You’re What’s Bad About America (and So Am I)

I regularly walk and jog in the park across the street from my house and, in doing so, have come to recognize other “regulars,” interacting with them to varying degrees. A few like to engage in a brief chat now and then, but mostly we just share a quick smile and hello as we pass each other.

Yesterday morning, I went out much later than usual, and as I was on my third and final lap, a man I’ve seen from time to time over the last couple years but never really spoken to much hailed me from across the baseball field. “Hello!” he hollered, walking up to the fence that separated us. “Haven’t seen you in a while! How are you?” I explained that my schedule tended to vary a great deal in the summer, said that I was well, and then politely reciprocated his question. When he said, “Oh, I’m fine,” I was ready to answer, “Good! Nice to see you!” and keep moving. However, he launched into several other statements and asked about my house, which prompted a vague memory of him walking by one day while I was putting my trash cans out.

He told me his name and his wife’s name (though she doesn’t walk with him) and went on to talk about how he tries to keep an eye on my property when he walks by, and that he “gets after” people who throw trash on or near it. Because I live by a heavily used park, trash is a constant issue. People who park or walk by my house sometimes leave their waste on the curb, strewn across the grass and gutter, stuffed into the bushes bordering my property, or tossed right onto my lawn. I keep a permanent supply of disposable gloves in my front hallway closet because at least 2-3 times a week, I am picking up food wrappers, empty cups, shards of marijuana prescription bottles, dirty diapers, empty beer bottles, and the occasional used condom.

Needless to say, it’s disgusting, not to mention discouraging, so hearing this man declare that he’s looking out for me and trying to get people to do the right thing completely disarmed and moved me. However, the well of gratitude springing up in me was abruptly curtailed by the next words out of his mouth. “Yeah,” he said, shaking his head, “I’ve seen those wetbacks throw trash on the ground right in front of me and then just laugh when I tell them to pick it up.” I must have visibly recoiled and/or flinched at what he said, because he hurriedly added, “I mean, I’m not using that word in a bad way, you know. I’m talking about the illegals that just came over and don’t know how to act.”

I sputtered for a second or two and said something like, “Well, I don’t think that really has anything to do with it. It’s just a few jerks who litter, and there are some of those in any group of people.” He said something about a few bad apples spoiling the bunch, which I attempted to counter, but at that point, I was just anxious to get away from the conversation as quickly as possible and did so a few seconds later.

On the way home and over the next couple hours, however, I continued our conversation in my head. On the one hand, I was shocked and dismayed by his use of such a racist, offensive term, and I was angry at myself for not speaking up more sharply and clearly against that. On the other hand, there was the part of me that recognized that this man was (in the midst of his racism) trying to be neighborly. Had he not used that term or defined a particular group of people as responsible for littering, I would have warmly thanked him and been on my way. But he did, and that complicates things.

I started by imagining myself giving him a scathing put down–one that would really lay bare his awfulness and make him feel terrible. Later, one of the responses I came up with in one of these imaginary re-do exchanges was, “I find that term extremely offensive. ALL people are created in God’s image and should be treated with respect and dignity.”  Which is probably a better response to him if I really believe that. Then I remembered something else I supposedly believe, which is that I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself. And this guy is my neighbor. Shit. So, while I’d love to yell at him, or (more in line with my personality) just ignore or avoid him from now on and dismiss him as a gross, ignorant human being, to do so would be a direct contradiction of what I believe and would treat him as an inferior “other.” Which is exactly what I’m condemning in him and his own mentality.

So how do I interact with this man in the future? How do I engage him as my neighbor, as a man made in the image of God, a man who was genuinely trying to help me out, but also a man who has an ugly streak of racism that I don’t want to condone in any way shape or form? As my boyfriend observed later, when I shared the incident with him, this is a perfect encapsulation of what’s happening in America at large right now. In the minds of many, there are those who are righteous and good, and those who are corrupt and evil, and a vast distance between the two that clearly distinguishes them. Of course, EVERYONE (including racists) thinks they are a part of the former group, not the latter. And they don’t just think this–they know it, adamantly. And so engagement and connection breaks down, conversations escalate into name-calling and sneering tweets (aka “sneets”), and most of the time the true merits and faults of ideas and the ambiguities of complex issues can’t really be unpacked and discussed in any kind of deep, rich, or growth-giving way because we’re all too busy huddling up to talk about how much we hate the “other” and how awful they are.

This is nothing new. Jesus was commanding his followers to take the logs out of their own eyes before pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye thousands of years ago. “You hypocrites!” he called the “holy” men of his age, the men who were absolutely certain about their own righteousness and judged others. Ouch.

