hope chest, Writing Craft

Go with the guilt. Go with the fear. Go anyway.

Some of us are fearless. I am not fearless. I’ve never been fearless. My mother knew this when I was a young girl. She’d ask me to recite 2 Timothy 1:7 aloud to her, in the morning before school or at night, just before bed:

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

I said it often enough to memorize it. I said, but my heart still stuttered in the dark. I said it but still trembled at unexpected sounds. It helped me through my fear of monsters and demons and all many of imagined or invisible perils when I was a kid. But I didn’t repeat it as often when I grew up. And it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve always had to bite back the palpable terror I feel over any success I perceive as undeserved or any failure I think is inevitable.

I used to be better at this — or it seems that way with the benefit of hindsight. I used to find it slightly easier to brave the unknown, to court an unconventional life, to find opportunities that suited my “How are you going to get a good job with that?” degrees. Oh, I felt fear chasing dreams when I was younger and childfree. But not guilt.  I felt conflicted about wanting extravagant experiences when there are so many people out here struggling to afford basic needs — when I’m often struggling to afford basic needs, precisely because my dreams are extravagant — but I never reached a point, in my teens and 20s, when I felt like it was inherently selfish to want big, personally-enriching things, before I’d mastered small, workaday obligations.

In my 30s, which will be ending later this year, fear has marked most of my experiences. I had my daughter about four months before turning 31 and this entire decade, I’ve been making decisions I thought were safe. Decisions I’d hope would result in better income or more stability or, at the very least, less panic or bewilderment or debt. But as it turns out, my idea of safe is small and dispiriting. As it turns out, my idea of safe doesn’t result in greater stability, just a different kind of debt, a different kind of discomfort. And though my decisions have, thus far, managed to result in a safe and nurturing home life for her, they haven’t taught her much about how to go hard after what fills you with enough joy and peace to provide joy and peace to others.  Though I’ve navigated all the heartache I felt, over failed love or under-realized potential and whatever else, without it spilling too much into her experience of childhood, I haven’t modeled for her often enough what it is to want and to chase the things you can’t see, instead of running away from them.

I haven’t completely cowered. I’ve accomplished a lot in our first 9 years together (She’ll be 9 in August, which astounds me), and I’ve been able to take her with me for some of it. She’s seen me studying, trying to grow professionally, teaching college courses, reading, writing, recording, field-producing, participating in an entrepreneurial accelerator. She’s seen me seeking.

But rarely has she seen me unafraid. Rarely has she known the woman I was before I became responsible for her and convinced myself that my desires should become incremental, that they shouldn’t disrupt whatever chrysalis I could weave her, that they needed to be an under-earning woman’s desires, that they should strive to transform themselves into more reasonable wants. She doesn’t know me at the height of my power, guided by my most courageous love, governed by a total soundness of mind.

She’s old enough now to have lapped me, when it comes to courage. I’ve watched her navigate her own fears and push past the soft, but firm boundaries those fears imposed on her. While I was making my body and mind and aspirations a kind of sentient bubble-wrap, trying to insulate her from everything I or anyone else might do that would cause her distress, she finally grew exasperated enough with me to begin asserting herself as the independent person she’d be even closer to becoming if the weight of my worry weren’t slowing her down.

I’ve been fighting myself so fiercely in the past two years. I’ve been shoving myself aside to clear my way. It’s a battle that’s made me far less available to others. I haven’t advocated or assisted or been nearly as present for anyone as I’ve wanted to. If you’ve ever had to do that work, if you’ve ever woken up and realized you’re still so much further from who you know you could be than you are, then you know how difficult a fight it is, how noisy and all-encompassing.

If you’ve ever been here, you know there’s nowhere to go — after you’ve tried everywhere except where you believe you’re meant to be — but toward your dreams. You know you have to let the guilt come with you, if it must, but you can’t let it anchor you. You know how tiring it is, talking yourself out of the life you really want.

I’m trying for a big thing again. I’ve been accepted to a summer writing program in Paris (Longtime readers of this blog or, perhaps, listeners to my podcast Hope Chest know how I feel about Paris). I’m afraid of trying to go back, because I’ve tried before. Quite a few times. And they all fell through. I couldn’t muster enough courage to risk the travel. Maybe it’s easier this time, because I have a concrete purpose for going. There’s something waiting for me, something that may make me a better writer, a more expansive woman, a dreamier parent. Maybe it’s just easier because more than a few people told me I should try this time; it wasn’t just me trying to talk over myself.

As always, everyone I’ve asked to help, all those people I was scared I’d be inconveniencing or annoying or disappointing, have been gracious and encouraging and, as far as I can tell, utterly nonjudgmental.

