“NORMAL”

I’m reading a beautiful book right now, recommended to me by my dear friend, the poet Sarah Vap. I trust Sarah’s taste implicitly, especially when it comes to words, so it’s no surprise that though I have just begun reading Bewilderment, I both can’t put it down and already don’t want it to end. (You may know Bewilderment’s author, Richard Powers, as I did, from his 2019’s Pulitzer-Prize winning ode to the genius and majesty of trees, The Overstory.)

Bewilderment’s narrator is single father and scientist Theo, struggling to raise nine-year-old son Robin following the death of his wife Alyssa. Robin, or Robbie, it becomes clear from the start of the book, is…a different kind of kid. Incredibly intelligent, hyper-sensitive, prone to flares of emotion—all of which are heightened by grief. As things stand in the book now, Theo is engaged in a battle with Robbie’s elementary school, which is growing ever-pushier in its “recommendation” that Theo medicate his son into behaving more like everyone else.

However the specifics of Robbie’s story wind up playing out, I recognize and ache for the themes he brings to the page. More and more frequently, I see representation of what we now call neurodivergence in contemporary fiction, plot lines conveyed with an increasing sense of urgency. Of course, neurodivergence is an insanely wide umbrella that contains a huge variety of incidence and expression, much of which science is just beginning to understand. What I find myself specifically drawn to in Robbie’s story, and what resonates in my own lived experience is the fact that the “different” among us, particularly our children, very often refuse to stand for what we have deemed to be the norm in modern society, and instead of viewing their responses as an opportunity for self-reflection or examination, we pathologize their behavior and punish them for their lack of conformity.

Robbie in particular has a heart for animals, which he inherited from his mother, an attorney who lobbied against animal cruelty. When he hears a particularly heart-rending statistic—that only two percent of earth’s remaining animals are wild*—he decides that he will devote his time and energy to painting portraits of endangered species to sell at the Farmers Market, in order to raise money for his mother’s favorite conservation and animal protection causes. He sets to work with fury and intensity, stacking up books from the library and supplies from the art store, laboring all weekend with the kind of concentration and focus that does not come easily to most nine-year-olds. His father is all for it, until, come Monday morning, Robbie refuses to go to school, insisting that his project is much more important than anything he will learn or do there. “[T]here’s no point in school. Everything will be dead before I get to the tenth grade.”

He’s not wrong. I taught school for fifteen years and I can’t imagine anything I did in my classroom being more important than a nine-year-old whose heart beats so wildly with raw compassion for our dying planet that he needs to do something about it right now. Is his sensibility inconvenient? Sure. Does it mess with “the way” of things, as we’ve established them? You bet. But isn’t it going to take some interrupting of the way of things, and a lot of major inconvenience, to fix the mess we’ve made, or to even have a chance? Don’t we need these humans, whose brains seem wired to call us out on our hypocrisy, our talking-out-of-two-sides-of-our-mouth? 

Photo of a lotus blossom at the Houston Botanic Garden.

A friend shared with me yesterday that when her child’s elementary school performs a lockdown drill, they tell the kids it’s in case an unfriendly dog gets loose inside the school and they need to keep everyone safe so it won’t bite anyone. A biting dog is scary enough to get the kids to take the drill seriously, but not so scary as the truth, which is that we have come to accept as normal the fact that men with weapons may, at any given time, invade our schools, our grocery stores, our sacred spaces, and murder people in cold blood. 

This is the normal we’re invested in preserving? I’m not so sure it’s worth holding onto anymore.

There is no shame in admitting we are afraid of letting go, even of a system we know doesn’t really work, or that does tremendous damage. And I do not wish to imply that opting out of the giant matrix is easy, or even possible, for most of us, though I do think there are individual ways that we can each find to practice resisting the pull of the norm. I also think there is power in declaring a different way of seeing aloud, in saying – I do not believe in this. I do not ascribe to this. I call bullshit on this. I will no longer prop this up. After all, you never know who is listening (our children always are), who may feel the same but not have the courage to say so until you speak first.

