A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Peas in a Pod

Having tumors is a lot like spending a year in federal prison. That's what I surmised from reading Piper Kerman's excellent memoir, Orange is the New Black.

Both Piper Kerman and I found that friends and family were key to maintaining a sense of self and through our ordeals we recognized peeps that we had not recognized before. (Hers were fellow inmates while mine are fellow weebles).

The two of us were frustrated by a lack of control in our lives: she because of barbed wire and wardens and me because of balance and vision complications.

For us both, it was rejuvenating and yet difficult  to get away into nature: at the prison, they didn't do a lot of day hikes, and hiking over long and rough terrain is pretty impossible for me now. We share with this difficulty a sense, sometimes, of being closed in, though her sense of being closed in may be more literal than mine.

Both of us faced our challenges with an optimistic spirit that helped us through, and yoga helped us center and breathe restoratively.

We both learned that we could face a kind of darkness that we did not know we would have the fortitude to face.

She reached the end of her sentence, a changed person yet prison-free, and I, too reached the end of my tumors as the MRIs have since radiation last year declared me tumor-free.

Both of us found that our understanding of ourselves and our world changed because of the experience.

In both cases, we are glad for the grace of all we have learned and for the people we have come to know, but I don't either of us would choose the journey we had to take.

Both of us write about our experiences. Like me, she wrote a six-word story before writing a longer memoir.We are both writing in the memoir genre, though she is published and I am still writing.

There are of course many differences. She went to prison because she took a risk and got involved in a drug trafficking ring. My only risk, a significant one, was to be born. She regrets her risk. I do not regret mine.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mom's birthday

"Your mom is so beautiful." Friends, teachers, and strangers often said this to me when I was growing up. The other thing that people often said to me was, "You look like your father." No one said Dad was beautiful. Though no one else put these thoughts about my parents together for me, and though I'm no mathematician, I can use the transitive property as well as the next geek. For those of you less advanced in mathematics, I can put two and two together: I heard these people say, "You don't look so much like your beautiful mom."
Mom and I are not alike in other ways, too. I can look right at something that I am looking for--maybe my keys or an earring--and not see it. Mom can go into a room to look for something I've lost and say, "I feel it's here somewhere." She'll pick up a sweater and a shoe and presto: my keys. She's psychic. Unlike Mom, I love to travel, to visit new places with new people. The more different a place is than places I already know, the more I like it. My mom, on the other hand, likes to stay home, or if she's travelling she wants to go home. (My dad calls her E.T.)

There are lots more differences: Mom's either been going on or off a diet for as long as I've known her; and I assiduously avoid knowing the calories in anything. Mom rolls her hair in curlers and sits under one of those old school hair dryers that look something like a moon suit, and I leave the house with wet hair every morning; Mom has the soprano voice of a songbird, but I sound more like a jay bird when I sing.

I have always wanted to be more like my mother, and in some ways I've succeeded. Mom's nickname is Sweets, a nickname that she doesn't like because she thinks it's insincere. Really, though, she has a sweet disposition. People say I'm sweet, too. Ann calls me "Sweet Mary." This compliment from Ann and others mystifies me, but perhaps there's something to it. I like the idea that Mom and I are both sweet: not saccharine and not sugary--just sweet.

Like Mom, I fight gender roles and stereotypes even while I live with them--and sometimes I take advantage of them. We were both raised in the Southern belle tradition, and we learned our role well. If I need something heavy moved, for example, I become an instant damsel in distress, and a big strong man moves it for me. I'm not consciously manipulative; the role just comes to me naturally in the way that your adrenaline might surge when a tiger runs at you. I think people want to lift heavy things for Mom just to see her smile.

Like Mom, I like to think of myself as assertive, not aggressive. Mom took an assertiveness training class back in the days when she and Dad were more newly wed. (Dad says his life changed on the day she signed up for that class). I got my assertiveness training growing up.  I have needed no course. I have my sister to teach me.

