What She Said

If you’re familiar with Julie’s amazing blog you’ve probably already read this: Gone bad wrong and if you aren’t familiar with her — um… are you new around here?

I struggle with anxiety and have for most of my life — though I think it was probably only in the last fifteen years that I had language for it — before then it was just this current I was swept along in. In 2006 we went to Florida with our son who had just turned six.  I agreed to go to an air show, something I wasn’t all that keen on going to in part because my mind constantly does mental calisthenics trying to convince me all the ways any particular scenario can go wrong — and I considered it a step towards mental health that I agreed to go — and I remember the exact moment when the Israeli fighter jet took off (it had been rainy and they’d nearly canceled the show — all of the spectators left to tromp in and out of the planes on the ground) — we watched a spectacular loop and he swooped and dove down… and down… and down… and the plane crashed in a ball of flame.  The pilot did not survive.  The numbness.

I don’t really know how to talk about Friday’s events — I have lived close to violence and mental illness both; I suspect that in opening and having an ongoing conversation about both that we, as a nation, can find our way through this.

I read a comment that particularly bothered me — on twitter — referring to Nancy Lanza as a monster — what kind of mother, the poster asked, what kind of monster would allow their child who they knew to be mentally ill — access to guns?  I wondered if that person had ever known a mother of a mentally ill child.

I wrote this in response to Julie’s post:

I thought this was so beautifully written – it said all of the things I would have said had I been more able to form coherent sentences since this happened – and what you add to the conversation here is so important. I glanced through the comment section enough to want to respond to them – but broadly – I’m not even sure if my words will make much different – but I want to say it out loud.

My father was murdered when I was a kindergartener – and I have long been an advocate for mindfully approaching the violence in our culture – a culture that no one can deny is grappling with that addiction and yet look at the hypocrisy in my own home: I have a 12 year old stepson who plays Call of Duty and who wants a replica automatic weapon/paintball gun for Christmas. I wasn’t as horrified as some to hear that Nancy Lanza took her sons target shooting – I come from a part of the US that has an active hunting culture, much like I understand NH does – where Nancy Lanza was from – and my husband took our son shooting.
I also want to add to the conversation my own personal experience with mental illness. In 1981, my aunt, a schizophrenic and daughter of privilege ( of a high profile executive but this one in the automotive industry and his stay-at-home wife, my grandmother)– severed my grandmother’s spinal cord with a knife – an attempted murder attack that left my grandmother paralyzed for the rest of her life – and had my aunt had a gun I have no doubt my grandmother would be dead. But here’s what I want to add – the entire profile of Nancy Lanza didn’t surprise me – a woman in an affluent town, but yet she was distant – and so few knew her – or her son – is it possible that the stigma we put on mental illness in this country prevented Nancy Lanza from truly getting her son the help he needed?

My grandmother lobbied for my aunt’s release from the state forensic hospital so that she could live with her — at the risk not only of her own safety – but for that of her family members (us) and society at large – her denial was that strong. I am not so quick to judge Nancy Lanza.
We are a society addicted to violence, unwilling to address it – unwilling to de-stigmatize mental illness or re-open and staff facilities shut down in the 80’s (thank you Reagan) – we hand our children violence as entertainment – sanction it, and then turn around and ask ourselves how this could possibly happen.

Right now I’m repeating the words of Eden like a mantra — For every one person who would walk into a school and start shooting babies, there are a million who would rush in to save them.

I have to believe in that million otherwise my mind is filled with crashing jets.

 

The Mayors of NYC and Boston on Connecticut Shooting: A Call for Immediate Action

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 14, 2012
No. 13

STATEMENTS OF MAYORS AGAINST ILLEGAL GUNS CO-CHAIRS ON NEWTOWN, CONNECTICUT SHOOTING

Statement of Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns Co-Chair New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg:

“With all the carnage from gun violence in our country, it’s still almost impossible to believe that a mass shooting in a kindergarten class could happen. It has come to that. Not even kindergarteners learning their ABC’s are safe. We heard after Columbine that it was too soon to talk about gun laws. We heard it after Virginia Tech. After Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek. And now we are hearing it again. For every day we wait, 34 more people are murdered with guns. Today, many of them were five-year olds. President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership – not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response. My deepest sympathies are with the families of all those affected, and my determination to stop this madness is stronger than ever.”

