21st Century Children’s Crusade

It seems prescient that I re-posted my defense of “kids these days” just before the March For Our Lives this weekend. I’ve seen more than a few strong, passionate, erudite defenses since then. Way better than mine.

I’ve also been a weepy mess. Part of it is that I’m stuck in a depression spiral right now. The Nothing is kicking my ass, and it’s ugly. But the other part is that I simply can’t disengage from the crushing shame that these kids have to shoulder a burden like this. Not just that they have to, but that they’re so raw and honest and goddamn successful at it.

As a former parentified child, I have strong feelings about what kids should or shouldn’t  be responsible for. And, if I do say so myself, I successfully protected my own child from that fate. She’s a marvelous adult, but she got there in her own time, and I’m relieved about that. But I still project all over these smart, engaged, determined kids and I have hours – no, years of film to unspool. There is a furious, resentful child within me still railing at the unfairness of having to save the grown-ups, only now she wears the armor of a full grown woman ready to slash and burn in her defense.

When we watched Emma Gonzalez stand in silence on the stage after her brief words, the silence of the crowd was deeply unsettling. You could see the steel of her straight spine, the resolve in her eyes as she forced everyone to wrestle with themselves in the barren sound field. I’ve always been a defender of common sense gun laws, so that’s not what I wrestled with. Instead, I had to fight the shame that I didn’t do more personally to protect her. That my generation, long accused of apathy and cynicism, absolutely earned those criticisms. That I, a parent and advocate for children, somehow failed to spare this girl, younger than my daughter, from having to watch her friends die, then make the adults around her sorry for it.

And maybe… maybe I’m a little jealous, too. Jealous that she has the strength to stand up to real power, while I quietly excused the adults who betrayed me for… my entire life, basically. So as tears streamed down her face while she shoved silence down the throat of the country, maybe I was being drawn and quartered by jealousy and shame. I don’t say that to garner sympathy. On the contrary, I deserve it. I’m mad that there are people out there celebrating her as a hero instead of wrestling with their own shame. Yet, at the same time, she is a hero and deserves to be celebrated. It’s complicated.

I remember reading about the 13th century Children’s Crusade as a young person. Though now considered largely apocryphal, the tale was nevertheless framed as a tragic tale of idealistic, courageous children and their proud and weeping parents. I never once thought to myself that those kids were brave and amazing. I thought, Where the fuck are their parents?? Who let them do this? Why isn’t every adult waving handkerchiefs as children march through the streets rushing out there to snatch them back? What the shit is wrong with these people?? Joan of Arc – same story. I thought, She’s fourteen you sorry motherfuckers! Why does she have to lead your pathetic, useless army?!  Not that children are incapable of these things – I knew with a profound certainty that they absolutely were capable. But the injustice of adults watching, encouraging them to do it was nauseating.

This feels much the same. Except worse, because I know now what abnormal amounts of stress and responsibility do to immature brains. I know what sort of lifetime conditions these kids are going to have to battle that, on top of the PTSD they likely suffer, will snake into every aspect of their lives and create storms and struggles they didn’t earn. I know that some of them, statistically, won’t survive. It’s terrifying. If it doesn’t terrify you, you probably don’t get it. Lucky you, I guess.

I don’t know how to reconcile any of this. I thought maybe writing it out would help, but it doesn’t. I thought maybe I could find a way to escape the conclusion that I – even inadvertently – did to these kids what was done to me. All I can do is beg you, myself, anyone who listens, to not let them fight alone. Don’t wave handkerchiefs or have parades or share their pictures without standing in front of them first. They’re literally in the line of fire. We owe them the protection of whatever is left of our integrity.

nbc march
photo credit: NBCNews, Shawn Thew / EPA
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Black & Blue

When I was 15, a friend and I took the regional bus from about 60 miles north of San Francisco to the middle of San Francisco. If you’re at all familiar with the Bay Area, you know that anything along a that particular 60 mile half-radius is bound to be suburbs. Charming, track-housed, quiet, and very, very white suburbs.

I was myself a very, very white suburbanite (or the child of two), and though my friend appeared to be “exotic”, it was clear she didn’t hail from the barrio. Our clothing, our speech and mannerisms, our very cluelessness were strong indicators that we did not belong in the pre-gentrified Mission District of San Francisco in the early 90s.

