into a space as capacious as an easy chair. Preschoolers chatter. Glass up to the ceiling lets the day drift in and wander.

The stacks seem to lean ever so slightly in my direction, meeting my momentum. I weave first through  biographies and then head to the 323s.

The collection I slide through the scanner includes Sylvia Mendez, Mahalia Jackson, Sun Ra. Picture books, bright covers, gritty stories that betray a hidden gleam. Into the bag. Cesar Chavez. A walk up Lincoln’s steps. Elizabeth Cady Stanton catches a lift. So does Toussaint Louverture.

Reading does not equal action. Reading does build the momentum towards it. It opens the hood. It invites a look inside.

I hike the same 1.5 miles back to my office. An afternoon of spreadsheets and graduation planning is waiting.

Sun warms my face. The overstuffed bag presses into my shoulder. It is uphill all the way but the climb feels like something else entirely. Like a neglected engine when it finally hums awake. Like when a latch pops and the light streams in.


 

 

Tug of War

Talk About Race

The mother with a son Bug’s age tells me she wants to raise her child colorblind. She is white, her boy Latino. She says our children will be able to grow up without racism. She says in her family, they choose not to point out differences.

My voice stumbles before overreaching. We’re both on our way somewhere. In this fleeting conversation, I say too much and not enough.

It’s a mistake for well-meaning white liberal parents to avoid conversations about race and bias. Racism is happening. It is grown right into the structures that govern our lives. What good do we do if we fail to give our kids a vocabulary for understanding it, for talking about it? For changing it?

It’s not up to us to wish away racism. We can’t simply decide we live in a post-racial world. If we could, why not eliminate poverty by pretending not to see  the homeless woman on the median strip with her cardboard sign? Why not declare gender equity and hope it will end rape?

In her post, “Let’s Not Be Quiet Anymore,” Linnea Nelson says,

As we begin to recognize that not all of us have the same resources, societal expectations, opportunities and history, we need to start the conversation that includes privilege, microaggressions, intersectionality and our own history as we open ourselves to conversations with our children.

My friend knows that a disproportionate number of black men are imprisoned in America  and that black people are more likely to get killed by police. She also knows that white people have a better shot at advanced degrees, lucrative careers, positions of power, and home ownership. When our children learn the history that feeds specious notions of race, they will be far better armed when they stumble across these chilling facts. They’ll be able to place this fact in a story and they’ll be able to do something with it. Maybe they will be better able to change that fact that our generation has.

I recall one chapter in Nurture Shock that sheds a bit of research-based light the limits of the colorblind approach. I tell my friend I’ll send it to her if she’s interested. She isn’t.

She is a white woman raising a child of color, yet conversations about the legacy of racism do not happen in her house. She is considering pulling her son from a class where racial justice is being discussed. Her approach makes sense to her even if it doesn’t to me.  I shrug and say, “we all have to do what’s right for our families.”

The brief exchange has shaken me. Something other than our disagreement has unsettled me. For all my fervor, I am conscious of my own failings in speaking with Bug about racism.

Here is what happens: I go into the library to pick out an assortment of books. This weekly ritual keeps a rotating mix scattered around the house. The supply includes picture books, non-fiction works, and graphic novels. For years, I’ve sought out books by writers of color with characters and story lines that will broaden my kid’s knowledge of the world. The libraries here stock an impressive range of material that can introduce children to tricky pieces of history. It’s all very accessible. I bring the world home: Japanese internment in WWII, farm worker organizing, the labor movement, suffrage, civil rights.

My boy pushes these books aside.

He goes for graphic novels. Zombie warfare and superheroes are his favorites. In the realm of non-fiction, he tends towards armaments, architecture, engineering, math.

The book about W.E.B DuBois? He pushes it off the pile without even opening it.

In those moments, my loyalties grab the opposite ends of the rope and start pulling. As a mother to this child in this home, how do I raise him, how do I guide?

My boy is kicking back after a full day of learning, chaos, complex social dynamics. School stimulates and wears him ragged. He comes home and reads for pleasure. I’m thrilled he is disappearing into a book — any book — and cultivating a love of reading. By being the agent of his own curiosity, he builds the capacity to make his way in the world.

Then another part of me tugs back.

Bug is not just my son in this home. He is a child of the new millennium on this planet in this place. He is a white boy in America. He is a neighbor. An emerging citizen. Isn’t it a parent’s job to step in next to him on this journey and say, “Let’s learn together”?  It seems simple enough to add one book from mama’s pile to our bedtime routine or our weekend schedule.

The darker truth is that the conflicts unnerve me in a deep-down place. It embarrasses me to see Bug so disdainful of these books. It’s as if his rejection of a kids’ biography of Wilma Rudolph is a measure of my failure as an anti-racist. Without being aware of the convoluted logic, I reach some secretly shameful conclusion that perhaps I’ve raised my son without empathy or the capacity to strive for justice. I give up on him. Ultimately, this is another way of giving up entirely. If he’s beyond redemption, then I can let myself off the hook, right? His lack of interest is an excuse to turn away from my terrible discomfort with the unfinished work of healing our world.

