Shoot the Moon

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We went to see “Hidden Figures” last week. If you haven’t already heard of it, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American women— Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson— who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the heady days of the race for space. The film is based on the true stories of these three women, all of whom were remarkable, and one of whom was instrumental in the successful effort to launch Colonel John Glenn into space aboard the Friendship 7. It’s a fantastic film: entertaining, educational, and empowering.

Or at least meant to be empowering. For me, however, the film held up a mirror I have taken pains to avoid, insisting that I observe the reflection of my spectacular failure to earn a living; I found myself wishing, fervently, that I could be more like any of the three main characters. The Monday following the movie, after I had put away the clean dishes but before I had loaded the breakfast dishes into the machine, I sat down at my laptop and googled “music teacher positions.” The first link took me to a popular employment website; of the music teacher jobs listed, about a third were based abroad, mostly in the Middle East, and another third were for private schools.
“We’re not moving to the Middle East,” I muttered to my dog, who had no comment. I continued the conversation internally, leaving my dog in peace. “And I would never be good enough to teach at a private school. In fact, I’m not qualified to teach music at any school, so I don’t know why I’m even looking.”
“You could become qualified. You’ve seen the adverts. They need teachers in the U.K.,” my inner opposition pointed out.
“Even if I earned my qualifications, I still wouldn’t make a good music teacher. I’m too serious, I have no dramatic flair, and there’s too much about music I don’t know. I can’t really play the piano— I certainly can’t play and sing at the same time. The only instrument I excelled at was the flute, and it’s been so long since I played that regularly that I wouldn’t even call myself a competent flutist anymore.”
“You should have just become a music teacher back when you had the chance, at eighteen.”
“But I didn’t want to become a music teacher. It seemed too narrow.”
“So now you have very occasional work as an exam invigilator— how is that not narrow?”
“Fine. That’s even more narrow. But you know what I really want to do.”
My inner critic rolled her eyes at my inner idealist. “Yeah, yeah, you want to write. But that’s not going very well, is it?”
The opposition had me in a corner, so I did the only sensible thing; I closed the computer, walked to the kitchen, and began rinsing cereal bowls and placing them in the top rack of the dishwasher. The answer, of course, was no. No, the writing wasn’t going very well. I began posting essays online over eight years ago; in the intervening years, my output and readership has varied, but my publication rate— outside of my own sites— has remained constant, at zero. Last year, when an online literary journal called for submissions of political poems, I quelled the naysayer in my head for long enough to prepare and send the poem I considered my best work in that category. A month or so later I received the journal’s response: “Thank you for sending us your work. We have selected our winners and your entry was unsuccessful, but please don’t hesitate to respond to our next call for submissions.” This blow, compounded by the knowledge that not one of my blog posts had ever been read by more than forty people (and most posts garnered less than ten views), left me questioning the wisdom of continuing to spend hours each week filling blank pages.

***

When our children were babies and toddlers, it was easy to justify staying home with them. Someone needed to look after them, and logic decreed that the person best equipped to do that would be one of the two adults that loved them best— a parent. Out of the two possible parents, my husband, Markus, was able to earn several times more than me, so his selection as the breadwinner was a no-brainer (for anyone but Markus himself, who would have much preferred, given the choice, to be the house husband). My role as a stay-at-home parent became less and less of a foregone conclusion as our children grew; when both children had started primary school, and I had gained enough distance from the all-consuming nature of parenting babies and toddlers to notice that our bank account was writhing in agonising death throes, spectres of possible money-making ventures began to appear to me. Because of my particular susceptibility to persuasion, the first apparitions of myself gainfully employed in some hazy future were culled from advertising campaigns.
“Perhaps I could learn to drive a bus,” I mused, imagining myself in the driver’s seat of a London bus with “Driver Under Instruction” as the destination. How many times had I read the invitation— “Learn to Drive This Bus!”— while stuck behind a towering red double-decker on my bicycle waiting for the lights to change? Buses provided a valuable service, I wouldn’t need to worry about what to wear as uniform would be compulsory, and work was guaranteed.
“You can’t drive a bus, you complete idiot,” my critic scoffed. “You can’t even drive a car without fearing for your life. Don’t you remember how, two years ago, Louise asked you to please give up swearing in the car for Lent? Transport for London wouldn’t be too impressed if passengers complained that you were cursing every time you felt threatened by imminent death or destruction, which for you, in a normal car, is about eighty percent of the time. In a bus, that percentage would only increase, sweetheart; bus driving ain’t gonna happen for you.”
“You’re of course right,” I admitted, hanging my head while I hung the laundry. “What about MI6? They’ve had ads on the radio. Maybe I could be a spy.”
I allowed myself to think back fondly on my history of espionage. As the oldest of three, it fell to me to organise my younger brother and sister into a crack team of agents: highly-skilled operatives, resistant to interrogation, capable of obtaining and transmitting sensitive material about the conversations and movements of any overnight guests to our home, but with special expertise in grandparents. Many were the times my siblings and I had huddled in a dark closet, exchanging notes written in code, while our grandparents held court in the kitchen. I was sure this experience would serve me well in my career as an intelligence officer for the United Kingdom. Never mind that despite many years on English soil I had yet to obtain British citizenship; I could be the Brits’ American source, or even their Swedish source, thanks to my fluency in that language and my intimate familiarity with Swedish culture thanks to my Swedish husband.
“I think you know what I’m going to say about that idea,” said my naysayer.
“I’ll save you the trouble. I’d make a terrible spy. My codebreaking skills are those of a ten-year old, I’m fantastically poor at keeping secrets, and I find it hard enough to lead a single life, let alone a double life. If espionage is too complicated, how about plain old military service? They have top-notch ads.”
The Armed Forces suggestion was not novel; since high school, when full tuition at university had been dangled as a reward for a stint in the military, I had toyed with the prospect of donning camouflage for money. That I could even float this notion to myself, as someone whose school books were crowded with multi-coloured peace signs doodled in lieu of taking notes, must reveal either the extent of my moral hypocrisy or the profundity of my terror when faced with the task of earning a living. When I dredged the military up from the graveyard of career paths as an over-forty parent of two young children, the forensic specialist in my mind didn’t even blink. “That option is deader than a doornail, peacenik,” she informed me.

***

Now, at nearly fifty, I resisted the temptation to propose any of those well-advertised occupations to myself. If I wasn’t currently, and couldn’t conceive of ever becoming, adequately qualified to call myself a “music teacher,” perhaps I could be a busker. After yearning to jump in behind countless buskers as a backing vocalist during necessary, though unwanted, trips to the nearby market town, Kingston, I’d done my research: buskers were permitted to play, for free, for up to one hour in any given spot in Kingston’s town centre. When that hour was up, the busker could legally continue her session simply be relocating. I had thrown coins the way of especially talented Kingston buskers; their baskets were never empty.
“I bet buskers earn at least ten pounds an hour,” I thought, as I lugged the clean laundry upstairs and emptied it onto our double bed for sorting.
“And what, exactly, would you be playing? Flute? Don’t you think you’d need to practice a bit more before you could do that? Can’t really see the guitar thing happening for you at your current skill level, not to mention that you suck at memorising lyrics.”
“Ouch. Come on, I have managed to get some lyrics down,” I objected.
“Lyrics for— what— three songs? Are you going to play those three songs over and over and hope people won’t notice?”
“True, and I don’t know why I’m often drawn to jobs that barely qualify as respectable. How about conducting? I’ve been an assistant conductor for the primary school choir for maybe three years now, that should at least qualify me for some sort of conducting degree programme…”
“Let’s think about what happens every time you hit a passage you can’t play on the piano, or a barre chord on the guitar…”
“I slow down. But that’s because I’m the one playing. When I’m conducting the choir, I keep the rhythm steady… at least I think I do…”
“Maybe you do, but for what, three minutes? Four? Do you really think you could keep that up for the length of a classical piece? You’re not the percussionist in the family.”
It seems incredible, given the near-deafening volume of my internal critic, but for a couple of years at the end of the last century, I actually held a professional position as a fully-accredited speech therapist. Speech therapy was like a rebound boyfriend— I had applied for, and been rejected by, master’s degree courses at four of the most distinguished creative writing schools in the nation. You will not be surprised, having read this far, to hear that, in a clear-cut case of self-flagellation, I had chosen only the most prestigious courses, without a lesser-known fallback or two; you will also likely understand when I tell you that the rejection letters from those well-known and greatly-respected writing courses left me convinced that I would never write for a living.
With my tail between my legs, I did my very best to grow up. I selected speech therapy for a handful of, to my mind, very sensible reasons: I cared about language and communication but knew I didn’t want to lead an entire classroom; I had learned basic sign language as a child, remained fascinated by this physical language, and thought a speech therapy degree may allow me to work with the deaf; most importantly, I had researched the profession in a weighty hardcover book at a university library and confirmed that speech therapists were always in demand and could expect to make a comfortable living.
I chose to accept the offer of a place on the speech therapy course at Northeastern University in Boston. Markus, my husband, had accepted a position as a junior diplomat in Washington, D.C., so I took up residence in a spare bedroom in my father and stepmother’s house in Brookline and set about studying. By the end of the first term, my heart told me that I had deluded myself; speech therapy, while a perfectly respectable occupation, would not be for me.
It wasn’t my internal voice this time that spoke against my intuition; it was my dad.
“You won’t be sorry to have this degree,” my dad counselled me. “And there’s no way you can say, at this point, that you won’t like the work as a speech therapist. You should at least give the course a full year.”
“But if I give it a full year, that’s that much more debt. Isn’t it better to stop now, when I don’t even have a full year of loans out?”
“I think that if you quit now, you’ll regret it,” my dad told me.
My dad meant well— I’m sure of it— but he was wrong. I don’t know if I would have regretted dropping out, but I regard my completion of that Master’s degree as the second-most egregious mistake of my entire life, and as the absolute biggest mistake of my adult life. I graduated and became a substandard speech therapist; I was happy to spend time with my clients, who ranged in age from two to eleven, but I didn’t believe in the work I was doing, and I had no motivation or desire to approach any of the children as “cases.” I just wanted to talk to them; I didn’t truly care if they learned anything or not. Some of my young charges responded well to my poorly-planned but empathetic approach, but that was because they didn’t really require a speech therapist, they just needed love. I’m reasonably good at love, but mediocre at speech therapy, and awful at false fronts. I had held other, low-skilled jobs prior to becoming a fully-fledged speech therapist— barista, telex operator, receptionist— and had gleefully welcomed my paychecks for those positions, because there was no question in my mind that I deserved each paycheck for a job well done. I felt like such a hoax as a speech therapist, however, that it seemed unethical to accept payment for my services; when motherhood offered me a socially-acceptable excuse to stop working in the field, I seized it. I had let my membership in the national association of speech therapists slide, so I wouldn’t be able to return to the profession easily even if I wanted to, which I didn’t.
So there I stood, at nearly fifty years old, chopping onions for the evening meal as I had hundreds— maybe by now even thousands— of times before.
“You should have just gone to school for music education as an undergraduate when you had the chance. That course was dirt cheap, and you would have had a job you could at least tolerate. You could have been working for years by now, saving up for your retirement so you wouldn’t need to worry about becoming both decrepit and homeless at the same time.”
“Honestly. Do you really think the kids would let me end up homeless?”
Silence.
“Anyway, our retirement plan is a mobile home in Scunthorpe or Florida, and we should be able to at least pull that off. As far as music at undergrad goes, I would have missed out on so much if I’d taken that path. I would never have studied Yeats, or Faulkner, or Flannery O’Connor; I certainly wouldn’t have read ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (in the original French), or ‘Notes from the Underground’ (thankfully translated to English from the original Russian). My understanding of plate tectonics would be dreadfully scanty, and I’d know nothing about religious art made before 1800.”
“And you have benefitted how from that liberal arts education?”
“It made me a better writer.”
“Yawn. We’re back to that, are we? ‘Oh, I want to be a writer.’ What did you tell your friend just the other day at coffee? When she asked what your writing endgame was?”
I moved on to peeling carrots. “I said I could be like Emily Dickinson. I could write and write, never even try to get published, and hopefully be recognised for my inferior, but still worthwhile, oeuvre posthumously.”
“Posthumously. That’s not going to buy your daughter a new cello, now, is it? You could have sleepwalked your way to a Bachelors of Music. You could have made a decent living as a respectable director of music in some school somewhere. Anywhere. That degree would have crossed borders, unlike your Bachelor’s of Arts in English and your Masters of Science in Speech Therapy. But instead here you are, peeling carrots, stealing an hour here and there to compose blog posts that nobody reads, all because a music education degree in upstate New York wasn’t good enough for you.”
“Unfair,” I countered. I had advanced from peeling to chopping the carrots, and the thunk of the knife against the heavy wooden cutting board provided a gratifying drum line. “It’s not that it ‘wasn’t good enough for me.’ Part of me felt that becoming a music teacher would have been taking the easy way out. It was the obvious choice for someone like me: skilled in music, but not quite skilled enough for a music performance degree. I thought following that path would be settling for second-best. Not only that, but I thought music was not necessarily healthy for me. I wasn’t sure if I owned music, or if music owned me. I had relied on music to pull myself through, but I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not completely sure, if it was use or abuse. Music let me lose myself. Remember the All New England festival chorus? All of those voices singing all the right notes at exactly the same time? We all ceased to exist as individuals, all two hundred of us— children from cities, from villages, from farms, children with imported cars, children with beat-up second-hand Fords, children with pick-up trucks full of sawdust from carrying loads of firewood— we became one being, with one voice, and our sole purpose was to serve as a vessel for the song. We poured out that music like precious oil, anointing the audience and ourselves. For less than a minute, Earth became Heaven.”
“You escaped your life.”
I picked up the cutting board, swept the carrots into the pot, and turned to peeling potatoes. “Yes. I was ashamed of how much I fed on those fleeting moments, the moments when I ended and the music— the true music— began. Not only ashamed, but also terrified, like those shepherds on the hillside. Would submitting to the music mean I disappeared forever? If I turned my entire self over, would I be able to resume my usual life when the music ended? I thought devoting my life to a quest for musical ecstasy, for myself or for my students, would be both selfish and perilous. I wish I had known then what I know now.”
“Which is?”
“Which is that music, like all art, is a paradox. The truer the artist is to her art— the more selfishly she seeks, through skill and talent, to rend the mundane and uncover the rapturous— the greater the gift to her audience, even if that audience is an audience composed of none save the artist herself. And while the danger that the artist will irretrievably lose her self should be acknowledged, that outcome is exceedingly rare. Even Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese visual artist who has voluntarily been living in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, is still able to create.”
“So let’s postulate that others will benefit from your artistic efforts. You’re better at music than you are at writing, so using your own argument, wouldn’t it still be more beneficial for the world if you’d put your pen down and take up your flute?”
“I had years of flute lessons, but I’ve only taken, what, two semesters’ worth of writing courses? Over twenty years ago? It’s a moot point regardless, because what drives me even more than the longing to combust into art is the desire to tell someone about the fire, even if the only person listening is me.” I folded the top half-inch of the box of crushed tomatoes over along the perforations, tore, and poured the contents into the soup. “Even if I became a songwriter or a composer, music wouldn’t satisfy me; a three-minute song barely scratches the surface, and although music without words undoubtedly conveys emotion and often leads the listener to imagine a setting or an event, the chasm between the composer’s intended message and the message received by the listener will always be wider than the gulf between the writer and her reader. Plus I’m too selfish for music. I don’t want to interpret someone else’s work— I want to create my own, stringing the words of my rosary together until it can be offered up in earnest, in humour, in anger, in pain. In truth, or at least in my truth, even if that sometimes clothes itself in fiction.”
I gave the now-boiling soup a good stir, lowered the heat, and replaced the lid askew, leaving some breathing space. With my hands cupped, I scooped up all the carrot and potato peelings from the kitchen sink and deposited them in the bin; I could press lightly on the contents to make room for further refuse, or I could empty the trash. I knew, from unsavoury experience, that amateur compaction substantially increased the likelihood of leakage, so I set about emptying the trash.
“This is all rubbish anyway,” said my unwelcome commentator.
“No kidding, why do you think I’m taking it out?”
“I mean all your philosophising. It doesn’t matter what your motivations are or how you justify writing. What matters is the bottom line. You’re staring down the barrel of future indigence, but you just keep banging your head against the wall, doing what you’ve always done, in the hopes that… that what? That someone, someday, will like some essay you’ve written so much that they’ll offer you a paid platform? I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been doing this now for eight years— eight years!— and you’ve earned how much for your writing during that time? Zilch. Nada. It’s time to move on. True, Emily Dickinson almost never published during her lifetime, but Emily Dickinson had no children, didn’t need to earn money, and was far more talented than you are. She’s not going to work for you as a role model.”
“I’ve been honing my skills for these eight years, so I’ll be ready, when the time is right, to write a book. A book might actually sell.”
“You’ve been wasting your time for these eight years. You’re never going to write a book. Even if you did, do you really think people would want to read it?”
“If I don’t write it, they won’t even have the option.” I poured salt into the palm of my hand, added it to the simmering soup, stirred again, and repositioned the lid. “Maybe the time is right now.”
“Good luck with that. You know I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“Don’t I know it. But before I begin sketching out a possible plot, I think I’ll Instagram a photo of a tree.”
“Off to a roaring start.”
“Oh, sod off.”
“Say what you want, but I’m not going anywhere.”
“The women from ‘Hidden Figures?’ I can’t do math like Katherine Johnson, and I can’t learn computer programming like Dorothy Vaughan, but I can honour their accomplishments, and Mary Jackson’s too, by ignoring you. Those women had to scale mountains of institutional racism and sexism; the chorus of voices like yours from the world at large, telling them they’d never reach the top, must have been ear-splitting. And that’s just the voices from outside. You can bet that those women had interior voices just like I have you— voices of doubt, of fear, of ‘reason’— nevertheless, they persisted. I don’t have challenges anything like those women did. The biggest obstacle standing in my way is you. If I can climb to the top of my own mountain— high enough to plonk my future book down on the summit in lieu of a flag— Katherine, should I ever have the honour of meeting her, would pat me on the back, and Dorothy and Mary would both look down from heaven and smile.”
“That would make the hike worthwhile.”
“Yes. It would.”

Author’s note: As a tween, while on annual holidays at a seaside cottage, I was taught by my father to play the card game “Hearts.” My two siblings, two step-siblings, and I would spend hours sitting around the rickety card table in the corner of the rustic lounge, while the waves of the Atlantic rolled in on the beach just down the wooden staircase twenty yards from where we sat, aiming for “Hearts” sovereignty. At some point, when our skills had developed, my dad introduced the “Hearts” strategy of “Shooting the Moon.” Wikipedia describes “Shooting the Moon” like this:

“If one player takes all the penalty cards on one deal, that player’s score remains unchanged while 26 penalty points are added to the scores of each of the other players. […] Attempting to shoot the moon is often a risky strategy, as failure to capture every single penalty card will result in the remaining penalty points (as many as 25) being added to one’s score.”

I was the oldest of the five of us, so had a natural (and unfair) advantage, and I loved to “shoot the moon.” I remember holding my cards anxiously for what seemed like forever, wondering if this time I would triumph or crash and burn. Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost, but each time I lived to play again.

Supermoon Over the Atlantic Ocean Take 2” by Jimmy Baikovicius used with permission

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Standing With My Sisters

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I should have started earlier.

I began making calls for Barack Obama, during his first campaign, the summer before the election; I was absolutely certain he was the president I wanted and I knew he faced an uphill battle.  When campaigning kicked off for the 2016 election, I leaned towards Bernie Sanders; like Bernie, I too am a socialist who has spent many years in Vermont.  When Bernie bowed out, I toyed with supporting the Greens, but I knew the Greens stood no chance of winning, so I did my homework— I spent an afternoon reading up on Hillary’s platform, I delved into Hillary’s history, I read the endorsements of Hillary by people I respect— and I settled on becoming a Hillary supporter. 

Until eleven days before the election, I felt confident that Hillary would win.  Then FBI director James Comey released his now-notorious statement on Hillary’s emails, and my political bones felt a storm coming.  I signed on as part of Hillary’s call team and made some calls, from my home in southwest London, to voters in Ohio.  A few days after Comey’s letter, the email scandal revealed itself as not really scandalous at all, and the polls returned to predicting a Democratic victory.  I was lulled into thinking everything would probably be all right— surely people would see sense and keep that horrible man out of the Oval Office— until Election Day itself.  About midday on November 8th, I stopped by the cafe at the superstore for coffee.  The lanky young white man at the counter noticed my accent when I placed my order, and he was intrigued.

“American or Canadian?” he asked.

“American,” I said.  “It’s a big day for us.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.  “So if you could vote, who would you vote for?”

“I can vote, and I voted for Clinton weeks ago,” I said proudly.

“Hillary, huh?  If I could vote in your election, I’d vote for Trump,” the man-boy said.

I could feel my nearly fifty-year old heart straining under the sudden pressure spike.  “Why on earth would you ever want to do that?” I asked.

“I’d do it just to watch the world burn,” the barista answered with glee.  “That’s one pound seventy please,” he added, as he sealed the lid on my takeaway coffee.

Just to watch the world burn.  I came home, hurriedly unpacked the groceries that required cold, opened Hillary’s call tool, and began dialling Ohio with far greater single-mindedness and urgency. 

Louise, our eleven-year old, arrived home from school first.  “Are you calling for Hillary again?” she asked.

I put my hand to my lips in the “sh” shape and nodded. 

“Can I sit next to you?”

A voicemail machine clicked on at the other end and I hung up.  “Do you really have to?” I said to Louise.  “It can be a bit nerve-wracking calling complete strangers to tell them to vote.”

Louise pouted.  “Please?”

I caved in.  “OK, but you have to be very, very quiet.”

“I will be,” Louise assured me.  She was good on her word, and said not a peep while I dialled number after number, reaching only a handful of voters and affecting even fewer.  My best call was to a woman whose caller ID recognised the UK country code. 

“Why does it say you’re calling from England?” she asked, after spilling the good news that she was about to go work the polls for Hillary in Youngstown. 

“Because I’m calling from London,” I said.

“From London?  Really?  Wow!”

“Well, I’m trying to do what I can.  It’s kind of an important election.”

The woman laughed.  “I’d say.  Thanks for calling.”

“No problem.  Thanks for working the polls.  Fingers crossed.”

“Fingers and toes,” the woman said seriously. 

Our fourteen-year old son Chris came home.  “I’m home!” he announced loudly from the hall.     

“Shhh!  Mum is calling voters!” Louise hissed.

“Isn’t it a little late for that?”

“Well, it’s true that I should have begun weeks, or really, months ago, but it’s definitely not too late,” I said.  “Today is all about making sure known Hillary supporters get out and vote.”

“Oh,” Chris said, and went to play Clash of Clans.

After dinner, Louise, who had watched all three presidential debates from start to finish, asked me to wake her up at four in the morning to tell her the result of the election. 

“No,” I told her.  “If Trump wins, I don’t want him to have the added victory of destroying what will hopefully be a good night’s sleep.”

Horror flashed over Louise’s face.  “You don’t really think Trump will win, do you?”

“The experts don’t think so, but after Brexit, you just never know,” I said, in my calm-not-calm voice.

“Stupid Brexit.  Stupid Trump,” Louise, who leans towards black and white thinking, said.

“Mmm…  Anyway, so I’m not going to wake you up, and I don’t want you waking up early.  You’ll find out in the morning, just like me.”

I stayed up until the results began trickling in, at nearly midnight London time; the first two states reporting were New Hampshire and some midwestern state.  I confess which midwestern state is lost to me because when I saw that some counties in New Hampshire, the state that shares its entire western border with Vermont, my home state, were voting for Trump, a  tidal wave of doom broke over me.  I went to bed fearful.  When I woke in the morning, padded downstairs, and saw this message from a dear friend—  “Sorry… [sad face emoticon]”— I knew Louise’s righteous anger would be ringing through our home before long.

And it did.

“What?”  Louise shouted, when I gingerly told her the news.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!  Who in their right mind would vote for him?  After the things he said about women?”

I hung my head.  “I know, sweetie.  It’s horrible.”

“It’s not horrible!  It’s insane!  Who voted for him?  Who?” Louise demanded, pushing her tousled hair back to reveal green eyes flashing with fury.

Markus, my husband, answered.  “Mostly older white men.” 

“Old white men!  The same people who voted for Brexit!  I’m sick of old white men!  I really am!” 

With that, Louise threw herself onto our double bed and began to cry real tears.  I was not prepared for real tears.  I had been gauzily political as a child; when Jimmy Carter— my candidate— lost to Ronald Reagan, I was disappointed, but I certainly hadn’t sobbed like Louise was doing now. 

“Not every old white man voted for Trump,” I pointed out.  “Grampy supported Hillary, and even Grampa, who is normally a staunch Republican, didn’t like Trump.  And Pappa wouldn’t be caught dead voting for Trump.”

“Pappa isn’t old, and he’s not even American!” Louise wailed.  “It’s still the fault of the old white men!  Don’t tell me it’s not!”

At that moment, early on November 9th, I hadn’t yet learned that in fact, it was not just older white men, but also older white women that voted Trump into office, so I left Louise uncontested on that point, but tried another tack. 

“It may not be such a bad thing to learn what you’re up against,” I said, patting Louise lightly on the back as she carried on crying.  “It just means that we have to fight harder.  It’s fantastic that you’ve joined the debating club.  Someday you’ll be able to grind Trump into the ground.”

“But Hillary did grind him into the ground!  She won all the debates!  He couldn’t even give sensible answers, and he acted like a bully, but he still won!  How is that fair?”

“I didn’t say it was fair, Louise.  Just the opposite.  It shows how far women still have to go in America.  But we have to carry on with the work of daily life, and you have to get ready for school.”

“I can’t go to school today.”

“Yes, you can.  In fact, you really must, because today is your Immersion Day on bullying, and nothing could be more appropriate.”

