Thoughts About Class Privilege (from the McDonald’s Drive Thru)

Puppy preschool class ran late on Tuesday. I was trying to get home in time for the 7:00pm start of the Month six Freedom School call, and I was hungry. Pearl had gone to volunteer at a school event, and Aviva was home.

“Should I just get McDonald’s?” I asked Mani. “Why not?” she answered.

I called V, who picked up after a few rings. “Want McDonald’s?” “Um… sure!”

At the light where Maple Street intersects with Route 9 — a busy four-way intersection — we heard a loud noise. It could’ve been a gun shot or a blown transfomer. The answer came when we looked up and saw that the multiple traffic lights had all gone dark. Suddenly, the importance of paying supreme attention to what all of the other cars were doing became paramount, as it would take a few minutes before the police arrived to direct traffic. We inched our way to a left turn. Were those cars honking at me? I couldn’t tell.

When we drove up to the window at McDonald’s and I started to order, the guy apologized and said there had just been a major power outage. Did we want to wait for five minutes? Mani was hungry, too, ready to get home to make herself dinner, and now I was for sure late for my class. But we were there, so I said yes, I could wait.

I took the time to study the menu board, choosing two Value Meals — a Quarter Pounder with cheese for Aviva and a chicken sandwich with too fancy of a name (was it “Artisan”?) for myself. Both came with medium fries. “What would you like to drink with that?” the disembodied young male-sounding voice asked. “Oh, it comes with a drink?” I asked. Mani looked over at me with affectionate incredulity. How did I not know these things? I ordered one Sprite and one Diet Coke.

Then I did what I thought I should — I pulled up. But it turned out I whipped right past the window where you pay to the one where you get the food.

“Babe!” Mani said. I quickly realized my mistake and looked back over my shoulder to see an arm sticking out from the window behind us, beckoning. I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly. The car behind us had to back up a little, too. I laughed off my embarrassment in a self-deprecating way.

“You should write a book about me,” I joked to Mani. She didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah. I’ll call it ‘Marrying Up’!”

At that point we were both in near hysterics at the absurdity of the whole thing. We’re a team alright.

We really do talk about the possibility of co-writing a book about inter-class marriage; it’s not something there is pre-marital counseling for the way there is, say, for interfaith couples.

It’s something that comes up often, sometimes in hilarity as it did on Tuesday and other times in ways that unsettle our deepest held expectations, assumptions, and ideas about life. The learning curve between us has been steep at times, and the unlearning of certain social “norms,” profound.

Our McDonald’s moment ushered in memories for me that weren’t super fun to have; moments when I unconsciously exercised class privilege to the potential detriment of another human, for example. I told Mani about the time when I was 23 driving cross country, when I asked a vending machine worker for a soda while the machine was open (and thus couldn’t accept any coins). Did I stop to think that this could’ve cost him his job? Did I think I was being charming or cute in the guise of chutzpah?

Chutzpah is one thing. But it’s another altogether to think you are somehow above the rules, that the rules are always pliable, there’s always another way, a workaround, someone you could call, a conversation that could clear things up or open a door.

It’s not pretty to look at the parts of ourselves that exemplify the things we say we’re against — entitlement, white privilege, intellectual snobbery. But to not look at these, to choose to stay cloistered, sheltered, more “successful” in ways society recognizes and values, and what we may have been taught would be “safer,” is inexcusable for anyone who claims to care about justice and humanity.

The playing fields have never, ever been equal. My parents paid for my college tuition. At the age of 21, I had a degree from Barnard and no student loan debt. Mani’s life experiences had led her to a completely different reality. I remember the first time I saw her Facebook profile back around 2009, years before I had any inkling we would come to know each other, much less fall in love. Under education, it said, “Autodidactic School of Hard Knocks.” It stuck with me. Who was this person? I was intrigued.

We find our people. Finding our people across class lines, across race lines, across religions, across the aisle, across the boxes we grew up in, across systems that favor whiteness and wealth and punish poverty, as if poverty isn’t punishing enough — it’s no small miracle. And while the class divides continue to grow with so many people falling into the great chasms of lack and others clinging to bubbles of ease and comfort, class differences have in their way brought me and Mani closer.

