November 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I feel most American, each year, on the day that Beta celebrates her citizenship.
“I’m an numberican!” she trumpets across the house.
She borrows our cell phones to call family, her art teacher – her closest friends. She asks them to come and celebrate her place in the land of the free and the home of the brave. “Come for dinner!” I hear her calling out.
And, they always do.
On Beta’s numberica day, we make “hamdburders,” fries – and I give her tiny sips of American brewed beer while she giggles about all the trouble we’re going to get into with Mom.
In piles the family! We spend the night laughing and talking and eating, and she proudly beams from her spot at the table where her face is only slightly more flushed than it is when she sings out an off-tune “NUMEEERICA! NUMBEEERICA!” from her perch beside Dad each year on July 4th.
I try and tell her about Sanite Belair, Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution – about the bullet holes across from her orphanage where we lived and the way her people have fought for their title as the first black republic, but her eyes glaze over a little bit, and she wants to repeat her name to me: “Bethany Grace Knox.”
“Gwace for my gwamma – Daaaddy’s Mom, she die before I came.”
That’s right, baby girl.
She’s taken hold of her legacy with both her little hands.
And, that’s the USA at its best and purest – for me. That is the day that I feel proud to be a Californian, an Irish/Scottish/English/Cherokee mix and a citizen of a country that had the good sense to welcome someone who exudes the kind of life sunshine my baby Haitian does for me.
We all have things – people – in our lives that remind us why it is that we love where we come from – and this kid is mine.
The past few holidays in my family have been difficult. I know we’ve all felt like cancer, among other things, stole the season from us – and we’ve been in separate places celebrating in whatever ways we could manage. Sometimes, that has meant that we all come together and we laugh and cry at intervals and go ahead and embrace the bittersweet feeling of “us” without all of “us” being present ever again. Sometimes it means we won’t. Sometimes it means we can’t.
That was me this year – unable to nab a flight home for Thanksgiving despite my best efforts.
I’m used to my great uncles rumbling out political complaints over third turkey helpings, and the yearly fight with Gramps over his insistence on stuffing the already finished stuffing with olives. And, of course, that terrible awkward second cousin who always corners me for a long chat about…missionaries? At any rate, there’s also all my aunts, in the kitchen laughing and talking and gossiping and the smell of my grandmother’s perfume, which takes me right back to the heart of life every time she wraps me in her safe embrace.
None of that is happening this week. So – not one to be defeated - I’ve sought for new ways to discover the holiday spirit in New York City. Walking through Central Park yesterday, I put my iPhone away and listened to conversations instead of music. And, there it was – different than I’ve ever felt it before, but no less unmistakable, and no less sweet.
It was in the Swedish boys who asked me directions to the Swedish cottage and smiled shyly with a, “we have no idea what is, we just saw the word ‘Swedish’ and we’re off!” in the German father pushing his laughing, squealing baby in a stroller race with his toddler on her trike, in the Southern drawl of the family to my left, posing for a picture in front of the lake – “this is the same spot as last year! The EXACT spot!”
The spirit about the city smacked of Beta – it was in immigrants on the subway and folks visiting from overseas, it was in those who already celebrated Ramadan, and those who are about to celebrate Christmas. It was in the packed out walkways and the too-full trains – it was this unmistakable sense that nothing is normal, and no typical celebration trumps another. Instead, it was a city that’s accepted all of us, no matter our normal or typical or “what I usually do,” kind of background – replacing it with the human experience of love, family and – for some of us – a lively group of Jewish friends adopting us for the day because, “you can’t spend your first New York holiday alone!”
Later on, it was in the phone calls and texts from a certain 9-year-old stealing my Mom’s phone to ask for my address so she can send me handmade decorations for “Chwistmas.”
Unexpectedly, it was also in my very own duplex this morning as holiday music filtered in through my bathroom ceiling.