Mom has influenced me, and perhaps I have influenced her, too. She was just 23 when I was born, so she learned to become a mom just as I learned to be a me. Like Mom, I am getting older, but she is even older than I am. Today, she is especially old. Tomorrow is her birthday, and even in our advancing age, I watch her and strive to emulate such grace.

Friday, May 13, 2011

bin Laden and the Romans

Romans 12:9-21 (New International Version)

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[a] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[b] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[c]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That is all I have to say.

Singin' in the Rain

This morning
there was a bird
Singin' in the Rain.

No umbrella.
No tophat.
No dance.

Just singin' in the rain.

How silly we humans are.

Ode to my Bedroom Shoes

Yesterday my new bedroom shoes arrived in the mail. They are exquisite, so they reminded me of the first poem by the great poet Pablo Neruda that I ever read, "Ode to my Socks." I have written my own ode about my bedroom shoes, and I have posted Neruda's ode below in case you want to read genuis writing about socks.

Ode to my Bedroom Shoes

My friend Susan showed me
her bedroom shoes
which she bought herself
with the money she earned between international jaunts,
bedroom shoes as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if there were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight
and lambskin,
Animal bedroom shoes,
my feet were guinea pigs made of
two long squirrels
golden, stuffed through
with tan fur,
two tiny cats,
two rodents,
my feet were graced in this way by these heavenly bedroom shoes.
they were so beautiful for the first time
my bare feet seemed to me
like two decrepit firewomen,
firewomen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those lively bedroom shoes.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as
I kept fireflies as a child,
as I collected learned texts
when I could read them.
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent bedroom shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of
bedroom shoes
made of lambskin.

Here is Pablo Neruda's:

Ode to My Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

One of Ann's eighth grade students was fretting during class earlier this week about what to get her mom for Mother's Day. She wanted to get her mom something special. Her friend suggested flowers, and her eyes lit up at this brilliant idea: "Flowers! I'll get her flowers!"

Wanting to be thoughtful and get our mom something special, too, my sister Jennifer, brother Matt, and I have arranged for a woman who cleans homes to help Mom out at home. I thought about suggesting that Dad and I do a trade: I would let him talk to me about investments, and he would help Mom clean the house. I know, though, that even if Dad tried to be helpful he'd end up reading the newspaper on the couch, and Mom would do the cleaning, so I enlisted Dad's help with research instead.

To motivate Dad to do his research, I made a bargain with him: I would research one of my investments, and he would talk to the neighbors to get suggestions and contact information. To my delight, he got right on it. Now I've got to do my research.

At last, Mom will get some well-deserved help with the house. The Good Lord (that's what we call Him) knows that her children weren't ever much help. And her husband? The Good Lord knows about him, too.

I can't help but wonder if being a mother is all that it's cracked up to be. Mom had to give birth, which Carol Burnett once compared to blowing a bowling ball out of a nostril. Mom had to help each one of us learn the basics, like going to the bathroom in the toilet and eating our food with utensils, and then she had to go through those lessons and all that patience again after my brain surgery. She probably had to teach my sister after her brain surgery, too. Matt's only had to learn once, so he thinks he's advanced. Mom went to all of those ballet recitals, sports games, and parent conferences. She survived teenage angst and driver's licenses. She travelled "out west" with Dad and the kids, and begged for Cheetoes and milk when we got to Yellowstone too late to get any food.

When my parents took me to college for my first day, Dad cried when he said good-bye. Mom cheered: "One down. Two to go." She clapped her hands and did a little jump. I couldn't blame her. We were sort of a pain.

Through it all, though, she has maintained that she loves us. She has always been there for me. When I fainted giving a mini-sermon to our large Southern Baptist congregation, she was at my side when I opened my eyes. When I was tall and thin and awkward, she told me I was beautiful, (and I believe she meant it). When I came out as a lesbian, she told me that I would always be her child and that she would always love me. When I spent a month in the hospital recovering from brain surgery, she slept many nights on the sticky cot next to me.

She's there for me. She always has been. On this Mother's Day, I'd like her to know that I'm there for her, too. I hope she likes her present.  I love you, Mom.

Always your child, Mary

Saturday, May 7, 2011

O, Pioneer!

