Saturday, May 29, 2021

sympathy for the devil and my own dirty hands

1. skip this part if you don't enjoy white tears

When it comes to acts of individual violence, society has little patience for the perpetrators. Or rather, we try to make up for the failures of courts, the child welfare system, public education, and more with our own swift, harsh judgments. The woman who drowned her children, the man who shot up a McDonald's—why should they get a moment of our time when the people they hurt don't get another moment, period?

On social media, we tweet hard against the Trumps and Kavanaughs and white women who commit microaggressions. I'm not sure it should be otherwise—a tweet just composed itself in my head: Just realized that you can't spell Kavanaugh without ugh—but the urge to judge is also a deflection from self-judgment. If I can dehumanize Karen, then I must not be Karen, right? Right?

It's not that I think every villain deserves an origin story, but I do believe every villain has one, whether or not we should tell it or pay money to see it.

After crying my mascara off when someone criticizes me

I'm thinking about these things because I've been (fruitlessly so far) deep in the adoption world, which—like everything else we touch—is rooted in inequality, capitalism, and racism. I published a poem in which I wrote about some of these factors, and a reader identifying herself as an international adoptee left a very harsh, very accurate comment on it. I want to say she misread things, that she brought her own biases to the poem, but that wouldn't make her comment any less valid. 

If I want to say things in this world, about this world—and I don't seem to be able to stop myself—I have to accept the pushback that comes with the territory. People are allowed to and should fight my speech with speech. 

But damn I feel like a piece of shit. 

And sometimes I envy less self-loathing white liberals, who find ways to mostly opt out of tricky situations where they get their hands visibly dirty. The people who write excellent, finely observed novels featuring a tiny cast of entirely white characters; the people who don't venture into adoption because they have functioning ovaries. They vote for the right people and donate to the right places and just keep quietly educating themselves, and they seem so unassailable. 

I spent a long time in therapy trying to learn that innocence and purity are not actually great life goals. Because I'm only half convinced of it, now, I sort of march forward in agony: trying to do good work (that's also a Fake Email Job and part of the nonprofit industrial complex), be a good neighbor (even though I'm unfairly grouchy at J&J almost every day and I worry that they know; how could they not know?), and accept my own limitations as an individual human. That's what humility is: doing what I can, knowing what's above my pay grade, knowing that being so self-sacrificing as to be miserable would actually be of no service to anyone I love. But damn it's hard.

2. don't skip this part; read this book


All of the above is also part of why I devoured The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence Press), a collection of short, unflinching stories by my friend and fellow CalArtian Miah Jeffra. Fiction is in the business of humanizing, queering, complexifying, and daring to imagine an experience not one's own. That's why I love it.

Without, IMO, ever glorifying violence or excusing those who commit it, Jeffra spends time in the minds of both perpetrators and victims. Of course, if you aren't deep in denial, you know that most perpetrators are victims in one way or another. When woundedness meets power—in the case of Mr. Huberty, a man who struggles to find work but stockpiles guns in "Eye Wall"—trouble usually lies ahead.

I was particularly moved by the opening story, "Babies," which imagines how Andrea Yates killed her children to save them from the void she felt: "A cutting away, releasing the doubt, to preserve what good they had left in them.... If she kept on to them, held them close in this world, her world, they would all fall into that gaping hole, the one of eternal torment."

During a week when I've wondered what right I have, if any, to be a parent, I am thinking about how it takes a certain amount of blind self-confidence to parent. You have to shrug and say, "Well, I'm here, I'll do my best. Even though my children will come face to face with the world's cruelty. Even though I'm kind of a piece of shit, I'm the piece of shit my child is stuck with."

But Jeffra also lets us see, in no uncertain terms, what it feels like to be Yates' terrified child. In these ways, the book is much more painful than the bloodiest movie, despite the fact that there's very little graphic violence. 

In "Gethsemane," a realtor gives a gleefully deranged tour of a house in a gentrifying neighborhood, stuffing the violence of its history into the corners, though it seems to push at the doors of every closet. 

In "Ain't No Thing," a man tries very hard to be unassailable his whole life. From his father, he learns how to take a beating. Women complain "I want you...to want something from me!" He tries to be even nicer. He tries to hold it together. He tries to follow the rules and bury his hatred for those who don't—specifically, some young men of color on a MUNI bus, carelessly disposing of their trash—because it would be too painful for him to learn what the young men may already know, that Goodness will not save him. It reads like a cautionary tale.