Statement of Mayors Against Illegal Guns Co-Chair Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino:

“As a parent and grandparent, I am overcome with both grief and outrage by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. This unspeakable act of violence will forever imprint this day in our hearts and minds. My heart goes out to the families impacted by this senseless tragedy and the many others we have recently witnessed across the United States. As a Mayor who has witnessed too many lives forever altered by gun violence, it is my responsibility to fight for action. Today’s tragedy reminds us that now is the time for action. Innocent children will now never attend a prom, never play in a big game, never step foot on a college campus. Now is the time for a national policy on guns that takes the loopholes out of the laws, the automatic weapons out of our neighborhoods and the tragedies like today out of our future.”
***
I feel so helpless. I did the only thing I knew how to do– reach out with words (even though they are someone else’s).

What can we do? Raise our voices as members of a civilized society. Take action. Use your voice in every way you can.

Take action here at the Brady campaign to prevent gun violence.

Unthinkable

Me to G: “We have to do something about guns in this country. This is crazy. This cannot happen”

G said we need two things: better mental health screening and care…and some way to keep guns our of their hands.

Right now all I can think is that I want to move to Europe.

The right to bear arms is not worth this price.

Conservatory

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Optimism
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs—all this resinous, unretractable earth.
—Jane Hirshfield

I took Z to the zoo Monday, a rainy, cold day — as if we were in Seattle, not Minnesota.  I’ve come to associate the winters here with Japanese etchings —  skeletal trees, the shades of gray and black. G’s winters have blinding snow and boundless blue skies. The short winter days are easier for me now but there are days when something settles on my heart and I can’t quite breathe around it — usually as the dark comes early and the winter closes in around us — even so this strange reprieve from winter has disrupted my circannual rhythm.  We stood watching the giraffes eat their hay in that small tent-shaped building and I wondered how they could stand it — the concrete confines all winter; I imagined for it, for a moment, the vast savanna.

When I had my transfer — in late February of 2008 — they transferred two embryos.  I don’t remember feeling anything but tremendous joy, and probably to be honest, some relief — I had a lot of anxiety surrounding the logistics of pregnancy and birth/the early years in caregiving — I knew enough, on some level, to know I didn’t have the support system that would ease the way in caring for twins; I was filled with joy when I saw her. I didn’t reflect on look back often — in some ways I was just treading through the anxious early months/colic — the idea of another would have been alien to me then — only now that things have settled into a pattern — still high-needs and intense in its own way, but familiar — that its flickered lately — once, twice. We are still paying storage fees on our embryos and I haven’t been able, as G has urged me, to deal with it — it’s 275$ quarterly that we could use towards other things — and I haven’t hidden the ball that I don’t think I have it in me to do it all over.  That doesn’t stop me from feeling this deep tug, strangely… I attribute it to turning 40 — this sifting through of choices and identity and all the bits and pieces of what has made a life — to look back and wonder –I haven’t been given to that much since childhood when my whole life, it seemed, was one big exercise in wishing myself into a different life.  If my father had lived.  If I lived in a house rather than an apartment.  If I had a warm circle of community — we had friends, of course — my mother’s friends — people caught in her magnetic orbit — the cousin of a childhood friend she dated briefly when we first arrived here and a friend of his,  a bachelor who would invite the three of us to his condominium where he would charbroil steaks on an outside grill lit with lighter fluid — and pile up the dinners on turkey platters “only at a man’s house” my mother would sigh to me later — as if she was stranded on the frontier and wished her trunks of linens and china would arrive… there was the elderly man she’d work with later who became a mentor of mine — he grew up the child of a single-parent, then the tolerated stepchild in the south side of Chicago and then the oil fields of Houston, and then back to Chicago.  After his stroke I would go to his one-room assisted living apartment and he would tell me about the moment on the streetcar with his mother  — he was a child in the early 1920’s. It was winter, maybe nearing Christmas time, and he passed a man at a car lot — buying a car, presumably — and how he could barely get over it — the luxury, the thought of it — as he stood there on the streetcar with his mother. He gave me books every time he saw my mother –through high school, college — according to what he’d heard from my mother I was studying — or what he thought I should –tucked into the fly-leaf would always be the associated book review or article from a The Atlantic or the NYT’s. This is all to say — there were people — but they were mostly adults –and I yearned for a community — a web I was a part of — rather than one I was traversing.