If we begin in this way, by telling the truth, we may find ourselves working up the gumption to do a few things differently; we may find that we can live with doing other things the same as we always have, only this time choosing them consciously and not half-asleep. At the very least, we will not be fooling ourselves, or lying to our children, telling them that they do not see what they see, that they should not feel what they feel. 

I can’t help but think they are our canaries in the coal mine, screaming at us to stop before it is too late.


*I was not able to find documentation to back up this exact statistic, though it does not seem at all implausible based on what I read, including this detail: “Wild mammals and birds collectively account for only 0.38% [of all biomass]— livestock therefore outweighs wild mammals and birds by a factor of ten.”

ADVENT

There are too many emails in my inbox. Too many in yours, too, I wager. I use one of those rollup subscription tools to manage them all, but still – the emails. They overflow. It is December 1 and Inbox Inundation is in Full Swing.

I have a complicated relationship with this time of year; I’m sure I’m not the only one. We call it “The Holidays,” but of course, that’s a euphemism – everybody knows we mean Christmas. And, frankly, it can be difficult not to resent that. I say this both as a Hindu, whose major holiday comes earlier in the calendar year and is generally overlooked by the American public, and as someone who adores the spiritual meaning and heft of the Christmas story. What our consumer culture has managed to turn this season into is, whether you are invested from a religious angle or not, mostly garbage.

Listen, I am the farthest thing from a Scrooge; I love twinkling lights and I can get knee-deep in wonder real fast. It’s the obligation I’m not down with, the shouty capitalism that implies we MUST BUY THESE THINGS RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT in order to sustain our relationships and show people we love them, MUST SEND INSTAGRAM-WORTHY CARDS to demonstrate our family’s happiness and well-being, MUST SACRIFICE THE ENTIRE MONTH OF DECEMBER to doing things and spending time with people that we will ultimately resent. 

The Thanksgiving table at my sweet friend Sarah’s house in Phoenix.

Perhaps you have cracked the code for yourself and negotiated that beautiful balance of eschewing convention and choosing the traditions, rituals, and celebrations that feel truly meaningful to you – if so, please immediately reveal your secrets. Personally, I find myself renegotiating my relationship with Christmas each year, doing my best to determine what feels authentically engaging versus on an autopilot setting. I want so much to invest in that which sustains, from where I give my money to where I spend my time. 

I don’t know that I’m ever going to get this balance “right,” or that there is a “right” – but with so much in flux in my family’s life right now, I have the opportunity to revisit and reimagine what I want this time of year to look like, and what I’m no longer interested in doing or trying to be. Turns out, there is a little bit of freedom in announcing to the world that your marriage is ending! Listen, I’m not recommending it, but for sure this destroys once and for all any internal impulse you once had to keep up with the Joneses or give a shit about what other people think. That stuff I can’t control. That stuff, no amount of algorithm-targeted merchandise is going to mitigate. I’ve got to do that work myself.

So I am going to try very hard this December to filter out the distractions and focus on that which sustains. Joy and good cheer? Sustaining. Gathering with friends for a fine meal? Sustaining. Extending forgiveness to myself and others? Sustaining. And so on and so forth.

As a liturgical season, Advent invites us to empty ourselves out, rather than fill ourselves up (ironic, eh? way to go, capitalism) – to make room in our hearts for a miracle to occur. The trick is, we have to forget that we know the miracle is already promised. At the darkest hour in the stillness of our truest selves is when the magic happens. This I wish for all of you, and for me as well.

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FEAR

I grew up in an affluent Memphis suburb and lived a cushy, upper-middle-class life, but you wouldn’t know it from the culture of fear that the after-school specials and children’s books of the 1980s seemed so hell-bent on creating. Despite my relative safety, every type of media I consumed was suffused with a warning about some kind of imminent danger: stranger danger was a big one (why has no one ever approached me in a white van to offer me candy? based on what I was told, it seemed inevitable that this would happen), the danger that drugs would fry my brain (how interesting that marijuana instead came to my rescue during a period of chronic pain in my thirties!), and the danger associated with sex (both having sex – because AIDS – and being female, because men were also dangerous.)