***

I haven’t slept well since the election.  Trump has infiltrated my dreams, turning them into nightmares.  This past Saturday, nearly two weeks after Trump was declared the president-elect, I went grocery shopping.  No sooner had I walked in then Trump’s image assaulted me; if it wasn’t his reviled face leering on the front page of a newspaper, it was his fashion-model wife simpering from the cover of glossy magazines.  I strode into the produce department in irritation, relieved to swap the spectre of Trump’s orange face for the sight of actual satsumas.  But when the time came to pay for my groceries, I was cornered.  Three magazines were on display above the conveyor belt: Time, Good Housekeeping, and Country Living.  Time featured a close-up of Donald giving his trademark “thumbs-up” with “The Age of Trump” in tall, bold letters printed above him.  It was late afternoon; everyone was buying dinner, so the queue at the till was moving slowly. 

“If I had a Post-It note, I could write, ‘This man is a misogynist, racist, con man— his election is a travesty,’” I mused silently.  “But that might be a criminal offense, defacing goods.  What I could do is turn the magazine around so I at least don’t have to look at his horrid smile, but then the cashier may get in trouble as she may be responsible for making sure the display is tidy…” 

The woman ahead of me carried on placing her groceries on the belt.  Unable to bear it any longer, I reached over and turned Time around.  My reward was a smaller picture of Trump behind a lectern at a rally, surrounded by a sea of  his acolytes waving Trump/Pence signs.  I began to wonder at what point I would snap and run through the grocery store full of well-heeled southwest London dwellers shouting, “Can’t you see where this is going?  First Brexit and now Trump!  Fight back!” while tearing the covers off of all the printed matter emblazoned with Trump’s name and tossing it deep into the frozen vegetables.   

The husband of the woman in front of me had been paying attention.  When I furtively pulled the Good Housekeeping in front of Time, hiding Trump’s name and face, the husband was watching, and he glanced at me curiously.   

I set my jaw and pulled my shoulders back.  Yes, it was a ridiculously tiny act of civil disobedience, but it was a start, and I had to start somewhere.

***

I know it was racism that really swung this election, aided and abetted by Russian interference, unchecked and irresponsible social media, voter suppression, Democratic missteps, and a frenzy of anti-elitist sentiment whipped up by elite old white men posing as anti-elitist men of the people.  It may ring false for me to speak to racism, as a white woman.  But as a woman, regardless of skin tone, I can confidently speak to another key element of Trump’s win: misogyny.

Trauma affects the biology of children, and even grandchildren, of survivors, studies have indicated (see Judith Shulevitz’s excellent article The Science of Suffering in the New Republic from November 16, 2014), so I was born with an understanding of the torment of sexual assault coded into my very genes.  On childhood visits to the home of the relative responsible for this state of affairs, I have no memory of being touched, but I do distinctly remember feeling watched.  There were many doors in that relative’s home— too many doors— and the doors sometimes opened unexpectedly, leaving me vulnerable.  The master bathroom was particularly unusual as it had not one, not two, but three possible entrance doors.  I couldn’t have been more than eight when I had the uneasy sensation that the relative in question had observed me in the bathtub when he shouldn’t have, or more exactly, that he had looked at my body, the body of an eight-year old girl, in a particular manner: a manner that led me to feel ashamed, although I had nothing to be ashamed of.  I was not alone in that bathtub— one of my younger siblings was in with me.  But I was alone one night, albeit clothed in a flimsy nightgown, when I was jolted awake by the sixth sense of prey under surveillance.  I had been sleeping in the spare bedroom just next to the master bedroom, when I sensed— even through sleep— that I was not, in fact, alone.  When I woke suddenly, I did so with the vision of a human child, not that of a gazelle, so will never know for certain if the swish of a closing door etched in my memory followed someone’s hasty exit.  I can’t be sure if the threat I registered was real or imagined, but not long after that night we stopped visiting that particular relative; though I never set foot in that house of doors again, the fear, whether direct, transferred, or both, stayed with me, and my later experience as a woman in the world justified its continued presence.

There was the second boy to French-kiss me, whose tongue felt like it would choke me.  There was the popular boy who asked me for a date; when I said no, he called my house (these were the days long before mobile phones) and demanded to know how I could refuse such an offer when it was common knowledge that I had never had a proper boyfriend.  When I answered that I just didn’t want to go out with him, he argued that I actually did, seemingly convinced that I hadn’t fully understood my own position, and that “no” actually meant “yes.”  I remember the boy’s baffled laugh when my “no” finally clicked, as though he truly couldn’t believe he hadn’t talked me into acquiescence.  There were the boys who pushed their erections into my thigh unbidden during slow dances.  Yes, we were slow dancing, but no, I hadn’t asked for that level of contact.  There were the two boys who kissed me forcefully when I had no desire to be kissed; one had pronounced, when I extricated myself from his unwanted embrace, that he had kissed me because I “owed” him after years of platonic friendship— when friendship began coming with a “redeem for kisses regardless of consent” label, I do not know.  There was the boy who took my best friend’s keys at a party he hosted, supposedly to keep my best friend from driving home drunk; when my best friend insisted on driving home anyway, she had to physically fight the host for the keys.  That boy grew into a man, a man who, years later, was sentenced to life without parole for the brutal rape and murder of a young girl.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I am aware— and thankful— that I have suffered much less than many women that I do know and countless women that I don’t know.  But the list is long enough to illustrate that misogyny has not left me untouched; indeed, the fingerprints of cultural attitudes towards women are all over every picture of me taken after I became a fully autonomous thinker and asked my mother to cut my hair. 

When I was a young child, I had beautiful, long, golden hair, the sort of hair that grown women would pay vast sums of money to replicate.  When, as children, my siblings and I acted out the story of Rapunzel— complete with spinning wheel— I always nabbed the lead role (it may have helped that I was also the oldest, but because of my hair, the siblings couldn’t argue the casting choice).  The year I travelled to third grade by bus, as soon as I plonked myself down on a green vinyl seat I ceded ownership of my hair to the girls on the bus, who would brush it, plait it, or just run their fingers through it.  My picture once appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, ponytail disappearing down my back, as I cuddled a doll for sale at a craft fair.  During the annual holiday weeks I spent on Cape Cod with my Boston family, my hair, at least once each summer, would come undone by the ocean waves, leaving me gasping for air, vaguely cognisant of the irony of possible death by hair suffocation.  It was my hair, beyond a doubt, that landed me another role, that of Mary in the living Nativity, which required me to stand beside an actual manger— with hay— outside my childhood Congregational church, cradling a doll meant to represent the Baby Jesus, for an hour or so one cold Vermont December night while congregants and townsfolk milled past. 

I began to develop.  I got my period, I started secondary school.  Then one day my foot-long honey-blonde ponytail lay on the floor, a fallen witness to my simultaneous acknowledgement of both my imprisonment and my liberation.

“That’s a lot of hair gone,” my mother, who had wielded the scissors, said.  “How does it feel?”

“Lighter,” I answered, swinging my head from side to side.

A girl’s father is the most important man in a girl’s life, and the impact the change in my appearance had on my father was unexpected.  I hadn’t thought to mention my haircut to my father by letter or over the phone, so he was unprepared when we walked into the Howard Johnson’s in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he was waiting to drive my siblings and I the rest of the way to Boston for our weekend visit.  Dad had only recently quit smoking, and his hands were at loose ends where he sat on his own, nursing a cup of coffee.  When he caught sight of me, his face, normally composed in a tentative welcoming smile for such meetings, was overtaken by shock.  Unusually, for my dad, he was not able to recover; the pain of loss remained there, exposed beneath the bushy eyebrows that I had inherited, as he said slowly, “You didn’t tell me you had cut your hair.”

“I forgot,” I said simply.

“It would have been good with some advance warning.  I just quit smoking,” Dad said, in a tone mostly-factual but garnished with a tiny sprig of aggression.  I knew, as children always know, that the aggression was meant for my mother, not for me, so I ignored his comment and left Mom to answer. 

“Doesn’t it look nice though?  Beth was drowning under all that hair,” Mom said, and again, the pointed implication that Dad should be complimenting my new look rather than mourning the shorn locks fell into my “disregard” category.

“Can we get an ice cream?” I asked.

Dad pulled himself together.  “We can have ice cream for dessert in Boston, and it won’t be a long drive from here,” he said.  I resigned myself to delayed gratification and set my jaw for the goodbyes. 

When my siblings and I were alone with him in the car, Dad attempted to right his wrong.  “I’m sorry I reacted the way I did to your haircut,” he said, as he navigated the three-lane Massachusetts highway that always seemed so fearsomely and fantastically busy.  “You’ve just always had long hair, and I was somewhat taken aback.  I’m used to it now, and it’s true, it’s easier to see you, rather than just your hair.”

I was well over forty before my father made sense to me, so his apology gave me the odd squishy feeling I always had as a child when he exposed any vulnerable emotion. 

“It will be good for swimming,” I said, thinking of our next summer trip to the Cape.

Dad laughed.  “I suppose you’re right,” he said, and with that, the chapter was closed, but not before I had witnessed, and duly noted, the cataclysmic effect of my haircut on my father’s mental state. 

My hair grows quickly, and during my teens and twenties, its length went up and down cyclically, depending, I now suspect, on a complicated equation with many variables, such as economy, desire, perceived threat, and self-confidence.  I had my first “boy cut” at seventeen— my hair is shorter than my husband’s in our prom pictures— and for the most part during those years, with the notable exception (perhaps not surprisingly) of the year I lived at my father’s house while at graduate school, I kept my hair short.  At least twice my hair was razor-clipped, once so severely that my mother was visibly shaken. 

“Please don’t cut it that short again,” my mom pleaded.  “You remind me of the cancer patients I used to see on the ward.” 

Point taken; I avoided unduly angry razor clips from then on, but my hair remained short enough that once, when I was nearly at the top of a one-rope demo indoor climbing wall in the middle of a sports store, I overheard a child shout to her mother, “Look at that boy!  Is he gonna fall down?”  I was the only person on the wall at the time, so I knew the child wasn’t referring to my husband, the actual “boy”.  I shifted my weight and turned my body away from the wall, peering down at my husband many metres below.  Like the responsible belayer he is, he was watching closely, and when our eyes met, we grinned at each other. 

The mother had been watching too.  “That’s not a boy,” she corrected her daughter.  “That’s a girl up there.  It’s a girl climbing.”

While I wasn’t sure I enjoyed being mistaken for masculine, I was grateful for the reprieve from unwanted male attention shorter hair afforded me.  When I became pregnant at thirty-five, I let my hair grow in conjunction with my belly, and when our son arrived, I found it easy to keep my hair long and tied back.  Then our daughter was born; life became even busier, so the ease of the ponytail continued to appeal.  I stayed home with our children, so for six years straight I did not go out in public without proof of my motherhood in the form of one or both children.  By the time our daughter started preschool, I had entered my forties; my hair, while long, was shot with grey, my unaltered face bore the wrinkles of years of forgetting to wear sunglasses, my body was irrevocably altered by childbearing and age, and I felt confident that only the very desperate or the very committed would find me attractive.  It felt safe to do whatever I damn well pleased with my hair.

Until my daughter entered her penultimate year of primary school, when a particular street cleaner began working in our neighbourhood.  We lived some distance from the primary school; Louise and I walked up a long hill every morning and down the same hill every afternoon, and the street cleaner in question seemed to always be stationed somewhere along our path.  The street cleaner was not much taller than me, with very little hair on either his head or his face, he had small, deep-set eyes and hands that seemed at once out-sized and overly fleshy.  As someone raised in a small town, my natural inclination when walking, provided I am not in a large crowd, is to acknowledge every individual— with a slight nod, with a spoken greeting, or at the very least, by meeting their eyes.  Normally the individual will respond with a greeting in kind, but this street cleaner did not.  When I nodded perfunctorily in his direction, he said, “Hello, Madam,” in a thick accent and kept his eyes fixed on me.  After perhaps ten such interactions, all at different coordinates along the grid of our walk to school, I succumbed, and began to mumble a gruff “hello” when Louise and I came upon this man.  I didn’t want to say hello— not really.  I would have preferred not to interrupt whatever game I was playing, whatever conversation I was having, or whatever silence I was keeping with my daughter, but the man made me uncomfortable; I disliked how he looked up from his work too far in advance of our paths crossing, how he sought and held my gaze, and how he spoke to me in that langourous, syrupy tone.

What raised my hackles the most, beyond the man’s demeanor when our paths invariably crossed, was just that— the inevitability of running into him even in places which would make his street-cleaning turf impractically large.  I would see him on the way up the hill, in the gardens overlooking the scenic view at the top of the hill, on the road down the hill by the secondary school, on the sidewalk outside our closest primary school, at the foot of the path into the park, at the mouth of the alley between the cemetery.  The only place I knew I would be free from his “Hello, Madam,” was the park itself, where I may need to contend with rutting stags, but as we all know, the most dangerous animal on Earth walks on two legs, and I would face the stags over a human of questionable intent any day.

During my daughter’s last year of primary school, Louise began to walk home alone,  like most of her year group.  We reviewed safety tips and Louise was given a phone and keys; Louise wasn’t keen on walking past the nearby pub’s outdoor patio, but I assured her that the regulars nursing their pints at the picnic tables behind the flowerboxes were nothing to fear.  What did give me pause was the thought of Louise meeting the street cleaner on her own.  Louise, however, is not me; she is a city girl, and feels no obligation to greet strangers— in fact, she sometimes needs to be told to greet friends.  Furthermore, Louise had asked for and been given a very short bob, and I didn’t know much about the street cleaner, but I knew, in that way girls have to know, that what revved his engine was hair.  It would be fine, I told myself; after all, the man was missing the information that would make him an active rather than a passive threat— he didn’t know where we lived.  There had been that morning I had caught sight of him very close to our house, but I had confused our dog, and hopefully the man, by walking away from our house.  I lengthened my walk by ten minutes rather than allowing the street cleaner to observe me entering my own home. 

Overreaction, you may say.  Paranoia.  Prejudice against street cleaners, against foreigners, against men in general.  Ask any woman though, and if she is being honest, she will tell you that women, when they take leave of each other after a night out, will, if possible, walk in pairs.  If we must walk alone, we try to keep to well-lit, busy streets, we prime our bodies for fight or flight, and we hold our keys in our hands in our best approximations of deadly weapons; in short, we act like prey, because we know, through our own or other womens’ experiences, that far, far too many men act like hunters.

Louise walked home for several months without incident, and I continued to reluctantly acknowledge the street cleaner, until the morning that my daughter and I left our house for the walk to school in the morning and saw the man by the small triangle of grass direcly opposite our home, where Markus and I sometimes took our dog for his late-night constitutional.  The jig was up.  When I came home, after my hour in the park with our dog, I made an appointment with the hairdresser a friend had recommended.  Later that week, a good ten inches of hair fell to the floor, and I emerged, shorn, free of the literal and figurative baggage of my long tresses, but simultaneously captive to the societal norms that had both led me to regard my hair as a vulnerability and that would now dictate that I would be seen as another sort of woman.

My ploy worked.  The first time I passed the street cleaner after my haircut happened to be without Louise in tow; he did not even recognise me.  Although he still knew where we lived, I felt a whoosh of release: my daughter and I were just two bobbed feministas now, and he wanted a Rapunzel.

That street cleaner left our patch a few months after I cut my hair, and guess what?  I’m letting my hair grow long again.  The man had been an anomaly; for the most part, my status as a middle-aged woman with an un-threaded, un-painted, un-Botoxed face, a middle-of-the-road figure, and a frizzy halo of silvering hair means I am now refreshingly free from male overtures.  My daughter, however, is just entering her years as a target, and confronting misogyny on her behalf is still worse than dealing with it for myself. 

Take travel.  When our son, Christopher, entered secondary school, we offered him two possible ways to take himself to school: he could either walk up to the main road and catch the more pleasant and significantly more crowded bus, or he could walk over the railroad tracks via the footbridge just behind our house to access the two less-crowded bus routes.  Londoners will be well familiar with the syndrome of the bus so full that it misses out stops; Christopher, who values consistency and punctuality, opted to make taking a bus from across the footbridge into his morning routine.  In the afternoon, when time was not a consideration, Chris varied his travel method home based on which bus came first and on whether or not he had met classmates at the bus stop. 

After Christopher had been taking himself to and from school for a few weeks, our elderly neighbour George, a kind-hearted Jack Russell enthusiast with thick glasses, a bum knee, and a penchant for curtain-twitching, stopped me on the footpath close to our house.

“Your boy,” George began.  “How’s he getting on at secondary school?”

“He’s doing well, thanks,” I replied. 

“Is he walking over that footbridge to catch the bus?” George asked, opening his watery eyes wide.

“He is,” I confirmed. 

George moved closer, as if to tell me a secret.  “Bad things happen on that footbridge, you know,” George said conspiratorily. 

I was not completely taken aback.  If coming home from London at night, I would choose to walk further, or wait longer for the more desirable bus, rather than cross the footbridge after eight o’clock.  The street on the wrong side of the tracks that led to the footbridge was poorly-lit, and was infrequently-travelled by either vehicles or pedestrians at night; a tall hedge bordered one side of the street beyond which loomed tower blocks of council housing, on the other side, the road ended in a dark corner planted with overgrown bushes.  Then came the footbridge itself, with the added thrill of the possibility of being tossed over the four-foot cement walls onto the train tracks themselves.

“I think it’s OK in the morning,” I said to George. 

“That may be, but I don’t trust it.  I’ve seen some things happen there…”  George let his words fade into silence, apparently not wishing to elaborate, but nonetheless wanting me to comprehend the risks. 

“Mmm,” I mumbled, nodding my head. 

“Just tell him to be careful,” George said pointedly. 

“Thanks, I’ll do that,” I said solemnly. 

And I did tell Chris to be careful, but when Christopher’s dance lessons started up again and Christopher needed to get himself to the dance studio as quickly as possible, I let him take his scooter across the footbridge.  It was a calculated risk, but when I input the variables— Christopher’s speed on his scooter, his desire for travel efficiency, the guessed-at statistics of undesirable events, and most importantly, Chris’s status as a boy— it seemed a risk worth taking. 

Christopher had been travelling, without incident, to school and to dance lessons via the footbridge for three years when the time came for Louise to travel independently to her secondary school, which was not the same school as her brother’s.  I say “without incident” but that is not completely true— Chris came home from dance one evening dishevelled and shaken, with a tear in his trousers and a bleeding knee. 

“That’s it,” I thought, when I caught sight of my son in the doorway.  “They’ve mugged him and beaten him up.”  The anger at my son’s oppressors rose up like a cobra, out of its basket and ready to strike. 

“I fell off my scooter,” Chris said, in answer to my unspoken question.  The snake collapsed back into its basket, and I moved on to channelling Florence Nightingale. 

Beyond that self-inflicted injury, nothing untoward had befallen Christopher, and for Louise, the only sensible route was to cross the footbridge.  I knew I would never permit my daughter to walk over the footbridge in the dark, but I was less certain how I felt about Louise crossing alone in daylight.  I was sure George, our neighbour, would shake his head vigorously at the mere suggestion, but Markus, my Swedish husband, considered it reasonable to expect Louise to use the footbridge alone during daylight hours.  Torn, I turned to an expert: Samantha, a good female friend whose parenting skills, local knowledge, and forthright manner I admired.  I posed the question to her as objectively as possible, although the mere asking revealed some doubt about answering in the affirmative on my part.

“So, Samantha, do you think I should let Louise walk over the footbridge behind our house by herself in the morning?”

My normally unflappable friend looked aghast.  “Are you referring to the ‘rapist footbridge’?  If so, I think not!”

It was my turn to look alarmed.  “What do you mean, the ‘rapist footbridge’?  Did something really happen there that I don’t know about?  Our resident Neighbourhood Watch-neighbour implied that the footbridge had a chequered past, but he wouldn’t give me the lowdown.”

Samantha dropped her look of shock horror and laughed.  “Oh, I don’t know if anything has ever actually happened there, but that’s what we’ve always called it, because it just has that air, doesn’t it?  Of course you shouldn’t let Louise walk there.  I won’t even let my eldest walk that way; she has a friend who lives on that side of the tracks, but if they want to get together, I walk her over.  And my oldest is fourteen now— Louise is only eleven.”

That settled the matter.  I would wake up an hour earlier than I had woken up during Louise’s primary school years so that I could walk my daughter to the bus stop every morning, in a perhaps miscalculated attempt to ensure her personal safety.  I was fine with the early start.  What galled me, though, was that Louise would be denied a freedom we had given to her brother years ago.  Perhaps with a year of secondary school under her belt we would permit Louise to cross the footbridge in the daylight, but I would tell her, in no uncertain terms, that as soon as the sun disappeared, the footbridge was off-limits.

I hated that I needed to have that talk with my eleven-year old.  Louise was still young enough, before starting at secondary, that she could believe herself invincible; if she was Achilles, though, I was about to mention her heel.  Wouldn’t it be better if she could carry on thinking she was equal, powerful, and safe until the brokenness of the world demanded she reconsider?  How would Louise’s path to adulthood differ from Christopher’s when I told her she may want to keep glancing back over her shoulder and that she should be prepared, at any point, to run, scream, or fight?  I wanted my daughter to celebrate herself in her entirety, but I would be giving her a valid reason to not only hate herself, for being born female, but also to hate men for their age-old and ongoing history of hating women. 

I have read many accounts of American parents of black sons having “the talk” with their children— a discussion about the dangers associated with the happenstance of being born with high-eumelanin skin in the United States, particularly in relation to law enforcement, and how to best cope with those dangers.  I recognise that “the talk” I held with Louise is but a mere shadow of that talk, because Louise, thanks to both the comparative absence of melanin in her skin and her identification as female, would be exponentially less likely to experience mistreatment by the police.  I wish, though, that I had watched this video (https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003575589/a-conversation-with-my-black-son.html) before I had spoken to Louise about her route to school, because then I would have known to counterweight my message of fear and loathing with affirmations of fortitude and love.

Louise seemed neither surprised nor bothered that rules never applied to her brother’s travel were set for her.  Maybe that’s because she had already soaked up enough awareness of misogyny from her eleven years as a girl, or maybe Louise just liked the idea of me accompanying her in the morning.  When, a month after she started secondary, news broke of the Trump bus tape—the hidden camera recording of Trump boasting about his habitual sexual misconduct towards women— Louise may have inferred, in her characteristically logical manner, that if a man running for President could brag about grabbing women without their consent could go on to actually win the Presidency, then she had every reason to take sensible precautions against men who held no such lofty aspirations.

Before the bus tape was released, I had read that Trump had a history of alleged sexual misconduct.  The most shocking of the allegations I had read about was that Trump, in the company of his friend Jeffrey Epstein— a billionaire convicted in 2008 of soliciting sex from an underage girl— had raped a thirteen-year old at a party in 1994.  This particular charge has since been dropped, and the way it was handled suggests that it may have been fabricated to begin with (http://www.vox.com/2016/10/12/13234224/donald-trump-jill-harth-sexual-assault), but Trump’s friendship with Epstein is indisputable and backed up by this quote Trump provided for an article on Epstein in New York Magazine in 2002: ““He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” (http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/09/the-friendship-between-trump-and-a-billionaire-pedophile-that-nobody-wants-to-talk-about/, see also http://www.dailywire.com/news/5556/7-things-you-need-know-about-trump-and-sex-slave-amanda-prestigiacomo for further discussion of Trump and Epstein’s friendship) Untried allegations cast doubt, but the graphic deposition statement given by Ivana Trump, Donald’s first wife of nearly fifteen years, during their divorce proceedings unequivocally brands Donald as a sexual assault offender (see again Libby A. Nelson’s Vox article of October 12, 2016 quoted above).  Even Ivana’s testimony, however, can not be deemed watertight, as it was procured and published by a writer, Harry Hurt III, who stated to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker that he had thrown out the physical copies of the deposition when cleaning out his house (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/documenting-trumps-abuse-of-women).  Nonetheless, the number of accusations of sexual misconduct, especially when combined with the twisted and violent details of Ivana’s report, had already combined to make me strongly suspect that Donald Trump was a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist.

Then came the bus tape.  I rarely watch television, so my first exposure to the Trump bus tape—— was through Facebook’s automatic video streaming; I could not avoid watching Donald and Billy Bush walk from the Access Hollywood trailer on the NBC lot, but I could avoid listening to them talk.  I was horrified by Trump’s words when I read them in print.  I find it doubtful that anyone who has read this far is unaware of exactly what Trump said, but just in case, here was Donald’s most sickening quote, as reported by The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/07/donald-trump-leaked-recording-women):

“Whoa!” Trump responds. “Whoa! I’ve gotta use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

“Whatever you want,” Bush replies.

“Grab them by the pussy,” Trump replies. “You can do anything.”

After about a week, I thought the shock had worn off to such an extent that I could safely listen to the audio of the bus tape.  I was mistaken.  Hearing Trump’s swaggering, vainglorious voice say words so offensive and threatening caused me to undergo a now all-too-familiar physiological reaction: my heart raced, my muscles tensed, my field of vision narrowed and its edges began to blur.  I couldn’t even watch through to the end of the short tape.  I chalked my outrage up to offense taken on behalf of all women at first, but when I stumbled across a piece by Katie Koppel for Cognoscenti entitled “Dear Melania, Your Husband’s ‘Boy Talk’ Triggered My Sexual Assault PTSD” (http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/10/19/donald-trump-locker-room-access-hollywood-katie-koppel) I recognised that I was personally affected by the Trump tape as well.  My own physical and historical experiences of sexual misconduct, while no doubt negligible compared to Ms Koppel’s, sufficed to ensure that my body, when exposed to Trump’s felonious braggadocio, responded by kicking into fight-or-flight mode, just like Ms Koppel’s, but to a lesser extent.

