10 Years, approaching

Ten years ago right now, I was six or seven days away from a hospital admission for premature labor. Our son, Natan, did not survive after being born on the cusp of 26 weeks. I have to repeat that story often. My family and I have moved states several times since then and otherwise formed new communities as I’ve changed careers and our 9 year old, Samuel, has begun to form communities of his own.

As people who’ve read my blogs for years (and back when I posted more than every few months) have heard me say over and over again, I don’t think I’m particularly wise and I’m averse to advice. Nevertheless, as this anniversary approaches, I can’t help but want to say something about what I think I’ve learned.

1) I’ve learned to fail. In the hospital, they moved me to different rooms several times over the week, and I can remember my state of mind in each one. In my last room, we thought I’d settled in for the long haul after a few days of no change. I remember steeling myself for weeks of hospitalization, thinking, “I’m tough, I’m strong, and I don’t fail.” The universe had other plans.I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not culpable. I tried as hard as I could. But I wasn’t in control of my fate or Natan’s. I failed to bring about the outcome I desired because I did not have the power to do so.

This happens often in our lives, that we can’t control the result. Natan’s death wasn’t the first time I experienced grief or a major disappointment in life, but this time was the first time I couldn’t find a way to blame anyone’s choices, my own or another person’s. I had to accept my own mortality.

2) I’ve learned to forgive. I forgave the doctors and myself for being human and having imperfect tools.

3) I’ve learned to accept my place in the order of things. During my short career as a historian, from my undergraduate thesis to my dissertation, I read hundreds of diaries and letters. I thought I was researching the Lowell Mills and labor struggle for the former and celebrity and popular culture for the latter. But the collections I really remember all included the death of an infant or toddler. I wrote those portions down, not knowing what if anything I’d ever do with them. I read them before Natan’s death and returned to them after. They are my intellectual fodder. My experience is historical. Mothers grieve for years while still finding joy in their lives and I am one of them.

4) I’ve learned that grief is common. I am going to experience it again and again, until it is my turn to be grieved. I am lucky to have a brain chemistry that seems to seek out joy anyway.

Such is the order of life.

This is not okay

One afternoon, days after the election, I clicked on a news link. An automatic replay of comments by the president-elect Trump’s choice for chief strategist accompanied whatever story I intended to read. I heard a roar, lights flashed, and my left knee and ankle went ice cold. The stronger sensations lasted only a few seconds at most, but my ear kept ringing. It took me a full day of confusion over it to realize what had happened to me.

I went shopping for vegetables and shoes on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on January 27th, 2002. I chatted with an older man who held the door for me. I walked northwest towards the bus stop. I hadn’t gotten far and I’d turned to do something when a wave of sound hit me from the left, causing lights to flash and blowing my skirt back. When the sound waves stopped, my ear began to ring. I quickly recognized I wasn’t hurt except for the ringing and some pain in my ankle from stumbling off the curb. I looked at the block behind. I saw glass, shopping bags, and bodies. I stood in brief stillness suddenly broken by a new roar: running, yelling and sirens. We were in the wide open, but I felt like I was in a tunnel. I sat on the curb for a long time and eventually walked to a friend’s house.

Over the course of days and hours, we learned the bombing had killed an older man – and from the images and descriptions on the news, I was pretty sure it was the man who’d held the door for me. The cause of the wreckage had been a woman with a loaded backpack. I returned to normal life, except for some ringing in my ear and I am occasionally still troubled by ear pain. My trauma didn’t seem like much compared to the people who’d been closer to that explosion or the many others in Israel and the territories in that period. I’d been in the Middle East well over a year by then. I put my experience in context.

Months later, I backpacked in Europe on my way back to the United States for graduate school. In Milan to meet some relatives, I went browsing at a clothing store. I turned a corner in a basement shop and saw woman in a full burqa. My heart began racing and I realized I was terrified and fairly well trapped underground. I walked away fast. Then I thought, No, no, I will not do this. I walked back over and forced myself to stay in the aisle with her. (I have no idea if she noticed and if so, I’m very sorry I may have made the experience weird for her.)

There were, in Israel, people who responded to terrorism close to their homes, schools, and shopping centers (very close – the country is a very small place) with anger, with a reaction of bulldoze them all over. The friend whose home I raced to had responded by calling “them” animals. I had no words at that moment, but I left soon afterwards. I am not special, but I never felt the same about that friend afterwards, even as I knew she was scared and angry.

