Posted in Audio, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting

Hope Chest, Ep. 11 – Growing and Going: A Love Story

1.

Even now, I’m not sure why I did it. I’d say it wasn’t like me but that would only be half-true. I’d forgotten what I was like—or perhaps I never quite knew—and by the time we got here, I was becoming something else altogether.

That is often a function of relocating, of looking for new cities in which to settle, new soil to turn and plant roots. When you leave who and where you’ve been, you are hoping for a home, a place to thrive and surprise yourself, a space to make wide, open, and safe enough to mitigate the bigger risks you intend to take. 

I owe you an explanation, for you were the only witness. You were here, not just to see what happened but to be exposed to it. And it was an unexpected exposure, one for which I am solely responsible.

Adult decisions should be durable enough to withstand the inquisition of a child. And more mothers should hold themselves accountable to their children, not only when those children are old enough to articulate the impact of our parenting, but also in the moment, where help and potential harm may be two sides of the same coin. 

Because a child does not wait to feel the weight of their mother’s choices, they should not have to wait to hear why those choices have been made. I know well that you are a child who clings to narratives, who turns them on her tongue and tosses them out like skittering stones on a river. So I have already told you some version of this, a version appropriate for 11-year-old ears. But there is always more to tell, always more it may help an older version of you to hear. 

I did not move with the intention of meeting a man. It is not as if I’d heard fables of fine Black princes growing in North Carolina, alongside their crops of sweet potatoes and collards (I have learned, since arrival, that there is some truth to this, though that is not a part of this story). 

We came here for the reasons I told you, to be at once alone and together, to stop sharing a spare bedroom with my mother in her mother’s apartment, to sleep in ways that weren’t head-to-foot in a twin bed flush with a wall. We’d been living that way nearly all of your life and for just as long, I’d been vowing to change it. 

We moved only when I was sure I could afford to, when the work I procured wasn’t part-time or contractual, when the pay would arrive on a reliable monthly schedule, when the salary was high enough to secure us a home. 

The convergence of those qualifications just happened to fall at the end of February of 20-20, when I found out I would be hired for a full-time job five hours south of Baltimore. 

We moved to Durham in March, as our lives were closing in and a hush fell over all inessential movement in the outside world. In March all we had were our beds and our WiFi, a box of books and toys, our hangerless, dresserless clothes. A masked trip to Target yielded dishes, sets of glasses and silverware, our wash clothes and towels. Slowly, over our first locked down months, we populated our rooms with creature comforts, with couches and pillows, a Fire TV. I finally unpacked the appliances Nana gifted us; they’d been sitting in our trunk: a toaster, a can opener, a hand mixer. 

We ordered our groceries and ate too much takeout. In the absence of in-person hours for school and work, bedtime became an abstraction. Screen time, which I’d never been keen to restrict, was without regulation or boundary. The limit did not exist. 

And as for the separate bedrooms I’d promised you, where I would finally be able to tuck you in, dim the lights and duck apart, you were loath to sleep in yours, much preferring the familiar cozy crowding you got, sleeping right next to me. In those early months, your twin bed went unused and only a sliver of my queen was imprinted with our sleepy weight. 

When we came here, I did not know how to tell you no, did not know how to get you to hear it, did not have time, between acclimating to a new workplace I’d never seen after hire and trying to keep you occupied in a time where you were one of few children enrolled in no school at all, having left third grade in Baltimore just as school in Durham shut down. 

I’d dreamt of the space our own place would afford of us, the sprawling stretch of several rooms rather than half of just one. But in this 1,145-square foot apartment, we were never apart, and the structure I hoped to provide you seemed as nearly as distant as it was back at Nana’s. 

I suppose this provides some explanation. When a long-held dream comes true, you do not always know how to just rest in it. You do not always trust that you belong to it. You believe you’ll wake up to find it disintegrated. No pinch in the world is powerful enough to dispel that worry, especially as daily life within that dream feels warped and unwelcome in practice. 

Living alone with you, being your only mother, after nine years spent living in a three-matriarch household, did not feel liberating as I’d hoped it would. 

Maybe I thought it needed more. Mediation. Distraction. A balance. 

That, I think, may be why I sought the man. 

I met him in May, via Tinder, a dating app I hope will have evolved by the time you’re old enough to use one. I was drawn to the ease of his smile. He was sitting in the sun, on a stoop outdoors, dressed in blue plaid and light jeans. And his smile just… looked like he’d earned it, that he’d fought through something to make it that bright, that he’d learned to laugh just because it felt good to, after years of doing so to keep from crying. 

I know that is hard to believe, that a single photo on a dating profile could convey so much about someone we’d never met. But many months later, as many a minor challenge arose, I drew on the promise of that picture, and more often than not, as tension subsided, he’d smile and that promise was kept. 

