Wednesday, April 27, 2016

bring them along

1. the tired ones

I was on my way to the ATM when I saw Tara.* She was camped out on the sidewalk next to the bus lot, and if I didn’t know her, I would have walked right by her, the way I do most of Chinatown’s street-corner characters. Someone had brought her a cup of water and a takeout box of food from the café, and someone had given her a black and white umbrella, which she shifted from side to side as she talked. It shielded about half her body from the sun.

She talked rapidly but lucidly. She seemed annoyed at having to reside in her body. She was dressed as she always was, in black track shorts and a black tank top that showed the marks on her skin. From what? I’m not sure. From a hard life, I guess. Her hair was short and neat, graying at the temples. Skin shiny in the sun.

“I’ve tried to die so many times,” she said. “Why won’t God just let me go? I’m so tired. I was supposed to die three times.”


A few weeks ago, she’d been doing okay, coming to Homeboy’s classes, staying sober, taking her meds (I assumed). Then one day she’d shown up wearing a scary-as-hell matte-black mask that covered her whole face. She went about her business, just…masked. A couple of mornings later, I walked into work to see her being arrested in the lobby. Rumors circulated as to why.

“Homeboy only cares about money now,” she said. “That’s what money does to people. Me, I’m generous. The most generous people I know are addicts. They take care of me. They’re like, ‘Tara, do you want to stay here? Tara, do you want to shower?’”

Her thoughts jumped around and circled back to how tired she was, how she wanted to die. I knew she wasn’t living in a world of reason, but I said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I think you’re going to be okay.”

“Oh, I know I’ll be okay,” she said. “I know I’m blessed. I have God and that’s all I need.”

I could see the doom and the hope duking it out inside her, and it wasn’t unfamiliar to me.

“Why don’t you go sit in the shade?” I asked.

“I need the Homeboy wifi,” she said.

2. the lucky ones

People always talk about how working with traumatized populations can be difficult and draining. I’m sure this is true for the case managers and therapists, but I’ve never gotten particularly depressed hearing trainees’ stories—they’re like sad movies, and usually the person I see in front of me is the happy ending. I am moved and sometimes angry at the conditions that caused the sad-movie part, but the people who work their asses off to get their kids back or go to college or get a firefighting certification are real and really fucking inspiring.

I imagined this working-with-the-traumatized depression to feel the way the sad part of the movie feels; I imagined grief and empathy. I figured I must have some kind of jerky immunity that caused me to thrive off the blood of others. Or maybe grant-writing just gave me a little healthy distance, I don’t know.

But it had been kind of a bummer day even before I talked to Tara—just the trying-to-steer-a-huge-ship growing pains that make up daily life at an organization going from grassroots to established—and now, as I trudged uphill to the ATM, I felt worse.

What am I even doing here? I wondered. I’m not helping anyone. I’m not enjoying myself at the moment.

What no one tells you—or maybe they did and I missed it—is that this brand of depression doesn’t cause your heart to bleed for others. It just makes you feel really shitty about your own life.

The internet tells me someone named Kelii drew this.
Today I had a meeting with Homeboy’s new photographer, Eddie. He’s a low-key guy in a baseball cap—easy to laugh, pretty quiet at meetings. The third member of our meeting had to bow out, so it was just the two of us. He pitched a couple of interesting ideas for photo essays. I asked him what brought him to Homeboy.

“Well, I grew up in Boyle Heights, so I knew Hector and Fabian from way back. I always knew about Homeboy, and you know, a lot of guys I knew were in gangs and got shot. My brother was one of those guys.” He mentioned it almost in passing. “I’ve been sober for 16 years now, but I was all cracked out for a while there. I was lucky to make it out. And I feel like we have to live for the ones who didn’t. We owe them that, to bring them along.”

I told him my own story—that I don’t know how I got lucky (knockonwood), but I feel a responsibility to the cancer patients who didn’t. It’s not survivor guilt, exactly; it’s more like the deep humility that comes with knowing your existence is both random and precious.

