Elevators: On Outkast and Adolescence.

He was obsessing over something new, like he did every summer, swinging an outstretched arm from side to side in front of him and swaying like a like a brother entranced. “Meee and yoooou,” he crooned, “Yo’ mama and yo’ cousins, tooooo…” He wouldn’t stop and I had no idea what he was talking about. “Rollin’ down the strip on voooogues…”

“Wait. What are ‘vogues?’ What is this?”

“You never heard-a Outkast?!”

It was the same routine whenever I saw him. My cousin Joe would roll in from Chicago, a year younger than I, impossibly charming and popular — football star that he was, and jone on me for not knowing about some artist or group he’d just made his new obsession.

I’d been raised with a mild, sporadically enforced “secular music restriction.” I couldn’t listen to uncensored hip-hop or suggestive R&B at home and it never bothered me enough to try to sneak it that often. I gleaned most of my knowledge of ’90s R&B and hip-hop from classmates singing hooks and from lingering a bit too long on Video Soul or Rap City during the hours I spent alone after school.

I also relied pretty heavily on my cousins who, during the summers I spent with them in Michigan, kept a constant loop of BET, MTV, cassette dubs of radio broadcasts, live radio, and VHS-taped videos going in their homes whenever we weren’t outside playing.

Had I known that ’90s hip-hop would mark the pinnacle of the genre, its highest creative, inventive, and political height, I may’ve resided more in the moment. If I had known that the cream of our crop would skim itself off into Hollywood or clothing lines, flavored vodka or death, early retirement, Vegas acts or obscurity, I might’ve snuck my own constant loop of their best works in through headphones at home.

And if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have seemed so hopelessly out of the loop with Joe. We would’ve been swinging our outstretched arms from side-to-side together. But fortunately, I paid attention to the hook he sang that day, and “Elevators” became my earliest introduction to Outkast. I wish I could say I stuck closely to their discography from that day on, but I didn’t. I have my songs, my preciouses: “Rosa Parks,” “Liberation,” “In Due Time,” and yeah, “Ms. Jackson,” and yeah, “Hey Ya!“. Still. But I don’t claim to be a die-hard Outkast fan. What I can claim is that they would become one of the most vibrant, critical tiles in the mosaic of hip-hop comprehension I managed to cobble together before it became unrecognizable to me again.

I loved that they met and formed their group in high school, loved that they’d managed to hold onto each other as long as they did, even as it was obvious the root from which they sprang was splitting, clearly sprouting different fruit.

It isn’t easy.

My high school had its own inseparable duos. Plenty of them. But the ones I knew best were Ryan and Curtis, stars of our magnet program, who’d met a year earlier at our middle school. Ryan had come to us from California, which made him exotic. He didn’t talk or act like a Baltimorean and he didn’t dress like one. Back then, none of us knew much about different performances of blackness, but if we had, we would’ve recognized that the way he stood straight with his shoulders squared, the way when he liked a girl he just told her, the plainspeak of him without accent or accessible slang, was his own expression of culture. I don’t know if he was raised in a black community. But the rest of us were — and it had led us to very regional, perhaps limited, ideas about what being black meant. It was a testament to Ryan that the coastal exchange rate of his cool transferred so evenly at a new school in Baltimore.

Curtis more closely resembled us; he was raised in Baltimore (as far as I know) and he talked like it, an exaggerated “-ew” in his “-oo” words, a pronunciation of the word “dog” as “dug,” of “marry” as “murry” and “Murray” as “marry.” He dressed like it: loose, low-slung pants, polo shirts (which were in then), and Timbs.

By high school, Ryan and Curtis were a bonafide inseparable pair. They were comic powerhouses in the grand tradition of ’90s duos: Kenan and Kel, Marlon and Shawn Wayans, Theo and Cockroach, Dwayne Wayne and Ron. During high school, Curtis adopted the name Kaine, an homage to the lead in Menace II Society. I think Ryan just kept calling himself Ryan.

If you pay close enough attention to boys who are close like this, when you really observe them together, you understand that the ease of their fraternity belies something deeper. You won’t know much of what forged that bond or what welds it. But best believe: it is not as simple (or as perpetually fun) as it looks.

Outkast’s early oeuvre underscores that point.

One for the money yes uhh two for the show
A couple of years ago on Headland and Delowe
Was the start of somethin good
Where me and my nigga rodes the MARTA, through the hood
Just tryin ta find that hookup
Now everyday we look up at the ceiling
Watchin ceiling fans go around tryin ta catch that feelin  — Dre, “Elevators”

 

Got stopped at the mall the other day
Heard a call from the other way
that I just came from, some nigga was sayin somethin
talkin bout “Hey man, you remember me from school?”
Naw not really but he kept smilin like a clown
facial expression lookin silly
And he kept askin me, what kind of car you drive, I know you paid
I know y’all got buku of hoes from all them songs that y’all done made
And I replied that I had been goin through tha same thing that he had
True I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to last me
to the end of the week, I live by the beat like you live check to check
If you don’t move yo’ foot then I don’t eat, so we like neck to neck    — Dre, “Elevators” 

It’s a song about growing, about trying to carrying each other’s weight as you climb and the pressure of it and the nostalgia of lower stakes.

At some point during high school Curtis moved in with Ryan after his father took a job in another school district. It seemed to have made them even closer, more like actual brothers — with all the subtext attendant to sibling relationships — than friends. But I could be wrong.

I don’t know much about the inner lives of boys. It’s what makes consuming what they create and consume so significant. When they are thoughtful or wise, it comes across in the music. When they’ve been taught misogyny, there’s no hiding it. Their ethics waft up along with their vices, all flotsam fully visible on the surface of their songs and sayings.

Me and my nigga we roll together like Batman and Robin
We prayed together through hard times and swung hard when it was fitting
But now we tappin’ the brakes from all them corners that we be bending
In Volkswagens and Bonnevilles, Chevrolets and Coupe de Villes  – Big Boi, “Aquemini”

And sometimes you can tell by what they listen to, by which verses move them, which ones they can recite as easily as their family’s names, what is important to them, what will eventually sink them or carry them ashore.