Maybe I’m more like my mom-friend than I care to admit. Steering clear of tricky topics relieves the stress and the confusion, at least temporarily. Do it enough and it’s possible to convince oneself that harmony is a fitting proxy for virtue.


Image: Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester and illustrated by Karen Barbour

 

 

 

We Call Home

My boy is sad today. He can’t, or won’t, tell me why. He lets me put my arm around him as we walk to the car. “What should we do tonight?” I ask. It is the middle of the week. He has given up (mostly) on asking to play games on his tablet.

“I don’t know.” He climbs into the back seat. We lurch along route 123, Taylor Swift matching the pulse of brake lights.

At home, he kicks off his shoes and heads to the couch. He bunches the blue blanket up around his legs. “Do we have any books in this house?” he asks.

This house? Framed in spines, insulated in ink? He must be blind to the floor under his feet. I carry a stack from his room. He opens Toot and Puddle and pulls the blanket up over his lap.

It’s cold enough for a fire. The wood I bought is piled halfway up the wall. The family who split and sold it called it seasoned. The pop and spit of our first fire suggested otherwise. It doesn’t matter. I build a tipi of logs, tucking into its folds a handful of sticks collected from walks around the neighborhood. We have no forest here. Shrubs and maples dot the path that crosses the park and weaves around the AT&T complex. After gusty nights, I gather kindling, cracking limbs across my knee. Cars hum past on their way to the interstate, mothers push their babies in swings. Like a latter-day homesteader, I wobble through the warren of townhouses and condos, bending low to add another purple-gray branch to the bundle spilling from my arms.

Damper open, wind hums down through the cold throat of the flue. I roll up leaves of the Sunday sports section to help things along. With a crackle and low groan, the pulped, broken trees burn back to life.

I should start dinner. From the couch across the room, clunk, flip, flip, clunk. Bug skims then discards. After a few moments, silence. With the iron poker, I press a knot of classifieds under the grate. The ends of the branches flame to orange, blacken, curl. Log grains catch.

These things we call fallen, they burn.

I feel him next to me. I pad to my room and drag the turquoise fleece cushion from my bed out to the warm floor. Our Christmas tree, fatter than it has any right to be, twinkles purple, green, blue. I click on the tea kettle. Bug has carried over three books. A graphic novel, a Magic School Bus, a re-take on The Nutcracker. He leans against me.

“Hey buddy. Do you want me to read to you?”

“No, I just want to be close.” He sprawls on the cushion, face on my leg. Popping embers. Rising steam. The water is ready but I’m not. In the orange glow, he turns pages.

The heat works its way down to my sternum. Into my bones. This is what it is to unfurl. It is drinking light. We’re a year and a half in, and still, I marvel. We actually made it here, to this spot on this golden bamboo floor in our own home. Half a decade ago, I couldn’t even fathom what we’ve now mastered. My boy learned to ride a bike this year. He can already stand in the saddle, legs pumping to climb the big hill to Bob Evans. He can sink a shot from the foul line. Draw zombie comics. Approximate the square root of 11. Make breakfast burritos on the stove from scratch.

My boy can read. Beyond making sense from syntax, he can really read. On a Thursday evening in January – now or 2035 – he opens a book and finds tucked into its pages a nest made just for him.

Bug sighs and turns to look up at me. “Can we have extra reading tonight?”

“Of course, baby.” Stories fill our corners, swathe our sofa, clutter our coffee table, carpet our floor. Stories, ours, all of them. The ones we read.

The one we write.

These things we call buried, they thrive.
 

Woman, Mine: Eat, Drink, Overthink

When women are faced with a difficult situation, they turn inward to control or change themselves rather than focusing outward on the environment and individuals that need to change. Whereas men tend to externalize stress — blaming other people for their negative feelings and difficult circumstances — women tend to internalize it, holding it in their bodies and minds. When something bad happens to women, they analyze everything about the problem — how they feel about it, why it came about, and all its meanings and ramifications for themselves and their loved ones.

– Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Eating, Drinking, Overthinking: The Toxic Triangle of Food, Alcohol, and Depression — And How Women Can Break Free

The self-help stacks are my first stop. Over in biography and history, the finds are nourishing but bland in comparison. Substance rarely wins. On any given week, some bestseller on living the full life accompanies me home. I gulp down the first chapter for a fix of the hottest therapy-couch trend. When I get up to run the dishwasher or my fidgety legs, I plop the earnest analysis on the coffee table as a reminder of all that needs to be explored. It’s three days overdue when I dig it out from under the board games and magazines. I’m still the same stumbling, unpolished creature I was five years ago and undoubtedly will be in another twenty.

Sometimes these finds are good, a few are great, and most hover somewhere below mediocre. I paw through them, hopeful and willing. The self, after all, is a mine. A precious vein cuts a find thread through acres of the most primitive matter. It’s hard to resist skimming to see if any can offer up a new kind of pickaxe.

