Uncomfortable

I’ve been thinking about history. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. is history; his life and his death are blMLKack-and-white pictures and lines of text in schoolbooks children read, as remote for them as World War Two or the Mesozoic. That’s natural, of course. Jewish organizations expend a lot of energy on Holocaust remembrance because it is human nature to move on, to dilute the past as we do so, so that we look back at images reflected like ripples on water. So MLK has a day on the calendar. As he should.

But it wasn’t actually that long ago that he was murdered, shot down because he wanted brown-skinned people to have the same rights and opportunities as white people. Think about that–killed in cold blood because he didn’t think anyone should have to drink from a “colored” fountain, use a “colored” entrance, struggle to find a polling place, or sit in the back of the bus.

In 2016, the Oscar nominations have overlooked the work of African Americans in the film industry. There is talk of a boycott. I am torn between supporting a boycott and hoping that brown people show up and make speeches that make everyone wriggle in their seats. In my heart, I don’t care about the Oscars issue, because I long ago tired of all these wealthy people having televised self-congratulatory events at which they receive thousands of dollars worth of gifts, just for breathing. They believe they do important work (listen to their impassioned speeches!)–and they do, as far as we need the arts. We need these expressions of beauty, of political and social rebellion, these records of culture. But I can’t help feeling that most of the people in the shiny outfits have lost sight of the real work of this world, of the way non-famous, non-wealthy people live and struggle.

The exclusion of brown-skinned people from the Oscars, though, has made me wonder about the way that racism persists. How does it go on and on in this country, when so many of us believe it is wrong-headed, see ourselves as “not racist,” have a diverse group of friends? What is the mechanism that keeps it alive?

First, there are plenty of openly racist Americans–just read any comment thread on the internet. But the rest of us, those who acknowledge privilege, examine our own thinking, edit our speech, I think we are the people responsible for the fact that police kill black people at an alarming rate, for the jails being full of brown faces, for the schools in certain neighborhoods facing challenges they cannot hope to meet.

Think about it carefully, white people and Jews. Just privately, just in your own head. What would your life look like right now if at every turn, African Americans had had an equal shot–at getting the same attention (quality and quantity) from your kindergarten teacher, at getting into the specialized high school / college / graduate school you went to, at securing the job you have now, or the promotion you earned last year? How would your life look right now if the jails were not full of black men, or if whites guilty of the same crimes were also in jail? How would your neighborhood be different if there never was another side of the tracks?

Now, just to yourself, imagine all of that has happened, there really is this sort of equality. Maybe that makes you uncomfortable, because maybe you wouldn’t have gone to that school or won that position. I am not suggesting you didn’t work hard to get where you are; I am only saying the deck was stacked in your favor all along, as compared to others.

No doubt I am being too simplistic. Not long ago, though, I had the opportunity to see what happens when even the most liberal person is forced to see his privilege. It is different when someone points it out to you–much more icky than when you think of it on your own. Such a person is very quick to cut ties with the source of his discomfort. Even those of us who truly believe in equality are maybe not so ready to give up the enormous power that comes with being light of skin. Look at how stupid and crazy that sounds! And yet there it is. I know for sure the color of my skin has served me well, even if it’s just how I get treated in a store. Twenty years ago, I enjoyed the privileges of being an attractive young person. I don’t think I feel guilty about how I have been treated. Should I? Maybe. I’m really not sure. But it does make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin to consider how my world would look if all the systemic racism were gone.

And that’s why it doesn’t go away. Because quite simply, if you’ve always been handed the bigger slice of pie, what will motivate you to give that up? Your sense of fairness? On this blog, I have in the past written about belief, and how difficult I find it–I would like to believe in a God, if only for the strength this belief appears to give people of faith. But now I wonder if belief isn’t actually pretty easy. I believe people should be treated equally, without regard to race, religion, gender, sexuality, hair color, you name it. What practice do I engage in to support that belief?