After several weeks of texting, both words and voice recordings, along with a few awkward video “dates,” one in particular spent watching a romcom in tandem while stealing glances at one another as the onscreen romance unfolded, we met him in person at the end of May. 

I drove us just a mile to a wine store parking lot. He pulled up in his Black Chrysler 300 and smiled his Tinder profile smile, before masking up and opening his door. He reached into the backseat for two bouquets, and you leaned forward in the passenger seat to get a better look at home. 

Though I tried to keep cool, I questioned the wisdom of the entire exchange. Should you be meeting a potential suitor at the same time I was? Was he trustworthy enough to be near us? 

He was the first person we’d met in person since moving to this city? Was he safe? Sanitized? Unexposed. It would be several months before even the hint of a vaccine. He was risk upon risk upon risk. 

But that had always been the point. After putting my thirties in a jar that protected us both from the precarities of freelance writing life: unstable housing, threat of eviction, mounting debts and loans, after living with relatives who kept you at home while I slipped off on occasion to pursue the one casual relationship I’d started in the nine years since you were born, a connection made only of offsite trysts and the occasional overheard mention of a strange man’s name, one you’d never come to know, I was 40 now. And you were turning 10. 

We’d subsisted long enough on cloistered sips of air. We were ready to catch real wind. We were ready to soar. 

2. 

If moving was our leap from a great height, meeting Quan felt like the moment a parachute opened. I didn’t know it at the time, not in that parking lot, but I was about to embark on my first real romantic relationship as a mother. It would move quickly, pressurized within the parameters of a pandemic. At any moment, it would ask far more of me than I would have, under normal circumstances, been prepared to give. It would ask much of you, too, in the way of maturation. 

Gone would be the days of bursting into my room unannounced or forgoing nights spent in your own bed in order to burrow in mine. No more were the limitless loops of videos, of time ceasing all shape and dimension. 

We would become, without much warning, ensconced in the disruptive rhymes and rhythms onset by the arrival of a man. 

3. 

It is one thing to live in a house full of women, deferring to the tacit rules of age, allowing the elders to set or raise or change your stakes. It is another to strike out on your own and find the experience both freeing and wanting, unable to stabilize a life left, for so long, as unstable. 

It is a different life altogether to meet a stranger, grow enough trust to let him move in and test, every day, the sturdiness of that trust, even as its benefits grow more and more evident by the day. 

Quan helped me homeschool you. He cooked balanced dinners. He walked the aisles of megastores during the grocery buying and budgeting that have always made me miserable. He traveled to your hypothetical worlds with you so often that, at Christmas, he thought it prudent to purchase you a book of Would You Rathers, so we’d all have more concise questions to answer than the ones you came up with on your own. We went for walks together. And raised your reading level by restricting your iPad time. We logged onto family Zoom calls, where he subjected himself to the surveying questions of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my father. 

We intended a kind of future. At least, we did for a time. 

For just as long, just over a year, you saw your mother being loved. You saw me extending love, too, though as the beneficiary of so much of mine, that part was less of a foreign concept. At 10, you had yet to see someone’s heart in their eyes when they looked at me. You’d never heard my voice lift a whole three octaves, under an intoxicant called flirting. You’d never seen me sidle up to someone as he cooked in the kitchen and wrap my arms around his waist, warming my cheek on his back. Even the little pecks hello and goodbye, the random close-lipped kisses we deigned to deliver in front of you… those were all new to you, too. 

It didn’t last. Not all good relationships do. Sometimes they’re meals meant to nourish and serve, first plump and decadent then picked clean till there is only the gristle and bone. 

But there is much to be made of the bones. We are only beginning to figure out what’s left of their purpose. And even if the result of their reading is that only the two of us have made a more stable home, the year we spent as three will have been worth it. 

4.

When we are not careful after taking a risk, regret writhes its tentacles around even our fondest memories. The best laid plans of our better angels are buried under the burden of second guesses. 

I am trying, as ever, to be careful, to teach you that a well-reasoned risk is worth the disappointment of its outcome. We are still wandering together, still working our way through the whys. You have seen my heart swell and then be broken. Some days, that’s left me embarrassed but never ashamed. For even though our home has been altered in his absence, it is no less ours to reshape and reclaim. What I set out to give you remains intact and for whatever our journey has taught you, I hope this is what you retain: when love abounds, it betters and when it recedes, we survive.

Posted in Audio, Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting

Hope Chest: A New Podcast by Stacia Brown.