Earlier in the week, Pearl brought home a flyer from school announcing free lunches at several apartment complexes around town over the summer. “Can we go?” he asked, his privilege so transparent. I explained to him that no, we would not be going. Why not? Because we have food in the house. We can afford lunch — and breakfast, dinner, snacks, and dessert. We can stand in front of the fridge deciding what to eat rather than wondering whether we’ll eat. I told him that this is for kids and families who don’t necessarily know when their next meal will be, not kids and families who are ordering a new swim shirt from the Land’s End website.

I told him — and continue to talk to my kids often — about these things not to shame him, and not so that he will feel guilty, and especially not so that he will feel sorry for “those people.” God help me if I ever cop an attitude of “those people.” I am desperate for my kids to grow up aware of their privilege in ways I grappled to find the language for until adulthood and continue to try to look at as directly as possible. For them to know that it’s a matter of responsibility, not charity, to care about justice. And to check their privilege as I continue to check my own, when it comes to shopping at Whole Foods but not knowing how to pay for food at the McDonald’s drive-through.

We have a long way to go. And honestly, having a spouse with such a different set of life experiences, while more challenging perhaps in some ways, opens my eyes to some of the blindspots I didn’t even know I had. (I suppose they wouldn’t be blindspots if I did; they would just be choices).

Doing the work to wake up is constant, ongoing, and more critical than ever.

The Squatter

There’s a squatter living in my head and she doesn’t pay rent.

She picks at everything I write and says: “You’re not a real writer. You write blog posts and Facebook snippets and ten-minute freewrites and none of it amounts to anything.”

She hisses: “Your books aren’t real books.” (No matter that three very real books are on the shelf.) She growls and taunts: “You need to go underground and do nothing but write for a year, get off of social media, and come talk to me when you have a manuscript.”

My wife observes that this doesn’t sound like me — and she’s right. It’s not my voice. It’s the squatter’s.

Call her my inner critic. I’m pretty sure she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as she will stop at nothing to cut me down, keep me off-balance, and make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon. We — my wife and I — go for a short walk by the river. “I feel like I’m this close” — holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to having a panic attack.” I take a deep breath and she squeezes my hand. I feel a surge of shame. “I should know better,” I think to myself.

I describe to Mani how scared I feel.

“Is it fear — or anxiety?” she asks, ever so gently. We start talking about the difference.

Fear = clear and present danger. Someone has broken into your house. Your kid was supposed to call an hour and a half ago and won’t answer her cell phone. A bear is running in your direction. You are choking. Your are a person of color and a cop has been trailing you for the last two miles. You’re being followed.

Lives are at stake. Maybe even yours.

But in this moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s the last day of February and we’re walking along a stretch of the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. I’m taking a break in my work day to go with her to our local butcher.

* * *

Earlier in the day, I paid our March rent and gave thanks. Then I looked at our PayPal balance, and my mind — or rather, that squatter — started up with me.

“This might be the month when everything stops,” the squatter had said. “And you’re getting a puppy?! What are you going to do if you don’t make enough money?”

Really, lady? Do you never take a day off?

Then I remembered: She takes plenty of days off. Then she comes around, usually for just two or three days a month, and does everything in her power to freak me out completely. She convinces me that we are going to be destitute within weeks, that I missed some kind of magical window, and that my self-employment success has been a fluke for the past three years. My number’s up.

Oh, and by the way: Me even writing the word “success” is basically professional suicide, because I’m not supposed to be proud of my work or claim that it’s going well. (Maybe she’s a Jewish squatter and this is her superstitious edge coming through?)

* * *

“No,” I tell Mani as we walk. This isn’t fear that has me in its grips. This is good old-fashioned anxiety.

How can we be sure?

It’s entirely about the future and the past. None of the things coursing through my mind are grounded in real time. I’m jumping ahead and creating all kinds of dire scenarios, inventing stories, and going back over the places where I’d surely made fatal mistakes as a new business owner — ones that everyone can surely see but me. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing comes crashing down.