I was devastated, but not surprised, when I woke in London on November 9th, 2016, to the news of Trump’s win.  I immediately vacated Facebook, knowing that to be there— subjected to countless news stories analyzing how the election had gone wrong and to the posts of a handful of friends, mostly from my hometown, celebrating how the election had gone “right”— would be detrimental to my mental health.  Just as with the Trump bus tape, however, time did not prove healing.  When I did return to social media, I found myself thrown into an unsustainable panic.  I frenetically signed petitions aiming to alter the outcome of the election, I binge-read articles offering their explanations as to how Trump’s election had managed to become reality rather than nightmare, I flailed like a wild animal against the cage of Trump’s impending Presidency. 

A few friends were right there beside me.  One very dear friend in particular seemed to be on my same roller-coaster, riding to heights of anger and conviction to act only to then lurch into anguish and paralysis; she mentioned her state in a Facebook comment, and our paraphrased exchange went something like this:

“Why can’t I let this go?” my friend wrote.  “When George W. was elected, I was upset, but it was nothing like this.  I could still function.”

“I think the problem is that you and I feel like Trump is a clear and present danger,” I told my friend.  “For whatever reason, we can’t get any distance.  He’s not really coming for us as individuals, but we’re reacting like he is, like he’s banging our doors down and will soon force himself upon us, because we know that’s what he does.  We’ve heard him say so.”

After a pause for reflection, my friend responded, “You might be on to something.”

***

I have lived in London since the turn of the last century.  Trump, his cabinet, and his policies will not affect me to nearly the same extent as Theresa May (the incumbent Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), her cabinet, and her policies.  Yet the United States of America remains the only country to which I formally belong, and it is not at all unthinkable that, should my Swedish husband divorce me or suddenly pass away, I would be left with no alternative but to return to my motherland.  In addition, I have an entire network of family and friends who will be at the front line as Trump takes aim at women, at immigrants, at people of colour, at people with disabilities, at people who are Muslim, and at pretty much every other minority group you can think of barring Trump’s own minority group, that of obscenely rich white men who have unburdened themselves of any sort of moral compass, who carry no cross of responsibility towards the poor, the suffering, or the outsiders.  Many of my liberal friends are hoping for Trump’s impeachment.  While I agree that with Representative John Lewis, the civil rights activist and congressman, that Trump is not a legitimate president, I fear that his removal  as President would not do enough to alter the arc of the next four years; during the time it would take to complete the impeachment process, most of Trump’s cabinet would have been confirmed, and in almost every instance, Trump has tapped someone who seems uniquely qualified to tear apart the department or position to which they have been assigned.  Trump’s cabinet will damage America regardless of whether Trump or Pence is at the helm (see this article by The Guardian for further explanation: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/09/donald-trump-administration-cabinet-picks-so-far).  It is fully rational to oppose Trump and his entire administration; indeed, it would be lunacy not to resist the perversion, or at worst, the dismantling of much of what constitutes the democratic fabric of the United States.

What is not fully rational is my lack of objectivity.  Even after my Facebook conversation with my close friend, when I had identified the toll Trump’s election had taken as a problem of perspective, I could not shake the sensation of being violated.  Because what matters most to me personally is that Trump, in that hidden mic tape, proudly asserted his right to treat women as objects.  The chain of command between me and now-President Trump (how it pains me to write that) is very long indeed, and crosses the entire Atlantic Ocean, but it is indisputably present; what that means, if you follow the chain’s links, is that I am under the control of my would-be abuser.  By electing a man with Donald Trump’s history as President, America has not only sanctioned, but has elevated misogyny and sexual misconduct.  Unlike in the case of casual street harassment, or, as with the street cleaner, low-grade stalking, no amount of modification of my personal appearance will lessen the hatred Donald Trump and his incoming administration have already exhibited for me and for all of my sisters.  Yet in truth— remember truth?— I have it easy.  The next four years will be far more frightening for my immigrant sisters, my sisters of colour, my sisters with disabilities, my sisters of faiths other than the American sort of evangelical Christianity to which Trump claims to adhere, my sisters within the LGBTQIA community, and my sisters in pervasive poverty.  And for my sisters— our sisters— who belong to more than one of those subsets of sisterhood, the spectre of the next four years must be harrowing indeed.

***

I can’t even remember when I first learned of the trinity of best responses to personal safety threats, but I have since come across them so often that I’d like to think they are now hard-wired: “Run, scream, or fight,” I told my daughter, who would not be crossing the “rapist footbridge” alone, but would be walking home alone from the bus stop up the hill.  “Or better yet, run, scream, and fight,” I corrected myself.

Louise nodded sagely.  “No problem,” she said.  “I’m fast, loud, and strong.”

I grinned.  “That’s the spirit.”

The advice I gave Louise works when faced with the Abuser-in-Chief as well.  For the overwhelming majority of my family and friends, “running”— at least by leaving the United States— is not a viable option.  Although a few friends asked, in the days following Trump’s election, if we would be willing to put them up while they found their feet in England (we were), I knew, and they knew, that they weren’t serious.    My family and friends don’t really want to leave the United States— they just want America to head in a direction diametrically opposed to the direction in which the Trump Administration, judging from the maps we’ve seen, plans to travel.  There are other ways to run from Trump without leaving the country.  Refuse to buy Trump-branded products or stay in Trump hotels.  Don’t watch Celebrity Apprentice or any other programme with Trump’s fingerprints on it.  Better yet, kill your television entirely; read the news via news sources or people that you trust instead.  Scores of Democratic lawmakers plan to run from Trump by choosing not to attend his inauguration.  Refusal to engage can send a powerful message.  I would also encourage people to unfollow Donald (now POTUS) on Twitter— the less love he gets, the better.  We should delegate following his offensive and abusive tweets to a handful of trusted sources.  I have taken to turning off the radio if I hear his voice.

I’ve limited full-on “screaming” to the confines of my own home since the election, but I’ve been vocal in person and on social media about my reaction to Trump’s win.  Facebook, at first, was a comfort; the Trump supporters on my friends list— almost exclusively people I knew from my small hometown in Vermont— didn’t gloat (much).  As the weeks went on, however, animosity between those who supported Trump and those who didn’t became more pronounced.  I looked on as one childhood friendship disintegrated; when a childhood friendship of my own seemed destined for a similar fate, I opted to fall back on the first line of recourse— “run”— and I logged out.  I haven’t scrolled through Facebook for over a week now— a personal record.  My cowardice is not sitting well, however; I know that for all its faults, Facebook has brought me more joy than sadness, and when I am strong enough, I plan to return under more stringent self-regulation.  My experience of pushback when I speak out against Trump is laughable compared to what has been thrown at many of Trump’s more eloquent and powerful critics (witness civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis, Gold Star parent Khizr Khan, all of The New York Times, etcetera).  I have done what I can to support those who are casting themselves into the ring, and I’m not the only one; when, with the objective of following him, I found Damien Love— the journalist who wrote the excellent sarcastic preview for the airing of Trump’s inauguration for the Scottish Sunday Herald— on Twitter, I noted that we had only one follower in common: Barack Obama’s personal account. (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15024879.World_reacts_to____brilliant____Trump_inauguration_synopsis_in_Sunday_Herald_TV_listings/)

But what I need to do— what we all need to do— more than anything else is “fight.”  Not with weapons, but with our actions and our resources.  We need to be like the muskoxen of the Arctic who literally can not run because their weighty coat would lead to overheating— when wolves threaten their young, the muskoxen form either a line, if the wolf is acting alone, or a tight outward-facing circle, if the wolf has friends along.  A single muskox is no match for several wolves, but together, the muskoxen are capable of fending off hungry predators. (http://samanthasinterestinginsights.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/wonder-of-musk-ox.html)  We must make a stand, turned towards Trump and his pack, and those who are more able must especially see to it that those who are least able are surrounded with protection on all sides.  The wolf and his pack are literally at the door— tomorrow Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America— so there is not a moment to lose.  We can form our circle by joining or supporting any of the worthy organisations that will be fighting our corner during the next four years, as they have since their inception: Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center.  We can campaign for women’s rights, for voting rights and against the electoral college, for the rights of undocumented immigrants, for protection of the free press; the list goes on, and on, and on. 

We can campaign for politicians who do not share Donald’s values in 2018, or even consider running for office ourselves.  When I first came across a list of Democratic lawmakers skipping Trump’s inauguration, I did my best to find all of them on Twitter; I wanted to follow them and thank them each personally for their act of resistance.  If they had made an official statement, I read it; in several cases, I watched their statement videos.  I came away buoyed.  For all but one of the twenty-odd lawmakers I looked up that evening, the decision not to attend was weighty, and had been carefully considered from all angles (the exception being Representative Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon, whose remarks were either off-the-cuff or satirical); all of the lawmakers had done their best to explain their thought process to their constituents.  If their Twitter timelines are anything to go by, it turns out most politicians seem to be in the business because they actually care.

I was especially moved by Representative Luis Guiterrez’s video about why he will not attend the inauguration, because for him, as for me, Trump’s misogyny is a game-changer. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DYNCLHjed0&feature=youtu.be)  I can not understand why any self-respecting woman would have voted for a man with Trump’s both alleged and publicly documented history of misconduct towards our sisters.  Maybe many women look at Trump the way Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager-cum-White House counsel, suggested we should after Donald’s deplorable mockery of Serge Kovaleski, the New York Times reporter.  During a discussion with Chris Cuomo of CNN, Kellyanne said, “You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than what’s in his heart.” (http://www.salon.com/2017/01/09/kellyanne-conway-wants-people-to-look-into-donald-trumps-heart-not-whats-come-out-of-his-mouth/)   I’m sorry, Kellyanne, but that sentiment has been keeping women under the thumb of their abusers since time immemorial; should any man ever mistreat my daughter the way Donald J. Trump has mistreated women, you better believe that I won’t be advising Louise to look at what’s in his heart.  I’ll be telling her to run, scream, and/or fight her way out of that relationship as quickly as she can. 

I know how Louise reacted to the news of Trump’s election— with tears and anger—but I don’t yet know how living through a Trump presidency will affect Louise’s self-esteem and her beliefs about the world and her place in it.  All I can hope to do, as Louise’s mother, is to show my daughter, through my own words and actions, what I believe in— what is in my heart. 

Tomorrow I will join many thousands of demonstrators for the Women’s March on London, one of the worldwide marches to be held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.  It will be my first-ever protest march.  I am thrilled that I will be starting the year that will mark my half-century on our beautiful planet by forming a tight, global circle with my sisters.  In a pink, hand-knit hat.

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Country, 240, Seeks Leader. Only Responsible Adults Please. Empathy and Some Degree of Selflessness Desirable. Respond in Writing by November 8th.

“Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” ©Bob Dylan Music

 

I have watched Donald Trump’s rise with horror. I’ve thought to myself countless times during the course of the current campaign, “Surely this latest scandal must be the end.  Surely Trump can’t get closer to the Presidency. People can not truly want this unconscionable man to sit at the desk in the Oval Office.”

But month by month, week by week, and day by day, I’ve been proven wrong. Trump is now well within reach of becoming the next President of the United States of America, and it seems to me that those of us who absolutely do not want this to happen are fundamentally misunderstanding how to communicate with those who want very much for Trump to trade his own private jet for Air Force One.  With that in mind, and because the spectre of a Trump presidency is more than I can bear silently, I would like to present a cautionary tale.

***

When my son Christopher was about six and my daughter Louise about four, my husband Markus and I took the children to Centre Court, the American-style shopping mall in Wimbledon.  I can’t honestly remember why we felt we needed to venture that far afield; Centre Court was at least a forty-minute journey from our home in another leafy part of southwest London.  The shopping expedition had not gone smoothly– the kids had been whiny and uncooperative, Markus had been in a foul mood, and we hadn’t been able to purchase whatever it was we had been looking for– so by the time we found ourselves in the slow-moving queue at Costa, the safety on the trigger of my temper was well and truly off.  About halfway through the queue, Markus made some comment that released the trigger, and I lost the plot.  I shouted something like, “Just shut up!  I can’t take anymore!”  I then threw my mobile phone at the floor and stormed out of that Costa with my head held high and my shoulders back, like some sort of mall warrior queen.

For less than five seconds, what I had just done felt really, really good.  Especially the throwing of the phone.  “That showed them,” I thought to myself smugly.  “They’ll think twice before they mess with me again.”  I strode past Whittard’s Coffee and Tea and Next awash in power.  By the time I reached River Island, however, the rush was slipping away, and outside Marks and Spencer the crash came. 

“Oh no,” I thought.  “That was well and truly idiotic.  Not only did I possibly break a phone I can’t afford to replace, but I set a very bad example indeed.  I acted worse than the stroppiest four-year old.”

I turned around in remorse and began to retrace my steps.  Markus would be less than pleased, I was sure, and the thought of his disapproval slowed my  pace.  When I reached the still-crowded Costa, I scanned the tables until I located my husband and our two children. 

“Here we are, Mum!”  Louise, our four-year old, called out, waving merrily.  “Pa bought us both hot chocolates!  With whipped cream and marshmallows!”

“Did he now,” I said, looking sheepishly at Markus, who grinned at me.

“All better?” he asked.

“Yes, thanks.  Sorry about that,” I mumbled, then asked more urgently, “How’s the phone?”

“Phone is fine.  Don’t try your luck again, though,” Markus warned.    

“Great.  Right.  Will try not to.” 

Markus addressed the children.  “Drink up, kids,” he said, “Time to go home.” 

***

Donald Trump is the epitome of phone-thrower.  Take his spat with Megyn Kelley of Fox News; Trump has hurled insults her way since he first came into contact with her, even stooping so low as to imply that Kelley was unable to behave rationally because she had her period.  While I experienced shame and regret after my own childish tantrum, however, Trump appears to never come down— he just carries on attacking, as if for every metaphorical phone he tosses, someone merely pulls from a hidden unlimited supply and hands him a replacement.  Not only do the phones not break, but people stop to watch this phone-throwing maniac, and he commands his enablers to build him golden towers out of the discarded objects, which he then sells at great cost to the phone suppliers but at enormous profit to himself, a profit that he neglects to declare and certainly does not pay taxes on.  And people love it!  Look at this man, so unafraid to “tell it like it is” and leave a path of destruction behind him, yet so confident in his privilege that he can rewrite the rules of engagement and lead his followers to not only make sacrifices for him, but to feel honoured in doing so.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to be like him?  Wouldn’t it be glorious to say what you wish without fear of repercussions?  Wouldn’t it be smashing to host extravagant phone-throwing parties and care not one whit for the cost to the phone suppliers whom you never intend to pay?  Wouldn’t it, most of all, be mind-blowing to rework wealth so that you could act as irresponsibly as you wished, smashing phones willy-nilly, and rather than being sent to prison for reckless endangerment, you could be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America?

***

The interest on my fit of impulsivity, I discovered after the event, was very high indeed.  I paid through the nose for my error of judgment that day at Centre Court, but not with paper money.  Instead I paid with blood money each time Christopher or Louise mimicked my appalling behaviour in the months following.

“Christopher,” I would admonish our son, “Please don’t throw your Lego.  You could have hit Louise.”

“You threw your phone,” Christopher would remind me flatly.   

“I did, but that was a mistake,” I would say, slowly and clearly, for both his benefit and his sister’s.  “Sometimes people make mistakes.  I apologised right afterwards, and I haven’t thrown my phone since, have I?”

Or, “Louise, please don’t use the words ‘shut up.’  If you want Christopher to stop talking, please tell him so nicely.”

“But he tells me to shut up!” Louise protested. “He said it before you came in!”

“Just because you hear someone say something doesn’t mean that you should copy them.  You can do the right thing even if Christopher doesn’t.” 

The urge to act like a toddler did not disappear, but seeing my actions mirrored by my children acted as a powerful deterrent.  When my arm or my tongue wanted very much to lash out, the thought of either child copying me defused me, leaving me able to bring my response to, if not an acceptable, at least a less explosive level.  I still shout, but I don’t shout “shut up,” and I am proud to report that I have thrown nothing in anger since that Sony Ericsson.  Even better, after about a year of as-required redirection, both Christopher and Louise grasped that only toy weapons (such as Nerf guns) could be used as weapons, and the phrase “shut up” was completely eradicated from their vocabularies.  (Full disclosure: now that Louise has reached her tween years “shut up” is making an unwelcome comeback, but we’re working on that).

Changing my behaviour was not easy.  Before I was a phone-thrower, I was a repeat offender door-slammer; the neural pathway of dramatic object maltreatment leading to a brief high was well-established.  I knew, though, that the eventual reward of self-control— children who trusted me, and who would grow up to use phones rather than throw them— was greater than the cost of learning to keep my temper, and I held the promise of that delayed gratification firmly in my sight.  I was like the subset of children in the famous marshmallow study— offered one marshmallow right now or three marshmallows if they can wait for ten minutes— who choose to wait for the higher payout. 

You would think that with his proven history of lies, business failures, and mistreatment of all sorts of people (but especially women), Donald Trump would spend much of his time apologising for his appalling behaviour; in fact, Donald shows remorse only when completely cornered.  Trump’s apology during the second debate for the latest scandal, the live mic recording of his abusive comments towards women, was stunningly insincere, and the speed with which he moved from “I apologized to the American people” to “I will knock the hell out of ISIS” was so jarring it made my mouth hang open (http://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-2016-presidential-debate-read-full-transcript-508163?rm=eu).  The idea that it would be possible to act as he has and not lie awake at night plagued by pangs of conscience is seductive, because let’s face it, guilt is no fun, and the work of attempting to be a good and decent human being is arduous.  Trump has proven over and over that he has no interest in even basic decency, yet he is still (at this writing) the Republican nominee for President; he ignored the rules, but he took all the marshmallows and even turned some of the researchers into lackeys who offer him infinite supplies of marshmallows.  How tempting must it be to support him for those who feel sick of political correctness and tired of the grind of daily life, for the people who have been without for far too long and want their marshmallows now. 

Trump is not trying to be a more upstanding person, and many of his faults are glaringly apparent.  Yet his supporters identify with him, and when asked why he is their choice, often provide answers like, “He’s one of us.  He talks like me.  He isn’t one of those politician types.  He’s not part of the establishment.”  That’s fine— I can imagine, were I to be a white, fit,  right-leaning businessman, that Trump would be a back-slapping, jocular pub companion, prone to grand gestures like picking up the tab for rounds of champagne— but pub buddy and President are two wildly different person specifications.  I want my President to be the sort of person who is striving towards excellence.  I don’t care if she or he would be fun at the pub. 

Trump goes one step further than merely refusing to own up to most of his mistakes; his favourite tactic, when caught red-handed, is to blame others.  It’s Megyn Kelley’s, Miss Universe’s, and Rosie O’Donnell’s fault that Trump says horrible things to and about them, not Trump’s fault.  Trump’s list of what Hillary is responsible for goes on and on.  To go back to the phone-throwing: if I were to have taken a page from Trump’s playbook, I wouldn’t have needed to apologise to either Markus or our children for my inappropriate behaviour, because I would have been forced to throw my phone by extenuating circumstances— tired children, annoyed husband, inefficient or overstretched coffee shop staff— and would thus not be accountable for my actions.

I used to know a man who ran a small business; he put in far more than forty hours a week and did good work; while lovely, his were niche products, and this man’s business balanced continuously on the edge of collapsing.  To my perpetual mystification, this man was a staunch Republican.  Why would someone who hovered, with his family, perilously close to requiring assistance  from the state vote for a party firmly committed to reducing state spending?  What I could not comprehend was that this man still believed that one fine day his business would not only take off, but would also make him rich, and when that happened, he, for one, wanted to pay as little as possible on his future wealth.  Why hadn’t his business achieved fortune and fame yet?  Was that down to him and his decisions about how to run his business?  No, that was because of factors beyond this man’s reach: the Democrats, the market, the economy.  I suspect this man will be voting for Trump in November.

Trump voters seem to think that while their candidate may lie, he would not lie to them specifically.  While he may brag about groping women, he would never grope their wives, mothers, or daughters.  Trump may kick out all the Muslims and the Mexicans, but he would never threaten the voters’ own religions or ethnic backgrounds.  What these voters fail to realise is that Donald Trump cares about one thing, and one thing only:  Donald Trump.  Trump is so deranged that he seems to really, honestly believe that he is the centre of the known universe: that nothing can touch him, that he is invincible, and that the world should serve him.

***

President Barack Obama, the only politician I have ever campaigned for, is not defined by selfishness.  Obama has fought tooth and nail to serve the whole of the American people.  One of President Obama’s most significant achievements has been the implementation of the form of national health insurance known colloquially as Obamacare, for which he has paid dearly in popularity.  Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as it is officially known, remains a divisive policy; many of the Americans I know dislike the changes it has brought to the healthcare system, and the Republicans, Trump included, would love to repeal the ACA.  Of everything I have read this election season, though, one letter has stuck with me— a letter sent to President Obama by a lifelong Republican, Brent Brown, describing how the ACA made it possible for Brent to get the medication he needed to overcome a serious autoimmune disease that threatened to either kill him, bankrupt him, or both.  The entire letter is worth reading (http://letterstopresidentobama.tumblr.com/post/140398509929/meet-brent-brown-from-mosinee-wisconsin-he-never), but these are the lines that matter the most as the nation prepares to vote in November:

Thank you for serving me even when I didn’t vote for you.

Thank you for being my President.

Honored to have lived under your leadership and guidance,

Brent Nathan Brown

Over and over again Donald Trump has lashed out at those who have criticised him, sometimes viciously, sometimes for years.  The likelihood of Donald rising above his ego to work for the greater good is slim to nonexistent.  Under a President Trump (may it never come to pass), Brent would be made to carry on as he did before the passage of the ACA, with catastrophic results.  While Brent and his family suffered, Donald would be busy implementing policies that would benefit Trump directly.

***

I rarely have the luxury of writing quickly.  I started this essay two weeks ago, and during those two weeks, I have given considerable thought to how to explain why it is better to live as a person who strives to do the right thing than as a person who says “to hell with the right thing, I will do what I want.”  Why not just throw your phone if you feel like it?  Why not just say whatever springs to mind?  Why not attempt to crush anyone who gets in your way if people will worship you anyway? 

The least noble motivation for being kind is that the beneficiary— even if you have acted altruistically, with no intentions of tit-for-tat— ends up somewhat in your debt, and you may, at some later juncture, stand to gain from this imbalance.  Perhaps two months after my husband Markus and I had first started living together, in a second-floor one bedroom apartment in Burlington, Vermont in 1987, Markus’s huge friend Joakim took up residence on our sofa.  Joakim had landed a job at the same ski area as Markus, but didn’t have enough money to pay rent on a place of his own, so he curled all 6’4” of himself onto our sofa each night for a few months.  Joakim had a smile as big as his frame and the manner of a crazily overgrown puppy; most days I didn’t mind at all that Joakim shared our space, but sometimes I wished that Markus and I could have the place to ourselves. 

As soon as Joakim could afford it, he moved out.  While Joakim was still in Vermont, we saw him frequently, but as the years went by, we fell out of touch.  Then in 2003, shortly after the birth of our son Christopher, we found ourselves dead broke in Sweden with no job prospects on the horizon for either of us.  Joakim had a flat in Stockholm overlooking the harbour, and he had a spare bedroom.  He offered us a key. 

We lived rent-free with Joakim for at least two months, maybe three.  Had we not let him stay on our couch fifteen years previously, Joakim may have been less open to the thought of sharing his home with not one but two adults and one baby; he may have still offered, but for both him and for us, it would not have been as psychologically manageable.  This sort of arrangement— you do something good for me, I will (maybe someday) do something good for you— is the only one of my reasons for kindness that Donald Trump is likely to be down with.

Climbing up the ladder towards selflessness, we find the idea of the human cost of bad behaviour.  Returning yet again to my phone-throwing: to restrain myself would have “hurt” only me, but to give in to my baser nature scarred my husband, our two children, the onlookers and staff at the coffee shop, and actually me as well, because of the mark it left on my character which I was then forced to confront each time I held my character up to the mirror of self-reflection.  Trump seems unable to accept the human cost of his transgressions.  His apology for the bus tape, for example, was a textbook example of the sort of “sorry not sorry” you would expect from a teen with attitude, not the Republican nominee for President. 

Perhaps Donald could consider history.  I have no plans to run for public office, and I am barely a player on the neighbourhood stage, much less the national stage (thankfully), so no one was there snapping photos of my reprehensible actions that day at Centre Court.  But even individuals have a history, as do families, and although I did my best to sweep the phone-throwing under the carpet, it remained part of the oral tradition of our family for longer than I would have wished.  Christopher and Louise will carry the history of our family with them when they leave our home to make homes of their own— I want that book to be one that they will display proudly, that they will love to pull from their mental shelves and re-read, not one that they will hide in the loft, and that desire provides strong motivation for me to aspire to kindness. 

Trump, for better or (in my view) for much worse, is a player on the world stage, and as such, he may want to consider how he will be remembered.  History has not celebrated certain other charismatic leaders who have been driven primarily by self-interest; on the contrary, such figures, particularly when their actions harm others (as Trump’s do), are held up as cautionary examples.  Obama, meanwhile, has spent the entirety of his time as President as if one entire wall of the Oval Office was hung with a tapestry with the words “Govern for Posterity” stitched in metre-high letters, and history, I believe, will remember him kindly. 

The most compelling argument for aiming to be at least a decent, or at best an exemplary, human being is at once both the most and the least selfless:  there are 7.4 billion of us living on 57 million square miles of land (or, if counting only arable land, 12 million square miles) on the surface of a fragile planet.  For this situation to be tenable, we are all advised to obey the code of conduct developed during the thousands of years of human existence.  When we don’t, life becomes less pleasant, or unbearable, or ends.  When we do, we are able to not just coexist but thrive, and we may even be capable of improbable feats, such as repairing our planet so that she will sustain us for longer than currently predicted. 

Traffic is a good metaphor.  People have codified the rules of traffic over years of trial and error.  Each time we get into a car, or walk across a street, we are assuming that we and all other road users hope to survive our journeys.  In the United Kingdom and the United States, the countries where I have spent most of my life, drivers overwhelmingly follow the rules; traffic, while it can be frustrating, is only rarely lethal.  In the U.K. and the U.S., traffic rules are not left unspoken, but are rather studied and formally agreed upon when we become licensed drivers (go ahead, ask me about The Highway Code).  As drivers, we understand that is in our best interest to follow the rules and, most importantly, we have faith in the traffic system.