It’s an affirmation. It’s a reminder. Go with guilt. Go with fear and trepidation. Just go. Go with faith. Go, amplifying the voices that wish you well. Raise their volume above the sound of your own reasons-why-not. Those reasons will be ever with you. But opportunities won’t. Opportunities come and they go and the ones that you deeply desire and don’t at least try to attain will absolutely haunt you.

Soooo many thanks to all the friends, both known and unknown, who always come to my aid when I’m adrift and wandering and doubtful that I should want what I want. Thank you for your patience with me and for your generosity. My family is better for it. I’m better for it. Know that no matter how quiet it is here — how quiet I am –I am wishing you an overabundance of what you’ve given me, tenfold the bravery, one-hundred-fold the dream-realization.

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Nonfiction

An Assessment of Light.

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The women walked up bearing tote bags, their arms laden with carbon forms and child-things. They are sent to homes in pairs. The wisest among us know enough to feel scrutinized as soon as the women cross our thresholds. We carry ourselves as though we do not know just how much is being observed. One of them wields forms, solicits signatures. The other eyes my little girl and listens, with an ear attuned to difference.

Because she does not know them, she is reticent. They address her by name, and she hears them but does not respond. The women look up at my mother and me, where we sit at opposite ends of a down-filled sofa. “We’ll check her hearing as a precaution.” Since they have stationed themselves crosslegged on our living room floor, Story quickly intuits that they are there for her and they have been invited. She takes it all in: Ziploc bags with colorful wooden and plastic trinkets; a gym-like sack with a small plush Cookie Monster and an Elmo peeking out; a tiny generic bear, seated on our carpet with a tea set in front of him; and of course: the binders, the papers, the clipboards bearing sheets with lines and X’s. The spaces where Mommy scribbles.

While she watches the women, I remember to return her father’s call. It is ten after six in the morning, where he is. He first called at 5:30 am, his time. I was spooning cold cereal into Story’s mouth at record speed, my mind racing toward anything else that needed doing before the women arrived. I had been up since 6, my time, myself, pricked awake by sharp anxieties. “Can I just call you back when they get here?” I snapped, erasing his face from my iPhone screen as soon as he said yes.

He pops up there again now and says hello to the women. Both raise their eyebrows, returning his greeting. I’m reminded how often black fathers are assumed absent or under-involved, how difficult it is for social program workers to hide their initial surprise at a father’s engagement, how quickly they recover.

I have less interest in qualifying things these days. Father “absence” and “presence” will always be relative. It has never served me well to give either much examination. Most days, my mind will go no further than: he does what he can; he does what he can. The truth is: he cares more than I give him credit for. (Of course, this isn’t about credit.)

I prop up the phone so he can see and listen.

“Can you give the bear a drink of water?” one of the women asks.

All three of us — her father, my mother, and I — know that she won’t.

This is, in part, why the women are here. We are no longer sure what is a matter of ability or an act of will.

They have already asked if I’m on public assistance. No, I answered quickly, ashamed at the twinge of pride I felt. I am proud of too many irrelevant things: that Story has no allergies; has never had an ear infection; is too young to remember how many cans of formula I paid for with food stamps (about eight), too young to notice how foolish I’ve been to forgo WIC. And if I’m honest with myself, I am even proud that her father has cleared a morning to watch this assessment unfold on FaceTime. None of this means much, in light of why the women are here. But it’s what I have.

One of them has explained that the program is no cost to us, either way, but that if I were on assistance, the County could recoup some of its operation costs from the state. I wonder what mothers’ already thin resources are being further stretched to make this home visit possible. (Is anyone ever getting all that they need?)

“Give the bear a drink,” the child development therapist urges again. Story sits by the bear, looks at his empty place setting, keeps her dainty hands in her lap.

The women whisk her off to another exercise. The speech pathologist raises a three-ring binder, showing her a page. “Where’s the ball?” They have just played with a ball, hard and hollow, formed of translucent green plastic. It does not look like the ball in the picture. She does not point, even as her eyes train on the ball.

She knows “ball.” She knows 100 words or more, easily. My friend Kristen encouraged me to count them months ago, when I first voiced my worries. For a while, I kept a running ledger in the back of journal with the Eiffel Tower on its cover. I stopped at 92. I didn’t even count the articles: no a or an or the. No reaches.

The women haven’t heard any of the words I’ve counted. They’ve heard a single, quiet string of babble — and here, the speech woman perked up, jotted things down — but nothing so involved as “dinosaur” or, a newer phrase, her longest sentence, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to break it!”

It is a ninety-minute enterprise, and as soon as it ends I must dart out the door and race downtown for a radio interview. I can tell I’ll have to leave before they do in order to make it.