3. the stapler coveters

A woman in my online adoption group who’s been fighting stage 4 breast cancer for as long as I’ve known her is not doing well. As in, her doctors advised her to bump up her family vacation. As in, she’s having trouble typing. I am no fan of her You’d Better Accept Jesus Or Else blog (not its actual name), but she’s a strong lady, a fierce mama and no one deserves cancer. And the kids she’s adopted from foster care certainly don’t deserve another trauma in their lives.

Milton. My friend went on an internet date with this actor once.
This week I’m thinking too much about my own health again. It’s a thing I want to grab and hoard; it turns me into that guy with the stapler from Office Space. I also know that the inability to hoard all the good things for myself is what forces me to open my arms and my heart to something bigger than me. Sometimes I worry that the corollary to this is that I will only be self-actualized when I’m ready to die. In which case I will happily waive self-actualization for another forty or fifty years.

But even as a fucked-up, greedy little human, I can still connect with other humans, and ride their highs and lows, and that’s the whole point, right?


*Not her real name.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

youth and its end, in prince songs

1991*: “Housequake”

Every afternoon for a week, my mom drives me and my friends from our junior high across town to the high school, where the incoming drill team captains teach a gym full of eighth graders a routine that begins with the words “Shut up already, damn!”

This is my introduction to Prince. I buy Sign O’ the Times on cassette at the mall so I can practice. The song is fast and frenetic. I am slow and awkward and—despite going over the choreography every night until bedtime—I don’t make the squad. I am devastated in a way that frightens my parents. I literally howl in despair, pounding my fists into the bed. It doesn’t help that my best friends, who were kind of meh about the whole prospect, make the cut.

I won’t experience this exact mix of grief, envy and awareness of failure (my own and that of the meritocracy I once believed in) until I’m in my thirties and all my friends start having babies, even the ones who were kind of meh about it.

If you know how to rock say "yeah" (yeah!).
1992: “Gett Off”

Determined to make drill team on my second try, I take dance classes at Act III, a small storefront dance studio in Redondo Beach. Although Bonnie and Amy (my friends who Made It, who get to wear their green and white uniforms to school every Friday) take classes too, Act III is a world outside of high school.

Our teachers are older teenagers who wear baggy plastic pants rolled down at the waist and black jazz boots with the tops folded over. Stella is a junior, a talented choreographer and the first person I hear say “Asian” instead of “Oriental.” Michelle is the owner’s daughter and had a not-small part in the movie version of A Chorus Line. Zeke has floppy dark hair and amazing chest muscles, and I hear one of the other dancers say he’s gay, like it’s not even a big deal. Anita is a gymnast; I have a crush on her and I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself otherwise, which makes the abs portion of the class go faster.

A Chorus Line: "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty, and pretty is what it's about."
Most of the kids I know listen to KROQ, but here we learn dances to Prince songs. “Twenty-three positions in a one night stand.” We kick and slide and fall to the wood floor in our knee pads. The bells and the tambourine and the base. It will be the better part of a decade before I have a stand of any length, but now I know what sexy is.

At night the window steams up from all our sweat. People on the sidewalk stop to watch, and I feel like I’m part of a special club that doesn’t give a shit about stupid high school cliques, or drill team.

1993: “Batdance”

Well, I’m on drill team now. I hate our captain, a junior who barks orders at us and made us retake our team photo because her eye was doing a weird thing in the first version. The thing in pep squad competitions is to dance to professionally mixed medleys, so you can switch up the mood, have a certain kind of beat for a kick line, etc. Our “mix” consists of one slow Paula Abdul B-side, plus a short interlude of “Batdance” in the middle. For the kickline.

No joking.
One day we have a new coach. We don’t know where she came from or who invited her, but she’s an adult and we’re kids, so we listen to her. “I like how you bring in Prince there,” she says. It’s the only positive feedback she has for us.

A few days later, she’s gone, no explanation. This prepares me a bit for work life.