Twice upon a time there was a boy who died
And lived happily ever after, but that’s another chapter
Live from home of the brave with dirty dollars
And beauty parlors and baby bottles and bowling ball Impalas
And street scholars that’s majoring in culinary arts
You know how to work bread, cheese and dough
From scratch but see the catch is you can get caught
Know what ya sellin’ what you bought  — Dre, “Aquemini”

After high school, you lose people or lose track of them. I did, anyway. I have no idea what happened to Ryan. But I know Curtis died. I didn’t find out until the weekend after his funeral. This was before social media. I found out from an old friend with whom I didn’t keep in regular touch, once we were in college. We happened to email each other that weekend. She said she thought I knew. But how could I have?

Back then, I thought high school — its dramas, high notes, all its sordid bonds and break-ups — was ballast you cast off on the way to adulthood. I didn’t keep close to anyone. I had yet to recognize its value.

Last night, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000″ Benjamin took to Coachella’s opening night stage and performed a collection of their hits for over an hour. When Big Boi chuckles as he calls out, “Outkast… twenty years,” it’s poignant for those of us who understand what it’s like to keep a friend that long or to lose one you wished you still had. And watching them at 39 perform songs they wrote in their early 20s, songs about a future they’re now living, a friendship — a brotherhood — they’ve managed to maintain, reminds us of something essential about ourselves.

We are here to record, recall, and recount each other’s stories. We are here to bond with one another, to laugh at crass jokes together, to say things we don’t actually mean and double down on problematic things that we do. We are here to change — ourselves and one another — and to remind each other of who we were before, to reel one another back in when we’ve gone too far. We’re here to leave each other, to grow our hair out and get strange and make our own music without one another. Then, we’re here to listen back when we’re alone and realize we’re good; we have our own chops; we can run a full race and win without our legs tied. But the three-legged race is better. We are not quite as good apart as we were when we first got together.

I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game
To stimulate then activate the left and right brain
Said baby boy you only funky as your last cut
You focus on the past your ass’ll be a has what
That’s one to live by or either that’s one to die to
I try to just throw it at you determine your own adventure
Andre, got to her station here’s my destination
She got off the bus, the conversation lingered in my head for hours
Took a shower kinda sour cause my favorite group ain’t comin with it
But I’m witchya cause you probably goin’ through it anyway
But anyhow when in doubt went on out and bought it
Cause I thought it would be jammin’ but examine all the flawsky-wawsky
Awfully sad and it’s costly, but that’s all she wrote
And I hope I never have to float in that boat
Up shit’s creek “it’s weak” is the last quote
That I want to hear when I’m goin’ down when all’s said and done
And we got a new joe in town
When the record player get to skippin and slowin down
All y’all can say is them niggas earned that crown but until then   — Dre, “Rosa Parks”

Letting Go of Graceland.

Image

In 1996′s Crooklyn, Zelda Harris (l) plays a daughter who doesn’t quite understand but deeply loves her father (Delroy Lindo).

The house was airy, small, like other old homes on side streets in northeast Grand Rapids: set on hills of uneven earth, floors of hardwood, walls my father had painted and trimmed in warm, thoughtful contrasts. It smelled of his soap and his cologne, of the dog he’d sent away in preparation for my arrival. By my early 20s, everyone took for granted that I was afraid of dogs, but my childhood cynophobia was starting to wane then. My father’s family had always taken it seriously — insomuch that I often stayed in their homes instead of his, in part to insulate me from the 60-pound breeds he preferred. When the terror seemed real — at some point, all dogs bared their teeth, gave chase, growled with unnegotiable menace, didn’t they? — I was grateful for their fastidiousness. But over time, all the special arrangements made me feel both guilty and quarantined. Over time, I wondered if the dogs weren’t an excuse for us to spend even more time apart.

The scent of fried fish or ground beef would commingle this air, but now the rooms were crisp and nearly antiseptic. My father loves to cook, his thin fingers skittering on the air over a skillet, drizzling minced garlic into it like rain. It is only after he’s done so that I can imagine any space I share with him as a kind of impermanent home.

I had been told before entering this house for the first time to expect my own bedroom. My aunt said it was lovely, just off the living room, and here it was to the left of the front door. She was right. The walls there were purple, because he knew it was my favorite color. The shag rug matched the walls and the bedspread was zebra print, a species I never would’ve imagined inhabiting a room I’d call my own. It wasn’t quite what I’d call my style, but in truth, I did not have a style. For years, I did not live in homes that allowed tenants to alter the colors of the walls or carpet. Instead, I made collages I rarely hung and slept under comforters I hadn’t chosen for myself. Though the room my father designed for me was not what I might’ve created for myself, it was thrilling to stand in, all the same. It was summer and sun soaked every inch of the space. I basked in it but offered a measured smile. “It”s really nice,” I said hoping I sounded pleased enough, impressed enough, happy enough.

He was between marriages. His first was when I was 20. I sobbed in a bathroom stall at the wedding. The marriage lasted just under two years; during it, I spoke to him on the phone maybe twice. It ended badly, but now that wife was gone and along with her a Great Dane my father had brought into the union and had loved at least as much as he loved me. She had convinced him to have the dog euthanized because its torn claw had bled onto her white carpet. In the dissolution he had also lost some of my childhood photographs. I wasn’t aware that he had been keeping any to begin with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think him emotionally capable; it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask, and now, before I could see for myself what he’d held of me and looked at during our long stretches of silence, they were gone.

The house was on a street called Graceland, and this was fitting — not because of any relationship to Elvis, who my father detested, convinced the crooner was a stone racist, but because I could already tell it was a landmark — a place fit for laughter and reconciliation, with a backyard just big enough to bury all our bygones.

I am accustomed to burial. I don’t remember anything that truly aches. It is all locked somewhere, entombed. I suspect this is why, even at my most joyous, I am also vaguely sad; my subconscious has been hefting a graveyard of suppressed memory.

1973's 'Paper Moon' features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O'Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he's her biological father, even as the cross the Dust Bowl running cons on country folk and warming to each other.

1973′s ‘Paper Moon’ features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O’Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he’s her biological father, even as they cross the Depression Era Dust Bowl conning on country folk and reluctantly warming to each other.