My landlord is a crotchety war vet from the Dominican Republic who can hardly speak English – but he sure does love my mother’s favorite Nat King Cole Christmas album. And, standing there half dressed with tears in my eyes, I was aware – more than ever – that this season has never once been about a singular experience and yet, at the same time? It most certainly has.
It’s about the collective experience of celebration. It’s about feeling the warmth of the human spirit, and the love we have to give each other – no matter where we come from, or what makes us feel it most acutely.
And right there, alone in Brooklyn for the first time on the holidays, I felt that spirit so acutely that my little heart soared.
Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have a Kosher thanksgiving to attend.
July 4, 2012 § 3 Comments
On twitter last week, a Jezebel writer wrote that she’d seen a girl crying on her cell phone outside a bar.
“Never going to be that girl again,” she tweeted.
I starred it.
I’m not sure what the technical proximity is to whether or not you’re “outside the bar” but I was two blocks from 10th and Willow on Sunday when the tears hit hard. God. Some guy looked at me all judgmental like maybe I’d been dumped and needed to pull it together, and I wanted to pull my phone away from my face and cuss the shit out of him that I really just missed my mom.
He was gone by the time I got relieved I hadn’t done that. I mean, crazy crying girl you think is pathetic because she’s dumped actually turns around and yells at you for raising your eye brows because she misses her mother?
But I digress. It wasn’t even my mom in particular that I missed, although it was her voice that brought the tears. It happened like it did when I was 14 and calling home from a summer camp I never wanted to go to. God. Mom! This is hard. I don’t know where I fit. I don’t like the planned activities! Can I come home yet?
Nothing’s going like I planned, Mom.
I came to New York looking for gold. I was told it would be difficult, building a life here for myself. But I’m more than a dreamer – I’m a do-er. I’m a make it happen -er, I’m a hustler, I’m a bust balls till it comes to life -er. And, that’s why I came.
A friend told me tonight that I was a ball buster. “You’re organized and you push hard,” he said. “You push really hard.”
He meant it positively. But I know I push so damn hard I break. That’s what the two-blocks-from-the-bar cry was. I broke. Done. Over. Finished. Don’t ask me for one more thing, New York. I’m out of steam, chutzpah, bravery. Cut me some slack. Hand me a friend. Give me a break.
I felt utterly alone this weekend. Not just alone, but alone in a place with a lot of people where no one really knows me. There’s not a sofa for miles that I could curl up on and feel understood without explaining myself.
This kind of echoing aloneness has happened twice in my life. It happened for the first time in Haiti, when I had signed on for a summer of volunteerism in Port-au-Prince. I was 18. I showed up excited. Two weeks in, without running water or internet and tired of my developing heat rash, all I wanted was to lie flat and silent on American soil for hours. It happened again at 20, in Washington DC when I got the phone call that my 7-year-old cousin’s cancer had relapsed. No one even knew the name, “Max,” or what it meant to me. Hell, my roommates were still learning my name. I came downstairs to a flirtatious guy from across the hall and a long guilt trip about my refusal to come on a late night dessert run.
I told the flirtacious guy to get the fuck out of my apartment, and I cried in the shower until my ribs hurt.
I kissed him two years later at a pool party in downtown Los Angeles, and I told him I was sorry. He smiled, like people who know you do, and he said, “we were both in bad places.”
Thing is, I look back on Haiti and DC as two experiences that changed my life completely. I’m so glad I stayed, pushed through – made myself keep going past the point of lost chutzpah. I wouldn’t trade them for the world – difficult editors, heat rash, flirtacious guy et all. They were places that made me who I am. Not to mention summer camp. It took one week, and only one, for me to learn that I’m just not a group activity kind of girl. Don’t ask me to make a human web with six other people cause I’m just not down. I’m also not a fan of capture the flag, boys named Josh or sloppy joes. And, these are important things to know about oneself.
Anyways, I just kept right on crying and telling my mom how much I love New York City and how much I made the right choice and how my business is growing and all the amazing contacts I’ve made and how I want a flat in Tribeca someday, and all the things about my life I love. “I made the right choice, Mom,” I sobbed into my big mascara pools. “It’s just that I’m lonely. This is the part of the process I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to deal with.”
