We Have to Learn the Whole Script, Not Just Our Own Lines

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Saturday, 4:30pm

The indoor soccer stadium is teeming with movement and noise. Boys’ and girls’ teams of various ages on multiple fields — from fifth grade on up through high school. On my right, two girls climb on the underside of the stands, their dreads flying beneath them as they dangle from the crooked slats. My youngest, Pearl, has a game at 5:00. It’s the first time I’ve ever brought my computer here to write while her team — the Amherst Hurricanes — practices.

Today, she yielded to my suggestion of wearing long underwear beneath her soccer shorts; after all, the wind chill is well below zero. But the moment we got here, she bee-lined to go change. Since Pearl presents as male and prefers to use the men’s bathroom, I stood sentry near the door, far enough away not to crowd her but close enough to sate my inner mama bear.

I love watching these kids play; they’ve got the teamwork thing down — their pats on the back and fist bumps after near misses, successful blocks, and, of course, goals all make me melt a little.

She’d probably die that I wrote that, and full disclosure, hormones make me even mushier than usual, which is already on the high side. But I really am a sucker for the friendship thing.

This weekend, Aviva took the train with her cousin — they are three months apart and we’ve called them the Bobsy Twins for the entirety of their 14+ years on the planet together — to NYC to visit a posse of summer camp friends. They planned meticulously; in addition to saving money for the trip, part of the “yes” on behalf of all of the parental units was that they take charge of the logistics (rules for unaccompanied minors and a detailed plan for the weekend itself, from phone numbers to sleeping arrangements).

Needless to say, I got a little teary at the photo of them standing on the Amtrak platform, on their way not only to the City but clearly to the Rest of Their Lives, too.

Pearl and I attempted to brave the cold this morning with a new frisbee, but the wind forced us to toss it back and forth under some bleachers at the Amherst College lacrosse fields — not ideal. We threw in the towel after 10 minutes or so, opting instead of hot chocolate at home. The fact that she wants to spend time with me feels like this thing that could go *poof* at any minute. And since there’s no way for me to know when that will be, I’m inclined to say sure, let’s play frisbee even though it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there (OMG don’t you love that expression?).

I did glance ever so briefly at Facebook this morning. I saw headlines and stories that made my blood run cold: A rally in Maricopa County — Phoenix — where pro-Trump folks called for “liberal genocide” and the deportation of Jews. A move that can only be called a purge of the Justice Department. An interview with Nigerian feminist author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she states that experiences of trans women shouldn’t be conflated with those of [cis] “women.”

Then I closed the computer and said to Mani, “Who do we think is going to save us from this?”

This is why I take one day a week “off” — mostly, somewhat — from interacting online. This is why we do Shabbat.

Shabbat saves me.

Sunday, 7:30am

The birdsong conceals these temperatures; you’d think it was a balmy 60-degree morning by their exuberant greetings. Daylight Savings Time means moving slowly this morning. With Aviva still in New York and Pearl having had a sleepover, the house is otherwise quiet.

This weekend was Purim. It falls among the nine-word Jewish holidays and festivals: They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.

In this case, it was Haman, leader of Persia, who plotted to destroy the Jewish People. The hero in this story is in fact a heroine, Esther. And interestingly, Purim takes place during the month of Adar, a fortuitous month when joy is said to increase, ushering in a season of miracles that culminate with Passover, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

One Purim tradition is to dress up and wear masks, making all kinds of loud boo-ing noises every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the story (we read Esther’s scroll, aka “the whole megillah”). One thing I love about Hebrew is that words all have roots that reveal more layers of meaning: in this case, Adar has its origins in Adir, suggesting strength and power.

Just take a quick minute to let that sink in: Joy has its roots in strength and power.

OK. So we wear masks on Purim, and recall the story of this greedy king, Ahashverosh, who has one primary policy: Himself (read more). I tend to agree with this interpretation by Jay Michaelson, presciently written a year ago, before nominee Trump was so-called elected to be President Trump. Bannon is the real Haman here.

Will the women save us? Will we throw off our masks or don them in mockery of demagoguery and evil?

There is, of course, more to the story. But in the night, it was the masks I kept returning to the tradition of dressing up on Purim, trying on different aspects of ourselves even as we condemn evil and celebrate victory.