We were there by accident. I mean, we were in San Francisco on purpose, but we weren’t supposed to get off the bus there. A responsible adult was waiting for us at the bus station a few stops away. But did I mention our cluelessness? So, there we were – two suburban girls with backpacks, wandering around looking scared and confused in a complicated part of town. But we didn’t want to call home (on a payphone, because early 1990s) because that would be admitting that we weren’t quite as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as we pretended to be when securing permission to make this trip in the first place. So we asked a cop in a patrol car where the heck we were, and how to get where we were going.

It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what was said. I doubt we were very coherent, or that the officer was intentionally dodgy, but the result of that short conversation was that the cop in the car negligently waved us in a direction that was away from him.

I was horrified. I don’t mean I was scared (although I was intimidated by our circumstances), I mean I was filled with righteous indignation that this Officer of the Law didn’t immediately drop everything to personally escort us to safety. Clearly, I was operating on the Sesame Street model of law enforcement. Setting aside for a moment the wisdom of two and a half intervening decades, why was I so certain that a police officer would help me?

Because, quite simply, I’d grown up believing that. I’m only being slightly facetious when I call it the Sesame Street model. From the time I was old enough to toddle, my family, teachers, tv shows and books had shown me, either explicitly or by example, that cops were friendly, helpful authority figures who would protect me. Lost? Find a cop. Scared? Find a cop. Dropped your ice cream cone? Okay, so that one wasn’t taught to me, but it’s not a stretch for a good little girl to make that connection. And who would nay-say me? All my friends lived in my community, looked like me, watched the same tv shows and read the same books I did.

So, to have my expectations so rudely quashed by the heedless attitude of a real life cop was an affront to my worldview. And because I was a well-behaved, middle class, white girl, I was certain that my world view was the Correct and Authentic One(TM).

And that is the extent of my bad experience with law enforcement in America.

Cut to 25 years later. In the space of days two men were violently put down by law enforcement officers at opposite ends of the country. I could say “murdered” but that’s a term we apply to victims, and of course, the narrative of well-behaved, middle class, white America refuses to identify black bodies as victims.

I find it difficult to know what to say to that. I am implicitly a part of that narrative, even when I explicitly speak out against it. The violence done to black and brown people in this country is not for me to publicly be outraged about – it’s not my lived experience and it’s not my voice that should be heard. At the same time, People of Color have been screaming their outrage since the founding of this country and nobody is fucking listening. When the first thing out of the mouths of people who would never consider themselves racist is, “We should wait until all the facts are in,” instead of “Why the hell are our cops killing citizens??” – we know that we live in a racist society. When more outrage is expressed by white America over cops killing dogs than cops killing people, what could I possibly say to make them see the truth? And yet, as a white American, it is incumbent upon me to speak out to other white Americans, and keep speaking out – even though it’s not my voice they should be listening to.

There are important conversations to be had about the militarization of our domestic police force, about the culture of toxic masculinity that pervades institutions of authority, about the actual risk-to-benefit ratio of concealed carry and open carry gun laws. Predictably, they will all take precedence over the more necessary conversation about our racist society. Predictably, they will overshadow the tragic statistics showing how people of color are targeted by law enforcement at staggeringly disproportionate rates to whites. Predictably – because it happens every damn time.

It happens because I survived my “bad” encounter with a cop. That’s what it boils down to: I, and the people who look like me, are not really affected by police violence against people of color. When I log off my computer at the end of the day, I will go to bed safe in the knowledge that I’m actually safe. That if I need to call law enforcement in the middle of the night, they will come to my rescue, not blame me for my victimization. That the odds of my white teenage daughter surviving a routine traffic stop unscathed are astronomically greater than a same-aged black youth. I can choose to look away, I can choose to not say anything. I did make that choice, for a long time. But to paraphrase a man who would know, I don’t want to be the only one left standing when it finally does affect me.

We can’t pretend this isn’t happening. We can’t carry around a bottomless bucket of sand to bury our heads in. Our friends, neighbors, countrymen are dying and if we’re silent, we’re complicit. Speak. But more importantly, listen.

On want.

I can’t go back and re-feel what’s come before. It’s just not a habit I’m acquainted with. I can’t feel the shock and numbness, damn it, or the fresh loneliness, or the bitter betrayal. What’s settled in, though, is the flinching wariness, the suspicion, and the constant, entrenched anger. Occasionally, the sadness creeps through. Desperate, engulfing sadness that my husband is gone. Irretrievably, unconditionally gone.

