Thursday, June 23, 2011

It takes practice

          It was apparent to me, immediately upon my arrival in Columbus, that I was out of practice living in an integrated community.  Okay, let me be a little bit more bold and a little bit more accurate: I was out of practice living in a predominately African American community.  If I needed confirmation that we had made a good decision to move, this was it.  Right?  I mean, I’m raising three black children whom I love and adore, I can’t be unfamiliar with what it feels like to live with black people, now can I?
          It reminded me a little of what it was like to attend a women’s college.  How even though I was already a feminist, the experience of living in a community where women did everything, helped reshape my brain a little bit.  Women led the student government, women cooked in the kitchens, women drove the security van.  They were the EMTs and the comedians, the athletes and the scholars.  Of course I had already known women could do all these things in turn, but the experience left me with the expectation that they would do them every turn.  If someone was going to give a rally speech to demand the college stop buying Coke products until the company divested in South Africa, it would be a woman.  If someone was going to set a new conference shot put record, it was going to be a woman.  If someone was going to run the lighting and sound board in the campus theater, it was going to be a woman.
          I thought of this experience as I walked the streets of our new neighborhood, noting the architecture of the buildings, the landscaping, the upkeep, or the lack thereof.  And I listened as my brain fought with itself.  Part of it could not conceive that a block of houses across from the park--banked with beautiful gardens overlooked by generous porches--that they might actually be inhabited by black people.  I turned the corner onto another kind of block altogether--50 percent abandoned, boarded-up buildings--and I thought, oh no, what if this is where the black people live and those houses around the corner are all full of white folks.  How will I ever forgive myself for landing us in the middle of this racially stratified disaster?
          I thought of this some more when we were overwhelmed by warnings to lock our windows and doors.  If we’re upstairs we shouldn’t have the downstairs windows open, they told us.  No, there are no windows to air out the basement, we had to block them in, they said.  These warnings came as much from our gay, white landlords as they did from our friendly black neighbors.  We are generally a leave-everything-open kind of family.  If you want to steal something and the car's locked you’re going to bash in the window, and then I'll need a new window.  That’s how I see it.  But the warnings were so persistent I had to consider them.  I kept close watch on our moving van.  I fastidiously locked and unlocked the bikes.  Even the tricycle!  But I felt so self conscious.  I mean here I was, living in a black neighborhood for the first time in my life, and becoming a lock freak for the first time in my life.  My kids had never seen me lock a door before, shut a window when I went upstairs, leave on the radio as we headed out to the grocery store.  What kind of message was I sending them?  And what kind of message was I sending myself?  This is not how I wanted the retraining of my brain to go.  My brain was supposed to be working on expecting the people walking out of those beautiful banked houses down on Franklin Park South to be black.  It wasn’t supposed to develop a new fear of break-ins.
          And then lo and behold, there were a few break-ins.  Not our house, but a couple of neighbors' across the street and another three doors down.  The weird thing was, now that there were some actual break-ins, everyone was saying how nothing like this had happened here for years.  Ten years some said.  More than that even, said others.  They talked to each other a bit about the burglaries and surmised it was someone right here on the block.  Someone who was around during the day, who could see the comings and goings and get in at opportune but unexpected moments when they knew no one would be around.  It must have been someone new to the block; why else would there be a rash all of a sudden?  I’m not sure my writing skills are good enough to convey to you how relieved I was to hear that everyone (white, black, gay, straight) suspected the passel of young, gay, white men who lived diagonally across the way.  Apparently unemployed, they spent a lot of the day on the second floor porch, smoking and laughing.  I hoped and hoped and hoped that the suspicions were right.  Never in my life have I wished so ill of my gay brethren.  But I really wanted this one to go down the way my brain needed it to.
          And, thank God, a few weeks after the patrol cars started circling, the gay boys got the jitters and were never seen again.  That was the last of the break-ins.  Eight months later, I’m proud to say that I’m just as dumb as I used to be: leaving the car doors open, the bikes strewn about, downstairs windows carelessly taking in the Ohio breeze.  And on Halloween when we went trick or treating down Franklin Park South, well, I’ll just let you guess who answered the doors.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It doesn't get old

          So, as the heading of my blog indicates, there was a reason we up and moved from Portland, Maine (one of the most beautiful places on the planet) to Columbus, Ohio (where everyone asks me: why did you move here?).  And, as indicated above, it’s a long story that could be a short story, but in any case: it’s a story.  And oddly, it’s a story I haven’t been all that forthright about on these pages.  Partly because I know some of my readers are folks back in Portland: people I care about, people who are parenting across race like we are, people who share my values, people who have made a different decision.  And the one thing I know about parenting alongside people who share your values is this: it feels reeeeeeally good when you make similar decisions; and reeeeeeally bad when you don’t.  That’s when it starts to feel a little less like camaraderie and a little more like the j-word.  Judgment.
