All posts by jth522

how we got here

 

In all my courses, I really have to teach the basic message of my life…that the rewards, the satisfactions, are not in being partner or making a million dollars, but in recognizing evils, recognizing injustices and standing up and speaking out about them even in absolutely losing situations where you know it’s not going to bring about any change – that there are intangible rewards to the spirit that make that worthwhile.”
Derrick Bell, law professor, activist, author

 

Preface

Recently you interviewed me for a Policy class (in college, how did that happen?) about why we left Brooklyn behind and moved to this side of the Hudson. We had a good talk about segregated schools  and my deeply held beliefs about integration  and educational equity. I always am impressed by how much you’ve grasped of these complex issues from an early age, not that you had any choice given the unusual circumstances of your initial school years. But you also bring me back to more grounded facts. Didn’t we also move here to have a HOUSE and a YARD?  Yes, of course, that too: for the tangible joy of a big yard and the freedom it afforded you and your brother to be your rambunctious energetic selves.

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But there’s  more to the story that you weren’t privy to,  given your young age.  And much that you recall in broad strokes that I remember with a finer brush: the  details and texture that made it such a rich and wonderful time, and the bittersweet denouement, saying  goodbye to the apartment with a view of  Manhattan and the neighbors who had become dear friends and the special relationships built with the cashiers at the Met and the guy who sold Jamaican patties and the barbers at Benoit’s who had been greeting you since before you could walk.

Goodbye to the subway down the block and the park up the street and the public library that was such a welcoming haven, except that time your brother accidentally set off the fire alarm and the place had to be evacuated… Goodbye to all the breakfasts at the dueling Dominican coffee shops on either side of Flatbush Avenue (we called them big Castillo and little Castillo)

Goodbye most of all to PS 9, your school for  3 years, a major part of our life, which embodied – in its glorious reality and its disreputable reputation – all the good, the bad and ugly that left me in the end saying that Brooklyn broke my heart.

The presumed impetus for the move from city to suburb: “white flight,”  is a long outdated cliche, given current demographics and economic climate.   I cringe every time I hear Trump talk about the dark, dangerous inner-cities– both the racism underlying his vision, and its utter inaccuracy given the new economy that has made New York (and San Francisco and other cities across the country)  increasingly white, affluent, and unaffordable to those like us with modest means, and more importantly, the communities of color who have for generations found their neighborhoods taken over by people who often savor the architecture and location yet have little appreciation for the history and people that preceded them.

Neighborhoods like the one we left in Prospect Heights Brooklyn,  which went in short order from mostly black to predominately white, hip and wealthy. We were lucky to live there in that sweet spot that briefly existed in the middle, although as we learned, the integrated housing  patterns were not reflected in the local schools, part of the country’s largest and most segregated educational system. I kept a journal of sketches called “Scenes from the Class Divide in Brooklyn” filled with observations of worlds colliding but never quite merging, a dynamic many newcomers were uncomfortable acknowledging, or chose not to notice.

You can consider this a scrapbook, something you can go back to some day. I don’t expect, or even know that I want you to read it right now, but I’ve felt the urgency to write it – or perhaps I should say to finish it in some imperfect form, since the drafts have been on my queue for years now, and now is as perfectly imperfect and scary a time as I’ve known to share it.  While the misogyny in the current presidential election is receiving much deserved attention, the blatant racism is equally if not more frightening, given that issues of economic and racial inequity tend to be less widely examined by most middle class white people.

It’s your story,  but told through my reflections, and the  deep-held beliefs  that affected your life.  I  think those decisions were for the best, when I see how you’ve turned out.  I know you’re still a work in progress, but I’m so proud of who you are, I like to think I had something to do with it…that you’ll always have the courage and kindness to try to step into someone else’s shoes.  And I hope you’ll recognize one day, as Derrick Bell notes above, that it’s not always about winning, that there are intangible rewards to the spirit in  fighting the good fight, even when you don’t get the results you want.

I take that to heart as I share what has taken countless hours to write and assemble and compress, although it remains long… but life can be complicated and heartbreaking and funny and too interesting to contain.  There are rewards to the spirit in telling your truth,  and I hope someone out there will find equal rewards in reading it.

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HOW WE GOT HERE

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bow celebrating graduation from MHS, our public high school

 

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B one hour old

1998
After nearly 20 hours of the last stage of labor – I’ll explain that to you someday, but it’s excruciatingly painful and generally lasts up to an hour, not 19 (Don’t worry, I’ve never held it against you) you are born. The nurse whisks you off to be cleaned, weighed and measured. “How does he look?” I ask in an exhausted and elated fog, wanting some reassurance that you had all your fingers and toes, or some warning if you had a pointy head or jaundice. “He looks very intelligent,” she says, which seems an odd way to describe someone who isn’t even 10 minutes old. So early to start with the praise and comparisons. There’s a whole lifetime to pile the pressure on you. Just kidding. I  was glad you were healthy. And boy, were you beautiful.

1998-2000

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B friendly in Brooklyn Botanic Garden

We live in Brooklyn, where you grow and thrive in a wonderful apartment in an art-deco building in the heart of Prospect Heights, back then the slowly gentrifying but still predominately black working-class cousin to adjacent Park Slope – with the same great architecture and amenities, beautiful tree-lined streets, proximity to the park and even better subway access (2 train lines stop right on our block!)

Life outside the womb is new to you, but this strange  often suffocating world  of modern parenthood is new to me too.  Well into my 30’s, I’ve had a lot of time living on my own and except for our family, my adulthood has been blissfully free of children, at least the ones on whom the sun rises and sets.

I’ve spent more than a decade living in the great mosaic that is New York: working on affordable housing, cultural equity and racial justice issues. My professional and personal lives take me to all corners of the city, from the most impoverished to the most powerful and wealthy.  My peers and colleagues range in age from their 20’s to 60’s, they are gay, straight,  new immigrant, blue blood,  artists, social workers, policy wonks,
struggling and successful.  I knew there were lots of young people who lived far more homogeneous lives, and I accepted our parallel universes. We each had the freedom to live how we wanted. Until you came along and made that more challenging

Culture Shock 1.0

bbabyWhen you’re a month old, a woman stops me in the park, ostensibly to comment on the pink blanket you are wrapped in and the blue one covering her daughter. and we get into a discussion of gender issues and sexual fluidity. (this is Brooklyn after all…) S asks me to join her mommy group. I say yes, assuming that’s a group of sleep-deprived women who sit around talking about  politics, music  and all the grown up stuff they long to re-engage with, at least those with a baby as adorable as you (I realize all parents say that) where every conversation revolved around your perfect little face, and how lucky I was.

 

But when I  first attend a meeting in someone’s pristine brownstone, all anyone wants to talk about are…  babies!  And products! the best slings and strollers and nursing shirts…there’s a lot of discussion about nursing. (I don’t share the funny conversation I had with your pediatrician: “Dr, can I give him a bottle once in a while?” “Yes, but make sure the shades are drawn so the neighbors don’t see.”]  You’re all beautiful babies, but every one of you is white, tended to by affluent young women between the ages of 26-38.

.babygroup

There’s already an aura of competitive competence.  I watch in awe as a woman  balances a phone in the crook of her neck,  ably supervising the renovation of her  brownstone while nursing twins!   Another mom, whose husband was a hedge fund manager, bragged that she had found a sitter for several dollars under the going rate.  I attend one more meeting and then decide I am better off spending my free time reading the paper or smuggling you into the movies while you napped.

blily

S later admits that she saw me in the park and ‘picked me up’ because she thought I looked interesting and she wanted someone else to talk to.  I left the Mommy group but she and I  remained friends, and you and her daughter did too.

We spend most days out in the world but I feel a sense of isolation much of the time.

 

I  love our new neighborhood but on a personal level I see the underlying racial and economic  tension, and it’s not always pretty. That unspoken edge, the assumptions on both sides: that someone is arrogant, that someone is ignorant, that someone intentionally butt in line because she thinks she’s better than you, that someone can’t really care about education because she only has a high school diploma. (When research shows working class parents who don’t have a higher education in fact care as much or more because they feel more is at stake – there is no safety net, no one to help their kids if they screw up.) It’s so weird to go to such homogeneous gatherings after years of that beautiful melding of cultures that I moved to New York for…
-journal, 1998

 1999-2001

pslopeschool

Starting at the age of 1 you spend a few days a week at childcare collectives so I have some time to work. You aged out of one and went right into the next.  We have to be interviewed to get you accepted, like at those exclusive schools on the Upper East Side, but the Brooklyn version:  the parents had to be “interesting”  in a vague undefined way: liberal, creative, with some inspiring story-line like giving up banking to become a therapist. They strive for racial diversity, but economic not so much, given the tuition and the type of family they wanted in their midst.

They’re both great schools: warm, nurturing and stimulating, although the parents spend endless hours in crazy-long email exchanges about burning issues like if Pirate Booty can be an afternoon snack since it has green tea extract, which has tiny amounts of caffeine. Don’t these people work? I wonder, but the answer is and how! They are successful young journalists, filmmakers, designers involved with well-known tech firms, production companies and publishing enterprises.

Through my friendship with an editor, you are the anecdotal lead in an article on the increased popularity of daycare centers among middle class families in one of two popular weekly magazines that many people received in the mail [before 24 hours news cycles of online information we now take for granted.]

My gut feeling was that it is better for kids to be around other children,” says JH, a consultant on community development. “It helps them with socialization skills, and to get that they’re not the only person in the world. “  B, now almost 2, has been going to the co-op 3 days a week, and J is thrilled with the results. “I see a big difference in his general confidence and curiosity. It’s helped him to be a very friendly, outgoing kid.”
– Newsweek, 2000

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in your hand-knit Big Bird sweater (thanks Aunt S!)

Of course you already were a friendly, outgoing kid,  but that made good copy. The main point was that I wanted you to have a sense of the bigger world around you, and not to inure yourself in a bubble, a value  I am happy to say you seem to have internalized through your childhood and adolescence, and now as a freshman at the most diverse college  campus in the country.

 

bmiranda

2001: Public School

So you’re an adorable little kid in a sweet little school with lots of friends, and we’re at a monthly pot luck dinner at the temple we attend near our great little apartment when the conversation turns to schools:  public schools, the next step in your educational trajectory we’ve yet to address. A couple with a daughter a year older than you are shouting to a riveted table of congregants.

“We LIED!! We had to lie! The schools are so lousy we didn’t have a choice!!”  The dad yells, lamenting  the ethically dubious but widely accepted practice of lying about one’s address to get his daughter into a highly regarded school in another neighborhood. “The local school is so terrible, what choice do we have?!” the mom exclaims as others at the table nod in sympathy.

All except the woman in her 60’s sitting next to me -she reminded me a bit of your Bubbe –  sensing our camaraderie from the barely contained look of horror on my face, she  leaned over and whispered, “or you could just go to the local school, attend school board meetings and get involved, work with other parents and community leaders to make it better. That’s what we did.”

That rang more true to me than collecting gas bills from some acquaintance in a better-resourced neighborhood, and so just shy of your 4th birthday we enrolled you into the same “lousy” school we had heard so vehemently dismissed, as a 1% minority white student [likely the only time you will be in the 1%! ] and one of 23% not eligible for a free lunch.

But the truth of PS 9 was far from the common reputation culled from statistics on a page, or the stark visuals from those passing by its premises and watching its students from a distance, through the rusty fence into the rundown playground and concrete that passed as outdoor space for hundreds of rambunctious energetic students.

“I HATE those kids,” said the owner of a store around the corner from the school. The first of the nifty new shops catering to new residents, it specialized in things like vintage aprons and hand painted dog bowls.   You hate these kids?  Really?? Whose neighborhood is it?  The kids of families who have been here for generations or you, newly landed in this unfamiliar place?