Hope chest (n.) : a young woman’s accumulation of clothes and domestic furnishings (as silver and linen) kept in anticipation of her marriage; also : a chest for such an accumulation, Merriam-Webster.com

My mother first told me what a hope chest was when I was a teenager. She said women who wanted to marry sometimes stored things in a footlocker or some smaller treasure-chest like storage box. Lingerie and sachets, needlepoint embroidery, scrapes of lace that could later be fashioned into some accent meant to make a house homier, and for the more romantic among the future wives, love letters sealed and bound together for future presentation to an as-yet-unknown spouse.

I’ve never much wanted to marry — or perhaps more accurately, I’ve never been confident that it was a possibility for me. But I’ve always liked the idea of storing up dreams, visions, goals, and love to be shared with a trusted someone, when the time has come. It’s something I’ve been doing for my daughter since I was expecting her and I’ll probably continue that trend until she’s old enough to start reading the work and to tell me whether or not she wants to continue receiving more of it.

When I fell in love with audio production last year, I knew about halfway through the first season of The Rise of Charm City that I’d also want to start an indie podcast that adapted blog posts here. The sort of prose-poetry style of writing I do here lends itself fairly well to audio adaptation, and I wanted to challenge myself to produce a project all on my own. I’ve been learning audio editing in Audition since Summer 2016; it’s what WEAA, where The Rise of Charm City airs, uses. But it wasn’t until spending nearly a week at The Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC last August, that I ever produced a draft all on my own, start-to-finish). That piece, “Prince, Philando, and Futures Untold,” which later aired as part of John Biewen and CDC’s gorgeous podcast, “Scene on Radio ” (some John did some additional mixing and polishing in Hindenburg), was the first audio adapted from one of my blog posts. As soon as I finished it, I knew I’d want to make more pieces like it.

Hope Chest is the podcast I’ve created for that purpose. It’s a place for me to store scraps of music and interviews and found sound and singing, woven together with lovingly-penned prose, to be shared with whomever wants to listen. If I were more business-minded and/or marketing-savvy, I would’ve had a more strategic roll-out. But here it is. I’d love it if you subscribed and/or gave the first two episodes a listen. I’m aiming for at least one new episode per month, so be on the lookout. Please rate and review it, if you’re subscribing via iTunes, and if you enjoy it, let me know either here or via some social media space where we follow each other. Thanks!

Episode 1, adapted from this, is here:

Episode 2, adapted from this, is here:

You can subscribe at SoundCloud or iTunes (although, for reasons I have yet to figure out, the iTunes feed doesn’t currently include Episode 1).

Posted in Appearances and Publications, Fashion & Beauty, Natural Hair, Nonfiction

Toward a Life Worthy of its Art Direction.

On Monday, Medium’s Working Parents series published my essay on juggling the demands of parenting and freelance writing. It’s risky to write with candor about things like this when your employment prospects are constantly in flux. I’m never sure, when I’m at my most publicly honest, how it’ll affect any future hiring — and I’m not naive enough to believe that it won’t. But I also don’t know how to bottle anything up without it seeping its way into writing (ask my family or my exes). Whenever I feel especially alienated in a relationship or isolated in a situation, every word at my disposal grows a tentacle. I gather them and push them out toward anyone onto whom they might latch. And when I hear back from someone who says, “Yes, this has also been my experience,” or, “Now I understand your experience of our interaction,” every tensed nerve relaxes. The tentacles retract and words, at least in those moments of peace, simply become words again.

I also just think it benefits people to know what they’re getting when they get you. Sometimes I write to announce myself to strangers. In daily interaction, we don’t reveal even a fraction of what we’re thinking, feeling, fearing, or hoping. And we probably shouldn’t. But I’ve always felt that, when or if anyone ever wishes to know, there should be a manual for them, some shorter way to troubleshoot than the interminable, unaided process of trial and error.

I’ve heard back from several mothers this week about that piece and I’ve appreciated every exchange. We could all stand to have less pressure to hide essential parts of who we are. I’ve also gotten some very thoughtful leads from readers for flex work, remote work, and part-time work, and that’s been very touching. Every lead like that feels like encouragement to keeping finding ways to spend time with my little girl and, in a culture where I’ve seen unmarried black mothers harshly lambasted — and criminalized — for making these kinds of choices at the expense of their highest earning potential, I’m exceedingly grateful for that form of support.

Regardless of what happens, whether I take a full-time office job or continue working from home, I won’t forget those of you who validated my decision to freelance in my daughter’s first five years.

Every week has its own anatomy for the work-from-home single parent. Monday was chill and Tueday started out the same way, until I got an email offering me a labor-intensive project with a quick turnaround that I’m slated to begin this weekend. Wednesday and Thursday also brought new work responsibilities. I’m glad, then, that while my daughter was at school Tuesday morning, I decided to take these photos. I’m glad that when she got home from school, she joined me.