Traffic is not like that worldwide.  I was once paid to proofread a twenty-page master’s thesis about traffic systems in India.  By the time I was four pages in, I had made a solemn vow to never operate or indeed ride in any sort of vehicle in that country.  The author had studied one junction in particular, and described a number of collisions and near-misses between cars, lorries, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, and even cows; traffic, at this junction, was a nightmare.  Whether this was due to ignoring the rules, never having learned the rules, or an inadequate number of rules was not clear to me from the thesis, but for whatever reason, road users had lost faith in the system, or perhaps had never had it in the first place.  The lack of a greater-good traffic system is reflected in statistics: in 2015, the World Health Organisation reported that India had a traffic fatality rate of 16.6 road fatalities per 100,00 inhabitants per year, for a total of 238,562 deaths (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate).  For the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the correlating figures were 2.9 and 1827.  Then there’s Sweden, a country that in 1997 passed a law establishing Vision Zero, a campaign to reduce the country’s annual traffic fatalities to zero.  Sweden has not reached zero yet, but in 2015, they achieved a traffic fatality rate of 2.8 road fatalities per 100,00 inhabitants per year, for a total of 272, beaten only by the Federated States of Micronesia (population 106,000) with 1.9 and 2.

If society is like a traffic system, then Trump is like the out-of-control driver of a flashy flame-coloured sports car, proudly flouting the rules and acting like he and he alone owns every road, like the roads were built for him, like the lesser cars he has clipped and side-swiped are all at fault but not his reckless driving.  No, Trump has not killed anyone, but it is not far-fetched to say that his words could indirectly lead to misogynist or racist violence, and that such violence could culminate in death, as it does far too often.  Trump is not driving according to the rules, and his failure to do so is both endangering individuals and eroding much of the public’s faith in the system.

***

It would be a miracle if any Trump supporter had read this far, but in the unlikely event that such a situation might occur, I would like to now appeal directly to you, the probable Trump voter.  If you are still supporting this man, I want you to ask yourself several questions:

  1. Do you really want your children, or your friends’ children, to look up to someone like Donald Trump as a role model?  Would you want your child to call you any of the names Donald has repeatedly called people he doesn’t like?
  2. If you want to vote for Donald because you are “sick of the establishment,” have you looked lately at the state of the United Kingdom?  There was a referendum here recently about whether or not to stay in the European Union; the anti-establishment LEAVE side— led by Nigel Farage, who is now good mates with Trump— won, with the result that the value of the pound has nosedived and the country has been plunged into chaos.  The likely result, should Brexit come to pass (which it almost certainly will), is that the people who voted OUT because they felt hopeless, down-trodden, and angry are the very people who will pay the steepest price when a country already reeling under austerity makes further cuts to government services, all the while promoting itself as a tax haven for the very wealthy.  “Tax haven for the very wealthy”— is that ringing any bells?  Donald, who has avoided paying federal income tax for nearly twenty years, would be likely to support any policies that would lead to more of that… 
  3. Do you think Donald Trump is your personal saviour?  If you do, you are sorely misled.  Donald Trump does not care about you.  Donald Trump doesn’t truly care about anyone except Donald Trump.
  4. If you are a woman and you still support Donald Trump, I am sorry.  Either you are with a partner who does not, or you were raised in a family that did not, value women.  I want you to know that it does not have to be that way.  Please consider starting your journey of healing by condemning this man’s awful words and actions. 
  5. Do you want to vote for Donald because you hate Hillary?  OK.  I can appreciate that.  I myself am a reluctant recent convert to Camp Hillary.  I am guessing that the slightly ill feeling I get when I think of Hillary’s ties to the establishment is nothing compared to the wave of nausea that sweeps over you.  My biggest issue with Hillary, to be honest, has to do with Bill; I would respect and trust Hillary a good deal more if she had walked away from Bill.  But Michelle Obama, who presented the case against Trump far more elegantly and convincingly than I am doing here in her recent speech in New Hampshire (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/14/michelle-obama-speech-transcript-donald-trump), pointed out that it is not in Hillary’s nature to give up on anything; while Michelle didn’t mention Hillary’s marriage specifically as an example of her perseverance, I’m sure that the First Lady guessed that some listeners  would draw that conclusion for themselves.  Hillary, although she has undeniable connections to the 1%, also has a deep and broad understanding of what life in the United States is like for the 99%.  I read the many pages of Hillary’s platform; if Hillary will fight for her objectives with the tenacity she has shown as a lawyer, as Secretary of State, and yes, as a wife, her Presidency may be able to improve the lives of vast numbers of Americans (read it for yourself here: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/). 

If you are not a Trump supporter yourself, which is far more likely if you have read this far, then I have some advice for you as well:  don’t unfriend the Trump voters in your midst— not on social media, and not in real life.  “See less” on Facebook if you must— if they’re really driving you crazy— but don’t end the dialogue.  Try to understand, or if you just can’t, then agree to disagree.  Be the better person, if you possibly can.  Don’t be the phone-thrower; be the calm adult who forgives when possible, but will walk away if absolutely necessary.  If you opt out, they won’t hear you, and then the odds of them voting for anyone other than Donald will worsen.  And please, let nothing— not rain, not queues, not the suspicion that your vote doesn’t matter— stand between you and the ballot box on November 8th. 

***

I am not only a reformed phone-thrower.  I am also a musician.  I spent six years of my life playing in the band at my secondary school in rural Vermont three mornings a week.  Our band leader, Mr Taylor, was a charismatic drummer; Mr Taylor had a big personality— and a big ego— but an even bigger talent as both a musician and a conductor.  Mr Taylor took no flak; he demanded commitment and ambition from every last member of the band, whether sixth trumpet or first flute, and because of the strength of his leadership, he got it.  Our school band— made up of the daughters and sons of farmers, clergy, traders, professionals, artists, and none of the above— was masterful.  Yes, Mr Taylor adored the spotlight, but he loved the music more, and he would often immerse himself so fully in its service that he ceased to be Mr Taylor as such and became instead a conduit, enabling our motley crew of mixed backgrounds and abilities to rise above our limitations and create something sublime.

The President is at the top of the chain of command for the United States of America, just as Mr Taylor was commander-in-chief for our school band.  The President should have a vision of what she or he wants for America and the American people, just as Mr Taylor had a score and an idea of how he wanted us to sound.  And most importantly, just as Mr Taylor worked for the music, the President should recognise that she or he is serving something far more important than herself or himself.

Hillary could be that sort of President.  Donald could not.

My ballot arrived in the post not long ago, with “Rush— Official Election Mail” emblazoned on the envelope.  Louise, our eleven-year old, has been paying attention this election season; when she saw the ballot, Louise asked, “Mum— can I please fill in the oval for Clinton?  Please?”

I considered the double satisfaction of casting my vote against Trump and letting Louise start as I hoped she would go on— exercising her democratic rights as an informed citizen.  Louise holds an American passport after all. 

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Yay!” Louise shouted.  “Give me a pen!  Quick!”

If all goes well, Louise’s maiden vote in a federal election will be part of a historic result, and a woman will be President of the United States for the first time in America’s history.  Should that not be the case, I believe my hair, which has been greying slowly, may well go white overnight from the shock. 

Even if Trump wins, though, I am done with phone throwing.

 

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

World Party

On Remaining in Leave-land

Given my status as an American, with indefinite leave to remain (thanks to my marriage to a Swedish EU citizen) but without British citizenship, I felt that it would be inappropriate for me to campaign too enthusiastically, through social media or in real life, for the IN campaign prior to the recent British referendum on membership in the EU.  I was acutely aware of my ineligibility to participate in the vote itself; even my husband, who has paid considerable taxes to the UK government and who is permitted to vote in the local and mayoral elections, was prohibited from casting a ballot for IN.  Until Brexit, my lack of British citizenship was due far more to personal obstacles blocking completion of the citizenship process than to a lack of desire to become a loyal subject of the Queen, yet it still seemed unfitting to air strong opinions on an internal debate as someone who, despite fifteen years in this country, remains officially an outsider.

As I watched the news on TV the morning after the mowing-down of scores of carefree revellers celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, I realised that I had made a mistake by constraining my voice prior to the referendum.  I listened to Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, speak of international cooperation to combat terrorism, and I thought of the intelligence, skills, and not least, money that the United Kingdom would perhaps now be less obligated to contribute to any concerted European Union efforts towards that worthy goal.  I considered how the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her cabinet would use this latest horror, and all the attacks that had come before, as exhibits to not only limit the influx of refugees and immigrants to the United Kingdom, but also to rid the United Kingdom of any inhabitants without citizenship whom the Home Office felt were not carrying their weight.  I have heard the Brexit argument that the immigrants are all terrorists anyway, but I am one of those immigrants, and I am not a terrorist, which disproves that argument handily.  Further, the (still, just barely) United Kingdom’s resolution to opt out of tackling the refugee crisis from within the European Union will serve to not only worsen the situation for these people, who are suffering, homeless, and overwhelmingly fleeing terrorism themselves, but may well indirectly lead to increased terrorism, as Nick Stockton reported in an article for Wired magazine (“Turning Away Refugees Won’t Solve Terrorism, and Might Make It Worse,” November 17, 2015). 

After considering the effects of England’s departure from the European Union on the fight against terrorism, my thoughts turned to the more mundane but more pressing question, for my family and for many, many families here through the agreements on open borders membership in the European Union entailed, of the overall atmosphere in the United Kingdom; even in London, which voted overwhelmingly to stay IN, the social climate has undergone a subtle, but seemingly irreversible, change.  Before June 24th, I believed that I could probably call England home forever, my continued efforts to truly feel that I understood and accepted actual Britons and they understood and accepted me notwithstanding.  After the referendum, when it became clear that the resistance to integration I had always felt, but could never prove, is painfully quantifiable, that particular balloon has at least a slow leak, and possibly an irreperable puncture.

Europeans and Americans often end up in a blind spot for the British with regards to immigration.  Several born or naturalised Brits, during the weeks before and after the referendum, said to me, “But you’ve been here so long, you don’t have to worry.  It’s not like they’re going to kick you out.”  Each time I would patiently explain that, on the contrary, there are several scenarios that could result in deportation for me, my husband, our children, or some combination thereof.  Forced deportation is extreme, and in my case, would be unlikely, but I know a handful of European or half-European families so shaken by Brexit that they are seriously considering voluntary relocation, and at least one family that, while not being made to move by the Home Office, will need to leave because the husband’s company is moving its headquarters to a country still within the European Union.  In all of those families except my own, both partners have made significant financial contributions to the United Kingdom through paying taxes on their above-average incomes and, in at least one instance, by also founding a successful business.  These families have all been thrown into uncertainty, and while they will likely superficially recover, until their course of action is resolved, the element of insecurity will seep into their daily lives, eroding their family foundations to varying degrees.  This weakening will impact each affected family differently; I can only report with confidence on the toll Brexit has taken on my own skeletal family, which, unfortunately, has been substantial.

To review: I’m American, my husband is Swedish, our children of fourteen and eleven, Christopher and Louise, are Swedish-American.  Although Christopher has lived here since before his second birthday and Louise was born at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, none of us have British citizenship.  We have lived in the same leafy southwest corner of London since the children started primary school nine years ago.  For many years prior to Brexit I had wished to become a British citizen.  I studied for— and to my amazement, passed— the notorious “Life in the UK” test (“King Richard III of the House of York was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in: a) 1485, b) 1490, c) 1495, d) 1498”  “Why is 1928 an important year for women’s rights? a) Women could vote at 18, the same age as men, b) Women could vote at 21, the same age as men, c) Women could vote if they were over 30 years old, d) None of the above” (Life in the UK practice questions, http://www.theuktest.com/life-in-the-uk-test/1)) only to discover that I had misunderstood the process; the test was meant to follow a year of holding indefinite leave to remain, and the results of the test would stand only for a year, so I would need to retake the test.  I would also need to pay close to £1000 and file a form listing my every absence from the United Kingdom for the past five years.  That form, Form AN, has been languishing in a basket in our dining room for the last two years, the combination of hurdles proving consistently insurmountable, but until June 24th, I kept hoping that one fine day I would be able to use my British citizenship ceremony as an excuse to don an outfit composed entirely of Union Jack fabric and pose for pictures flashing my burgundy European Union United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland passport.

In the final weeks prior to the referendum, when I began to sense that I had made an error of omission, I asked some close friends to consider voting IN, and I cautiously entered the IN camp on social media, all the while fully cognizant of my status as ineligible to vote and aware of the possible objections that could arise from my diving into the question in public.  The day before the referendum, I met a left-leaning dog-walking friend, now British but originally Canadian, in the park. 

“So,” I began.  “Tomorrow…”  I let my voice trail off and knitted my eyebrows.

“I’m not worried,” my friend said stoutly.  “The bookies say it’s four to one odds in favour of IN, and they usually know what they’re doing.”

“Do they?  Oh, that makes me feel better,”  I said with relief.

“But I will tell you, it hasn’t been pretty.  I’ve actually done some campaigning for REMAIN, and the amount of abuse flung at me, well… I had a shock.” 

“Uh oh…  Were you making calls, or going to houses?”

“I’ve gone house-to-house with fliers, but no, the worst was in the town centre.  I went to help one afternoon, and you wouldn’t believe some of the things people were saying.”

“In the town centre?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes, you know, where the Christmas tree usually stands.  We had a table there, and one man who passed by screamed at us, ‘Send the f***ing immigrants home!’”

“No,” I said in disbelief.  “Really?”

I had seen activists in the town square on countless occasions, and had never heard anyone shout at them.

“I kid you not,” my dog-walking friend said gravely.  “There’s a lot more hate here than I thought there was.”

It rained, sometimes heavily, the day of the vote.  I mused on the effect the weather would have on the outcome; I assumed that only the truly committed would brave the elements to tick their ballots, which did not bode well, as the IN voters holding British passports whom I knew personally were overwhelmingly hesitant, while the OUT voters known to me were gung-ho.  Still, reassured by my dog-walking friend’s bookie report, I went to bed the night of the referendum feeling reasonably confident that when I awoke, the European Union would be intact.

My husband Markus woke me at seven the morning after the vote.  “It’s OUT, he said simply.

I swam reluctantly from sleep towards consciousness.  I opened my eyes and looked at Markus, whose jaw was clenched.  “F**k,” I said. 

I somehow managed to walk our eleven-year old daughter, Louise, to school, hoping as I did that I would meet only IN voters or wannabe-voters, as I didn’t think I would be able to even look known OUT voters in the eye without breaking down.  I was lucky; the first friend I spotted was a Swede.

“Can you walk the rest of the way yourself, Louise?” I asked my daughter.  “I want to chat with Niklas a minute.”

“Let me guess, it’s about Brexit,” Louise said, in that world-weary tone my tween daughter sometimes adopted. 

“That’s right.  Niklas will understand, and right now I want to talk to people who feel like I do.” 

“Fine,” Louise said, rolling her eyes. “Bye.”

“Bye sweetie.”  By this time I had reached Niklas.  “Hello,” I said.

Niklas didn’t even attempt to smile.  “Hel-lo,” he said, emphasizing the second syllable as you would in Swedish if you wanted to convey urgency. 

“So…  Brexit,” I began.

“I’m stunned,” Niklas confessed.  “I’ve been thinking about it, and you know, I wouldn’t be here without the European Union.  Maria and I would never have married, and we wouldn’t have Josefina.  Louise wouldn’t have been in Josefina’s class, and our family would never have met yours.  We wouldn’t even be a family,” Niklas said.  “I mean, I know I might have met someone else, but my life would be completely different without the EU.  I just can’t help thinking about all the families that never would have happened— all the lives that would have been utterly different than what they are now.  You wouldn’t be here without the EU, right?”

“That’s exactly right,” I agreed.  “And what about our kids?  What are they going to do?  Our kids aren’t even British.”

Niklas’s eyes widened.  “Really?  Oh gosh.  Josefina has a British passport; she was born here.”

“Louise was born here too, but she’s Swedish-American.  She’s not British,” I explained.  “And I’m not a British citizen, nor is Markus.”

“Oh, that’s even worse than our situation.  What are you going to do?” Niklas asked.

“I don’t know.  We don’t really have many options at the moment.  Markus’s job is here, and the kids are settled at school,” I said weakly. 

Niklas nodded.  “We won’t jump ship straight away either, but it does make me think about the future.  I used to think we would stay here forever, but as of today, I’m not so sure.”

“It’s so good to hear you say that, because Markus and I feel precisely the same way, and I thought we were the only ones.”

Niklas shook his head.  “You’re definitely not the only ones.”

By this time another European national friend had appeared.  I took leave of Niklas and turned to Anna, who held her arms open wide in invitation.  We hugged. 

“How you doing?” Anna asked.

“Not great,” I admitted.  “You?”
“I’m thinking we’ll leave,” Anna said matter-of-factly.

I thought of Anna’s British husband and her two very Anglicized children.  “Now?”

Anna’s laugh floated over the footpath.  “No, not now,” she said, then added solemnly, “But it will happen.” 

“You’re the second person to say that.  Niklas, who I was just talking to, said the same thing, and Markus asked me this morning where I thought we should go.  I’m surprised,  actually, that all the Europeans are having such a similar reaction.”
Anna grinned as though the explanation was glaringly obvious.  “Why would people stay where they’re not wanted?” she asked, in her lilting southern European accent. 

“Why indeed?” I echoed.   

We parted, and I took my dog— who believes, as I do, that borders are overused and overrated— to the park.

I sleepwalked through the day, but sleep didn’t come easily that night.  Instead, as soon as I had closed the bedroom door and lay down next to Markus in bed, the particular maelstrom of fear and pain that I remembered well, but thought I had left behind, returned, and racking sobs overtook me. “There, there,” Markus consoled me, putting his hand in mine.  “It’s just Brexit.  No big deal.”

Tears spurted from my eyes.  “Markus— seriously— what are we going to do?  Where are we going to go?  I don’t want our kids to live in the US— they could be shot at any given moment— and Sweden didn’t work out for us.  I thought we would be OK here… I even felt I was putting down roots…  but that was just an illusion.  They hate us, and they want us to leave.  How can we carry on living here if that’s how it is?”

Markus patted my hand.  “It sucks, I know.  It feels like a slap in the face.  But look on the bright side— it will take at least two years for the process to be completed, and anything could happen in that time.”

***

Mental health, it seems to me, can best be described using meteorological terms, specifically the wind classification system.  Children are born with a predisposition towards a particular amount of turbulence, with most falling genetically between calm and strong breeze, but with some, even at birth, wired as gales, storms, or worse.  Children’s environments and experiences then alter their typical meteorology, so if a child prone to gales is raised in a very calm home and has overwhelmingly pleasant formative years, they may be able to reduce their habitual level of mental health to the breeze level; conversely, children born as breezes may reach adulthood as hurricanes in some unfortunate circumstances.  If someone’s mental health tends towards light breeze, even if they are hit by hundred-mile per hour winds— in the form of, say, unemployment, divorce, or death— they will suffer a psychological tropical storm, but the damage will be recoverable.  However, should someone lean more towards gale to begin with, the same hundred-mile per hour winds will result in a super cyclonic storm, a severe tropical cyclone, or a major hurricane, leading to enormous destruction. (Wikipedia, “Wind,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind#Wind_force_scale

I was born with perhaps a psychic moderate breeze, but by adulthood my mental state could fittingly be deemed a storm.  I managed, through years of dedicated wind engineering, to enter motherhood in my mid-thirties with an interior meteorology resembling a strong breeze on a good day and some degree of gale on a bad day; this was an improvement— a calming— but it still left me more vulnerable to damage than most of my peers, because if misfortune swept through my life from outside, it would add to the adversity I carried within me— my permanent interior weather system that breaks only for brief, incongruous sunny spells.     

So it was that the Brexit storm shook many of my friends but toppled me. For the first three days, I was unable to look at any social media; my heart would dunk in my chest, my breath would shorten, and the world would spin slightly as soon as I saw the very word Brexit.

Louise noticed.  The Tuesday following the referendum, on our morning walk to school, my eleven-year old had words with me. 

“Mum,” she began, tentatively, “Are you losing your mind because of Brexit?”

I allowed myself a tiny smile.  “Why do you ask, sweetie?”

Louise relaxed, relieved that I had taken her question seriously.  “You just aren’t yourself.  I’m actually worried about you.  Are you going to be OK?”

“I’m sorry to worry you, Louise,” I said, slowly picking my words.  “I think I’m a bit depressed, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.  I just need a little time.” 

“Don’t take too much time,” Louise cautioned. 

I nodded seriously.  “I’ll try not to.” 

I wanted to snap out of it, for both Louise and myself, but as if Brexit had not been enough, I received word that Tuesday afternoon that a friend had died suddenly after a very brief illness.  The mutual friend who called to let me know worked her way to the message slowly.

“Are you recovered from Brexit yet?” my friend asked.  I could hear in her voice that she was hoping for an affirmative response, but I couldn’t provide that.

“Not really,” I admitted.

“Hmm…”  There was a split-second silence while my friend, no doubt, debated whether or not to deliver the news at all.  She made the right choice, but perhaps because of my post-Brexit instability, I was unable to accept that the news could even be true.  I made a few shocked noises, but my response, considering my friendship with the woman who had passed away, was inappropriately superficial.  My friend on the other end of the line was caught off-guard, having anticipated, at the very least, genuine emotion, or at worst, the need for a long session of empathic listening. 

“Are you sure you’re OK?” she asked, after I indicated that I really should get on with preparing dinner.  “I know it’s coming at a bad time, in the wake of Brexit and all…”

“I don’t think I can believe that she’s really gone,” I said, with a steady voice.  “I think it will take some time to sink in.”

“I’ll let you go then,” my friend said, “But if you find you want to call me in an hour or two, you’ve got my number.  Call me whenever.”

“Thanks,” I said, and returned to chopping potatoes into uniform cubes for Tuesday’s stew.

Two days later, at my daughter’s primary school Sports Day, when another friend touched my arm gently and asked how I was coping, I burst into tears right there behind the line of seated parents, with all four hundred of our combined children assembled across the five running lanes painted onto the field.  Quick tears, instantly harnessed, would have gone unremarked, but these were hot tears that would not do my bidding and carried on for at least three minutes before I was able to summon control.  By the time I pulled myself together, a small phalanx of dear friends had formed around me, only loosening when it was clear that I could speak without sobbing. 

It was one thing to be down, but it was another thing entirely to make a spectacle of myself at school Sports Day.  I had hit the bottom of my particular pool of post-Brexit depression, a pool made deeper by the introduction of several metres of grief for the loss of an actual friend beyond the loss of the illusory safety of a political union.  I needed to swim up for air, but I was so disoriented by my extended dive that I wasn’t sure how to reach the surface.

The first lifeline I was able to catch was tossed to me by friends, both personal friends and friends I have yet to meet.  As the days went on, Britons in my social circles and at the national level went to great lengths to express their resounding disappointment— and in several cases, shame— at the referendum’s OUT result.  Many Brits, it became clear, truly believed in the peaceful, cooperative marriage the European Union symbolised; many actively opposed the racism that the referendum had unearthed.  And a good number of these Brits, whether born British or nationalised, were willing to not only vocalise but also stand up for their beliefs, as the march attended by thousands on Saturday, June 25th to protest the result indicated.  Yes, many of those marching were not Brits, but many of them were, and that did not escape me.

The weekend after the vote I went to see the band Massive Attack play at Hyde Park; from the moment they took the stage, their show— the images on the screens behind them, the songs they chose, the stage banter (such as it was— they are not a garrulous bunch)— was a pointed protest at the OUT result, at the government, and at the xenophobia sweeping the nation.  Some of the audience members had draped themselves in large EU flags; my favourite fan was a twenty-something young woman who had sewn herself a black satin jacket and stitched IN on the back in foot-high red satin letters.  All these friends speaking out, in the private and the public spheres, eased my pain; I was not alone.

Several weeks before the referendum I had started reading “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose” (Dumbach and Newborn, Oneworld, 2006), a book about the resistance of a group of university students to the Nazi movement during World War II and their ultimate martyrdom.  Anyone with a decent understanding of history paying attention to the political discourse of 2016 will notice the similarities between the rhetoric of today and that of the Second World War.  Now, as then, the “other” is to be hated, feared, or both, and the individual nation and its nationals are to be honoured and glorified.  I would like to state for the record that I am not saying that all of those who voted OUT did so out of hate or fear.  I know that many people have valid concerns about the European Union beyond immigration, and I know that not everyone who voted OUT is xenophobic.  But anyone who sees the infamous LEAVE “Breaking Point” campaign poster, with a smiling Nigel Farage super-imposed in front of a long line of refugees, “Breaking Point” in huge capitals to the left, and “The EU has failed us all” underneath, would be hard-pressed to deny the impact of today’s culture of fear on the outcome of the referendum.

Sophie Scholl would not have been favourably impressed by the “Breaking Point” poster.  Sophie, along with the other members of the White Rose, put her life in danger for several years by printing and distributing leaflets that sought to refute the ideas of the Nazis, ideas that included, but were by no means limited to, the vilification of entire groups of people.  Several days post-Brexit, I reached the point in the book at which Sophie and her brother, just after handing out their final leaflet, fall into the hands of the authorities.  During Sophie’s interrogation after capture, Robert Mohr of the Gestapo:

tried to explain the National Socialist “worldview” to her, to show her what Adolf Hitler had accomplished.

She [Sophie] replied: “You’re wrong. I would do it all over again— because I’m not wrong.  You have the wrong worldview.” (Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, Dumbach and Newborn, Oneworld 2006, p. 151)

Sophie’s words chimed out across the years, and the miles, and would not stop ringing in my ears.  I dog-eared the page— a superfluous gesture, really, as just one read had sufficed to point me in a new direction.  Yet though inspiring, Sophie’s example was also unlike anything I could envision myself doing.  I needed a more accessible template.   