It’s not enough to recognize your advantages. You must actively work to level the playing field, and you must do it not because of the way it makes you feel, and not because of how it makes you look to others, but because it is right. It is only right.

Thinking About Dad (A Re-post)

A friend of mine recently lost her father to a long illness, and of course this got me thinking about my own dad, my own loss. This post from September 2014 means a lot to me, and so I offer it up again.

Happy birthday, Dad! If you were alive, you’d be 80 today, and I would call you and 019_16you would make silly remarks about what an old man you are and how just waking up was celebration enough.

If you were alive, you’d read my rough drafts and offer truly useful critique. You’d encourage me and treat me like a real writer.

If you were alive you’d see my children and how grown they are, and how funny, and you’d be baffled by their problems and offer me help.

If you were alive you might be writing another novel that I would show off to everyone. Or we’d just have a few drinks and write nothing at all.

If you were alive the same old tensions would babble like a brook beneath our gestures and silences. Your Englishness, my Americanitude, your maleness, my femaleness, my love for you and yours for me. Your wife’s inability to hide her dislike of me. My efforts to hide my dislike of her, in my still-child mind a feeble replacement of my mother.

If you were alive, you’d still be mine.

If you were alive, we’d figure this out.

 

Bi the Way, (A Love Letter to My Husband)

I am bisexual. I have not said it in public before, except once at a PFLAG meeting, largely out of respect for my marriage and the man I am committed to in that marriage. I’m not even sure I actually used that word; I probably did a fine little dance all around it. Also, it has taken many years for me to own that name. One of my own children encouraged me to own it. And how can I tell that child it is great to be “out” if I am not? Children need example, not words.

What does being bisexual mean about me, about who I am in relation to you?

I have two kids I love without measure. I have two dogs. I’m Jewish. I go to synagogue sometimes to be in the company of other Jews. I don’t believe in a God, but I respect those who do. I don’t respect people who use their belief in a God to damn others. I’m left-handed, but only for eating, writing, and crocheting. Sometimes I have tremendous doubts about my life and the decisions I’ve made. Most of the time I love where I am and who I am. I love my very straight husband. Deeply. Romantically. Academically, too. Sometimes I want to hit him. (I don’t do it.) I love my friends fiercely, for they have so often been my family to me. When they hurt me, I am deeply hurt. When they show me love, I am thrilled. I often eat too little. I often drink too much. I love hot yoga. I hold grudges and try very hard not to. I want to be more forgiving. I am sensitive to criticism but need and want it. I think farts are funny. I am a terrible housekeeper. Really. Awful.

I’m in an odd position, I guess, though not an unusual one. A lot of women who like women are married to men. I have read about sexual fluidity in women–it’s more typical than not. I know only very few women who have never been sexually attracted to another woman. And most of my female friends are straight.

My sexuality is much more of a problem for others than it is for me. Like any other married person, I sometimes look at other humans I find attractive. The gender of the person is irrelevant, as far as I am concerned; I’m only looking. To do anything else would be cheating, would be disloyal, would be wrong. I am married. For some of my female friends my sexuality is a problem for them they haven’t recognized. Some might feel hurt that they are not my “type.” Others may wonder if my behavior toward them is motivated by sexual attraction (it isn’t). Still others may be hoping I’ll make a move on them (I won’t). Sometimes when things get weird between us I wonder if their knowledge of my bisexuality is somehow in the mix of emotions. I usually end up telling myself that my sexuality has nothing to do with it. It’s easier.

Respect for my husband kept me in the closet because of what others might say to him or think of him–because somehow his manhood is compromised by my attraction to some women. Because the ignorant will assume he’s being cheated on (because people who “claim” bisexuality are just whores), and that he’s a chump for staying married to me. Because some people will think that he’s married to a lesbian who’s too scared or repressed to admit she’s a lesbian. And that he, therefore, is gay. My husband does not care if someone thinks he is gay. He does not feel like less of a man. And if a man finds him attractive, he takes it as a compliment.