In the Working Parents essay, I focused on how difficult it is to juggle work and mothering. I centered the demands. But I didn’t talk about the lulls, the gaps between assignments, the ways in which the unexpectedly long waits for overdue checks can confine you to home (because you’re afraid to spend the money you have left and every time leaving home, it seems, involves an expenditure), and the ways you have to get inventive to avoid being listless or afraid or frustrated.

We take photos together and separately for countless reasons: to kill time, to bond, to giggle, to record this rare era — one that will draw to a close, for better or worse, before other of us is ready to let it go. Our self-portraits are also another way to shift our narrative. We create our story, add glamour in the places bleakness is poised to fester, add cheer when we’re feeling sort of down, add purpose to a day that is light on duty.

Most parents and their children do this. We fill our cell phones with moments. My family’s are intentionally artsy because we have time to make them that way. If these moments are merely our highlight reels, as so many have observed about what makes its way to social media or blogs, then what we choose to share says everything about who we think we are, who we aspire to be, and how we hope others perceive us.

I hope I’m perceived as thoughtful. Creative. Dramatic. Daring. Whimsical. Optimistic. Protective of my daughter’s wonder. Protective of my own. I hope I appear to be aiming toward an elsewhere, while relishing life right where I stand. 

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Posted in Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction, Parenting, Pop Culture, Resisting Motherhood

Busyness, Business, Birthday, Buzzfeed.

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I haven’t been able to blog here in over a month and I miss it. I didn’t want anyone who follows me here to believe I’ve abandoned this space. It’s my sanctum. But I’ve had the very good problem of being swamped with paid writing work — in so much that some of the things I might’ve written here have been placed — or will be placed — at very cool websites.

Writing on deadline and being increasingly line-edited by people committed to making the work better than I can make it on my own (disjointed as my trains of thought have become with the noise of my toddler, the relocation of her dad to town, after years living on the other side of the country, and the demands of raising a child while working a day job from home) has been rewarding and humbling.

October was a rough month for me. My life felt racked with big, disconcerting change and I wasn’t sure how to adjust to any of it. I’m still figuring that out, but I’ve had experience. I have to remind myself that, in the years since my daughter was born, I’ve transitioned out of adjunct college instruction, moved from Michigan to Maryland, navigated the IEP and pediatric audiological processes with my daughter, written for various national publications, started an online community for single parents of color, and scored a fellowship in social media community engagement. I’m constantly criticizing myself for not being “further along” in my career, but sometimes, we’ve just got to stop and assess the ground we’ve already gained. In fact, if we don’t take the time to do that, we’ll reach a point where it’s difficult to know what’s left to conquer and which direction to turn in order to pursue any of it.

In less than a week, I’ll turn 35 — and it’s a good age, a good time. I’m not at all where I envisioned myself, when I was younger and strained to imagine what it would feel like to be just five years shy of 40. But I’m making my way and it’s been an incredible trip. The past month in particular has been teaching me things I’ve actively avoided learning:

  1. Forgiveness from afar looks different than forgiveness up close. And sometimes you think you’re over things, simply because you’ve enjoyed a great deal of physical distance from them. But there’s always a closing of that distance. There’s always a day of reckoning.
  2. I’m not my best self when I’m afraid. And it’s incredible how quickly and drastically fear can make you regress.
  3. It’s an honor to be receiving an increased number of requests to write. But it’s also okay to decline those requests when I’m overextended or just going through something that’ll compromise the quality (or punctuality) of the work. Not everything is about “writing through it,” and you don’t always have to push yourself. Or, I don’t, at least. I shouldn’t speak for anyone else there.
  4. If you sense that you’re plateauing, you probably are. Take on assignments that won’t be such cakewalks for you. (For me, that’s meant scaling back my unfiltered, unedited blogging here and letting my words go under other writers’/editors’ scalpels. It’s changing the way I compose and making me less certain of where a piece is going — which can be pretty thrilling (if also terrifying and debilitating).
  5. At some point, it can’t hurt to find yourself a therapist. I’ve never had one; finding one will probably be my birthday gift to myself. There are things I need to work on in the next five years that aren’t career-specific or even particularly measurable — social and emotional things — that I don’t think I can handle anymore without help from an objective outside party.

My performance of adulthood has sharpened in my 30s. Like Nicole Richie is saying in the gifs above, I’m finally ready to declare myself a grown-up. Mostly. I’m definitely still living like a glorified commuter student in a lot of ways. And that’s okay. Mostly. There’s no one way to live, no single set of social markers that we have to reach in order to declare ourselves mature or well-adjusted or highly-functioning. We just have to keep going.

So I plan to greet my next year of life, incomparable gift that it is, with contentment.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been published in Buzzfeed. Twice. Here, I’m talking about mothering and empathy. And here, I’m talking about Bill Cosby’s pre-Huxtable persona and how it leaves me feeling less shock and betrayal about the “good” doctor’s alleged bad deeds.