I heard variations on that theme from many neighbors who had never visited the school or met a student there. “B is so smart,” they’d say to me. “Are there any other smart kids there?”  What was I doing taking a bright nice kid like you and throwing you into a lion’s den of the underclass? (yes, they used that word. a lot.)

First I did  my due diligence.  I spoke to neighbors who had favorable experiences there, calling the Pre-K the neighborhood’s best kept secret. I met with the Principal and talked to other parents. I went and observed the classroom. I spoke to your potential teacher, who was  our downstairs neighbor – literally: we lived in 6F and Mrs. B contended with  the sound of your  little feet stomping across her ceiling in 5F.

The kids, the atmosphere once inside the dreary old building, the two-block walk – I loved everything about it, and practically wept with gratitude when they found a spot for you  …and for the $20,000 we’d be saving  by attending a free full day Pre-K.  I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Or that this school was so reviled.

You were accepted and embraced immediately, and I was relieved at the ease with which you made friends and openness of your classmates.  It’s bullshit to say that kids don’t see race – only white people say that – but at age 4 the fact that you were the only white kid in your class was more intriguing than anything else.  For you, who lived in a mostly black neighborhood and attended racially integrated schools, it wasn’t that big a deal. You were more interested in the cultural differences: the different food or the way your friends lived with extended family or celebrated different holidays.

And your classmates, in turn, were interested in your cultural differences, and celebrating your holidays.

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birthday party PS 9 (one month after starting school)
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2nd party in Prospect Park, with bff D

 

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Grate fun for all

Many had never before played with a white kid, and I realize a few months in, while leading a class project making latkes and lighting a Chanukah menorah, that none had ever met a Jew! While I expected questions about the holiday, they were more fascinated by the fact that we didn’t go to church. What do you wear to a temple? Do you get all dressed up and wear fancy hats like the church ladies? I tell them we get dressed up for high holidays and wear these little hats called yamulkes. I don’t even touch on the fact that I grew up a secular Jew, that your religious education to date consisted of a once monthly family service. And in the end, who doesn’t love greasy potatoes?

 

Odd Mom In

I was asked a lot about how I felt as a parent at the school.  Research shows some tipping point of about 20% of the same race/cultural background that most people need to feel comfortable in a group. But after years of working on racial justice issues,  I was used to being the only white person on the subway or street or in a meeting.   At the time you started at PS 9 I was working for the Empowerment Zone in an un-gentrified Harlem, where the woman who hired me actually  asked if I’d be okay being the only white person in the room (which by the way, I don’t think is a legal question.) I shrugged and said I was used to it. I realize that’s not the norm, but it made the school a comfortable place to be.

The fact is, which I rarely admitted, I felt more at ease at PS 9 than I ever had at the mom group or your other childcare centers, where I first encountered parenting as a blood sport. I regularly listen to news reports on public radio by a mom who cancelled a playdate with you and her daughter when you were all of 18 months old (and her daughter was 2) because she decided you weren’t verbal enough!   Both still  in diapers,  she was already concerned about maximizing her child’s intellectual development.

By the next year you basically had taught yourself how to read and write and I was confronted with the other side of the coin, the deeply competitive resentment of parents.   “I went to Columbia J school, we’re very verbal, how come my daughter isn’t reading yet?”  I just shrugged and said we got lucky. Sure, we had books around and we read to you but there’s only so much you can control. This seemed a hard concept for many white educated parents to grasp.

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B with state puzzle at age 3: you already can locate and spell every state and capital!

So I was relieved to find myself at PS 9, where parents were deeply invested in their kids education in a way that felt more genuine and less bloodthirsty.  Our  differences had more to do with cultural upbringing or immigrant lifestyles.  When a social worker held a meeting with the parents to encourage them to make playdates for their 4 year- olds, most of the room turned around to look at me, the one mom in the room who must know what she was talking about…

After the meeting your friend Z’s mom shyly asked if you would like to come over and play. When we arrived at their home we found that her Haitian family occupied every apartment in the building.  Z had 2 little brothers, and young relatives down the hall and upstairs…why would he ever need a playdate? You thought that a whole building full of cousins was really cool! Still, his mom was so happy to have you there, she printed out some pictures for you to color and frame to celebrate what turned out to be the first of many playdates.

But perhaps nothing was as enthralling to you as the difference in celebrations.

Parties: 1999-2001

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You go to approximately 50 birthday parties. They all begin at 11 am. Everyone arrives by 11:15, there are games until noon, then pizza followed by birthday cake, (gluten free options for those needing it), and everyone leaves by 1:15.
Sweet, predictable, one blurring into the next.

 

Parties: 2002 -2005:

ps9-5

The invitation says 3-6 PM. You want to get there at 3 on the dot but I persevere, correctly guessing that we’ll be the first guests there when we arrive at 3:30. In fact we are the only guests until around 5 pm when a few others start trickling in. By 530 the place is hopping, and at 5:45, fifteen minutes before the party is scheduled to end, the birthday boy’s aunt, who owns a popular Senegalese restaurant in Fort Greene, arrives with two enormous coolers filled with food. Burners are lit and she sets to work. At 6:30 we call the friends we are supposed to meet at the Brooklyn Museum of Art down the street – there’s a popular event called First Saturday, with free entrance and activities for all ages and one of the rare socioeconomically integrated  scenes in the borough – and tell them we don’t think we’ll be able to meet them at 7.

Around 7:30 there’s a huge feast of fabulous food and about 40 people jammed into the apartment, eating and dancing to music that floats down to the street below, following us as we leave at about 9 PM: the first to arrive and the first to leave. You are practically sleepwalking the long blocks home in the dark, and as you finally collapse into bed at 9:30, you proclaim it “the best party ever!”

Until the next one.
For 3 years we go to parties filled with food and music and crowds of friends and relatives from St. Lucia, Pakistan, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico… (You study your atlas to find out where your friends are from.) We talk and eat and although we’re usually among the first to leave, we stay up hours past your bedtime.  At every party we are the only white people present. Every party you proclaim the new “best.”

As a parent, I’ve never stood out more than I did as the mom of the white kid at PS 9, and yet I’ve never had more of a social life, or felt more welcomed.

I feel in a minority in my thinking on several levels. One, that I think that B’s socialization is as important as or more so than academics. He’s a bright motivated kid, he’ll thrive anywhere. Yes, I want him to be challenged, encouraged to learn and stretch himself, yes, I want him to be with other bright motivated children. I’d never put him in an environment where I didn’t feel he was safe, where he wasn’t treated with respect but I also want him to do all that learning in a place that reflects the greater world, not in a bubble. Ideally, he’d be in a more integrated school. But given the options, I’d choose our local school over a more rarefied environment any day. So many problems in the world come from a lack of understanding, the sense that we are separate from other people and their culture, their struggles. The fact that we can bomb innocent people and children shows some basic spiritual disconnect.

For B, I think going to PS 9 has made him a much more open, less judgmental kid, also a curious bpaintingkid, because he asks a lot of questions. We spend a lot of time studying world atlas to find out where his friends are from. He easily plays with kids across a very broad cultural and economic spectrum. Without question I want and realize how much better it would be for him to be in a more integrated school. But there is also no denying the learning of going outside our comfort zone, of socializing and working with people  from vastly different places. Our life is populated by Trinis and other West Indians, but also Boricuas and Pakistanis and D’s uncle was in Run DMC – how cool is that?
Journal entry, 2003
 

 

 

 

 

 

2. People.Make.Change. and other hard lessons

If just being a beautiful baby made me invisible, sending you to PS 9 made me more visible than I could have imagined. I was regularly stopped and asked about my experience at the school, by people I knew and complete strangers who knew that we went there..

I developed some  pretty stock answers to common questions, mostly positive and reassuring:  Yes, the teachers were great, the Principal was competent and committed, open to parent suggestions.. Yes, parents were involved. Best of all the kids were fantastic. Bright, curious, fun, engaged.

Yes obviously the school is mostly black and low-income, but If you attend it will be less so. And yes, there are lots of things that need improving. But the biggest deterrent to that improvement is a lack of social capital, parents like you, who have time and contacts and a sense of entitlement to advocate for improvements, aggressively fund raise, help organize  cultural outings and enrichment programs.

While PS 9 held an annual fundraiser with a DJ from a popular “urban” station, a bouncy house and a bake sale, the school half a mile away held a literary benefit featuring 3 Pulitzer prize-winning authors from the neighborhood!
Which  school do you think got the newly refurbished and well stocked library?

As time went on I became more active, working with the school PTA,the Principal,  elected officials, and community leaders, trying to bring various factions together.  I enlisted the help of another mom new to the school, a brilliant, devoted woman, who, while black,  also was an anomaly of a different sort. K and her husband were graduates of Harvard Law School, doing impressive work in civil rights, with 2 beautiful young daughters (They were like the Obama’s of Brooklyn).  Together we hosted meetings for prospective parents, which were eye-opening and at times stomach churning. Unlike the parents who had stopped me of their own interest, many of these parents were far more blunt in naming their concerns.

This is what I heard regularly about your classmates and their families:

1. They (parents) don’t have the right middle class values.
2. They don’t care about their kids’ education.
3. A lot of their parents are  on drugs or have criminal backgrounds. I wouldn’t feel safe having my kids go to school with them.
3. There’s so much cultural difference, i’m not comfortable being around them.
4. They’re mostly  underclass or ghetto kids – no way am I putting my daughter in that environment!
5. Their kids aren’t as smart. If we  go to school with them, our gifted kids will be dumbed down.
6. They’re wild and badly behaved because of their home lives.
7. I’m sure some of them are perfectly nice but I’m not sacrificing my child’s education for some p.c. social experiment.
8. They don’t go to Europe in the summer or attend Broadway shows, I want my son to be around more cultured kids.

 

Did your classmates know how their new neighbors felt?  Could they sense the disdain or fear?  How could they not when they saw the crowds of white and upper middle class black kids and parents at every bus stop, piling onto buses, racing down the subway stairs, walking past them , all on their way out of the neighborhood they claimed to have moved to for its diversity.    While I became close friends with many of your friends’ parents and we discussed a lot of issues quite openly, I could never broach that specific question: How does it feel to go to a school that your neighbors reject, to see them  every morning  escaping this  opportunity to connect? Did they even feel like neighbors?

Is Playing While Black a thing? It seems so. Recent research from the Yale Child Study Team shows black students – especially black boys – being disciplined more often and more harshly than their white classmates starting in Pre-K, even though their behaviors were similarly disruptive. It’s a short road from playing while black to  Stop and Frisk aka “walking while black” and “driving while black” which will likely shorten your lifespan, especially if you are male.

For all my political savvy, I admit I was shocked by what I heard  We expect racially-biased  comments to come from certain factions:  Donald Trump’s hard-core supporters; right wing, evangelical white Southerners; even some of the Republican or Independent Suburban woman so coveted in this election.  But self-identified Progressive Democrats, sophisticated city dwellers, people who actually used the term ‘hipster parent’ without being ironic?

I emphasized facts to allay their fears, most importantly that widely respected research  consistently shows that putting children from different backgrounds in school together raises up, increases opportunities for those from lower incomes yet does not impede the learning of middle and upper middle class kids.  Working class parents, especially new immigrants, care as much or more about their kids education – they see it as the way into the middle class.

But this information often fell on deaf ears. My dearly held belief in the social contract was as foreign to them as shopping at Cookies in downtown Brooklyn where we went to purchase the blue pants and yellow shirts you were required to wear (eventually they made the uniforms optional.) That was the last straw for hipster parents who I recall reacting in horror. “We are too bohemian for that!”

