GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

-Joan Didion

 

Shiv and I flew into Houston on Saturday, a quick trip, a stealth one.  Shiv visited friends and I helped Jill work on our old house, cleaning a LOT of tile grout in order to get the house ready to put on the market.  On Tuesday, the three of us flew back to Phoenix, and as soon as the mountains came into view, I distinctly felt that we were home.

 

Strange but true, Houston is now a Place I Used To Live, the setting for a chapter of my life that stretches nearly as long as the time I spent in Memphis, the Place Where I Grew Up.  I know that this sense of delineated geographic and chronological territory is not at all unique to me, that plenty of people move all over the country and the world, and much more frequently than I have, but this shift is a novelty to me.  I’ve been so focused on the beginnings that this move has created that I forgot to look for the endings inherently tangled up in it.

 

For the past four years, I used Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” as part of the nonfiction unit I taught in my creative writing class for seniors.  The piece (if you haven’t read it, it’s worth your time) describes Didion’s arrival in New York City as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, her subsequent enchantment with the city and the life she built for herself, and finally, manages to capture the experience of falling out of love both with New York and with the person she had become while living there.

 

It was usually around this time of year that we’d approach the essay, me reading it aloud in class to help students immerse themselves in Didion’s language, and also to evoke the tone of reflection that always struck a chord with my eighteen-year-old students, right on the precipice of a great life change of their own, but uncertain as to what shape that change might take.  Which friendships would last?  Who would they become in their new environments?  What would they choose when the majority of their choices were no longer dictated for them?

 

These are questions I’ve been asking myself recently, observing how what I want and what I’m interested in have shifted with my environment.  It’s fascinating data, expanding my sense of who I am and oftentimes surprising me with the results.  Our surroundings necessarily impact how we show up, pulling us into new adventures, like the hike that Jill and I went on this morning, on a trail quite literally five minutes from our house.  And our communities call us into being inside of relationships and the histories those relationships contain—which is why, comforting as it is to be known somewhere, to have a dozen or more years of history to lean on with those around you, it’s also tremendously freeing to start from scratch.  I am a different person than I was at twenty-four, when I started my last job; I have far more experience and far less to prove.

 

Turns out that much of what I had decided was the “norm” in my previous life was a standard of my own creation, one that I built in good faith but grew to feel stuck inside of.  Both my calendar and my mind are much clearer these days, and I am grateful for the chance to create a new sense of myself.

BABY’S FIRST CHAPTER BOOK

My love of Harry Potter goes way back; I am an OG fan.  I read the books as they came out (the first book was released the fall of my freshman year of high school), saw the movies in the theater as they came out (the first movie was released the fall of my freshman year of college), and I don’t think I will ever forget taking my copy of Book Seven out of its FedEx box, climbing onto the couch in our Pearland house, and reading the entire thing in one sitting, exactly one day shy of one year since my father had died.

 

Needless to say, it feels significant to be reading the books with Shiv.  I worked so hard not to project any expectation onto Shiv, not wanting to pressure or push, knowing that it could very well turn out that my kid just wouldn’t be “into” Harry Potter the way I was—so when Shiv asked, one month ago, if we could start reading the books together, it was all I could do to keep my shit together.  We promptly began reading Book One aloud, one chapter a night (sometimes two, when Shiv managed to wheedle me into continuing), and we are six chapters away from finishing Book Two.  After finishing Book One, we got Vietnamese take-out and watched the movie at Auntie Coco’s house; we plan to do the same for each ensuing film.

 

Everyone who knows me knows that I care about ritual; it works for me.  Ritual keeps me grounded, helps pull me out of my head and back into the world.  Religious ritual, specifically, reminds me of the bigger picture, of the seasonality of life and the cyclical nature of the universe.  For everything there is a season.  Impermanence is inevitable.  Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return.

 

Like most sacred texts, the Harry Potter books have nuggets of wisdom placed right alongside deeply problematic tropes and tendencies (female competence propping up male mediocrity, rampant fat-phobic language, a notable lack of non-white characters with anything more than bit parts).  But to treat the reading of these chapters every night as a ritual creates the opportunity to discuss the deeply real and difficult themes the series tackles: theodicy, abuse of power, dehumanization of the other, and how to respond to evil, among others.

 

A few weeks ago, at our yoga studio, a grandmother mentioned that she was reading Harry Potter with her grandson, who is a full two years older than Shiv, and expressed her doubts about its appropriateness.  “Yeah,” remarked the parent of another child, “that series gets dark really fast.”