Thankfully, someone much closer to me in time and distance than Sophie Scholl had demonstrated— on a vastly less dangerous scale— what it looked like to act on one’s beliefs regardless of the approval or disapproval of the world at large: my mom.  My mom did not identify as a feminist, but Alicia Keys, who recently shocked viewers by wearing no makeup to the VMAs, had not even been born when my mom made the decision to toss her mascara, and her lipstick, and whatever else may have been in the makeup bag that disappeared before my coherent memories begin.  I have no idea what my mom would even look like in makeup— she certainly would not look like my mom.  I can’t remember my mother ever lecturing me about her choice to break so drastically with social norms, and she allowed me to wear makeup myself, which I did consistently from thirteen until I left home, but Mom showed me through her actions every day of my childhood that women didn’t need to paint themselves to be beautiful.  She was a trailblazer in other ways too; decades before “locavore” was accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary, Mom spent countless hours every summer tending her always substantial and sometimes enormous vegetable garden, the fruits of which would appear fresh on our table before frost, stewed in the autumn, then preserved through the cold Vermont winter.  I was never embarrassed by my mom’s refusal to wear makeup, and I thoroughly approved of her penchant for homegrown food, but I sometimes wished she would wear mainstream shoes.  I know that she wore other shoes when I was very young, but I can’t picture them; all I can see on my mom’s feet when I call her to mind is Birkenstocks, the German sandals with the cork beds that mold to the foot.  If pressed, I can also envision her in sturdy walking trainers, but that footwear came late to the party; for years, Mom wore exclusively Birkenstocks, switching from her standard two-strap sandal to a closed-toe model and wool socks during the snowy months.

I resisted Birkenstocks all through high school.  But when I returned from my gap year in Sweden, ready to start university, the suede sandals with the— to my mind— hideous cork footbeds had unexpectedly swept into fashion.  Birkenstocks were everywhere at the University of Vermont; they were well-crafted, ergonomic, and politically correct— perfect footwear for higher education.  I asked my mom if we could go Birkenstock shopping, and she was happy to oblige.  I soon became nearly as devoted to the German sandals as my mom.

It took several more years, after the adoption of Birkenstocks, for the world to catch up with my mom’s vanguard positions on agriculture and makeup, but locavore cuisine is now sought-after— farmer’s markets are the hippest sources of produce— and the no-makeup movement is slowly gathering momentum.     

I didn’t need to be like Sophie Scholl, who paid the greatest price for acting on her beliefs— I could be like my mom, who perhaps suffered some degree of ostracization for her pioneering spirit, but carried on undeterred.

The Sunday after the referendum result, I went to church, and it was there that I was given the piece that would solve the puzzle of how to survive in the UK after Brexit.  Our vicar, who is a wise, wise man, delivered a sermon that, at the end of the service, he reported had met with the approval of at least a few of those on each side of the IN/OUT question (the full sermon can be heard here: http://www.allsoulschurch.org.uk/eu-referendum-a-christian-response-26-june-2016/).  The distilled secular essence of what our vicar said that morning is that healing the divide made evident by the referendum results starts with me, and you, and each of us as individuals.  We can begin by demonstrating kindness towards those who voted opposite to us, and that kindness can spread, in ever-growing ripples, to those who are clinging to fuselages or huddled on rickety boats to escape persecution.  All of us have an amplified voice now— we are almost all on social media— and we can do our utmost to ensure that when we use those voices, and our actual spoken voices, we do so with consideration and respect.  We have, as our vicar put it, been given a mandate: to work to the best of our ability to lessen the deep divisions that the referendum results revealed.

I can’t do the big work, but I can do the little work.  I can remain friends with my neighbour who voted OUT, a busy but devoted mother of two who has a copy of our full set of keys stashed in her house, just as I have a copy of hers hanging by my door, should either of us lock ourselves out.  I can quickly learn, and use without any hesitation, the names of the new friends my daughter is making at secondary school, friends who would tick boxes different to ours on the ubiquitous ethnic background form.  I can think twice about camping with my family in the Lake District in Cumbria, where the result was a resounding LEAVE then go anyway (although telling Christopher and Louise to be on their best behaviour because “they hate us here, so we have to be good ambassadors” may not have been the most evolved act of parenting, and was certainly not in keeping with my stated goal of promoting unity).

The uncertainty for me about my future and the future of our family in the UK has not resolved.  Every week headlines appear that remind me that my time here may well be limited unless I am able to obtain a British passport, but although I was convinced for years that I wanted to become a Brit, it turns out that what I wanted was to become a British European, a potential resident of any country in Europe, not a narrowly British Brit.  Not only that, but the feeling of rejection that sickened me on June 24th has not completely dissipated, and like a betrayed lover, I will need to think twice before taking England back.  I do recognise, of course, that the idea that I have any say in the matter at all may be hubristic; England may not want me back anyway, and may refuse any advances I eventually profer, particularly if I carry on posting essays such as this. 

For now, although Britain may not remain in the EU, my family and I will remain in the (still) United Kingdom, and I am back on my feet.  Louise, who has encircled all of our family in her web of sensitivity, picked up on the shift in my attitude; on our morning walk up to her school, maybe two weeks post-referendum, she asked, “So, are you recovered from Brexit now?”

“Well, I’m not completely recovered, but I’ve had an epiphany about how to deal with it,” I said.

“Oooh,” Louise said, with a hint of tween sarcasm, “An epiphany.  Tell me all about it.”

“Basically, just because the result was LEAVE doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.  And I don’t.  I think it’s wrong.  I think boundaries are artificial constructs, we are all human, and extreme inequality is immoral.  I’m not a member of any political party that supported LEAVE.  I’m a member of the World Party, and it saddens me to watch our world splitting into smaller and smaller factions when we have so much work to do to save our world together.  But my job right now is not to give up.  My job is to live an IN life, and that’s what I intend to do.” 

Louise was stunned into uncharacteristic silence by my lengthy, impassioned monologue, but she bounced back within seconds. 

“Wow,” she said simply.  “I guess you’ve got it figured out then.” 

“For the moment,” I said.

“So if I say, ‘Brexit, Brexit, LEAVE, LEAVE, LEAVE’ you’re not going to react, right?  Because you’re a member of the ‘World Party’?”

“That’s still not advisable,” I cautioned.

“OK,” Louise conceded.  “Instead I’ll just tell you I’m glad you’re not too depressed anymore.  I was a little worried about you.”  Louise’s eleven-year old voice quavered the tiniest bit.

“Thanks sweetie.  I’m better now,” I assured my daughter.

“Good,” Louise said.

 

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Wear Your Best Dress

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During my two years in New York City, I went only once to Windows on the World, the venue spanning the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  My invitation was to the bar rather than to the restaurant proper, and the occasion was a work party. 

I had held many jobs prior to becoming a speech therapist in New York City— ice cream scooper, telex operator, waitress— but none of them had been professions, and none of them had been in the city.  I had come of age in Vermont, where a party meant that I put on my less muddy pair of hiking boots and traded my flannel shirt for a sweatshirt with the neck cut out to achieve that off-the-shoulder Flashdance look.  Compounding my professional inexperience with the office party was my social hesitancy; I was the kind of child that chose to curl up in a corner of the playground with my nose in a book rather than engage with any of my classmates, and I was, and still am, the sort of adult that experiences a peculiar mixture of apprehension and anticipation prior to social engagements.  I hadn’t been at my job for long enough to make the sort of friend I could ask to meet me at the foot of the Tower so I could be spared a solo entrance, and I certainly hadn’t yet found the sort of friend that I could call and admit to my complete helplessness when faced with the question of what to wear to a party in the bar of Windows on the World. 

So it was that on an unseasonably warm evening in the autumn, after navigating my way through the confoundingly large subway station and then through the surprisingly spacious mall below the Twin Towers, I found myself standing, horrified, in my black tee shirt and my best jeans, twenty feet from the two jolly doormen guarding the elevator that would take me to my destination, watching the flow of sharply-dressed men and women in and out of said elevator. 

“Oh no,” I thought to myself.  “You’ve dressed for a bar in Burlington, Vermont, not for a bar at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, you numbskull.”  I considered my options:  I was already nearly thirty minutes late, but I could scour the nearby shops for a more suitable outfit, thus further delaying my arrival and forcing me to face another uncomfortable facet of life, clothes shopping; I could turn on my heel and journey back home to Brooklyn, making excuses after the fact (“Sorry I missed it— I had a terrible headache/stomachache/heartache that evening”); or I could face the music and hope that the bouncers would admit me despite my clear failure to dress appropriately. 

I opted, briefly, for the first option; I half-heartedly entered a handful of stores and ran my hand over clothing that could possibly improve my situation, but I knew, even as I went through the motions, that I was wasting my time.  There were really only two ways out for someone who was even worse at shopping than at socialising.  I girded myself for confrontation and headed back towards the two smiling men standing between me and Windows on the World. 

“Hi,” I said to one of them, then continued by way of explanation, “I’m not going to the restaurant, just to the bar.  My school is having a party there.”

The colour rose in my cheeks as the man I had addressed cast a split-second glance at my outfit. Then he nodded.  “The bar is no problem,” he said.  “Have fun, honey,” he added, ushering me towards the open elevator door, before resuming the jovial chat with his co-worker.

After exiting the elevator and being shown by another doorman into the bar at Windows on the World, I stood motionless for several seconds, frozen like a deer in headlights by the contrast between my sartorial inadequacy and the splendor of the view of New York City at dusk, before one of my colleagues spotted me and welcomed me to the party. 

I endured the evening, but perhaps because of my abiding discomfort in my black tee shirt, I failed to properly take in the astounding panorama outside the windows.  I recall spotting a few landmarks and recognising that I was ridiculously high up, but what I remember most vividly about that evening was my embarrassment.

To wear the wrong outfit to a party is unfortunate, but does no significant damage; other faux pas can occur at parties, however, that have more serious repercussions.    A few years after the employee party at Windows on the World, I was asked to another party, this time a housewarming party for a friend I had made shortly after to moving to London.  My husband Markus and I had since left London; I was pregnant with our second child and living in Cambridge when I received Christina’s invitation.  I fretted at the idea of travelling so far from our toddler son, with my sizeable belly, to a party in an unfamiliar part of London at which I would have met only four of the guests, and called Christina to say as much. 

“Don’t worry,” Christina assured me.  “It’s a safe part of town, my friends are all nice people, and you won’t be the only pregnant one there.”

“Really?”

“Yes, another friend of mine is due in June.” 

“I wouldn’t be able to stay too late though, as I’d have to get back to Cambridge.”

“I understand, but it would be great to see you,” Christina said. 

Despite my frequent awkwardness, once I have formed a friendship, I do my best to uphold my part of the unwritten friendship contract.  Christina had gone out of her way to first invite me and then address my objections, so on the appointed evening I made my way to her cosy new flat in central London. 

Christina’s friends were indeed pleasant, but they all seemed far hipper than me, particularly in my sober pregnant state.  I kept my eye out for the other woman who, like me, was awaiting a baby, but she was not immediately obvious.  After nearly an hour of small talk with strangers about things other than babies and pregnancy, I sensed that I had finally met the other mum-to-be, as indicated by her substantial belly.

“So,” I began, “When are you expecting?”

“I’m sorry, what?” my new conversational partner asked.

I had my chance to reconsider, and I missed it.  “When are you expecting?”  I asked again.  The woman’s look of dismay clued me in before she had responded; I had made a terrible blunder.

“I’m not expecting,” the woman said drily.  “I’m just fat.”

I wished, fervently, that I had never opened my mouth, that I had never come to this party, that I had never left the safety of my home in Cambridge. 

“I am so sorry,” I said, trying, but failing, to look the woman in her eyes and settling for her chin.  “I’m pregnant, and I think I just keep looking for other women who are pregnant too.”

“Well, you didn’t find one this time,” the woman said.

My eyes stung as I fought the reflex to cry.  “I’m really sorry,” I offered again.

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said, with a somewhat softer tone.  “I am fat.”

“But I love you that way,” her partner said. 

I smiled wanly at him and excused myself to the toilet.  I would have stayed in the toilet for the remainder of the evening, but that would have added insult to injury by preventing the other, far more civilised, guests from using the facilities.  Instead, I pulled myself together enough to exit my safe haven, then I made my way to the far sofa where Christina was animatedly discussing movies with a couple other than the couple I had just spoken to. 

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said, conscious of the quaver in my voice, “But I should be going now.  It’s a long way home.”

Christina looked up, surprised.  “Already?  Are you sure you can’t stay a little longer?”

“No…  This is actually the longest I’ve been away from Christopher yet,” I said, which was true, but which of course wasn’t the reason for my hasty retreat.  “Thanks so much for inviting me though.  Your new flat is lovely.”

“Thanks for making the trip,” Christina said.  “Will you find your way back to King’s Cross?”

“Absolutely,” I said.  “It was very easy.” 

“OK then.  Let me know how it goes,” Christina said, casting a pointed eye at my belly. 

“I will,” I promised. 

As soon as the door to Christina’s building closed behind me, I burst into tears.  How could I have been such a fool?  I had, no doubt, just lost a good friend due to my social ineptitude.  How would I ever learn to act like a normal person?  What was the matter with me?

By the time I reached King’s Cross, my eyes were rimmed with red and my face was streaked with tears.  People looked at me twice, and one middle-aged woman approached me with the sort of non-threatening body language used by horse whisperers with their skittish charges.

“Excuse me, dear,” she said gently, “But do you need any help?”

I bit my lip.  “You’re so kind, but no, I’m all right,” I answered. 

I wasn’t all right really.  I was so full of remorse that I had no idea how I would feel comfortable in my own skin again.  But life, while you’re in it, is generous— I beat myself up for weeks, even months, about my stupid comment, but I remained firmly within my own skin, whether I liked it or not.  I had confessed and apologised to Christina the morning after the party; she had heard about my comment to her guest, but brushed it off when I spoke to her by professing that the woman I had insulted hadn’t been a close friend anyway.  My friendship with Christina did cool, but was not extinguished; after some time, we began to meet again, and last year Christina invited my family to another party— a very special celebration— and we were honoured to attend.

I have been gifted with many other second chances.  My parents divorced when I was very small, and throughout my childhood I saw my dad at best once a month as he lived three hours away, but I was able to get to know him properly when I spent my first year of graduate school living with him and my stepmum in Boston.  I have had the chance to be a sober mum, although I was less-than-sober before motherhood and my family tree is full of other less-than-sober branches.  I have even managed to achieve the degree of stability necessary to own a piano, and have not only rekindled my own passion for that instrument, but have passed some of that love on to Christopher, whose piano playing stuns me with its beauty. 

But often we are not allowed revisitations.  If only I could turn back time, I would wear my best dress to Windows on the World.  If only I could turn back time, the thousands and thousands of people who were killed or injured in the 9/11 attacks would still be here, would still be healthy, and would have all of their earthly second chances still ahead of them.

 Take your second chances today.

 

 

 

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Airport Dreams

I had an airport nightmare again.  In last night’s instalment, I was soaking up the comfort and camaraderie of spending an entire day with Tara, one of my very oldest, dearest friends in America.  In my dream, Tara had already pranked me.  She had asked me if I wanted to see her new puppy, and when I agreed eagerly,  she took me to the puppy’s crate, where I saw an animal resembling a very large bunny with golden curly hair and long floppy ears.

“That’s not a puppy!  That’s a rabbit!”

“It is a puppy!  It’s a Goldendoodle, a cross between a Golden Retriever and a poodle!” Tara had protested, with mock indignation.  We had locked eyes for a moment, then the bunny had hopped towards the water bottle hanging by the crate door.  Tara had erupted in peals of laughter, I had shaken my head mournfully, and we had begun to chase each other through the house, because in my dream Tara and I were simultaneously eight and nearly fifty years old.  After tiring ourselves out, we had spent the afternoon reading; we were vaguely considering satisfying our growing hunger pains with some dinner when the clock struck four.

“Oh no!” I shouted.  “It’s four o’clock!  I have to be in Boston to catch my flight home to London by six!  I’m never going to make it!”

The bottom of my stomach fell to the floor and Tara’s house began to spin.  Tara tried to help.  “But is the actual flight at six, or is that just when you’re meant to check in?  You might be able to make it to Boston in two hours.”

“The flight is at six!  There’s no way I can get to the airport in time!”

In my nightmare, the airport in Boston— which should be Logan, but is not—appeared on the horizon like a sinister mirage, taunting me.  “You can drive like a banshee,” the airport, in all its glimmering silver glory, seemed to say, “but you can’t get on that shiny plane at gate D17.  You’re not going back to England, not today.  You won’t see your husband, or your children, or your dog anytime soon.”

“No!” I screamed back at the airport as it hovered tantalisingly at the edge of the dreamscape. “No!”

At that point, as is customary when nightmares devolve into screams, I woke myself up.  I was in my bed, in London, next to my husband, who was still asleep because it was Saturday;  I could hear our son downstairs with our dog, and I knew I would find my daughter, tousled hair resting on the “Frozen” pillowcase her grandma had sewn her, fast asleep under her duvet.  My body, still in fight or flight mode from the nightmare, relaxed, and I sunk into my own pillow.  I was home.

Sometimes, in the airport nightmares, I do arrive at the actual airport, which is represented with a curious consistency, always resembling but never exactly replicating Logan, Boston’s actual international airport.  There is a train in my airport complex that takes the passengers to the gates, and there are drop-off points for passengers arriving by car; at both of these dream locations I have, in previous episodes, realised with sickening desperation that I will not make my imaginary flight home to Europe.

I am, by birth, as American as apple pie, but I have spent the last thirteen of my forty-eight years in England.  Before settling in England, my Swedish husband Markus and I see-sawed for years between the United States and Sweden.  As the backdrop for our marriage, neither of our homelands quite worked, but England does, and we have no plans to leave. 

I feel safe in England.  Although the current government in the United Kingdom is doing its best to tear the welfare state to pieces and has already ripped huge holes in the national safety net, if you are going to fall into that net, it is still safer to fall here than in the United States.  At least in England, at the moment, you can break your leg, suffer appendicitis, or even fight cancer without worrying that the cost of your treatment will leave you or your family broke.  (While Obamacare has mitigated this possibility for many Americans, there are still millions for whom medical bills mean the difference between just scraping by and debt or even bankruptcy.)  I may be burgled, raped, or knifed in London, but chances are I will not be shot; becoming a victim of burglary or rape would likely leave me with mild to severe trauma, but it would leave me alive, and although stabbing may kill me, it would not do so as certainly as a gunshot.  The history of England comforts me; while the United States is the Wild West, exciting but dangerous, England is the Victorians, staid but reliable.  I could do without England’s classism and sexism, but because I didn’t grow up in a particular English class, I stand mostly outside the class hierarchy, and because I spent my girlhood as the child of hippie sympathizers in the United States, the still male-dominant culture of England has only stoked rather than snuffed my feminism.  So here I sit at my table in southwest London, a grateful immigrant, contentedly sipping my English Breakfast tea from a ceramic mug emblazoned with the Union Jack.

In the late 1980s I worked for awhile as a telex operator at a shoe import company on an industrial estate outside Sweden’s second-largest city, Göteborg.  At that time in Sweden it was customary for a workplace to allow two ten- to fifteen-minute coffee breaks each day, at ten and two.  At one such afternoon coffee break, twelve or thirteen of the shoe company’s employees had assembled in the designated break room, and the discussion had turned to the proposed building of a mosque in the city.  Most of the employees were grumbling.

“I think the immigrants should adapt to life in Sweden,” the man from the mail room said.

“We see enough of the immigrants without having to see their mosques,” a female secretary agreed.

“They’re everywhere,” the mail room man continued, sucking air through his teeth in the traditional Swedish sigh.

“I’m an immigrant,” I piped up.

The secretary, the mail room man, and everyone else in the break room turned and looked at me in surprise. 

“I am an immigrant just as much as the people who want the mosque,” I went on, feeling the blood rising to my cheeks. 

“You’re not an immigrant,” the secretary said, hoping to silence me.  What she meant, I knew, was that because I was white, American, and not Muslim, I didn’t qualify.

But by then I was committed to making my point.  “Yes, I am,” I said vehemently.  “And doesn’t Sweden have freedom of religion?  Shouldn’t Muslims be able to go to a mosque, just like I can go to the Anglican church in town?”

The others stopped sipping their coffee and stared at me.  There was an awkward silence. 

“Yes,” my best friend at the company, who later travelled all the way to America to attend my wedding, said finally.  “Yes, there is freedom of religion in Sweden, and I have no issue with the mosque.  And yes, you’re an immigrant, but you’re not the sort of person people talk about when they talk about immigrants.”

I settled back into the sofa, justified.  “Thanks, Ebba,” I said, and the red began to fade from my face. 

Ebba grinned at me, and we sat and savoured the last of our coffee while the others shuffled past us, eyes hooded, on their way back to work.

I am still an immigrant now just as certainly as I was then.   What I am not, however, is a refugee.  I didn’t leave America to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.  Were it to become necessary for me to resettle in America, I would fear neither probable death by military violence (only unlikely death by a deranged civilian gunman), nor grave hostility based on my race or beliefs (only microaggressions sparked by my femininity), nor loss of home or livelihood through force majeure (unless I were to choose a part of the country prone to natural disasters).  I am confident that, if made to return, I could re-establish a not-uncomfortable American life similar to my cosy English life, and if I were to stumble, I would even have family to— if not catch me— at least cushion my fall.

This is not the case for refugees.  We have all, by now, seen before-and-after pictures of Syria— the tree-lined avenue with parked cars and well-kept blocks of flats in the first picture, the deserted, dusty street lined with the rubble of bombed buildings in the second.  The Syrians of 2016 are not like the me of 1985, the year I first left America: they don’t just have a vague feeling that they would be better suited to life abroad— they know, in their very bones, that only by leaving their homeland can they entertain the hope of a peaceful life.  It should go without saying that both the United States and the United Kingdom, as well-to-do nations who have not been subject to war on their own shores since WWII (both countries have suffered acts of terrorism, but terrorism does not meet the definition of war), would accept refugees with open arms, but this has not been the case.  Unable to escape legally, many refugees have turned to perilous illegal methods, resulting, often, in death in appalling circumstances.  Mass drownings of passengers on people smugglers’ boats have received the most media attention and taken the greatest toll; the data team at The Economist reported on September 3 last year that by that date, 2,600 people had lost their lives in 2015 attempting to cross the Mediterranean. 

Whatever individual resistance to assisting refugees remained among my compatriots was washed away when the picture of Alan Kurdi lying face-down on a beach spread across the globe; the three-year old drowned on September 2nd, 2015, in an attempt to reach Greece.  The image of the tiny lifeless boy galvanized my community; several good friends at my daughter’s primary school spent whole days collecting, sorting, and packing winter clothes, blankets, towels, even crutches and baby baskets, for distribution at a refugee camp.  Louise’s school was not alone; nine schools and four churches took part in our borough alone.  When I caught sight of volunteers carefully folding donated children’s clothes in the church hall my daughter and I routinely pass on our walk to her school, a hall normally buzzing with preschool children, I asked Louise, “Remember how we carried a bag of clothes up to school yesterday?”

“Yes?”

“Look in the church— they’re sorting through clothes donations.  I think when it comes to refugees, people truly want to help, but they just don’t know what to do.  This effort has rather restored my faith in humanity.” 

“OK,” Louise, who is used to my random pronouncements, said.  My daughter moved on to matters more pressing.  ”Did I tell you that I’m paired with Sarah for literacy and we did drama about the Blitz yesterday?”

While my friends— and many others— are eager to aid refugees both by sending boxes and, more importantly, by offering asylum, large swathes of Britons, including the far-right political parties and their members, are opposed to any and all immigration.  Only after the publication of the “boy on the beach” photograph did the British government cede to domestic and international pressure and agree to increase the quota of refugees to 20,000 over the next five years.  Compare that number to the 1.9 million Syrians Turkey has taken in since 2012, the 1.1 million Syrians Lebanon has accepted, or, to use an example similar to, but smaller than,  the United Kingdom, the 64,985 Syrians granted asylum by Sweden; the United Kingdom’s projected 20,000 over five years would be farcical, if it weren’t tragically xenophobic.

How can those opposed to welcoming refugees justify their stance?

Fear, for one.  Patrick O’Flynn, who at the time was a member of the European parliament representing UKIP, the far-right party that gained several seats in the last general election, claimed last spring that after increased vehicular traffic, “uncontrolled” immigration is next most responsible for the decline of street football games amongst children (Matt Dathan, The Independent, April 1, 2015).  Mr O’Flynn must be hanging with children wildly different from mine, because during my now more than thirteen years of study, I have yet to observe my children letting lack of a common language or variations in skin tone rule out other children as suitable playmates.

While Mr O’Flynn is an extreme example, scores of more moderate Britons also succumb to fear when formulating their opinions about immigration: the migrants and refugees will take our jobs, they will suck money from the economy through benefits, they will destroy neighbourhoods, or perhaps most damning, they have no valid reason to leave their own country and are only coming to ours because they wish to engage in acts of terrorism.

Some of these worries are not completely unfounded, but most crumble when scrutinized.  In an article for The New York Times, for example, Adam Davidson writes, “Nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants— those here legally or not— benefit the overall economy.” (February 12, 2013)  And when it comes to terrorism, Anne Speckhard, again for the New York Times, writes that the data clearly indicates that active terrorists in the United States are overwhelmingly American-born radicalized citizens.  Ms Speckhard maintains that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually more dangerous to not accept refugees, because “experience from many conflict zones teaches us that the longer these refugees are left to languish in despair in camps the more prone they become to radicalization.” (September 29, 2015)  The problem is, most people will not make the effort to research the accuracy of their fears, and many may not even be able to vocalize their own position, instead blindly parroting more eloquent leaders.