Also look out for a short piece on The Hurston-Wright Foundation I’ve penned for the Jan/Feb ’15 issue of Poets & Writers, a piece in The Guardian (hopefully; I’ll edit to embed a link when/if that goes live), and a long feature on black fatherhood in Colorlines, scheduled for publication in the upcoming week.

Posted in Faith, Nonfiction

To Die is Gain: On Meriam Ibrahim and Freedom.

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen
Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. […] Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. […] For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him….  — Philippians 1:21-24, 27a, 29, NIV

They say that even in labor, your swollen legs remained shackled and that your son, Martin, just over one and half years old, has been living with you under hellish conditions in Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison since you were arrested in September 2013. Yesterday, the world saw you holding your newborn daughter in a photograph. She was also shown resting in her father’s arms; this was the first time they had been allowed to meet. Her name, by coincidence and serendipity, is Maya, born days before the passing of the most renowned “Maya” the world has ever known. Your baby girl is breathtaking, as is your tiny son, whose large, dark eyes are like yours: serene, aware, uncompromising.

You are 27 and Christian and married. In America, this would be referred to as “doing things the ‘right’ way.” Had you married here, you could’ve danced to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” at your reception — simply because it’s true. No one would’ve questioned the validity of your union or labeled your joy as apostasy and you as an adulterer. You would’ve been lauded, held up as an exemplar of wholesome living. And had you been born here, it would be simple logic that you would adopt the religion of the parent who raised you — but only if you were so inclined. Your mother’s faith, after all, is the one to which you have been most exposed, the faith that you would have observed in action. Your father has been absent since you were six; who can know what he believed, other than that men can leave wives and children whenever they wish?

In America, faith is languorous and theoretical. We are extended the leisure of lifelong contemplation. Many of us are only as close to God as we feel and when we seek Him, it is often because we are wanting, unhappy with ourselves, after moral superiority, or courting approval. We pretend we have not come to Christ for a relationship that’s transactional, but too many of our churches preach that this is exactly what Christianity is: belief that if we perform, we will be rewarded. To be fair, I may be perched at the more cynical end of our faith’s branches. It has been a long while since I have seen fresh fruit from this vantage, so long, in fact, I sometimes wonder if the flock of us here are figs accursed: either tough and underripe or so fat and dripping we are on the verge on rot.

You should be in the throes of an intercontinental love affair, well on your way to joining your Sudanese husband in the home he’s secured for you with his U.S. citizenship and his residence in New Hampshire. By now, your new neighbors should have the benefit of proximity to your faith, so distinct from their own in that it has been threatened with government-sanctioned death. When you get here — and my faith is still strong enough to pray and hope and believe that you will — Americans will try to tell you that we know religious persecution. They will tell you our government has taken prayer out of schools and they’ll give you anecdotal evidence about gunman who’ve asked victims to deny God before shooting them in cold blood. They’ll cite abortion laws and tell you how challenged and buffeted they feel by The World’s changing mores. They’ll also have stories about missionaries at the ready — jailed for smuggling bibles and murdered for sharing the gospel.

Here, in order to access empathy, we distill people into the facets of themselves with which we can identify. To comprehend their plight, we need their reality to bend toward our own, and we discard the dimensions that are too complex or inaccessible to do so. (This is, in some ways, an inversion of what your own government is doing, in isolating the parts of you it cannot comprehend — not just your Christianity, but your insistence on maintaining your agency as a woman, as a daughter of a Christian mother, as a wife of a Christian husband, as a mother to Christian children you are willing to die to see raised in your family’s chosen faith.)

But if we are at our most honest, we would have to admit that a faith strong enough to submit oneself and one’s toddler to disease, interminable confinement, 100 lashes two weeks post-birth, and hanging in two years — as soon as the baby is weaned — is foreign to many of even our most devout. We have little context for women like you — yet women enduring punishments similar to yours are not uncommon. You are being flogged, killed, or threatened with either fate not just elsewhere in Sudan, but in the Maldives and Iran and Saudi Arabia and in countless countries other than my own. I would be remiss and disingenuous to attempt any personal parallel to that kind of suffering; I wish this were true of all of us who know full and well we will never face such brutal conditions.

Nonetheless, forgive my naivety in feeling grateful to have heard of you, at least, while there are still a few days left to fight for you. I’m sorry our embassy has so thoroughly failed your husband. We didn’t act when he first made us aware, waiting instead until your beauty and faith and cherubic children made your story more accessible to our sense of what’s right and just. It feels so late and impotent an effort, but we are fortunate to be forced to reckon with our negligence and what it does to families like yours.