As I write this and read it over, line by line, obsessively, I am weighing the impact of these words on my life and my husband’s life–family members for whom this is news–other people who know me in social or professional contexts. It is a risk. It could be that some relationships will be hurt or even ended. It could be that some people I love will suddenly feel awkward in my (or our) presence. Of course, I hope none of that happens. I like to believe that at this point in my life (way too close to 50!), I have surrounded myself with people who understand me and who believe in loving the whole person, not just the parts that they find palatable. I have friends with deeply held beliefs that are the opposite of my own. But those friends are good people who aim to be a positive force in their lives and who are kind and generous. That is what I see and love in them. I hope they will see the good in me.

As a new (secular) year approaches, I find that I have reached an unexpected place. And when I have the presence of mind to reflect on that, I am filled with gratitude and joy. Professionally, I am right where I want to be at this moment, working on creative projects with “inner city” kids–the kids I grew up with–reading and writing and planning and dreaming about ways I can grow these programs to reach out to even more kids. Personally, I have a circle of upstanding, interesting, smart women friends, women with diverse talents, experiences, and opinions. My children are wonderful and daily overcoming obstacles. Culturally, I live in a city whose time to embrace the arts has come, I have a Jewish community when I want it, and I have access to a great deal of potential in the city, as yet untapped. It is exciting.

But what about my partner in crime? I do respect him. We’ve been married for fifteen years. Those years have held a startling number of difficult circumstances outside of our control. But we are also happy. We find each other interesting and funny. We like to talk with each other and also just sit quietly. We learn from one another. Our children drive us mad and amuse us by turns. We worry about them together and take turns talking each other off the clock tower. We’ve had plenty of arguments and therapy, rough patches, times when we needed some help to get back to teamwork. And we always get back. I cannot begin to imagine another human who knows me as well or would be as willing to live with me. Lucky me! It is this rock on which I stand that gives me the courage to share these words.

With gratitude.

Jews Are Ruining Christmas, Again

chanukahtree

Monday was a great day; in the morning I went with my work partner and friend to look at a senior center where we might offer memoir writing classes. Afterward, we went to a pleasant coffee shop to have a drink and talk. Then my friend showed me a great used book store–the kind I like, a real rabbit warren of a place. The only thing missing were creaky, wood floors and bookish tweed-wearing clientele in dark corners. We asked for art books, and the woman running the place, a short, plump woman with grizzled gray hair and an open face, showed us where they were.

When I was paying for my books, I got into a conversation with the bookseller that I wish had never happened.

The Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island had changed up its traditional mall Santa photo area, and instead of trees and elves and icicles and candy canes, there was nothing but Santa and a futuristic sort of clam shell, intended to be a glacier, to block out all the shops from the photos.

The comment thread on the article I read was full of angry customers talking about how ridiculous this was, and they were all suggesting in indirect and direct ways that “people” had complained about the traditional set-up, and that’s why this horrific change had taken place. As someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’m well aware of who these “people” are they’re talking about. One guy just went ahead and typed, “Keep the Jews out of Christmas!” Clearly, this man does not know too much about his messiah. And that’s really the part of the story I wanted to talk about, because it was funny–about the guy who doesn’t know Jesus was Jewish.

The bookstore woman, who is actively trying to restore a Santa tradition that’s outside her local mall said, “Oh, yes, I read that story too! Just ridiculous.”

We agreed; if you’re going to have a mall Santa, you might as well have the decorations that go with it. But that wasn’t all the bookseller had to say. “People complained,” she said, “you know, people, from…from other religions.”

Uh-oh.

“Actually, I don’t think so,” I said. “It was just some odd corporate decision to have this sleek, modern Santa setup.” I hoped I was right.