As I became older and gained some perspective on the relative privilege I had been raised in, it struck me as ironic that so much emphasis had been placed on preparing me for dangers that were false or exaggerated, almost to the point of hysteria. These days, I have a more cynical take; I believe that false fear mongering is a convenient way to avoid having to look closely at the real dangers faced by others. It’s an excellent pathway toward justifying a sense of victimhood and solidifying a place of defensiveness that precludes any kind of responsibility-taking for making the world a less hostile place for those who actually have a great deal to fear.

My daughter Shiv visiting our friends’ foster dog, Fatima.

Like queer folx all over the country, I woke up yesterday to the news that five of our own had been killed at a nightclub in Colorado Springs. Out on a Saturday night—haven’t I been saying lately that I wanted to go out dancing? It’s been too long since I did that, and I’m not getting any younger. Gay bars are especially great as a queer woman because you don’t have to deal with getting hit on by random dudes, so I get the temptation for straight girls, believe me, I do, but they don’t understand. How can they? If you’ve never reached for your love’s hand in public, but pulled away, afraid. If you couldn’t take the person you actually wanted to dress up for to your high school Prom. If you were harassed by cops the night of your first kiss. And so on and so on.

I could continue with stories from my own lived experience, those of my students, who are younger than me, and those that queer elders have shared with me. Let’s just say that in the grand scheme of wild terror and aching and deep, jaw-clenching unfairness and other things that often accompany coming out and falling in love when you’re queer, the dark corners of a dance floor, the knowing looks of literally being “in the club,” the freedom, the joy, the wonder – that shit is sacred. Full stop. And it has been violated. Once again. 

Unlike the earlier times, in college or in grad school or later in my twenties, when I sought the freedom of a rainbow dance floor, when I return to one now – and I will, very purposefully, and very soon – I will also be occupying the space as the parent of a child who is trans. She loves that she is trans, is proud of who she is, because her other mother and I have worked very hard to make it safe for her to live her truth. But we know that we cannot make the world safe for her, far from it. She is growing up inside a dual age of unrivaled freedom, where our culture is finally starting to splinter the gender binary and make room for the diversity of expression that’s always been there, and the nasty, hateful reaction to that movement which seeks to suppress and vilify it. To vilify my child. The very essence of who she is. Who she was born to be.

Do they do this out of fear? No. I do not believe that they do. Genuine fear is panicked and protective, not cold and calculating. They are not actually afraid of her. They do not think she will harm their children in bathrooms, or make soccer teams unfair for their biological girls. This is all a sanctimonious, cynical ruse to distract from the real danger and injustice on the ground, much of which they are perpetuating. 

Fear is a powerful tool, a manipulator, but as I strive to remain a decent human, I pray that those who spew hateful rhetoric about my child, about me, about my people, never know the true fear that for me, as the mother of a Black child in America, as the parent of a child who is trans, as a queer woman, as a Brown woman, stays lodged just behind my breastbone. I keep it there in order to function, because no one makes their best decisions out of fear, and I cannot serve my child if I live inside of a fog of alarm. But sometimes I wake up to news, like I did yesterday, and my chest tightens, and I forget how to breathe. 

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CHURCH

As I resurrect this website, I’m also updating my list of email subscribers. The plan is to send a newsletter-type-thing no more than twice a month, with a digest of blog posts, plus other various odds and ends (links to playlists I’ve made, articles I think you might like, etc. etc.) Sound intriguing? Sign up here!

So I’ve got this new thing in my life. I’m going to church on Sundays. For a couple of months now. And I gotta say, I’m into it. 

I know, I know, this is where things start to feel weird for some of you. Church is passé. Half the Christian mommy bloggers don’t even talk about church anymore, so why on earth would I? Well, I am a big believer in going where the juice is, regardless of what container it comes in. I’ll engage in nearly any kind of experience into which I am invited, inside which I feel called to participate, and around which I feel authentic intention. This is one of the reasons (I think) that my friend Stephen gave me the moniker “omnivore of the human experience.” Stephen, feel free to correct me on this if I’ve got it wrong!