“It is our practice to cross-dress on Purim – find the other in yourself. Dress up and try on Esther’s role, be Haman the villain, the king and the assassin. The Scroll of Esther invites you onto the stage of history. For what cause would you risk giving up your privilege, position, and lifestyle? For what would you risk your life? For what principles or causes ought a person to risk life? Is the King of unawareness and apathy, Ahashverosh there inside too? Better to discover these qualities in play than to act them out and destroy what it means to be a Jew.” ~ Rabbi Goldie Milgram :: read more

I think often of blind spots: What don’t I know I don’t know? How do I remember what I’ve forgotten and further pull back the opaque curtains of my own ignorance? How do I save my people and where am I unknowingly contributing to my cousins’ peril?

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of all the players. We have to learn the whole script — not just our own lines — in order to fully grok the show. And a show it is — a comic-tragedy of epic, real-life proportions.

Against this backdrop, right on this stage, my kids are coming of age. They are learning how to play fair in a landscape that’s anything but. They come with many advantages — not the least of which are fair skin and good looks. This alone is so many kinds of wrong my head wants to explode, but rather than wringing my hands, I must keep helping them see what everyday experiences they undertake that would not be imaginable for an undocumented kid, for example.

Also in Jewish tradition, I seek out more questions rather than claiming to have answers:

What does my white privilege have to do with agreeing to allow my teenager to travel unaccompanied by train? What does class privilege have to do with allowing my biologically female child to use the men’s room in a public arena? What does being Jewish have to do with our role in this unraveling world, where in our tradition, we are commanded to ditch all of the commandments if it means saving one life — Jewish or not?

Time for another splash of coffee. Time to kiss my wife good morning (again). Time to shower, get dressed, and look in the mirror, directly into my own eyes, to make sure I’m all the way here. No masks. No deceit. May I move into the day awake. No one is coming to save us.

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” ~ Rabbi Hillel :: read more 

Holding Hands Across America

handsRemember the time
you pulled me over to the side
when memory stampeded
down the middle of Main Street?
How it kicked dust to our mouths
and later we stuffed our pockets
with dusty rose petals smashed
by the feet of what can never be
undone or revisited?
Remember how we made out
in the middle of Main Street
and schemed about making
a documentary called
“Holding Hands Across America”
where we’d walk on sidewalks
all around the country,
a ramshackle crew, just one
camera or two along
for the reactions
from men driving and ladies
lunching and kids holding
hands on field trips, each one
with a buddy, stay in line,
stop at every corner
and don’t, by any means,
let go?
Remember when we thought
this was a novel idea,
and Obama was still president
and the future was bright
even though those drivers
didn’t stop for pedestrians
and more than once
you had to pull me to the side,
me, with my New York chutzpah,
jay-walking as if this was
Morningside Heights
rather than downtown Phoenix?
We could never have known
which of our ideas would
survive the changes
yet to come, that were there
riding shotgun all along.
We could never have known
that we were, even then,
forming new pathways
of memory that would save us
all these years later,
from our own cross-wired brains.
Here’s what I know, babe:
I’d make a movie with you
any day, love you eight ways
to Sunday, hold your hand
and bear your name in ink
in every city, sea, and border
in this place called America,
this place called two bodies,
this place called marriage,
this place where the dust
never settles and the roses
grow outside our door
no matter how ugly things get,
I will keep claiming myself
yours, and yours, and yours
again.

18/30 Poems in November: Do Not Think Like Me

photo-1455037348028-ed7650360518We will not be afraid of the world. No.
We will go out into it, with heads covered
and long skirts or mini-skirts and combat boots,
with ink on our skin, with love in our mouths,
with sound and fury, we will go out.
We will not be afraid of the world. No.
We will go out into it, with arms linked,
pounding pavement, pounding headaches,
we will go tearing up your arrogance, tearing
down your ignorance, seeing that truth
and beauty always win and refusing
your terror dressed in suits and ties.
Give me a suit and tie, tie my hands
if you must, tie me to this chair and I will gag
on every order you give, I will denounce
your laws and my sisters will cut me free.
I will throw my body in front of theirs,
throw my body in front of a child’s,
throw my body in front of my brother’s body.
I will not be afraid of the world. No.
I will not stand for your accusations
of hysteria or overreaction. No.
I will not watch you drag away my neighbors,
deface my father’s door or wait for things
to get more severe before speaking out.
Will my home be marked or can I offer
safe harbor? This is not about saviors
but movements, but masses of voices
rising not in unison but in the dissonance
of dissidence. Do not think like me. No.
Think for yourself. Think with your feet,
with your eyes, with your money,
with your heart, with your conscience.
But just think. Because not thinking
is how being afraid of the world begins.
Not thinking is how we begin to close
ranks, close eyes, close hearts, close
doors. Do not be afraid of the world.
Go out into it. Go out into it now.
 