Depersonalisation accounts for another chunk of anti-immigration sentiment— when refugees cease to be seen as individual people but are reduced to numbers,  or “swarms,” as Prime Minister David Cameron disturbingly called those attempting to enter Britain via Calais (BBC News, 30 July 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33716501).  In contrast to Mr Cameron, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, reluctantly demonstrated an appreciation of the plight of an individual refugee when she attended a meeting titled “Good Life In Germany” at a school in the German city of Rostock in July 2015 (Kate Connolly, The Guardian, 16 July 2015).  During the assembly, a 14-year old Palestinian refugee, Reem Sahwil, spoke of her fears that her family may be deported.  When Ms Merkel’s response fanned rather than doused Reem’s anxiety, the girl broke down in tears.  Upon noticing Reem’s distress, the Chancellor awkwardly attempted to comfort the crying girl by stroking her arm; a clip of the incident went viral on social media with the hashtag #merkelstreichelt (Merkelstrokes).

Although it was cringeworthy, the exchange between Angela Merkel and Reem Sahwil in July may have been a pivotal moment for the Chancellor, as it thrust her into a position wherein Ms Merkel could not escape briefly stepping into the shoes of a well-spoken, terrified refugee.  Certainly by the time of Alan Kurdi’s death, three months later, Germany had cemented a strong welcoming stance towards refugees. 

This ability to truly empathise is where David Cameron and many of the politicians who oppose immigration in general— and the entrance of refugees to the United Kingdom in particular— fail most noticeably.  David Cameron is not afraid of refugees or immigrants, like some Britons, but his own life experience has been so privileged that the idea of feeling desperation to leave one’s own country, even at great risk, must be utterly foreign to him.  Mr Cameron is a member of the privileged class: he attended Eton College, the illustrious boys’ boarding school; his wife, Samantha, is from an aristocratic family, and the Camerons’ net worth is estimated at £3 million, although this does not take into account the millions that the family is likely to inherit.  Only extreme danger or political enmity could prevent Mr Cameron from going where he wants to go.

I appreciate that privilege does not preclude empathy; as George Monbiot puts it in an article for The Guardian, “The left would be a bleaker place without thinkers from privileged backgrounds.” (6 January 2016)  But wealth does add to the distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, a distance that the “have-nots” can not cross regardless of how much they would like to, and a distance that the “haves” must actively try to retrace if they wish to truly grasp the challenges facing the “have-nots.”  Britt Peterson described the effects of money thus in an article for The Boston Globe in 2012:

“As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.” (February 19) 

Mr Cameron’s political positions on refugees and migrants indicate that the gulf between his own life experience, particularly now as the Prime Minister, and that of a typical refugee or migrant may be so vast as to be insuperable.  Cameron, and many others who oppose accepting immigrants, may be unable to mentally put himself in the shoes of, say, Saeed Othman Mohammed, an Iraqi Kurd who lost his life through suffocation in the back of a lorry found in Austria in August, 2015.  Saeed had left Sulaimaniya, in Iraq, with the goal of reaching Germany, where he hoped to receive treatment for his remaining kidney and earn a living as the owner of a car wash (Fazel Hawramy, The Guardian, 7 October 2015).  Saeed Othman Mohammed was determined enough to be somewhere else that he was willing to play a game with very bad odds, entrusting his voyage to people smugglers.  Saeed would have understood my airport dream completely, but unlike me, Saeed was never given the chance to wake from his dreams in the country he had chosen, in the safety of his— however humble— own home, amidst those he loved.  Instead, Saeed died a death worse than any nightmare, suffocating amidst a crowd of strangers in the back of a refrigerated lorry with an advert for “Honest Chicken” emblazoned on its side.  Fifty-nine men, eight women, three boys, and one baby girl lost their lives in that truck; at first, authorities in Austria were unable to positively identify any of the victims because of the advanced decomposition of the bodies.

***

Markus and I have been fortunate.  Our marriage has flung open geographical doors that would have been otherwise sticky or closed to us, first allowing Markus to join me in the United States, then permitting me to live with Markus in Europe— first in Sweden, then, since 2003, in England, where we have settled.  But despite my long residence here, I have not yet managed to jump through the hoops required to attain citizenship, and there are a few catastrophic conditions that could realistically result in my deportation.  These scenarios are unlikely, but they are not unthinkable, and they niggle like an injury that refuses to completely heal.  I am still an immigrant, and my status as a second-class citizen is evident to me every time first-class citizens of England go to the polls, but I am thankful every day that I am one of the favoured ones: I woke from my dream to find that I had made it to the airport, and the plane had taken me home.

We should all be so lucky.

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Not Sensible

I incurred my first running injury six weeks ago, a couple of years after taking the sport up in earnest.  I spent an entire Tuesday wearing impractical, but reasonably stylish, suede clog boots while acting as a parent helper on my daughter’s class trip to the botanical gardens.  My feet were tired when I came home, and I knew it, but the following day I went out for my usual Wednesday run with friends from my running club.  On Thursday, I could barely walk.  A visit to the GP resulted in a diagnosis of probable plantar fasciitis, a not uncommon injury for runners, and the treatment plan was simple: rest. 

I stopped running, but I am still responsible for my daughter’s school run and our dog’s walks, so complete rest was impossible.  Shortly after beginning my running hiaitus, my husband Markus tore some ligaments while bouldering at the rock climbing gym; he was given crutches and an air boot.  The GP referred Markus for physiotherapy via the NHS, and Markus started down the road to recovery, following all the advice given by medical professionals.

Meanwhile my foot kept hurting.  Running friends began to suggest private physiotherapy, but I have only recently joined the ranks of those able to buy English tomatoes on the vine without being called out for frivolous spending, so to shell out at least sixty pounds for a private medical appointment did not seem like a viable option.  Instead I carried on resting, until finally I could walk mostly without pain, although as soon as I rolled my foot to either side, it was clear that I was not completely healed. 

After over a month of crutches and the air boot, Markus went to work wearing both shoes and walking without support.  This did not strike me as fair.  Here I was, with only a tentative diagnosis, still resting, while Markus, who had been far more obviously injured, was recovering more quickly.  “Sod it,” I said to myself, “I’m going for a run.”

I chose the regular Monday evening social run.  It felt odd to don my lycra after so many weeks in less skin-tight clothing.  When I came downstairs all kitted out, our daughter Louise, ten, looked at me askance. 

“Are you really going to go running?” she asked skeptically.  Louise was more aware of my injury than anyone else in the family; she had been subjected to my slower walking pace and my occasional outbursts of frustration over the refusal of my body to just shape up already for the last several weeks on the walks to and from school. 

“Yes, I really am going to go out running,” I answered. 

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Louise said, scowling.   

I winced at hearing my own line used against me: how many times I had used that very line with Louise– hundreds?  Thousands?  “I think it’s worth a try,” I said, grinning ever-so-slightly.

“Good luck,” Markus said, “Hope the run goes well.”

After the first twenty metres my body remembered how to run.  I was aware of my foot, but the pain was manageable.  I chatted with the several women running in the slower group with me for awhile, until I settled into my own pace, between the vanguard and the rearguard, far enough from both to be effectively alone.  Only then did I give myself over, awash in gratitude for the chance to run again through the night, glimpsing the spectral forms of deer in the six feet of fog that hovered just above the ground, admiring the looming, twisted forms of the ancient trees. 

I knew I would pay for the run, but I hoped the cost would be just a bit more tenderness in the affected area of my foot.  As soon as I arrived home, I stretched, but then I sat down to eat some of the dinner I had prepared, but not partaken of, earlier.  I opened the computer, and of course, as soon as I did that, I was glued to my seat for nearly an hour.  When I attempted to stand up, pain screamed through my foot, revealing the full stupidity of having listened more to my mind, that wanted to run, than to my body, that wasn’t ready. 

The next morning Louise and I left the house three minutes late. 

“Oh no, we’re really late,” Louise moaned as we turned out of our drive onto the footpath.  “Should we run?”

I looked at her in horror.  “I can hardly walk today, sweetie,” I told her, as I limped quickly along beside her,”There’s absolutely no way I can run.”

Louise fixed me with an accusatory glare.  “I’ve noticed something,” she said, and there was a pregnant pause as she waited for the response she knew would come.

I obliged.  “What have you noticed?”

“You are not sensible,” Louise declared.

I guffawed.  “What makes you say that?”

“Pappa tore his ligaments, and his ankle was all swollen, but he has been sensible.  He hasn’t climbed since.  Pappa is waiting until he’s all better before he goes climbing.  That’s sensible.  But you,” Louise continued, drawing out the “you” pointedly, “you hurt your foot, and then when you think it’s kind of better, you go running.  It was only kind of better!  It wasn’t all better! And now you’re limping and you can’t run at all.  That’s not sensible.”  Louise’s ten-year old face was crinkled with a difficult combination of concern and exasperation. 

I love this about my daughter: she lives in the “real world.”  Take our conversation three years ago, when Louise was seven; she and I were chatting about where she might want to live as an adult.  “I want to live on the top floor of a block of flats in central London, with a view,” Louise told me in her child’s voice, “And I want to have lots of shoes.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I said carefully, “But it may be rather expensive.”

Louise was unconcerned.  “It won’t be too expensive for me.  I’m going to have a well-paid job,” she assured me.  Then she asked,  “What is a well-paid job?”

I smiled.  “You could be a salesperson,” I suggested, “Like Pappa’s friend Rachel.  She makes a lot of money, but she spends it on traveling instead of shoes.”

“Oh, I want to travel too.  I want to go to Mount Everest.  I’ll be a salesperson,” Louise said merrily, as if her future was now written in stone.

In many conversations since then, Louise has demonstrated her instinctive grasp of the power of money and the necessity of working to earn it.  But she is not the sort of child who will be joining the Young Entrepreneur’s Association, because though financially savvy, she is not driven by business; what truly motivates Louise is social engagement.  Louise’s  satisfaction rating for any given school day is solely determined by how well her group of friends played together during break times. Louise hosted her first sleepover within months of entering primary school, and her social calendar to this day is the busiest of all the family.

Already, at ten, Louise seems to navigate the vicissitudes of interpersonal relationships more adeptly than I do at forty-seven.  It took years for me to become comfortable with the parade of small friends coming to play that Louise required, because I am not like Louise; if left to my own devices, I lean towards the hermetic.  When I was Louise’s age, I was calling myself “Beth from Mars” and drawing an endearing picture of the spaceship I had arrived in— which I had christened the “poong-a-doong”— next to my signature.  I was fascinated by the monumental statues of the remote Easter Island in the Pacific, and I fantasised about living there, in a cave, with only a raccoon for company (my distant aunt, whom I admired, had briefly kept a pet raccoon, so at least the peculiar pet choice could be traced).  When I was in my last year of primary school, a year older than Louise is now,  I spent all of every break time leaning against the red brick wall of my primary school, with my nose in a book, on a three-foot high cement block that jutted out from the wall into the playground.  I was not completely antisocial, though; I was one of those girls that finds a best friend and doesn’t let her go.  But I was in my twenties before I joined friendship groups the way Louise has already.

Then there’s money.  Andy Stanton, the author of the Mr Gum books, describes the career history of Friday O’Leary, the heroine’s right-hand man, this way:

“He had been an inventor, a travelling musician, a sailor, another sailor, an                 American footballer, a fashion model, a Lego model, the King of Sweden, the Queen of      Sweden, the first man never to have walked on the moon, a jet pilot, a detective, a mountaineer who explored mountains, a fountaineer who explored fountains, a ninja, a stunt-car racer, a film star, an earthworm-tamer, a famous French chef called Monsieur Canard, a TV presenter, and a professional apple.” (Mr Gum and the Secret Hideout, Andy Stanton, Egmont, 2010, p. 19-20)

My own curriculum vitae is not as colourful as Friday’s, but it is almost as long; it includes job titles such as busker, newspaper section inserter, shop assistant, barista, supply French teacher, telex operator, waitress, full-service petrol station attendant, ice cream scooper, teacher of English as a foreign language, poodle walker, typesetter, and receptionist.  When I reached my mid-twenties, I acknowledged that my bachelor’s degree in English (with a minor in French) was not helping me land any sort of qualified career; graduate school held out the carrot of an actual profession, but which should I choose?  I remember consulting books that forecast demand and earnings for various professions.  These books spelled out for me that professions like “writer” or “musician” were very bad choices indeed— the odds against making a living in either of those fields were despairingly high.  With that in mind, I looked for a career choice that would incorporate some of my skills and interests but still earn me a living; my memory of that sifting process is fuzzy, but somehow I settled on speech therapy.  I believe my parents gave the idea their blessing, and Markus, my husband, was ready to jump on any bandwagon that would mean I got a “real job”, although the degree would take three years to complete and would land me in the sort of debt that the great majority of American college students have accrued by the time they’ve walked off with their diplomas.

I finished my degree, but I failed as a speech therapist.  I preferred the touchy-feely side of the profession— helping children under five learn to use language— to the more practical side, such as teaching older children to perfect speech sounds, or working with adults on swallowing or on regaining spoken language.  But it bothered me that I was being paid handsomely for work that, because I was not the sort of inspired therapist who came up with cohesive lesson plans, was not really much more than engaging tiny children in conversation.  I may have been able to learn how to lesson plan, but what did me in as a professional speech therapist was my inability to keep my empathy in check.  The children I worked with were all inner-city children in Brooklyn— my caseload included Skyler, a boy who came to school several times with deep bruises and cigarette burns on his arms, Ophelia, a selective mute, and Rima, a girl with limited expressive language and a history of sexual abuse.  These children were all under five years old.  Skyler, the boy with the bruises and burns, bounced back and forth between his parents and the foster care system; I dreamt then of adopting him, and still do, fifteen years later.  I can picture Skyler’s shielded eyes and the defensive jut of his chin, and just as vividly I can see the scores of barrettes attached to Ophelia’s painstakingly-perfected plaits, and Rima’s grin, appropriately fierce for a girl who had lived through more, at four, then anyone should be made to endure in a lifetime.

I left speech therapy after just over two years in the field, when Markus and I moved to London.  Last year, after thirteen years without paid employment, I took on a very part-time position as a storyteller for preschoolers, filling in for the storyteller who had landed a role as the fairy godmother on roller skates in a pantomime production of “Cinderella”.  I was made redundant after less than a year, although my employer kindly assured me that my dismissal had nothing to do with my storytelling skills and everything to do with the business’s irredeemably dire bottom line (I have reason to believe her, as the establishment closed its doors less than a year after I left, but the brevity of the role didn’t do much for my sense of employability).  During the thirteen years that I didn’t work for pay, the reactions of my friends and family to my inertia regarding work outside the home ranged from concern to bafflement, from joshing to derision, from mild irritation to sizzling anger.  Markus, the person most affected by my disinclination or inability to find and keep paid employment, doesn’t often raise the subject now, but I know that if I were to announce my imminent reentry into the workforce it would be a miracle of such magnitude for him that he might even reconsider his stance as a committed atheist.  Although I’ve padded it with the many volunteer roles I’ve filled during my time out of work, my LinkedIn profile is so thin that I shudder whenever I receive word that someone with an official job title would like to join my network.

I do have a job title, albeit unofficial, after my name on my profile though: “Homemaker.”  I’ve held this particular position since the birth of our son nearly thirteen years ago; when our daughter was born two years later, the likelihood of another title superseding “Homemaker” in any near future became miniscule.  Motherhood, for me, was all-consuming, and particularly when the children were under five, I teetered dangerously close to implosion.  The weight of parental responsibility— what I should be doing that I wasn’t, what I was doing that I shouldn’t be doing, and what effects both the omissions and the additions would have on our children— felt like a wooden yoke, so heavy it continually threatened to make my next step the one that would buckle my legs.  When our children were very young, a dear relative, Anna, came to help a few times when Markus was away on week-long business trips; mid-way through her second visit, Anna called me out.

“You can’t go on like this,” Anna said, exasperated.  “You can’t make the children’s needs so much more important than your own.  It’s not really doing them any favours.”

“But the children are more important,” I protested.  “Don’t you see?  I have to get this right, or it could mess them up for life.”

“You’re taking motherhood far too seriously,” Anna retorted.  “The worry definitely isn’t good for you, and it won’t be good for them either, in the long run.  They’re fine, and you’re fine.  You don’t really need me here— you can do this on your own, you know that, don’t you?”

I bit my lip.  “I don’t think I do know that,” I replied.  “And I’m not sure that I really can do it on my own.”

The older our children have grown— the more they have become their own people— the easier I find motherhood.  I feel less compelled to constantly maintain the persona of a responsible adult; I can laugh with the children now, something I rarely did when they were small.  Even when making an effort to exude parental gravitas, there is a particular half-smile that often creases the corners of my mouth when the children say or do things that catch me off-guard.  But panic— about the children’s development in general, and about my performance as a homemaker in particular— still creeps around in the wings, and sometimes takes centre stage.

Failure is easy to achieve considering my job description: the cleaning, the shopping for and preparation of nutritious, home-cooked meals, the management of and often taxi service to our children’s many activities, the homework support— with all of these tasks it is simple to fall short of even satisfactory performance. Those are some of the basic requirements of my “profession,” but I’ve expanded the role to include many extras, such as modulation of the emotional climate of the entire household, adding extra cheerfulness if I spot grumpiness, equilibrium if I detect volatility, or tamping should I notice excessive exuberance (this last adjustment, if made while Markus is home, leads my husband to roll his eyes and tell me that they are all “just having fun”).  In every area, I don’t hit my targets: the upstairs sometimes goes without being vacuumed for two weeks, the kids don’t always eat enough fruits and vegetables, I don’t always get Louise to activities or even to school on time and Christopher doesn’t have enough play dates, the children spend too much time on screens and not enough time doing homework.  As for the extras, like maintaining an aura of contentment with only occasional negative emotions, well, adding that to my internal to-do list was folly in the first place.

Add to the equation that as a homemaker I receive no taxable income— although an internet search turned up several articles suggesting that if stay-at-home parents were paid for the work they do, they would earn six-figure salaries— and I have no formal performance reviews, and it is not surprising that my occupation, such as it is, has not always had a positive effect on my already shaky self-esteem.  Christopher, for some years, kept track of what he deemed my acts of less-than-optimal parenting: “September 15, 2010: started screen-free Sundays.  March 7, 2011: shouted at Louise unfairly.  August 8, 2011: didn’t let me play tennis before leaving for the holidays.  January 21, 2012: shouted at me.”  Markus, if cornered, will reassure me matter-of-factly that our home is running more or less as a home should.  Louise— our sweet daughter— often expresses deep appreciation for dinners she finds tasty, and sometimes tells me that she loves me.

Given the nature of the role and my awareness of my previous employment history, with its many gaps and its appointments lasting no longer than a year and a half, I would not have even considered applying for the position of homemaker without a very grounded partner with whom to job share.  I met Markus, my husband of twenty-four years, when I was seventeen; he came to my high school for an exchange year abroad from Sweden.  It was love at first sight; Markus was gorgeous, smart, and not only did he live in the real world, but he was like an ambassador from a world much wider than the one I had known until then.  The night of our first date Markus loaned me a cassette tape with New Order on side  one and Simple Minds on side two.  As soon as I arrived home that night, still fantastically giddy, I popped the tape in the stereo, pressed play, and minutes later married Markus.  Our actual wedding took place a few years later.

  

I once had a good friend, Mindy, who had a handful of maxims she often shared with me.  Some I liked, such as “Don’t take it personally,” but one of Mindy’s precepts always irritated me:  “You only stay involved with people if they fill a need.” 

“No,” I would say, squirming, whenever she repeated that particular nugget of wisdom. “I don’t believe that.  I think sometimes you just love people altruistically.” 

Even as I retorted, I knew I was being naive.  Need sullied my shiny fantasy of unselfish love.  If Mindy was right, relationships seemed less like a noble and beautiful calling, and more like an earthy tit-for-tat, lasting only as long as each party benefitted; that idea terrified me, because it meant there could come a day when Markus wouldn’t need me anymore.  What I underestimated, when that fear swept through me, was the strength of our particular symbiosis; I am like a helium balloon, and Markus is like the person holding the string.  Without Markus to shepherd me, I would float off, only to become trapped or deflated by obstacles or, worse, to vanish into the ether, never again to be connected, even by surrogate, to the ground.  It is harder to see what Markus stands to gain from holding me: I asked him as much, years ago, before parenthood made separation a prospect with far greater repercussions, and he told me that without me, his life would be too straightforward.  Markus comes from a family of foresters; his people are down-to-earth both literally and figuratively, while my family tree includes, among others, a couple of writers, numerous alcoholics, and a Moravian minister.  Markus’s greatest fear was of boredom, mine was of becoming unhinged; we were a perfect match.

Both of us pay for our arrangement.  I am more safely led, but am tethered in my flights of fancy; Markus is entertained, but limited in his movements by the constant responsibility.    But either because the benefits outweigh the costs, as Mindy’s motto suggests, or because our love transcends equations, as I prefer to believe, our partnership works; our marriage has lasted for nearly a quarter century.

Like me, Christopher, our twelve-year old son, is not sensible, but unlike me, Christopher has a label; he was diagnosed with autism at three, then re-diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at five.  In Christopher’s world, there is only black and white; everything is either good or bad, right or wrong— there is no in-between.  I was in my twenties before I began to distinguish shades of grey, so I understand Christopher in this regard, but other than that, his world, while equally as removed from “the real world” as mine was in my childhood, is incomprehensible to me.  If I had to guess, I would say that Christopher’s internal dialogue is not dialogue at all because it is not based on spoken language;   but it may also be that his mind is full of language of which I am unaware because sharing his thoughts has never been a priority for him.  Either way, I worry about him.  Sometimes I’ve mentioned my concerns about Christopher’s ability to lead an adult life that will conform to societal standards of success to my mother.  “Don’t worry,” Mom always says, “He’s a kind, handsome boy.  He’ll find someone to look after him.”  I raise the topic of Christopher’s future less often with Markus, but when I do, I  invariably close with my mother’s nearly exact words, expressing my hope that we will one day hand the string holding Christopher’s balloon over to someone who will take on the role of earthbound partner as Markus has for me.  Markus doesn’t argue, which does not necessarily mean he agrees, but does assuredly mean that he doesn’t strongly disagree.

Louise will not need anyone to hold her hand as she walks through life.  Like Markus, she has an innate grasp of the workings of the normal world.  Given her sociability, Louise may still choose to become part of an intimate team, but if she prefers to stride through her adulthood on her own, I harbour no anxiety that she then would not integrate fully into society.  As with Christopher, I worry about Louise’s future— how will she deal with her lot as a blonde-haired blue-eyed girl?  Will she learn to further temper her perfectionism?  Will her intense love of sugar morph into something more sinister?  But the question of her eventual partnership does not trouble me, because Louise may take romantic involvement or leave it, but either way I foresee that as an adult she will exert her very own gravitational field in the galaxy of her influence rather than orbiting anyone else.      

Markus and I kept to our self-assigned roles of terrestrial and otherworldly for more than two decades, but five years ago, Markus was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and I was forced to acknowledge that although I had always seen him as rock solid, Markus was capable of falling apart; his illness reminded me that, although I preferred not to see it, there had always been the possibility of a future that would require me to learn to walk on my own two feet.  Indeed, during the years before his diagnosis, when Markus was clearly unwell but when we had no idea what was the matter with him, there were periods when I needed to carry more of the weight of daily life with children because Markus was incontrovertibly unable to do more than just lie in bed and survive, sometimes for entire weekends.  You would think that the wake-up call of my husband’s diagnosis with an incurable, progressive sickness would have been the impetus I needed to do whatever was necessary to alter my LinkedIn title from “Homemaker” to, say, “Teacher” or “Translator” or any other position that might provide financially for our family, but you would be wrong; I coped, barely, with filling the vacuum left by Markus’s occasional inability to actively parent, but I could not face the prospect of adding paid employment to my workload.

Medicine was a godsend for Markus.  The first time Markus was given intravenous steroids it was like the clock had been turned back to a time before the MS began eating away at his body: I was given my husband back, and the kids once again had a dad who had the energy to both look after them and engage with them.  The steroid high didn’t last, but even when it faded, the other drugs he had been prescribed kept Markus more functional than he had been in the long years leading up to his diagnosis.  I was relieved of occasionally filling Markus’s shoes; I could revert to filling only my own.

Frequently, however, even my own shoes as a mother and a homemaker feel too big.  On bad days— the days I say things that our children may need to discuss with therapists as adults, or I find that the dust behind Christopher’s bookcase is nearly half an inch thick, or I hear Louise complaining of toothache and it hits me that she hasn’t been to the dentist for far too long— I try to console myself by looking at what I have gotten right: my most serious substance addiction is to strong black tea, I make occasional mistakes when driving but other than that I am not a criminal, our children have never been truly hungry, have always had a roof over their heads, and live with two parents, one of whom is me.

I sometimes compensate for my failings in common sense by crowd-sourcing.  When Louise was given vouchers to her favourite store for her birthday, she wanted to spend a third of her kitty on a pair of headphones to give to one of her besties.  My instinctive reaction was “no,” but I told Louise I couldn’t give her a definitive answer until I had checked with Markus.  Markus also said “no,” but when I asked why, his answer— “because it’s too much”— left me still fumbling to formulate an explanation of our position for Louise.  I decided to turn to another sensible source for assistance, and texted my father: “Urgent parenting question— please advise.”  I knew his answer wouldn’t be automatic, because of the several time zones between us, but I was sure he would reply before the next morning.   

At bath time, Louise raised the subject.  “So?” she asked, her face already a picture of unhappy disapproval.  “I guess you and Pa both say no to giving Tasha the headphones?”

“You’re right,” I said, and her countenance hardened further. 

“I knew it,” she said.  “But why?”

“That’s the part that I can’t quite explain yet.  But I’ve texted Dad, and he’ll have something intelligent to say about it.  Lie back please, we have to wash your hair tonight.” 

Louise’s expression went from sullen to quizzical with a fluidity only children can manage.  “Dad?” she asked.

“My dad.  Grampy Jim,” I specified.  “Not Pa.”

Louise sat stock still, as if stunned by the idea that I, her (in her eyes, hopefully fully-competent) mother, would ever seek assistance from her grandfather, although she was certainly no stranger to the strategy of asking her own Pa for help. 