Maybe this is the problem. I am always darting off: into a book or a writing project, into a series of texts, a teaching assignment, into social media initiatives, most recently, into a romance, and always into the far reaches of my mind and heart, looking for the parts of myself that are still recognizable.

She is my true North, of course. I always turn back to her. But how often are any of us sure-footed? How often are we headed in the right direction?

I have been waiting for this day for months, and though I am not as often dreamy and expectant of ease as I once was, I thought the women would fix this. They would tell us how to get her to speak clearly, to babble less and enunciate more. For once, something would be simple.

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books lined up according to size, during independent play.

But speech, they break to us gently, is a symptom, not the core issue. They cannot determine, through this battery of tiny tests, how much of what we say is being understood. Perhaps she is isolating recognized words, but not grasping entire sentences. Perhaps she doesn’t answer or ask questions because she isn’t sure how to arrange what the words she knows. They tell us her play is too orderly; she is more interested in lining things in neat rows than in fashioning intricate worlds.

Were she hitting developmental milestones, in other words, she would not have just offered the bear a drink. She would’ve told us the color of the juice or charged him a million dollars for the privilege of dining in her castle.

It’s manageable, they assure us. The assessment, after all, was to determine how best to address her needs. They say that she is in a good place, at home during the day and surrounded by familiar faces who offer patience and love. They look warmly to her father’s face in my phone when they say this.

And she shows determination. Many of the children they visit run to other rooms when they won’t or can’t engage the women’s activities. Story stands her ground. She is brave.

I am late to the radio station. On air, I do not hear myself. The segment is about how single mothers “make it work.” But this is a topic on which I know too little, especially today.

Back at home, I hold Story close. We all do. I give my heart the rest of the day to adjust to the new light in which I’ve been advised to view my daughter. It is as bright as it’s ever been, as bright as the night she was born.

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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.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Kevin Clash and the Problem with Pedestals.

We are not fit for pedestals. Neither are the things we invent worthy of our worship. This is easier explained out than understood. We are a beguiling species, made of souls and of minds that produce ideas and products over which it is difficult not to marvel. And yet, we are daily reminded that those souls and those minds with their concepts and objects are finite, are fleeting, are rarely fixed and without need of revision.

Even so, when a man emerges who is capable of fashioning something so beloved and indispensable we cannot imagine our lives without it, there is no tempering our awe or gratitude. He will ever exist, for us, in a beholden space. We feel that we owe him for easing our way, for solving our conundrums, for simplifying our complexities. But we are not ourselves inventors. We cannot barter genius for genius. Instead we trade innovation for adulation.

And this is where it is impossible not to stumble.

I was reminded of this yesterday, as an unsettling story leaked about the creator of one of our country’s most beloved children’s properties.

Some news rushes and recedes like water, affecting for only a few moments, making you flush before gathering quick composure. But then there are the stories that won’t let you go. They are no more heinous than others you’ve heard; in fact, they may be mild by comparison. But they hit you in a spot newly vulnerable, at a time that will not allow you to ignore them.

This was such news.

As a parent whose daughter is still too young to qualify her adoration or to understand that the magic of furry red monsters is merely the sleight of a mortal’s hand, this story saddened me far more than I could’ve imagined. It is a sadness that becomes more familiar with age, as my years of hindsight gradually fill with men who’ve been knocked from high thrones. The highest, longest, most unexpected falls are the most unnerving, but they all begin with that initial shock. The he couldn’t have done this. The this couldn’t be. The don’t judge and wait for all the facts. And, perhaps most disingenuously of all, the denials of any wrongdoing.

This is the insulation that being iconic earns you.

For our sons and daughters, for now and for as long as possible, this news needn’t mean anything at all. For us, the adults and the parents, over time, it may come to mean very little. The property will prevail, future generations of children will benefit, oblivious, and the mortal’s once unblemished reputation will remain besmirched at best or obliterated at worst. We do not know which legal lines, if any, have been crossed*. But certainly a line of judgment has been blurred, and because of the position of the man who must tow it, a large price will be paid.

To varying degrees, we will all be excised.

Man is, of course, much more than the poorest of his choices. But in order to recognize this, he must fall, and we must begin to feel discomfited by our willingness to worship him. Then only we will be prepared to accept the truth of who he is.

* Update: We do now.

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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.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

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Parenting

Bunkers: A Meditation on Post-Obama Parenting.

The president’s daughters look like you.

Malia, the oldest, is remarkably tall for a thirteen-year-old. She’s reserved and is said to have her father’s measured, pensive temperament. Perhaps as a rite into adolescence, she has taken to wearing silk blouses with built-in neckties, like a miniature executive. The youngest, Sasha, has been called the firebrand. Her smiles are grander, freer. Candid photographs of her suggest that she’s not above giving her father last minute tips on his stump speeches and the occasional State of the Union address. They attend school in a city with one of the most embattled, economically depressed systems in the country.