If I had lived in the time of U.S. Westward expansion, I would not have been a pioneer. I love to travel and to see new lands and new ways of living, but I also love bathrrom facilities and timely, balanced meals.

I wonder if people got wagon-sick as they crossed the plains like people get car-sick now. With all the tedious bumping, I would have gotten wagon-sick. If I had been in the Donner party, I would have been the first to go. I would have gone before the horses. I just can't skip a meal.

Pioneer women got up before the crack of dawn to lug in the firewood and get the home fires burning. They tilled the rocky soil, planted and nurtured their gardens, and split wood for their amusement. I like to sleep until 10 a.m., watch a hummingbird flit about the garden while I sip a glass of fine wine, and lie by the gas logs fire (cleaning ashes is for pioneer women and Cinderellas, and I'm neither) while Ann reads me a good book.

I have surprised Ann on our travels. Since I have loved to travel in somewhat remote developing areas, Ann was surprised to see how squeamish I was about toilets in Tanzania and Ethiopia and El Salvador. I'm also squeamish about honey-buckets.

My friend Chris talked this morning about how she could manage rural Mexico's squat toilets (really a hole in the floor) because of the years she lived in Asia, but she just couldn't get used to paying the lady by the door per square of toilet paper. Chris's Spanish isn't so good, so she just flashes fist fulls of fingers and hands over all of her money.

Chris wouldn't be a pioneer either. In fact, she and I would probably still be in Europe somewhere if we had been born back in the pioneer days.

I think about this often. In fact, I divide my friends into the people who might have been good pioneers and those who would not. I admire those who would have been good pioneers, but I would not have travelled with them.

Ann would have been a good pioneer: she pops up in the early morning dark ready to take on the day. Marie, too, is a hardy soul. She likes to backpack, and years ago she told me that she hauled a 60 pound backpack around a mountain. She wasn't bragging, but I thought to myself, "I'll bet she was a nice pioneer lady in another life." My maternal grandmother could have been a pioneer woman, too, but she was an exception in our family. The rest of us would still be in England with Chris.

I'm glad for all the hardy souls in this world. Thank you for making my life better. Mary

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Our Fair City

Seattle's mostly white. It's all over the news. Seattle is the fifth whitest city in the nation. Portland is first. That's what the 2010 census shows.

Before bin Laden's death, Seattle's whiteness was the talk about town. Lots of responses to the census figures were defensive. After all, Seattle's progressive and liberal, and we like to think of ourselves above the muck of racism. Besides, we also have the most racially diverse zip code.

I'm not surprised about the finding. When I first moved to Seattle in 1991, I lived near the university and, though I'm white, I felt uncomfortable about all the white people. I'm from the South, and I'm used to seeing more color. I went down to the south part of the city to Helen's Soul Food kitchen to eat beans and rice one day, and to find black people. I live near near Helen's Soul Food Kitchen now, and I have for some time, but now a lot of the black people in my neighborhood are moving further south in the city again.

When I completed my teaching certification program for Washington State, an African-American woman in my program from Alabama told me how uncomfortable she felt in Seattle, seeing white people in her grocery store and all. She preferred the South: "At least you know where you stand there. Here I don't know if people are really nice or not real," she said.

I was born in 1964 in a segregated hospital in Atlanta, and I went to an all-white elementary school for first grade before busing integrated my schools. When I was in second grade and my school was integrated, Michelle, an African-American second-grader with thick, tight braids, came to my birthday party. Apparently, this was a surprise. The generation before me just didn't have people of another race into their homes. Times can change quickly, however, and I was surprised by the surprise.

One of my first surprises in moving to Seattle was how white the north part of the city was. Another surprise was that I heard people talk regularly about the prejudice in the South, as if prejudice were absent in the Pacific Northwest, and all prejudice had pooled in the land of my birth.

When I was first teaching in a town just east of Seattle, I walked into another teacher's classroom, a history class, looking for a student whom I needed to talk with one afternoon in 1994. The teacher, a white man who was blind, didn't see me walk in. He was teaching students about the southern part of the United States. He talked about how it was a place of prejudice and bigotry like that was the only thing that was there. I almost got offended, but when I noticed that none of the students were paying attention, I decided not to worry about it.

