Making the Heart Grow Fonder

When I have conversations about quarantine — which is, unsurprisingly, all the damn time — there is always a moment where I mention that I haven’t visited my family since February. (Presidents’ Day weekend, to be exact.) Whoever is in the conversation expresses some level of sympathy, and the conversation moves on.

I realized the other day that saying I haven’t visited my mother, brother, and sister since February doesn’t mean anything. I said it in April, said it in June … But some of the people I talk to maybe visit their families once a year, so my lament doesn’t hold any weight in their understanding, while it’s huge for me.

For the last several years, I’ve been visiting my family once a month. I’ve missed a month here and there, but generally, I’ve held my schedule. I visit because I love them and they are a few states away from me, and I miss them. I also visit because they love me and my being in the same place with them eases some of the tension in the air there. It gives us a chance to have conversations we don’t have over phone or email, let’s us do the regular maintenance requires on those ties that bind, gives us opportunities to laugh at foolish inside jokes, to look at old photos … and just be alive in the same space, together.

And I haven’t been to visit in five months. It’s starting to feel like a year. And the virus is still rampaging, and my job is staying virtual for the fall semester, so it might really be a year.

In these five months apart, I’ve missed each of their birthdays: first my sister’s early in lockdown, when we thought it might not last too long, then my mother’s, and just over a week ago, my brother’s. In about 6 weeks, my own birthday will be coming up. It’s on a Friday this year, so I would definitely have been spending it with them. My mother turned 84 last month.

Yes, I sound whiny. I am whiny. I know that I’m incredibly lucky. I am safe and healthy and working from home. My family is safe and healthy — even though my brother and sister are both officially “essential” and still have to leave the house and work. Our broader circle of immediate family are mostly safe and healthy (our Texas family is in the hot-zone with the virus creeping closer every day). I’m lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’m unscathed. I don’t make a lot of noise about what COVID is stealing from me, about the ways my life has changed since the start of lockdown, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it.

Absence is purported to make the heart grow fonder. I suppose. But I’m already supremely fond of my family. All this absence is adding up to sadness and frustration.

I need one of my mother’s hugs.

Reverberations

So last weekend the news was about Elizabeth Lederer’s decision to stop being a lecturer at Columbia University Law School. It’s a little satisfying, seeing people put in the spotlight, seeing the (at-long-last-and-finally) negative impact caused by the harsh lens of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries about the Central Park 5, When They See Us. I am glad enough that Lederer won’t be a vaunted lecturer at Columbia’s law school anymore. I am, however, totally not here for her effort to control the narrative, saying she stepped down because she doesn’t want the distraction of publicity to affect the college rather than acknowledging that she has culpability. Notice that the weekend’s headlines aren’t about Lederer being fired.

I read a NYT article from a few years ago, an article written in 2013 after the airing of the Ken and Sarah Burns documentary about the jogger case, and after Frank Chi created an online petition demanding that Columbia fire Lederer from her teaching position. The article acknowledges that Lederer was involved in the perpetration of an injustice, but it clearly faults Chi for wanting her to have to pay any consequences for that involvement.

The five boys who’d been sent to prison were still trying to build lives after the justice system had done everything in its power to destroy them, and the writer of that Times piece was upset that anyone should point a finger at Lederer for her part in that heinous miscarriage of justice.

The writer, Jim Dwyer, says: “The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case. In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes. No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary. The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time.”

Could he really have been serious? Does he really believe that, because she tried other cases that didn’t involve harming innocent people, that we should forget about what she did in this case, in this case in which she participated in the destruction of five innocent boys’ childhoods, in this case which impacted the families of each of these innocent boys? He says “the jogger case belongs to a historical moment,” as if we weren’t, at the exact moment he was writing that line, living in the reality of a system that regularly brutalized Black and brown people. Ferguson wouldn’t become a national flashpoint for another year, but it’s not as though anyone actually trying to look would have been able to miss the simple fact that the justice system treats Black and brown folks unjustly on the regular.

And even if we really could consign the jogger case to history, why should that mean the people who carried out that hideousness should be allowed to thrive and make money, in part because they point to their success in that case? Chi was absolutely right to call for Lederer’s dismissal. Columbia didn’t listen, though. Not then and not in the years since then when students at the school made the same call. Only now, in the wake of When They See Us being the most streamed show in Netflix history, are any dominoes falling — or, more accurately, are some dominoes falling and a few others removing themselves from the game.