I feel some relief, having told Mani what’s on my mind and weighing on my heart. So grateful for her presence and gentle reality checking.

You know what she tells me?

“You have a 100% success rate at surviving every single time you’ve ever felt anxious.”

She is right. One-hundred percent. I think back over so many of the most perilous passages of my life and can’t deny it: None of them have killed me.

* * *

It takes courage, so much courage, to keep going when there are no guarantees of anything.

The minute I return to the truth — that there is a guarantee of death — I come back to the solid ground of right now. The panic subsides, the tides go out and the full moon rises.

That night I have a dream where God tells me I’m working hard enough, doing enough, helping enough people. God tells me it’s ok to relax.

I wake up in the morning and decide to give the squatter a blanket and some lunch money. After all, she’s frightened. I’m the only home she’s got — and she keeps moving me closer towards the truth.

Outgrowing My Fear of Anger

"No woman’s anger is an island." ~ Leslie Jamison :: read more

I’m thinking about anger, and how I used to be so afraid of it.

Wednesday morning, sitting in the small waiting area while my wife gets her first mammogram. She turned 40 a few months ago. At 44, I am overdue and know I should schedule mine soon, too. I get out my phone and scroll through Facebook for a few minutes. I play with selfie filters on Instagram and post a picture of myself; my head appears to be above a blurry water line.

I think about how often women default to descriptors like “overwhelmed,” “so busy,” “crazy busy,” and “frazzled.”  I notice my own desire to distance myself from these, to claim something more grounded and peaceful.

*  *  *

The red line, 1999. I’m standing on the platform waiting for the T from the Boston Common to Porter Square. From there, I’ll walk a mile to the tiny one-bedroom Somerville apartment I share with my husband. We are newly married. I’m 25 to his 33. It’s 9:15pm; I’m coming from a three-hour graduate poetry workshop. I glance up and down the platform, which is all but empty on a Thursday night. A thought arises, seemingly out of thin air: “I’m not an angry person.”

I get home and tell him about my revelation. I feel triumphant, as if I’ve beat something, as if I’ve narrowly escaped some kind of alternate fate — the fate of anger. I do not mention the closet smoking. Or the years I was bulimic, aware that something big in me needed to be contained, choked back, and purged. I wanted the world, but also to disappear. I wanted to be invisible, anonymous — a living Emily Dickinson poem:

"I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!"

But angry? No.

*  *  *

Quick flashes: My father’s voice on rare occasions, rising in pitch. Or the smothered “s” sounds coming from behind closed doors down the upstairs hallway. Older sisters. Fights over haircuts, clothes, boys, school, drugs. A fist through a wall. Something to avoid, something to smooth over, something to make sure didn’t happen to me. Anger was my nemesis.

I granted myself permission to brood, to subvert, to sneak, to hide, to flirt, to skirt the rules, to slide under the radar, to play along, to look the part, to not fit in. But anger was one thing I did not allow. If I did, who knew what would happen? It was too risky. Anger might lead to rupture, and my young self found that to be a terrifying prospect.

The flashing thought confirming my “not angry” status is a victory of sorts, not one I sought out but that seemed to find me, confirming what the world saw: Sweet, polite, strong but not threatening. A nice person. A pretty person. Not an angry woman.

Anger was something to get a hold of. Anger was something that meant you were out of control.

Anger wasn’t warranted. What did I have to be angry about, anyway?

Life is going according to plan: Graduate school, marriage, buying a sweet duplex in Burlington, Vermont with help from parents for a down payment. Privilege, privilege — white, heterosexual, educated, employed, able-bodied, married. I want babies and community and meaning. I am hungry: For connection, deep conversations with colleagues about race and religion (I was a Hillel director, with an office in the Center for Cultural Pluralism), happiness. I go running down by Lake Champlain. I write in my journal. Poems live in the margins.

*  *  *

Back in the waiting room, I find myself wondering why I’ve historically been so frightened of anger. I take out my phone and make a list.

Fear of anger = fear of self.

Fear of anger = fear of shaking up or shattering the status quo.

Fear of anger = fear of loss (of privilege, power, identity, control, connection, perceived safety).

Fear of anger = fear of truth.