I left her house and met up with another friend, a phenomenal teacher and mentor, part of an Orthodox feminist minyan, who did not abide hate. This friend read Arabic, and over the coming weeks we read all the English, Hebrew, and Arabic news about the woman who had committed suicide by backpack, taking with her a grandfather and so many people’s sense of well-being. Her name was Wada. She was twenty-eight – older than me then but eleven years younger than me now. She had been married at sixteen. She suffered a stillbirth and then was divorced by her husband because she could not have more children. She volunteered with the Red Crescent Movement and saw awful sights. She led a hard life, which does not justify murder-suicide, but makes her all too human.

There is no excuse for hate. I felt all the normal feelings of fear, sadness, anger, grief, and pain. But I had then and continue to maintain now, a visceral rejection of retribution. I don’t think this route was the easier one. Choosing to stay angry, to not delve into Wada’s humanity, would have been much simpler. Choosing to see my interests as the only ones I needed to honor would have been less of a challenge to my self-image.

Returning to the afternoon days after the election, I only realized hours later that I had had a mini-flashback to January 2002. The words of hate coming out of my computer, the anger I’ve felt at the proposals for registering Muslim Americans, immigrants, and visitors in this country, the threats to round up and deport undocumented immigrants, a surge in anti-Semitic activity – they’re not parallel to the second Intifada in Israel or hamatzav (the situation) in the Middle East. My point here is not at all to make allusions to Israel.

My point is: I came back to a strange United States. I had “missed” September 11th, but I had not been isolated from terrorism. I had been closer to it than the vast, vast majority of Americans. Yet all around me, flags were flying and we were preparing to send soldiers off to a new war. Americans struck me as angry, claiming to be scared; seeking retribution under the pretense of seeking security.

I know from my study of history that we have long been a people with hate close to the surface. I never satisfactorily figured out the why, never came to an answer better than that we’re human.

We have philosophers, texts, and art offering us different ways. Some people choose to believe and to act on them. Some choose to act on the hate, to abide it and give it space. More people choose not to act at all. I want to think my reaction the other day was extreme and not portentous. I know the context doesn’t make sense, but who says trauma is lucid?

My body recognized hate as hate and I wish for it to have no place here.

 

Announcing Memphis Boo: Scary Tales of the City

I am crazy excited to announce that my name now graces a book spine.

Memphis Boo: Scary Tales of the City (Reedy Press, 2016) debuted this month in Memphis stores and online. I had so much fun writing this book. Even the editing process was like an extended coffee date with my friend, creative director, and author of 100 Things to Do in Memphis Before You Die, Samantha Crespo. We’ll be appearing all over Memphis this fall to get the word out about some of the city’s most spooky awesome eternal beats.

Please visit memphisboo.weebly.com  to purchase a copy or follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MemphisBoo.

You can also follow me here and on Twitter (@IrgrorianGirl). Because yes, I am still working on  another children’s book and a novel (or two).

My life right now

Morning

Hoot, upon seeing that scene on our walk to school, “Ooh, somebody was bad. They broke our street.”

 

Wise, “Hoot! That’s not nice. It might’ve been an accident.”

Hoot, “They should slow down! Slow down!”


Day

Student, “Dr. F., how come you want to be a librarian and not a principal? You’d have lots of power if you were a principal.”

Me, “Because, Student, attending meetings makes me want to pull out my eyeballs. So does talking on the phone.”

Student, “You’re funny. You always say what you think.”

Me, “That’s another reason.”


Night

Wise, “Mama, have you seen my Lego minifigure with the three-cornered hat?”

Me, “I gave him to you last night and told you to put him away.”

Wise, “Oh hmm, well I think I didn’t do that. Do you know where he is now?”

 

Zag

While I was looking for the photo of me with my old dog Stormi for my last post, I came across a picture of an old friend who died 23 months ago. The picture was from 1999, taken during her hiatus from studying abroad in France.

I thought of her yesterday, too, when I saw a clump of dandelions in a yard. She liked dandelions. One of her last Facebook posts had been a goofy refusal to clear them from her yard like her suburban neighbors.

Dandelion cluster.jpg

Recent reports have revealed a “surge” in the numbers of death from suicide, and the NY Times had an article titled “sweeping pain” a few days ago (although the title has changed).

Sweeping pain is right.

I didn’t know how she died for weeks. I didn’t want to ask after I received vague word she’d passed. I wasn’t surprised.

Like dust with a broom, the first slap of grief billows, cycling back in smaller clouds.

I know depression is a disorder, with suicide as a consequence of failed treatment. So it seems wrong to try to understand it within an individual. To think thoughts like — she was always the conductor of her own life, no other disease or attack could snuff her out. Or to become furious with her — she was always so selfish.