We need to see the cost of unbroken faith, need to be ever reminded that the persecution of the privileged is not equal to that of the oppressed, need to recall what a woman who refuses oppression looks like after months of enduring the worst conditions and least possible care in a country that has always denied her freedom of speech, faith, choice, and identity.

It is not a universal experience. You are your own — and you are willing to die to remain so.

Here, we are often asked if we are willing to die for what we believe in. But we are asked in air-conditioned churches, where interfaith couples are as common a sight as dresses and suits. When we say yes, it feels like a favor; we are willing to give up a world where we have always felt some level of freedom for an eternity where we will feel yet freer. You are giving up a world that has denied you even the most inalienable of rights for a God who has always understood how vital those rights are to your existence.

I hope you live. I pray you do. I believe you will. But if you are martyred in two years or earlier, know that we who remain as witnesses will make sure your son and daughter know why you held on so tightly to yourself and your God. We will be here to help them make sense of your reported words to your husband:

‘If they want to execute me then they should go ahead and do it because I’m not going to change my faith. I refuse to change. I am not giving up Christianity just so that I can live. I know I could stay alive by becoming a Muslim and I would be able to look after our family, but I need to be true to myself.’

We will all be freer for it.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.

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She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.

She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.

We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?

Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.

This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.

When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)

Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.

This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.

“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”

I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”

They lean forward in anticipation.

But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.

A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.

I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.

“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.

I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.

Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.

“So I Googled it,” I tell the women at the table. “And I found the lyrics and a YouTube video. I’ve learned it, and we sing it all the time.”

The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.

What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.

I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.

It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?

Posted in Uncategorized

Breathe Into the Bag.

Sing invented songs for every action. Hold toys utensils clothing foodstuff at eye level and label it — every time. She counted to twelve in the morning. Make her draw straight lines — both vertical and horizontal. Make her draw circles. If she resists, place your hand over hers and guide her toward it. She looks deeply into my eyes and says with firm convention things I cannot comprehend. Hand her her clothing; putting on her clothes is a 28-month-old skill. In August, when summer starts its slow, hot last hurrah, she will be three.

Here is yet another yellow carbon; read every line, as it reiterates what they’ve told you. Decide on whether she will go to school in the fall; it may be prudent to place some of the impetus for acquiring these skills on a classroom, a teacher, on interaction with other children. She jokes; she laughs at appropriate moments; she says, “Delicious!” “Mmm, yummy!” “That’s not funny!” She says tons of moderately discernible things, knows the alphabet, identifies letters out of sequence, has the patience to wait for the resolution of a story. Note that this yellow carbon has been careful to credit her for what she does well: uses catch phrases appropriately. Picks up visual cues fairly quickly, is excellent with rhythms. Appreciate that no one who visits your home is condescending; the women seem duly charmed by your daughter. Do not assess their genuineness. Try not to be fearful of her upcoming ear test, though one of the women has mentioned that some of the children she visits have needed their adenoids removed, have — like your daughter — never had ear infections, but may still have standing fluid in their ears making it difficult to hear.

Do not spend every waking moment wondering what is wrong. Make knots in the rope, at each interval where you’ve already been given a solution; use those to climb. She sings hourly; her voice, a modulating lilt, is rarely off key. She plays the piano for over 30 minutes, rarely choosing to hop down from the stool. Imagine her a virtuoso. Imagine her an American Sign Language interpreter for the UN. Imagine her in a concert hall, bringing up a well of sound and pitching it forth with her whole body.

Do not be so quick to cry when your mothering feels micromanaged; no one believes you are bad at it but you. (But would it hurt to hear that you’re good at it from the people who see you do it most?) Do not be ungrateful. Articulate your need to discover more of this on your own; becoming a grandparent — even a live-in one — does not mean re-parenting your own child. Do not take advantage of the other caring eyes and hands; she is yours, and the memory of her daily needs is yours to initiate. Meet them before you must be reminded.

When you are not with her, do not leave so much of yourself at her feet. But also avoid giving the same fathoms of love to those you’re with; the bottomless concern, fierce protectiveness, and doting adoration with which you parent are not owed to anyone else. It will likely be misconstrued. Who could ever understand the rawness of it, save perhaps the single father, save perhaps the man who mourns?

Meet the home visit teacher at the library, to join the special playgroup. It will be good for her, she says, and it will be good for you. You will meet other mothers who are going through this. Do not think the phrase “going through this.” This is not a malady, just a difference.

Go back. Start short and slow. Do not overwhelm her. Forget sentences for now. Forget enunciation. Forget how we treat our children like thoroughbreds. Forget whatever inadequacies you’ve developed as a mother and a daughter and a lover and a friend. And just sit with what is happening. Quiet your raging, voluminous insecurities. Tell God you’re sorry; He will know for what and why. She likes farm songs. Cow is one of her clearest, most confident words. She does animal impressions. Imagine her the next Temple Grandin. She likes sky; she is a budding Mae Jemison. Imagine no one else. She is herself herself herself. Do not compare her. She is herself herself herself. And she is mine. 