 

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to watch When They See Us. I knew a) it would be painful, b) it would be enraging, and c) that I wouldn’t be able to sleep well after watching because d) my brain wouldn’t be able to stop running through the story, through all the moments when people in power could have decided another way, through all the moments when one or another of those innocent children was harmed.

I finally watched on Sunday. I went to a friend’s house and we watched together. We watched two episodes, took a short break, then watched the final two. She drove me to the train and I made my way home. I stayed up awhile, even though it was already late and I had an early meeting Monday morning. I was afraid to go to sleep, certain I would dream the worst parts of the show.

I didn’t dream the show, but I didn’t fall asleep right away, either. I couldn’t … because, every time I closed my eyes, my brain did what I’d known it would: began running through the moments of choice in the story, through the moments of casual brutality. I tried thinking about other things, tried reading a book, tried playing games on my phone. No good.

I did finally sleep. I had an equally hard time sleeping Monday night. I’m practically a zombie right now, running on a combined total of about 5 hours of sleep in 72 hours. I will probably have this same issue for several nights to come.

If I can’t sleep, and I am 100 percent not culpable of anything in this case, how do the people entirely responsible sleep? How have they been able to live their lives without remorse? I don’t make room for the possibility that they honestly believed they had served justice. There is no chance they aren’t guilty of pushing children into harm’s way to benefit themselves: to resolve a terrible crime … and to feed a popular narrative that enabled them to build and strengthen their own careers by showing how tough on crime they were, how skillfully they could win high-profile cases.

I don’t feel any kind of sorry for Fairstein or Lederer. I’m also not surprised that the primary fallout from the show (so far?) has centered on women. That’s predictable and problematic, but it doesn’t make me feel sorry for these two. Not at all.

Rather, I want everyone with dirt on their hands to suffer blowback. All the cops who beat and lied and terrorized confessions into those children.? The cops who decided to scoop up Korey Wise because he was 16 and they could do what they wanted with him without calling his mother. Every person along the way who saw lies being constructed and put their heads down and let it happen. Every prison guard and inmate who harmed Korey Wise during his years of incarceration. I want every single last one of the people connected to the criminalization and brutalization of those five children to face consequences. It’s good that Lederer and Fairstein don’t get to keep making money off the unforgivable thing they did, but it’s not enough. Do I sound like some raging angel of vengeful retribution? I am truly okay with that.

After Chi’s online petition took off six years ago, Chi asked Ken Burns to sign on. That was a no-go: “Burns said […] he and the other filmmakers wanted nothing to do with the campaign. “It is just simple retribution, and we are appalled by it,” he said. “We don’t subscribe to any of it.”” It was simple retribution. Yes. Exactly. Why not? Lederer had used her success in that trial to burnish her reputation. She benefited directly from the harm done to those boys. Retribution sounds entirely correct. But Burns couldn’t let himself get too close to that. It might get in the way of his ability to keep making documentaries and winning accolades for his compelling historical narratives. (He’s made 10 documentaries since 2013. That isn’t a gravy train you’d want to stop.) I obviously have no idea what Burns was thinking when he made that comment about the “fire Lederer” petition, but how could he have dug into the case and seen what was done, yet not felt that Lederer and everyone else involved had a price to pay?

And now, in response to When They See Us, New York City’s Public Advocate, the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and the New York County Defender Services have called on Manhattan’s District Attorney to a) fire Elizabeth Lederer, who continues to work as a prosecutor for the City, and b) reopen and re-investigate sex crime cases that were handled by Lederer and Fairstein between 1976 and 2002. The Manhattan DA has said that the jogger casewas a profound injustice” … but he has no intention of doing anything about it, at least not anything like holding “an attorney in good standing” on his team accountable for her part in that tragedy.

Lederer won’t get a bonus check for lecturing at Columbia anymore. Her choice. Columbia didn’t fire her. She still has her well-paid job with the City. She’s fine and she’s going to be fine. Fairstein can run around slandering Ava DuVernay, skating on the edge of calling that woman out of her name. Her books will still sell. She’ll write new ones and some publisher is going to pick her up. She’s pissy right now, but she’ll be fine.

Yeah. I mean, I’m not at all surprised, but I’m entirely disgusted.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam. We don’t call their names at Black Lives Matter events. Of course not. They are all still alive. They have all managed to grow up and make lives. Thank God. But there’s no question but that the child in each of them was killed in 1989.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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Your Privilege Is Showing

I was walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, headed for Penn Station. I was in a good mood: I’d just come from a good Girls Write Now workshop, and I was on my way to a coffee shop to meet a dear friend for a writing date. It had been raining in the morning, but just then the sun was warming things, and the rain seemed past. Good mood, not thinking about the dumpster-fire hellscape we live in, just happy in my little, personal bubble.