1994: “My Name is Prince”

Even though I’m on drill team, Bonnie and Amy are still ahead of me. They’re JV cheerleaders now. I’ve known Amy since sixth grade, and she’s always had great taste in music and been a kickass choreographer. Their competition mix kicks off with “My Name is Prince,” the eight cheerleaders in an X formation. They sit on the floor and rise and fall through the aaah-ahhh, aaah-ahhh, ah-AH’s part. When the beats kick in they jump up and change formation. The ah-ah’s are what anticipation feels like. I watch them with awe and envy. The song shifts to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” I can’t get enough. They are celebrities. They are funky.

Diamonds and pearls of wisdom.
1998: “7”

This is the year I edit the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Bruin and make my own mix tapes—mostly songs from musicals, but some Prince, too. I like “7,” with its a capella harmonies and mysterious lyrics. At this point in my life, almost every song is about being gay.

“They stand in the way of love/ And we will smoke them all/ With an intellect and a savoir faire.” Clearly it’s about loving defiantly and with style in the wake of a them that doesn’t understand.

I drive my 1987 Tercel and listen to my tapes and memorize lyrics as I fall in love with L.A. and my own sadness. I steer down Sunset to my bookstore job, where I develop my first acknowledged-to-myself crush on Nancy, a sometime baker from Arizona who’s working on becoming a screenwriter. When my shift ends at midnight, I take Santa Monica home, even though the nightlife traffic is terrible, so I can go slow and study the gay clubs.

I wouldn't mind being that blow pop. Just saying.
2011:

It’s only been a week since I miscarried, but I don’t slow down. I don’t want to make AK sadder, and concerts cheer her up. We go to the Forum with Nicole (K.), my best friend and a hardcore Prince fan, and two other friends, who will stop talking to me in another year, when my crises have piled too high for them.

I love a man in gold pumps.
Prince is not one to rest on his purple laurels. The show is guest star after guest star, lit up stage, groovy dancers, costume changes. When the songs slow down, I let myself cry. He has one of those voices that can make you want to fuck or it can break your heart. These days I look for any excuse to cry in dim lighting. Four encores, the last one after the lights have come on and janitors are poking around with brooms.

The next week at Trader Joe’s, I hear an older black woman talking to one of the employees—a young Latino man serving samples of hummus on flax seed chips—about the show, and I join in. Can you believe that show, we all say. Can you believe it.

2012:

I am visiting New York for work, happy to see my coworker Nicole (S.) and an impressive multicultural reading she put together. I have so much to tell her; in the months since I saw her last, I got pregnant, miscarried, lost my mind, kind of found my way back.

This is my apocalyptic year, and March, when New York is just beginning to thaw, is the calm before the storm, though I can smell something brewing if I’m honest with myself. The miscarriage is behind me, but AK’s and my near-split lies just months in my future. Cancer is only a little farther off.

But the night of the reading, I’m lighthearted. I accompany Nicole and her friends—a sort of who’s-who of young NYC poets of color—to a Brooklyn bar. The primary topic of conversation is: Who’s more of an icon, Whitney Houston or Prince? Whitney has been gone a month. But for me the answer is easy.

Rest in purple.

*Years refer to when I listened to the song, not necessarily when Prince wrote it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

low residency

I’m writing this from the floor of the L.A. Convention Center, looking out on a grid of trade-show booths draped in teal nylon. The hall is full of people in interesting eyewear, wearing lanyards advertising the University of Tampa Low Residency Program. I wonder how many jokes have already been made about how minimal residency is the only kind you’d want to have in Tampa.

This is AWP, a conference where introverts come to get drunk and hook up. Or so the party interns at Red Hen Press always claimed. I’ve been to two other incarnations of the conference, and I never ended up anywhere more exciting than the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, the year it was in Denver.

I’m feeling overwhelmed, and excited, and a little bummed seeing all the presses I’ve never heard of, let alone sent a manuscript to, and sad about how much my so-called writing career has shrunk in the past couple of years.