#18/30

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#30poemsinnovember is a literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans. Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. For more information, please visit cnam.org This year, we aim to raise $30,000.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

Visit my personal donation page and help me reach my $500 goal.

When Writing Is Your One Small Thing

photo-1469733881637-10c8de93222cHow can I not sit down to write this morning? Writing is what I do. And yet there are times when even to do this most natural thing in the world feels impossible. Now would be one of those times.

In the cacophony of responses to the election, my head literally shut down. As the polls closed on Tuesday night, a sudden sore throat went from irritated to angry in a matter of hours. (Coincidence? I think not.)

By yesterday, operating on little sleep and taking in so much unbearable news, trying to formulate my own thoughts was the last thing I felt I could do.  While some kick-ass people were already organizing a Million Women March on D.C., I was blowing my nose, thinking about how best to be there with and for my kids, and wanting to throw up knowing that nearly 50% of American voters stayed home on Tuesday. In a word, I kind of shut down.

I needed a minute, one day of mourning, before I could collect myself and fish around for my own voice again, however scratchy.

**

My two have responded in ways that match their wildly different personalities. Aviva texted me from school yesterday around lunchtime, saying she was falling asleep and had a pounding headache. Could I come pick her up? I waited a half hour or so, debating, then wrote her back and said yes. When we got home, she fixed herself something to eat, showered, got into bed, and slept for a record fourteen hours (oh, how the body knows). Last night, I looked at her Instagram account and saw that she’d posted some words there — “helpless, heartbroken, terrified, lost… the fight is not over… spread love instead of hate.”

Pearl was quick to point out that “we did the right thing” by voting for Hillary. In so many words, she just wants to “be a kid.” What I heard was her unspoken, underlying request for reassurance that we will be safe (Tuesday night she asked if we were going to be killed since we are Jewish).  I grapple with wanting to wrap myself around her and tell her of course she’s safe, with knowing that I can’t ultimately say that. If one of us is not free, none of us is free: This is something I will continue to find ways to weave into everyday conversations and actions as a parent.

Would that all kids could “just be kids,” and yet sadly this is not the case in America or in the world, for that matter. Questions of innocence and privilege and where the two intersect weigh on me, and I have no platitudes or easy answers. And I refuse to take Fox News’ advice and “suck it up.” Fuck you, Fox News.

**

Mani’s was a welcome voice in my world (as always):

“I spent a huge chunk of my life pushing down my feelings, and I can tell you, it doesn’t make you strong or brave. In time, it makes you sick. So today, I’m letting myself feel. Today I’m being in today, and guys, it is a really awful day. But it is the one we have. Self-care isn’t wrong. For anyone who just can’t today, and feels embarrassed, alone, or ashamed that you’re falling apart, I feel you. I’m with you.”

There are so many sources of connection, intelligence, heart, humor, and guidance — emotional, practical, political — that this would quickly become unwieldy if I attempted to name more than a handful.

“…we’ll fucking fight. (Roxy, there’s a time for this kind of language and it’s now.)” — Aaron Sorkin (in this letter to his teenage daughters)

“Luckily, real change, like a tree, grows from the bottom up, not the top down.” — Gloria Steinem

“Count me among the resistance.” — Charles Blow

” I can do nothing but love my friends and others and as Mr. Auden wrote, “show an affirming flame.'” — Doug Anderson, poet and Vietnam veteran

“Despair undermines the spirit, and the results of this election are an assault on our spirits. It is difficult not to feel despair. But despair erodes the spirit. Despair helps the Republicans because through despair we defeat ourselves. But I never heard my parents or anyone in the black community of the 1940s and 1950s express despair. Despair gives your adversary power over you. Despair defines you in relationship to your adversary. You do not want to be defined by a relationship that is detrimental to your well-being.” — Julius Lester