I spent, anyway, a great deal of my life wishing myself out of my present moment and so find I do it less now.

However.  In the moment as we walked into the zoo, in the rain, Z’s tiny hand clasping my own — I noticed a father with two girls — maybe about nine and eleven.  I didn’t think much more about it other than wondering what brought them here on a Monday — wondering if they were out of school for an appointment, a family event — they seemed happy enough, skipping around.  It was at that moment as we stood in front of the Conservatory that the father urged the two to stand together for a photo — and they clasped onto one another so tightly, arms thrown around one another, cheeks pressed firmly against one another — and I felt this deep resonant pain that took my breath away for a moment — as they ran past Z and me– and Z ran after them — as if she too, were included in their circle.

I thought of something that the youngest of my brothers said when I first told him about G — how he and I had similar life profiles — we were children of blended families with half siblings much older than we — that we felt, in a way, like islands — isolated from extended family — G through geography and I through circumstance — and he turned to me and said rather coldly (though, in his defense it wouldn’t have registered as such — merely pragmatic) “so you are going to create another little island then?”

G turned to me the other day — as the three of us sat in her room — she gathered all her stuffed animals and put them under her bed — where G was  — his top half beneath the bed — the bottom half sticking out — as he watched her chubby little legs dash back and forth “I hope she has a happy life” he said.

Painting Sunlight

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I was reminded of a remark of Willa Cather’s, that you can’t paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall. If you examine a life, as Socrates has been so tediously advising us to do for so many centuries, do you really examine the life, or do you examine the shadows it casts on other’s lives? Entity or relationships? Objective reality or the vanishing point of a multiple perspective exercise? Prism or the rainbows it refracts? And what if you are the wall? What if you never cast a shadow or rainbow of your own, but have only caught those cast by others?” — from Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird

Seventeen years ago I was in Boulder sitting in my apartment, a converted dentist’s office above a deli across from the Fox Theater. None of my windows ever had screens in the west — you’d throw your windows open to the air rushing in — and I’d propped up something to keep the broken sash open. It was the kind of spring that can come in the Rockies with the blistering clarity of sunlight — and I was reading a collection of Stegner’s essays about land use in the west — which led me to a book by the man who I’d later study with. I didn’t know it then. I couldn’t really even breathe past my broken heart at that point — and I remember more than a few moments spent standing in my kitchen as the bars let out — watching the crowd — lit red with the neon of the theater’s sign, spilling raucously into the street, having come in from some bar on my own — I remember one morning in particular where I stumbled and broke a pottery coffee cup I’d loved and then fell hard on the shards –a scar I still have at the base of my left palm. I couldn’t seen then past the dissolution of what I thought was my only real love-match — a scene that even now pulls at my heart for the girl and boy in that studio apartment staging some play that neither one had lines for –we were similar in that way; we both yearned for a kind of easy domesticity to balance the fear we had in our hearts that we would never settle in, settle down. We were both children of upheaval trying to do it right. I thought about those moments on Aurora –down the street from the 24 hour restaurant where I worked the bar shift — pouring coffee for strippers and bouncers from North Boulder and obnoxious men, one of whom told me once I had good breeding teeth — and I’d walk home from that job at dawn with the semis barreling through on the highway and my boyfriend asleep on our futon on the floor — and I’d peel of my nylons and uniform stiff with the smell of cigarettes and maple syrup and I’d sit on the floor of our stand-up shower. Exhausted. I’d run through the legal hoops of emancipating myself from my mother as far as the University was concerned — worked for in-state tuition so I could afford to stay, both of us going to school, working, and living off our pooled money — from what little nest egg I had from my father’s insurance policy, and from the job he had delivering pizzas when the only time we would have together would be the time I sat in the front seat of his Volkswagen Golf, feet up on the dashboard, the glowing lights of the high-end stereo he’d put in — listening to REM as he ran into the big lit houses with their grand foyers and landscaping.