There is a panel here called something like “Everyone Else Belongs Here But Me: AWP and Imposter Syndrome.” So I’m not even original in my moody alienation.

Virgie Tovar, Juliana Delgado Lopera, Cassie J. Sneider, and Michelle Tea.
Monday night my friend Jennifer invited me out to see Sister Spit (there are off-site parties and events all week, but maybe this one was totally unrelated to AWP, which would be the punker choice), the queer spoken-word road show that Michelle Tea started in the nineties and revived a couple of years ago. The women who read were so ridiculously creative, funny and fierce. Not a weak link in the bunch. My faves, I think, were Michelle (naturually), Cassie J. Sneider (who read an unflashy but tight and touching piece about her grandfather’s ashes) and Juliana Lepora, a girl with mermaid-colored lipstick and a sexy Colombian accent who read a joyfully absurd piece about Tea Party sweetheart Michele Bachmann coming to her gay wedding. I told Jennifer afterward that they made me want to sit down and write and/or go back in time and have a more adventurous youth. Some days, those things feel equally impossible.

Very clever, God! We should all take writing tips from You.
Writing has been a constant in my life, even as it’s ebbed and flowed, and writers always feel like my people, when hipsters and moms and homies and social justice crusaders and childhood friends and others don’t quite seem to fit. I don’t like to rhapsodize about writing too much, because it cheapens it; I don’t want to be one of those writers who has a special pen and writes sensual poems about her love of words. I just want to fucking write. Here, now, on my crusty 2010 MacBook. I want writing to be a way of life, not anything precious or confined to a particular time and place. In that way, it is my religion, and I don’t ever want to be a Christmas and Easter writer.

Real poets know that it's never about keeping calm.
True cliché: It’s easy to lose a bit of yourself as a mom. I was listening to an older episode of the awesome podcast Mom and Dad are Fighting, in which a stay-at-home mom lamented that, in a conversation about hobbies, her kids named several of their father’s hobbies and then declared that their mom’s hobby was “laundry.” If you’d told me that story fourteen months ago, I would have believed it in theory while thinking MUST BE NICE TO BE A STAY-AT-HOME-MOM WITH THREE AMAZING KIDS, HUMBLEBRAGGING ABOUT LAUNDRY.

And I’ve been very careful, after my four-year temper tantrum re: my lack of baby, not to be ungrateful. It hasn’t been hard, because I am truly grateful to wake up to Dash every single day, to be the recipient of his dimpled, slightly mischievous grin and catapulted blobs of pureed carrots. But just because you willingly, happily shift your priorities doesn’t mean you don’t mourn what you’ve set aside.

AK and I have resisted sleep training Dash, because we lean toward attachment parenting (while resisting any form of orthodoxy), and because, well, it sounds stressful. In defiance of my cerebral upbringing, I’m trying to let intuition and attunement guide my parenting, and all of a sudden it seemed like the right time to do my own sort of modified sleep training. Instead of letting Dash cry it out—which according to some schools of thought could send a message that he’s up shit creek all alone—I’ve decided to gently move away from rocking him to sleep and toward encouraging him to self-sooth.

The kind of sleep-training I've actually been doing. To myself.
What bedtime looks like so far: I read him books, give him a bottle and climb into his crib with him, where we goof around for a few minutes until he seems to get a little more tired. Then I hand him his pacifier, give him a hug and kiss and climb out of the crib. I lay down next to the crib and look at my phone while he figures out how to get to sleep. I give him a hand or a hug or a thrown-out-of-the-crib paci as needed, but I don’t pick him up.

Am I successfully sending the message I hope to? You need to learn some skills, but I’m here to help you and walk beside you through the hard parts. Or am I saying Mommy is a cold bitch who will ignore you while you struggle? I don’t know yet, but I’ve been comforted by the fact that he’s fallen asleep with minimal crying, and he hasn’t seemed to hate me when he wakes up (although, I remind myself, it’s not his responsibility to like me, and it’s not my job as a mom to be likable…but I admit it! I want him to like me! Because he’s so great and I like him so much!).