Growing up in Memphis as the first-generation child of Indian immigrants, our Hindu tradition was first and foremost an anchor to culture and history; faith exploration, my parents left up to me. Like most first-gen kids, I alternated between taking my home culture for granted and reveling in it: resenting what felt like obligation, delighting in how beautiful it was (is). A deeply personal and true thing, though, is that I have always felt a strong pull to the Divine. That sense of connection to what many people call God has been there for as long as I can remember, and worship—whether it be in my family’s prayer room or flopping in a pile of leaves in my backyard—came as naturally as writing did, and from as early an age. I was moved by the beauty of the world, and I saw fit to express thanks for the exquisite experience of being alive inside of it. Sometimes my chest would be full to bursting with…I didn’t know what, and God seemed like the only possible name I could assign to the infinity I felt inside of myself.

I am forever grateful that my parents sent me to an Episcopal school; though the institution itself was flawed, as all are, the religious context of my education was a truly beautiful landscape for me to explore, one inside of which I felt, for the most part, welcomed. My parents’ Hinduism included no prohibition against finding the Divine in other houses of worship, so I came to feel comfortable in daily Chapel, singing hymns and kneeling for prayer. I felt safe to share my tradition and existential wonderings with teachers and classmates, and eventually took a World Religions class in high school that sparked an interest that led to my undergraduate major in Religious Studies. The rest, as they say, is history. Along the way, I’ve grieved the loss of my father (grief, as you know if you’ve experienced it, is a deeply spiritual reckoning), answered God’s call to move through the world as a writer and a teacher, become a parent through the tenuous, sacred process of adoption, and spent eleven years teaching in a Jewish school environment, where I learned to say Kabbalat Shabbat and came to feel at home inside of the gentle alignment of the lunar calendar rhythm that Hinduism and Judaism share. 

The All Saints’ Day altar at my church, Northside Episcopal, October 2022.

Then I moved to Phoenix, where I began teaching at my first non-religiously-affiliated school. I didn’t anticipate that being an issue at first, but, in retrospect, I can see how much I had taken for granted the difference it made for me to have some kind of larger framework built into the day, the week, the year: these are the words we say when something bad happens, this is how we gather to celebrate, this is how we comfort each other, this is how we respond when someone is sick, when someone has a baby, when our hearts are weary. 

Believe me, I know that it’s not as if religion has a monopoly on these kinds of things, nor does it necessarily always do them, or do them well. There are plenty of secular contexts where beautiful care-taking and meaning-making takes place; unfortunately, the school where I formerly taught was not one of them, at least not when I was there. Teaching during the pandemic years without a genuine framework for community and communication? Oof. As tempting as it is, though, I can’t blame the school wholesale for the ways that I neglected my spiritual self during those years in Phoenix. I let fruit wither on the vine, and I paid the price.

So imagine my delight when my friend Carissa, whom I knew when I lived in Houston the last time, said, “Some cool things are happening at our little church in Northside. Come check us out.” Well, that little church in Northside is less than ten minutes from my house, wedged in a storefront between a boxing gym and a pharmacy. Services are fully bilingual, moving between English and Spanish, which I adore; I grew up surrounded by Sanskrit, and I know what Carissa means when she says that the Spirit speaks to us and tells us what we need to know.

There’s lots of good church-y things about my church, from the work we’re trying to do in the community we’re situated in, to the fact that our communion table is open to all, to the mix of humans who show up on any given Sunday, to the very fine music, to the garden we’re both literally & figuratively growing. But I think the best way to tell you about why I now go to church is to recount what happened a few weeks ago when Carissa asked us, during a participatory homily, to think of what it is that we get or find at church that we don’t necessarily get or find in the rest of our life, during the week. “What is it, she asked, that we are agreeing is precious or sacred or real or true when we step into this space?”

Then – and I love this about Carissa, this is why she’s my priest – she had us physically get up and pantomime placing what we value about church very carefully into the hands of another person in the room, and, addressing them by name, ask them to keep it safe. Our responses brought tears to my eyes:

“Shawn, this is holy mystery, keep it safe, it is precious.”

“Carissa, this is salvation, offered for all of us.”

“Nishta, this is the knowledge that even when you feel alone, you’re not alone.”

“Nancy, this is holy innocence.”

“Carol, this is regard for the sanctity of all life.”

“Chris, this is hope, hold onto it tight.”