It’s not enough for me to point out the splinter in the eye of my neighbor (and it is a significant splinter!). I have to also consider my own shortcomings and hypocrisies. I don’t have to dig very deep to find them. One of the reasons this man’s degrading language particularly struck me to the quick is that I’d just spent over an hour and a half reading about the children who have been and are being separated from their parents in border states (the reason I got started on my walk so late). I listened to the recording of them wailing in heartbreak for Mama! and Papa! and wept. I donated to the Facebook fund to help families get legal aide and reunite parents with their children. Like so many, I deplore what’s happening and am ashamed of a leadership that condones and encourages what I find repugnant on a moral and humanitarian level.

But in the midst of my outrage, I have to ask myself: What do I believe in when it comes to immigration? Do I believe in open borders? Am I okay with thousands of people coming into the country on a weekly basis with no oversight or regulation? I am still learning and thinking about this, but currently, while I do support increased quotas, an increase in government resources to expedite the process for asylum seekers, and humane treatment of those who have entered the country without going through the proper channels (usually due to desperate, life-threatening circumstances), I do not support completely open borders. So what does that mean? Does that erode some of my moral high ground?

I have no way of knowing for sure, but I don’t think I’m too far off in guessing that the majority of Americans don’t support completely open borders, including many of those protesting current border and immigration enforcement practices. And there is much to protest. But while we might have an extremely negative and undesirable version of immigration policies right now, I’m still left with the question of what the right and desirable immigration policies and practices should look like in the future. Even if we increased the number of immigrants allowed into the country, simplified the process, and made a path to citizenship/amnesty available to those who have lived here for a certain number of years–without open borders, there would still be some type of limit. Which means that at some point, real people with real pain and suffering will be turned away. Will be told “no” or suffer some type of negative consequence if they break existing laws. And I will bear some responsibility for that–not just evil politicians, ICE officers, and border officials. Certainly that’s something that needs to be examined and carefully thought through, but in the extreme, fraught, and polarized political arena we currently live in, I’m finding little guidance and must admit to being a little fearful about even raising these questions or stating a position publicly.

I applaud the current outcry against separating children from their parents and am heartened to see that it’s coming from a range of people with a range of ideologies. Just before starting this post, I read a breaking NY Times article that due to current political pressure (although I’m willing to believe/hoping? that some are also moved by a sense of decency) Republicans are moving against President Trump and his Secretary of Homeland Security to pass legislation that would halt the separation of children from their parents. And that Facebook fundraiser has raised (as of this moment) over $6 million dollars to help these immigrant families. Outrage can be a good and appropriate response. It can move people to positive action and keep the powerful in check on behalf of those who have no voice. But outrage can only get us so far.

To really get somewhere, we also need self-reflection and a developed capacity for pulling the beams out of our own eyes. Yes,    (insert name of person or group)   is/are terrible, heartless, idiotic, out of touch, etc. Good job. You identified that. That may be a place to start. It certainly is a tempting place to start. But where does it get us in the end? What does it change in the long term?

For there to be any real progress, we need to see our own hypocrisy and the complicated implications of our own stances. We need to wade into the murky depths of the moral ambiguity that surrounds so many of the hot button issues facing our nation. We all want to be the good guys, the righteous ones, but the reality is that no policy enacted by any government or supported by any group is without negative consequences to someone or something. There are often better and worse choices, but never perfect ones. What would it look like if the policy makers and the movers and shakers in this country really talked openly and with humility about the pros and cons of their approaches? What would it look like if they could and did admit that while they believe their own ideas are the best ones, someone from the opposing side might have something of merit to offer that might further refine or balance them? What would it look like if we, the constituents, demanded and supported those kinds of conversations?

That’s what I long for, though I don’t hold much hope of it happening anytime soon. In the meantime, there’s my neighbor and the reality that if I’m practicing what I’m preaching, I’m going to have to talk to him the next time I see him, however uncomfortable that might be (just thinking about it makes me feel twitchy). This is what I hope will happen: I’ll tell him why I found his language hurtful and offensive. I’ll share some of my experiences as the daughter of an immigrant and the teacher to many immigrants and ask him about his own experience. Then I’ll thank him for being a good neighbor and wanting to help me out. And in the weeks and months ahead, we’ll keep on walking around the park saying hi to each other as the mutually messy, flawed people that we are. Because all it takes for me not be better than him is to think for a moment that I am.