I’m telling myself that this new, less labor-intensive sleeping will be the start of more rest for me, which will lead to less binge-eating (yesterday I ate almost an entire loaf of Homeboy coffee-toffee bread…I have a problem) and more writing. It might be what I need to tell myself to get through what is actually a longer period of minimal creativity and bare-bones self-care. But hope springs.

I’ve seen so many writers I know walk by. I haven’t said hi to anyone yet, but I just finished my coffee, so that should help. I’m off to a reading by Future Tense Books authors, and then to sit at the National University booth for a while, representing the college I haven’t taught at in two years.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

we swam across a sea of snot, puke, tears and sticky medicine to arrive here

Yesterday was one of those days that left me wondering How did people ever cross the continent in covered wagons when giving my kid 5 mL of amoxicillin is taking every last ounce of mental and physical energy I have?

How did they do it? They smelled bad and a lot of them died, that's how.
Then I checked myself: Why do you think crossing dangerous territory with very few provisions is an old-timey thing, Cheryl? Hi, Syrian refugees.

And the answer is what it always is: People do what they have to. At this moment, my “have to” isn’t the world’s biggest, or even close to the biggest in my own life, but it’s enough.

Dash was sent home from daycare Tuesday afternoon with a low-grade fever. Even though he’s gotten approximately 400 colds since starting there almost a year ago, this was the first one he got sent home for. (I guess he usually gets sick on weekends and vacations, which is total parenting karma, since I was that kid who had perfect attendance during the school year, only to end up pulling our RV into various Kaisers around the Western U.S. on family trips.)

AK and I kept him home for a couple of days, taking turns going to work. Of course this was the week that I was assigned to work on two government grants with rapidly approaching deadlines, plus we had a solid day and a half of meetings with a fundraising consultant who was super nice but talked about God just a tad much for my taste. (I’m fond of God, but I’m not fond of the assumption that Homeboy is a Catholic or Christian organization where you get extra points for name-checking Jesus. In my interpretation, Love is the center of the universe and religion is a [frequently problematic] byproduct, not the other way around.)

Anyway. Dash seemed to get better until Thursday night, when he woke up crying roughly every hour. Because my self-care tanks when I’m tired and spread too thin, I found myself munching on Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered cacao nibs every time I passed through the kitchen on the way back to bed. They are literally chocolate-covered chocolate.

This is probably the happiest you'll ever see me in a waiting room, which is somewhere between "meh" and "pass me the Klonopin."
By yesterday morning, his fever was 103.7, and when your kid’s temperature starts to sound like a hip-hop station vs. NPR or oldies, it’s time for a trip to urgent care.

I felt the switch inside me flip to crisis mode. Forget the March fitness challenge I’d been shakily trying to do (see cacao nibs). Forget food and water altogether. Forget my plans to clean the house. Forget coffee—I could feel the adrenaline flooding my system, so there was no need for caffeine.

Think about pneumonia. Think about how my mom technically died of pneumonia. Think about that kid in the news who died of pneumonia after her parents tried to cure her at home with vitamins.

Marvel at the body and brain’s ability to triage, even while stepping outside itself and logging some PTSD shit (the way I found myself muttering I’m sorry, I’m sorry, for example). Cry in the shower and then turn it the fuck off because AK doesn’t need this and neither does Dash. Note that I must not really be freaking out too much because I am taking a shower.

Throw an expired bottle of Klonopin in the diaper bag. Not for the kid.

It was fine, he just had an ear infection.

Dash: "Just an ear infection, my ass."
But still. There was the moment between when the nurse clocked his pulse oxygen at 95, murmuring, “That seems really low, and I can hear how hard he’s breathing” and when the doctor came in to tell us his lungs sounded great and the pulse oxygen machine is notoriously unreliable. Which I already kind of knew from the mad Googling I did in that between-time moment.