For the parents we convinced to at least come and visit the school, their encounters drew mixed results. Yes, the teachers seemed competent, the kids engaged and bright, the classrooms and hallways cheerful and inviting like at other schools, although there was an awful lot of Afro-centric art and such: pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. My kids might not be comfortable with all those pictures…

Did they teach regular history too?   ps9-3-2 I assured them the school was not run by the Black Panthers and it was healthy to have images that mirrored the student body, to see leaders and role models who were black.  But if they were still uncomfortable, there was always the big poster of white men who had been President.

Still, no takers.  “Well, you make the school better, then we’ll  attend,” a neighbor said. I couldn’t explain to her that it doesn’t work that way.  I was fast losing faith.

As you entered the 1st  grade and another year in the 1% I decided I’d  try one last idea, a last ambitious effort to bring social change, and applied for community fellowship for an idea I’d been developing to address the need for affordable child care, and how this might be a catalyst for change.  As I saw at First Saturday and other free events with high-quality programming (Like the Charlie Parker Festival I attended annually), if you offer something affordable, accessible and desirable, they will come, from all backgrounds and races and economic strata.

So I found a child-care center that ran until 3 that would provide after-school space. I met with leaders of every major institution in the borough – the museums, zoo, botanical garden, and library. I met with elected officials and community leaders on the rise (these include a current New York City congressman and the likely next Brooklyn DA) and got their support, as well as that of the Principals and parent leadership of PS 9 and the school in Park Slope where many of your neighbors went. I met with a professor at Bank Street who offered guidance, and a young mom who ran the education program at the Guggenheim Museum, who offered  to help me come up with a project budget and scope of work.

It was an impressive undertaking, and I was proud of what I had accomplished, if only in bringing all these factions together to work on shared goals. I wish you had known me back then, when I was energetic and resourceful. I had such good leadership and consensus building skills, talents I’ve had to put on hold (and now when I try to use them, am told I’m too old and irrelevant!)  I have faith that you’ll always respect women, and I hope you’ll challenge the type of misogyny so manifest in this election.  But as you hear  girls and young women given encouragement to lean in, keep in mind all the capable ones who are too busy leaning over and picking up other people’s crap to even dream of leaning in.  As with everything else, there’s room for widening the circle of inclusion.

I submitted my proposal in September. That fall  brought a perfect storm of  catastrophe.   In November your brother V was diagnosed with autism, and soon after Mrs. B was diagnosed with cancer.   V started jumping and flapping about the apartment. Mrs. B was receiving chemo, coming home exhausted and nauseous. Her sister asked us to keep it down. It was a damp and cold winter, so I took V out in the hallway but neighbors started complaining about kids in the halls. We went to the basement near the laundry room where he could regress and perseverate and I could sob in peace.

Staying home  wasn’t fair to Mrs B, but being out wasn’t fair to either of you. V started attending a special school on the other side of Brooklyn, another child leaving the neighborhood every morning. More and more I longed for change: a way that you could both go to the same school, somewhere inclusive where everyone was respected regardless of race or ability or economic standing.  A house and yard so I didn’t have to tell you constantly  to be quiet, to stop moving, not to be yourselves. We started looking at houses in other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, at other schools.  Everything was too expensive, too segregated, too hard to imagine anymore. I wanted out.

By the time I received the letter that my proposal was rejected (the goal was improving resources in low income neighborhoods; not as I aimed, to improve resources in a way that would bridge class divides), I was actually relieved.

 

When my cousins told me their school district had a state-mandated desegregation program, I said sign me up.  I had seen first-hand that certain change doesn’t happen without laws or some legal mandate. Voting rights for women and blacks, the Civil Rights Act, the People with Disabilities Act, laws to project the environment and consumers. Desegregated schools.  You can’t just ask people or businesses to do the right thing; usually you have to make them. And they’ll still kick and scream, and it will still require enforcement and monitoring.

Of course these laws and changes come about through the efforts of people on the ground – protesting, organizing, participating in the democratic process. I learned the history of this town to value those who had made it possible for you to attend integrated schools.

And so I gave up nearly 20 years of 212 and 718 for the less unimpressive 973, a prefix signifying to many complete surrender. New Jersey.  I had family here, it was familiar turf – and surf. Yet by this point I had no problem being a Jersey girl, as uncool as that was to my city friends. For half the cost of a 2 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn we were able to buy our house, with its big yard in the South End of town. Like our old neighborhood, historically black but still integrated.   It’s not how everyone ends up in this town – which has a lot of Brooklyn attitude of its own – but it’s how we got here.

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Postscript: New York still has the most segregated school system in the country but there are pockets of hope. At PS 9,  the young mom from the Guggenheim was so impressed with my proposal and intrigued by the school that she got together a large group of white parents with toddlers to enroll in the Pre-K, who eventually became involved in the school, using their social capital to provide the same improvements that the other nearby schools had. It’s now  fully integrated, economically and racially, with a new playground and library.   It would have happened eventually, but I like to think we helped get the ball rolling.

 

 

 

Woke in the World

 

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  1. The Unimaginable

 

Fifteen years ago this month I went to the International Museum of Photography to see an exhibit by Sebastiao Salgado, the Brazilian photographer. Entitled “Migrations”, they are beautifully rendered and captivating portrayals of diverse groups of people forced from their homes as the result of war, civil unrest and other disturbances beyond their control:   boat people, internees, exiles, and orphans from Rwanda, Afghanistan, the Balkans and other locations throughout the world.

Although widely renowned, he also has been criticized for creating images too beautiful given his focus on the struggles of the world’s most destitute people.  (Salgado shrugs off these comments, saying people are welcome to their opinions; he only cares about presenting people who don’t live in the Northern hemisphere with the dignity they deserve.)  Staring at his work I think, what’s a little seductive beauty if it gets us to stop and look and think about the suffering of others, an ever more challenging objective given the surfeit of images vying for our attention.  And in my eyes, his subjects aren’t  patronized, they are humanized to help us see a truth we would otherwise avert our eyes from, something the best artists and writers, even the rare visionary political leader or community activist can do.  It is what I came to New York to do, in my own far humbler way, New York, where anything is possible, or so we are told.

I was with my friend S, also a photographer and artist, and like me, a bit of a policy wonk. We were long-time traveling companions as well, curious like most travelers are about other cultures, landscapes and food, but also keen on understanding socioeconomic and environmental issues.  When we traveled, S wanted to view every environmental disaster – she had a particularly interested in sewage treatment plants – and we both loved exploring cemeteries, public transit and housing projects.  We had traveled together to Eastern Europe and South America and Mexico, and twice been to Brazil, staying in hostels and budget hotels and a homeless shelter in Rio, where the transient men who made up most of its residents were provided small clean rooms with a sink (men can pee into sinks far easier than women, so we learned) with toilets and showers with hot water down the hall. I had also stayed on my own in a homeless shelter for women in Bologna, Italy funded by that city’s communist government and supervised by that country’s surfeit of strict but kindly nuns. (The fact that Popes have Socialist leanings always made sense to me.)

How do people live and how are those in need provided help? We asked these questions everywhere we went and so Salgado, with his much wider range and sharper lens, was an inspiration, not exploiting but exploring the challenges people face around the globe
I remember that afternoon well – a hot humid August day like today, and how good it felt to enter the pristine and peaceful air-conditioned gallery.  How privileged we are, I remember thinking, to be in this exquisite cultural space in the city; and in a more general sense, to be in a country removed from the strife of the rest of the world, where guns and bombs and soldiers ravaged homes and lives.

That was August 2001 and one month later, on a sunny Tuesday morning on September 11th we joined that world in the worst way.

I watched from a doctor’s waiting room overlooking the East River, with a front row seat as the 2nd bomb struck.  “This is life, you have to look,” I remember a nurse telling me as I tried to turn away. We stood transfixed, not quite sure what was happening, who was responsible, why buildings were crumbling before our eyes and the sky was so thick when just an hour before it had been so bright.

The receptionist came out and told us that the doctors couldn’t see us because they had to wait in case helicopters landed on the roof with survivors from the towers. And as we tried to call our loved ones on cells and public phones with no service, walking down the stairs in a state of confusion and fear, the doctors and nurses waited for survivors who never arrived because they didn’t exist.

We left the building, joining thousands of people pouring over the bridge, covered in thick white soot. I tried to pull my shirt over my mouth and nose because the air was so dense it was hard to breathe.  I couldn’t yet absorb what had happened even as reality literally was crammed down my throat.

As if in a dream, I did what I always did after I went to doctors in that neighborhood: I walked down Atlantic Avenue – although now in the street rather than the sidewalk, as the entire avenue  was filled with thousands of ashen  pedestrians – and went to Sahadi’s, the Middle Eastern food emporium.  Since moving to Brooklyn, I planned my appointments around that trip. M the babysitter would come at 9, I’d take the subway to the doctor, and after my appointment I’d walk to Sahadi. If I was lucky and didn’t have a long wait, I could shop just as the prepared food was put out at around 11 am, before the lunchtime crowd. A vegetarian’s paradise, I’d get olives and feta and almonds and Israeli couscous, and then head to the back for the baba ganoush, the stuffed grape leaves, the fried cauliflower and the first scoops out of a pan of mujadera (rice and lentils), covered in a thick layer of  carmelized onions.

I’d grab some pita and jam, maybe chocolate or licorice while waiting in one of the long lines and then go get the bus If it was an especially efficient morning I’d board  under the 2 hour time limit that gave me a free bus transfer from my subway ride. and I’d get home and eat a few bites before paying M for her time with the boys, then wait until their naptime before having a full feast.

But on that Tuesday the store was eerily empty, the staff in a corner, glued to a small television set on the wall when I walked inside.
“Are you open?” “Yes, yes,” they looked at me in shock. A customer! What was a customer doing in the store?! The whole world was upside down and they seemed both stunned and relieved at the normalcy of waiting on someone, in a way I couldn’t quite grasp yet, appreciative of my respectful presence. The place was always packed, and I had learned that a big smile as well as a loud voice were helpful in getting one’s order filled without other customers pushing ahead.  In a daze they filled my containers and smiled, polite yet impatient for me to leave, to return to  watch the world falling apart up on the TV screen, listening to those first panicked attempts at explanations. Life changed that day for all of us but for them, as Middle Eastern men, in ways I couldn’t yet imagine. Although many of the businesses on Atlantic Avenue were owned by Lebanese Christians, and all of them by people with no affiliation with anything that occurred, it didn’t matter to those needing someone to blame or mistrust.

I’ve thought of that strange and extraordinary moment in Sahadi’s many times, especially this year, with Trump repeating a story about the crowd of Muslims in New Jersey who watched and cheered at a TV screen showing the bombing of the towers. (among his more heinous ‘liar liar pants on fire’ fabrications)  Unlike him I witnessed the truth. There were no cheers, there were no celebrations. There was utter silence, and horror, and fear at what had happened and what was to come. What a horrible day to be an American. What an even worse day to be an American Muslim, or perceived as one.

Salgado’s beautiful images had been packed off and sent to their next stop, somewhere else where people thought they were safe and removed from the world’s problems. We stayed in New York, where “anything was possible” took on a new meaning. And in a moment we went from “I never could imagine” to facing the unimaginable.

 

  1. A Brief Lesson in Yiddish and the World Getting Small

 

Some less globally significant things I never could imagine coming to an end when I was in my 20’s and 30’s:

-Being a fast walker
-No-maintenance lifestyle: no daily sunscreen, no moisturizers, no medications or supplements, no foods to be avoided, no caution.
– Free time for writing and other creative pursuits.
– Frequent visits to fabulous cultural events/exhibits/performances (that still didn’t stop my FOMO [fear of missing out] before there was a name for it.)
– Regular travel on a shoestring budget to countries around the world.

 

When I was pregnant with B, a friend with a 2 year and an Egyptian husband advised me to travel before my then unborn child could crawl. Trust me, she said, it’s much easier. I took her advice and when he was 6 months old we found a really cheap fare to Paris (babies on laps were still free back then) and a cheap pension and spent a lovely week abroad.  It was good advice, as we easily explored the city with B in a stroller, contentedly smiling at strangers. I remember him spending hours at the Musee d’Orsay (a spectacular museum in a former Beaux-Arts railway station) entranced by a new pair of red booties on his little feet.