My mom told me I sounded good. Me. With my big mascara pools and my Monday morning hangover, with my 1.5 friends who both had plans for the 4th of July, and my tiny, loft bed and room in a corner of New Jersey I never planned on living in.
“You sound like you again,” she told me. “I was worried we’d lost you for a minute there – like your light went out, but here you are, back sounding like my daughter.”
I’m big, you know. I have big emotions and a big laugh, and I have a lot of things to say. And, sometimes, I cry till my rib cages hurt, half drunk on the phone with my mom.
Not because anybody broke my heart. But, just…you know, process. Real life. Messy. Not figured out.
Learning to be okay with it.
Tonight, I watched fireworks from my New Jersey balcony with a Portuguese woman I barely know. She asked me why I wasn’t out, and I got emotional again.
“I just couldn’t do the fourth without my family,” I said. “Just my cousin died last year. He loved the fourth. I don’t have people here. Well, not people I want to cry in front of all night. I just, you know. I needed to do it differently.”
“Ah,” she nodded at me. “Saudade.”
It’s a Portuguese word. She told me we don’t have an English word for it. Instead, we have about 12: “a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone.”
My friend used eight, “you miss that which is not with you.”
She told me that sometime, when I was ready, I would have to matar as saudades.
To matar or kill your saudades is to return to what was, so that you can come away and live again without it. She told me that she could tell I didn’t need it now, but when the saudades took over, and I could no longer go on with the weight of it, I would need to return to matar my saudades.
“You’re not there in your process,” she told me. “You’re beginning a life here. But, sometime, you’ll need to return to your old life and grab a piece of it so you can keep going with this one.”
She told me that she misses Portugal – the old village life, where your neighbors recited your family’s names six generations back, and the history of each family mattered so much that ordinary folks were treated with importance. She can’t go back to that anymore – it doesn’t exist in the modern world, she said. But she’s found her grounding – and a kind of matar as saudades – in the traditions of a Jewish Synagogue near where she lives. And, that’s working for her. That’s her piece – the part that keeps her process moving forward.
When the fireworks started, they were positioned behind two tall trees across the way from my third story apartment. I got frustrated, but my friend smiled at me.
“Look,” she said. “Life gave you a way to process. You can take them from here, can’t you? You can handle the celebration through the trees, from your balcony, here, with me.”
I nodded, and felt the tears running down my face again. Matar as saudades will have to wait because I’m still okay, here. I’m learning that – if we let it – life gives us just, exactly, what we can handle. Not more. Not less. It’s in accepting exactly the next thing, and then the next thing after that, that we continue moving forward. This is how we create relationships and start lives for ourselves in places where we wonder where we fit. That’s the only way we ever do fit.
Next year, I’m sure I’ll wander down to the water front and have a few cold ones with people I’ve come to know and love. Who knows, maybe I’ll even plant a big wet one on judgmental cell phone conversation guy, should we ever become friends.
Regardless, I’m set on having allowed for my process. I’ll be ready to be celebrating with the joyous throngs of bright red tourists and my fellow NYCers. Or, maybe, if I’ve found I just can’t take it anymore around that time, I will have taken a few days vacation to go back to Northern California and smell the hot, dry earth and hug my mother. Matar as saudades at its finest, in the hot California air.
For now, I’m cozied up in my bed after spending the fourth exactly how I was ready to, here in my new home.
Come this Saturday, I know my friend will be headed out to the synagogue. And, me? I’ll be headed out into the city again to take another shot at my new life in a place full of people who don’t really know me.
I’m not sure where I’ll be, or who I’ll end up with.
But, regardless of where I am, I know that I’ll be able to take it, and to take whatever comes the week after that. And, one of these weeks, I’m going to find that sofa where I can curl up on and feel understood without explaining myself.
Until then…you know, process. Real life. Messy. Not figured out.
Learning to be okay with it.