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The Uncles

In loving memory of all my father’s brothers

 

The Uncles

Long tables covered in plates filled
with golden-brown noodles flecked
with pepper and green onion, rusty-red
crusted duck, silver-scaled fish
its eyes still staring, fragrant mound
of white rice releasing its steam
into the cacophony of all the aunties
and uncles shouting and laughing,
their faces shining, their chopsticks
darting like stork beaks. The snap
crack and soft fizz opening of warm
cans of 7-Up for all the cousins.
How I tried to keep a grip on the
slick ivory sticks in my own hand,
how the napkin in my lap grew
greasy with dropped noodles,
a shabby second plate. My uncles
always smiling, always nodding
and pointing at me, my plate,
and though I didn’t understand
their words, I knew what they
were saying—Eat! Eat!
More! More! Their generosity
leaving no one, not even
the smallest child trying to hide,
overlooked. Their love filling
my belly to bursting.

 

Holy Week 2018

Holy Week 2018

I have done nothing to prepare—
no self-reflection, no sacrifice,
no posturing of prayer—only
filled each day, like any other,
with the hollow fleeting tasks
of things that, once done, must
be done again: grade the papers,
buy the groceries, pay the bills,
wash the dishes, scrub the floor.
Each act a laboring toward
no other goal except completion,
a line drawn on a list. And so
I come before You with a mind
and heart distracted, cluttered,
my lamp empty of oil, the wick
untrimmed, sleeping through each
waking day. All I have to offer
is this palm frond of unworthiness,
this faith brittle and withered with
neglect. Who can declare the mighty
acts of the Lord or fully declare
his praise? No one, though perhaps
the tongue of one made dumb
by shame, carrying the stench
of offense but still desiring
to approach, poking at a heap
of ash hoping for an ember,
comes close.

Sister Psalm

Sister Psalm

While my sister lies on a recliner
3,000 miles away, a cocktail
of destruction dripping
into her bloodstream,
Carlos is showing me a magic trick.

Other students have shown me tricks before,
bad ones, the sleight of hand so obvious
I must feign amazement like a doting mother.
I look at the clock, the stack of papers
on my desk, and watch with weary skepticism
as Carlos shuffles his deck of cards.

It’s a complicated trick.  He holds out
the deck and I pick a card at random.
He has me put it back and shuffle
the deck myself, which I do, that small
mean part of me making it extra thorough.

He fans the deck face up.
“Do you see your card?”
“Yes.”
He divides the deck and fans it again.
“Do you see your card now?”
And so it goes, until I’m not sure
how he will ever find the right one,
though there must be some way
he’s keeping track.  Some formula
to all that dividing and shuffling.

Then he points across the room and says,
“Look in the second book on that shelf.”
I go and look, and there it is, my six of clubs,
buried inside a book on the other side of the room.

I tell him how good he is, and he says
his mother, who goes to church, doesn’t like his tricks.
That they are bad, something of the devil.

I think of all my prayers
for my sister’s healing, how much I want
a miracle, God’s own sleight of hand,

and how it is already here, maybe,
in Carlos’s triumphant face, here
in my startled gasp,
this holy devil reminder
of impossible things
made real.

(first published by CALYX Vol. 30:1 https://www.calyxpress.org/shop/30-1/ )

All Around the Men Are Tumbling

All Around the Men Are Tumbling

All around the men are tumbling
down like statues after war,
painted idols smashed and crumbling.

Office hallways are now cannons rumbling
with the cold iron fire of lives torn.
All around the men are tumbling.

Titans of industry stumbling,
sleek suits split to the rotten core,
painted idols smashed and crumbling.

They claim it was a bit of bumbling,
a little fun—don’t be such a bore!
All around the men are tumbling,

hanging their heads, mumbling
apologies, bruised egos sore,
painted idols smashed and crumbling.

Who could have seen this humbling
coming, this opening of doors?
All around the men are tumbling,
painted idols smashed and crumbling.

(first published by Poet’s Reading the News:   http://www.poetsreadingthenews.com/2017/12/all-around-the-men-are-tumbling-poetry-katherine-lo/)

Me Too, Not Me

[Warning: this post contains explicit content / language]

Like many in the past week or so, my Facebook feed has been full of posts from women (myself included) participating in the #MeToo movement, as well as essays written by women for various news outlets. Along with these posts, there have been a number of posts and comments from men responding. As might be expected, there has been a range of responses: men taking ownership of this issue and expressing a desire to reflect on their own lives and interactions with women, vows to take action, admissions of bewilderment and surprise at what’s going on, and flat out denial and attack.