I don’t remember my father before I was seven. We lived hundreds of miles apart from the time I was four until I was 27. I saw him during summers. And sometimes I only saw his mother and sisters, even when he was right in town. He didn’t call or write much. Some years, I spotted Friend of the Court check stubs in my mother’s bedroom. Some years, I did not. I remember the amount of the checks; it changed. Most years, it was not enough to feed me for a full month, not enough to buy a prom dress or two full new outfits at the outset of a school year. It may have been enough for a sturdy pair of sneakers — on sale — and, perhaps, one dinner entree at a family-style restaurant — with a coupon. No one complained about this. I knew early the cost of such complaints. Some men were jailed. Others ran when they saw their children on the street. They blamed the mothers, blamed the child. The better men also blamed themselves. (The best only blame themselves.) But all this blame was far too large a barter for a few extra dollars in a monthly check.

We kept quiet, and I learned, like most children whose names appear in family court cases, that what a man spends on you is no measure by which to gauge his love. It is no measure of love at all. Men rarely spend much on me. I’m afraid to want it, afraid to accept it. I never ask. And if he does spend more than I can afford for myself, I offer to pay it back. The men I choose tend to accept that offer.

When I was little, my father spent years without consistent access to a telephone. He said he didn’t like them, but what I heard was that he didn’t like me. If he was fine not having a phone, he was fine not talking to me. I have come to consider time as the more telling expenditure. Those with whom you choose to spend yours matter most.

We are still horrible about keeping in touch. We both have phones.

He was only renting the Graceland house, but for the right long-term tenant, the owners would consider a sale. Against my better judgment, I fell for the place, with all its evidence of my father’s enthusiasm to enfold me in his new life’s sanctum. Me! who’d never had a room in a home where he’d lived in all my days. Sure, it had come after I was grown, in the aftermath of a divorce, but perhaps this was best. I was still young enough at 22 to learn what it felt like to be the kind of only child who could, at any moment, command her father’s undivided attention. Here, I could experience him at his least encumbered, his most hopeful.

Dad beams when he’s done something right. Puffed-chested and preening, he pretends in those moments that he is a man who never gets it wrong. His voice can shrug on a cloak of dismissive confidence. Of course. Absolutely.

But when the braggadocio has been rubbed raw, his voice can also quaver, his eyes turning glassy and brimming with watery hope. I’m sorry. I should never have. I won’t again.

He is an actor. I have seen him play any number of leads. Flawed, hulking men who scoff at and cheat on their understated wives, heaving the great sighs of fallen heroes, convinced the whole world has done them wrong. He has been Jelly Roll Morton. Walter Lee Younger. Coalhouse Walker. Troy Maxson. Audrey II. He can pitch himself into any posture. This is a skill that only serves to make his true feelings more inscrutable.

I stayed with him in the Graceland house for an uninterrupted weekend. We fell into our easy pattern of watching rented movies and movies on cable and movies in theaters. He prepared our ritual meals: taco salad, expansive breakfasts, fried seafood. I am always most certain he loves me when I taste the food he’s cooked for me. There is a care, a precision, but also something daring, untraceable, perhaps the singular spice of his hands.

Like many black men, he is an insomniac, nocturnal. On the rare occasions I stayed over with him, I wanted to match him minute for waking minute. We could stay up till 2 a.m. before one of us dozed; it was usually him. And I talked years into those minutes, all those missing months we’d spent apart. I wanted to make him laugh, to keep him current on who I was becoming and what I was accomplishing. I wanted to keep him. On those nights, I sounded most like my mother.

My mother’s voice is a marathon; she is talkative in a way that can be physically exhausting. As a conversationalist, I am more of a leisurely jogger. It is hard to keep up. I am not conditioned to listening or speaking at length. My father is much more like me; when a room has emptied of everyone but us, he doesn’t say much at all. He is comfortable with silence. I suspect he wishes he had more of it.

It’s rare and has been more recent, but I have seen him take off his outside self, the pelt of him that laughs raucously and recounts all the fights he’s gotten into and survived, the actor’s self. And I have found him in a chair, spectacles set low on his nose, peering at the pages of a thick trade paperback, wearing a frowzy sweater. In those moments, he looks ten years older than he is, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.

If I had known that he could be so much like me in that way, I would not have worked so hard to fill our silences. He did not need to be entertained. And I never felt that my performances were good enough, anyway. They served only to teach me another wrong lesson: you cannot expect your love for someone to reroute the trajectory of his life — and it is possible to be deeply loved by someone with whom you will always feel your wants hold too little weight.

Toward the end of the weekend in the Graceland house, my father told me he didn’t know how long he could keep it. He had lost a job shortly after renting it and the payments were beginning to overtax him. Oh, but it’s only a matter of budgeting! I said, sitting up straighter in my chair. We can do this, I thought (and may’ve said aloud; I don’t remember). If you want it enough, we can keep it.

I suppose I knew by the time I walked out of the house that this would be my only visit. I had had enough similar experiences with him to know what he would see fit to hold and what he would turn loose.

After the summer, he moved in with the woman who would become his second wife. I did not sob in a bathroom stall at their wedding. When I sleep in their home, it’s in a guest room next to theirs. Their two dogs are always present. I am not afraid. They refer to the three of us as their children. Now, they both cook. It is different, but nice.

I have long since let go of the Graceland house; I wasn’t there long enough to grow attached to it. But letting go of the glimpses my best moments with my father gave into what might’ve been a different life, what might’ve been a healthier relationship with him, is much harder. Years ago, we could’ve been capable of more. We could’ve coexisted in that quiet home where what we needed from each other stood a chance of being better understood. And if this had been so, it would be easier now for me to leave other men whose expressions of love feel delayed or intermittent. How hard it is has been to reconcile that which I once knew was possible with that which currently is.

And even this is a lesson: as long as there is life, new grace can be extended and accepted. But we cannot restore what has been left too long to rot. The rot must be discarded, its girders leveled and gutted. It is rigorous work that so many of us are less inclined to undertake in our advancing age. But say we do begin. Say we were to both agree to bruise ourselves, rebuilding again. If new blueprints are drawn, they must be rendered with steady, unflinching hands. Every need — space and time and true forgiveness — should be made more explicit and all that has been buried must be bared.

Let’s Talk More About Intercontinental Blackness.