“(If you have no idea what to do today) Wash your face. Do the dishes. Put on fresh clothes. Kneel by your bed or your couch. Set the timer for five minutes. Let your head rest down. And breathe. // Notice how your heart feels. Notice how your shoulders feel. Let your belly soften. And notice what rises up. Where you’re frantic, where you’re quiet, where you are strong. // Staying with how we feel is revolutionary work because it helps us understand where we are drawn and called, and also where we are afraid. // Fear is the place where we can ask love to find us which also requires courage. But it can be as simple as saying out loud, I’m ready. // This is my country. This is your country. Let’s care enough to stay with our hearts and listen, so we can hear from the depths the direction our collective soul is calling us to go.” — Jen Lemen

Many people — in fact, many of the very people a Trump presidency will hurt the most — cannot take a day or two to regroup. And one of the things that has become more and more evident to me over the past weeks and days is that many of us don’t feel safe to even voice our beliefs and opinions  or share our personal stories publicly, for fear or fallout with family members or in the workplace.

**

This is the part where I can’t shake the feeling that there really is an “us” and a “them.” I know this is not very open-minded of me. I know we are all part of the human family. But I also know that 59,341,558 individuals cast their lot with a xenophobic, greedy, isolationist, misogynistic, criminal and demagogue and his alt-right cronies to represent them (not us, not me) is hard to choke down. I find myself looking at people in their cars while I’m out, or walking on the street, or standing in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, where I stopped with the kids this morning, wondering: Did you vote? Did you vote for him?

My dear friend Miv London, who is also a therapist and Buddhist teacher, challenges me to sit with this:

“I can no longer ignore the suffering that is all around me. So many of the people who support Trump have fallen through the cracks of our system, live impoverished, hopeless lives, feel neglected by their government, and easily fall prey to blame and hatred of perceived others. I am scared of them, I want to be angry and scornful of them, yet they, too, are part of this country. And, as the Buddhist teachings remind me, they, too, are human beings who want to be happy.”

On the other hand, 46.6% of eligible voters sat this one out, and 11,000 people voted for Harambe, the dead gorilla. How do we go forward from here? Do we weep or do we rise? Do we write and and speak out or do take a hot bath and crawl under the covers? Do we hunker down and ride this out, or do we fight like our lives depend on it? As President Obama has said this week, “they do.”

Get ready for a Jewish answer: Yes. (There is the answer, and the other hand. And the other other hand.)

Pirke Avot, or “Sayings of Our Fathers,” reminds us: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” In other words, we do all of these, but we do them knowingly. If you need some time to get your head around WTF just happened, take it. If making cookies and letting your neighbors and friends know your door is open brings you some solace and helps you get grounded, more power to you. If you have friends and family whose vote made your head explode, declare a boundary. Take care of yourself. We need you well.

**

One of the most heartening things for me in the last 24 hours has been the fact that people who’ve participated in my writing groups over the past two years, who might never before have dreamed of sharing their words publicly, are doing just that. From posts about how yesterday unfolded to poems about assault and survival to calls to action to introspective musings, we are connecting through our words and stories. We are reaching out. We are remembering who we are.

toni
I had a moment yesterday of wondering how on earth I will be able to work after this. My mind was just so foggy — Aviva even commented that my eyes looked foggy, something she’s never said before. Today, after a long Benadryl-assisted sleep, I may still be plowing through tissues, but I am not powerless. And neither are you.

I’m not here to offer up any prescriptions for being a social justice warrior or a good parent or a better writer. There are so many others out there who are brilliant at those things. And if you’re looking for a five-point to-do list, Michael Moore (who predicted Trump would win) has you covered.  My family on both sides came to this country four decades, give or take — before the Holocaust — and my layers of privilege are many. I am white and educated. I live in a blue state. I am also legally married to a woman and raising kids who are navigating their own identities. We have affordable health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without that.

So what can I offer? Oy. It’s easy to feel swallowed whole by forces unimaginably dark in this moment. But that is exactly how it begins — the silencing, the intimidation. “They” may have won, but the ultimate loss is if we lie down and let this be.

**

Deb Connolly Youngblood shared this idea on Facebook today:

“Like many of you, I’m filled with despair and frustration after this election. And also like many of you, I spent yesterday surrounded by people who needed me to be strong and practical and reassuring. My children are worried and confused, members of my staff are despondent, my friends and family all are overwhelmed and sad in a variety of ways. As I cast about in a sleep deprived state for ways to talk about these events, I landed on a strategy of action that I started promoting. What if we all, when ready, committed to doing one small thing that represents your values? These elections results don’t speak my values but there are a lot of things in my orbit that do. So what if I make a little extra time now to be sure that my values are emphasized, that they are just a little bit harder to miss? It doesn’t have to be major, it doesn’t have to be expensive or hugely time consuming, just one small thing. What if we all did that? Maybe that would add up to something.”