          And I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to be the person who makes a major parenting decision that’s maybe bigger, and maybe more dramatic, and maybe more splashy than all those good folks I care about, who are intentional, kind, loving parents in their own right and who don’t need to hear me going on and on about our move and how glad I am that we did it.  So I’ve shied away from this part of the story, told it in little bits here and there, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes by making hyperbolic remarks about Portland in ways that, I am gently told, hurt those back home.
          So instead of being shy (because let’s face it, there’s no room for shy in the blogosphere), and instead of making little comments like: there are more African Americans working at the DMV than there are living in all of Portland, Maine … Instead of all that, maybe I’ll try to tell a medium-sized version of the story.
          Here goes.
          I guess the story starts when we checked the box next to African American on our adoption application, because that’s when I knew we would someday leave Portland, Maine.  I knew this even though my desk at Learning Works looked out onto an elementary school playground where more than half the students climbing up the ladder to the slide were children of color.  Collectively those students spoke more than forty languages.  They were from Somalia, and Sudan, and the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, and Cambodia.  And a few of them were African American.  But not many.
          And I knew it again when the kids came over to Learning Works after school, and the visiting artist went around the room and asked each kid to name their culture or ethnicity, and they, each in turn, said, “Somali,” or “Congolese,” or “Croatian,” except when we got to the biracial girl, a fifth grader raised by her white father, who paused in confusion before answering: “English, I guess.”  It was clear to me that in a school where most of the children of color spent their time in ESL classes, culture, ethnicity, and race were defined by language.  So who are you if you have brown skin and were raised to speak English?
          But we weren’t ready yet.  Even once baby Hot Shot arrived and we became adoring first time parents flashing her picture eight times each minute, we weren’t quite ready to move.  We imagined Boston would be our destination and we knew it would take a different kind of lifestyle to afford it.  Long hours.  Maybe lengthy commutes.  How could we?  We wanted to spend our days gazing into that little girl’s eyes.  Steadying her when she faltered.  Stimulating her with contrasting colors, and Sweet Honey In The Rock, and good old fashioned love.  So we decided to wait.  Until Darling Virgo finished her nursing degree, maybe.  Until Hot Shot was ready to start public school, maybe.  Until we were ready.
          But I thought about it all the time.  I thought about it when I scanned the checkout lines at the grocery store, looking to see if there were any brown-skinned cashiers or baggers.  I thought about it when I picked those lines, even when they were the longest, even though I had a disgruntled toddler in tow, because I wanted my kid to see a couple of brown faces this week.  I thought about it when I wheeled the grocery cart out to the car and kicked myself for not getting the phone number of that friendly Congolese bagger who might have made a good babysitter.
          And I thought about it again when I listened to the stories of the people around me who were parenting a generation ahead.  People who had raised their brown skinned children in Maine.  People whose kids were (can I say this?) messed up: drug addicted, mentally unstable, unable to parent children they’d given birth to, dead.  Dead!  People whose children had attempted to take their own lives and, in some cases, had.  Say what you will about the stakes as I felt them.  Call them dramatic, call them exaggerated, call them weighted by fear, but don’t say they don’t get your attention.  Don’t say they don’t make you think maybe you might want to move someplace where your kids would fit in a little bit more.  Like when you weigh the options you don’t wonder if uprooting--moving, leaving behind your family and your community, and the people who know you and forgive you and want the best for you--if all that might not be so much of a sacrifice.  Not when you compare it to the alternatives.  