By the time we got home that afternoon, the crisis had subsided and the slog had set in. There was a twenty-minute period when the following happened:
  • We forced three syringes worth of medicine into Dash’s screaming mouth, which always feels way too rapey for my tastes, and I have to remind myself that in progressive parenting you pick your battles, and this is one where physical health trumps bodily autonomy.
  • We gave Dash milk to soothe him after the medicine, despite half-knowing better, and he puked it all up, all over all of us.
  • We put Dash in the tub, but it was too hot, so he howled and we felt terrible.
  • While we all sat in the tub in our clothes, trying to wash our traumatized baby, the cats howled in the living room. OC had caught his claw in the chair, and Ferdinand had decided to use the occasion as an opportunity to clobber him. I chased them down in my wet jeans.
In a week, this will all be hilarious, I hope.

For now I’m really grateful for antibiotics, indoor plumbing and the jackfruit taco truck around the corner.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

yay, it’s a they! (some thoughts on gender-neutral parenting)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in internet groups devoted to progressive parenting. Sometimes I read and post comments when I should be actually parenting. Hi, irony.

I’ve encountered a couple of moms who are raising their babies gender-neutral. I don’t mean that they dress their kids in yellow and let them play with whatever toys they like (spoons, ballpoint pens and live animals, in Dash’s case). I mean these families have avoided telling anyone whether their children are boys or girls, and they use the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

This white onesie is a completely non-gendered blank slate on which to smear bananas.
My first response was to quietly roll my eyes. Why? Because it seemed straight out of Portlandia? Because it seemed like a parenting project you would undertake only if you’d run out of regular projects, like feeding “them”? Because it seemed hopelessly contrarian and slightly immature?

It does touch all those nerves for me, although I have to call myself out on the “some people have real problems” argument, which is always a weak one. But I think the real reason I question the wisdom of eschewing pronouns for your baby is this: It seems like it’s not about the baby.

When a kid starts asserting a gender—male, female, David Bowie, whatever—more power to ‘em. If Dash announced tomorrow that he wanted to be Dasha, I would be on board because 1) I like the name Dasha for a girl and 2) I’d be really impressed that a 13-month-old had such a big vocabulary and deep sense of self.

What he actually asserted: "Ppppprrrrpp aaayyyiii."
But before a child is even verbal, what is there to gain? I posed this question to a mom who was raising gender-neutral twins, and she said the point was to avoid all the gender-based projections that society hurls at kids, not to mention the pink ovens and monster trucks and onesies that say things like “I don’t need a prince, I have Daddy” or “Lock up your daughters!”*

I get that. I read a long time ago that baby boys and baby girls smile equally, but by kindergarten girls smile way more, mostly because of how we respond, encouraging girls to by sweet and flirty and boys to be stoic. It kind of broke my heart. I smile at Dash all the time, which is not a hard thing to do. So far he’s pretty smiley in return.

Yet, if you live in this world and take a big gender-neutrality stand every time someone asks whether your baby is a boy or girl (and they were probably just making small talk anyway), there has to be some part of you that enjoys the feeling of a soapbox beneath your feet. Right? Or maybe you were genuinely hurt by the gender expectations placed on you as a small child (although, again, probably not as an infant). Either way, it’s about you.

Guy Smiley.
My parenting choices are, of course, hopelessly about me. But my goal, as I’ve mentioned before, is Dash-centered parenting. Personally, I feel like he will be better off if I devote my energy to trying to read him—his likes, dislikes and ultimately his identity—than if I chart a rigid course for him, even one that rigidly rejects gender rigidity.

I can’t say for sure yet that he will definitively embrace a male identity. I can say that he really embraces Cheerios, grapes, dogs, cats, balls, electric toothbrushes, the buttons on the DVD player, saying “bye,” and the books Sleepy Kitty and The Biggest Kiss. I want to just keep paying attention.