The kind of response that seems to be the most common, though, is one I’ve seen in quite a few comment sections in several different forums. It goes something like this:

There is a post by someone (usually a woman, but sometimes also a man) pointing out that yes, this issue is far more widespread and pervasive in our culture than most men realize, and men need to acknowledge the part they play in that and take an active role in changing things. Without fail, the comments section will be filled with a significant number of men saying something to the effect of “I feel bad for what all you women have suffered, but not all men are the problem / I am a good man who’s always treated women respectfully / it’s not fair to blame all men for the acts of a few creeps or predators / don’t equate flirting or asking someone on a date with rape / you’re going to alienate all men if you unfairly accuse them.” As is often the case in difficult conversations, people engaged in the same conversation are talking about two very different things. While troubling, this is hardly surprising.

I have two older brothers, and they are both deeply good, decent men. They respect women. The thought of them ever saying something crude or demeaning to a woman is ludicrous to me because what I know of their character, nature, and a lifetime of observed behavior is completely antithetical to that. But here’s what’s also true: even though we grew up in the same house, went to the same church, attended the same schools, and walked/biked/played on the same streets, we lived—at least in some ways—in two very different worlds.

I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian home, where clothes were modest, language and behavior were expected to be above reproach, and contact with “worldliness” (movies, television, school dances, makeup, rock music, dating) was extremely limited. And yet by the age of 15, I had experienced boys/men yelling out of car windows or from bikes as they whizzed by that I should suck their dicks or fuck them. When faded jeans came into fashion and I wore my first pair to school, a boy jeeringly asked me how they got so faded at the knees. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was something bad and degrading, and I thought about it every time I put on those jeans.

When I was in the eighth grade, my mother took me shopping and bought me a new pair of white capri pants and a red shirt with white buttons on the front. I often wore my sister’s hand-me-downs, so it was exciting to have a brand new outfit. When I put it on for the first time to wear to school, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I looked pretty, which wasn’t something I thought often in junior high. I loved the bright colors and felt happy in that outfit all day. Then, on the bike ride home from school, I rode past a man in a black Trans Am (one of those with a gold eagle painted on the hood) who was stopped at a light and whistled as I went by. I didn’t think much of it until I saw him drive past me, pull into a driveway, wait until I passed, then drive ahead and wait for me to pass again in another driveway. Each time I passed, he made crude comments about what he’d like to do to me from his open window. He followed me for over a mile, and I managed to get away from him only when I faked him out at a light, pretending I was going to wait and cross in one direction, then pedaling ahead through a yellow light after he’d made the turn. I rode the rest of the way home in terror, looking over my shoulder constantly, waiting to see if he’d reappear. I never wore that outfit to school again, and for weeks after that on my bike rides home, my heart would pound and I would start to shake if I caught even a glimpse of a black car. I was thirteen.

I have been followed by men on numerous other occasions, endured speculation about whether Asian women really do have tighter vaginas, been subjected to “jokes” by drunk college boys on the commuter bus from Cambridge to Wellesley when I was coming home from seeing a movie with friends (sample: “How is a piece of gum like a dick? It goes in hard and dry and comes out wet and soft”). I’ve been groped by strangers while riding public transportation or walking through crowded areas. I’ve walked by males sitting with their brothers/buddies who’ve called out numbered scores rating my appearance/body. And, of course, there are the demeaning names, prompts from strange men to give them a smile, the whistling, and the body-raking looks that are too numerous to count.

And here’s the thing: I’m pretty certain my brothers don’t know about any of these incidents. Why? Because it wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about. When I was a child/teenager and these kinds of things would happen, my response would usually be surprise and confusion (Are they talking to me? But what does that mean? Why are they saying that to me? Did I do something?) followed by embarrassment and shame, a feeling of degradation and dirtiness. I wanted to forget about and hide those experiences, not talk about them openly. There was no model for talking about those things openly, so it didn’t even occur to me that I could talk about them, much less know how to do so. As I got older and these incidents became more and more numerous, I learned—as most if not all women do—to ignore or shut them out, to move on with my life and not define myself according to these incidents (a luxury some women aren’t able to enjoy due to far worse experiences). I took self-defense classes. I bought pepper spray. I learned to wear a mask of cool oblivion and carry my keys pointing out when passing men in pairs or groups.

To those who might be asking, “Why didn’t you speak out against those guys?” there are several reasons. 1) I was too surprised/caught off guard in the moment and didn’t have the chance to formulate an appropriate response (although I’d spend hours later imagining things I could have said/done).  2) It would have been unsafe to do so.  3) When I did speak out, I was told I needed to get a sense of humor, to learn how to take a compliment, to stop being over-sensitive or over-reacting, or to not be such a frigid/uptight bitch.