I stopped at a street light. And a couple stood beside me. They were pretty in that sharp, shiny way of models who graduated from Abercrombie and Fitch ads five or six years ago. They are both white, their accents don’t sound like this city, but they could be from anywhere.

Him: The thing is, we know politicians lie. We know they lie some percentage of the time. Some lie a greater percentage than others.

Her: They are politicians.

Him: Right. And we know they’ve all done things that aren’t strictly legal. But the things is, they spend so much time talking about all that, they barely have time to govern, to get anything done.

Her: Good point.

Him: And that kind of works in our favor, right? It’s ridiculous, but it’s good, too. They have so little time for the real work that they don’t have time to mess things up too badly. So we just need to hang in there.

Her: That’s great. Thinking of it that way is so helpful.

No. I didn’t actually start throwing up at that moment. That would maybe have been the kindest thing I could have done, however. It would have created a distraction and would likely have made them shut the entire fuck up.

Sigh.

Never mind the nonsensical idea that politicians don’t have enough time to get anything done because they’re too busy cleaning or covering up the messes from all their lies and illegal activities.

Never mind that this man’s idea hinges on an assumed pendulum-swing that would land us back in some mystical, never-existed time when all of us were safe and happy.

Never mind that this shows just how little these pretty, pretty people have been paying attention to much of anything that’s happened in the last 26 months.

Ugh.

I want to bypass all of that and zero in on the idea of things not getting messed up “too badly.” Too badly. What, I wonder, does this mean?

Are things not messed up too badly for every Muslim person who has been impacted by the travel ban?

Are things not messed up too badly for all the DACA youth and adults who are now at risk of deportation?

Are things not messed up too badly for every family that’s been separated at the border?

Are things not messed up too badly for every child lost to trafficking and illegal adoptions because no one ever intended to return them to their families?

Are things not messed up too badly for every child who has been sexually abused or assaulted while in detention?

Are things not messed up too badly for every person raped on a college campus now that there are fewer protections and avenues for recourse for them to protect themselves and ensure their attacker is held accountable?

Are things not messed up too badly for every transgender soldier who can no longer pursue their military careers?

Are things not messed up too badly for every transgender person whose personhood isn’t considered valuable enough to be respected and protected?

Are things not messed up too badly for Puerto Rico?

I’ll stop, though there are so many more of these questions I could pose.

Even if it’s true that the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers don’t have time to do all the hateful things they want to do, can there really be a question as to whether they have already succeeded in doing a shit-ton of patently horrible things? Really?

If you can look at the things that have been done and undone since Trump was sworn in and think that things haven’t been messed up too much, it’s past time for you to examine your privilege. Clearly, none of the things that have been done since January 2017 have affected you, or haven’t affected you much, not enough for you to feel particularly inconvenienced.

But you have work to do. You have so damn much work to do.

First, you need to read more, and more broadly. You need to follow the social media of a whole bunch of Black and brown and indigenous people.

And then you need to make some new friends. You need poor white friends. You need gay and trans friends. You need Black and brown and indigenous friends. You need gay and trans Black and brown and indigenous friends. You need friends who work blue collar jobs. You need friends who never attended college and maybe never graduated from high school. You need friends who work in the service industry. You need friends who live off their tips. You need friends who are Muslim. You need friends who are Jewish. You need friends who’ve been stopped and frisked. You need friends who’ve been incarcerated. You need friends who aren’t you, who aren’t anything like you.

Yes, I know this is a lot to demand. It’s hard to make friends. And it’s especially hard to make friends from groups that aren’t part of your existing circles, who don’t live in your comfort zone. And sure, maybe that means you need to think about your comfort zone. In the meantime, if you can’t make a whole set of friends, if you can’t make any new friends without asking them to explain structural racism or poverty to you, if you can’t make new friends without using them as proof of your wokeness or non-racist-ness, then you have that much more reading and following to do.

I know we can’t spend all of our time suffering on behalf of people other than ourselves and our loved ones, that we can’t spend every waking moment working to improve everyone’s life. I mean, look at me. I was walking down Seventh Avenue not thinking about anyone else. I spend many, many hours and days of my life focused on my own needs. At the same time, I am aware of the realities around me, and I try to learn about realities I don’t know so well. I am neither as comfortable nor as safe as that couple on the street sounded, but I have my privileges, the truths about me and who I am able to be in the world that make my life leagues easier than the lives of a staggering majority of people. The thing is, I know that. And the other thing is, I know those other people exist and I know my life and my hope for the future are entirely tied up with those people’s lives.