Here are some of  my small things:

  • Raise money for the Center for New Americans by writing #30poemsinnovember.
  • Walk in the woods.
  • Look people in the eye.
  • Sign petitions.
  • Make calls.
  • Bring my wife coffee in bed.
  • Read and educate myself.
  • Learn from the past.
  • Keep generating ideas for bringing people together, online and in real life, to write and connect.
  • Call my mother.
  • Practice.
  • Watch “Jeopardy!” with Pearl at night.
  • Encourage and empower my feminist teenage daughter.
  • Smash the racist patriarchy, one word, one blow at a time.

I know is that smashing the racist patriarchy is not a bullet point or a one-shot deal. We’ve come a long  way, baby — and we have a long way to go.

And I have to believe — have to, in order to face reality — that the only real defeat is to give up, and that is not something you will see me do. But not giving up doesn’t look any one way. The truth is, I’m not really sure what it looks like. I suppose it looks like this: Laptop, coffee, kitchen table. And that list I just wrote. It looks like continuing to subject my kids to mini-lectures about white privilege and mutual responsibility, and kissing my gorgeous wife in public, no matter what state we’re in.

**

When writing is one of your small things, the writing doesn’t have to be good. You don’t have to have anything figured out. You only have to show up and set a timer for 10 minutes and see what happens when you turn on the faucet. As Naomi Alderman writes, “Your subconscious will get used to the idea and will start to work like a reliable water spout.”

Let’s keep writing, alone and together. Writing enables connection to ourselves and each other. Writing fosters courage and community. It’s in that light that I encourage you to set your own timer today for ten minutes to write. Want a prompt? Here you go:

Tell us about one small thing.

If you’re feeling brave, share your words. We need them now. Email a friend. Read to your kids or co-worker. Take a deep breath and post something on Facebook you wouldn’t normally share. Share in the comments here or send your writing to me privately if you prefer. Submit to The Roar Sessions.

Our words are far more powerful than you might believe. I believe in us. I believe in you. Your voice matters. And I, for one, want to hear it. Yes, I am scared. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I feel stunned and sickened and appalled. But showing up here today is my best shot at getting back on my feet. Walk with me. Write with me. Let’s not give in or give up. As a white woman, I have to do my part in fixing this (all the more so knowing that that 53% of white women voted for Trump).

**

In a moment that is so unfathomably complicated, this is something you can do that may feel hard but is, in fact, simple: Start and keep going. One small thing, one small word at a time.

5/30 Poems in November: Will We Stay?

questions“What are we going to do if he wins?”
“Will we stay here?”
“Dada said he’d move to New Zealand if you would go.”
“You said you’d leave the country if Dada would.”
“I have a friend on the west coast of Canada.”
“Can we move there?”
“But what about our stuff?”
“What about my best friend?”
“Would we be poor?”
“How would you get a green card?”
“Would your marriage still be legal?”
“Dada would have to find a new job.”
“Could you still do your work in another country?”
“Can we move to Amsterdam? Amsterdam is lit.”
“Wait, only one suitcase?”
“So we would just sleep on the floor?”
“This is the first year I’ve ever cared about politics.”
“What will we do if he wins?”

The images come flooding the empty plain 
of my lack of good — or any — answers: 
You, my child, with the blond hair and blues eyes. 
You could pass. You could lie about your mother line. 
But you will always be mine. 
You will always be mine.

5/30

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30 Poems in November! is a literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans. Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. For more information, please visit cnam.org This year, we aim to raise $30,000. Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

Some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done was in my early 20s at the Riverside Church in NYC, leading English-language conversations with new Americans from countries all over the world. It was then that I was privileged to witness the courage, resilience, patience, and grit that immigrants and refugees must have in order to navigate life in a new language and culture.

Since poetry is one of the way I practice showing up in the world, for the month of November, I vow to write one poem a day as a small gesture of respect for and in solidarity with those who land in the Pioneer Valley as new Americans. Your donation will spur me on and, more importantly, support the newest members of our community.

Make your donation here, and read the #30poemsinnovember I’ve written so far here.