So, let’s get back to articles like this and the responses to them where men say “Don’t blame all men / I’m not one of the bad guys / etc.” No one (at least in the articles that I’ve read) is calling all men terrible. No one is equating the average Joe nice guy with predators and rapists. What they are trying to point out is that the attitudes and behaviors that lead to this kind of widespread mistreatment of women are a deeply rooted, inherent part of our culture, and culture is something everyone is both shaped by and responsible for, however active or passive our participation. And, men, when you still have so much more power than women in so many of the arenas that shape this culture, you also have that much more responsibility.

To provide an analogous situation, I don’t consider myself a racist person. I’ve been subject to racism myself and believe in respect and justice for all who bear God’s image. That said, I also have to acknowledge that I live a very privileged and oblivious life in many ways that others in my neighborhood, city, and country aren’t able to, and that’s not right. I also have to acknowledge that I am capable of high levels of self-deception and my memory is highly selective. I might not be as “innocent” as I believe I am. So, yes, there are a lot of good men out there when it comes to how they view/treat women. But the assertion that it’s only a minority of men who are responsible for anything bad or wrong doesn’t match the widespread nature and sheer volume of negative experiences that females have or have had. The numbers just don’t add up. When men insist they’ve never witnessed any of this type of treatment of women or don’t know what women are talking about, that’s not a defense—it’s an unwitting confession of their lack of awareness.

Where it gets complicated (and it IS complicated) is all those grey areas, which is where most of us live.

Example #1: I once borrowed a shirt from a male coworker for a school spirit dress up day, and when I returned it to him, I told him I’d washed it so it was clean. He responded, “Oh, so my shirt got washed with your underwear? Hmm…” and he waggled his eyebrows and laughed. I felt uncomfortable, but I also laughed and said, “Actually, I washed it with a load of my dad’s boxers.” This happened years ago, and I’ve now worked with and been friends with this man for 20 years. He’s a good man–a husband, father, and mentor to countless young people whose lives he’s shaped for the better. At the time he made this comment, we were both single, and I think he was trying to be a little flirty or just funny. I recognized that he didn’t mean any harm, which is why I gave him a pass and let it go. I didn’t want to make a “big deal” out of it. Still, it was an inappropriate comment and it made me feel kind of icky. He’s a man who, if I pointed it out to him now, would recognize it was wrong and apologize to me. But he didn’t recognize it at the time, and I’m guessing he probably thinks of himself as one of the “good guys.” And he is a good guy. But good guys can think/say/do inappropriate things too.

Example #2: A pastor at my church preached a sermon on the book of Ruth one Sunday this summer. He prefaced it by expressing his own previous lack of interest in the story and generalized that into the premise that a lot of people tend to overlook this story because “it’s such a domestic story.” He went on to assert that this “domestic” tale (he used the term several times) was actually—surprisingly (at least to him)—a story rich with meaning and significance. I’m pretty sure he was just trying to set up the rest of his sermon in an engaging way, but it still came across a little like, Hey! A story about two women and how one of them gets married can actually have importance and relevance to everyone! Who’d a thunk it? And yet this is another really great guy—a deeply thoughtful, intellectual, and perceptive man who has always shown great respect for women.

Example #3: When I was a teenager playing a game with my brothers and some of their friends, there was a lot of typical guy joking—insults and teasing, primarily. When I joined in (after just listening and observing for a while) and teased one of them in a similar manner, he was clearly taken aback, and another one of them said, “Katherine, you’d better watch that sharp tongue of yours or no man is going to want to marry you.” There was an uncomfortable silence, during which I smarted, humiliated. My brothers didn’t say anything, and the game continued.

Now what do any of these examples have to do with men catcalling or stalking or groping women? Not much, on the surface of things. But if you consider that behavior and the attitudes that inform behavior exist on a spectrum, there is a connection. It’s a subtle connection, easy to overlook or deny, but it’s still there. It’s there in the message that men are the main characters in this world and women are the supporting players; there in the socialization of girls and women to be “nice” and always consider other people’s feelings first—to not cause a fuss; there in the frequent assumption that women’s concerns / issues / experiences are relevant only to them while men’s concerns/ issues /experiences are typically assumed to be universal; there in the widespread portrayal and discussion of girls and women in pop culture and media as primarily sexual objects to be evaluated by their appearance / bodies and treated accordingly. It’s there in the looks, the jokes, the tones of voice.

It’s there in the language.