Note: If this post seems dated, it is. I wrote it a couple weeks ago, but not for this space. I pitched it to another publication that ultimately opted to pass on it. It also isn’t written in a voice entirely consistent with my other work here, but that, too, is because I intended to publish it elsewhere. If it helps, some of the content in Smith and Adichie’s discussion has become quite relevant in the past two days, with the news of first-generation American of Ghanaian descent Kwasi Enin who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. USA Today’s report on Enin’s accomplishment goes out of its way to include this quote from a college admissions expert: “He’s not a typical African American kid.” At any rate, I hope you’ll read and engage it. 

tumblr_n30xcfVcuP1qaboh9o1_250tumblr_n30xcfVcuP1qaboh9o2_250

Begin with the common ground. It will, at first, seem hard to find, hidden as it is by a thick underbrush of assumption — African immigrants in the U.S. are haughty; African Americans don’t respect themselves — and tangled as it is in the foliage of frustration — Africans come to America and distance themselves; black Americans distance themselves by not bothering to distinguish between African countries’ histories. Yes, the common ground will seem miniscule at first; we are all so invested in our distinct cultural identities, all so protective when discussion about them is broached. But if we are ever going to have candid conversations about our intercontinental experiences of blackness, we’ll need to begin at the borders we share.

Authors Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had this in mind on March 19 when they shared a stage at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Their conversation primarily centered on Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, which grapples with the differences in the ways American-born blacks and African immigrants perceive (and internalize) race and racism in America. Since its release last year, Americanah has gradually made more public the long-simmering tensions between many black Americans and people of color born and raised abroad.

This public discourse is long overdue. Never before have black intercultural experiences been so multifarious in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the African foreign-born population doubled in size, growing from 881,300 to 1.6 million. And the recent raised profile of black British actors in America has deepened our need for nuance. This was readily apparent at this year’s NAACP Image Awards when host Anthony Anderson spent much of his opening monologue making superficial differences between black American and black British actors a running joke. He couldn’t seem to let go of accents and “difficult-to-pronounce” names such as Idris Elba (who is of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent), Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo (both of Nigerian descent) and Lupita Nyong’o (of Kenyan descent).

The show could have used its opening to build a transcontinental admiration society, encouraging us to look into some of the actors’ pre-Hollywood work or to note how many languages and accents they’ve had to learn to work in the U.S. film industry. But Anderson went for the shallowest observations, at a time when our need for nuance and depth couldn’t be more imperative. A few viewers balked at Anderson’s divisive jokes on Twitter, stating, “I really wish Anthony Anderson would quit the African vs. African American nonsense. It’s ignorant and unnecessary,” and “Black Twitter needs to handle whoever wrote Anthony Anderson’s opening monologue.” But Anderson’s lazy either/or quips are representative of larger incurious ideas about what black looks and sounds like in America and abroad — ideas that should be publicly challenged at every turn.

Challenging cultural assumptions seemed the order of the day, as Zadie Smith interviewed Adichie at the Schomburg — especially as Smith, herself of Jamaican and British descent, shared her perceptions of Nigerians and, at times, asked Adichie to confirm or debunk them. “Every Nigerian in London says they’re a prince, and we have no evidence otherwise,” Smith quipped. “There are maybe two princes in the whole damn country,” Adichie replied. They shared how the American use of “brother” and “sister” as racialized terms of endearment is foreign to them. “No black person in England would call me sister in a million years,” Smith noted, while Adichie said Nigerians do use “sister,” but it isn’t racialized.

zadiequote

This kind of “We do this. Do you?” tone permeated the discussion — and some topics elicited responses that seemed aware of how close every word might draw them toward a conversational landmine. Both writers’ faces seemed to brighten when they unearthed a shared experience or custom. And where their ideas and perceptions diverged, they listened intently, set on reaching an understanding. To be sure, they both had very specific ideas about African Americans and about America’s approach to engaging racial discourse. “In America, there is a willful denial of history,” Adichie observed. Both agreed that whites in the U.S. find it difficult to understand the role of race, and Adichie further mused, “I keep thinking: how can white people not get it, if they know the history of America?”

It was a bit disorienting, as an African American woman, watching these black women born and raised abroad discuss the function and dysfunction of race in U.S. It always is. Race plays such a central (and fraught and psychological and emotional role) in my experience as an American that it’s fairly surreal listening to women of color discuss it with the distance of cultural anthropologists. That insularity can be a barrier to African Americans’ candor with black immigrants.

But there was no denying Zadie Smith’s and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s deep reverence for the black experience in this country. Smith, having seen a documentary with graphic depictions of public lynching, long before visiting the U.S., admitted to Adichie, “The first time I came to America, I couldn’t believe the streets weren’t burning.” Adichie also acknowledged, “The ethnic group I most admire in America is African Americans.” It was as important for me to hear their affirmation of my racial history and experience here as it was for me to listen to their own experiences of blackness in the U.K. and Nigeria.

In truth, there is more at stake in African immigrants’ and African Americans’ conversations with one another than in our interactions with whites in the U.S. Often, whites in America view the experience of blackness as a flat plain, regardless of complexion or nationality; here, stereotypes are primarily assigned by skin color, not country of birth or rearing. In the context of white supremacy, blackness is associated with primativism, regardless of where the black experience is lived. Even when this isn’t overtly expressed and even when, as in Smith’s and Adichie’s cases, black immigrants are considered “good black” because they aren’t African American, they still are not insulated from racism here.

This is where we find our largest plot of common ground. In America, racism visits us all. The currents our ancestors have crossed, even when traveling toward destinations that couldn’t be more far-flung from one another suggest that we stand a strong chance of forging crosscultural bonds. But doing so will mean tossing away the chaff of a loaded question’s intimations before answering it. , Adichie did this at the Schomberg when an audience member asked her to speak directly to her impressions of African-African American relations in the U.S. She ventured gingerly, “We’re trying to forge the bonds between Africans and African Americans, not crack them,” and stuck with a short answer. Keeping our tenuous bonds from cracking will also mean treading lightly along those borders we do share; the most innocuous misstep can derail our bridge-building efforts. It will mean holding some hearsay in reserve; not every rumor about another culture bears repeating. And we must refrain, no matter how tempting, from taking new acquaintances to task for past slights we’ve borne at the hands of their countrymen.

When we begin to pull up the overgrowth of our cultural misconceptions, we find that there is nothing flat about this plain. It is mountainous and nourishing and fertile. We come bearing our different kernels of truth, and it is only when we openly share them that our common ground can widen and our intercultural understanding can grow.