Fear of anger = fear of emotional or physical violence (your own or someone else’s).

Fear of anger = fear of confrontation.

Fear of anger = fear of uprising.

Fear of anger = fear of unknown.

Looking over these suppositions, I find myself feeling curious about the interchangeability of many of the words here. Some say all fear is at its essence fear of loss. And that anger is always a secondary emotion, masking sadness or grief or trauma.

Do I believe this? Do you? Does anger always need to be justified? Managed?

*  *  *

A friend has written about going to a “rage room.” It’s a venue designed for safely lashing out. Imagine society if everyone had access to a space like this, where anger was not only permitted, but essential. Where rather than swallowing it or causing irrevocable damage, we could turn rage outward until we were spent and ready to return to a world that is by all counts maddening with its messaging of what we are supposed to be and do?

We are supposed to be patient, compassionate, understanding, empathetic, open-minded, responsive, available, kind, and nice. We are supposed to be responsible, steady, grateful, and quiet. We are supposed to say please and thank you. We are supposed to take what we can get. We are supposed to go along to get along. We are supposed to channel our anger in productive ways.

*  *  *

I am 36. I receive a massage from a woman named Noni. My supervisor at work recommended her. “She’s amazing,” she assured me.

I arrive at Noni’s suburban condo. She comes to the door. We chat in her kitchen for a few minutes and I tell her I don’t have a particular need or complaint; I am here for general stress relief. I have a full-time job at the university, my children are seven and three, and my husband is self-employed. I am trying to write a book. I am trying to learn how to take care of myself along with everyone else.

The massage table is upstairs in a large room with curtained windows. She works on me for three hours. Three hours!

I leave feeling heightened, charged. I go sit at the counter in the window of a favorite café, writing in my journal. I write and write and write. The writing pours out of me as water over a weakened dam. Something has unlocked itself; I feel it surging. Suddenly, the amount of space I take up inside of myself has shifted, expanded. I feel powerful. And I feel… anger.

I go home and tell my husband about the massage, the writing. “I think I am angry,” I tell him. “Punch me,” he says, egging me on by poking at his chest. “Go ahead. Do it.”

I do it. I hit his chest. It feels strange, exhilarating, and terrifying. I don’t know how I will get to the bottom of this. How far does it go? How big is it? What will happen, if I follow the deluge?

*  *  *

A few months later, I come out of the closet. Everything shatters. My body refuses him. Refuses to play along, refuses to be good or nice or right. Refuses the role of wife. Refuses to “make it work.” I try, but there’s no going back. After a few months of hellish wrestling with the truth, we call it. Our marriage is over. We tell the kids. He glares at me.

There was a reason, it turns out, to fear my anger: My anger was myself.

And myself wasn’t compatible with the life I’d built, the one that followed the rules, met the expectations, looked and felt good but was always missing something, an essential component: Me. All of me.

*  *  *

One day not long ago, my fifteen-year old came home in a fit. She stormed up the stairs to our second-floor apartment, into the kitchen and through the living room to her bedroom. I could feel the anger wafting off her, like fog from a body of water. She paced circles around her room, still wearing her boots.

I knocked on the door to ask what was wrong. Had something happened or triggered her? “No,” she had said. “I’m just so fucking angry. At everything.”

And why shouldn’t she be? She’s living in a country where physical and sexual violence against women and trans people – especially those of color – are so normalized, perpetrators are able not only to run for public office but to attain the highest levels of power. Her generation has mothers who are tired and resentful, having grown up with the message that we could “have it all” and “do it all” and “be it all.”

I want her to get to be angry – especially if it means not settling, trusting her own body, using her voice, and listening hard to women from different backgrounds – especially those from oppressed groups – when they share their lived experience.

*  *  *

I’m no longer the woman in her 20s on the train platform, disavowing her anger. I’m also no longer the woman in her 30s, discovering and claiming her sexuality and agency. I’m a women in my mid-40s, divorced and remarried, self-employed, 10 pounds heavier, and more content and at peace with myself than I’ve ever been in the past.