Here’s a list of words/terms from the English language, both historic and present, that can be (and are often) used by men to address or describe adult women in a way that’s condescending / diminishing / disparaging:

girl
young lady
sweetheart/sweetie
baby
honey
little lady
air head
ditz
spinster
old maid
cougar
MILF
nag
scold
shrew
tart
skank
slut
whore
bitch
cunt

Now, here’s a list of terms used to address or talk about grown men in a condescending / diminishing / disparaging way:

boy (though more rare as a negative unless directed towards an African American man)
jerk
creep
pussy
douchebag
son-of-a-bitch
prick
dick
bastard
asshole
cocksucker

Now, let’s take out the terms that still manage to denigrate/stigmatize women even though they’re aimed at men, along with the one that denigrates gays. That leaves us with:

boy
creep
jerk
prick
dick
asshole

I’m probably forgetting words from both lists, but this gives you an idea. And it’s just one area of many where there are significant disparities that contribute to a culture of sexual harassment.

No, men, of course you are not all horrible creeps and predators. No, women aren’t saints—we have our dysfunction and brokenness too. And yes, we live in a world that is messy and complicated and confusing. It is also beautiful and amazing and good. But things are not as they should be, and some of that wrongness and imbalance is happening right under your nose, has possibly happened in your own life and interactions. And maybe it’s not fair that you have to bear the weight and responsibility of other men’s sins. But that’s what girls and women have had to do (and still have to do) on a regular basis for more years and in more ways than can ever be counted.

Four Poems

Sparrows

We found them after the tree trimmers
had loaded up their machines and gone—
two baby sparrows in the grass, tumbled
like ripe fruit. We placed a shoebox on a heating
pad, lined it with soft cloth, and watched them
squeak and squirm, all purplish crepe skin,
bulging eyes shut. Our mother promised us
she’d feed them when it was time to go to school,
sugar water squeezed from a tiny dropper
into even tinier beaks. I picture her kneeling
over the box every two hours, laboring to save
what could not possibly be saved. Twenty years
later, her pale limbs swollen and still under a light
blue blanket, we too labor, squeezing water
from pink sponges into her slack mouth, more
of it dribbling out than in, love compelling us,
as it does, through the motions of giving life,
as though death had not already made its claim.

 

Power

True that tenderness never stopped
a bomb, got a man elected
president, or netted billions
in market shares. But when
my father stands in the wedge
between car and car door,
clutching the frame and trembling,
and my brother positions the wheelchair
behind him, grasps him under the arms,
guides him into the nylon seat
for the hundredth time as gently
and unhurried as the first,
I want to bow down.

(first published in Qu Summer 2017 issue:
http://www.qulitmag.com/sparrows/
http://www.qulitmag.com/power/)

 

dream : logic

Last night I dreamed I was at a party with a house full of people,
and there was only   one     small cake     and a tiny    carton
of ice cream      and I was raging     at the one      responsible
for thinking     that would be     enough      then       (already
it is slipping away)    I was trying     to type           my name
into a computer     to register      for something       and a man
next to me     also typing      kept      erasing it      with his
I was in     an airport terminal      and my dead mother      was
rolling a carry-on     urging me to hurry        so we wouldn’t be
late to meet     my brother      who came out           of another
terminal   rolling a bag amid   a crowd of travelers  rolling bags
and I wonder   what it all    means     if there’s       a lesson:
there should always be enough cake and ice cream for everyone,
and hard as you try to be someone, someone else’s trying might
be stronger, and we will carry a bag with us in heaven and we’ll
find who we’ve been looking for arriving at the next gate.

 

Fake It

At least go through the motions
of kindness, generosity, love,

working out your prune heart
in reps of ten, then twenty—

whatever makes you feel
the ache of something changing.

Your father peeled an orange
every morning of your childhood,

dropped membraned portions
into your hands, cupped

with readiness. You know how
it is done. Dig with your thumbs,

pierce the pebbled rind.
Peel away the bitter until

the juice below sprays up
and stings the eye.

(first published in The Timberline Review Summer/Fall 2017 issue:
http://timberlinereview.com/)

All The Married Ladies

Going to church has become something of a fraught experience in the last year, and not for the reasons people might think. It’s got nothing to do with God or doubts about my faith. It’s got everything to do with the fact that, after years of being happily single, I am now happily in a relationship, and I am discovering that, as Caitlan Moran writes in her book How to Be A Woman, “For some reason, the world really wants to know when women are having children.” I would add that the world also really wants to know when women are going to get married and how their romantic relationships are going, as if their lives have become an ongoing rom-com and the world is its eager, popcorn-eating audience.