What Contraceptive Ignorance Costs Us All.

tumblr_inline_n07m55ri231r12si9

^^ The adults in my life, on the issue of birth control. ^^

I was taught nothing of birth control. In the white-walled rooms of youth groups where we buried our noses in bibles and pretended the promise or memory of sex wasn’t palpable, we were not permitted to ask. And in our nightfallen homes, the flicker of TV-light dancing on the weary, work-ashen faces of our parents, we dared not bring it up.

I did not have friends who I knew were on it, did not discuss its dire need among the ones who were already smitten and surreptitious. I wouldn’t hear any of my girls openly, casually discuss it till we were in our mid-20s and even then, the possible side effects sounded terrifying: bloating and rapid weight gain, mysterious acne and blood clots, uncertainty attendant to possible misuse.

Contraceptives felt like contraband, something to be secreted away or shrouded in enigma and shame, if used at all. It would take years for me to truly understand the vital need for a woman’s vigilance around procuring it.

I had sex for the first time at 24, a week before my 25th birthday. A condom was used, and this set a precedent: one partner, one form of contraception, one party responsible for securing and using it (him). My first pap test was during that 25th year, with a black woman in a Midwestern city who did not press me on the issue of birth control. She asked if I was fine with condoms. I nodded meekly. Her lips became a terse line as she jotted this down in my chart. We moved on.

The same happened at my grad school clinic a year later after a pap. “You and your partner are welcome to explore any contraception you wish. Or none, if you’re exclusive and tested. It’s up to you.”

And so it was that I never saw up close the oblong compact I could gingerly open, looking down and comparing it to a theatre in the round: each compartment a tiny seat, each pill a fully paid ticket to bodily freedom.

No one told me there were springy bits of copper and plastic that could be positioned inside you for years, preventing all possibility of pregnancy. I knew little of the patches we could press to the backsides of shoulders or the sexiest curve of our hips, patches that withstood the daily pulse of shower-water and willed their potion firmly under our skin.

I was doggedly incurious and there were many reasons: the long-distance nature of my relationship made physical intimacy infrequent — far too infrequent to warrant the constant use of a contraceptive. And what would come of my body? Would it rebel, resist, reconfigure? Would I be labeled loose if the pills or patch were discovered by the women who’d never seen for to tell me they existed in the first place? Would an IUD lodge itself someplace precarious? Would I forget to use whatever I chose?

Would it fail? Would I?

I was not raised to prepare for premarital sex but rather for any number of punishments that could befall me in its wake.

Indeed, my pregnancy at 29 was considered, by some, to be some sort of handed-down sentence. Among those for whom discussion of birth control remains a hushed or silenced subject, conceiving you seemed evidence of a fundamental failing. And to the extent that it is true that I’ve failed at anything, it is at handing responsibility for my body over to a partner whose stake in its reproductive health is, necessarily, far lower than my own. It is at not investigating all the (then relatively unthreatened) options open to me. It is at leaving so many stones of knowledge unturned.

Contraceptive ignorance is far costlier than a prescription. It limits the conversations we can comfortably enter, armed with an informed opinion, an educated vote. And, to be sure, remaining willfully ignorant of the myriad roles of contraception — those far beyond the mere prevention of pregnancy, far beyond the myopic scope of stigma — makes us complicit in every legislative battle women and men are waging to retain affordable access to birth control and care.

Pretending we are not sexually active often enough to need it directly threatens the rights of those who are certain that they do.

Make no mistake, the decisions to conceive and give birth to you were entirely mine. No legislator told me I had to; I was not barred any preventive prescription I would’ve needed, had I made a different choice. I want you to grow up in a society where the same is true for you.

You are still so little. I am still so out of my depth. How will I give you a wide, unobscured berth of information when I am still cobbling my own knowledge together in bits and pieces? What exactly will we say when we whisper close, over cocoa, ’round issues of sex, reproduction, contraception, and faith?

I have time to yet to figure it out, but I am alarmed at how fast that time is dwindling. I am equally alarmed at how many of your options are dangling in the balance.

There is no way of predicting what, precisely, you’ll need. Every woman is a wonder, in her capacity to decide what is best for herself. And this, of course, is where we will begin. This is your God-given body. This is your God-given mind. This is your God-given will. These are the tools you must use to lay claim to your every choice.

The Gentrification of Online Safe Spaces.

Image
 
No space is ever truly safe, even if we are in it alone. Alone, we are subject to tricks of the mind, the echoes of others’ expectations, the sudden bombast of forgotten obligations and regrets, resounding as soon as we endeavor to rest. With others, the presumption of safety can be a perilous, even fatal, misstep. But most of us have our crouching spots and crawl spaces: a parent’s house with its abundance of downy comforters, a best friend’s guest bed, a lover’s embrace. 
 
Those of us who have the privilege of such spaces may find it easier to believe that they can be replicated elsewhere. Those who do not may be eager to find them anywhere. 
 
The Internet affords both of these camps their illusions. Here, we are at once alone and among innumerable others; depending on where we position ourselves on any day, on any site, with any moderated number of virtual friends or followers, we can imagine ourselves impervious to harm. 
 
This is one of few explanations for the many things we allow ourselves to divulge online: admissions that, if uttered aloud, would send the palms of our hands flying up to our mouths; the signs of extended mourning we hide from those who would rather hear a simple “I’m okay.”; all the secret prejudices we’ve gotten so deft at pretending we do not hold. We are telling on ourselves with alarming ease and frequency; it can only be because we have forgotten the Internet is unsafe — or that we have reached a point where we have too little left to lose. 
 
Recently, Twitter, one of the most popular of my online spaces, has been locked in bitter land wars over intellectual property and moral obligation. I’ve watched, most often neutrally, as users have registered surprise, disappointment and betrayal when the experiences and ideas they’ve committed to their public accounts have been published elsewhere — with and without permission, usually with attribution. 
 
Those reproducing their work are often doing so for daily content websites and cable news outlets — large corporate conglomerates who stand to gain revenue from the publication of tweets that writers hoped would be viewed within the confines of their online communities alone. 
 
Once that perimeter is breached, reality becomes starker: every emotion, secret, and assertion was always up for the general public’s consumption; we’d just been able to push the idea of it — that our little corner of claimed space would hold such currency for others — out of our minds. Nothing once believed to be safe ever was; the scales of insularity fall from our eyes and we see that out carefully tended online communities were never really ours. 
 