I taught myself to bake bread — and standing in my kitchen twenty years and hundreds of miles from that place I thought of the arduous task of stirring the dough as it came together, how the muscles in my arms would burn — or my numerous failed attempts at pie crusts. It’s second nature to me now, feeling that texture of the bread dough, earlobe-ready to rise, rolling out the pastry dough — guided by the various kitchen gadgetries that I’d never been able to afford, ones my mother’s kitchen certainly never had — how with a kitchen-aid mixer and a small food processor — those things nearly assemble themselves like magic.

Years ago an old friend emailed me. Just a few lines about the ten years that had passed since we’d last we spoke. “You always did want the white picket fence” he’d said.

He was right, but it took me fifteen years to realize it and still find myself prepared to apologize for it somehow.

I had no problem imagining myself an academic — and in high school I told everyone I was going to the east coast to study foreign relations (this was the end of the 80s) I took Russian. — I was voted most likely to become president. Surprised? More a reflection of my inability to hide my own personal politics than any kind of aptitude for office — I went to a Catholic high school — and on this day when I tuned into the radio to hear about the debate for the cannonization of Dorothy Day I’m reminded of what parts of my father’s cultural heritage I was most drawn to — and I think of it that way, a cultural identification — to be Irish Catholic, even in the quasi-bastard status that I held as the child of a second marriage to a Protestant. I got goosebumps in the bathroom as I listened to the radio while I was brushing my teeth, the scant few minutes I have in the day to pay attention to the world outside Z and her current fascination with horses, fairies, and all things animal-related — asking me at length to make various stuffed animals and playthings talk — and my day is consumed by lengthy conversations between Z and her animals — about me and whatever grievances she might have — while I provide the voice. Pay no attention to the woman behind the Folkmanis Bobcat puppet.

Anyway. In this season — as the mania begins to build that all seems to cycle around acquiring — I stood there remembering who I used to be — so grounded in my belief that I would follow in Day’s footsteps, and how far I am from that now. Sometimes I barely recognize this incarnation — this suburban housewife self. In an exchange with a friend from graduate school I’d said how strange it was when you no longer are connected to anyone who knew you at a certain point in life — how the image of who you were is no longer reflected back at you — and so, do you cease to be that person? I love the life I have and feel so absolutely grateful for it in all its mind-boggling minutiae that I am forever bad at — the organizing and culling, and tidying — like those animated lawn robots we saw in Europe that are just left to their own devices — guided with lasers and sensors — forever roaming the lawn to keep the overgrowth at bay — such are the requirements of the one whose primary duty is to keep the home — the steady tide of detritus — tangible and intangible — that falls to you to keep at bay. Keep the house in paper towels and counterspray, milk and eggs, shampoo — I love my life yet often wonder who I am beyond these walls, am I as I’ve ever been?