But, as students at one of the capitol area’s most prestigious private institutions, they will never be touched by that affliction.

Should their father win a second term, they will be nearly-grown women when you are six. One will have selected a college–painstakingly and likely with attention to public opinion. The other will be visiting drought-stricken villages and delivering assembly speeches at foreign academies and orphanages where the children’s faces—but not their experiences—seem familiar to her.

Like their mother, both will be conducting this business in couture fashion.

Their second term will find them at the fore more often than this first. As they grow, their doings will become increasingly difficult to keep hidden from our collective gaze.

In this way, you will be fortunate. You will spend your formative years observing two prominent black girls become prominent black women, observing two prominent black parents govern our country. You have a fleeting vantage, one to which no generation before yours has been privy and, if the nation’s reception of this family is any indication, one that is unlikely to be granted to our immediate successors.

And here is where it becomes critical for me to adjust your lens.

Since, at six, you won’t fully grasp the import of what you’re witnessing, it will be left to me to interpret the times. And the times are, above all, perilous.

Concurrent with the ascendancy of the first black first family, the country has entered a regressive twilight. The hellhounds we thought we’d outrun–hooded menaces turning our loved ones from rib and rising lung to conjecture and corpse; the Great Blue Shield with its selective sight and hearing, with its billy clubs and snarling dogs, its hoses; the branding and the lash—have circled back, baring the fangs that the progress of polite society had been keeping muzzled.

No one’s holding back anymore. The lip service paid to past injustice is reduced to little more than a murmur. The governmental apologies for the African blood soaked into this country’s crop-bearing soil: for the thousands of charred, swinging bodies, for centuries of suppressing literacy, wage-earning, the vote, have all but ceased. And the so-called corrective measures that policymakers swore were being implemented to “level the playing field” are constantly circumvented.

Regardless of era, we’re used to broken promises, to freedoms dangled then yanked out of view. In fact, in more recent decades, this is the type of racism to which we’ve grown most accustomed, this covert, institutional variety that’s so easy to pretend away. We are all too acquainted with accusations of hypersensitivity, of an unwillingness to relinquish the phantom limbs of our past. We are told we are making things up. We are told that we should be grateful for our biracial president and his gorgeous Afrocentric wife—both of whom were educated in institutions that once would’ve barred them (“Just look how far you’ve come!”)—and for their daughters with their natural hairstyles, their crosscontinental jaunts and their Sidwell Friends pedigree.

As a result, my generation is used to swallowing the bulk of its protest. Before Obama, there was, after all, no refuting the gains of society’s gradual progress. Hate crimes were still occurring, but our culture had the good sense to at least pretend a unified moral outrage and a class-based or regional distance: surely, the perpetrators were deep Southern caricatures whose slurs were in no way representative of a whole.

Things felt safer then, with everyone feigning progressive attitudes, and easier, with no one believing those attitudes would be put to the most improbable litmus test of all: a black presidency.

Now, I feel like I’m raising you amid steaming rubble and broken mirrors. Every time some newly emboldened racist verbally attacks a little black girl, I resist the urge to build us a bunker and go underground until I’m able to build us a second skin thick enough to combat all this toxicity. This is not the world to which I’d grown cautiously less guarded and grudgingly accustomed. This is an unfamiliar place, where people are so unabashed in their hatred for women who look like us that they’re using the First Lady and her children as proxies for their vitriol.

You are twenty months old and I am already so exhausted. Outrage is costly. But so is apathy. Neither will equip you with what you need to thrive in a world where people feel this way about you.

What will help you is love.

At the library, there is a children’s room where a dish runs away with a spoon on its low walls and sunlight flooding in on a cushioned rocking chair. In one corner, there are buckets of toys. The last time we went, a father sat in the rocking chair, reading with his eldest daughter while the younger–just a few months older than you–played in the toy bucket corner. When you sauntered up to her, she shared her toy with you and you chatted her up in that indecipherable way you do almost everyone. Her father smiled politely as I sat with the two of you, and though I bristled, hoping he wasn’t regarding me with suspicion, I smiled without reservation at the abandon with which you cheered whenever she pushed a plastic shape into the right space in the sorter.

At the church we’ve been visiting, where we are two of six black attendees, you toddle indiscriminately into every set of arms that opens to you—and there are many. You let them lift you and feed you treats and hug you close, and there, in the sanctuary of their guilelessness, I get a weekly respite from cynicism.

Perhaps, dear child, these are our bunkers.

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