          And I knew Portland was changing.  That it was browner than it had been twenty years ago.  But I knew that all the searching and all the counting and all the stalking and all the desperate attempts at friendship would never add up to what I wanted for my family.  I wanted us to have black neighbors without having to strategize about which block on which street we had to move to in order to achieve it.  I wanted my kids to have African American playmates, African American teachers, African American doctors, African American firefighters, African American mail carriers, even African American bureaucrats at the DMV.  And I looked out the window at that playground and I thought, really?  Am I really saying to my Somali neighbors, “you are not black enough for my black daughter.”  Because of course I wanted my kid to go to that elementary school and grow up among the cultures of the world.  Knowing the smell of Somali cooking, recognizing the intricate braids in the Sudanese girls’ hair.  Of course.  But the one thing I had in common with those kids’ parents was that neither of us could be African American for Hot Shot.  Though we each knew our own oppression, none of us knew what it was to be descended from the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
          So, we talked about moving for years.  Boston had felt expensive as it was and then suddenly we had two more babies (that’s another long story) in addition to our school girl.  We started looking elsewhere.  Searched for gay-friendly cities and black-friendly cities and Jew-friendly cities.  We took Google Earth walks down virtual streets in Philly and Baltimore, Atlanta and Charlotte.  We courted Durham, North Carolina for while.  But jobs were as hard to find there as anywhere.  Even for a new nurse.  There’s a recession on, you know?  Hospitals were feeling it as much as anyone and had stopped hiring people who needed training.  And then Darling Virgo got an offer in Portland.  And it felt good to have some resolution.  It felt good that we didn’t have to leave our families and friends, people we had worked so hard to collect.
          But my biggest fear was that even though I wanted more than anything to leave, we never would.  There would always be something.  A job.  A new black friend.  A playground with a view of the ocean.  Always something that would seem too ideal, too hopeful, too irreplaceable to let go of.  And so we would never do it.  Year after year after year would go by and we would still be there.
          But we aren’t.  Something happened.  One June we decided not to up and move to Durham, and the next June we paid a security deposit on an apartment in Columbus.  It was resolve I guess.  And a realization that it was never, never, never going to feel easy.  And there were always, always, always going to be reasons to stay.  So we just needed to do it.  And Columbus?  Why not?  It showed up on all the right lists and we hadn’t researched it enough to know what we didn’t like about it.  And it was cheap.
          So, no job, three kids, and my dad in the hospital after heart surgery.  We said teary goodbyes to everyone we knew, and drove off in a truck bigger than any self-respecting minimalist would have looked twice at.
          And it’s been hard.  Some days really hard.  I’ve moved to new cities before.  But I was working and didn’t have children to take care of.  So meeting people was easy, and I didn’t need them as much as I do now.  I stare at my kids' emergency forms and wonder who I can possibly write in as a contact.  When I see an incoming call with the Columbus area code I rush to accept it thinking maybe it’s someone who wants to get to know me.  And a couple of times in ten months it has been.  But not usually.  Usually it’s the school nurse, (who, by the way, I like a lot and would happily befriend in a second).
          But you know what?  So what if it’s hard on me?  I’m the one who checked the damn box next to African American.  The burden of our mismatched skin should be on my back.  Not theirs.  In Portland it was them who got the attention.  Who felt people staring at them.  Who listened as passers by ogled at their hair or asked me where they came from and if they could speak English.  And here?  Here it is me they look at.  In the grocery store, on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus.  Friendly, more often than not, sometimes folks even thank and hug me, which I don’t really deserve or need, though I’ll take.  But when I tell the boys to stop and they keep running?  They aren’t the ones who get the looks, it’s the white lady who’s raising them.  And that’s how it should be.
          So even though the move’s been maybe harder than anything I’ve ever done, I cannot overstate how glad I am we did it.
          Because all the things that used to be hard, are now easy.  Because when neighbors come over to play, there’s no question but that they will be African American.  And when we carpool to Hot Shot’s school?  And when Moon Boy had to go to the hospital?  And when Ankle Biter needs to get out and run around?  That’s right.  I don’t have to call ahead and ask if there are any black nurses, or spend a lot of time figuring out which playground to walk to.
          And there are so many things I didn’t know.  Like marching bands.  My kids love marching bands.  Few days go by without a marching band drumming it’s way proudly through my kitchen.  They love bands because their god-like teenage cousins are in the marching band back in Massachusetts at my old high school.  But here in Columbus where the high school across the street from our apartment has a 97 percent black student population?  Marching band means something completely different than the one back home.  And I had no idea.  Because--shame on me--I’d never seen the movie Drumline.  Or watched Jackson State.  Or Howard University.  But the beauty of it is, I didn’t need to see Drumline.  I didn’t need to be the one who knew about black marching bands.  All I needed to do was move 700 miles from everything familiar, and suddenly I’m off the hook.  Suddenly, when my kids play marching band, they play black marching band.  Because they know what it is and they love it.
          And there is no feeling I like more than dropping off Hot Shot at double dutch practice or art camp--giving her a hug, turning around, and closing the door behind me--knowing that once I’m gone everyone in the room will be black.  It scares me a little that she was seven before she had this experience.  But I breathe deep and low when I think to myself, she will never have to do it for the first time again.  From here, it will only get more and more familiar.