I learned the flip side of her advice the following year when we went to Rome, my friend E who lived there generously giving up her beautiful loft in Trastevere for us. By then B was on the move, and we had to block the staircase so that he did not fall on his way up or down the loft’s steep steps. He also was  old enough to get bored and frustrated from his backpack perch, although he could not yet voice that age-old question, “How much longer?” while we looked at Caravaggio’s in churches, although he loved drinking steamed milk at little coffee bars after each culture fix.

By the next year he was a big brother and it seemed too costly and hard to schlep both of them, but the soon when we would once again explore the world never happened when that younger brother regressed and his autism made traveling more of a challenge than I could have imagined. Actually, V is a good explorer once he gets somewhere – he lacks the neurotypical child’s propensity for boredom as well as the resistance to unfamiliar routines many kids on the spectrum possess. But getting from point A to B with many hours of constrained movement and sensory overload and ignorant travel staff left me literally pummeled…
like the time he climbed on the overhead luggage rack of a train and the conductor and horrified passengers insisted I climb up after him, a feat resulting in a slipped disc, or the time he fell apart while waiting for a delayed plane in the Seattle airport, surrounded by hundreds of complaining customers and bright lights and loud announcements. When I politely asked to board early because I had a son with a disability, the airline staff stared at V flailing on the ground and said, “He doesn’t look disabled to me,” as other passengers glared at my apparent attempt to get over on them.
I share these examples not to kvetch (complain) but because they show how ignorance creates struggles that could be avoided, and how a little empathy could have easily smoothed the way. But I can’t change human nature, nor the other factors that made travel more and more out reach: increased post-9/11 security,  increased fares or unaffordable alternative arrangements for V.  B has been to Vancouver with his dad, but has yet to see another country he can remember (and doesn’t want to hear about the trips he can’t recall.) V may never cross an ocean.

And all I have are photos, great stories, and dreams that someday in our dotage S and I will take off again, bound for some gorgeous exotic locale. “Let’s go check out the new sewage treatment plant!” she’ll exclaim before we’ve even unpacked.  “Okay, but then we have to see the free health clinic and the graffiti on those abandoned buildings down the street!” I’ll have a cane and a hearing aid, we’ll both have vials full of supplements, but slower and with more bathroom stops, we’ll again explore the world.

But an opportunity for travel arrives unexpectedly with kale salad and avocado toast at an outdoor café where I meet my cousin M ( really cousin-in-law, married to my cousin S, but after so many years, we’re all just mishpachah, family) to discuss the book she has decided to write about a fascinating true story of her cousin who was a cabaret performer in the vibrant cultural life of Vilna before the war, and the equally captivating account of how M came to possess an extraordinary collection of photos of her since perished ancestor.

Travel for her is second nature, a fairly continual part of life for years, even when her four kids were young, and especially since her time  as an ambassador, regularly taking off for trips throughout Africa, Asia and Europe.  We have much in common in terms of intellect, interests, curiosity,  but in terms of our life circumstances, the disparity is wide.

Which brings me to a less known Yidddish word, Farginen, [Firgun in Hebrew, a popular word in modern Israel] meaning “to share in someone else’s happiness”, or “not to begrudge”, similar to the Pali and Sanskrit word mudita, the Buddhist concept of delighting in others’ well-being.  While rachmones or empathy comes naturally to me, farginen requires constant cultivation, like a plant surrounded by weeds.  It’s not that I don’t wish others well, it’s the yearning for what I lack or miss that so often accompanies it, the aching underbelly of surface envy.

Envy gets a bad rap, and with reason. Of the seven so-called sins, it’s the only one without reward.  Sloth brings sleep; gluttony fills your stomach and greed your home and driveway with all sorts of excesses. But Envy? bupkis [nothing] No whipped cream, no comfy bed, no jewelry, just coveting what you don’t have.

According to the Talmud, all people feel envy for others, except their children and students, and even they are not always off the hook. And yet it is an emotion most of us feel ashamed of. So unseemly, so lacking in grace or generosity of spirit.
Unlike English, most languages have two words for envy: one for the more malicious kind, the other based more in admiration. I’d say there is a 3rd kind, rooted in  longing.  When treated with rachmones,  it tends to dissipate and you can celebrate for others while accepting that you still might want what they have. Maybe someday you will get it, you never know…

So when M suggests that I could go with her to Vilna and it turns out she is leaving on the very day V goes to Elks Camp, the one week I have free all summer, its bashert (fate). I’m in.

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 3. A Broad Abroad, Finally

The upside of doing without something you desire is that when you finally get that opportunity you appreciate it on a whole other level.   I’m happy for every minute of it. The long security lines, the hours in airports, the jet lag, the constipation I always get when traveling, the aching feet every night from days of walking.  It’s all a gift.

Our first day arriving I know M and I are  good as travel companions when we go to a supermarket to pick up a few things and end up spending nearly an hour: looking at jams and chocolate to bring back, examining the various kinds of yogurt and cheese, observing our fellow shoppers in regular daily life, buying berries from the old women set up outside the supermarket with items lugged in from nearby small farms.

Vilna

Welcome to Vilna, one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe, where many of Europe’s great architectural styles stand side by side.

Welcome to Vilna, with mild pleasant days perfect for sightseeing historic churches, museums and courtyards.

Welcome to Vilna, with lovely street cafes and delicious food, especially if you like beets.

Welcome to Vilna, where history comes alive. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the 94% of Lithuanian Jews massacred over the three year German occupation during the Holocaust.

It’s a perfect welcome back to the world location, modern, old world, struggling, affluent, renovated, run- down, it changes with each face and building and block. Women with babushkas shuffling in their socks and cheap sandals, schlepping their shopping carts down the cobblestone streets, the Aryan tourists and hippie backpackers and residents not on holiday who fill the restaurants and shops that M says are new since her last visit 7 or 8 years ago. After decades of shifting Polish and Russian rule, now part of the EU, with only Euros used for purchases. Everyone over the age of 12 with the slightest musical talent seems to be out on the street playing instruments or singing for change.   The streets so narrow and the buildings so stunning, especially at dusk.  It’s easy to imagine being back in another time.

berries

And then there’s the unspoken constant awareness of this [the Old City] being the former Jewish ghetto, with its crowded and vile conditions, this being the place where 94% of the Jewish population – by far the largest percentage of any country in Europe – was killed, that the memorialization of these atrocities is so minimal given its enormity. Called the Jerusalem of Lithuania, half of the city was Jewish, there were 9 synagogues and nearly 100 yeshivas and now what? A plaque on a wall, a few  signs, a small Jewish museum in an out-of-the-way location.  I ask at a bookstore where the books on Jewish Vilna are and the young saleswoman stares at me blankly. Jews?  Here?

 We spend much of the week with R, the archivist M has been working with to conduct research on her family. A Russian Jew who has traveled widely yet is so of this place, she’s a cosmopolitan speaker of many languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, French, going back and forth between them without pause. She is a brilliant woman, extremely conscientious and competent and always in action, running from one stop to the next and admonishing us to do the same. Hurry! Hurry! I hear all week long.  She knows the best place to get chocolate, linen, a vegetarian lunch, can convince a storekeeper to stay open just a few minutes past closing please, so we can buy something, waltzes  into an exclusive hotel to direct me to the  bathroom hidden behind a foyer.  She has chutzpah, a stubborn streak, and a face that lights up when she smiles.

In one moment she raves about how much Vilna has improved, most notably in the lively street scene before us. “Look! We are like Paris! Children eating ice cream, couples sipping coffee, everyone so happy!”
In the next breath, “You want to go to Ponari? I can take you there, you should see it!” speaking of the forests outside the city where nearly 70,000 Jews were shot and buried in mass graves.

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She did not let one reality get in the way of the other, they all co-existed, like the people who live here. We spend hours in archives and libraries as she helps M unravel the mysteries of her family. She’s a wonderful detective, diligent, focused. She sends me to take photos of everything, where I wait for others to finish at 3 designated official spots for photographing documents. The place is bustling, with people younger than I would have expected.  What is everyone doing? Finding their past, uncovering secrets, learning from history.

The photos M has – the story of how she came to have them is a major part of this very fascinating story – are so beautiful and mesmerizing.  R treats them, and all the other documents, and photos we discover with respect for the lives they represent: these are real people, beloved by those they left behind.

Outside of the archives, she introduces us to people who can add to the story, bringing different aspects to life.  Professors and scholars, a historian and survivor, each adds a unique perspective.

Her long-time friend D, who is dark in every way: his long hair and beard, his clothes, his humor. A former professor who has lost his post due to political reasons, he tells us, we meet him in a modern coffee house which he informs us was once a place where artists and performers gathered before the war.

D: (speaking to M and me): You should meet our old friend N.
R  shakes her head vigorously and in hushed tone:  “No, he won’t see visitors. He is very depressed.”
D: Aren’t we all? Those of us not able to do our life’s work?

I recognize the sadness that underlies his peculiarities, the kindred spirit beneath all that hair and heavy garb. Surrounded by hipsters smoking cigarettes, and glued to their smart phones, he might as well be in another century. And yet, he’s completely in the modern world, with a well-maintained website with thousands of followers involved in lively discourse about all things Yiddish, Jewish, political.

The next day we meet F, who lives in one of the apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city. We passed similar groupings of buildings on our way in from the airport  :drab, post-war Russian utilitarian.  It’s a depressing façade, and  a 3rd floor-walk-up, but once inside we find a well-maintained apartment surrounded by trees and open space, like Stuyvesant town where my grandparents [Hockenberg ancestors] lived, just without the elevator. M & R help with my bags (we’ve just come from a farmers market, bringing some fruit and flowers as a gift) because of my bad back, and here is this spry 94-year-old woman who goes up and down the stairs every day, leading tours and meeting with groups of young people to share her experiences, including the Vilna Ghetto, which she survived, unlike most of her family and neighbors.

She’s positively luminous, sharp-minded, and energetic. The apartment is filled with family photos of children and grandchildren and her husband, who died 30 years earlier, and items from her travels including a collection of shoes. It’s tidy and pleasant, a comfortable home, like my grandparent’s apartment.  And like my grandmother she spent many years on her own, far outliving her husband.  They both share a feistiness and matter of fact manner that likely contributes to their longevity.

We eat some mixture of beets, grains, and fruit that R has brought, and I think if I could live that long, could have lived through what she has, would I go up and down 3 flights of stairs most days to lead tours, would I have such an easy smile and no apparent bitterness?  Could I tell those stories again and again?

We watch a rain squall from the living room balcony.  Rain, she notes. Not good or bad. Just rain.  It’s a good way to live, and when we leave I no longer feel sorry for the people in all these hulking old buildings. Inside are lives I could never have imagined.

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On the one day I leave the city it is to travel up to a tiny river town called Vilki, where my family once lived, the Hockenbergs of Lithuania (Gockenberg in Cyrillic, as both R and my father point out, no “H” in Cyrillic.  We wander through the town, many houses looking no different from how they must have hundreds of years ago, while others have more recent renovations, occupied by a small group of artists who have discovered and inhabited this town. They’ve even created a sculpture garden in a park by the river, and as I sit and pose by a Jewish star, a single memorial to the many Jews who once lived here, a large bus full of German tourists pulls up and gets out to explore.

R takes me to the cemetery just outside of town, where we traipse through the forest and overrun path to discover several dozen tombstones in perfect condition. Engraved in Yiddish, they mark lives once lived, now truly resting in peace in the lush serenity of this hidden spot.