That, for me, is worth showing up on Sunday morning, which is why I am now, hilariously and awesomely, a church lady. 

Amen & Alleluia & Om Shanti Shanti Shanti,

Nishta 

40

I turn 40 in ten days. I’m excited about it, ready. I’ve kind of always wanted to be 40. This is a symptom, I think, of being told very early in life that I was an “old soul” and also “mature for my age.” I both hated and loved hearing those things and I’m still not sure what they mean exactly. I do know that I am someone who is adept at paying close attention, which is part of what makes me a writer; perhaps this is what folks were noticing when they identified my soul as being older than my body. (Don’t worry, my body has now caught up. And how!)

I have never dreamt about my life past 40, or imagined what it would be like. Probably because I was so achievement-oriented for so long that I figured I would line up my accomplishments like little ducks in a row, and the rest of my life would unfurl in orderly fashion from there. GEE WHIZ that’s hilarious, isn’t it? Ah, sigh. I may have been mature for my age but I still had plenty to learn. 

There’s tremendous freedom in this setup, of course. I have (just about) made it to 40, without spending any time dreaming about what I might do once I get there. Thanks to equal parts good first-generation immigrant girl training and genuine desire, I managed to line up those accomplishments (degrees, marriage, kid, books, a fifteen-year teaching career) and they have been incredibly fulfilling and also full of surprises. The biggest surprise being – they aren’t the most important thing about me. They don’t direct my future. They aren’t who I am.

photo of fall foliage from the Great Smoky Mountains in my home state of Tennessee, October 2022

I grew up the only child of older parents, which means I hung out by myself a lot. This was fine with me, given that I was and still am a giant nerd who is quite content to enjoy the company of books, go for a bike ride or walk, listen to music, and write in a journal every day. What I took for granted about this routine, though, is the way that all of this alone time allowed me to cultivate a very close relationship with myself. Nishta and I, we were on good terms. We liked each other. We enjoyed each other’s company. 

These days, after a period of forgetting, I am remembering how much I like my own company. I am spending more time with and by myself than I have in a long time. It feels good, feels right, feels necessary. I have neglected this relationship, the most important one in my life, for far too long, and I have several years’ worth of doctor’s appointments, surgeries, prescription medications, and even a medical leave from work, all of which I can now translate as my body saying HELLO COULD YOU PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO US THANK YOU VERY MUCH

I published a book in 2019, but honestly it’s been even longer than that since I genuinely worked on a writing project. I have been, in a lot of ways, stuck. Scrabbling notes and dreaming up half-projects, wondering why I could not get my body to cooperate with my desire to create, throwing out the occasional poem on Instagram, all the while trying to do right by my students and my family. You know who I wasn’t doing right by, though? Me.

At long last, earlier this calendar year, life seemed to be lining up to allow for the writing life I had always dreamed of; my family had moved back to Houston, I was taking some time off from full-time teaching, and I sold a book proposal for my next collection of essays: MORE THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR. 

Friends, a word to the wise. Don’t go calling your work-in-progress “More Than You Bargained For.” It’s just dramatic irony waiting to happen. 

I thought that this book I’m writing was going to be a continuation of the last, bringing stories about my family up to date and sharing what it’s like to be the parent of a trans child in Texas right now. I planned to write about teaching during the pandemic, including what it was like to bring one of my students into my home and my family. I had essays planned about Shiv’s continued journey related to Black identity, her fascination with villains, as well as my experiences with chronic pain, which have definitely been more than I bargained for. 

In classic plot-twist form, it turns out that this book is also going to be about my marriage ending, which is not something I ever imagined could or would happen. Jill and I have been together since I was nineteen years old, which is basically my entire adult life. But what time and space to myself, time to discern and reflect and re-get-to-know-myself, have made clear is that the right path forward for me is not inside this marriage. I know it as clearly as I know my own name, and there is a grace in that clarity, for which I am grateful. 

I suppose it’s perfect that I never imagined life past 40, for now the future is a wild open expanse, free and ready to be filled by whatever I dream up. Stay tuned, y’all. Life after 40 won’t be easy but it’s going to be good.

xoxo

NJM