It’s easy for those who do not use the Internet (or those who use it with more strategic and sterile intent) to mock this. Always, the immediate aftermath in the face of an online community’s outcry is: Why didn’t you read the fine print? Your safe space was merely leased, never owned. Why did you entrust so much of yourself to it?
 
These questions are as central to defining ourselves as they are to nailing down why we use the Internet, despite how susceptible it leaves us to ill-treatment.
 
For those in need of attention, escape, an opportunity to deliver weighty confessions into passively receptive void, an online space will always be a tempting oasis. A dangerous community is still a community, our relationship with it wary and imperfect yet filled with the shared camaraderie of survivors. If we can still come to our online spaces, open and imparting, at the risk of identity theft, harassment, and rejection, it is safe to assume we believe there is much left to redeem in the niches of the Internet we’ve carved out for ourselves.
 
It is hard to abandon what you’ve built, even when it’s been breached, even when the confessions we sought to gate with privacy settings, block buttons, comment disabling, or tacit trust agreements are advertised to a broader, more cutthroat culture. We see in our own online musings exactly what the people who are paid to parse and promote them see: potential. Leased or owned, a homestead is worth defending, even as its former glory fades and we are enticed by the buy-out of bigger audiences.
 
Maybe these are unwinnable battles. We enter the Internet at our own risk and leave it with every risk brought to fruition. But I, for one, am not ready to give up on the power of online self-expression. I know well what offering one’s vulnerabilities to a semi-anonymous forum can do for its members. Perhaps there is something left to hold out for, after all. Perhaps we should just do so while with thicker bars on our windows and walls. 
 
 

Some of Us Just Want to Be Unbossed.

tumblr_n28fp0mFKQ1rskga0o1_400

Patriarchy wrings young women dry. It tells girls who were raised in households where men were not present that their mother’s ability to thrive in a man’s absence was not a testament to her strength but evidence of his rejection. When a mother internalizes this, her daughters are raised under a specter of spurning. Every action and word they witness is instructive: this is how to act when you are a woman and mother on your own: decisive, assertive, impatient, frustrated and curt, entirely confident and selectively cooperative. This is how to own yourself: be unapologetic; accept that it may mean remaining alone.

But a daughter raised this way may not immediately ascertain the appeal. She may be lured instead by the promise of men’s presence, by the challenge attendant to compelling them to stay. And she may act in all ways opposite her mother’s example to curry their favor.Learn to cook, she might note, not what you love but what he will eat. Learn to let a last male word — even (and perhaps especially) a foolish one — linger in the air. If it is foul, pretend not to notice its stench. Allow him its echo. The last word is a preservation of dignity. Women who shout down humiliate.

(But what of our dignity? What of our own humiliation?) 

*  *  *
I was ten when the only man who ever lived with us moved in. He told me, early and often — whenever I wanted to be heard, whenever I seemed to be more than an ornamental fixture of a marriage he barely wanted — that I was disrespectful or ungrateful for his guidance, provision, and presence. If I said: you are wrong; if I said: I’ve not done what you’re accusing me of; if I said: I am not who you’ve convinced yourself I am, he would take these words to my mother. If I brought the words to my mother first, he accused us of conspiring against him: peasants attempting to overthrow a king.

In marriage, my mother was bossed, her husband a man not given to ceding the final say. Over time, she learned to be meek. If peacekeeping meant to defer — or, as our churches taught wives, to submit — she would. But she had to contort herself to do so, had to twist like wet laundry to be left out in the wind and pretend that being limply pinned,  absorbing  her husband’s hot air, was a welcome aspiration.And sometimes when we were alone, in the quiet of a house for which he paid, she would tell me to throw the fight. Accept the charge. Nod at the accusation. You know who you are. It does not matter what he calls you. It’s his house. Let him win. 

Bossy. Boss. Bossed. None held much appeal. None were winnable.

I was not raised in the manner of girls whose anthems and aspirations instruct them to run things. I would not know where to begin, if I were told I should govern myself as though the world were a corporation and I, its CEO.

I was raised to know who I am but to keep quiet about it.

*  *  *
My daughter is months away from four. Every day for the past two years, I have watched her struggle to coax words up from her consciousness — where they seem to be quite clear to her — and out through her mouth, where they often sound garbled to the naked ear. Sometimes, she wails in frustration. Sometimes, she barrels through, happily chattering as though she is fully understood. And sometimes her expression clouds because she knows, looking into the face of the listener, that she is not.
I would never have learned the importance of raising my voice if I had not watched her wrestle so with hers. Her language is swimming upstream, but she calls out over the current. I will be heard, is what I always hear, whether I understand the words or not.

And I would not have understood being assertive if it had not become so essential to advocate for her. Regularly, I weave in and out of meetings, in and out of conversations, where her development, her hearing, and her cognition are assessed and questioned. It becomes ever clearer that managing someone who cannot manage herself requires an absence of ego, an open ear, a willingness to give oneself over to the study of what best serves her needs and her interests. This kind of leadership hinges not on being acknowledged as a boss but as a confidante, not as a superior intellect but as a constant student. We do not become assertive by telling others what to do; we do it by informing them of what we will and will not abide.tumblr_lyyqjuu3jI1qeoyjlo1_400I am an opter out of many discussions. Whether to embrace or repudiate the term “bossy” is one of them. But I know well the damage that is done when young women and girls are not taught to speak on their own behalf. I know what fighting to own oneself looks like and how terrifying it is to watch a woman go slack under the guise of submission. I have contorted myself for men who’ve seen no need to do the same. And I’ve worked for and with difficult, yet enviably self-possessed, folks of many genders.

It is always the better lot to own yourself, to carry your voice across the current, to insist that you should and will be heard. And it is often the better lot to be gentle — not only with others, but also with yourself. Label this however you will; it is an ideal way to live.

Let every man and woman who wants power pursue it, but not at your expense. Power isn’t the ability to make others bend to your will; it is possessing sole guardianship of your will. If you would be “bossy” about anything, let it be about how you will be addressed and defined. Let it be about who cannot enter your space with the intent to tamp you down. Let it be in the stead of those who have gone limp or shrugged off their wills and thrown them at the feet of someone they love. Let it be for those who have been treated as though they are incapable of governing themselves at all.

Some of us are best off calling ourselves unbossed. Like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, we want history to remember us, not for the professional goals we accomplished or for ascending through ranks often dominated by men, but for the larger feat of holding onto ourselves in the process.

