SHABBAT

Last night, we lit the outdoor fire for the first time; that good chill in the air, so distinctively November’s.  All four of sat outside with our cups of liquid—red wine and hot chocolate, respectively—while I lit candles and said the Shabbat blessings that are forever ingrained in both my memory and spiritual consciousness after teaching at a Jewish school for eleven years.

 

Jill and I began observing a modified Sabbath many years ago, even before Shiv was born; we stay home on Friday nights, put away our technology, make dinner, and rest.  I wrote about this tradition on the now-retired food blog (bonus content: adorable pictures of Shiv from 4 years ago!), and after experiencing Shabbat in Israel, I came back more convinced than ever that it was a ritual worth holding onto, a sane way to end the work week, decompress, and connect.

 

This week it felt especially important to light the candles, say the blessings, and stumble over the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I don’t have fully memorized.  Judaism is not my tradition, but it is a tradition, like Anglican Christianity, with which I have spent considerable time and inside which I feel at home.  Many of the people I love, including my platonic life partner and almost every student I’ve ever taught, identify as Jewish, and my heart breaks for the current of fear that they’ve been reminded is their birthright.

 

The senselessness of such hate-filled events makes it correspondingly impossible to know how to respond to them; their seeming ubiquity makes the task feel even more exhausting.  There is no one “right” way, of course; each of us has to determine how we think we can best take care of ourselves and the ones around us when the world reminds us of just what we are up against when it comes to creating a just, equitable society.  Personally, I’ve found myself re-convicted in the sense of calling I feel when it comes to teaching my students those topics and histories we often label as “difficult” or “tricky” and therefore avoid.

 

I get the impulse to avoid—believe me, I do.  The work is harder, more nerve-wracking, and can come with sticky consequences.  But no consequences are more dire, in my mind, than the ones that will inevitably follow a generation of students who are ignorant about facts related to the Holocaust, for instance, or who can’t correctly identify the cause of the Civil War.  Though I sometimes fret that my classroom is so often the container for disheartening conversations, I know that it will not serve my students to skirt around the truth.

 

In the end, what I’ve learned about teenagers is what I always return to; they can handle so much more than we give them credit for.  They want to be trusted with real conversations, challenged by material that forces them to reconsider their opinions.  They want to be armed, prepared for the world as it exists, not as we might wish it to be.  After all, as James Baldwin so famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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

WHAT I’LL MISS

One thing I feel like I’ve learned over time is that you can’t really experience things before they happen.  That may sound patently obvious, but oftentimes we’re called upon to report our feelings related to an event that hasn’t yet happened.  Whether it’s a graduation, a marriage, a birth, a death, or a cross-country move, you can’t know what you’ll feel until you feel it.

 

I am starting to feel things.  With all of our major logistics in process, my list of immediate tasks has gotten a bit smaller, leaving me with time and space in my day to actually experience my experience.  We are beginning to have “goodbye” meals and coffees and playdates with our people here in Houston, who are, of course, what we’ll miss most of all.

 

The daily-ness of life’s goodness is impossible to quantify, the moments that lodge in our memory often unexpected and somewhat mundane.  When I think about leaving Houston behind, what I feel sorry to be leaving behind comes to me mostly in sensory flashes: grackles shaking their feathers in the puddles that form in the HEB parking lot after the rain, the sensation of being so close to Rice campus and the four years of undergraduate memories it contains, driving home at dusk from our friends’ farm and watching the big Texas sky change colors, the view out the window onto the backyard of the house where Jill was living when I fell in love with her, where we brought Shiv home from the hospital, where we’ve thrown Diwali party after Diwali party.  The kitchen where I really learned to cook.  The oven that’s churned out a ridiculous quantity of baked goods.  The couch where our now-gone dog, Dolly, and cat, Reece, would huddle protectively around Jill during her long slog through chemotherapy.

 

A week ago today, we drove down to Galveston, our last trip down there for the foreseeable future.  I relished the smell and the sight of the shore, the brightly-colored Victorian-style beach homes, the feel of the sand, the sight of the gulls and pelicans, the company of friends and the sleepy feeling of being post-swim-and-sun, full of food, and on a breezy patio.  We are so lucky to have had such a good life here.

 

Knowing that I’m about to leave has allowed me to appreciate my adopted home more: making sure to eat favorite foods, see favorite pieces of art, cross things off the “Houston Bucket List,” and to simply pay better attention to what’s around me.  Since I’m not sure quite what I’m going to miss, I am trying my best to soak it all in.

 

To miss something affirms that you loved it, that it has shaped you, that it’s part of your history, a piece of your narrative.  Maybe I won’t miss the traffic or the construction, the humidity or the mosquitoes, the fire ants or the hurricanes, but I will, without a doubt, miss Houston.