Do frogs like to kiss? Or do frogs engage in sex work as a completely valid career choice?
It’s not remotely fair to presume that the parents raising their kids without pronouns aren’t attuned to their children. They’re obviously devoted parents, and that’s what counts most toward raising kids who aren’t too fucked up. Yet I think about the gender-neutral choice the way I would about parents who were raising kids in a particular religion: I’m wary of meta-narratives, but the harm will probably be minimal at worst.

It also seems relevant, if not exactly scientific, to note that both gender-neutral-parenting moms I encountered were cis women partnered with cis men (I think), and all of the gay, gender-queer and trans parents I know have been like “Yay, it’s a girl!” or “Yay, it’s a boy!” re: their own kids. They might let their sons’ hair grow long and they definitely let their girls be as rough-and-tumble as they want to be, but I suspect that life experience has made them a bit less precious around the idea of gender. Gender isn’t a tightrope to be walked so much as a baton to be twirled and tossed.

Feelin' free to fuck with gender.


*These onesies actually exist. They are the topic of approximately 47 percent of conversations in my progressive parenting groups.

Friday, February 26, 2016

trump: making schwarzenegger seem like the good old days when we made smart decisions

Scene: Int. car, night. CHERYL is driving. AK is in the passenger seat; her phone emits a white glow. In the back seat, DASH sleeps.

AK: I read an article--where did it go? I can't seem to find it now. Anyway, it said that there's this statistical model that has accurately predicted every election except for 1960, which some people thought was rigged. And it's saying there's a 99 percent chance Trump is going to be elected. I don't know if that's true, but for the first time I feel really scared.

CHERYL: Yeah, I just felt a sinking feeling in my stomach when you said that. Is it Nate Silver?

AK: No, it's a statistical model. Supposedly Nate Silver has been wrong about a bunch of things lately.

CHERYL: I feel like if the model were that accurate we would have heard about it. We'd just predict every election that way. But yeah, I get your point. 

How about corn for president? I could get behind corn.
AK: Sometimes I think, "So what, it's just a figurehead position, it doesn't really matter." And then I remember how Schwarzenegger ruined California, and how nice it was when we got a real governor in.

CHERYL: Trump is like Schwarzenegger in the way that they're both celebrity jokes that went too far. But Schwarzenegger wasn't full of rabid hate, and that's a big difference. 

AK: It's like what I read about happening in South American countries sometimes where, like, the people just decide to elect their favorite salsa dancer or something.

CHERYL: Fine, let's elect our favorite salsa dancer instead of Trump. Anyone instead of Trump! How about Grumpy Cat? Grumpy Cat is an American citizen.

AK: The thing is, the salsa dancers end up being, like, evil crackpot dictators. That's who we would be electing with Trump. This is what happens to countries in decline.

CHERYL: America is in decline.

AK: Well, our economy's strong. At this moment. But yeah, overall we're in decline.

CHERYL: I feel really depressed now. 

Okay, but seriously, can we elect Elsa?
Car parks. Family goes inside and gets in bed. AK puts on video about gun violence. Then video of a lip synch battle starring Channing Tatum singing "Let it Go" in Frozen drag.

AK: You know what, Donald? The cold never bothered me anyway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

square peg seeks circle

1. radical self-care

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Poets & Writers’ annual Workshop Leaders Retreat, a long, beautiful exhale where I was surrounded by people who speak the same language as me. Also there were sandwiches.

Most of the attendees lead writing workshops for people with trauma histories: veterans, sexual abuse survivors, kids in juvie. I’m not leading workshops for anyone these days, so arguably I was an imposter, but whatever. The topic of the day was Radical Self-Care. So what did all these teachers do to care for themselves in the midst of such harrowing stories?

Just in case you thought Oprah or the Yankee Candle Company invented self-care....

Me with radical caretaker (and amazing poet) Cathy Che.
One woman, upon leaving the juvenile hall where she taught, would wash her hands, get in her car and say out loud: “What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is yours.”

Another brushed herself from head to toe.

Another took long showers with aromatherapy crystals.

It’s my nature to discount rituals as a bit woo, despite the fact that I have them and believe in them. But the fact that everyone said they literally washed or brushed the trauma away made me sit up and pay attention.