I need to tell you something, oh vast and empty Internet. I need to tell you how I loved him. From the time I was four years old, I only wanted him. I cherished every second with his family. Summers spent at baseball games and in the pool. Kindnesses shown me in the simplest of actions – like showing me his record collection when the “grown-ups” got to talking about boring stuff. Getting my triple-A baseball program signed by players he knew by first name. Passing by his neighborhood, knowing he wasn’t there and looking for him all the same. The time we made out as teenagers on a New Year’s Eve. Or the long, heartfelt conversations over miles and hours apart. The way his marvelously huge hands would cover my naked body and the taste of him after midnight. The way I could lean into his side on the couch and count on his arm coming around me. The way he loved my daughter.

All that is gone. In its place are creeping in all the times I overlooked a mis-remembered anecdote, or a story that wasn’t quite right. A lie that I chose to move past without really resolving. A nagging doubt that I couldn’t quite face. Omissions, excuses, niggling little bad habits… they were there all along, and they’re creeping forward like pestilence, poised to overtake my immunity to fault.

I hoped, Internet. I hoped, because I wanted to believe that hope was worthwhile. I wanted to believe that trust was valid. I believe my exact words were, “You have to decide to trust someone, before they can earn it.” If they ever invent a time machine, I’m going back to slap myself, hard, right in the face. It would hurt less than this.

I loved someone for my whole life who never deserved it. Who definitely never loved me back in the same way. I don’t know how to live with that. I don’t know what to do with the betrayal that I perpetrated on myself. On my daughter. The reckoning is approaching, and I am woefully unprepared to face it. I wasted over 30 years of passionate, devoted love on someone who threw it away. How does anyone make peace with that?

I keep thinking that he can’t hurt me anymore, and I’m probably right. But the wounds I’m finding now were inflicted by me, by my own heart. I did this to myself because I wanted.

The love of my life is gone. But the want remains. And I have to just live with it.

Today is.

Today my grief is a 200 lb python, wound lovingly around my torso, slowly and surely squeezing the breath out of me.

Today my grief is the crumbling walls of a white room, and the vast blank darkness beyond.

Today my grief is a stopped heart, and the tripping beats it makes to catch up.

Today my grief is aching arms, and tears that won’t fall, and eyes that can’t open without seeing betrayal.

People will soon stop asking me how I’m doing. My grief is nearing that expiration date on compassion, when concern slowly morphs into impatience, then disgust. But my grief still exists. It still greets me upon waking, it still waits for me in the quiet places and dark spaces. My grief doesn’t care how disgusted I am with it.

My grief doesn’t put on the same suit every day, or even every hour. It wears python skin, white paint, anxiety, crying. It shows up dressed in a sunny day and desperation. It lays atop the surface tension of a glass of wine, chased down my throat by the sharp tartness of escape. It comes costumed or bare, disguised or honest, but it comes, regardless.

Today is grief. Every damn day is grief.

A Not-so-funny Feeling

This roiling gut, these sleepless eyes. The tears just there, in the back of my throat that refuse to surface. Weightless, nerveless fingers.

Why is this my new normal? Why do I have to live with a tangled mess of nerve endings that don’t know up from down?

I read somewhere that the stomach has enough neurotransmitters to function as a brain if it wasn’t so busy processing food. I don’t eat anymore, which explains a lot of the problem.

I’m not tired. I wish I was tired. I wish I felt like if I could just get enough sleep, I’d rise like a fairy tale princess to a castle full of happy people. Instead, I’m stuck in the nightmare, shaking.

Small Things, part II

A glance. It’s a small thing in real time. A moment – or a second. A split second sometimes.

We almost don’t notice it until after it’s done.

Why, then, does it have to be like an iceberg on the surface of our emotions? Just a small look, a small second – but beneath the look is everything.

When you love someone enough, a glance is all it takes to set the world right side up. To make your heart expand, to put wings on your soul. A glance, and they are the most beautiful creature you’ve ever set eyes on.

When that love is gone – what becomes of the glance? Of the wings? Of the soul?

I don’t know if I’m more afraid that no one will ever look at me like that again…

…or that I won’t look at anyone else that way again.

Such a small thing to lose. You almost don’t notice it until after it’s gone.