My wife emerges from the mammogram. It was faster than I expected. I put on my hat and gloves and we head out to the snowy parking lot, talking about what it was like. And as I start the car, I realize something: I may be angry now, but I’m not angry at my life. This feels like a new revelation, one I never could’ve had 20 years ago.

The ability to be more discerning in my anger, to use it to fuel my writing, to raise my kids, to teach them to be awake to their privileges and also advocate for their own needs, to hold space where women can show up and tell the truth – breaking the world wide open, to paraphrase Muriel Rukeyser – these feel like discerning uses of my midlife anger.

* * *

A Writing Prompt

Leslie Jamison writes: “In what I had always understood as self-awareness — I don’t get angry. I get sad — I came to see my own complicity in the same logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence.”

Take some time soon to write about anger. Set a timer for 10 minutes and make a fast and furious list (see what I did there?) of associations you have with anger. You could simply start with “anger = …” and go from there, returning to this equation if you get stuck.

If you’re on a roll, ditch the timer. Don’t stop to edit yourself, worry about how it sounds, or where it’s going. Are you afraid of anger? If so, are you afraid of your own anger, someone else’s anger, or both? When have you “performed” the absence of anger? At what cost?

Free Associating and the Analyst’s Couch

Photo: Jimmy Bay

I’ve been clicking away from this screen on and off for a while now, maybe half-hour or so. I’m reminding myself of a moth — the way it will flutter and bang up against the same light over and over again. What is it trying to do or get, anyway? And why is “The Moth” storytelling show called “The Moth”? This, my friends, is what we call free associating.

I had a great therapist back in Burlington. Well, I had a few great therapists back in Burlington, but the one I am thinking of now was actually an analyst, with a couch for lying on facing away from her and everything. After my initial self-consciousness faded, I loved it. I loved her disembodied voice behind me, and how I could lie down there and just start sobbing, or be quiet for a long time. I loved how we unraveled some things that have remained deeply instructive to me, some fundamental ways of relating to myself and life that I came to see, during that year or so, I no longer needed.

Free associating has its benefits.

Friends with benefits, for example, is the next thought I have. The woman I launched into relationship with when I first came out — we tried that for a while, as a way of tempering the fact that being in a capital-R Relationship kept not working, but on the other hand we couldn’t seem to stay away from each other, either. But it was too murky for me, that territory. Turns out I didn’t much want to have sex with my friends — and that she and I weren’t really friends at all.

Stretched out on Jeanne P.’s couch is where I began to understand that I was deeply conditioned to look inward. All my life, I’d had the sensation that my internal landscape was something of a kaleidoscope; you could look and look and look and get lost in there, always more hidden, more to seek, and an inherent sense of something being missing. In a way, this was my safest place. I could maintain a focus on relationships with other people, but at the end of the day, I was alone with myself. Life with someone else, truly being seen and met and known, felt wistfully impossible.

It’s no coincidence that one of the poems I related most to was Emily Dickinson’s #640, which begins:

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

I wanted more than anything to be alone, or so I thought.

I still love being alone. As I write this, my wife is sitting across the room. Her back is to me; she’s at her computer, too. We are in the same room, breathing the same air. The kids are at my sister’s house with their dad, celebrating the Jewish new year with a potluck feast. I got sick this week and had to forego services and gatherings.

Our third anniversary is in six days, though we’ve been an item for closer to six years. In those six years, I have learned how to maintain my relationship with myself AND to wholly give myself to another. To get to have room for my needs, my experience, my desire, and my emotions AND be present for hers. That these aren’t mutually exclusive was a learning curve for me.

Bottom line: We all have real lives. There is no greener grass. And for the first time perhaps ever, I am not locked up inside of myself but rather right here. I’m free associating and giving myself permission — to to write, to free associate, to ramble, to see what happens when I explore the connections between things without an agenda. Permission is cool that way, isn’t it? And even cooler is that we get to give it to ourselves. Thanks, self!

Much of my writing about my kids these days happens behind closed doors, i.e. in secret spaces where I can write freely about my experiences as a parent without risking my kids’ trust or betraying their privacy. It’s such a huge part of life, and yet not one I write terribly much about publicly at this point. I know this is true for many women who started out blogging years ago when our little ones were, in fact, little. Now, they are not little. They are big. They are 11 and nearly 15, and there is plenty I know I don’t know about their complex inner lives and their day-to-day experiences. I try to be present to and available for them without hovering or smothering, though the latter can be a challenge for this Jewish mama who favors hugs and sharing.

