Ingrained.

Writing about The Language of Flowers last week and thinking about my grandmother’s work as a foster parent brought me to a surprise understanding of something about myself.

All those years of visiting my grandmother, hanging out with the changing roster of foster children, thinking of all of them as family. The regularness of it all settled into me and made me know certain things, know them as things that just were true. And that meant that all the things about all those kids that weren’t “normal” were.  The kids with severe developmental delays, the kids with personality disorders, the feminine boys, the masculine girls, the girl with vitiligo, the girl who was covered — face, chest, arms, hands — in twisted, burn-scarred flesh … everything was normal.*

I think Mom’s house planted and nurtured acceptance in me, the ability to see whatever people were, whatever they couldn’t help being, as normal. I lacked tolerance for things that were choices, things that could be controlled: a bad attitude, prejudice, selfishness, littering. This is the first time I’ve seen a connection, the clear line from Mom’s house of “everybody fits” to my ability to take people as they come.

I’m far (FAR) from perfect — made some serious missteps in high school and didn’t quite correct them until I’d been at college for a while.  I’ve made any number of missteps in all the years since — but I’m not bad.  I’m still pretty intolerant of things that can be controlled (racism, homophobia, fat jokes, littering), but for the most part those lessons learned unconsciously while playing at my grandmother’s house have stayed with me.

I want to be clear, place a solid divider between “acceptance” and “tolerance.” I tolerate a lot of things — (some) conservative political opinions, the weather, reality TV. I may not like or agree with them, but I can put up with them. Acceptance is something else all together. There’s nothing to think about, no judgments to make. What is just is. And it’s fine with you, and it doesn’t threaten you, and you don’t pat yourself on the back for accepting it, and you don’t show it off to your friends because you imagine it gives you some kind of gritty street cred, and your life goes on.  When I can’t accept, I work for tolerance.  But I don’t let myself forget that they aren’t the same thing.

Acceptance doesn’t mean acting as if there is nothing to accept. In other words, I don’t pretend that I can’t see difference. That seems silly at best, and insulting or worse the rest of the time.  It drives me crazy when people are trying to have a conversation about race and someone says, “Oh, I don’t see color.”  Not seeing color is an erasure of me.  Accepting someone shouldn’t mean negating/denying/erasing the things that make them different.  Acceptance means that the things that make someone different might be interesting, but mostly they don’t matter in the slightest.

And that was the never-spoken take away of growing up at Mom’s house, a lesson so deeply rooted, it seems more innate than instructed.

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SOL image 2014

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* Okay, not everything was normal.  There was one girl who freaked me out. I don’t remember her name. Or how old either of us was when she came to Mom’s house.  I remember one day a bunch of us were playing on the far side of the flower garden near the garage.  I came around the side of the garage and found her squatting down, eating dirt.  I can still remember the shock of that, how wrong it felt and how I didn’t know how to respond to it.  I remember she was eating the way shame eaters eat — hunched over, hiding it, stuffing it in quickly so no one would see — and her posture alone told me I shouldn’t think what she was doing was normal.  Another time I caught her eating tattered leaves that had been picked off of harvested cabbages and thrown onto the refuse heap.  She swore that Mom had given her the cabbage.  I remember thinking how hungry she must have been to eat those dirty, wilted leaves.  I also wondered how she could be hungry when Mom served food for an army no matter how many kids were under her roof, and her portions were definitely not small.  She was only at Mom’s for a short time, and I don’t remember much else about her.  I have since learned about kids eating things like dirt and ashes because of minerals their bodies are lacking or because of stress.  At the time, it was just strange, she was just strange. Strange, which was troubling, not simply “weird, ” which was endearing.  She was maybe the only child I thought of that way for years.

Listen to Your Own Explanation

As I waited for the late train in the Providence station last night, a crew of mostly-drunk young people spilled in. They were happy and loud, and I was really hoping they were waiting for the Boston train because I didn’t imagine I would enjoy sharing my ride with them.

Two young Asian men came into the station and started checking for their train.  One of the boys from the larger group started calling out directions … in what he clearly thought was a HILARIOUS imitation of how some generic Asian person would speak English. His friends thought he was too funny and added their own directions, one even upped the comedy level by switching from “English” to the classic racist standby of “ching chong”-speak.

The young Asian men found the info they needed on the departure board and headed for their train, prompting one of the crowd to say, “I think one of them must be American. He can read English.” Yeah. On all levels.