Jeffra's work is so gutsy and imaginative and searing. Somewhere in here is a manual for how to live in this world, and how not to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

shallow but vast

"What is time, even" is a thing I say a lot lately, but I'm pretty sure all of these things happened since last Wednesday. In chronological order:

  • My friend Holly found out she has a brain tumor.
  • After a lot of radio silence on the adoption front, followed by a lot of paperwork and fees as we try to crack the silence, an expectant mom in San Diego told an attorney in Temecula that she wanted a same-sex couple from California to adopt her baby. Then she decided she wanted a same-sex male couple to adopt her baby.
  • We met Ignacio, new baby of Alberto and Gracia, and he is small and beautiful with a lot of silky dark hair and an elfin nose. 
  • Dash told me, "It's not fair that J&J are sisters and I don't have no one to play with. That's why I want a baby." (He also told me he has no toys.)
  • My Grandma Jac died yesterday at the age of 91, her dog Zoe curled next to her on the bed.
  • Roadie brought a baby sparrow into the house and it seemed like we might be able to save it, and we woke to discover that we didn't.

This post is mostly about Grandma Jac, because I need to write to make myself believe that a person I haven't seen in a year is not alive. The parts about Holly and adoption are here, my central narrative, the darkness and the hope swirling around me. There's more cause for hope than not, but sometimes I climb into the pit inside myself, where there are all-caps signs posted on the slimy pit walls announcing that the world is divided into winners and losers and guess which I am, and I must be dragging people I love down here with me.  

Just hanging on
Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Jac was the subject of the first creative nonfiction I ever wrote. When I was in middle school and high school, we'd periodically be asked to write about our families, and I found my immediate family incredibly boring (they worked so hard to create my boring childhood, and I had no appreciation), but everyone, my parents included, assured me that Jac was The Interesting One.

She was born during the Depression, but I think her family did okay. Recently I told my dad that her dad drove a Helms Bakery truck, and he thought he did something else, and now I won't get to ask her. She went to college at Pepperdine, at a time when women usually didn't, and had Black friends at a time when white people usually didn't. She was 19, I think, when she met her husband Gordon. He was older and an archeologist or an anthropologist, something professorial that caused him to fill their house with the artifacts that punctuated my childhood, though I never met Gordon himself. Pottery shards arranged in a mosaic in the kitchen. Animal skulls that made their office feel like a true den. He was an alcoholic and the kind of man who expected his wife to earn money while he got degree after degree, only to look down on her for not being an intellectual. Eventually he moved to the Southwest and became a painter and killed himself late in life. 

When I came into the story, Jac was married to Al, a big, good-natured man who was missing the tops of his first two fingers. He adored Jac and gave her jewelry at their holiday parties, which my mom always thought was a little showy, but it fit them both. At one point they almost divorced, but then they didn't. He died after a stroke back in the early 2000s and Jac never stopped missing him. 

Jac lived at the top of a hill in Torrance, at the very southern tip of Crenshaw, nestled between Palos Verdes horse country and the liquor stores of Lomita. It was your basic 1950s tract house, but she painted it a deep olive green and installed a cactus garden years before people talked about drought-resistant landscaping and painted the windows of her enclosed patio to look like Frank Lloyd Wright's stained glass. 

When I think about Jac, she is as much of a place as a person for me. She filled her house with family, friends, and stray humans every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, and Father's Day. One day someone told her "You'd celebrate Groundhog's Day if you could," and so she did. Somewhere in the carousels of slides at my dad's house is a picture of a groundhog sculpted out of hamburger meat, with an apple in its mouth.

I'm always trying to figure out who's the cricket in this story
Isabelle Sanchez-Chapman on Unsplash

My dad started going up there with his childhood friend Bob as a teenager. Bob was an old-school flamboyant gay and so of course he needed an eccentric older woman for a friend. And then my dad brought my mom and they brought me and my sister. All my grandparents were dead by the time I was four, and so even though she was only thirteen years older than my parents, Jac became my grandma. 

I thought she was my grandma, but later I realized we were strays she'd collected, not so different from the guy from the hardware store she might invite up for Easter. She always told people, "This family is like the mafia. Once you're in, you can't get out." Her daughter's ex-husband had a permanent place at the long stone benches on her back patio, with his second wife and her daughter. But she stopped speaking to her own brother decades before and I never really knew why.

She was forgiving and open-hearted and progressive, loving and caring for Bob's friends through AIDS, and also gossipy and judgmental. My mom always joked that she didn't want to be the first to leave one of Jac's gatherings because then everyone would talk about her. My mom and my sister and I were three introverts in the corner, flipping through Jac's issues of The National Enquirer (she subscribed as a joke) and her copies of Dr. Laura's books, which may or may not have been a joke. When I think about what I miss about Jac's, that's half of it. Being in a corner with my mom and sister while my awkward-but-outgoing dad made the rounds in the only real social circle he's ever had.