Yet since I’m still here on this side, imperfect, I know my thoughts are normal, natural. Like every other person in her life I’m sure, I can see in retrospect where I might’ve guessed she needed help. Living 700 miles away though and still struggling to forgive her for not showing up for me in 2007, when she easily could have, I kept my distance from her.

It’s entirely speculative when I try to imagine her thoughts in her last moments, and I wonder often about the role simply being a woman, a wife, a mother may have had. To erase your self in children; to make choices about where you lived based not on your own dreams alone, but the needs of your spouse as well; to make a major shift in your career path so you can fit with his.

When I think of the two girls we were when I snapped that shot seventeen years ago, both poised to be ex-patriots, both sure we were anything but ordinary and would never be boring, I never would’ve imagined us back in the States, her in a suburban mansion and me in a Midtown bungalow, learning to knit (her), crochet (me), and wash diapers.That’s all gone now. Depression is a disorder, I know. It might be my own grandiose image of self that makes me imagine I could’ve helped.

Just when I’d think I understood her, she’d always show herself a black box to me. But I just can’t help myself from thinking that if only I’d spoken up, talked to her about the way my own life had zagged along my path, she might’ve zigged back into hers.

 

Youthful life stories

Sometimes Hoot’s mind is a mystery to me. He heard the name “Donald Trump” on NPR this morning. “Trump? Why’d they say Donald Trump?”

“He’s running for president, sweetie. We’re going to hear his name a lot.”

Hoot laughed. “Donald Trump is not a president! He’s a movie!”

I didn’t understand at first. “He’s a what?”

“I say he’s a movie! Not a president!”

At other times, he’s completely familiar.

Walking Mocha, he says, “Mama, next time I’m a dog I’m not going to be a little dog who goes ‘yip yip’ all the time.”

I smile. “Oh you were a yippy dog before?”

“Yes, last time.”

“In a dream?” I asked.

“No! Last time I said! I was a little dog. The next time I’m a dog, I will be a big big dog!” He stomped his feet and stopped walking.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Why are you going to be a big dog next time?”

“I was a little dog who barked at Mocha last time. I was not a friend. Next time I will be a big dog who is Mocha’s friend.”

“Oh, you want to be Mocha’s friend next time you’re a dog?”

“Yes, but I will not be a big dog who steals food from tables. I will be a good dog.”

“That’s nice, Hoot.”

“Yes, Mama, that’s nice.”

We walked on.

“Last time” I wasn’t a dog–in the 1970s, I guess–I was a bunny, but not the kind of bunny who harassed my dog Stormi. I was a friend to dogs. But then our neighbor ran me over with his lawnmower.

Mama Young

 

 

X

I have a 3,742 page dictionary, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 6th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2007). 

Out of all those thousands of sheets, X words take up just three. More than 1/3 of the first page for X is covered in definitions for just the letter X: from “X” is the twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet and the twenty-first in the “ancient Roman” alphabet to numbered definitions from X-factor to X-out. I couldn’t think of an inspiring X word today, so I decided I’d just learn the definitions of the first ten words following.

The second X word, X-acto, I usually hear paired with the kind of knife responsible for one of our most terrifying moments in parenting, when we learned Hoot had learned to use chairs for climbing. I suppose if we lived in Xanadu we’d have servants in charge of more carefully organizing our household and anticipating disasters. Speaking of my housekeeping skills, I only recently threw out the xanthum gum responsible for my failed experiment with gluten-free challah baking but my OED tells me I could’ve also used it for oil-drilling and mixing up fake blood.

The Greek word xanthos means yellow and forms the root for xanthene, a tricyclic compound that can be used to create “brilliant, often fluorescent dyes,” and xanthelasma, or yellowish patches on the skin caused by lipid (fatty) deposits.

Apparently we have the cartenoid pigment xanthin to thank for lovely yellow plants. But we really ought to worship the crystalline purine xanthine which is in caffeine and two less pleasant but equally necessary parts of life, blood and urine.

Animals who are “excessively” yellow suffer from xanthism. The dictionary didn’t tell me what “excessively yellow” means for a creature’s health, and neither did a quick Google Search. Since I’m rather fond of the color yellow, I was slightly offended. Would this room be said to struggle with xanthism?

 

yellow

I told Josh I would write sentences for the first ten definitions of words starting with X, like in an elementary grade school assignment and he said, “You’re really giving up” on this blog challenge. I felt a bit like a Xanthippe, or “a scolding or bad tempered woman or wife.” My goal was just to make sure I sat down and wrote a bit each day, on different subjects. This might not be the most exciting post, but I probably learned the most from it. I will make it to the end of this challenge.