April 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Job wrote that God gives and takes away. He reached this epiphany after losing a number of children, his home, his servants and cattle – and being given back to three fold after he had been properly tested on a stage for all the spiritual realm to gather round and watch. He was taken to task in the heavenlies – a reality I wonder if he missed until the afterlife, when I imagine God saying something like – “here’s the playback on this one.” Or perhaps it’s a little more like Oural, who read and reread her case before the gods until she ran out of words – and, then, had nothing to say. Her answer was in the questioning. Her need was met in her ability to shake her fist in the court of the immortals. And, afterward, she had peace.
I was 12 when they told us my aunt was pregnant with Max. 12, and swimming with four cousins and three brothers. We hooted and hollered and moaned that we wouldn’t meet him for seven months or so. And, then, we doted. We adored. We made room. Two years later, we battled cancer – all of us, together, for seven years. I’m familiar with the look on a woman’s face when her son’s life is in danger, the look on a woman’s face when her son is dying and the look on a woman’s face after her son has died. What I wasn’t familiar with was the look on a woman’s face when life has returned – and God turns the tables to give life instead of death.
I was too young to recognize what birth brought with it. I grew up with cancer.
I haven’t been in a hospital since Max died. I haven’t wanted to be. I have memories of watching the monitor – his breathing marked by a thin blue line, and the room being quiet except for my grandfather counting – “seven seconds.”
Was that a breath?
My uncle climbed into the bed with his boy, and asked for one more snuggle.
Mom and I signed in at Sutter Roseville at 10:05 this morning. “I put this visitor sticker on anywhere?” The visitor’s stickers had been yellow the night Max died. I left mine on my sweater for weeks. I didn’t wear my sweater for weeks.
The stickers this morning were hot pink. And, it was morning. Max died in the morning, but when I saw him last it was night, and raining so hard I ran through the parking lot. Today, Mom and I sauntered underneath spring blossoms.
I waited while she grabbed her book out of the car – me and my americano, staring at my Chuck Taylors I had laced up in honor of Max, and how much he would have loved this day. “He’s coming soon!” my mom announced like a cheer. I paused a moment heading upstairs. “Room is to the left, number 18.” When Max was dying, Gramps came down to get me. Nobody was going to tell me what room to go to to watch my family member die. That’s not how we work. No, I was going to get held the whole way – held by arms that have been there for every crisis in my life – big muscles and big paws, ship tattoo, the smell of cigars and near beer, and a “baby, I know we’re losing him.” I don’t know the room number. I don’t remember the floor.
But, “It’s a beautiful day to be born!” – my mom kept repeating it.
This baby was early - “baby” because the sex was a surprise. We called baby “critter.” Half the family was gone on a necessary cross country trip, and grandma was in tears on the phone – missing new life, missing the healing, the time where God must have decided that He’d had enough of taking from us, when it comes to children, and He gave back. Calvin Blue doesn’t know that yet – doesn’t know that he wasn’t just a baby, coming, he was a divine healing, a new start – a Louie L’amour kind of reckoning – “There will come a time when you believe that everything has come to an end – that will be the beginning.”
I FaceTimed Grandma into the room, her face bright with the reality of being there. Gramps had a glass of wine “hey baby! We’re there with you!” The nurse kept redirecting my iphone entourage – “try here, a better view.”
I thought of how Max loved birthdays. I watched the monitor again as the time on the thin white line got closer and closer together instead of further and further apart. A conversation with my insurance agent came back to me. Northern California is a small world in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. When I called to cancel my policy, she asked when the baby was due. Then she said, “I always wonder if there’s a piece of those who have left us in the new little ones that come after they’ve gone.”
There must be, because I felt Max more strongly than ever day Calvin Blue was born.
When the doctor arrived, Grandma’s face on my phone got serious, and I imagined it must be a bit like they say it is watching a groom’s face on his wedding day. My grandmother’s first grandchild being born after a death was an hour of elation, of new beginnings – of life beginning again – there was angst, there was expectation – there were tears, there were exclamations – and, somewhere between his first cry and the first time he nursed, there was champagne, and a “don’t you just love technology?”