Posted in Nonfiction

Mother as Mountain, as Sky.

When he surfaces, so long after you’ve abandoned imagining that men like him exist, you are flummoxed, but only fleetingly. You do not realize at first how ready you’ve been.

You thought you would be more hesitant, that your years since becoming a mother had morphed you into martyrdom, a voluntary consignment: its length the duration of your daughter’s childhood, its berth too wide to breach.

He enters into view and as you regard his easy grin, it occurs to you how long you’ve been blocking your natural flow of endorphins, denying estrogen surges, enabling a kind of psychic sterilization.

You believed you would spend a full 18 years depriving yourself of new love.

But in that flash between flummoxing and pardon, an iron gate has unlatched. You, remembering suddenly that you are all woman, as well as all mother, hear an echo, a flutter: I am no martyr.

If you were, you wouldn’t be hastening toward him. You wouldn’t be brushing your cheek against the course range of hair on his face and purring like a cat who’s found a home. You wouldn’t entrust him with your hands, wouldn’t gaze down at the half-moons scalloped under his fingernails and wish on them.

Your gait is neither measured nor wary; you rushed to him. It has been too long since your heart hoped for more than the half-love that co-parents can sometimes rekindle, for more than the comforts of a companionship not unlike broken in boots or limb-stretched sweaters. You’d nearly forgotten how it felt to steal away when all was quiet and whisper feverish nothings to someone who does not yet know you well enough to discard or destroy you.

It is new, the nerve endings snapping to attention again, the trail of thoughts that lead far away from nursery rhymes and apple juice boxes, and even the guilt you feel at leaving behind the illusions you’d held so long of one partner, one family, some structure you’d hoped could be retroactively whole, the guilt at shattering what’s left of the glass.

It is all so new.

When you tell your ex, he is stunned; he could no more foresee it than you could. You realize you were grasping at the selfsame straws. You realize how empty of half-moons your hands have been.

There are fears you are holding at bay, but rather than repressed, they must be purged. You will not enter this new house haunted. For your daughter must understand her mother as a woman who can handle complexities, who can cast an alchemy of friendship and motherhood and romance that sates us all. She must understand that we do not only receive one chance, one love, one faltering per lifetime. We are a species that thrives amid opportunities; it is only when we bar ourselves from seizing them that we truly fail. She must know that love can be the most nourishing opportunity of all; the more you let in, the larger you loom–and right now, her mother is a mountain, is a sky.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

The Ripple of Reelection: Thoughts on Voting as a New Mother.

I am imagining a teenage future. In it, you are inches taller than I, your WNBA-length fingers hovering over the hologram-enabled screen of the latest palm-sized tablet. You are engaged in no fewer than six conversations, aside from the one I am about to initiate. I will not know by looking at you if you are ready to listen.

We will have this talk two years before you’re old enough to register. My hope is that whoever has taken office then will bear some cultural, ideological, or experiential resemblance to the man we re-elected last Tuesday. If she does, what I have to  tell you will seem less like a tall tale or a fable. If he does not and if your memory is less than keen, you may believe I’m romanticizing an invented past.

The truth is: when you were two, we voted for Barack Obama to reclaim the highest office in the land. I pressed a decisive finger on the electronic ballot screen, with you in my arms. You were as still and as quiet as you are when we first enter sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

You have always understood when a moment calls for reverence.

By then, we had been standing in the hallway of a local middle school for two and a half hours. We were part of a serpentine trail of mostly brown bodies, a community very clearly comprised of members of the working and middle classes. The air around us pulsed with purposeful energy.

Though some complained at the length of the wait — projected, at first, to be three hours —  most were either patient, but steely, or bursting forth with optimistic banter: It’s good to see so many out, exercising their rights– and look at all these young folks!

The youth vote is cherished. Earning it makes us feel calmer about the imminent state of the world we’ll leave behind. An eighteen-year-old, regardless of whether she is won over by rhetoric, emotion, or careful study of each candidate’s platform, is a sapling in a marshland, a newly hatched chick in an aviary for the endangered. For the parents, the middle-aged, and the elders, you — more than any candidate or speech — are the hope of our nation.

I did not know this at your age. I’d heard it, but only as saccharine sentiment, as lyrics in a chart-topping Whitney Houston pop cover, as so much white noise amid the drone of my own angst. Even at 19, I could not be convinced that my participation was integral to the maintenance of a functioning democracy. But I still began to vote that year, like the dutiful descendant of a people once considered three-fifths human that I am.