But then this happened. One of the girls in the group started talking about some guy they all apparently knew, wondering if anyone thought, as she did, that he was gay. First there was a lot of offensive improv of how gay men walk and talk. Then one guy said he just wasn’t comfortable with gay people. “After all,” he explained, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” (And aren’t we all glad to know that little rhyme has been passed down to a new generation of homophobes?)

And most of the group laughed and agreed. But the young man who started all the anti-Asian ugliness brought them all up short: “That’s stupid,” he told his friend. “God made Adam and Eve because he needed to get the ball rolling … you know, on people, had to make it so there would be more people.  That has nothing to do with how those people turn out when they’re born.”  His friend fell back on his “Adam and Steve” line, but the racist boy wasn’t having it.  “People are born the way they’re born. Period.  The only thing God did was set it all in motion. People are born the way they’re born.”

The Boston train was announced then and the whole crew headed down to the platform, still arguing the point.  (Result!) And I was left a little amazed.  Not amazed at that young man’s ability to slap down the “God made Adam and Eve,” foolishness — although I very much liked his way of doing it.  No, my amazement was about how deaf he clearly is to his own argument.

People are born the way they’re born. Period.

Yes.  Just like Asian people are born Asian.  And making fun of someone or “not feeling comfortable with” someone because they weren’t born the way you were just doesn’t make any sense.  I’m glad that boy isn’t homophobic.  I wonder if he’ll ever make the cognitive leap to include all people in his calculation, to realize that all forms of prejudice just don’t make sense.

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You’ll find the full compendium of slices at Two Writing Teachers.

SOL image 2014

Heart and Soul (30 Stories — 29)

I am writing a letter when a pair of someones upstairs takes a seat at the piano and begins playing “Heart and Soul.”  It’s a little clompy, a little arrhythmic, but clear enough to time-travel me back to my 6th grade self, to the music room at the middle school, sitting side by side with Steve Kraus, his bruised-knuckled hands pounding out the four-beat chords on the lower keys, my right hand hovering over the higher keys as I counted out the eight repeats before I’d come in on the melody.

It’s my whole life since I was eleven, since I sat beside the first boy I loved, barely breathing, waiting to play the only piano piece I knew, waiting to see what would happen when the playing was done.  I won’t lie and say it feels like yesterday, but I remember.  The butterflies tickling my stomach as I sit here with my pen frozen in mid stroke make that plain.

Steve Kraus was thirteen, two long and experience-filled years older than I, about to leave middle school for the high school across town.  We were alone in the music room, which was enough to be exciting, but more exciting still was that he’d sought me out, had come looking for me.

I’d been hunting for my lost sheet music, not paying attention to the sound of the door as I tried to reach behind the bookshelf.

“Let me move that for you.”

I stepped back, shy and silent, let him move the shelf so I could fish out the papers I’d spied behind it. After he reset the shelf, he turned and smiled.

“Figured I’d find you here,” he said. He started walking around the room, looking at music left on stands, checking out the instrument shelves.

“You were looking for me?” I tried not to sound completely incredulous.

“Wanted to be sure you were okay. You know, after everything.”

“Everything” was why I loved him.  The day before, four eighth grade boys had ambushed me on my way home from school. They destroyed my book bag, took the little bit of money I had. They punched me around some, kind of lazily, like cats toying with prey.

Then one of them — Mark Ranson, hockey team goalie — spotted a pile of dog mess. He grabbed my arm, used his other hand to yank my head back by the hair so I was looking up at him. He smiled — a real smile, a companionable smile, not the smile of a bully, of a person who would then say, “Eat all of it, or I’ll break your arm.”

He twisted my arm hard for punctuation and gave me another smile. “You won’t be able to play that faggy clarinet when I’m done with you. So you have a choice. What’s it gonna be?”

“There’s no choice,” I heard another voice say.  “I’ll break your face no matter what you do.”

Mark looked up and past me.  His face did a quick run from cocky to questioning to amused.  He let go of my head and I turned to see Steve Kraus and one of his friends.

“There’s four of us, Kraus.  What d’you think you can do here?”

Steve shrugged.  “Let him go, you get less of a beating.”

Ranson and his friends laughed, but I noticed one looked unsure, glancing around nervously.

“Why’re you defending this fag?” Ranson asked. “You his new boyfriend?”

I figured my defense ended there, that Steve would give me up rather than be accused of being gay. But he laughed, stood his ground.

“I know who I am,” he said. “Maybe you should ask yourself why four hockey stars need to beat up a kid to make themselves feel big.”