 

PROUD

Last night, at the recommendation of several people we really trust, Jill and I watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Special “Nanette.”  If you know us, you know that we don’t really watch TV—we only got a Netflix subscription a few months ago and rarely use it—but I’m so glad we made an exception for this.  Gadsby’s work is like that of no other stand-up comic I know, and I can’t remember the last time I watched an artist be quite so brave on stage.

 

At one point, Gadsby speaks about her own shame in the present tense, a shame that isn’t intellectual, but an emotional remnant, a default piece of programming that cannot be so easily undone as the mind might like.  As I listened to her, I realized that, despite every indication otherwise, I do still carry shame about my queerness.  I tell a lot of lies of omission, particularly in conversations with strangers—“we” instead of “my wife and I,” that kind of thing, and though I had previously convinced myself this was about convenience, I’m not sure that it isn’t also about embarrassment.

 

Pride month just ended, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it does or doesn’t mean.  I still get an internal thrill to see the rainbow banners hanging in downtown Houston, but while the experience of Pride can be cathartic and important, it’s easy to sometimes feel like we get our month, and that’s it.  Enough talking about that!  You had your month, shouldn’t you be grateful?  There also plenty of important critiques about the commercialization of Pride, reminders that Stonewall was a riot and that being mainstreamed isn’t necessarily a good thing.

 

Three years ago, Jill and I went pretty mainstream—we got married, six days after it became legal to do so.  It was a joyful occasion, every bit of it, but even then I knew that our new access was no panacea.  I worried, and it seems rightly so, that others would decide that it was.  Game over!  All done!  LGBTQ achievement unlocked!  But it doesn’t take much more than a glance at the news to realize that we’re not even close.

 

Even though my family has the paperwork and the legality to back it up, we still encounter all kind of reminders that, despite the clever #loveislove hashtag, our love, our relationship, our commitment, our being, is seen as secondary or derivative or in some way “other.”  I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked, upon learning that I have taken a new job in Phoenix, if Jill would be moving to Arizona, too.  My mom’s neighbor cautioned her not to combine households with us, because, “How do you know they’ll stay together?”  As if we have not been committed and partnered for sixteen FREAKING years and have been raising a child together for almost six.  But you know, just the other day, a colleague referred to my family as a “lifestyle,” so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

 

These examples may seem small, minor in comparison to the legal status we have now attained and the rights we enjoy.  Believe me, I am grateful for the latter—but I’m also mindful that I should have had them all along.  As a nation, we should have learned by now that the changing of our laws does not equal the changing of personal sentiment, habit, or bias.  As a culture, we are still very, very attached to categories of gender; we are still deeply entrenched in our expectations of what is considered a “norm,” and still very much convinced that normal = good.

 

Which is what I really believe makes Pride so important.  We still have it, not because we’re “done” and not so straight girls can dress provocatively while ALSO getting “I’m so woke” bonus points, but because Pride is a difficult thing for those of us who are queer to feel, let alone broadcast.  For some of us, or in certain situations, it is physically dangerous; it can threaten our livelihoods and compromise our health; it can tear apart our families and wreck our support systems.  And for all of us, to some degree, shame is a factor.  Which is what makes being proud such a radical act.

 

 

LATE-NIGHT DOUGHNUTS

 

It is eight days before Christmas and my mother in law is dying.  I’m sitting on the floor of Jill’s parents’ guest bedroom as Jill leans over the newly installed hospital bed, gently cajoling her mom to swallow syringe after syringe of children’s liquid Tylenol.  Below the window, the oxygen machine hisses and gurgles, and from the living room I can hear the faint sound of the Chiefs/Chargers game; I know it’s because of the holidays, but the fact that there’s an NFL game happening on Saturday night only adds to the strangeness of the situation.

Of course, it’s not strange, not really.  That’s the thing about death—it feels exceptional when it’s happening to you, but it’s completely ordinary.  It happens to everyone.

Death is complicated and messy and hard—I know this, firsthand, from my father’s death, and from the deaths of the moms of two of my best friends, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it happens again.  Less surprising, maybe.

I am less at a loss for what to do as I probably was the first time.  I know that it matters to sit here, to bear witness even if there isn’t anything to do but wait.  I believe that it’s important to find moments of life to savor, even among the absurdity and the sadness, even if that means driving an hour-and-a-half to celebrate Hanukkah with friends, to eat latkes and cuddle puppies and acknowledge the now of this moment, as imperfect and challenging as it is.

Still, I’m learning newly.  New dimensions of tired, new pinches and challenges inside family life, new awareness of how sacred twenty minutes with your wife, some leftover dinner that nobody had to make, and two glasses of wine can be.  I am reminded that she and I make a good team – we always have – and that competence, that usefulness, the deep love that roots it – can be comfort.  Watching her care for her mom, the tenderness and the fierce protectiveness with which she makes every decision, tugs the same string inside me as seeing her with our newborn son did.

Shiv is down the street tonight, staying at his other grandmother’s house.  He’s been especially snuggly with her today, overly-affectionate almost to the point of being clingy.  Though he hasn’t articulated it directly, I know it’s because he’s realized that this will one day happen to her as well.