 

I wanted to, but refrained from saying, “You know, the world gets dark really fast, too.”  This is a frustration that I have with a lot of the parenting that takes place inside of privilege; sometimes it seems as if the less danger children are actually in, the more protective their parents seem to be.  Jill and I have known from the start that we will not be able to shelter Shiv from the truth of a society that stacks the deck unfairly based on all kinds of things, including skin color.  Which is why Shiv has known about racism and slavery and segregation since age 3; we have consciously chosen not to anesthetize the world, tempting as it may be.  Sure, it feels shitty to admit to your kid that the world is unfair and full of as many terrible things as it is beautiful ones; but that’s the truth as I see it, and to prepare Shiv otherwise, would be to prepare Shiv for a world that doesn’t actually exist.

 

As an English teacher, I believe that books can push us to think about the kind of people we want to be, to hone in on what we believe and whether or not our actions line up with those beliefs.  Which is why my family will continue our little Harry Potter ritual, giving my British accent a work-out, marching into chapters that will inevitably trigger tears and tough questions, watching films that do, indeed, grow dark and scary, and doing our best as a family to call evil by its name and to choose how we will respond when we see it.

STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES

For a long time, I thought of myself as a person who valued order, routine, and predictability; “I’m pretty risk-averse,” I would tell people when the topic came up.  Individuals who knew me well often looked at me puzzled—does a risk-averse person self-publish a book or date their professor or adopt a child?—but that was how I related to myself, a narrative formed in childhood that lost its accuracy at some point during my teenage years.  One of the many things that this move has forced me to do is reconsider this story that I have told for so long, and to examine why I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to let it go before now.

 

Narratives are powerful, and like any powerful thing, they can be dangerous.  When we fail to update our stories about ourselves, we wind up living inside of limitations that are entirely self-imposed; when we fail to update our stories about others, we can—as individuals and groups of individuals—do terrible damage.

 

Such has been a piece of the conversation in my classroom the past few weeks, as my sophomores and I read Feeding the Ghosts, a hauntingly beautiful book of historical fiction that imagines the voyage of The Zong, a slave ship infamous for its captain’s decision to throw sick slaves overboard in order to maximize profits.  It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an incredibly difficult text to read and reckon with: questions about dehumanization, power, prejudice, and the nature of humanity have filled my days.  There are no easy answers—one of my personal and pedagogical core beliefs—which is part of what makes the examination worth the while.

 

I am interested in asking my students (and also myself) to look at and consider the material on multiple levels, hence the conversations about how narratives can influence and determine everything from our self-understandings to our institutional structures.  It may seem a stretch, but I do believe these things are connected; if we push ourselves to be more reflective and in reality about the narratives at work inside our own lives, we are better prepared to take responsibility for the narratives we participate in as family members, employees, citizens, and adherents to a particular dogma.  And Lord knows we could use a little bit of that in the world right now.

DESERT LIVING

What kind of crazy person moves to Arizona twice in one lifetime, both times during the month of July?  That would be me.

 

My first stint in the dessert consisted of two years in Tucson, about ninety miles south of where I now sit.  I came here for graduate school, moving six weeks before classes started in order to house and dog-sit for former professors of mine whose kids I’d babysat in college.  They generously let me stay in their beautiful home while they spent a six-month Fulbright term in Santiago, but with them gone I didn’t know a single person in Tucson.

 

That summer was hard, as I’d known it would be—but there’s knowing and then there’s experiencing, and the former doesn’t really prepare you for the latter.  For weeks, the only person who knew me by name was Bob, the yoga instructor whose classes quickly became both sanity maintenance and a reason to leave the house.  My only friends were Penny and Dillon, the pups with whose care I was entrusted; I loved them both, but Dillon, the boxer, and I grew especially close – both of us snugglers, he could sense my loneliness, and took to jumping up into my bed at night.  Sometimes I still dream about sleeping with one arm thrown across his big barrel chest.

 

I was a recently graduated religious studies major and soon-to-be MFA student at the time, so it shouldn’t surprise you that I took the opportunity to read all of the desert literature I could from Terry Tempest Williams to Edward Abbey to the Desert Fathers of the Third Century.  Though writing across space and time, there were threads in all of these writings that united the authors’ meditations on the landscape—its punishing, harsh exterior, its unexpected and breathtaking beauty, and the resilience it demands of its inhabitants.