When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

tumblr_n1uoglCvBv1smnm8eo1_250tumblr_n1uoglCvBv1smnm8eo2_250

This is a story of an elegance carefully cultivated. This is no sudden ascendancy to delicate silks and bold brocades, no tale of a girl plucked from obscurity or hardship, conferred the brass ring of Tinseltown by princely powers-that-be. It is, instead, a story of privilege, of justice. It is what happens when a Kenyan senator entrusts his daughter’s post-secondary education to The Yale School of Drama, rather than insisting she study medicine or law or finance. And these — the highest accolades in the field — are what’s expected when such a daughter is daring enough to pursue a life in pictures, within a family of professors, physicians, and politicians.

This is not a reality as well known to American black girls with silver screen ambitions. We watch our stateside actresses languish in Hollywood for decades, delivering pounds of flesh just for bit parts: girlfriends in black films and girlfriends in white films and staid, put-upon wives in comedies, action films, biopics. And yes, even now, the occasional brave domestic, even now, the harrowingly tortured slave. We see them shed their apple-cheeked innocence all too quickly, becoming more vocal and more cynical about the dearth of complex and meaty work for them to do as they age.

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?

tumblr_n1uyraUeOu1rdf2ito1_500

We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.

But the story of Nyong’o’s near-instant entree to the A-list is uniquely her own. She stars in an elegant, brutal British film about American slavery, deeply connecting with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s. And she graciously accepts a well-deserved Oscar for that portrayal without having to carry the full weight of the awards’ contentious racial history.

If she hears any naysaying speculation, any claims that she “only” got the Oscar for playing a slave or that the win isn’t one the black community can fully claim because she “isn’t ‘black’ enough,” the criticism will not dampen the moment, will not force her to interrogate her joy to the degree that it would for an American black actress.

She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)

It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.

It would be easiest to succumb to the skepticism I’ve been keeping at bay. I know America; it’s my homeland. It is not Nyong’o’s. I’d imagine — and I could well be wrong — that she is coming into Hollywood with the un-self-conscious approach to race that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah heroine Ifemelu (and indeed, Adichie herself) have brought with them to this country.  Adichie was famously quoted last year as saying that American blackness did not initially occur to or appeal to her:

In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. She will play plenty of other roles, but she will not feel “relegated” to stereotypical portrayals in quite the way that American black actresses do.

I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

Watch with me. And just you wait.

Stacia’s Minor Notes and Writing You May Have Missed.

Today marks the beginning of the third month of the year, and I must admit I’m feeling a bit untethered. After years of cultivating a very specific voice for this blog, I’m having a harder time conjuring it these days — and I’ve been allowing that to stop me from updating as much as I’d like. Aside from my last piece, which was the most viewed post in the history of this blog and which was picked up at the American Prospect, I’ve only updated one other time this year.

Freelance writing also seems to be slower at this point in 2014 than it was by this time last year.

Even so, here’s what I’ve published since 2014:

  • A piece on a Melissa Harris-Perry Show faux-scandal that already seems like it happened a lifetime ago.
  • Something about how white the Golden Globes are and how infuriating that was this year.
  • Musings on a mall shooting in Columbia, Maryland at the mall where I most often take my daughter.
  • And this piece, written in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which I wound up really being proud of, even though I had one of the details wrong.
  • I also wrote this about mothering and teaching mothers in a college setting.

I’ve read two novels, too. Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, not to be released until May of this year, and Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men. Here are my impressions/reviews of them on Goodreads. And did y’all know I also have a Tumblr, where I occasionally do some creative microblogging?

Here are a few pieces I’m only highlighting here because they’d be hard to find there, between my copious reblogs of Chiwetel Ejiofor photos:

http://one-offs-from-slb79.tumblr.com/post/77119720682/stop-wanting-pack-your-jaws-with-paper-chew-the

http://one-offs-from-slb79.tumblr.com/post/76710516711/i-know-too-little-about-men-ive-only-ever-lived

http://one-offs-from-slb79.tumblr.com/post/76600977441/you-know-what-youre-ready-for-it-isnt-this-it

Because 2013 was an amazing, prolific, incomparable year, I’ve been putting a good deal of pressure on myself to keep pace or outperform. But as the first quarter of the year begins to draw to a close, I’m just going to keep steadily at work. If you’re like me — prone to anxiety and hard on yourself — I’d encourage you to join me and do the same.

We Have Known Boys (But None Have Been Bullet-Proof).

Image

Jordan Davis (1995-2012)

I have known black boys, known them in airless classrooms where the scent of their too-strong cologne worked overtime masking the cling of their sweat to skin and hormones. And I have known their scratching, grabbing, tugging at the belt loops of too-big pants, have involuntarily memorized the plaids and imprints on their boxers.

I have known boys like underripe fruit, a pit of eventual sweetness at the core of them, encased in a bitter pulp, toughening from too little tending or underexposure to light. I have watched them become principles in death when they were not finished learning what it would mean to be principled in life.

I have known them nursing dreams with slimming odds of realization, heard them reasoning with the wardens behind their private walls, scraping at the doors some white man’s stubborn shoulder intended to force closed.

Listen. You have heard them, smelled them, touched them, too. Groping boys. Maddening boys. Boys who, had they the luxury of longer lives, would grow to regret how they treated girls, how they dodged their daughters or fought the smallest dudes on the yard.

Had they lived, they would’ve shuffled home, hats in hand, hugged their mamas, clapped their daddies’ shoulders, nodded like men who understood remorse, who’d been leveled by regret and learned to talk about it.

Had they lived, they would’ve borne enough concussions to concede their desire for millions at the the expense of unscathed minds. And maybe they would’ve been Marines like Jordan Davis hoped he might be, maybe aviators like Trayvon envisioned himself or husbands like Jonathan Ferrell and Sean Bell were so close to becoming. Maybe they would’ve grown to guess that the cost of longer life was a hunching of one’s height at a white woman’s door, a soft knock rather than the screams that often escape the frantic or crowded or injured. Maybe they would’ve conceived children with women with whom they couldn’t bear to live — and all over again, they would find themselves having to grow, to lean toward a quickly dimming light and to become tender when it was far more tempting to coarsen.

They would’ve learned to be less clumsy, less clawing, to kiss as though they had the promise of many unthreatened years. They might have lived long enough to make tenuous sense of the finite number of American fates black men meet, long enough to marry well, then poorly, then well again.