Jac was a bit of a foul-weather friend. If you needed someone to bail you out of jail or pay for an abortion, as my cousin sometimes did, she was your gal. If you wanted her to come to your high school graduation, as my sister did, well, she had a dentist appointment that day.

She told a lot of colorful stories about her days as unofficial den mother to all the kids on the hill. She was a bit of a prankster; she once drove to Gordon's house long after their divorce just to show up on his doorstep as a trick-or-treater. I knew her in her storytelling years, not her story-making years. I knew her house as the place of egg hunts and grand buffets spread out on her kitchen counter, cheesy potatoes and green bean casseroles alongside Peruvian recipes and vegetarian dishes made especially for me and my sister. 

There was a time when I gorged myself on her holiday food, and considered holidays at her house some sort of pinnacle, a chance to show off whatever teenage identity I was trying on—wannabe punk, fag hag, etc.—but later, I think her taste buds failed her and the food started to seem suspect. My tastes changed too. She never really asked me questions about myself; she was too busy bustling about being hostess, and I didn't make an effort to change that dynamic.

I called Jac early in lockdown, because we'd been advised to Check On Our Old People, and I told her, just in passing, just quickly, that there had been a baby who'd stayed with us for two weeks before his parents took him back. She said something like "Oh, that's nice," and I chalked it up to her being hard of hearing, but I also wondered if she wasn't listening in a different sense. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, but the fact that it could go either way says something.

I worry for my dad, who has never had many friends to spare, and has already lost a few this year. It feels like the end of an era, and that's something to mourn even if I can't quite feel the shape and depth of my personal mourning yet. Maybe it's shallow but vast, a thin membrane spread over everything.

Midway through writing this, Dash told me, "I think the bird is alive. I heard a tweet!" 

"Oh, I think that's coming from outside, but we can look," I said. Looking at a dead bird before heading off to school was some kind of closure, I supposed.

We went in the office, where we'd made a nest for the sparrow in the cat carrier of all places. Dash had named the bird Benjamin Kasi, after someone on YouTube and a giraffe we met at the Living Desert Zoo earlier in the year. 

Benjamin Kasi stood there, round and fluffed up, looking at us. Very still, with very open eyes. Probably alive, contrary to AK's early morning report. And then Benjamin Kasi turned his head and let out a chirp. 

It's not Benjamin Kasi's job to symbolize hope and resurrection—it's his job to heal and eat bugs—but I'll take this narrative and run with it.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

is there any other kind?

A couple of years ago, the amazing writer-moms of the IKEA Writers Collective started wishing each other "Happy Fucking Mother's Day" because it's such a strange, fraught holiday (though, really, is there any other kind?).

In recent months, we've tried to inject some new strategies into our adoption attempts. So far that's meant a lot of paperwork and frustration. I'm frustrated for many reasons, including old boring feelings of maternal unworthiness, but also because one reason I hesitated about trying to adopt again was that I didn't want to dump all that longing onto the kid I was so, so happy to have. He didn't deserve it. C.C. didn't deserve it. I didn't deserve it.


I don't know how to live in the present—a present that, in these sweet, tentatively sunny, vaccinated days, I am grateful for deep in my bones—while still planning for the future. Maybe there is some super balanced Zen person out there who does. But until I become her, I have C.C., Chaos Muppet to my Order Muppet, who reminds me to come up for air (as I remind her to set an alarm if she needs to, you know, get up at a certain time). She just sent me a beautiful Mother's Day post by Emily Simon, about how we all mother ourselves to fill in the gaps left by our mortal mothers. We can fill them with music and art and of course each other.

I'm glad the zeitgeist has figured out that Mother's Day, like all our faves, Is Problematic, partly because it's fraught with narratives about women who "do it all," when no one does or should. Sometimes I think "Oh shit, I co-edit a magazine called MUTHA when I only have one kid and I'm only one third of his moms, I'm such a fraud," but I guess that's kind of the point. This isn't math. This isn't even fair: so many people mother without being mothers (side note: read Torrey Peters' Detransition, Baby for a savvy, sad, funny take on this theme, and on daring to mother when society tells you you have the wrong body parts for it). Some people are mothers without mothering, and they deserve love and recognition too.

I'm grateful to the mothers who haunt my life in the best way: my mom, Dash's birth mom. And to the mothers who are earthbound with me: to my sister and friends who take care of me when I'm exhausted from making mediocre dinners and filling out PDFs. And especially C.C., who does it all, but not in THAT way—not all at once. Happy Fucking Mother's Day.