If Christmas weren’t an important holiday economically, I’d be a big fan of getting the whole thing out of the mall, out of my kids’ schools, out of public spaces generally. It’s hard for December revelers to know what it’s like to be so inundated and overwhelmed with a religious holiday not their own. And so very many people don’t treat Christmas as the religious holiday it is, so they don’t know why their nativity scene is a bother. Because they see it as an American holiday rather than a Christian one, they are frustrated by anyone’s no-Christmas-in-public-spaces stance. And if it’s an American holiday, where does that leave American Jews, American Muslims, American Hindus, American Buddhists, and all the rest of us? I like many things about the holiday; some of the music is lovely. I like that it makes my Christian friends happy. I like looking at over-decorated houses. In New York, I always enjoyed walking past the tree sellers and deeply inhaling the sweet pine scent. It always felt even more special somehow if there was snow on the ground. People were cheerful; my office was full of treats homemade and mailed in, and I was invited to parties. I also like to pick special gifts for the Christmas-celebrating folks I love. But at no point do I forget that the holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. And that’s why “Merry Christmas” is annoying, even if it’s well-meant.

Try to imagine how you might feel if it seemed the entire world was celebrating a Middle Eastern-style Muslim holiday; everywhere you went, from Target to the drug store, even the vacuum repair shop, the library, school, the office, the walls were decked with Middle Eastern decorations. America is Muslim, and you are the Christian minority. Every time you went shopping for anything, you would have Middle Eastern holiday music in your ears. This music would burst forth from loudspeakers on mosques and masjids all over your city, on the hour. Everywhere you went, people would wish you “Eid e Milad un Nabi!” Sounds interesting, actually. Year after year, though, as you waded through this tsunami of exclusion, you would begin to resent it. You might even say, “what about my holiday?” And then you might inflate a minor holiday on your calendar in an effort to combat your sense of drowning. You could get decorations for your holiday from niche market internet stores and be the lone house on your street decked out in the wrong colors. You would try to make this minor event exciting for your kids so that they felt less excluded, so they could feel good about the traditions from which they come, so they would not feel crappy about not being a part of the culture of their country.

But back to the bookstore. After I suggested that the new mall décor was a corporate decision, the woman behind the counter said, “Probably the Jews.”

I said nothing. What could I have said? “Uh, I’m Jewish”? I took the books I had already paid for (I dropped $47 in that goddam place) and walked out, saying nothing.

I got back into my car, and as I moved down the road, I realized I was in shock. I felt as though a stranger had walked up to me on the street and slapped me in the face hard enough to bring stinging tears to my eyes. I am used to reading anti-Jewish sentiment online, particularly as December approaches. But as much as I am aware of antisemitism, I have rarely had anyone say something so directly hostile to me about Jews. I’ve had people make stupid jokes and comments, and ask poorly worded, ignorant questions. But that is nothing to having someone look right at you and blame you for something–in a voice full of derision.

I have talked to my kids about white privilege, about the issues African American (and other non-white) parents worry about while their children are out and about, things that we do not think about. I have talked about the injustice of that, have tried to make them understand that encountering the world is different for different people. And I think they get it. But only as much as one person can understand someone else’s experience.

There’s no denying that this country has been far better to my people than most other places around the world; one might argue that it is still the safest place on earth for a Jew to live. The time when people put signs in the window telling Jews, Irish, and Blacks not to apply (for the job or apartment) has passed. There’s no sign in the window. Now it’s a secret.

Jewish people live with the secret every day. It doesn’t compare to the experience of a brown-skinned person in America, though. Most Jews (except Jews of color) live safely cradled by their white privilege. They don’t fear that their sons will be shot by the police for no reason. They don’t get followed around stores as though they were criminals. Getting a taxi isn’t a big deal, except at rush hour. They aren’t hypersexualized by the media. They don’t feel a need to live up to some notion of their existence imposed upon them by other people. They aren’t considered lazy or freeloaders or welfare queens or drug addicts. Mostly, Jewish people are ignored, except in December, when American Jews insist on playing up that pesky little festival, Chanukah. We are invisible.

And that’s where the trouble is. Because someone who has a problem with African Americans, or Latinos, or Asians, or Arabs, for instance, will always have a problem with us, too. We are on “the list.”