This isn’t an I-am-my-brother’s-keeper situation. This is a my-brother’s-life-is-connected-to-mine situation. This isn’t complex math.

Not only did I not vomit when I heard that couple’s conversation, I didn’t engage with them. I’d been in a good mood, and I wanted to be in a good mood. I’ve already said (again and again) how uninterested I am in doing folks’ homework for them, but in this instance, it was more a case of not wanting to yell at strangers in the street. That’s really never a way to get people thinking or teach them anything, anyway.

I kept walking. I promised myself that I’d sit down and write all of this out so I could release it and not carry it on my chest for the next forever. Done and done.

Or … ? I mean, doesn’t someone need to take and shake these people? Not just that couple, but all the comfortable people who think things can’t really get too bad, that things aren’t already too bad.

Sigh. “Someone” needs to take and shake them, but it really can’t be me.

Right. Whose job is it, then?

So many of my questions come back to the same answer, an answer that will surprise no one: white people, you need to get your people. For real. You need to. And this is a full-time job, so that’s going to be pretty exhausting. Yeah. Entirely exhausting. You’ll need to squad up, make some schedules, figure out shifts. All of that. But really, the work is steading increasing, so the sooner you get started, the better.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Nice day for a white wedding …

I made the easy choice not to watch a certain speech tonight. I caved for about two minutes and listened in just in time to hear some complete crazypants nonsense, so I turned it right off.

Instead of watching, I did some wondering. I thought about what I would have worn had I been invited to attend. It’s just not that easy for a fat woman to find an all-white outfit at a moment’s notice. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen such a thing in any of the stores or catalogs I shop from. I thought about how sad I would have been to be invited and have to turn down the opportunity because I had nothing to wear (which would maybe just have been an excuse to not have to put on a face of anything other than disgust or rage while listening to the lyingest liar in town bloviate).

But then I realized I had nothing to worry about. Had I received an invite, I would have just made a rush order from Ashro.com! I mean … of course! White suits and dresses? Check. White shoes? Check. Plus sizes? Check. Done and done.

But just to be sure, I clicked over to the website to see what my options would have looked like. I found my outfit in less that one minute:

ashro-1.jpg

But I couldn’t have gone in those heels. I haven’t been a heels girl in years. So what to do? I could have been semi demure:

Ashro 2

At the same time, how many invites to the SOTU can I expect to receive? If I’d been asked, I’d have to go a little outside the expected, right? I found two more fun and comfortable-looking options, and it was a tough choice, but I think I’d go for the bling-y slip-on on the left:

Whew! And here I thought I’d have trouble creating a realistic fantasy! Planned my outfit and made some decisions about my hair just in time to tune in for Stacey Abrams’ stellar response! Perfect!

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Charles

My uncle Charles was hospitalized Saturday. Today might be his last day in the world. I’m sad and angry about that, sad for myself, angry with myself. Not angry because I’m in any way responsible for Charles’ condition. Angry because of all the time I’ve had him in my life and haven’t visited more, haven’t called, haven’t turned away from own selfish pursuits long enough to include him in my life. Angry because his older sister died last month, and that should have been a wake-up call for me to reach out, and yet I did nothing to change my behavior.

In April I published an essay on Every Family’s Got One. I introduced my paternal grandmother in her decades-long role of foster parent, writing how I learned acceptance by spending so much time at her house, growing up surrounded by all the children she took care of and how some of those kids became family.

Charles was one of those kids. He and his sisters came to my grandmother’s house before I was born. We have an adorable photo of his youngest sister at four years old, smiling as she struggles to hold my toddler brother who’s almost as big as she is. Charles and his sisters were one of two core sibling groups of foster kids who stayed in our family, who became part of our family, who I call my aunts and uncles.

Yesterday tests confirmed our fears, told us that Charles, after the embolism he suffered on Saturday, no longer had “meaningful brain activity.”

No meaningful brain activity. Charles is gone. Our Charles. Our Chip, as we called him when we were kids. This kind, sweet-hearted man with the funny laugh. It doesn’t seem possible that it can be true. And now his youngest sister, no longer the mite of a girl in that long-ago photo but grown and a mother and grandmother, has to make the decision about whether to turn off the machines that are keeping Charles here.

My heart is with her. My heart is heavy with sadness. And my heart is lightened by the joy of thinking him reunited with his brother and sister, with my grandmother, of that big Charles smile shining bright.