It seemed a moral obligation, if mostly a ceremonial one, every ballot cast a pouring of libation for the brothers and sisters who are no longer here.
I wasn’t sure what it meant. Between the influence of the electoral college, the fact that my state rarely yielded close-call election results, and my general ambivalence about candidates and their concern for the needs of people like us, voting did little to make me feel less insignificant.

This changed, of course, with the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama, then a mere Senate candidate, delivered his iconic Audacity of Hope address. I suspect that, by these, your teenage years, this speech will have been canonized in history texts and delivered ad nauseum in youth oratory contests. But you will no more grasp what it meant to hear it in real time than I can ascertain how the marchers felt on the Mall, as the musings of Martin Luther King Jr. billowed around them like a baptismal tide.

For better or worse, politics that engage the emotions are most effective with the portion of the electorate whose attitudes most resemble mine. Political agents with the power to move you will always be able to compel you to act, even when you can’t entirely comprehend why. What moves you, however, is more a reflection on you than on them. And this election, this battle to retain incumbency, was a prime example of that.

Those moved toward the idea of a diverse and inclusive America, wherein citizens and lifelong residents can carve their home-shaped space, voted for progress and forward motion, voted with an eye toward an inevitably altering national landscape. Those wistful for the days of fewer liberties for all and a glut of power and wealth for those who’ve always held it cast their vote for the man who promised to redeem what they believed they’d lost. And more than in any other election during which I’ve been eligible to vote, the distance between those movements widened.

An hour after we’d entered the voting line, I looked down at you, absently smoothing wisps of your hair, and worried that you wouldn’t hold up for the slow march toward the school cafeteria.

But regardless of how long it took, you rallied. You played foot games with the elderly man behind us, got a cluster of first-time-voting teens to join you in a game of follow-the-leader. You peeked around my legs as though they were pillars and used them to hide your face from the family five feet back.

It occurred to me that, as a people, we have always known when to wait. Even when restless or resistant, we can intuit the import of tarrying. It  mean the difference between triumph or a trap.

Then, as has been the case with so many things in my life after you were born, my reasons for voting became crystalline. As we stood on that line together last week, I realized just how greatly what we were doing as a precinct, as a city, as a state, as a country would impact how you live, how you’re educated, how you’re employed, how much debt you’ll acquire, how high a tax you’ll pay for the life you lead, how you’ll retire, how you’ll view equality….

The ripples were endless.

Someday soon you will apprehend what it means to be American. It is to feel at once horrified and resplendent. It is knowing that your life is, in many ways, a summation of your country’s choices. Until then, vote for whichever reasons you wish. Wait until the revelations come to you.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

Jump at De Sun.

You have unassailable rhythm. This is a characteristic we noticed, even before you began to develop fine motor skills. You were three months old, and you could hit a drum with a mallet. You could keen your ear to cadences. The small cymbals of a tambourine shook under the strike of your infant palm. You hummed melodies before your mouth could form the ovals and planes necessary to pronounce lyrics.

Like so many children, you possess a raw musicality, a boundless curiosity in all instrumentation. But I also see an inkling of discipline in you, a commitment to practice quite unusual in two-year-olds. It is the rare day that passes without you asking to play your great-nana’s electric piano. Once you’re lifted onto the stool, it is difficult to coax you down. The praise you receive is too rapturous; the power you feel when the pads of your fingers elicit a chord is too intoxicating. We know that, if allowed, you would stay there for more than an hour as long as we were also there to laud you.

As your mother, it is my imperative to nurture this quality in you, even as it awes and unsettles me. My charge is to propel you toward each zenith for which you’re brave enough to press, while also making myself a nonjudgmental net to catch you when you fall. I mustn’t betray too colossal an expectation, too devastating a disappointment. Your pursuits are your own. Any joy or sorrow I feel as you set forth is mine to manage.

Increasingly, I am coming to understand the act of mothering as a cultivation of temperance. It is a holding-in-check of our most outsized expectations, a delicate calibration of all that we want for our children, all that they are capable of achieving, and all the moments when we each will need to accept a reality that resembles none of those possibilities.

But darling, you make this temperance difficult. How can I filter these bright beams of expectation when you glow so incandescently with promise? How can I allow you field of grass-skipping girldom, when with each day, you invent new reasons for me to spur you toward the sun?

It isn’t easy to wait for the coming years to unfurl themselves like a story quilt and reveal how you’ll evolve. But I will not anger God (or you) by rushing time. Its glacial inching is a grace. I will sip you slowly and relish each talent expanding. My every affirmation will be liberally and patiently seeded. I will make it my aim to know who you are, at any given moment, rather than to trouble us both over all the wondrous things I imagine you’ll become.