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I get back in the van beside M, our lovely driver for most of the trip. I smile at him, say achiu [thank you], the word I speak over and over, showing my appreciation for his safe and careful driving, his pleasant demeanor, the way I feel comfortable sitting beside him even though we rarely talk.  R tells me his wife drives a lot too, taking his son the long distance to and from school. He is 18 and has cerebral palsy.  We both have teenagers with special needs. Another kindred spirit. They are everywhere.

4. On How We Remember
During our conversation D brings up a controversial convention center planned to be built in Vilna, on top of the Jewish dead. There is concern on his website, but it isn’t city-wide outrage like we had in New York with the African American burial ground, which was discovered to exist on a downtown site where development was planned.  But New York is home to 2 million black people – more than 25% of the population. The protests were spearheaded by black city leadership, and their ideas for a memorial had multi-racial, city-wide support.  Vilna lacks the Jewish population or leadership to take the lead on protesting the center, and to date the city’s elected officials and residents have not taken the cause to heart.  There are artist collectives, good political graffiti, young people who seem engaged politically. Where are the activists or visionaries to take this on?

Recently the first Slave Museum opened in the United States. Called The Whitney, it’s just  outside of New Orleans.  Its founder and director, an eccentric white Southerner who earned billions as a litigator of class-action suits,  forged a partnership with a  Senegalese historian and Fulbright scholar who supervised the research. The South is filled with former plantations that have been turned into popular sites for weddings, family reunions, and sorority parties, but there is never mention of the slaves who built the grand buildings,  maintained the grounds,  beaten and raped and enslaved for generations.

The Whitney contains a number of commissioned art works, including a series of angled granite walls with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The last thing a visitor sees when leaving is  a sculpture  of 60 beheaded slaves. To those who protest that the images are too disturbing, the director defends their presence. This is what happened, it needs to be seen.

Perhaps one day the Jews of Vilna also will be memorialized in a manner that befits them.


5. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
– Mark Twain

Our visit takes place during the Republican National convention, a kind of hate-fest fueled by ignorance and resentment, scapegoating, and uncontained anger. We watch in snippets  on youtube  followed  up with late night satire, humor being the only salve possible for the nomination by a major party of a man regularly called a demagogue, compared to Hitler or Mussolini. Watching it in Vilna, the horror is magnified, knowing the events that occurred right outside our window.  Like his predecessors, Trump is not just inflaming hate but making a space where people feel comfortable expressing the hatred they’ve felt all along. Enough of this PC bullshit, let it rip. Those lazy Latinos, those Mexican rapists, and terrorist Muslims and Black thugs and doesn’t everyone hate Jews?

He will likely lose and go away but his followers and their hatred and ignorance will fester and grow, looking for other scapegoats.  It is far more frightening to listen to hate-mongering in Vilna, where radio programs intensified Anti-Semitism to a fever pitch that created a largely complicit, hostile environment in which half a city was exterminated, and the other half still has not found a way to grieve the loss.

 

Coda – I stand Corrected

As I finally have time to finish this, I read a New Yorker article about Bryan Stevenson, a remarkable attorney who represents people on death row in Alabama, and is also spearheading a project to research and memorialize every person who was lynched in 12 Southern states.  He speaks of  executions  – far more common in the South – as the legal antecessor to lynching, and mentions the old men of color who tell him how upsetting it was to hear 9/11  described as our  country’s first act of domestic terrorism.  Lynching was racial terrorism that occurred on American soil,  they explain, and the people who endured lynching and bombing and threats had a huge impact on our lives.

Reading that, letting it sink in, I  think back on my 9/11 experience through a different lens. To anyone who doesn’t think white privilege is a thing,  here you have it. I stand corrected.   It’s still a true story, but there’s more truth to add. There always is, if you’re open to it.

birdonceiling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OLDER WISER SHORTER STRONGER

norm
Joe at his diner, 1955 (Norman Rockwell)

 

joe
Joe at his diner, 2016

Time slips by.
My computer screen shatters into pieces because like many objects it slips through my hands and crashes on the floor. Sometimes I feel like a doorman with a broom and dustpan forever in my grip, sweeping up the remains of the latest mishap. It’s a symptom of getting older, those changes we continually read about and experience that are a normal part of aging: memory, balance, bones – everything thins out or diminishes. Certain things get more challenging, but there’s usually an upside: It’s harder to  multi-task, but in the long run it’s more effective and satisfying to do one activity  at a time.  Going slower, you can notice more.  You can be more grateful for birds and the smell after it rains and a perfect cloud. The laws of physics may be against us but there’s wisdom to level the playing field.

Unfortunately,  sagacity tends to get short shrift in a  youth-focused culture. Just think of the remaining Presidential candidates (as painful as that may be): all 3 are well over 60 and maintain an energy level that belies their age.
Hillary at 69 is a tireless campaigner, and just look at the stamina she displayed during the Benghazi hearings! Through 11 hours of congressional blathering she stood on her feet – calm, collected and articulate, and most amazing of all, going hours without a bathroom break –  a feat for any woman over 40, let alone one in her late 60’s.
Then there’s Bernie, who hasn’t stopped gesticulating and wagging his finger for nearly a year. How many people over 70 have arms and voices with that much endurance?  He’s so robust!
And last and least, there’s the guy who tweets like he was in his 20’s and has the maturity of a 12 year old bully.  He doesn’t need sleep! He’s one tough asshole!

These are aspirational perceptions, because who wants to imagine slowing down?   But real, physiological aging is unavoidable, if we’re  lucky.  And when you get past the terrifying fact that you have no idea what forms it will take or how severe the decline may be, it’s fascinating.

Take shrinking, for example. I have witnessed so many loved ones – my aunts and grandmother, my mother – diminish in size. And now I am following my ancestors down that dwindling road.   After the initial “I’ve shrunk an inch?!!, holding my face like an Edward Munch painting, I accept it for what it is.  I have become the lady in the supermarket asking customers to reach items on the top shelf for me.   After 30 years of saying I’m 5’2″ when I’ve only been 5′ 1 1/2”, I own the fact that I am barely 5 feet, and will likely shrink more.  It’s an unavoidable fact of life.

Yet sometimes when I’m on the elliptical machine at the gym – something I don’t really enjoy but do for the sake of those thinning bones –  I’ll program in another person, lopping off 12 years and 10 pounds and for 40 minutes I imagine being tall and toned with a ponytail and two gorgeous kids I see an hour a day yet talk about like they’re a full-time  occupation. I’m only in my early 40’s so people still find me passably attractive and interesting enough to engage in conversation rather than an ineffectual or quirky secondary character, which is how women my age commonly get treated in movies and the workplace.

There’s little I can do about the culture of youth, other than ignore it or give it the finger.  But there’s much I can do to try to prolong  my life, along with everyone else hoping to make it to “really old” one day.  I’m starting this year with the most essential ingredient to a long life, which has nothing to do with eating well, exercising, or running for national office.

As a very generous early birthday gift, my sister and sister-in-law took me to  the Berkshires for a weekend. I could feel my stress melt away in days filled with hiking and yoga and good food and fresh air. But more, it  was the unhurried meals and long conversation, the laughter and shared experiences  — including meeting Joe outside his diner, as depicted above — that had the most impact.  Away from my usual socially isolated state of being, I could literally feel a shift in my body. Not surprising, given that scientific research shows that loneliness operates on a cellular level,
creating mechanisms within the body that cause adverse health outcomes. Lonely people have less effective immune systems and more inflammation.

Recent research on longevity finds that for people under 65 it is loneliness and social isolation that shortens the lifespan – more than smoking, alcoholism and obesity combined! Loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 14%.according to a recent study out of the University of Chicago led by loneliness expert John Cocioppo. (Yes, there are loneliness experts and yes, I read their work the way that you might devour a mystery novel.)

I came home from the Berkshires feeling  more energized than I have in ages and determined to make it last. I deactivated my Facebook account in anticipation of my birthday, to avoid the hard to avoid ‘compare and despair’ aspect of social media. It’s not easy given that FB now quantifies the number of well wishers each member has.  My good friend from high school, who I haven’t seen in 20 years  has 95 , the cousin I see once a year had 80, there are people I barely know who have hundreds of people wishing them a happy much younger than me birthday and why does this even matter ?   I spend little time on virtual relationships but still, every May it makes me dread my birthday. I’m shorter and older and less socially connected.

But I’m also wiser. I pull the plug and lower my expectations, and find myself delighted and pleasantly surprised by every call, text, and  card I receive.  And I’m trying to do the same now, as I complete this much truncated version of the 30 + pages I’ve written since my last post, with various threads and story lines that captivate me but would take more time than I have to weave into a whole. ( Comments are most welcome…please,  you’ll increase my lifespan!)  Someday, I will have time to write more consistently and at least dip a toe  into the much loathed arena of marketing necessary to find readers or opportunities.
Someday I hope at least one of the books (or podcasts, theatre pieces, documentaries, and TV series – I have a big imagination!)  will come to fruition.  Disappointment is a bigger part of our lives than most of us like to admit and the best we can do is be honest, to try to find the humor in it all and people to laugh with.

For now I’m here, all five feet of me, listening to the birds sing and feeling lucky to be alive.

 

perfectcloud

 

all amazing stories

vredcoat

Pouring over a bin of old photos, I’ve culled a small but powerful collection I call Before. They are photos* from the first two years of V’s life, before his severe regression into the land of autism. A typical toddler, he knew the names of all Thomas’ fellow trains in Sodor, and all his little friends  at the childcare collective he attended.  At home he engaged with his brother as a normal younger sibling, with interest and fascination at what this larger version of himself could say and do.

They are photos of ordinary moments: brothers looking at books, kicking a soccer ball, taking a bath together.  And yet they are extraordinary in the same way, each one revealing an attribute that soon would vanish.  I look at them with wonder and awe:  how V gazes into his friend’s eyes,  how  calmly he sits still beside his classmates, painting pictures or  listening to stories.   He’s so connected! And he’s heedful.  He helps to beat cookie batter without immersing his hands into the bowl and then rubbing it into his hair. He’s staring at Snoqualmie Falls and there’s no adult hovering lest he try to climb over the railing.  I can’t help but view them through the filter of After, when none of these moments would be possible.

soquamiefallsv&miranda

Our experience is common, and yet it doesn’t get much attention in the extensive coverage of the disorder, especially in April, which is Autism Awareness Month. Of those diagnosed with autism, about 40% of children seem to be developing normally or close to normally but then experience a sharp decline in skills, usually between 18 months and 2 ½ years of age. And those with regressive autism are most likely to end up with more severe autism, making the initial normalcy all the more poignant .

boysbath

baby&bv&t

Severe regression, when mentioned, is often a paragraph in a longer narrative; it’s the squirm-inducing upset in a tale of triumph, something that happens  before you forge ahead into that amorphous state called Progress. We’re a culture that doesn’t want to dwell on grief, the persistent weight you carry as you spring into action upon receiving any sort of life-altering  diagnosis, immersing yourself in a new language and universe of evaluations and specialists and therapists. Grief hovers with the disbelief – Is this real? Am I awake, or is this all a dream that will go away when I open my eyes?

In the case of autism, we jump in and learn and do everything we can to help our children, devoting years to what for most of us is slow and plodding progress; as  more years pass, finding a way to maintain a delicate equanimity in which you keep  building on strengths and believing in potential,  while accepting what likely will be lifelong challenges and deficits.

I admire all the other parents who do this, because I find it so damn hard to keep up the stamina and faith. And  I wish our common tales received even a fraction of the attention and appreciation  heaped on the far more rare miracle stories, the Owens and Aris who through the creativity and commitment of parents and teams of professionals make a remarkable recovery. 

Yes, they are amazing stories, but there are so many amazing stories we don’t ever hear, so many storytellers longing to be visible and validated.  Can we widen our view of what is wondrous or inspiring? Can we be brave enough not to avert our gaze from what makes us feel uneasy?