          So I walk into the DMV and I think, “it doesn’t get old.”  And I walk into the grocery store, and I think, “nope, it doesn’t get old.”  And I watch my boys run next door to pester Mr. Chat, and he says, “come over here and play with my tools; if you play with tools you won’t have to play with guns,” and I think, “sure enough, it doesn’t get old.”  Because it doesn’t and it doesn’t and it doesn’t.
          I don’t believe there is just one way to be African American.  I don’t believe there are just ten ways to be African American.  But I do believe it’s my job to let my kids learn as many ways as they can, so that someday, when he is 5,  or she is 12, or he is 17, or she is 23, they will not find themselves in some situation where they feel completely out of place.  Maybe a little out of place.  Maybe a lot out of place.  But not completely.  And my job just got a whole lot easier.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Color Commentary

          Good news from Columbus: festival season is here and thus far we’ve not been disappointed.  A few weekends ago we attended the Dragon Boat races downtown on the Scioto River.  They served as the kick-off to a week of Asian Festival events culminating in the actual Asian Festival weekend at none other than good old Franklin Park (site of the suspiciously-abandoned-stroller-by-the-duck-pond incident).  When I drove the boys by the park on the way to preschool that Friday morning we were excited to see all the tents up, getting ready for the festival.  I mean we were really excited.  Like the kind of excited you get when they set up the tent for your graduation or your wedding, which is to say: we felt they were setting up the festival tents expressly for us. 
          Because we love festivals.  By the end of the last summer every time we left the house Moon Boy asked,  “are we going to a festival?”  And usually the answer was “yes.”
          So the Asian Festival was fantastic.  For many reasons.  First: it was big.  Three stages, with acts every half hour, all day for two days.  Tons of great smelling food.  (I’m guessing it was great tasting food too, but I didn’t get to taste most of it, so I can only vouch for the smell.)  Rows and rows of vendors and demonstrations.  Second: it was just plain fun.  My favorite act was the Punjabi dancers, dressed in traditional garb, dancing to modern techno music, getting the crowd to gather in front of the stage and learn their steps which were not very difficult but a ton of fun and a great aerobic workout, especially with a thirty pound kid on your hip.
          Third: because of who was there. 
          I don’t know if  I’ve revealed as much on these pages, but for me, race is everything.  I’m always thinking about race.  In fact, everything I write could have a whole other storyline of “color commentary” running constantly through my brain.  But there’s so much to say that sometimes I have to leave all that out.   Like for example, in Birth Gender and the DMV, I didn’t say my first thought upon entering the DMV was about race.  See, there was a bank of about twenty registry workers, taking people out of the queue, doing all the things registry workers do, and more than half of them were African American.  And I was thinking how this is why we moved here, how there aren’t even this many African Americans in all of Portland, Maine, and how these are decent, if boring, jobs and that hopefully they will be able to keep their health insurance after Senate Bill Five passes.  And then I was thinking about my white privilege and their presumed straight privilege as they were conferring about my birth gender.  And then I was thinking despite tons of evidence to the contrary I have totally bought into the myth that black people don’t like gay people.  And then as I sighed and quietly played up my annoyance, I saw how I was leaning back on my whiteness.  How I was saying, sorry about that gender confusion and all but don’t forget: I’m white.  And then they gave me my license.
         Anyway, that’s me.  I’m always thinking about race.  So my favorite thing about the Asian festival was that there was no “normal” in the crowd.  I mean, if I were to tell you I met a new friend at the Asian festival you could make absolutely no assumptions about the race of my new friend based on probability and statistics.  I would say those in attendance were something close to equal parts Asian, black, and white, with a smaller set of Latinos.  And those performing were mostly Asian, of course, but not exclusively.  That was the brilliant thing.  This was a huge festival drawing acts from around the country and the world.  There was no onus on local Asian Americans to be the culture bearers, to be the experts in the various and broad aspects of Asian art and culture.  It was not their role to educate the rest of us about their lives.  That job was reserved for professional performers: people who devote themselves to the study of a particular kind of drumming or dance or instrument, who traveled from New York, London, Toronto, and Pittsburg to entertain and teach us. 