Gramps hollered, “Look at them legs! We’ve got us a boy!”
A friend of mine that called the morning Max died wrote on a photo I posted of Calvin this afternoon. She said, “Life comes back. A wise friend told me that.”
I had forgotten I believed that – until today.
And, until tonight, I’d forgotten that I was wearing the same yellow sweater I had on the night that Max died.
But, this time, I ripped my visitor tag off before I’d realized it. And, I might even wear this sweater again tomorrow.
Dad and I drank a glass of wine the night of Calvin’s birthday. Half way through, I had a moment to myself in the kitchen. I found myself crying, then. My mom found me. “Sorry,” I said. “I just keep thinking of how much Max would have loved today.”
She turned around, eyes blurry, and smiled.
“Oh baby, he did. Couldn’t you tell? He was there. He saw.”
I’m sure he saw me crying, too – and wondered why one would do such a thing on a birthday – especially one that came after deep, deep sorrow.
November 18, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was twelve, in a white Jessica MicClintock dress. I thought I was getting the hang of it.
In high school, we danced again. It was my grandmother’s retirement party, and my success didn’t come so fast. I moved to New York soon after, where I used to cry over the smell of mandarins at Christmas, and miss Gramps’ smell, and the way he teaches me to dance.
He pulled me out on the dance floor again at 19, in jeans and red flats. Newly moved home. Newly broken heart. “You gotta move with me – like this!” He’d pull me in – “you go back when I go forward. No, dammit. Not like that.”
I started getting the hang of a few steps as the song ended. Gramps was laughing.
At 21, he pulled me out again when I begged him to try and teach me to jitter bug just one more time. We danced at a benefit for our baby, Maxwell. Nine years old, and relapsing with Leukemia for what felt like the thousandth time. Were we going to make it?
I was aware, that night on the dance floor, that I didn’t have the hang of the jitter bug at all. My steps were sloppy. My movements were mechanic. And, it just wasn’t coming to me. I sat on a table drinking and watching my grandparents move together effortlessly. I raised my drink when Gramps turned and yelled “see how it’s done!?”
And Max died less than a year later.
I cried in Jeremy’s arms. “Can’t we just do another fundraiser!?” He didn’t say anything except, “I won’t leave you.” And, somehow, that was enough.
I’ve learned, over the past year, that those words are the most important ones. I said them to my Ugandan family when I promised that I won’t stop coming back. I said them again, without words, the first time I sent a paycheck to the women I work with in Kakooge. We all said them to Beta when her adoption was finished last fall. And, I said them back to Jeremy in his living room two months ago when it came time for me to return to Sacramento – “I’ve got to go, but I won’t leave you.”
See, these are words that have nothing to do with geography. They’re a soul promise. A my heart won’t give up on your heart promise. As a person, I won’t stop working for good in your life. When you give up your fight, I won’t give up your fight.
Almost always, a period of quiet follows a firm promise. And, in that quiet comes a struggle. By the time we actually get to take the next visible step, most the blood and sweat and dying has already occurred.
Sara Groves writes that, “better than our promises was the day we got to keep them.”
I get on a plane for Uganda, this week. With the first touch down on the runway, I’ll be keeping promises. Since I was last in the crowded Entebbe airport, I’ve battled through a year of death, deployment, highs and lows, and days of car dancing and singing at the top of my lungs beside Jeremy that ended in tears because, “god, does it really feel like this when a family member dies? And will I ever be whole again?”
At the end of a much bigger fight than I ever anticipated, I get to see the fruit of a promise I made before it all began.
In the meantime, I’ve experienced being truly loved. I’ve lost some of the people dearest to me. I’ve cried harder and laughed longer and struggled further than I had before. And, I’ve doubted if I would get to keep my promises. Sometimes that was the hardest part – will I get the opportunity to live out what I said I would?