 

Perhaps it will seem a little melodramatic to extend my own metaphor here, but I gotta say, those desert clichés feel pretty on-base even the second time around.  My current circumstances are very different; far from moving here alone, I moved with my mom and my child (with my wife to follow once she moves her father into assisted living and readies our Houston house to put on the market).  Instead of knowing no one and being friendless, one of my best friends in the world now lives a mere five minute drive from where I live, after seven years of long-distance friendship.  As before, I will be entering a new school community, but this time as a faculty member instead of a student.

 

And still—it’s hard.  It’s hard in ways that have surprised me, and by which I feel somewhat embarrassed.  After all, I have buried a parent, weathered my spouse’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, adopted a child, and written two books; I have done challenging things, things that feel more justifiable to me in their difficulty.  But here I am, using a TV tray for a desk, eating peanut-butter-filled pretzels out of a bowl and watching the summer lightning storm play against the sky, and wishing this were maybe a little bit easier.

 

But I didn’t choose this for easy, or simple, or routine.  I chose it precisely because I knew it would challenge and stretch and expand me, which it is.  During my first summer in the desert, my friend Kate sent me the following excerpt from Anne Carson’s brilliant work Autobiography of Red; thirteen years later, I find myself leaning on that final line once again:

 

  1. SCREENDOOR

 

His mother was at the ironing board lighting a cigarette and regarding Geryon. Outside the dark pink air was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time. Her cool voice floated over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood at the screendoor. He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell of the screen itself as it pressed its grid onto his face. She was behind him now. This would be hard for you if you were weak but you’re not weak, she said and neatened his little red wings and pushed him out the door.

 

SIX

Dear Shiv,

This week, you turned six.  Six feels like a big deal—suddenly, we need two hands instead of just one to hold up the right amount of fingers to reflect your age.  And this birthday feels even more significant, of course, because it’s happening right on the eve of our family’s big move.

This kind of change, the kind we choose, reminds us that we live into an unknown future, that we can’t predict what comes next.  It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise when we are going about our usual business, but the truth is that life can change in an instant, in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons well outside of our control.

Six years ago, your Gigi and I were on the cusp of another big change; we stood in the room as you came into the world, red and swollen and, blessedly, healthy.  You had been promised to us but were not yet ours—for legal reasons, we could not assume guardianship of you until forty-eight hours after your birth, and we were keenly aware that the situation could shift from what we’d hoped for to what we feared at any time.  Though we could not keep from falling in love with you, we reminded ourselves that you did not, existentially, belong to anyone but yourself.  And we made a promise that, should we be lucky enough to take you home, our parenting would honor your individuality.

There is a version of the chicken-or-the-egg? debate when it comes to child-rearing; which is more powerful, nature or nurture?  I am no expert, of course, and can base my conclusions only on my own experience, but there’s no doubt in my mind that you came to us with the person we now know as Shiv cocooned inside of you.  We did not create that Shiv; the miracle of genetics and the magic of grace did that.  But, like a geode waiting to be exposed by the right conditions, I also believe that our work to provide a particular kind of environment for you has allowed your true self to shine more fully than it might under other conditions.

This work isn’t always easy—we live in a society so attached to its gender roles that you’ve already learned that it’s easier for you to pass as a “she” than to be a “he” who wears dresses as well as shorts.  But there’s never even been a question in my or your Gigi’s mind that we would help you carve out the space required to live as freely and authentically as possible.  We both understand what it means to possess a truth deep down inside of you that others question the veracity or legitimacy of; we both know what it means to have to fight through a confusing tangle of what you’ve been taught and what you feel in order to come to a place of true self-expression.

The thing is, Shiv, you are way ahead of us.  You know yourself better than almost anyone I know, including many, many adults.  You know what you like, and you like what you see when you look in the mirror, to the extent that a part of me envies you.  But a much bigger part of me is awed by your bravery, your refusal to conform even as you begin to understand more and more what the costs can be.  And as you refuse to turn your hurt into unkindness, as so many in this world do.

We cannot control the rest of the world, and for this reason, some would urge us to be careful, to protect you by having you dull your shine.  And I understand that impulse—I truly do—but I cannot support it.  For your birthday, I asked a friend and former student to create a piece of artwork that will hang in your new bedroom in Phoenix, using the following quotation from James Baldwin:

 

“You have to go the way your blood beats.  If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”

 

Six years ago, your Gigi and I were entrusted with the care and protection of your one “wild and precious” life (to quote Mary Oliver), but that life is ultimately your own.  Already we are so proud of how you choose to live it.

 

I love you for always,

Mama