I love Seattle. It's my adoptive home. I love its mountains and lakes; I love its fleece-wearning folk; I love its farmer's markets and its progressive politics. I belong here.

I still bristle, though, when I hear about the American South as if it's the pigsty of bigotry. There is bigotry in the South for sure. To me, the South's identity is inexorably tangled with the history of Civil War, with the identify of itself as a defeated nation seeking to maintain its heritage and its traditions in a new world where some of its traditions are clearly bigoted and, now, illegal--unconstituional even.

My birthplace not just a pigsty of bigotry; it is also a place of rolling mountains and long sandy beaches, fried chicken and shredded pork sandwiches, big family meals and churches on every corner. It's a place of syruppy accents and has a concentration of universities and research. At one point, a friend in Ireland told me that Research Triangle Park has the highest per capita of PhDs of any place in the world. Maybe it still does.

The South is bigger than its bigotry, just like Seattle is bigger than its whiteness. The census can't tell you that. For that, you have to go there. So if you're a world traveller and you haven't been to the American South yet, it's time you go discover its complex culture.

I can hook you up with a cousin for sure. Just be sure to mind your manners: say please and thank you and Ma'am and Sir.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Time to Celebrate?

"Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones."--The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as quoted by President Barack Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. 9 Dec. 2009

For me, this morning's newspaper headline photograph of Americans celebrating Osama bin Ladin's death eerily echoed the images of Palestinian children celebrating in the streets after the September 11, 2001 Al-Quaeda attacks in the United States. As I remember the Palestinian images, the celebrants there were younger and less white, but the enthusiasm in the wake of death struck me as wrong then, and it strikes me as wrong now.

I wrestle with the notion of a just war and wonder if violence is ever justified.  I am tempted to think that war is always wrong. I also wonder, though, if someone with the power to intervene should resort to violence when innocent civilians fall victim to the whims of chaos or despots. Shouldn't the powerful defend the weak?  Could it be wrong to defend those innocents being tortured and killed in lands like Darfur or Rwanda? Perhaps war is sometimes just, but that's complicated.

Perhaps, at times violence is justified to defend those who are weaker from those who are stronger. Perhaps. I wrestle with this issue, but I know I cannot be joyful when I hear that a man was killed.

There are of course practical reasons for reserve: on the radio today, full of talk about America's victory over bin Laden, several people spoke about the spirit of bin Laden that lives on. Said one al-Quaeda enthusiast: There is not one bin Laden. There are thousands. If you kill this one, we still live to fight this mission.

Surely this man who dodged the American manhunt for almost a decade has supporters who have hidden him so effectively for so long. It seems logical that he made a plan for his demise and the continuation of his vision in case of his death. Certainly, he had already named his successor, and the organization has continued to move forward while bin Ladin has been in hiding.

Though bin Laden's death may be an important symbolic victory over the forces that have killed so many in the United States and elsewhere, it's hard for me to imagine that this is a practical blow to al Quaeda. I am more perplexed by the moral argument than by what seems a spurious practical argument.

The path to peace would be something to celebrate, but I don't see that we're any closer to walking this path.

In my high school English classes, I have taught teenagers terrorized still by the violence they experienced in times of war and chaos, and I would celebrate to know that children will no longer suffer, but I cannot imagine that bin Laden's death signals such hope.

I cannot celebratge simply for retribution.

I wonder if I would feel differently if members of my family had been killed on September 11, 2001. Perhaps I would. I can understand the argument that such a violent death is necessary for building a more peaceful world, even if I cannot make that argument myself.

Cheering for a violent death, though? I cannot cheer. I keep hearing, "Vengence is mine, saith the Lord," and I sigh, a bit confused, for a world where such death is cheered. If such violence is necessary (and I'm not sure what I think about that), then this reminder that brutality is on the road to peace does not make me cheer. It just makes me sad. It makes me wonder, darkly, if there is a path to peace.