A recent episode of the TV show “How to Get a Way with Murder”(which I watch mainly for actress Viola Davis’ lead performance, finding the pace of Shondaland a bit too frenetic for my plot-addled brain)  had a remarkable scene in which Davis’ character gives birth to a stillborn baby.  Still  in a state of shock and anguish, someone from the hospital comes into the room and has the devastated parents pose for a photo with the dead baby. It seemed a cruel thing to do to someone so raw with emotion.

But in researching this practice I found that taking  a family photo with a stillborn is a common ritual. As a midwife explained, it helps in building memories  to cope with grief, and in sharing that  grief to  help other people to cope.

I realize that coping with the death of a child is far more tragic than anything I’ve ever experienced, yet there is unbearable sadness to watching a healthy child disintegrate before your eyes.  It’s hard for others to understand, or to want to think about, which is all the more reason it’s important to share.  Because it’s part of my history, part of life for so many families.   Autism awareness is  easy, understanding takes more effort.

boysflowers

In some cases it happens virtually overnight. For us, it was a matter of months from the first inklings  – the faraway glances and flat affect – to the full disappearance of language and connection with the outside world. It’s painful to recall how quickly these changes took over the child I had known,  that lonely time of grasping what was happening.

I remember with gratitude the first few conversations  with others who  validated my instincts, how someone you barely know can become a lifeline.  There was the dad who had been volunteering at the playschool every week (a typical Brooklyn story: he had been Michael Moore’s cinematographer but had decided to go  law school so he had the summer off) and how he took me aside one day and said he had noticed a sudden change in V, from a boy who was always in the thick of the action – the best cart driver at school, he could stop on a dime – to one who now spent his time off in the corner, alone and staring into space.  I so appreciated his insight and concern, the confirmation of what I sensed occurring, especially because his teachers, though experienced with kids, knew little of child development and nothing of autism, and didn’t notice a thing.

And then there was the woman who had been cutting my hair for years in a cheap hair salon on East 14th Street.   The haircuts were quick – she was the most popular chair in the shop, and she always had a line, even when the place was otherwise empty. I could sense the other haircutters  resented her a bit, but then, she was so good at her craft. If people just hired based on skill I’m sure she would be working at a much nicer salon,  but she was a Boricua with a thick accent and a zaftig figure who spent her days at a chair in a dim crowded room.

During those haircuts there wasn’t much  time for conversation. I knew she lived in East Harlem and took the bus downtown, that her husband worked nights and her son and his wife now lived upstate with their two young kids.  Then one day when she asked about my kids I started telling her about V’s recent changes, and she confessed to the same concerns about her granddaughter,  and before I knew it we were both in tears, sharing such similar observations it was as if we were speaking of the same child and the same experience as their caregivers.  I was dismissed as an over-anxious mom, she as the doting Abuela;  we were just worrying too much. But we knew, we knew it was more than that.

After repeated visits to the pediatrician, who insisted there was nothing to worry about, he finally relented and referred us to a pediatric neurologist. In less than a minute from when we entered his office, he diagnosed V with autism and a severe communications disorder.

v&arebna

r&wreadingboysv&molly

vbn

I remember one day when B was about 4 he had a friend over to play, and they created a game in which V, then about 18 months,  was the monster.  First they chased the monster back and forth, then the monster chased them.  At least I think that was the game; I don’t recall  because I was in the other room, reading a book. I just heard their loud laughter and running back and forth, relieved our downstairs neighbor wasn’t home.  This is how life will be from now on, I thought, the light at the end of the tunnel: kids off playing, adults in the other room doing grow-up things. It’s what I remember from childhood, and what I saw all around me. Parents sat around and drank coffee and talked while children were off in another room or outside playing. But that light went out and the brief respite of Before came crashing down into the still-evolving After where we remain, with hope and sorrow, grace and dirt, acceptance and love and the faintest lingering of grief.

 

 

  • I generally don’t post recognizable photos to protect privacy of family and friends, but these are from so long ago I felt safe in sharing them.

Imaginary Border Crossings

canada

When I was 8 years old my mother told me that if George Wallace was elected President we were moving to Canada.  I had no idea that Wallace, an Independent candidate, had no chance of winning the general election (although he did win 5 Deep-South states in the primaries, the rest of the country held little interest in supporting  a racist demagogue), and the notion of not just moving  but leaving the country was a terrifying concept.

Wallace

My mom’s political convictions gave me a social conscience from an early age, but I was just a 2nd grader.  I didn’t know  about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and how they would forever shift the Southern political landscape, turning generations of conservative Democrats into strident Republicans in a racially fueled backlash to these landmark acts.   All I knew was that George Wallace hated black people and supported segregation and that we could never live where such a bad man was our leader. That was how I thought at age 8, and albeit with a more politically sophisticated grasp of issues, it was what my mother believed at 39.

And so in those late autumn nights of 1968, when all the other little children in my bedroom  community easily drifted to sleep dreaming of Halloween or other youthful folly, I lay awake with trepidation, imagining that fateful Wednesday after Election Day, and the wake-up call that would change my life forever.  Still dark outside, Mom would enter our room and jolt us from our sleep. “C’mon kids, everyone up! The car’s packed.”  chevywagon

Groggy eyed, I’d come downstairs for breakfast with my brother and sister, looking out the window at our Chevy station wagon crammed with whatever belongings we could fit, with enough room for the 5 of us – 6 including our beloved beagle Daisy, whose plump frame we  would somehow squeeze across our laps.

Like Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music leading his family out of Nazi Austria, crossing the mountains to a saner kinder world, we would follow her lead.  We’d head out as the sun was rising, no chance to say goodbye to friends or neighbors, just hitting the road with some clothes, gas money, and our ideals intact.                                      sibs

‘Drive every highway’ might not have the same melodic sway as ‘Climb every mountain,’ but the drama in my mind was just as fierce.  O Canada!  The von Trapp Family of suburban Philadelphia, sadly lacking in musical talent,  would enter that vast unknown territory usually colored green with very little detail on the maps I used to study.  I imagined it had lots of trees, a few cities, and nice people who wouldn’t mind us joining their civilized commonwealth.

Fortunately it was all a dream and on November 6, 1968 I woke up to find Nixon elected President (not realizing what a nightmare that would be) and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast and walk to school with all my happy Republican neighbors.

 

trump

Both nightmares and dreams are back in full force.  “How to move to Canada” began trending on Google after Donald Trump’s victories in 7 states on Super Tuesday (March 1st).  The phrase spiked 350 percent between 8 PM and midnight, and by midnight jumped to 1,500 percent.

While I was (and remain)  horrified by his victories –  had we sunk so low that this time around we could elect a racist demagogue?  – I was also heartened to read that speculative border crossing and the concern that fueled it was alive and well. I suspected the vast majority would stay put, like my mother in ‘68 or my younger self in 2000, who vociferously swore I’d leave the country if George W. Bush was elected.

By that point in life I was more of a global citizen, visiting and hosting a wide range of fellow travelers in my tiny studio apartment.  (ucancrashonmyfuton and similar acts of generosity existed long before airbnb’s profit-making ‘sharing economy’)  Montreal  was a possibility, but so was  Buenos Aires or Mexico City or Rome, where Socialism was not an evil force but a guiding principle that co-existed with great food, fashion and architecture that could make your heart sing.

I really was leaving this time, I said repeatedly. There’s no way I’m spending the next 4 years listening to a man who was born on 3rd base and thinks he hit a triple, as Molly Ivins so brilliantly put it.  But like my mother before me, I’m both an idealist and a pragmatist. I stayed put to fight the good fight from the comfort of home.

This time around I have even more practical constraints:  a son who will attend our state university in the fall, and another with an out of district school placement funded by our township.  Although I admit we do have a file on autism programs in Mexico, just in case..If a wall actually is built on our Southern border, I’m moving to the other side.

But I know most likely I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay right here with the latest crop of imaginary border crossers, doing what I can so that future generations will explore the chips implanted in their brains for more uplifting phrases: first female president;  first Jewish Socialist candidate  enthusiastically supported; crazed demagogue overwhelmingly defeated as a nation comes to its senses.  

But the future is unwritten.  For now I’m just grateful to have memories of growing up with strong beliefs and ideals, and buoyed to know that they can last a lifetime.

 

 

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while you were schlepping

Examples of Long-term Disappearance:

 

guysmoking
Guy goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never returns.

 

goodfellas
Gravy-making goodfella informs on fellow mobsters, enters witness protection program, and vanishes with his family to unknown Midwestern locale where they are forced to put ketchup on pasta.

The Restaurant from Portlandia's Chicken Sketch Closed

Couple decide to find out if the free-range chicken they’ve ordered is really
all that happy; visit local Oregon farm where they end up joining polygamous commune.

files16
Woman desperate to stop bleeding money due to eviscerating cost (nearly half of household income) for care of child with severe disabilities; sets out to access every possible treatment and service that’s publicly funded, covered by health insurance, or sponsored by nonprofits. This will take just a few weeks  a month  the lifespan of a worker ant TWO YEARS…600 hours  on the phone (200 spent trying to talk to a human),  800 hours of research and detective work, a few months-long waiting lists, and 4 bins of paperwork later,  she’s secured affordable health insurance, home therapy,  respite care, and  recreational programs for her younger son and salvaged  enough for her older son to attend a state university for at least a year or 2.

Relieved at an odious unpaid job well done, she comes up for air and finds that she’s shrunk an inch, is starting to get that neck thing women complain about, and is even more isolated  and invisible than when she started.
But wait, is that a light up ahead? Could it be she’s no longer irrelevant?! Au contraire, she’s the lead news story and everyone is talking about her!   The declining middle class.   She’s a meme for god sake!  And she’s not alone, in fact there are millions just like her: hard-working, demoralized, struggling to get by and angry as hell.   They’re on every pundits’ lips,  being courted by Grumpy and Sleepy and Dopey and everyone else on the ever dwindling podiums of the longest presidential campaign in history.  Lonely no more, hooray! They could all band together and use their anger as a springboard to change and opportunity for all!

But wait again! there were two camps of outrage  with entirely different reactions to the same concerns.
One was talking about policies and legacies that overlooked some and favored others – systemic problems with long historic roots.  There was infighting and disagreement, some wanting greater change than others, but they were talking about substantive, consequential issues. Boring stuff, it seemed, given the minimal attention these discussions received…

At least compared to the other camp that seemed to cause a media frenzy with every outlandish claim they made. They were too were angry but in a scarier way – about to explode, stay out of my way or I’ll sucker punch you angry. The type of anger forged in fear and resentment and a burning desire to blame someone else for their problems.  (Scapegoating is way easier than policy analysis. It requires no reading, thinking, or grasp of issues.)

For people who had so much in common – similar fears and insecurities  and frustration that you could work so hard and have so little to show for it – they sure reached different endpoints.  But with such divergent story-lines, and facts that seemed to come from different planets, what else could you expect?

 

j&vpoconos,
When she was young she used to swim across a lake in the Poconos  every summer.  It was a small body of water but as a little girl it felt vast, and  swimming its length was a great achievement.  A few grown ups rowed beside the young swimmers, in case someone got a leg cramp or was short of breath or one of those turtles at the other side got hungry  Could turtles bite? At 10 years old she had no idea but she was thankful someone was there if the worst were to happen.

She didn’t want their help – in fact she swam even harder just to prove she didn’t need them.  The whole point was to show she was strong and independent. In all the years swimming across the lake she never had to be rescued, but was glad to have that boat beside her just in case. It made her feel safe.

Now she swam alone, and tired more easily and sometimes got frightened at the obstacles in her way. She was angry that there wasn’t more support for her and all  the others beside her, swimming as hard as they could yet largely out of sight. She never imagined she would work so hard on her own with such high stakes, or could fall so far behind that she, along with her dreams, seemed to disappear altogether.