          One of my favorite moments of the Asian festival was when were walking back from the playground, through the artisan booths to the main stage, and we passed a table where two people were playing that ancient Asian game--you may have heard of it--it’s called “chess.”  One of players was a twenty-ish white man.  The other was a young black girl, maybe twelve years old.  They both looked possessed.  What am I saying, they both were possessed.  They were completely entranced, completely focused on the board, clearly thinking two, three, ten, fifteen moves ahead.  When we got to the table where they were playing, they were maybe a third of the way into the game with about ten people stopped to watch.  By the end of the game there were at least fifty of us circled around them: entranced by their entrancement.  And we were all people.  We were children, and parents, and teens, and elders, and young twenty somethings whom I resent for their carefree childless lifestyle.  We were white, and black, and Asian, and Latino.  Some of us knew something about chess, some of us couldn’t tell who won in the end.  Because there was no final buzzer.  No score board.  No king getting dramatically swept off the board.  Because the players didn’t need that.  They knew who had won, long before it happened.  And they were both so good-natured about it, so appreciative of the other’s prowess, that there was no emotional read on the outcome.  No way to tell the winner by his elation, or her disappointment.  We all stuck around there for a while after the game had ended, wanting more.  Wanting it to keep going.  So we could see the great magnitude of human potential as manifested in these two people’s highly functioning brains.
          But the most breathtaking moment for me came on the second day of the festival.  We returned Sunday afternoon.  The crowds were smaller and more intimate.  We went inside the Adventure Center (a field house of sorts) which was blissfully air-conditioned and were watching some kind of drumming demonstration when I saw, in the audience, a little Nepali boy who was the image of a child we know back in Portland.  The boy in the crowd was younger, less than two, probably about the age our friend was when we first met him.  Back when his parents adopted him, when he hadn’t learned to walk, or understand English, or trust that these people who were showering him with all this love would be the ones he could count on forever. 
          I watched the little boy for a while, more taken with him than the performance, remembering when he and Hot Shot were little toddlers together.  How little and cute they had been.  It was like having a visit with our old friend, watching this stranger across the crowd.  And then I thought to look around and identify his parents.  It was not hard.  He was sitting on his mother’s lap of course. I had just been so consumed with him that I hadn’t noticed her.  But there she was.  And beside her, his father.  And they took my breath away, those two people.  Here was this little child, such a striking resemblance to our little friend.  And here were his parents.  His birth parents.  This is what they looked like.  I tell you, it took my breath. 
          The truth is, there was a part of me that was shocked his parents were not white.  Weird, I know, because I’m not surprised when I meet black kids with black parents, even though my kids are black and I’m white.  I live in a neighborhood full of black kids with black parents.  I understand this to be the norm.  As are Nepali kids with Nepali parents.  But there was something about the likeness of this stranger to our little friend.  It was so striking.  Striking in a way we are used to ignoring in adoptive families.  Because there is no expectation that anyone will look like anyone else.  No time spent ogling over who has whose nose, or dimple, or overbite.  We exist together as a family without all that to define us.  But here was this kid looking so much like our little friend.  So many distinct aspects of his face rang so true.  And our little friend will never know his birth parents.  There is almost no chance he will ever so much as see a picture of them, and so these two people, birth parents of our little friend’s identical twin, they took my breath because they were, to me, like ghosts.  They were something I’m not supposed to see.  Something none of us ever expected to see.  But there they were.
          And immediately I was grieving.  Grieving for our friend and the life he doesn’t have.  Grieving for my own children and the life they will never have.  And I am not romanticizing that life.  There are reasons why people choose adoption.  I know that.  Often those reasons are complicated and include, at their root, things like systematic oppression (racism, classism, colonialism, sexism) but still, they are reasons.  Real live reasons that would have made for challenging lives at best.  So it’s not that I think our kids would have been, necessarily, better off with their birth parents.  Nothing so complex could ever be boiled down to an equation this simple.  But what I do know is, for better or for worse, it will never be theirs.  They will never get told a thousand times how much they look like their mother.  How they have her smile, or his cheekbones, or her hips, or his walk. And this?  This is just the tiniest part of the life that will never be theirs.  The life where they never have to wonder why? and what if? and do they love me?
          I looked at that family across the crowd, and I thought, this kid has something my kids will never have.  And he has no idea.
          And then, in a matter of seconds, it was over.  I was chasing Ankle Biter though a maze of tables, and helping Moon Boy keep himself from his intense urge to touch this ancient lute sort of thing.  And we were back to living.  Which is what you do, right?  You have a tense go ‘round about your birth gender and then you sit in front of a monitor and take your driver’s license test.  You look up at the annoyed white woman sighing all over your counter, you check her documents, you say, “fine, go ahead,” and then you help the next person in line.  You tell your friends that, yes that is your mom and yes she does have white skin because she is your adoptive mom (obviously!) and then you get back to your subtraction worksheet.
          The commentary keeps going.  And so do you.