My husband used to find it very funny that I didn’t think of myself as white. But it is this list that makes me say so. Reasons to hate us are about the same as the reasons to hate the other groups; stereotypes, fears, ignorance, and intolerance are layered on top of one another so that such people walk around in a shell of their own stupidity so thick that knowledge actually just bounces off it. And of course, our presence means lots of annoying and hypocritical “holiday” parties and “holiday” trees and the like. Sometimes someone will mistake me for a white person and say something derogatory about blacks. They think I’m in on the joke, but the truth is, I am the joke.

I have thought before that I would write about being a member of an “invisible minority.” A man wearing a kippah is a man showing the world to what group he belongs. But for most American Jews, there are no outward signs. Unless you believe we all have big noses and bad hair. So people disparage us right to our faces; most would probably not say anything hateful if they knew who they were talking to. This kind of racism scares me because it is in hiding. And it’s terribly hard to fight what you cannot see.

* * *

See a Facebook page devoted to boycotting all the malls owned by Simon malls: https://www.facebook.com/BoycottSimonMalls/timeline

The original description of their raison d’etre (since softened considerably): “This is a page dedicated to boycotting Simon Malls new glacier Santa experience. Apparently they’d rather please the minority [italics mine] & not the majority.”

The mall’s response: “We’ve listened to our shopper feedback the last few days and the idea that we eliminated Christmas trees in order to “not offend” anyone is simply not true. We’re still adding in key elements to the Santa set this week and after hearing our customer concerns we will now be including a traditional Christmas tree as one of those elements. Together, the mix of traditional and modern design will create a magical North Pole and a new family tradition. Come and explore this modern and interactive experience.”

FYI, it’s not just the defenders of Christmas, either; others have also called for a boycott of Simon malls: http://www.2acheck.com/boycott-simon-malls/. These guys are pissed that they can’t come to the mall fully armed.

The “Writing Life,” as Explained to Me by an Expert

When I was working on my second graduate degree, an MFA in creative writing, someone had the brilliant idea to bring in professional writers to talk to us about the writing life. Unfortunately, the guests weren’t always as great as the idea itself. One evening, as we gathered around the conference table, the speaker was introduced to us by our professor–that night’s guest had been in school with our quite successful instructor, who had published a number of books, one of which got a lot of national attention. Her friend, well, not so much.

Nonetheless she was a writer and therefore qualified to talk to us about what it’s like to live that life. I was certainly the oldest student in the class, but most of the time that was not a problem for me. This evening, though. Well. We were told to max out our credit cards, whatever we had to do financially so that we wouldn’t have to let employment get in the way of writing time. We were told not to have kids whatever we do, because there was no way we were ever going to write anything if there were kids taking up our time. My favorite part of the conversation was when a classmate asked about getting an agent. Our speaker had an agent, all right–our professor’s. Seems the best way to get one to me! Hope I have a really successful writer friend who hooks me up, too.

Instead of laughing maniacally and calling her a nutbag, I will address her points one at a time.

  1. Telling young people to max out their debt has got to be the stupidest, most irresponsible piece of advice I’ve ever heard. Clearly the woman never wastes time reading a newspaper. Nothing like starting out a life likely to be impecunious with staggering, unpayable debt.
  2. I sat there, a mother of two, while she told us that mothers won’t write a word. Did I mention I am a mother of two, one a child with special needs, was a full-time college professor, and a full-time graduate student, taking care of my kids, writing my butt off?
  3. The right response to the question about agents would have been, “Don’t worry about an agent while you’re still working out who you are as a writer.” Additionally, she might have said, “I can’t really speak to that, anyway, because the only reason I have an agent is that my famous friend did me a favor.” That’s the kind of honesty we can all get behind, isn’t it?

Here’s what my writing life looks like. My alarm goes off at 6:30 am, and I begin the long and torturous process of waking my teenager. That is, if I’m able to bound out of bed right away, which is unlikely, given that my nine-year-old has been in bed with us, kicking me all night. In the kitchen, we drink coffee and make lunches and feed the dog and discuss when the dog walked and how much he pooped.