When you fall behind and you see the other bodies up ahead, they’re just little specs in the landscape. You can’t decipher the color of their skin or their convictions or country of origin. Bigotry will get you nowhere. When you’re struggling to keep up you need empathy and encouragement, and sometimes you need supplies.  Hating never saved anyone, and it never will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making room on full plates

wetleaf

Listening to the news on the radio while wiping down the counters this  morning, wondering  “Didn’t I just do this?”
Awaken to a Shins song at 7:10 (don’t know how that has become the default alarm, but I don’t mind), wake and get V ready for school and on bus; walk dog; launch into house/ paperwork/errands all while writing in my head; look up to see it’s time to take him off the bus. OK words – get back in storage until tomorrow …

Has my life turned into a domestic re-make of Groundhog Day? You know, where you live the same day over and over until you learn some great lesson about what’s important in life and true love, and ah, it all makes sense now, and you live purposefully ever after because wisdom can set you free.

Well, no, it doesn’t quite work that way, but living what is basically the same day over and over again can help you keep perspective and grow some gratitude,  maybe make tiny shifts rather than the dramatic changes of  your dreams. Noticing with amazement a green bean hiding under a leaf,  and how it glistens after a light rain; trying to listen more closely to others so that you can help rather than judge them;  taking small risks that move you closer to your goals.   Will I live this day again and again until I get it right or is the lesson simply that there are times when that’s all there is, and while it lacks excitement it’s really not that bad.greenbeans

The news is heavy:  today I’ve tuned in to in-depth coverage of Israel, Hamas, and conflicts in the Middle East. I’m tempted to switch to Pandora – wouldn’t I rather hear some computer-generated mix of my favorite upbeat music to clean by rather than a discussion of the killing of teenagers, of bombs blowing up innocent people, of terror and mistreatment and hate-fueled actions?

Don’t I have enough to deal with already in my life? Like most people I’d answer a resounding Yes! I have too much on my plate. We all say it, although it is more true for some than others, and there’s a difference between Pilates and sailing lessons and waiting in lines or filling out forms to get some desperately needed services, a distinction between actions we choose and those we are obligated to perform,  items we have the freedom to take off our plates and things that sit there, stewing, until we get them done .

I’ve been thinking a lot about really full plates – like overflowingly full and almost too heavy to carry – a lot in the past few weeks.  It is a sentiment and circumstance I contend with regularly, and like anyone on overload I try to give myself some slack. But I also grapple with ways I might redistribute or scrape off certain items on that plate, so there is still room for the bigger world, even with all the horrific and tragic events that keep unfurling, and for the closer to home human connections I crave and miss so much.

sage

Summer is an especially fertile time for nostalgia: the memories of family vacations, playing at camp or in city parks, late nights filled with stars and romance or fireflies – things that can feel magical in that temporal way of a season so anticipated only to vanish too quickly,  especially for the young
who relish the freedom it brings.

I’ve lost touch with so many people over the past decade – a gradual dissolution resulting from moving,  being swamped with a job I was wholly unprepared for, then finding the lapses of contact so long that I put off getting back in touch, not wanting to have to keep explaining my story from scratch. Yet  I’ve been longing to re-connect, wondering about old friends, former colleagues, Brooklyn neighbors, cousins I rarely see.

Last week I decided to track down a former babysitter with whom we’ve lost touch in the past year.  She’s been on my mind a lot lately, stirred up by all the news of lives cut short, and fears I couldn’t face.  B was a young woman who was in graduate school for speech pathology,  her goal to be a therapist for kids with autism.   I remember when I first met her being struck by her beauty,  tall and willowy with glowing Irish skin (she reminded me a bit of Keira Knightley in Bend it Like Beckham, before she became a big star, all gaunt and glam). I admit that despite her perfectly suited credentials and glowing references I initially had doubts based on her looks, but it was a shallow and misguided fear, immediately assuaged when I saw how easily she connected with V, how eager and ready she was to help him to talk and engage him in a playful way.  She’d always walk in the room, say “How’s my buddy?” a question I’ve on occasion found patronizingly treacly coming from someone who didn’t know him well; but she said it with so much warmth and sincerity, and he would always smile and look straight in her eyes, delighted to see her.

cukeflowers

Soon after she started– one or two afternoons a week, I think, it’s hard to remember the details – she started getting sick: these low-grade fevers and being really tired all the time, having to cancel and go visit doctors. At one point she went back to visit her family in Philadelphia for a week and when she came back she told me that she had been to the hospital for tests and been diagnosed with Leukemia.

She was determined to fight it – she was young and healthy; they had caught it early; she was in great hands at a top cancer center. She was confident in a way that was contagious, and I had no doubt that she would prevail. The next 2 years were a roller coaster ride of seeing her regularly in between treatments, when she’d be in good health and spirits. Eventually, needing more regular medical care, she took a leave of absence from grad school one semester and then returned months later for the summer session to try to catch up. She was a fighter – battling the disease, and the school, which shamelessly was trying to charge her for the full semester she had lost due to hospital stays – even coming by one day with t-shirts friends had designed and printed as part of a fundraising campaign to offset her medical expenses. (We bought 4 shirts, one is pictured on V in an earlier post – on the back reading “Don’t Give up, Don’t ever Give Up.”) She lost her hair, she lost weight, but still, every so often she’d return, saying she was feeling okay, well enough to spend a few hours with V,  just no running around. She always looked relatively healthy – we never saw her in that gaunt and fragile state I’ve seen in others with late-stage cancer. And not wanting to romanticize it, she retained an impressively positive, hopeful attitude throughout it all.

At some point – again, I can’t remember the timing of when we last saw her – she gave up her nearby apartment, said she was going to live at home for a while, that she needed too frequent treatments to be traveling back and forth. We stayed in touch sporadically – sending her smiling photos of V, which she said cheered her up. She  always said that she was fine or doing well when we asked, but in one of our last correspondences she said that she was getting a bone marrow transplant.whiteflowers

Sometime after that we lost touch. I’d think of her occasionally, tell myself I should reach out. Should we try to visit when we were in Philly? Was she in the hospital? At her mother’s house?  It was a combination of too much on my plate and complete cowardice on my part, something I am easy to judge in others when they avoid facing those in hard circumstances, or having conversations they’d rather not.

[I’d love to write a book called Say This, Not That – not about rules or etiquette but a sort of road map for talking to those in difficult or unfamiliar circumstances in a way that is helpful and kind. If there’s such a market for similar guides on what to wear or eat, surely there’s room for a blueprint for compassionate speech…]

I’d convinced myself that she was fine, that she was recovering nicely,  perhaps had decided to complete graduate studies while living at home? Maybe she had it with the school trying to wring money out of a cancer patient fighting for her life, and had transferred to another school. I couldn’t let myself imagine any alternative to fine. T, on the other hand, feared the worst. And so we remained in denial and avoidance until last week when I Googled her, and discovered that she had died last August, after a 5 year struggle with cancer.

 

leaf3I think about her constantly now – when out for a walk or digging in my garden, seeing how alive everything is around me, the flowers that will turn to eggplants or cucumbers, the way the light bounces off of  each plant.   I feel guilt for losing touch but glad that she had such a tight-knit group of friends, family and community members that rallied around her through it all, that like us will always hold her in our hearts. I used to think that was such a lame cop-out to life’s greatest mystery but I’ve come to recognize the solace that comes from memory and acknowledging how much people touched us.

But I feel most of all the sort of rage reserved for those events and evils so unbearably unfair, for lives cut short so young. Here was a 25-year-old woman working her way through graduate school so that she could help children who struggled with language – what more helpful, noble, conscientious traits and goals could a person have?   Her plate was full from the moment I met her in the way of many ambitious young people, but her mission was to do work with purpose.   I don’t even have to close my eyes to see her face in front of me: that perfect bone structure, the beautiful glowing Irish skin, the grace. 25. it’s just the start of adulthood for so many, it’s so achingly young, so hard to accept.

The counters and floors finally clean, I take a break to write this down but I feel so forlorn. The news is full of early tragic deaths, unfathomably violent and unnecessary –  do we really need to hear it? But I believe everyone capable of understanding has an obligation to at least have some sense of world events, that it’s part of our humanity to feel connected to these other lives, close to home or continents away. I fully appreciate the need to limit when and how much we take in (no more news before bed for me, the dreams that follow are too unbearable). I know how full our plates are, but there has to be a little space for knowing and caring, keeping our ties, as hard as that might be.

I really don’t have any nice way to end this, but I guess that’s part of life too. The endings happen and all we can do is let it sink in, to scrape a little more off the plate that’s superfluous and find a place for the heartaches and injustices of life that make no sense but happen, whether we make room for them or not. And notice how their presence doesn’t undermine but illuminates the living that remains.eggplantblossom

the summer drought

The care-free days of summer aggressively marketed in endless car commercials, ads for amusement parks, and articles reminiscing about swimming holes or beguiling tales of family outings – from travels abroad to weekends at the beach – are a seasonal source of annoyance, like mosquitoes that come out at dusk during what is often the most pleasant part of a hot humid day.

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I know it’s all a guise, or in current parlance, “facebooking”, a term that has become short-hand for how people choose to present themselves to the world. Here I am on the beach in the South of France! Here I am in my blooming, fecund garden! Here I am with my loving partner/adorable children/ bevy of friends that come by every week for one of my famous barbecues!  There are no images of the car-ride from hell stuck in traffic; the moment before the photo clicks when the kids are screaming at each other; no picture of the neighbor off in the corner, bored to tears or drinking until the boredom becomes muted and it’s possible to survive another gathering of people you don’t especially like; of gardens that don’t bear fruit or flower.

I know, intellectually, pragmatically, that it’s all a presentation, the fine art not so much of deception as omission, where we choose and crop the best of life we share with others. But it still gets under my skin, and so I find avoidance  helpful: skipping articles, switching channels, even de-activating Facebook (at least until September), reminding imagemyself on my 3 walks a day with boy, dog or some combination that there are people everywhere mowing the lawn, watching the game (whatever their chosen sport may be), hidden inside like myself doing all sorts of mundane tasks like laundry or scrubbing baseboards during this time when dirt and grime seem to take over like the holes in my peppers and tomatoes..some bug or animal, it seems, something I can’t name. Having enormous healthy-looking tomato plants sans tomatoes is one of life’s little mysteries – not tragic, but lacking in the ideal image we hold of what  Summer should be.

I’ve long since accepted that image as mirage,  and grown to tolerate my still active longing for adventure.  I’ve made peace with the fact that summer is currently a few hot months when I imageinevitably will find it challenging to fill the hours during the longest days of the year, during V’s ESY,  the “extended school year”  provided to kids deemed in need of structured, learning-based programs beyond the regular school calendar. His is a terrific fun-filled program that encourages the communications and social engagement with which he so desperately needs help, but as I experience every year, it is also insufficiently brief: 5 weeks of half days, Monday-Friday,  leaving long stretches of afternoons, evening, and weekends with our warm and affectionate yet friendless son.

It is the first summer in which he is a teenager, a young man practically my size, who can rest his head on my shoulder when we go for walks or dart ahead at a pace I struggle to keep up with.

It is also, more significantly, the first summer in his life that he has not wanted to go swimming, creating a mystery far greater than whatever pests or soil issue is thwarting  the life of my vegetables. Like many individuals with autism, V loves water – he craves it, he has trouble staying out of it. He takes part in swimming programs throughout the year, and come Summer the community pool up the street – one of the few places we can easily reach by foot – becomes like a second home from the time it opens in late June through its closing hours on Labor Day. (Despite its assets: the wonderful neighbors, the big shady trees, the diversity I value so much, I’ve grown continually frustrated with our neighborhood’s lack of the highly valued quality of “walckability”.)image

V has matured and mellowed a bit since the early years: of racing after him as he ignored the repeated, stern “WALK!” from the lifeguards usually reserved for much younger children; years of having him try to swim without his bathing suit, which like an aquatic Houdini he could wiggle out of no matter how tight and double knotted it was; of ruining at least 2 cell phones  jumping in after him as he dashed from entryway to pool before I could stop him.  (I used to joke that there should be a special “Autism Insurance” available for communication devices.)