He loves Jill’s mom, but he never really got to see the best of her; she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year after he was born.  I’m thankful we took so many photos of the two of them in the beginning, big smiles of delight on both their faces.  They would sit together at the back window of Jill’s parents’ old house in Shreveport, watching the birds and the squirrels.  Or she’d bounce him in her lap, singing nonsense songs and pausing at random intervals so that he’d squeal with anticipation.

I wonder what he’ll remember of her, how these last few years will stick in his mind.  It is a shame to think that, as the Alzheimer’s robbed her of herself, it also robbed him of her, just as he was growing old enough to really form relationships.  As we have had to do with my dad, whom Shiv never got to meet, we will do with Jill’s mom: teach him about the person we wish he could have known.

 

##

 

When I first met Jill’s parents, I was scared of her mom.  Jill’s dad was charming and easy to like, but Billie Jean intimidated me.  Her reputation preceded her—a woman who could hunt, fish, grow, and cook anything, better than anyone else, even (especially) the men.  She had been an exacting, no-nonsense mother to Jill, her only child.  She had an intensely critical streak, despised incompetence, inefficiency, laziness.  She was a registered nurse, so you can see how her personality suited her profession; this is a woman who has never cut a single corner in her entire life.

Over time, I found ways to connect to her; at Christmas, she’d spend hours sitting at our dining room table, working on whatever new puzzle we’d just gifted her.  I’m terrible at puzzles, but I’d sit there anyway, sometimes the two of us in silence, sometimes me managing to pull a story or two out of her.  If it wasn’t a puzzle, then it was Scrabble, which Jill and I persisted in playing against her even though she always, always won.

Not unlike my own mom, these were the only times that you’d ever see Billie Jean sitting down; we used to joke that she was like a shark—she had to keep moving or she’d fall asleep.  She was constantly up to something in her kitchen: cooking, cleaning, organizing, putting things away.  Or there was something to tend to in the garden.  Or something to fix in another part of the house.  Nothing went to waste on her watch; we have Ziplock bags full of peas in our deep freezer that she has been rinsing out and re-using since 2009 (they’re labeled in Sharpie, of course).

She was also a damn fine cook: best cornbread I’ve ever had in my life, and the best fried okra, too.  Thankfully, Jill has apprenticed in the methodology for both, which she’ll someday pass onto Shiv.  I have a notebook full of Billie’s recipes, which I spent one winter break copying out by hand—pies, soups, preserves, pickles.  I snagged a couple of her purple glass pie plates, too, and her angel food cake pan.

Sometimes, on winter nights like this one, when Jill and I were visiting her parents and all of us were staying up late to watch whatever sports game was on, Jill would pipe up at about 9:00 pm: “Mom, will you make us some doughnuts?”  Obligingly, Billie Jean would grab a can of Pillsbury biscuit dough from the fridge, shape a hole into each round, and fry them all up on the stove.  Off to the side, she’d lay out little dishes of chopped pecans, chocolate glaze, and powdered sugar, so we could customize our own.  They were delicious, of course, but they also seemed to somehow exemplify my mother-in-law’s particular genius.

 

##

 

The funny thing is, I don’t know that Billie Jean has ever thought of herself as my mother-in-law.  She doesn’t even know that Jill and I are married, since we made things legal just two years ago, well into her Alzheimer’s confusion.  Even before that, I doubt she ever would have used the term; I’ve always been introduced as Jill’s “friend,” and until Shiv was born, Jill and I slept in separate bedrooms whenever we visited her parents’ house.

As you might have guessed, this woman I’m sitting next to, who most likely will not live to see this year’s Christmas, we don’t see eye-to-eye on very much.  We disagree politically, religiously.  We have very different ideas about parenting.  And we come from such different worlds that we almost certainly wouldn’t have been part of each other’s lives if it weren’t for Jill.

That’s the one thing we always had in common; we both love Jill.  Though she never said this outright, I think because Billie could tell that I loved Jill, that I was good to her, that we were happy—and I guess it didn’t hurt that I am a polite, Southern girl who can eat a respectable amount of fried catfish—despite our differences, I got a pass.  I gained entry into a world that was as strange to me as it now feels familiar, learned more things that I will ever be able to accurately count up, and grew to love, and be loved by, this formidable woman who, it turns out, has a devastatingly quick wit and gives really excellent hugs.

You don’t get to choose your family.  I doubt that either Billie or I ever would have imagined that we’d be in this room together, here at the end of her life.  But there is a strange kind of grace in this, how life can pull and stretch you beyond what you might thought possible, how it shows you that the rules of love you’ve been playing by were much too small all along.

It’s been years since I’ve had my mother-in-law’s late-night doughnuts; Shiv’s never had them, and that’s a shame.  Come what may, we’ll make that one thing right tomorrow.  For Billie.