2. trigger, happy

Flash forward to last Sunday afternoon. I had a little bit of writing time, and a shortage of mini bullshit projects to work on. Maybe it was finally time to read through all those journal entries I wrote between November 2012 and January 2015 and see whether they added up to a memoir.

With all the books I’ve written (five, the last three unpublished, but that’s another depressing post), I’ve taken breaks between drafts and then read with an editor’s eye, taking notes on how to fix the inevitable avalanche of structural and character problems.

I knew that reading about my cancer year wouldn’t be a picnic, but I didn’t think it would be triggering, exactly. First, because the phrase “trigger warning” gets thrown around so much it has almost lost meaning. It’s like “hipster” or “smurfy.” Second, because I sort of consider myself simultaneously too smart to fall for such Psych 101 stuff, and also unworthy—I haven’t survived real trauma, therefore how can I be triggered?

Hipster Smurf really wishes you'd issue a trigger warning before bringing up Gargamel.
But there I was with my dirty chai at Highland Café, crying into my keyboard. The woman who wrote those journal entries was the same one I’d encountered upon rereading my high school diaries: surprisingly insightful, desperately (tragicomically) determined to make her life better and terrified of the unknown. I’d thought I might want to smack her, but I wanted to hug her.

Starting a new writing project now sounds exhausting, but not quite as exhausting as starting a new tragedy. Which I did, yesterday at 3 p.m., when a radiologist confirmed I had breast cancer in two locations in my upper right boob. She said it probably hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, which seemed like a peppermint on top a stocking full of coal, but it actually may make the difference between being one of those people who lives to 85 and had breast cancer that one time, and being a person who is Fighting Cancer and loses a few years down the road.

I read a few days’ worth of entries—the MRI, the concern about planning my surgery around AK’s IUI—and then closed up shop, planning to go about my day, grateful that this is a story I have (knockonwood) lived to tell.

3. the churning questions of motherhood

AK, Dash and I went to a Super Bowl party, where I felt out of sorts. I chatted with our friend Holly about baby sleep schedules, and worried that our No Nap Schedule At All is a terrible way to go. Usually I’m more of the Meh, Works For Us camp. I found myself looking around at various women and wondering if they were pregnant, my old hated hobby.

One very clearly was—like, seven months or so—with her third child. She said, “I don’t do anything except work, take care of children and watch Game of Thrones, which I just started doing to keep myself from going to bed at 7:30.”

Apparently this is a person from Game of Thrones.
God bless parents of three children, but I don’t want to be one. I’m not sure I want to be a parent of two. I’m not closing that door just yet, but I often think that having one kid feels like the best of all worlds. But suddenly the should-we-adopt-a-second question was churning inside me.

I was grouchy the rest of the night, and I ate too many M&M’s and too much seven-layer dip.

4. sage and sweetgrass

Today I had some annoyances at work. Nothing huge, but there were a couple of moments where I felt more peon-y than usual. I was fantasizing about venting in private Facebook groups when Janet walked by and said, “We’re starting a Women’s Healing Circle in Classroom B. Come join us if you’re interested.”

As soon as I walked into the darkened classroom, the energy—my energy—shifted. Maria had made an altar at the center of the room, with a candle and sage and sweetgrass and a Tibetan singing bowl. The women in the room were mostly trainees, but the whole thing of the circle is that everyone is equal. We introduced ourselves: our passions, our children, our addictions. We burned sweet grass and washed the smoke over ourselves.

Sweetgrass for smudging.
When I returned to my office, my boss said, “Where have you been? You look so Zen!” I told her, and she listened with an attentiveness she rarely has time for. I could tell how parched she was and how in need of healing herself.

So, I think I need some kind of ritual. Not because other people’s difficult lives slough off on me, but because my own does. I need a small, real thing that I do before and after I go into the dark parts that I have to go into if I want to do the thing that brings me the most fulfillment, which is write. Any suggestions?