I remember one day tripping and falling while running after him, getting up to find my knee scraped and bloody, and therefore barred from entering the pool.  I implored a neighbor I barely knew to please keep an eye on him while I called T to come rescue us, and the lifeguards helped clean me up (every single guard and supervisor at the pool knows us well), pressing a bandage to try to stop the bleeding of my now gushing wound, keeping a close eye on V,  urging him to keep his suit on as he tried to pull it off, profusely thanking my neighbor and the others in the pool who looked a bit alarmed, reassuring the guards that help was on the way, a 10 minute wait that felt like hours.
imageNo, summers most certainly are not care-free. But our time in the pool can be a pleasure,  both fun and therapeutic, energizing yet calming for both of us.
And it’s easier as V has gotten older, taller, more confident in his swimming skills:  basically a doggy paddle combined with jumps and deep dives down to the bottom of the pool, but always safe, coming up for air and able to float on his own. We hadn’t quite reached the point where I could be out of the water entirely, although we were getting close; I could sit on the edge, with my feet in the water, even glance at a magazine.

Oh, to be like the other woman who sat and read books or dozed in the sun,  or had conversations on lounge chairs, to have just a taste of the freedom other moms had experienced since their children were half my son’s age… After all my world travels and urban exploring , a dozen plus years of relishing the joys of summer in the city with all its outdoor concerts and near empty movie theaters, days without plans sitting in a park reading for hours, did I ever think my biggest aspiration would be to get through a newspaper article without heart palpitations?

But alas, even such a humble wish now seems out of reach. This year, since his return from Elks Camp, my beloved young amphibian has refused to even enter the water!  It’s been nearly a month now, and still a puzzle we can’t solve and that he lacks the words to explain.  The water at camp was a more comfortable temperature – there are a lot of kids with cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities, so they keep it fairly warm. But that doesn’t seem enough of an explanation.  Nor does the simple one word I hear repeatedly. Adolescence.

I have another teenager and I was one once myself (although admittedly, never a teenage boy); I know that there are challenges and changes that the human body goes through, that we can suddenly like things we didn’t and abhor things we enjoyed. But the mysteries of autism, coupled with those of adolescence creates a complex puzzle far more confounding than anything I  – or anyone else , it seems – can figure out.

I’ve spoken to his OT, other parents, teachers, a therapist and nurse.  And all of us respond like that old Jewish joke. (Q: Why do Jews answer questions with a question? . A: Why not?)  Maybe it’s hormones? Perhaps he’s become hyper-sensitive to cold?  Is there some way that water is bothering his skin? (but he still loves baths) Is it too loud at the pool? (but we go during times when it is uncrowded and quiet). Is he scared of something? (but what? He’s never been fearful, he knows he can swim, I’m right there beside him).  Maybe it will just end, as simply and inexplicably as it started?

I hope so. For now, on nice days I try to do some laps when the pool opens at 1 o’clock, then rush home to get him off the bus.  Like anyone experiencing a drought, I dream of water, and hope that it will end.
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Photos of water-themed mural series
in Hunts Point, the Bronx
…and Nishuane Park Pool.

 

 

 

the word is WOW

imageMany years ago, I was walking through
Central Park on a beautiful afternoon
when I saw a gathering of people peering into telescopes at something on 5th Avenue.
image I stopped and spoke to someone in the group, who told me they were observing a red hawk named Pale Male that had made a nest in the penthouse of a building – Woody Allen’s apartment, in fact – and asked if I would I like to have a look.
“I’d love to, ” I responded and peered into the lens, just at a moment when the
the huge majestic  bird swooped across the sky.
image“Wow!” I exclaimed, a single word  which later found its way onto a PBS
documentary on Nature in New York which aired nationally.
I didn’t realize that anyone was filming, or recall signing a release.  All I remember is the rapture of that single moment, and later, how as a simple passer-by I became part of a magical little episode in New York history.
When the show aired, I received a spate of phone calls from around the country, including a few friends with whom I had lost touch.  Were you in Central Park, wearing a red hat, saying “Wow!” while watching a red hawk?

imageYes. I was the girl in the red hat. The Wow Girl.  With exquisite film footage and  sophisticated input from naturalists and scientists, there I am,
contributing one singular word to the discussion.  Wow.
And yet what better, more honest, more heartfelt statement can a person make when confronted with the unfathomable mysteries and beauty in this world of ours?
Words can fail us, words can’t even begin to touch the magic of birds and their movement or music, of flowers in full bloom, as I found yesterday in the hidden garden where I used to volunteer, after years of being a grateful visitor, sitting on its benches and watching the seasons change and the incredible beauty that unfolded behind its walls.
imageI appreciated the sanctuary the garden provided then, when I was living in a studio apartment on 14th Street, a busy pulsing hub in the city that doesn’t sleep.
Now, with more space but far less free time,  I appreciate it all the more on a quick morning trip while V is in his half-day summer program. Just long enough to wander through and capture these shots, and repeatedly exclaim one word
that says it all.  Wow!

 

 

 

photos of The Garden at St. Luke’s in the Field
Hudston Street,  NYC 7/11/2014

 

Acknowledgements

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Acknowledgement

Acknowledgement: the action of expressing or displaying gratitude or appreciation for something or someone.

Today ends my annual week – 5 days really – when V is away at Elks Camp (Thank you local Elks club, for sponsoring my son for the past 4 years, providing him with a wonderful overnight camp experience, and us with a rare, much-needed respite, thank you for 6 nights of uninterrupted sleep and 5 mornings of sleeping in past 7 am.)  As usual, I try to cram as much of what I lack in the other 51 weeks into this brief time:   a movie, live music, a barbecue with friends in Brooklyn (Thank you so much for the delicious meal and great company),  the beach for a day with my neighbor and her friend, both teachers, for whom ‘school’s out’ has a far different meaning than it does for people like me (Thank you B, for the ride and gloriously relaxing day. Thank you to your friend and fellow teacher B for being such great company. Thank you in general to teachers, as well as teachers aides, therapists, home health aides, child care providers and all the other people we hire to care for our loved ones, young and old, at far less than they deserve given how much we expect and demand of them.)

Saying ‘Thank you’ is something that comes naturally to me: I was taught good manners at  a young age, to say “Please” and to give up your seat on the bus to someone who might need it more,  and in general to be a helpful, generous person. I’ve learned that it’s just as easy to be helpful as not, and that it feels good to be of service.  I also have learned how quickly we can change from being helpful to being in need of help, a vulnerable place in which you continually ask or plead for what you need, and offer gratitude for every small or major act of kindness or assistance. Thank you becomes not just an occasional nicety but a constant necessity: an attitude as much as a humbling phrase as you find your sense of empowerment devolve into reliance on others.

 

imageAs I write this I look up at a proclamation I keep, 20 years old, which names a day in my honor in the borough of Manhattan.   Written by the speech writer of the elected official for whom I worked it has his distinctly politic, well-honed eloquence that I appreciate nonetheless: Artists, historians, students, dancers and actors all owe a debt of gratitude to me for my “unheralded but indispensable efforts on their behalf.”  And my favorite: that despite the job demands [she]   “never failed to display her characteristic generosity, consideration and idiosyncratic sense of fun” And so,  “In appreciation for her dedicated efforts in promoting artistic expression and a fuller flowering of cultural diversity…” it was proclaimed JH Day in Manhattan.

It is the most visible – and oldest – in a collection of grateful letters and glowing recommendations that ended a decade ago, acknowledging a person I was, who I still am, although that person is completely unknown in my current home. Care-giving has been like a blanket snuffing out a fire, dampening the passion and talents that lay dormant under an unrelenting barrage of responsibility and stress.

I’m hardly unique in that regard:  our most vital selves can dissipate or go in hiding through one formulation or another,  from battling an illness or addiction or disorder, or bearing responsibility for another in that position.   For some it is is a lifelong burden; for others, a chapter or two; for many, a final chapter of decline or pain. We are many people in the course of our lives and it takes great courage – often unappreciated in these times of highly edited over-sharing – to be honest about those darker passages. Yet ultimately we want to be remembered and acknowledged for our best selves, the most vibrant and alive.

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Like here, my Great Aunt Anne in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  A photo of a photo, it’s hard to do  justice to how  perfectly it captures her beauty and exuberance, standing there in a magnificent plaza in an exquisite city in the magical place that is Italy, how the sun is shining and the birds surround her and she is living her dream – of travel and culture and being that worldly person thousands of miles from the tenements of Brooklyn in which her life so modestly began.   Like the rest of us, she had her share of disappointments and heartache, and all of her dreams did not come true.  But here she is in all her glory, in the way that she would most like to be remembered.

Having lived a decade I can only hope is a chapter from which I will arise, vitality and humor, generosity and creativity restored;  having watched as family and friends fight battles with illness, both sudden and degenerative,  I like to believe that there is a core being, an authentic person we forever cherish and hold in our hearts.  Annie in the piazza,  my friend in her garden,  my aunt and uncle on the boardwalk, my grandparents, erect and proud and beloved, still in command of their lives.

Standing there on the beach,  gratitude cascades in a rhythmic repetition that sounds like a cross between “Good Night Moon” and Dr. Seuss  [ Thank you for this day off and thank you to my neighbor driving through the maddening Parkway to get us here, thank you for sand between my toes, and Beaux Arts architecture that withstood decades of neglect on my beloved decaying boardwalk that Springsteen songs celebrated but did little to repair; and later:  thank you for aspects of its new incarnation, the Korean taco stand and Belgian fries and fresh squeezed lemonade and clean public bathrooms.)

There is one final acknowledgement far more generous and poetic I seek out: a  bench.  After my beloved Aunt and Uncle died last year, their children contributed a plaque on a bench on the Asbury boardwalk, and before the sand and seagulls and fries in my future, I went to seek it out.

I was thrilled when I found it not as a solitary bench  but as a useful seat, and I approach the man sitting there with irrepressible excitement..

image“My Aunt and Uncle’s bench! You’re on their bench!”

“Well, my back was hurting and I really needed to rest for a bit, so I found this bench and I’m feeling so much better now…Do you want me to get up?”

“No, no, I’m so happy you’re sitting there! They’d be so happy you are sitting there;
their family would be happy you are sitting there…”
(I know I’m overreacting a bit, but something about this person choosing this
particular bench, it really moves me.)

He sees me staring at him and then at the plaque beside him he hadn’t even noticed and I watch as he reads the inscription.
“Well, let’s see, I have been dreaming.  Haven’t done any singing yet, but I could…” He smiles up at me.

“Do you mind if I take a photo?  Just stay where you are.”

Suddenly a voice bellowing from the other side of the boardwalk:

“What’s going on there?!  Is something wrong?? Why are these people taking your picture?!”

He calmly explains to his wife that it’s my family’s bench he has chosen to sit on.

“Okay, I’ve rested enough. We’re going to  get some lunch now. Very nice meeting you.”

I thank him (of course) and wish them a good afternoon, then snap a final shot of a perfect acknowledgement of lives well lived, of small pleasures: of family, of times and places where we can dream and laugh and yes, even sing.  Knowing there is more to every life than that, and yet we can acknowledge our best and truest selves,  and the subtle, lasting ways we leave our imprint on others.

 

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Thank  you,Elks, for my week off. Thank  you sun for shining. Thank you beach for healing. Thank you Addie and Harold for so much love and grace and generosity,  for proof of the immeasurable ways this great big world of ours is changed by each of us.  Thank you anyone reading this, for the lifeline.