I started to listen to an NPR On Being program about Vulnerability — whose tag line is “Courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength” and I thought of my previous post — listened to the beginning of it –but turned it off — I got that hot-wired feeling in my chest that I do when I am too close to something — something I need to hear, to look at — the things that resonate the most — I feel as if I have a divining rod in me — that I know where it is I should be pointed — what it is I’m not addressing when I hastily turn away, turn things off, redirect myself from the booming voice of some Nobel laureate on the radio, or some man or woman I’ve met in some Montana house-party years ago when I had promise and they already had literary standing; I am nearly mute with self-recrimination when, for a moment, I allow myself to imagine where I might be had I taken a different turn, worked harder, as if it all were over — and that’s the most ridiculous part, I know, at forty to wash your hands of it — so you were going to bake bread, and make pies from scratch, and keep house, and raise children with love, and be a published novelist and put your words to work making a difference in someone’s life — how privileged I am to have the time and energy to think any of these things — so filled with guilt am I over that. I want nothing more than for my children to have a fulfilled and joyful life free from the kind of financial pressure that whittles your world to the slenderest of hopes — I would never begrudge them the stability of a life and tell myself to be gentler to myself. This stability is new found and I’m graced with a husband who has never doubted me, always been willing to support my work –whether mothering or writing. Sometimes I wonder if part of this guilt is having been raised by a single mother who was between Friedan and Steinem — she came into her own young adulthood in a world that still expected certain things of women and mothers — and she evolved right along with the times. I heard Barbara Boxer speaking on NPR about what it was like to be in the House in the 80s.

While she says she never felt slighted as a result of her gender in the Senate, she did feel that way in the House. One joke in particular has stuck with her.

“I was in a hearing. I was very new, and I made a strong statement, and one of my male colleagues said, ‘I want to associate myself with the congresswoman.’ Which is a formal way of saying it, but the way he said it was sort of a joke, and people laughed out there in the audience, and it was so humiliating,” she says.

She asked the chairman to delete the comment from the record, and then another colleague said he wanted to “associate” himself with her, too.

Those were the years of my young childhood — the late 70’s, the early 80’s when a working woman alone had to fight to be taken seriously.  I wonder if my mother looks at me and feels as if I have abandoned the cause, somehow — to retreat to a model so like her own mother’s — as if the women’s movement and Feminism, for which I’ve always been a champion, had skipped me completely.

 That was one of Brene Brown’s statements that I heard — that one of the voices in our heads constantly thunders “who do you think you are.” I often wish that I could, as the Buddhist article I read last night suggested, just release any kind of attachment to outcome. Sit for sitting’s sake.  Write for writing’s sake.  There is nowhere I get more tangled up in my head than when I wrangle with my own identity as a writer. I had an epiphany before I even left Montana that what I wanted from life wasn’t literary stardom — but rather, a family.  I remember well the teacher, a woman, who lamented that the men usually published first and “better”.  I’ve sung this song before — wondering how the women — wives and mothers have succeeded at it when I fall into bed at nine o’clock after a day of laundry and dishes and three rounds of meals, diaper changes or toilet-training mishaps, and quick recharge nursing sessions (yes, she’s still comfort-nursing)  and interaction at all hours of the day save those reserved for nap time.

And here I sit with the books and notes for my novel  next to me. I have more to write — about Z’s journey with school — G has cautioned against it ( the school’s underlying philosophy generates a lot of heated debate on the web — though I still really love some aspects I am not sure the larger picture works for our family– and I’ve had the strangest grieving process about it, wishing I could indeed enter into that community, that culture… The more research I did online the more unsettled I became in my own heart) and so I went to look at a Montessori for her — a very different environment — but it was as if I was awakening from some kind of hazy dream — into this very vibrant and busy structured world of the purist Montessori — but it requires a five day a week commitment and I’m not sure that she’s ready — or perhaps I’m not ready to let go of her. It would be wonderful for my writing — to reclaim some time for self — and probably be wonderful for her to enter the world outside of me — but I’m torn.

This is a terrific example of the conflict. I have spent my time writing this while running upstairs and downstairs — making lasagna, keeping her semi-entertained but not so entertained that she wasn’t climbing and dragging chairs all over the place in an attempt to reach things she shouldn’t…I have a difficult time still imagining a return to a kind of concerted literary effort; What I do know is that I have to come to it everyday — like a great teacher of mine, David Long, used to say — just like a bricklayer — come to it every day, brick by brick…

Brick by brick.