I’ve encountered this as a single woman plenty of times, but what I hadn’t realized is that it gets even worse once you’ve been dating someone long enough for it to be considered, you know, a relationship. A few months into mine, a woman I typically speak to about twice a year strode up to me and breathlessly asked, “Are you still dating X?” “Um, yeah,” I replied, unsure of how to interpret her abrupt intensity. “Oh, good! I mean, I haven’t seen you two together in a while, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear! I hope Katherine hasn’t broken X’s heart!'” At which point she laughed like it was all jolly good fun while I wrestled with the implication that I would obviously be the one to end the relationship and break hearts. Granted, X has been through some tragic stuff that the entire church knows about, so there are some pretty high hopes for his happiness and general well-being (no pressure there!), which I get, but still.

About the time X and I hit the year mark of dating, I was coming out of the bathroom at church and ran into a woman I hadn’t spoken to in months. I asked how she was doing, she talked some about her kids, and pretty much the next question out of her mouth was, “Are you and X are still dating?” When I confirmed that we were, she asked, “So are you guys talking about marriage?”

Then there was the time I was washing my hands in the bathroom (no, I don’t spend all my time in the bathroom–it’s just where I tend to run into other women), and in walked a woman whom I’ve been avoiding the last few months. Why? Because the last time I saw her, she’d jubilantly exclaimed, “I can stop praying for you now that you’ve found such a wonderful man!” and then told one of my single friends, “Now we need to pray for YOU!” So there I was in the bathroom, trapped at the sink, and as she started to ask me something (three guesses what), I interrupted her to tell her I had to run because I was on duty in the nursery. Which was entirely true since I volunteer to help out there once a month. My secret satisfaction at having a bullet-proof ‘out’ from an awkward conversation I didn’t want to have burst when she nodded knowingly and said, “The nursery? Good! Getting some practice, eh?”

A few weeks later, I was in the middle of talking to some people, and another woman I’ve had about six conversations with in the past fifteen years snuck up behind me, grabbed my left hand, and crowed, “Just checking!”

I could go on. And here’s the thing. These are nice ladies. The one making comments about getting baby practice and the one grabbing my hand are both bedrocks of our church—the kind of ladies who wear corduroy jumpers and turtlenecks and will drop everything to bake a casserole for anyone in need. They are motherly and sweet and good, and I truly do honor and love them. And the other women who have made comments and asked questions? Also really nice, good, intelligent people.

But I’ve got to be honest: these comments, questions, and little winky moments are really fucking annoying. Here’s why:

  1. While they may not be consciously doing so, they are making some pretty big assumptions. They are assuming that I automatically want to get married and have babies and that these are the only things that will truly make me happy and fulfilled.
  2. They are ignoring (and therefore devaluing) all the other wonderful things going on in my life that are an important part of who I am.
  3. They are being nosy and intrusive about things that are really none of their business.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does still shock me that we are living in 2017 and there are still so many women—married women—who assume that the primary aim of all other women is to find a man and have babies. And yes, I’m singling out women, because I have never experienced a man asking me about my dating life, asking whether I’m talking marriage with my boyfriend, or making comments to me about babies. Men ask me about what I’m reading, how work is going, what TV shows I’m currently watching, and so on. Anyway, back to some women and their assumptions and why I get fired up about this:

  1. Assuming a woman’s highest happiness/fulfillment comes from a husband and children is limiting and even damaging in two ways: it demeans single women and sets up unrealistic expectations for women who do get married and have kids and think that’s going to lead to an automatic happily-ever-after. I have written before about being single, and I can truthfully say that I found that time of my life to be just as meaningful, happy, and fulfilling as my current life of being in a relationship. In fact, part of what makes my current relationship so great is that I came into it NOT looking for it or needing it. I wasn’t looking for a man to fulfill me or make me feel happy or special. X doesn’t have to complete me or fill some hole inside me. And thank goodness, because what a lot of pressure on him that would be and often is for many men and women in relationships. It’s not to say that I don’t need anything from him, but that what I need is for the good of nurturing our relationship with each other, not for fulfilling me as an individual. Loving him and experiencing him loving me is wonderful, but it’s the gravy on an already full plate. And I think that’s really healthy and good—for both of us—and has led to a rich, joyful, and easy-going dating experience with pretty much zero drama. As for babies? That ship has sailed, folks. Have I wanted them in some hypothetical way in the past? Yes, now and then. But when I didn’t have them and it became clear that it was unlikely I was going to have any, I discovered I was really okay with that. And now, as I head toward my 44th year on this earth, I can say without any doubt in any corner of my heart or mind that I definitely do NOT want to have any babies. I am too old and too tired and too interested in other things to want to create a human being that will be dependent upon me for the next 18-20+ years. The weird thing is that admitting this publicly feels a little risky to me because there is a very real possibility that some people might judge me as selfish or unfeminine or whatever other negative things people think about women who admit they don’t really want babies. Do they think the same things about men who either don’t want or are ambivalent about having kids? Do men even get asked about that nearly as much as women do? I don’t have any hard data, but I’m guessing they do not. So, married church ladies, that’s #1. Some women—maybe even a lot of women—really want to find a husband and have babies. But not all women. Some women are equally okay (or even better off) with other kinds of lives, or the men/children in their lives are wonderful but not their entire world.
  2. When people (including women) talk to my boyfriend, they ask him about his kids, which makes sense since he’s got some and, as a widower, he’s a single parent bearing full responsibility for them. But they also (and mostly) ask him about his work and his creative projects and talk to him about things they know he’s interested in and/or has expertise in that have nothing to do with his kids or his relationship with me. They do not see his role as father and boyfriend as his sole identity or interest. Why, then, do women so often define other women according to these roles—even when the other women aren’t in these roles (in which case, they are defined by their ‘lack’)? We are not living in the olden days, where women were defined solely by their relationships to males and children and did not exist as individual adults in the eyes of the law. Women now have the freedom and right to use their God-given talents and abilities in a variety of ways that better the world, and to live many different kinds of lives. Yes, the fact that I am dating a great guy is interesting and exciting. Also interesting and exciting? My job, where I impact hundreds of lives and have to use a high level of skill and creativity daily to educate, inspire, and meet the needs of my students. My writing, which I have dedicated myself to pursuing in a disciplined and meaningful way for over two decades. There’s also travel and literature and music and current culture and politics, etc. All things I love and/or am interested in! The truth is that the large majority of people I encounter at my church and the world at large recognize this and are lovely, gracious, open-minded people who treat me as a whole person and engage with me in all sorts of ways. That’s why I think it’s so jarring when I bump up against those who engage with me only as a Woman-Who-Is-Dating-Someone.
  3. Curiosity does not always justify an inquiry. X’s close friends and my close friends have the right to ask and know how our relationship is going, and really, that’s all who needs to know. I’m not walking up to married women I seldom speak to and asking them how their marriage is going or whether they’ve ever considered divorce. Because that would be rude. Also? Not all dating relationships become marriages. Some people break up. Some people date for a really long time before they get married. Some people get married quickly and eagerly and end up unhappy. There are many different possibilities and outcomes, and adding pressure to two people already engaged in the delicate and complicated business of building a relationship is not helpful. In fact, church ladies, now would be the time to start praying, not stop.

Two Poems

Barbershop

When my sister’s hair began to fall out,
she was told to go to a barber
as he would be more skilled
than the average stylist
in applying the razor
to her tender scalp, which has always
been covered by hair, even if
just a fine baby down,
but would now be laid bare.

She sits in the chair, surrounded by men,
and explains to the barber three times
that yes, she wants him
to shave it all off.
His English isn’t good.
A man who’s brought his son in
for his first cut translates. “Yes, todos–all.”
My sister points to a photo of a muscled
bald man on the wall.

And so it begins, hair falling
to the floor like soft grass cuttings
to be swept up and thrown away.
A pause after each row
so she can reach for a tissue.
The men in the shop fall silent
and avert their eyes, thinking, maybe,
of their sisters or their wives
as the electric razor whines.

(first published in Poet Lore Fall/Winter 2016; www.poetlore.com )

 

The Craftsmen

All the shoe repairers and tailors and watch-battery replacers
are little old men with shiny heads bald
except for the rim of white hair circling
the border of where hair used to be,
and ears and noses where hair still sprouts,
weeds growing out of cracks in the sidewalk.

They stand behind their laminate counters with tired shoulders
and peer with mournful eyes at the offering you’ve brought,
turning it in their hands, shaking their heads,
clucking in the back of their throats.

And just as you are teetering off the precipice into
hopelessness, they nod and say, “Come back Thursday”
and quote a price so low
you feel you should talk them higher.

What will happen when all these little old men,
with their secret knowledge brought with them
from another land and learned in another tongue,
go the way of their fathers?

Who will take over their musty strip mall shops,
the same faded shoes and blouses displayed
since the eighties? Who will fill out the little tags
in shaky pencil and know just how to tighten that shoe
strap or hem your pants or maneuver those tiny
tools into the crevice of your watch to pop it open?

Just think of all the broken heels, pants dragging
in the dirt, the watches gone silent and still.

(first published in The Naugatuck River Review Summer/Fall 2016  https://naugatuckriverreview.com/)