When everyone is ready, and don’t mistake this as a simple process–there’s yelling and crying and demands for weird breakfasts and a lot of “has anyone seen my…?” before anybody is ready to head out the door. Husband and son leave first. Then I drop my daughter at her school and pray I don’t get a call ten minutes later asking me to go home to retrieve whatever she forgot. On a very good day, I go from there to yoga. Home for a shower, a dog walk, food, and then writing and reading. That all happens if I don’t have groceries to buy, other errands to run, appointments, cleaning, cooking, and other minutiae to tackle (a bad day). I used to do all this stuff while holding down a full-time job. And in all honesty, I don’t know how I did it.

If I’m very lucky, I get two hours that are all mine. In that time, I write, I do research, I read good books (right now I’m reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, and it’s fantastic).

Then it’s time to pick up kids, deal with homework and dinner and extracurriculars. After dinner, there may be time to read some more, but now I’m too tired to write. Bed sometime between 9:30 and 11, ready to do it all again the next day.

And that is as much a writing life as the one this woman tried to sell us that night. It’s just a bit more firmly grounded in reality.

Next time: Rage vs. Outrage

I Miss My Daughter

My almost-thirteen-year-old girl still lives with us–at least I think so. Sometimes I’ll hear a sudden burst of laughter or a snatch of her singing emanate from the direction of her bedroom, so I’m pretty sure she’s in there.

I see so many images of the American teenager, jokes about their refusal to look happy in front of their parents, their retreat into the world of their headphones, cell phones, video games. It’s a stereotype. And it’s one I was sure we were avoiding. We have family time–Friday night dinners, movie night, post-Sunday-school lunches out, walks. We used to have a story time and a game night, but the kids couldn’t agree on the books, and now my daughter won’t play board games. So we have game night with our son.

But it feels wrong. She finishes her dinner before the rest of us, and she leaves the table, disappearing into her room in a hurry to get back to One Direction, FaceTime with her BFFs, her DS, her drawing. We’ll get home from school, and she’ll put her stuff down and disappear. When we are sitting in the living room reading or talking or watching something our son wants us to see on his iPad, she’s in her room. When we watched Cosmos as a family, she was willing to be in the room with us, but she was otherwise occupied.

I have confronted her, especially since she spends all that time in her bed. I know what depression looks like, and this has me worried. She insists she’s not depressed. Most recently she told me her room is the only place she “fits in.” But how could this be true? Her friends love her, her family loves her, we are always trying to get her to spend time with us. She’s smart and funny and fun to hang out with. I have even made a rule that she is allowed a certain amount of alone time after school, and then she needs to COME OUT OF HER ROOM.

This has been bothering me for a while, but tonight it really hit me. I was out with the dog and the kids, having asked them to come with me on a walk. My son insisted on riding his scooter, and my daughter insisted on bringing her phone and headphones. She could not hear me when I spoke to her, and she made such a show of pausing the music so I could repeat myself that I just said “never mind” and walked on. I’m the grownup. I make the rules. But I’m human, and this hurts. I was walking alone, the dog intent on squirrels, my son hell-bent on self-destruction, my daughter lost to the song Harry Styles was singing just to her. Maybe this is the way of things. She is growing up, separating herself from me, having opinions different from mine, wanting ideas just for herself.

I want her to be independent, to have thoughts and opinions. But I also want to guide her, to help her think about the world so that those opinions are grounded in something beyond a rumor spread on the internet. I want to help her negotiate friendships and middle school and puberty and mean kids. I want to make sure she knows what to do in moments of danger.

She is open with me about a lot of things that many kids are not. Her confidences give me hope that she sees me as a safe person, as someone who can be trusted with her secrets or confused pubescent sense of self. We share many happy moments, singing, lusting after Harry, joking, being gross, cuddling. But the spaces between these moments are growing wider every day. So I treasure them, because I know I’ll spend the rest of my life missing her more often than not.