I grinned.  “My dad, Grampy Jim, is one of the most reasonable people I know,” I told her.  “He has been on the planet for over seventy years, and he has no doubt run into this same sort of situation.  He will have an opinion, and he’ll be able to state it much better than I can.  He worked as a lawyer for a long time— they’re good at presenting arguments.”

Louise’s petulance returned.  “He’ll say no too, I know it,” she grumbled.

“Probably, but at least he’ll have concrete reasons.  Now lie back,” I ordered.  Louise complied.

With Markus able to parent, and with my small but strong support system, I can seem like a sensible enough homemaker.  Most days, I can do the job.  But I am keenly aware that it is not a “real” job and that I still have not fully inhabited the “real” world.  I aspire to one day alter that state of affairs.  I take comfort from the words of John Grant, a songwriter and musician who floundered in addiction and self-destructive behaviours for years, effectively preventing him from truly joining the “real” world himself.  The two albums Grant has released since getting clean have been both critical and popular successes; Grant now earns a living through music.  In an interview on BBC6Music, Mary Anne Hobbs asked John Grant to speak on “How to Overcome Your Demons” during the “Three-Minute Epiphany” segment of her radio show.  All three minutes are worth hearing, but these sentences have stayed with me almost word-for-word since I first heard them— Grant tells Mary Anne that he finally said to himself:

“There’s gotta be a place for you, somewhere.  And there’s gotta be a way for you to figure out how to get through this smokescreen of fear and self-hatred so that you can show up for life.  So that you can become part of society, and contribute.” (5 October 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p027zxxp, my transcription).

My version of contribution will not look like Grant’s, but his example inspires me; he learned how to tame his interior chaos sufficiently to ride it, rather than letting it throw him every time he tried.  If Grant, who for many years acted even less sensibly than me, could find his way, then surely I too can manage to increase my contribution to society someday.

As it stands now, my legacy, for better or worse, will be whatever effect my parenting has on our two children, whom I fervently hope will outlive me for many, many years.  I am not narcissistic enough to imagine that my personality and my actions are at the top of our childrens’ lists of ingredients, but I know that I do figure in that list somewhere, maybe in a similar position to salt in a loaf of bread.  As with salt, my influence may add flavour in small measure, while it would ruin the taste if overdone.  Louise, who is precociously astute for a ten-year old, has already sussed out that the dissimilarities between my umwelt and Markus’s affect her own behaviour. 

“I cried when Maggie died,” Louise told me as she dried herself off after her evening bath recently.  Maggie, my mother’s sweet golden retriever, passed away a few months ago.  Louise had only met Maggie a few times, but had taken to her immediately, despite fearing most dogs.  I knew Louise had felt something when I told her Maggie had left our world, but she had kept her tears hidden at the time. 

“Did you?” I asked, surprised. 

“Yes.  But I didn’t cry when Farmor died.”  Farmor, Markus’s mother, passed away two years ago, after a long battle with dementia. 

I began a silent, fevered scan of possible responses, searching for one that would reconcile my own grief at Farmor’s passing with Louise’s self-reported stoicism.  I needn’t have bothered looking for the right words, as Louise was not waiting for my input. 

“I think it’s because I don’t speak Swedish very well,” Louise hypothesized.  “And when I did meet Farmor, I couldn’t really talk to her.”

“That could explain it,” I agreed.

“But also, you and Pa are different.  Pa is more closed,” Louise pointed out. 

This time I was ready with a rejoinder.  “You have to remember, just because Pa isn’t as obviously emotional as I am doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings.  Farmor would have had her 90th birthday the day before your birthday this year, and that morning Pa put a picture of her up on Facebook.”

“He did?  That’s so sweet!  So Farmor’s birthday was the day before mine?”

Louise had known about the proximity of Farmor’s birthday to her own at several points throughout her ten years, but rediscovered it anew that evening, the way children are wont to do. 

“Yes, her birthday was the second, and yours is the third,” I confirmed.  “By posting her picture, Pa was showing his feelings.  He just doesn’t wear his on his sleeve, like I do.”

Louise rolled her eyes.  “Too true.  You can be a really soppy mum sometimes.”

“You mean like when I cry at any performance that you’re in?” I asked.

“Exactly.  Sometimes I even think you’re disturbed,” Louise said, adding tonal italics.

“I’m definitely not your most sensible parent, and I may very well be a bit disturbed,” I conceded,  “But I’m the only mum you’ve got, and I do the best I can.  And most of the time that isn’t too bad.”

Louise abandoned her tween posturing and instead opened her arms wide.  “You’re the best mum ever,” she declared, “And I want to give you a big hug.”

Whatever my shortcomings, I am, in fact, sensible enough never to refuse the gift of a hug from my daughter.  I spread my own arms out and waited. 

“Are you ready?  It’s gonna be a bear hug,” Louise advised me as she approached.

“I was born ready for your bear hugs,” I said, as Louise squeezed me tight.

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Far From the Tree

I meant to wake up early.  Markus, my husband, had stayed home from work on Friday because he wasn’t feeling well.  My plan had been to jump out of bed and get started on the Saturday to-do list so that Markus could rest as much as possible.  Instead I kept hitting the snooze button.  My extra sleep meant that when I finally did get out of bed, I was scrambling to make up the time deficit.  Our daughter, Louise, had spent the night at her friend Joss’s birthday sleepover; pick-up time was scheduled for eleven, and the friend’s house was a brisk fifteen-minute walk away.  At ten to eleven I was still hastily wrapping the presents for the friend, purchased the night before.  I set off from our house at a record clip, but Louise’s friend lives in a maze of quiet one-way streets, and I took a wrong turn.  Sweat started trickling down my back as I thought of Louise’s friend’s mum Sara, herself a friend of mine, checking her watch and wishing her daughter’s young guests would just disappear already.  When I regained my bearings I texted my friend:  “Wlkg fast there in 10 mins sorry BX.”  Her reply came within minutes, “No prob!”

I was not reassured.  “She texted almost right back!  What if Louise is the last one and my poor friend is desperate to have a rest?  She didn’t sign off with an ‘x’- does that mean she’s actually quite cross?  How could I have taken a wrong turn?  I’ve lived here for years now!  Why do I have such a miserable sense of direction?  I wonder if it’s too late in the game, or if I could somehow improve my sense of place…”

When I at last reached my friend’s house, the door was ajar, and my friend’s husband was in the hall.  “Come on in,” he said when I peered through the gap.  “Sara has just put the kettle on.  They’re in the kitchen.”

I crossed the threshold, painfully aware of the perspiration shining on my face from my walking speed; when I turned the corner, I spotted two other mums sitting at ease while Sara prepared tea. 

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” I said, “You and William must be longing to have the house back to yourselves.”

“Oh, it’s fine, I hope you’re going to stay for a cuppa?”  Sara asked.  I noticed with awe that Sara didn’t look the least bit sleepy and didn’t seem the tiniest bit frazzled.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Absolutely.  Go ahead, pull up a chair, we’re just about to have a little natter,” Sara insisted.  The other mums nodded. 

“All right then.  Thank you so much!  But I mustn’t stay for too long, because Louise has tennis at one.” 

“Oh, we’re not staying for long either,” one of the other mums assured me. 

After an admittedly lovely chat over tea, the time pressure began to return.  I hadn’t anticipated a delay at Sara’s, so I hadn’t brought along Louise’s racket; that meant we had to return home before we could go to tennis.  I began to make noises about how I really should be going, but in England, the polite gap between the announcement and the departure is at least ten minutes, a fact I, as an American, always forget until the moment I need to leave.  My daughter, who was born in England and understands the habits of the English in a way I never will, added the delay instinctively, so by the time we had said our final thank-you’s and goodbyes it was nearly noon.

We rushed home.  While Louise ate her store-bought lunch, I conferred with Markus, who wanted the car to go rock climbing. 

“Here’s what has to happen before you can have the car— tennis, food shopping, and cricket with Luka,” I explained.

“Cricket with Luka?” Markus queried.

“Yes.  Tina, Marnie’s mother, introduced Luka to cricket last week and he loved it.  I promised Tina we would get Luka and Chris together so Tina and the girls wouldn’t have to bowl for Luka.”

“Chris is going to bowl for Luka?  What is Luka now, six?” Markus asked.

“He’s still five actually.  But Chris is good at bowling more slowly for younger batters.  He’s been able to bowl for Louise.  I’m sure both he and Luka will enjoy playing,” I said with certainty.

Markus raised his eyebrows doubtfully. 

“Anyway, I set it up with Tina, and we’re going to swap kids— Louise will play with Marnie and Cilla while Chris plays with Luka.  So it’s non-negotiable.” 

“It sounds like climbing is out,” Markus sighed.

“Not necessarily.  Why don’t you walk to the store, do the shopping, and I’ll pick you up on the way back from tennis?  That way at least the shopping is done, and only the cricket will stand between you and the climbing wall.”

“If that means I can climb, then fine.  What time will you be there?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted, “Because I have to meet that woman about the uniform after tennis.  But that shouldn’t take too long, so I don’t know, half past two?”

“I’ll wait for you by the bus stop.”

Louise had finished her lunch.  I grabbed her racket and her water bottle, and we bundled into the car, Louise carrying her new lace-up tennis shoes which she had volunteered to put on in transit to save time.

“Why do we even have to go to tennis?  We could have skipped it, then I could have had lunch with Joss,” Louise moaned.

“You said you wanted to do tennis again this term, and now we’ve paid for it, so we’re going for this whole term.  Plus I have to meet that woman with the second-hand uniform for Chris at 1:30,” I said.

“What woman with the uniform?  What are you talking about?” Louise asked, in a tone that implied that I must have lost my mind.

“Don’t you remember, when we went into Richardson’s to buy Chris bigger polo shirts, and they were out of stock, but there was that lady in the queue who gave me her phone number and said she had lots of uniform she’d be happy to give Chris?”

“Oh yes, now I remember.  But I still wish I didn’t have to go to tennis,” Louise said definitively.

We parked outside tennis two minutes after Louise’s lesson was meant to begin.  “Go ahead, take your racket and water, and run in.”

“Mum…” Louise groaned.  “Why can’t you walk in with me?”

“Because we’re already late, and because I have to dash to the town centre to take out cash for Marge.”

“Who’s Marge?”

“The lady with the uniform.  Now off you go,” I commanded. 

With Louise sorted, I headed towards the town centre.  Money safely withdrawn, I scurried back towards the tennis courts, eating the rest of my lunch— an energy bar— on the way.  The weather was fine, so I made myself comfortable on the curb next to a pub outside which rugby supporters were standing, talking, and drinking.

At 1:33 my phone dinged.  It was a message from Marge: “Stuck in rugby traffic.”

“No worries.  Am by The Plough and Horses,” I texted back.  Time ticked away.  1:40.  1:45.  1:50.  Where was she?    

“Not sure you’re at the right tennis court?  I’m at the courts by Sycamore Road.” I texted.

My phone rang. 

“Hello?”

“Hi Beth, it’s Marge.  I’ve been waiting at the wrong tennis court.  Where are you?”

“Oh no, I did wonder, I’m so sorry.  I’m at the tennis court by Sycamore Road?  Close to the Plough and Horses pub?” I said in what I hoped was a conciliatory tone.

“But I must have driven right past you if you’re by the Plough and Horses.  I’m in a blue Ford Focus.  Are there tennis courts down there?  I never knew.  I’m at the council court.  So what shall we do?  How long would it take you to come here?” Marge sounded frazzled.

“Well, I have to pick up my daughter, but I could be with you in ten minutes?  Marge?  Marge?  Oh shoot,” I exclaimed.  The connection had broken.  I called back.  No luck.  I texted: “Stay there, I will be with you as soon as I can.”  Almost instantly, the dreaded red exclamation point appeared: “Message send failure.” 

“Oh come on,” I said.  By this time I was standing just outside the drive to the tennis courts.  A dad I knew from school whose son was in Louise’s tennis class approached. 

“Hi Beth,” the dad said.  “Why are you standing out here?”

“Oh— it’s a long story— I was supposed to meet someone here at 1:30, but she’s at the wrong tennis court, and now I’ve lost connection,” I said, as I stared despairingly at my phone.

“I see,” the dad said.  “Shall I send Louise out?”

“Yes please,” I said gratefully.  I went back to my phone.  Louise came out, chatting with her friend, and I thanked the friend’s dad.

A text from Markus appeared.  “ETA?”

“Oh shoot,” I mumbled.  The tennis court mix-up meant I would be late collecting Markus, when he was already cranky.

“Mum,” Louise moaned, “ I’m really hot and tired.  Can we please go home?  Why do we have to keep waiting?”

“Louise, this woman has taken time out of her day just to meet us, and she’s been in traffic, we’re not just going to give up.”

“But I’m tired,” Louise repeated, as she resorted to the timeworn “pull on Mum’s clothing or bag” tactic, a tactic sure to illicit some sort of response, although likely not the one sought. 

My phone rang; I answered instantly.  “Marge?  I’m so sorry, I have no idea what happened to my phone.  Where are you?”

“I’m outside the school now.  I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew you would have to drive past the school on your way home, so I thought you might see me.  Where are you?”

“Thank you so much for waiting.  I’m still at the tennis courts, but I can be with you in five minutes.  Just stay there, I’ll be there very soon.”

“That’s fine.  You’ll see me just by the school gates.” 

“Come,” I said to Louise, striding purposefully towards the car.

I spotted the woman I had met briefly in the uniform shop standing next to the open boot of her car in the school drive.  I pulled in, and we greeted each other with a brief hug, which seemed appropriate considering the minor trauma meeting up had induced.

“I’m glad we managed to find each other in the end,” Marge said, “Because I’ve been saving this uniform for years.  I just couldn’t see getting rid of it, but I had no idea what to do with it.  As you can see, my son has grown quite a lot since starting school.”

The mouths of three enormous plastic bags gaped open in the boot, revealing stacks upon stacks of uniform in shades of burgundy and gold.  I thought of Markus, standing impatiently at the supermarket, and took a deep breath.  “Wow,” I exclaimed, “That is far more than I was expecting.  I was just hoping for some polos in my son’s size, but this will be fantastic.”

“You’re welcome to any or all of it,” Marge said.  “Is it polos he especially needs?  There must be six of them in here.”  She began to sift through the middle bag.  I sensed, from her movements, that Marge was not actually ready to part with her son’s cast-offs that quickly.  “Here they are; in fact there are seven polos, all different sizes, and most of them are in very good condition.”  Marge held up a couple of polo shirts to demonstrate.

“Those look great,” I agreed.  “Your son has taken care of his clothes.  What year is he now?”

“Oh, he’s sixth-form now.  Some of them have marks, but the shirts that were very worn, I just binned them.”  Marge hovered by the bags.  I wondered if her son was her only child. 

“Has he liked the school?” I asked. 

“Yes, very much.  What else were you after?  Sports kit?”

“Yes, sports kit, but also the sweatshirts.  We could use nearly everything really, because our son grew so much over the summer.”

“So he didn’t just start?” 

I backtracked mentally, wondering if I had somehow led Marge to believe Chris was just starting, and quickly absolved myself of any false pretences.  “No, he started last year.  He’s going into year eight now, but he has just shot up over the summer, and none of his uniform from last year fits him anymore.”

Marge relaxed.  Somehow Chris’s growth spurt had softened her, and she stepped to one side, making room for me to stand next to her.  “Please, take a look, and see what you think you could use.”

We sifted through the uniform together for a few more minutes.  I politely declined the old-style sports kit, knowing that Chris would insist on only current uniform, and I didn’t take extra rugby shirts, as I felt certain that Chris would never join the rugby team.  But my hurry to get to Markus, and from there to Luka, meant that I enthusiastically accepted two of the three huge bags, knowing all the while that some of the surplus was destined to end up shoved under our bed with other clothes we didn’t have room to store in the children’s rooms. 

Our transaction was nearly complete.  I had asked Marge twice via text how much money she would like for the uniform prior to meeting, and she hadn’t responded.  I wasn’t sure if that was because she wanted no payment, or if it was the English way, so I knew I needed to raise the topic again.  “It’s so generous of you to give us all of this,” I said.  “How much would you like for it?”

“Oh, I don’t know… Truth be told, you’re doing me a favour by taking it off my hands,” Marge answered, but not convincingly.

“Would forty be enough?  I know it’s worth quite a lot more than that really, but I hadn’t realised there would be so much of it, so I didn’t take out more at the cash machine…” 

Marge’s mouth twitched almost imperceptibly.  “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “She was hoping for more.  Maybe I’ll have to slim the bags…  Markus is going to be beyond irritated that I am keeping him waiting…”

“Do you know, thirty is fine,” Marge announced, to my surprise.  “All I really want is enough to buy him two new sweatshirts, and thirty will be more than enough for that.”

“Are you sure?” I asked doubtfully.

“Yes.  I’m sure.  Thirty is fine.  Thank you for giving it a good home.”

I handed Marge the bills, and picked up the two heavy bags.  “I can’t thank you enough,” I said.

“No worries, it was my pleasure,” Marge said.  She closed her boot, gave me another quick hug, then arranged herself in the driver’s seat and started her car.  I set the bags down, and when Marge checked her rear view mirror, I waved and smiled. 

“There you are, finally,” Louise said reproachfully when I retook my place in the driver’s seat.  “Why did it take so long?”

“Sorry to keep you waiting, honey.  Marge had far more to give us than I had reckoned with.”  I fastened my seat belt, then called Markus.

“Yes?” Markus answered, conveying a world of irritation in one syllable.

“Hi.  I’m really sorry.  We’re leaving the school gates now.”  I adopted a bright tone.  “The good news is, we won’t need to buy uniform for a long time.”

“Great.  Now just hang up and drive.  I’m tired of standing here.  I’m by the bus stop.”

I hung up as requested and drove to the supermarket.  When Markus spotted our car, he pulled the ear buds out of his ears and stuck them in his pocket. 

“Hi,” I said, when I pulled up alongside him.

“Hi,” Markus said gruffly; he loaded the shopping into the boot, next to the bags of uniform, then crumpled into the passenger seat.

“How long have you been waiting?”

“Forty minutes.”

Visions of maniacally-grinning bacteria flashed before my eyes.  “I guess we’ll have to toss the lettuce.”

“I put it next to the milk.  It’ll be fine,” Markus said flatly. 

The lights at the level crossing began to flash.  The gates came down and stopped the car ahead of us.  “What good timing,” I said.

“Mum,” Louise said from the back seat, glancing up from Minecraft, “Anybody can tell that you’re being sarcastic.”

“You’re right, Louise.  Now we’re going to keep Luka waiting even longer.  Markus, can you call the home phone and tell Chris to change into his cricket clothes if he hasn’t already?”

“We’ll probably be home before I’ve even finished talking to him,” Markus said drily.  “Is it really necessary?”

“I’m just trying to optimise our time usage so that you can get to the climbing wall as soon as possible,” I said, as I watched the first train thunder past.  The lights continued to flash and the gate stayed down.  Markus sighed, and dialled the home number. 

Finally we pulled into our driveway.  Markus exited swiftly, opened the boot, and began unloading the shopping.

Chris was on the sofa, fully dressed in cricket whites, deep in a Minecraft world on his tablet.  I felt my blood pressure, which had been nearing stroke risk levels, drop substantially.  “Chris, that’s fantastic that you’re ready, thank you so much for doing what Pappa asked,” I said.

“Mmm…” Chris responded, not raising his head. 

“I’ll just text Tina and tell her we’re on our way.  So we’ll go in about five minutes, honey,” I said.

“OK,” Chris mumbled.

“Remember, Louise, you’re coming too, so if you need the toilet, now’s the time.  That goes for you too, Chris.”

“Oh, Mum, why did I even have to get out of the car?” Louise complained.  “If I had known we were leaving straight away, I could have just stayed in the car, and avoided all this to-ing and fro-ing.”

I grinned despite myself at my nine-year old’s skilled use of her executive functioning area.  “You’re right, Louise.  That might have made more sense.  But at least you’re going somewhere fun— you haven’t been to Marnie’s house in ages.  The longer it takes us to get ready, though, the less time you’ll have to play with Marnie.”

That worked.  “I’m ready,” Louise announced impatiently two minutes later, standing by the door, “What about you lot?”

Chris trundled off the sofa, and we were ready for departure. 

“I’ll make this as quick as I can while still giving them a decent cricket session,” I said to Markus, who was still unpacking the groceries.  “I know you want to get to the wall.”

“Text me when you’re on your way home,” Markus said.

“Will do.”

Chris and Louise had made themselves comfortable in the back seat.  We drove the short distance to Tina’s flat, and when I slowed down to consider my parking options, I noticed that Tina was already on the footpath with Luka and the girls.  Tina, normally very relaxed, looked concerned.  I rolled down my window as she approached. 

“Did you get my text?” Tina asked without pleasantries. 

“Um…  I don’t think so?  Maybe you sent it while Louise was playing Minecraft?”

“The thing is, Luka has a birthday party to go to right after this.  It’s meant to start at four.” 

I glanced at my watch; it was twenty past three.  My face drooped as I inwardly cursed the missteps that had stolen precious time from the cricket session.

Tina registered my disappointment, and the furrows in her brow disappeared.  “Don’t worry,” she said, smiling.  “Luka can still come with you.  The party is at the Jelly Tots club, in the park, and weren’t you going to the park anyway for the cricket?  It’s fine if he gets to the party a little late.”

“I was going to take them to the club’s nets, but if that was full, yes, I would take them to the park.  Are you sure it would be OK for Luka to be late to the party?  He wouldn’t mind?”

“He’ll be fine,” Tina said, waving her hand.  “Luka’s been looking forward to playing cricket with Chris all day.  Just one thing,” Tina added, sotto voce, “Let him bat the whole time.” 

“No problem.  Fantastic.  Louise, can you jump out?  So should I drop Luka at the party and then come pick Louise?”

“No, there’s no point in that as we’ll have to get to the park to pick Luka anyway, so I’ll just bring the girls to the park.  We’ll meet you outside the Jelly Tots club at, say, 4:30?”

“That gives the girls almost no time to play at yours though,” I pointed out, knowing how excited Louise was to spend time at Marnie’s.  “Why don’t you make it closer to five?”

“Five it is,” Tina said, leaning over Luka to help him with the seat belt. 

Chris and Luka regarded each other, then Chris said to Luka, “I like your cricket outfit.”

Tina laughed.  “Chris, have you seen his trousers?  They’re way too long— he has them folded over four times at the top.  Show Chris, Luka.”

Luka revealed the rolls of fabric around his belly.  “There didn’t seem to be any point in buying trousers that would only fit him for a few months, so I took the size that might fit him next summer.  They might even fit him the summer after that,” Tina said.  “But the jumper fits perfectly, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Chris agreed.  “The jumper is very smart, Luka.” 

Luka’s cherubic face beamed with pride.  Tina and I exchanged smiles small enough for each other to see, but not wide enough to be noticed by our boys. 

“We’ll see you at five then,” I said to Tina.  “Bye Louise!  Have fun with Marnie!”

“Bye Mum,” Louise shouted, already halfway to Marnie’s flat. 

I pulled back into the road, and caught sight of Chris and Luka eyeing each other up and down, as if assessing the opposition, when I glanced in the rear view mirror.

“That your bat?” Luka asked Chris.

“It is,” Chris confirmed.  “And you’ve got yours?”

“This is my bat,” Luka confirmed, holding his own newly acquired bat up for Chris’s inspection.

Chris appraised the bat’s grip, then ran his finger along the bat face.  “Nice bat.  No dents yet,” Chris said.  Both boys appeared satisfied.

A cloud appeared on Luka’s face, and he asked either or both of us,  “Are you taking me to Freddie’s party now?”

“No,” I answered.  “Right now I’m taking you and Chris to play cricket, like we agreed.  But after cricket I’m taking you to Freddie’s party.”

“Are you picking me up from Freddie’s party too?”

“No,” I said again.  “Your mum will pick you up from the party.  I’m only dropping you off at the party.”

Luka looked perplexed.  I was relieved when the entrance to the cricket club came into view, but when I pulled in, the grounds were full of men in whites, and no nets were available.

“We can’t use the club nets,” I told the boys.  “We’ll have to go to the park.  Hopefully we can use the nets there.”

“What are nets?” Luka asked.

Chris explained.  “Cricket nets are for practice, so you don’t have to run after the ball.  Nets let you bowl and bat more effectively.” 

I winced at Chris’s use of “effectively” as I doubted it would mean anything to five-year old Luka, but when I checked again in the mirror, Luka seemed content.  The boys were so different in appearance: Chris keeps his hair very short, and while somewhat more substantial than other boys his age, still seems spare.  Luka, for the first several years of his young life, had sported a hairstyle lifted straight from Brett Anderson of Suede; he had only recently graduated to wearing his thick black hair shorter on the sides but still long at the top.  Luka had the sort of solid physique that would make future rugby coaches’ eyes light up.  But Chris and Luka had known each other for years, and they sat comfortably in each other’s presence.

Rather than return to the town streets, I took the A-road towards the park.  After a few minutes of sitting in traffic, Luka piped up again.  “This isn’t the way I go to the park.  Where are you taking me?”

Luka’s forlorn tone insinuated that I may well be taking him somewhere he really didn’t want to go.  I wondered briefly if Luka thought we were abducting him, and the thought of me and Christopher kidnapping Luka was so preposterous that I couldn’t suppress a fit of giggles.  Chris, whose mind often works like mine, reassured Luka. 

“Don’t worry Luka, this is another way to get to the park.  We’re still going to play cricket, and then you’re going to Freddie’s party.” 

I had forgotten that five-year olds are even more variable than English weather.  My next mirror check showed me Luka and Chris smiling broadly at each other.  “Are you going to let me bat all the time?” Luka asked Chris.

“Yes, if that’s what you want, that’s fine with me,” Chris said.  More smiles.

I turned off the A-road and began picking my way past the delivery vans and busses on the high street of the village that stood between us and the park.  It was a village Chris and I knew well, as we had lived close to it when our family first moved to the area, but it was apparently uncharted territory for Luka, who called out excitedly, “Now we’re in London!”