Which was when the fighting started. Ranson could have left the fighting to his friends and focused on me, but he shoved me aside and ran at Steve. I watched the crush of the fight for a minute, unsure of what to do. Then Steve shouted for me to take off, and I did, running like the sprinter I’d become in high school.

“Those guys are probably going to keep bothering you,” Steve said, walking to the percussion section and tapping out a rhythm on the face of a kettle drum.

He had a bruise on his left cheek, one on his chin, and his hands were raw. But I’d seen Mark Ranson, and he looked worse.

“You should hang around with me,” he said. “They’ll stay away from you.” He stopped drumming and smiled at me. “What d’you play?”

“Clarinet.”

He nodded. “I used to take piano.” He walked to the old Wurlitzer at the front of the room, sat down, and started a Chopin etude. “My mom would be amazed to know I remember this,” he said, smiling. “You don’t play anything at all? Not even “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul” or anything like that?”

So I sat beside him, counting out the 32 beats until my melody needed to drop in. I didn’t know if he had seriously suggested I hang out with him. Invited it.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. “I never said thank you.”

He stopped playing and looked at me. “I hate guys like that, you know?” He started the song again. “I’ll nudge you when it’s time to come in.”

Forty years later, my heart still lurches at the memory of him. We never played piano together again, but we became friends after a fashion, and he kept me safe, shielding me, seeing me through till summer when I put on some weight and started to grow, when I stopped looking like such an easy target. I’d probably have made it through middle school without him, but not whole.

Speak the Word

Speak the Word (excerpt)

These weakened knees
Have not touched ground or pew in ages
I haven’t bowed my head
To offer thanks to any god or to ask for favors
But watch me now
I’m falling down
Praying
To speak the word that precedes bliss
To speak the word
To speak the word

— Tracy Chapman

The poem I wanted to share tonight is less gentle.  Today Staceyann Chin responded to some of the hateful, misogynistic filth that was flung at her.  She posted an amazing poem that blew back my hair, blew my mind, blew the haters out of the water.  Rather than post it here with a content warning, I’ve linked to it and will encourage you to read every amazing word.  Just as I couldn’t believe the racist tweets I wrote about last week, I can’t believe the disgusting things people (okay, men) say to Chin.  What I can believe is how she doesn’t take their crap sitting down, how she won’t sit down, sit back, hold back.  She goes hard, with a fire and eloquence I can only dream about.  How grateful am I that her voice is in the world?

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So it’s poetry month.  Poetry month and I’ve saddled myself with another challenge, not just the write-a-poem-every-day challenge, which would be a big enough mountain to climb.  I seem wed to the idea of writing one of these Zeno poems every day (or until I collapse under the strain of it).  To recap, here are the syllable and rhyme patterns of the Zeno:

8/4/2/1/4/2/1/4/2/1
a/b/c/d/e/f/d/g/h/d

Got it?  Yeah.  Like Othello: a minute to learn, a lifetime to master and all that.  As almost always happens with these challenges, I did okay in my first attempt.  I like the poem I wrote after making the mandala at the WE LEARN conference.  But then it all went down hill.  So very far down.

But I am nothing if not dogged in my pursuit of impossible goals.  I had already done a month of tankas when I borrowed this idea from Sonia Sanchez two years ago.  I liked the idea because writing the same form over and over again every day for a month seemed like a kind of meditation, a window into a lot more than how to write that particular form.  The last three years have shown me that there can be breakthrough moments in this month for me.  The tanka month in 2009 was full of surprises, but even the painfully difficult Rhyme Royale month in 2010 and last year’s excruciating Nove Otto month gave me a few cloud-parting flashes of inspiration.  Surely the Zeno has some hidden gifts just waiting to shower themselves over me.

But not tonight.

fine gauge

my stitches follow one, one more —
knit, yarn-over,
knit two
purl.
patterns taught, learned
as a
girl
each stitch a piece,
story,
world.

Oh, it’s early days.  Still a lot of work to do.  Never mind me.  Go read Staceyann’s amazing piece.  Let her show you how it’s done.

/crazy-pants flirtation with the dark side

Thank you, justices of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.  I’m not naive enough to think this is it, to think all the world — or at least all of California — is bathed in a rose-colored haze.  No.  I know there is so much work still to do, but I am happy to pause for just a moment to appreciate and offer thanks for shining moments of crystal clarity.

“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for laws of this sort.”

— U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt

Yes, exactly.

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… birds all sing as if they knew …

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