Nolen-Hoeksema is a diamond drill bit.

First, the qualifiers: her writing falls short of art and her research is miles from the cutting edge. Much of what she’s exploring has already turned itself inside-out in every issue of Psychology Today. That said, she strikes oil in her depiction of this one woman’s experience: mine. I doubt the insight ends here —  this work must speak to others or it wouldn’t have made it to the shelf.

If you are out there experiencing what I experience. . . well, you have my deepest sympathy.

Also, go find this book.

Nolen-Hoeksema layers description of the emotional experience of depression with the behavioral coping strategies that are common among women. The dynamic interplay of thoughts, feelings, and actions is not a new concept, yet the insight here strikes a bright chord. I have tried to pick each of these predilections apart as its own unique concern. In my disordered world, here are the areas of most pressing need: Food issues, compulsive/addictive issues, depression issues. Also, motivation issues, anxiety issues, perfectionism issues. Daddy issues are as loyal and true as gum stuck to my shoe. Oh, then there are the communication issues along with trust issues which contribute to sleep issues… You get the idea.

Culture, biology, and family paint the backdrop upon which these actions and reactions play out. While my sleepless internal critic insists otherwise, it is not all just chaos in here, and none of us is a hopeless mess. Indeed, giving up is another form of indulgence. It’s no small gift that Nolen-Hoeksema writes for popular consumption. Those of us who are working on something-or-other all the time would wilt at the idea of another task, even while reaching for it. The analysis here requires little more than a shot of receptiveness and a few quiet hours.

The book begins at a point central to the ways women cope. At that place, a kind of behavioral and cognitive Bermuda triangle — depression, drinking, and compulsive eating — draws other aspects of the self into it. With the same insidious force, it infiltrates what seem to be unrelated spheres of our lives. Careers suffer, bodies weaken, marriages falter, children pay.

Rooting out sources, subsequent chapters explore the patterns of over-identifying with other folks’ feedback and perceptions, the role physiology plays in stress and emotional responses, and the tendency even among successful women to swallow anger but wallow in sadness. These lines of inquiry will be familiar from feminist theory, neurobiology, clinical psychology, and human development theory. Nolen-Hoeksema tugs loose the component parts and assembles them into a new mechanism for self reflection.

After digging up the thickets and landmines, it’s time to lay new ground. The final section dedicates several chapters to concrete strategies for designing an alternative to the triangle. Practical guidance complements theory, providing tips for replacing avoidance and remorse with “approach goals,” and walking through simple problem-solving skills. The book finally urges the reader to think forward and beyond herself. The closing chapter guides offers readers tools for supporting girls and teens — particularly daughters — in developing practices and vocabulary for a healthy adulthood.

As I write this, I notice a force that seems to want to pull me away from focusing and finishing. Giving in to it would lead me to the refrigerator, or bed, or wandering through an electric smog of doubts and plans and urgencies about the unfinished business of my life. The force, of course, is less than an “it” and exactly as strong as the breath I waste fighting it.

Mine, this mind. I’m grateful Nolen-Hoeksema pieced this tool together and handed me the map. With them, I might be able to reconfigure the landscape to invite the bold step and a lifted gaze.

 

Taken Literally, part II

Inside the brain of the reader, a transformation takes place. Words may become pictures to enjoy, or mysteries to be solved, or conversations to engage in. Sometimes readers surrender to a text and sometimes they scrap with it. Reading is woven into the rich fabric of experience, and it cannot be separated from speech, pleasure, challenge, play, and curiosity. As much as it is an activity, reading is a habit of mind.

From part I of Taken Literally on SmirkPretty, October 2011

It is not an assignment. I require nothing. No chide or nudge prompts him. I do not even issue an invitation.

“Hey, Mom. Look at this.” He plops down on the red sofa and I scoot over to make room. Not too much room, though. I wrap my arm around his belly as he flips open his latest library book. Out loud, he reads.

“What’s the main ingredient in puppy biscuits?”

I shrug. “Bacon?”

He looks up at me through his wild hair and grins. “Collie-flour!”

We both crack up and fall into each other. He turns to the next page. “Which vegetables do little dogs like best?”

“I dunno.” I screw my face up. “Carrots?”

Pup-peas!” He hollers.

We groan and moan and giggle through the rest of the book. My boy’s voice is low waves rolling the jokes up to where they crash on the punch line’s bright shore.

Here is register. Inflection. Vocabulary. Comic timing. This is no longer the dog paddle. It’s freestyle in open water.

He rides the current. Without even taking a breath, he plunges through words that have never shown up on a spelling list. Ingredient. Biscuit. Vegetable. We splash over and under every page together. Flitting through the sea of high-frequency wheres and yous are these surprises, these oddities. Rafting. Sunbathing. Hunting. He does not slow. Happened. Bloodhound. Goldfish. Tough.

He is doing this. My boy is reading.

And laughing.

Reading.

And surging.

This is not homework. It is not an assignment. He is choosing

reading.

And loving

reading.