Chris and I both laughed.  “No, Luka,” Chris corrected Luka patiently, “This isn’t London.  This is St Vincent’s.”   

“Well, technically I believe we’ve been in London all day, but this certainly isn’t central London,” I clarified. 

Luka was undeterred.  “It’s London!  Where’s the park?”

“We’ll be at the park very soon,” I said.  Moments later, I had chosen a spot in the park’s parking lot, and Chris had unloaded the heavy cricket bag from the boot.  We headed for the nets; Chris rolled the bag, and Luka swung his bat merrily back and forth.

Everyone has days when the world seems to be against them, and although the tone of my day had improved considerably since Luka’s entry, I was still not surprised to find, when the nets came into view, that they were already occupied. 

“The nets are taken,” Chris said, leading me to wonder again, albeit fleetingly, about nature versus nurture. 

“Yes, they are.  But that’s fine, we can just play over here anyway,” I said, walking over to the base of a respectably-sized tree that could serve as a makeshift wicket. 

“Are we going to play cricket now?” Luka asked, “Or are we going to Freddie’s party?  Are you going to pick me up from Freddie’s party?” 

While I came to terms with the fact that I had seemingly already forgotten how five-year olds think, although my daughter was only four years past five herself, Chris patiently answered Luka’s questions yet again, one by one.  “Yes, Luka, we’re going to play cricket.  We’re going to take you to Freddie’s party afterwards.  Your mum is coming to pick you up from the party.” 

Chris and I rummaged through the cricket bag for a ball of appropriate hardness.  Chris found a semi-hard ball and ran out twenty metres to bowl.

“Chris, come a little closer, remember Luka is only five years old,” I called out.

Chris bowled.  Luka swung forcefully, but missed.  Four more bowls; all missed.  “Chris, come closer still, and slow the ball down.  Remember, Luka needs to practice hitting, try to bowl so he can hit it.  Think of how you used to bowl for Louise.”

Louise was the magic word.  Chris nodded, stepped forward, and bowled slow and easy.  Luka’s bat connected with the ball with a satisfying thud, and the ball whizzed off to mid-wicket leg-side.  Chris ran gamely after it, and Luka grinned, looking as pleased as Sachin Tendulkar did after scoring a double-century.  Chris had found Luka’s sweet spot, and the next several bowls repeated the pattern: a slow bowl, a solid hit to leg-side.

I relaxed.  It had taken all day to reach this moment, the moment when the cacophony of suburban life with two busy children quieted, and the only sound that mattered was the deep report of leather on wood.  The boys had ceased thinking; they were running on autopilot, focussed only on the ball. 

***

My parents split up when I was four.  By the time I was eight, my dad had moved— with my stepmother, stepsister, and stepbrother— to Boston, nearly two hundred miles from the very small town in Vermont where I lived with my mother, my brother, and my sister.  I believe my collective parents’ goal was for my siblings and I to visit Boston once a month, but the logistics of transporting three children under ten that distance proved costly and arduous; even so, we averaged a trip every six to eight weeks. 

The trips were never easy.  They started and ended, almost always, with my little sister in tears as she said goodbye to whichever parent we were leaving: my mother on Friday, my father on Sunday.  My blood siblings and I were country bumpkins, more accustomed to the sight of cows than skyscrapers, and Boston overwhelmed us.  My father still smiles when he has occasion to remember our first visit to the big city.  “Your eyes just glazed over, and your mouths hung open…  you were in awe of all the people, and the buildings,” he recounts.  While my dad and stepmother were amazingly good at taking the five of us on cultural enrichment trips to the city centre, most of each visit was spent at our Boston family’s home in a well-heeled suburb of Boston (rented where it was de rigueur to own).  Even at their house, rather than in the city, I felt like an outsider.  My dad and stepmother did what they could to make us feel welcome, but children are like horses, and I could always sense the discord just beneath the surface.  My father acted the way he felt a father should act, but his sadness about being a long-distance dad combined with my discomfort in the situation to create an awkwardness that was usually impassable, except for during one activity: sports.  My dad loved, and still loves, sports.  During his school years, my dad had played baseball and later, American football, to a respectable standard; with five children born within five years of each other at his home, my dad had a ready-made team; how could he not make us play ball?

The rented house my Boston family lived in during most of the years that we visited them regularly was built on a hill overlooking a school; the school playground was routinely left unlocked, and we were free to use it on weekends, a state of affairs that could occur in the 1970’s but would be unthinkable today.  More often than not, at some point during a weekend trip, all five of us children would end up with my dad and a baseball, a basketball, or a soccer ball at the playground. 

I was not a sporty child.  I sat reading books during playtimes at my primary school, never even learning to jump rope properly.  I had matured early, and then I went through a few years of excessive puppy fat, with the result that I was never comfortable in my body.  But Dad, though he struggled to be a natural long-distance father, was a natural coach, and refused to let me hide behind my insecurities in the outfield.  Instead he put me at the batter’s plate.

“Remember, Johnny,” Dad shouted to my stepbrother from where he crouched behind me in catcher position, “Aim for the strike zone, so from her knees to her neck, but lower is better.  And throw straight to my glove,” 

Johnny took aim and pitched.  I swung the heavy wooden bat accurately enough to nick the ball, sending it flying backwards over Dad’s head. 

“Foul!” Dad called out excitedly.  “Foul ball!  Look out Johnny, she might try to steal first…” Dad ran in exaggerated slow motion to retrieve the ball, giving me an opportunity to act on his not-so-hidden suggestion that I studiously ignored.  “Oh, no, she’s staying safe on home base, she must want another try.  Great pitch Johnny!  Now remember, Beth,” Dad said, coming in close and using a stage whisper so that he seemed to be speaking only to me, but was actually speaking to all five of us, “Your job is to look only at the ball.  Don’t look at me, don’t look at your brother daydreaming in right field, don’t look at your sister waiting to run home from third base, just keep your eyes on the ball.  If you do that, and if you swing with just a little more power, you’re guaranteed to get a hit that will send your sister home,” Dad said.

“Ready?”  Johnny called out to me from the “pitcher’s mound,” in this case just a designated spot on the playground. 

I sucked air, tightened my grasp on the bat handle, and nodded.  “Watch the ball,” Dad intoned behind me.

I narrowed my eyes and concentrated on the ball Johnny had sent flying true.  I swung the bat with such power that it threatened to fly clear out of my hands, but it didn’t; instead, it hit the ball with a vicious thwack.  I stood, paralysed, as my hit arced through the air towards my brother, who had stopped daydreaming and was now paying close attention.  Everything else had ceased to exist— all I felt was the aftermath of the effort, and all I saw was the white circle with the red stitching I had launched into orbit.    

“Run!” Dad yelled, snapping me out of my reverie.  “Go on Beth, run!  Vera, you run too!  Come on!  Eddie, throw it back to Johnny!”

We all did as we were told.  I sprinted towards first, Vera dashed towards home, and Johnny threw to my dad, but whether by chance or by design, Dad fumbled the ball for just long enough for Vera to pass home base. 

“Oh, a run for the girls!  Heartbreaker, boys!  Good fielding though!”

“Hooray!” Vera, Lynn, and I cheered together.  That run put us in the lead, three to two.

That moment of transcendence—when the hit, the catch, or the run became the entire world— fed me, but what nourished me even more was my dad’s irrepressible passion for sports and his unwavering determination to share that passion with us, regardless of our abilities.  I didn’t feel completely sure, as a child, that my father loved me, but I knew for certain he believed I could hit a ball, and somewhere in the amorphous tangle of my inner circuitry, I sensed that what I did know confirmed the existence of what I couldn’t be sure of.

***

I thought Luka would keep batting until our time was up, but as soon as the boys’ groove was established, Luka mixed it up.  “Now you bat,” he told Chris.  Chris asked me with his eyes, from twenty meters away, if he should comply with Luka’s wishes, or stick with Luka’s original plan of all batting all the time. 

I nodded at Chris, and he trotted towards our wicket tree, where he handed the ball over to Luka.  Luka, in turn, ran a few meters towards where Chris had been standing, but then veered sharply, and threw from silly mid-on.  Chris was so surprised that he burst out laughing.  “Luka!  You can’t bowl from there!  You could have taken my head off!” he scolded. 

Luka, undeterred, ran wildly in the opposite direction, then bowled from silly mid-off.  Chris lay his bat down, and loped towards Luka, who was zig-zagging crazily around the imaginary pitch.  “Luka,” Chris said, “Stop for a minute.  Look— let’s use this water bottle to show where you should be when you bowl.  If you want, you can do a little run-up, but it has to be in a straight line, like this…” Chris demonstrated a leisurely run-up, then bowled to me from the water bottle.  I caught the ball and tossed it slowly back to Chris, who pressed it into Luka’s waiting hands.  “Try that,” he told Luka. 

Luka obeyed.  Chris still had to take a few quick steps away from the wicket tree, but he was able to connect with the ball.  Chris hit a slow grounder back to Luka, who immediately bowled again, this time with greater accuracy.  When Chris began tossing the balls he missed back to Luka, I was made redundant.  I stepped away from the action, took a few pictures, and sent the best two to Tina.  Her reply, a string of happy emojis, pinged back within seconds. 

Four o’clock came and went.  At ten past, I told Chris and Luka it was time to wrap up; Freddie’s party awaited.  The boys complied, and kit in tow, we began walking towards the party.

“That was fun,” I said cheerily.  “Did you enjoy that, Luka?”

Luka nodded seriously.  “We’re already far from the tree,” he said.

Chris and I arched our eyebrows at each other miles above Luka’s line of sight.  We were no more than twenty meters from our wicket tree. 

“Not really,” I said, unable to resist the urge to clarify what “far away” meant in the adult world.  “Actually we’re still quite close to the tree.”

“No,” Luka maintained, “We’re not.  Where is Freddie’s party?  Are you taking me home?”

“Freddie’s party is just a few minutes’ walk from here.  I’m not taking you home, your mum is coming to collect you.  Which did you like better, batting or bowling?”

“Batting.  I didn’t bat the whole time.  I bowled too,” Luka said proudly.

“I saw that.  You did very well Luka, didn’t he, Chris?”

“Yes.  You have the makings of a good cricketer, Luka,” Chris responded.

We had reached the Jelly Tots centre.  There were green balloons pinned to the gate.  A tall woman with long blonde hair whom I guessed was Freddie’s mother came to greet us. 

“Hi Luka!  Freddie, come say hello to your friend!”

One of the clutch of three small boys dressed in Ninja Turtle costumes broke away from the snack table and approached Luka.  They acknowledged each other silently, then Luka, dressed in his smart cricket pullover and his spacious cricket trousers, followed Freddie back towards the juice and crisps.

“So,” Freddie’s mum said, after a nearly-negligible hesitation, “You must be Luka’s mum?”

I imagined the politically-correct thought process that Freddie’s mum must have quickly engaged in before asking that question, given the very different appearances of the two boys I had with me.

“No,” I said, “I’m just a friend of the family.  His mum is coming to pick him up after the party.”

“Ah,” said Freddie’s mum, and I watched bemusedly as the pieces fell into place for her.

“It looks like Luka is all set, but I’ll just say goodbye,” I said, by way of excusing myself.

“Certainly.  Yes, he’s fine,” the blonde woman concurred.

Chris and I walked over to Luka, still hovering by the refreshments silently with his Ninja turtle classmates. 

“You’re all set now Luka,” I said to our young friend.  “Enjoy the party, and your mum will come to pick you up when it’s over.  Thanks for playing cricket with Chris.”  I nudged Chris pointedly.

“Thanks Luka.  You’re a good batter, but you need to work on your bowling,” Chris said, in the candid manner of a twelve-year old.  Luka grinned broadly at Chris, evidently both pleased by the compliment and unfazed by the criticism. 

“Bye,” I said, to clarify that we were now truly leaving Luka in the hands of Freddie’s mum.

Luka didn’t answer.  Freddie had taken hold of Luka’s arm and was leading him, and the other Ninja turtles, towards the party proper.

Chris and I found a comfortable patch of lawn outside the Jelly Tots enclosure and sat down to wait for Tina to arrive with Louise.  “Do you mind waiting here,” I asked Chris, “Or would you rather head back over and play more cricket?”

“I’m fine here,” Chris said, lying back on the grass, shielding his closed eyes from the surprisingly bright sunshine.

I savoured the late summer air.  All that had come before that moment— the rushing, the missed connections, the irritation— floated silently away, like a helium balloon accidentally released when the holder reaches for something even better.  I gazed at the horizon and caught sight of our wicket tree. 

“That’s good that you’re fine here,” I said to Chris, “Because you know, we’re already very far away from the tree.”

          

   

    

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Under the Bucket

“Have you heard of Lou Gehrig’s Disease? ALS?” my supervisor, a certified speech therapist, asked me, as she drove us further into Revere, the working-class Cape Cod of Boston.
“Yes,” I answered, “But I’ve never seen anyone with it.”
“You’re about to meet a sufferer. It’s a horrible disease. This young woman needs help with swallowing, that’s my role as a speechie. I want you to be ready— remember we need to offer support to her grandmother, so we should be calm.”
I saw the ocean peeking out between the high-rise low-income apartment buildings. The water glinted in the sunlight, but the beach, in mid-October, was mostly deserted. I was ticking off observation hours towards my own degree and certification as a speech therapist, so all I would have to do was act friendly and polite, and I felt certain I could manage that.
“Here we are,” my supervisor chirped.
My supervisor’s patient, a woman in her twenties with long brown hair tied up in a disheveled ponytail, was writhing on the sofa when we walked in. Her grandmother greeted my supervisor.
“She’s gotten worse,” the grandmother confided. “I think she’ll need a feeding tube soon, but I don’t know how I’m going to manage that when she can’t keep still.”
The young woman had started to groan. Her body seemed to be undergoing continual discrete spasms; it seemed to be entirely out of her control. I feared she would fall off the sofa. I realised I was staring, and quickly rearranged my face into what I hoped was a friendly and polite expression.
My supervisor spoke softly with the young woman’s grandmother for a few more minutes, then said goodbye. We let ourselves out.
“Are you all right?” my supervisor asked me as we pulled out of the driveway.
“Yes, I’m fine, but you were right, that is one horrible disease,” I said.
“It’s awful. And she’s so young. It’s very sad.”

I accompanied that speech therapist on several more challenging home visits, and I went on to do a placement at a state-run veteran’s hospital, but I saw no one more ravaged by disease than that young woman during the rest of my training. In fact, during my forty-odd years of life, I have yet to meet anyone more visibly suffering that the woman with ALS on the sofa in Revere.

Enter the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I knew the Ice Bucket Challenge was a “thing,” but I didn’t pay very much attention to it, figuring it was just a fad like the No Makeup Selfie, that would make some money for charity before fizzling out. I hadn’t even watched any of the many Ice Bucket Challenge videos that appeared with increasing frequency in my news feed until this past weekend, when both me and my husband were “tagged” for the challenge, me by the pillar member of my running club, my husband by his boss. My husband has only worked at his current place of employment for a few months, so it was a given that he would need to accept the challenge, but I have been running with my club for several years now, so I felt free to consider my response. Something about the phenomenon rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn’t know what, and I wanted to figure out what my issue was rather than just jump on board because everybody else had.

Part of the problem with the Ice Bucket Challenge, for me, is the concept of tag itself. I felt honoured to be chosen— to be called out publicly— but at the same time, I worried that some of the members of my running club who hadn’t been tapped may feel left out. I attended junior high school in the era before bullying was even labelled as such; during those awkward years, I was a somewhat overweight, bookish outsider, and all through junior high, whenever our physical education lesson included a team sport, I was always one of the last two or three kids to be picked for a team. The feeling of sitting on the cold, highly varnished wooden floor of the gymnasium, wishing that I could just disintegrate rather than suffer the humiliation of listening to twenty-eight of my classmates’ names called out before mine again, has stayed with me. I didn’t want anyone to feel snubbed that I had been tagged before them, and I certainly didn’t want to in turn slight anyone with my own nomination of three friends.

There was no reason why I couldn’t douse my head, make the donation, and skip the nominations, but even without the tag element, the Challenge still rubbed me the wrong way. Every still shot in my news feed showed one of my friends, or the child of one of my friends, smiling. Some were standing, some were sitting, but all were smiling. The gulf between my cheerful friends and the woman I had met all those years ago was unfathomable. I understood that if it meant more money for research into a possible cure, all of those directly affected by ALS would no doubt smile even more broadly than my friends at the money raised by the campaign, but I wondered how many of the people merrily pouring ice water over their heads had any idea what ALS even was, let alone an appreciation of its ruthlessness. I further suspected that those who posted the videos may not always be following through with the intended donation at all. Without the education about ALS or the financial contribution towards the disease’s obliteration, the Ice Bucket Challenge seemed to me to be a dare like any other dare. I learned as a child to be wary of dares, so I continued to let my allotted twenty-four hours slip away.

Not so for my husband. If it’s your new boss nominating you, in a public forum, to accept a challenge for charity, it’s best to step up. My husband purchased a bag of ice, and after dinner, he informed me and the kids that the time had come to assemble in the garden to witness the Ice Bucket Spectacle. I was designated cinematographer. My husband made the obligatory short speech that included his further nominations, then he dunked his head in our good-sized red plastic cleaning bucket, stood up, and poured the bucket’s icy contents over himself. When the bucket was empty, he smiled. I stopped filming. The kids clapped and cheered, and the dog began to chase the scattered ice cubes.

My husband didn’t post his Ice Bucket video immediately. When it did appear in my news feed, a couple of hours after the deed itself, I was surprised to see that my husband had spelled out his intention to donate a substantial sum to the ALS Association, considerably more than I would have imagined, and certainly more than the amounts I generally donated whenever friends took on sporting challenges for charity or when my usual charity made special appeals for humanitarian disasters. When I saw the dollar amount he intended to give, posted in black and white, it hit me that another problem I had with the Ice Bucket Challenge was purely selfish; if my husband was going to donate more than usual, I didn’t want the money to go to an ALS charity. I wanted our donation to go to a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) charity, because my husband himself has been living with MS for the last several years. More money thrown at that MS may lead to more treatments like the oral medicine my husband had started taking about a year ago, a drug that had exerted a significant stabilising effect over his errant immune system and had thus made life with MS noticeably easier and a bit less terrifying.

I expect, based on the success of last year’s No Makeup Selfie to support breast cancer charities and the huge success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, that surprising public acts nominally undertaken to support charities will be with us for the foreseeable future. These viral dares differ from the now-staid fundraising method of taking part in a sporting event because of their relative ease— anyone can opt out of makeup for long enough to take a selfie, and almost anyone can pour a bucket of ice water over her head with no ill effects, but not everyone can cross the finish line of a running or cycling race. Because of their accessibility, the online fundraising phenomena also carry a much greater social weight. No one will nominate you to run a 10K to support ALS or MS, and, particularly if you don’t normally run, no one will ask you why you didn’t participate. But refuse to pour ice water over your head and post the video evidence and you are teetering dangerously close to being a killjoy.

I nominated myself to fundraise for charity publicly a couple years ago. I was deeply shaken by the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that took place on December 14th, 2012. While still in a minor state of shock, I made myself a promise— I would run a half marathon and raise money to help end gun violence. Let me point out that I am not a real runner. As an adult, I had occasionally been seized by the desire to become a real runner; when I was in my mid-twenties I once made a New Year’s resolution to run twenty to thirty minutes twice a week for ten weeks. I kept that resolution— the only New Year’s resolution I have ever managed to keep— and went even further, running twice a week until July, but every session was a struggle. I gave up one hot and humid July day when, after ten minutes of sweating, I admitted to myself that I resented every stride. I turned around and walked home, doubting that I would ever willingly run again. But a couple of years before the Newtown shooting, a friend had talked me into signing up for a Couch to 5K-type course run by a local running club. With company, I found that running could actually be fun. Although my friend stopped when the course finished, I carried on running with the club, but never more than a couple times a week, and never further than six or seven kilometres. A half marathon would be a stretch, but I drew inspiration from another friend, who had never been a real runner either but had managed to complete the London Marathon a few years before I took my beginners’ course.

After I registered for the race, I spent about a week researching charities. To my distress, there were at that time no charities that seemed to be tackling gun violence in the U.S. with any success, and even if there had been, it would have been quite fiddly to fundraise for one of them as an American living abroad. I began looking for an English equivalent, and eventually settled on a London-based charity that sought to positively affect the lives of children at risk through engagement in sport and drama.

I trained seriously for a little more than six months. When I flagged, during long runs or on off days, I had only to think of the names of some of the children killed in Newtown to access hidden reserves of determination. I was running for a reason, and the reason meant enough to me to eventually carry me all the way through to the half marathon finish line. I posted the pictures of my triumph on social media, but I didn’t nominate anyone to run a half marathon next. Popularity did play an oblique role, by affecting the total value of my charitable donation, and I suppose that anyone who chose to contribute could see some of the hierarchy of my social network through my fundraising page. But unlike the names of those nominated next for the Ice Bucket Challenge, my fundraising page was not immediately visible, and a few donors also opted out of the public statement of connection by using their initials or, in one case, anonymity in their accompanying message. I was proud of my accomplishment, and I would consider doing a fundraising run again.

I didn’t complete the Ice Bucket Challenge within my allotted twenty-four hours. I donated somewhat more than my usual charitable amount to the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the British equivalent of the ALS Association, and I suggested to my husband that he may want to consider donating half of his own contribution to the MS Society. Even after the time limit had passed, however, I couldn’t put the Ice Bucket Challenge down; I was hoping to formulate a three-sentence explanation for my reservations, but it remained elusive.

Finally, after a week or so of grappling with my opinion, I took the question to one of my most straightforward sounding boards— my nine-year old daughter.
“So, Louise, what do you think about the Ice Bucket Challenge?”
“Well, I think it’s good because it raises money for charity, and it’s easier than running a race or something like that,” Louise said.
“So what do you think about Pappa doing it?”
“Brave,” Louise answered, with an approving nod.
“Does that mean you think I’m not brave because I didn’t do it?” I queried.
“No,” Louise said, without hesitation. “You’re brave too, but you think too much. What— why are you laughing? What’s so funny about that? Sometimes I just don’t understand grownups.”

To learn more about ALS, or to make a donation, visit http://www.alsa.org/ in the U.S. or http://www.mndassociation.org/ in the U.K.. To learn more about MS, or to make a donation, visit http://www.mymsaa.org/ in the U.S., or http://www.mssociety.org.uk/ in the U.K..

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Hello, Face

One of the concessions I make to the current standard of feminine beauty is that, every two or three months, when my eyebrows become so bushy that I start seeing my dad when I look in the mirror, I have my face threaded.  For the uninitiated, threading is a highly uncomfortable procedure wherein a beautician holds one end of a piece of thread in her teeth and the other end in her fingers, and with the thread in some modified cat’s cradle formation, she then rips out the client’s unwanted hair.  I go for threading because my pain tolerance is just not high enough for me to pluck the entirety of my own moustache, and because the times I’ve tried to lose my stray eyebrow hairs, I’ve ended up pinching the delicate eyelid skin with the tweezers, which both hurts and leaves little red marks.  I’m sure practice makes perfect, but I would rather just spend fifteen minutes letting someone else inflict pain, knowing that afterwards I would not need to worry too much about facial hair for several weeks.

My system has worked for the last year or so, but the last time I went for threading, as the beautician dusted my face, she remarked, “I’ve been watching your blackheads.  You want a facial?”

I have been offered a facial from the threading establishment before, and I have always declined, for two reasons: firstly, I have no desire to spend the time or money on a facial, and secondly, while I have succumbed to societal pressure to minimize facial hair, I have been under the apparent illusion that my skin could actually pass for acceptable.  Oh, how wrong I was, if my blackheads had been noticeable enough to hold this beautician’s interest for fifteen minutes!

I turned down the facial yet again, but when I went home, I dug out a trial pack of exfoliating cream, scrubbed my nose, and applied a ten-minute mud mask from a tube that hadn’t been used for over a year.  Result?  My nose ended up looking like Sneezy’s for a couple of days, and the blackheads reappeared as soon as the redness left.

My eyebrows are getting bushy again.  I’m on the fence about whether or not to return to the threading salon. Perhaps I could teach my blackheads some tricks, so that the beautician would be entertained while she looks at them?  Maybe they could just jump out of my pores, do a little jig, and then pop back in at the end of the threading?  I could go to another salon, but then I would need to pay more, and I may not be able to call twenty minutes before I want the threading to begin.  I could attempt to become accustomed to what I consider the excruciating torture of plucking my own philtrum, and I could work on improving my tweezer skills to avoid accidental skin mishaps in the eye region, but somehow those options hold little appeal.  Rather than constantly assessing my reflection for excess hair, I would much prefer to carry on threading so that I can greet my mirror image with a pleasant nod of recognition, the way I did before the blackhead comment made the sight of my nose fill me with a vague sense of shame.

A very easy way to eliminate the problem would be to coat my nose in make-up.  But for the past fifteen years or so I have reserved make-up for special occasions, because both my gut and my feminist-leaning brain tell me that in an ideal world, women would be considered beautiful without it. During the course of those years without foundation, I have grown fond of my bare face, and I believe that the beautician’s comment, while a setback, will not incur long-lasting damage on my relationship to my unadorned skin.  So after my brief enlistment in the war on skin, I am holding up a white flag—  I will not be having routine facials, and I will work my way back towards acceptance of my facial skin: blackheads, wrinkles, and all.

When I become evolved enough, my plan is to also surrender in the war on facial hair.  When I have laid down my tweezers, and stopped frequenting threading professionals, I will instead embrace my unibrow and enter a Frida Kahlo look-alike contest; a quick Google search listed events in Texas, California, and New York.  Perhaps eventually there will even be a female version of Movember that I could sign up for, giving me a good excuse to let my moustache grow and raise money for charity at the same time.  But until I reach that level of self-confidence, I think I’ll look for another salon.

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