Perhaps.

But we are losing them too soon to know, while they are yet boys. We are replanting our underripe fruit, graveyards becoming our gardens, and tending far more memories of boys than moments with full-grown men. It gets harder to talk to these could-have-been-towering trees, these possibly-flowering plants whose fruits we’ll never know.

And every day, there are new boys among us. We raindance for them. Grow. Live. We campaign for them. Grow. Live. We keep them from harm even when harm might be their better mentor. Hide. Grow. Live. And we guess for them. Grow. Live. And we know for them. Grow! Live! Living alone never ensures what a boy will become, but black men, above all, are the boys spared long enough to live. This is the look of hope, our lowest bar to clear: boys reaching bullet-free adulthood and outreaching everyone’s fear.

Our Slowly Recalibrating Ears.

Image

My daughter, age 3

I was hoping for something immediate; we’d put them in and every word she uttered would be comprehensible because she could hear the highs, the lows, the hisses of them, could distinguish the curling in of the lips around M’s and the baring of teeth for the N’s. And maybe the selfsame night, we would curve our bodies together like the twin-bed-sharing contortionists we so often become and have, for the very first time, an unconfused conversation.

You rush her along, her father insisted two nights before our audiology appointment. She’s only three. She’s a baby.

He is right; in my mind, I am rushing it all along — not just our daughter’s development, but ours, as parents, as co-parents, as individuals able to contentedly compromise. We still do not know how difficult all of this is for the other. Our feelings are passing ships. Afloat, alone, at the ends of our days, we are too busy nursing our private wounds to be beacons for one another.

The hearing aids are inconspicuous. The amplifiers, a deep indigo, tuck neatly behind her ears. The molds are translucent, two shades lighter than her skin; they curl around the cartilage and settle just inside the ear canals. Kim, the audiologist, urges us both to take turns pressing them in and demonstrates how to remove the batteries.

Both exercises take me two tries; her father does them by rote. Today, I am too ginger, a bit disengaged. Today, he is the one sitting with her in his lap, listening as though he lives with us.

This is his first trip to the audiologist’s office. It is my fourth. I am alone at the meetings with her hearing instructors, alone at her IEP meetings. He tells me, all the time, that I am not in fact alone; that he is also here: worrying, scheduling, purchasing, negotiating, budgeting.

But his here is too often metaphysical. He is here, but he resides across the country. He is here, but not in a way that allows me to remain asleep when our daughter wakes at 4 a.m. or to write when she needs a bath. He is here, but he cannot hear her when she asks for him, cannot discipline her when my patience is papery, brittle. He is here while ever urging me to uproot and move myself and our daughter there.

It is true that I rush. I am eager for that other shore, where this will be well resolved, but I do not wish to abandon my ship to reach it. Neither does he. These ships are tall, are sprawling. We’ve built them, for better or worse, apart. Our ships are all we have.

The batteries last just 7-10 days. Their strength can be determined in one of two ways:

1. Hold the hearing aid in the palm of a hand. Open, then close the fingers. Listen. If there is sound, not unlike a microphone’s feedback, the batteries are working.

2. Affix one end of an external tube to the part of the earmold that fits into her ear canal; hold the other end to my own ear. Say something. Listen. If I am louder, clearer, more distinct: the batteries are working.

She came home with the aids in her ears, and before long, my mother was teary. She had not taken discussions of buying them well, insisting that they were unnecessary, resolute about other speech and language methods we should try before conscripting her to what she felt was an ill and too-early fate. She just needs time, she would press. She just needs time.

But she was with me when the tests were run. We sat thigh to thigh while the baby was sedated, watched and waited in silence while the probes in her ears and on her forehead produced squiggles and ticks and graphs. We both heard the assessment, the recommendation: though this isn’t the type of hearing loss that will progress, it is also not the type that goes away.

This day was always coming. She just felt rushed along.

I, on the other hand, keep feeling like we’re lagging behind. Teachers have been asking for months when we would get these tiny devices. Her pediatrician has called me, questioning, pressing. Her deaf and hearing impaired instructors have called me in for meetings, have played sound files that simulate what noise sounds like in our ears compared to in hers. Everyone else with a stake in our girl has insisted: the sooner, the better.

When everyone wants to know when, it’s the mothers who are markers of time.

These decisions should ultimately be ours, her father says. Promise we’ll be the last word in making choices for our daughter. He is asking us to be noise-cancelers for each other.

We are, is what I tell him. But what’s truer is that, for now, these decisions are mine. I act as my own filter of what voices are welcomed in or canceled out. So often, I am hearing them alone. And explanations are expected, not of us, but of me.  He is the disembodied voice, enforcing via phone; I am the one who walks in through the door. Here.

It has never made much sense to me why he is not. But I’ve grown quite adept at pretending, at nodding my head as though it’s all coming in clearly.

She can take them out with one fluid movement. Mama, she says, extending them both in the cease of her hand. Ears. Maybe she thinks they’re an extra set, ears for their own sake, lonely for a body to befriend. Maybe when she hands them to me she is saying: these friends are beginning to bore me.

The goal is to get her to wear them at all times except during baths, naps, and bedtime. For now, she is primarily wearing them to school and when we are alone at home. A weariness befalls the house when she wears them with my mother and grandmother here. They do not like to handle them; they sneak skeptical glances. And in the hidden space where I am squirreling away private anxieties, their unease makes me question myself in ways that I cannot let on.

We are all being tested like her batteries. Opening, closing ourselves: waiting for feedback. I have no problem listening, but it’s my voice that needs to be amplified. If I am louder, clearer, more distinct, my daughter will hear what she needs.

Before, I imagined immediacy: her face lighting up, clear sentences coursing through her lips in streams. But now that they’re finally here, I can’t really tell what difference the hearing aids are making in her experience of sound. She never resists them. From the very first day, she has welcomed them — at least for awhile — without any protest at all.  Once or twice, with them in, I have heard her correcting her diction. It’s difficult not to make more of that than I should. I am impatient for witty repartee, for knock-knock jokes and endless questions, for clear, concise signals and measures that we’re truly communicating.

But this is a shifting that’s subtle. It cannot be rushed. Slowly, we are all being called to self-correct and all hoping, over time, that we will hear with more sensitive ears.