See? That was a complete non sequitur. The inevitable has happened: I don’t know what I’m writing about. Kind of like towards the end of the therapy session when you can’t quite track how you got here, what you came in thinking about. I stand up and pop my sternum — it’s sore from so much sneezing and coughing over the past couple of days, but I’m on the mend.

I’m getting hungry. I glance at the clock. There is no billable hour here, no astronomical fee, and no analyst sitting behind me taking notes, nodding, occasionally making an observation or asking an insightful question. There is just me and the sound of the keys and the quiet in the room and the acceptance that this is it. This is not only what I said I wanted — it’s actually what I want.

A Little Bling Goes a Long Way

It has been months since we slept in past 8:00am. Today, getting up two or three hours later than usual felt downright delicious. Still wrapped in dreams and clean sheets and each other’s softness, waking slowly in our time. “I’m glad we woke up today,” she said, her profile looking timeless in the morning light. “Me too,” I said, giving her a kiss before throwing on a nightgown and going to make the coffee. Mmmmmm. Coffee.

In the afternoon, we went out for a few hours and had fun at Luxe, a consignment store in Northampton, trying on all manner of dresses and jewelry and each finding a couple of things that fit us perfectly and felt good to wear. It’s no small thing, to choose to feel pretty and sexy — not for anyone but ourselves and each other and because we enjoy it and we want to.

This was not always the case for me; in fact, the very first weekend Mani ever came to visit me, not three weeks after our supposed one-night stand in January 2012, we went through every item in my closet and I realized I’d been hiding my body for years.

Back then, I considered it an indulgence to buy things for myself and getting a new article of clothing was a big deal, an exciting event. I’m still not a huge shopper, but there is a certain joy in playing dress-up and occasionally coming across something I love. It doesn’t hurt when said something costs $11 or $16 or $23 and looks brand new. Mostly, though, it’s her company I enjoy.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” I said as she slipped on an unbelievable bracelet shaped like Ganesh and covered with pink rhinestones. I chose a bling-y ring that sparkled irresistibly. We drove home listening to Leonard Cohen and Laura Marling and the “American Honey” soundtrack.

I’m sitting in the quiet of the living room now. It’s 5:15pm. This morning, I shook out the little rug we bought at TJ Maxx to go under the coffee table, and it was so dusty we both started sneezing. Plus, it’s white and shaggy, the kind of thing that looks great when it’s new and clean but is irrecoverable a year or two later, not to mention impossible to vacuum. I cringed a little before tossing it, then swept and tidied up a bit. Now the space feels relatively peacefulas I look out at the rain. The sun never did make it out today.

When I woke up this morning, before I checked the time and saw how late it was, my mind was like a ransacked consignment store — articles of discarded thoughts, strands of song lyrics, and remnants of dreams like mismatched shoes strewn all over, not even remotely organized by size or color or style. After breakfast, we each chose a card from my Vintage Wisdom Oracle deck. Hers was “Centering.” Mine was “Protection.” Driving home from Northampton, I looked at the ring and thought, that’ll do.

Now I want to write something smart about protection, but truthfully I’m just feeling my way into what it means for me right now and have no wisdom whatsoever to impart. That’s how I feel most of the time about everything, come to think of it. We take for granted the things we know the most about; they seem obvious to us. We think, I have no special knowledge to share or story to tell. But the fact is, your whole day is special — the nature of your mind and the rhythm of your day are unlike any other and I, for one, want to hear about it.

Mani is on the phone in the other room and I hear the washing machine in the pantry. The books on the bookshelf are beckoning me and suddenly I want to take them all onto the floor along with magazines and glue and posterboard and markers, to dive deep into what wants to be found. There’s so much wrong with the world, and I am finding that a big part of how I’m dealing with that is to stay close to what is right here — my family, the spring flowers, poetry, and a little bling that goes a long way.