I’m thankful to be keeping promises this week because it means I’ve done the work – the blood and the sweat and the dying has passed. Landing in Entebbe again is a promise kept back to me that the effort we put out for others means something. Beyond that, it gives back to us seven fold when we least expect it to.
When I get back, Gramps will try to teach me to jitter bug just once more – this time at my brother’s wedding. I’m sure I’ll trip all over my gangly limbs, but I think that I’m finally getting the hang of the dance.
The trick is, it’s not so much about the steps as it is that you stay on the dance floor until the song’s over. And that you try again the next time the music picks up after that.
When it comes to the promises we’ve made, I’m certain we’ve only just finished the first stanza. And I plan to keep moving while the music plays.
May 16, 2011 § 3 Comments
Today, I received 3 different kinds of entirely disheartening (and personal) news. For the first time in a long time, I sat in bed and I cried. I got out of bed once, then got back in bed and cried again. My best friend showed up, about ten minutes later, and crawled into bed with me while I cried. That feeling of incompetence is the worst. Life gets bigger, somehow, with sorrow – all these things you didn’t know could happen, and that are entirely out of your control. I called Jeremy, after that, and he told me I should do whatever I want today.
“But I want to stay in bed,” I said.
“Okay, then stay in bed!”
I thanked him, and told him that was a horrible idea – “I have to do the next thing, it’ll keep me moving forward.” The first order of business was to shower, to throw my hair up in a pony tail, and to make chilaquiles out of my left over nachos from this weekend. Next, a friend picked me up to go to a local coffee shop where I could work, and she could study for finals.
I’ve been sitting here for almost two hours now, working on social media connections, re-filling my calendar with boutique and stylist meetings for when I arrive home in Nor Cal, forcing myself to laugh at things I would normally find funny and, quite simply, doing the very next thing. Life has come back, as I’ve sat here. Everything is not okay, per se, but its not impossible to deal with.
In the midst of looking through my facebook page updates, I found a blog from Merakoh on running the risks in life. I’ve copied a large amount of the text here because, like her, I was inspired by her son’s tenacity and insistence on keeping on keeping on -
I watched Blaze stand on the beach, waves rolling up to meet his toes. He was weighing the pros and cons. The day before, he had been stung by a jelly fish. The pink jelly fish in Thailand can be as big as my arms, circled in the shape of a letter “O”, floating silently along the water’s surface. The motors of the long tail boats chop the jelly fish up, so that random tentacles are left to float (never losing their sting). One of those tentacles wrapped around Blaze’s leg–twice–and oh, did it sting…
Blaze swears he is done swimming in the ocean for the rest of our trip. After all, this is the second time he’s been stung. He’s now one sting ahead of me and Pascaline, and two ahead of dad (of course). But the next morning, I watch him from a distance. As the waves roll in, I can see his mind mulling over the idea of risking it again. Whether he likes it or not, swimming is his passion. Does he risk it again? Or does he give up swimming for the rest of the trip?
He whips around and comes running to me. He just lost his front tooth a few days ago, his smile is wide and toothless. There is a red line that still shows on his leg, wrapping twice above the knee. “Can I go swimming this morning?!” he asks. I smile. He’s decided. I know he is nervous, fully aware of the risk he’s taking, but he is still willing to risk again. I’m so proud of him. I’m inspired by him. His passion for swimming is more powerful than the risk of being stung again.
There is no warning of a jellyfish coming your way. Like unexpected criticism or momentary failures, they can surprise you when you least expect it–when you are swimming–laughing from a place that’s deep withing your belly. The stings can happen at high tide or low tide. They can happen whether you know how to swim in deep waters or shallow waters. And it doesn’t have to be the whole jelly…often the small, unexpected jelly pieces hurt the most. But, to swim in Thailand, you’ve got to step into the ocean. You’ve go to risk being stung. And once it happens to you, you are acutely aware of the fact that it can happen again. But that’s not all you are aware of…you are also aware of the fact that you will survive another sting just fine–and possibly love the thrill of swimming that much more.