Wednesday, May 28, 2014

clair de lune

I'm lying in our bedroom on a clear, full moon night. We have a skylight, so at the right moment the moon appears in the middle with a shock of brightness. I reach for my iPod, slip on my headphones and lie back with Debussy. For the longest time, I didn't care for Clair de Lune, but one day that turned, and now when the moon shines into my room like this, I let Debussy describe it to me. These are my favorite nights, special nights, rare nights. The light travels everywhere. Nothing is hiding. I feel safe in a way that I don't feel most nights, which I recognize each time with surprise. 

I tense up a little bit at bedtime, I guess. I stay up late, putting off the moment when I'm going to have to turn off the light, let go of diversions and become vulnerable. It's a carryover from childhood, when I'd lie in bed and beg the powers-that-be not to make me clairvoyant that night. Every night I put it out there as hard as I could, "I don't want to see anything, I don't want to see anything, I don't want to see anything," over and over until I fell asleep. I didn't want to see what Granny saw. My mom likes to tell me that when I was very small, I'd complain about things I saw hovering at the foot of my bed. I don't have any memory of that, but something sure went into this frantic drive to stay unclairvoyant. Anyway, some of that lingers. It feels a teeny bit dangerous to get so quiet at night, to give over, to stop, like that's the cue for unseen forces to creep in and get their game on. Forces from within, forces from without, I don't know. Forces. 

Something will come, I fear, and untie some knot* holding my third eye closed, and I'll be overrun with needy spirits trying to get messages to their loved ones. Like if my third eye opens, some red light will automatically start flashing on the astral plane, some rinky-dink "open for business" sign in a bad astral neighborhood, and all the etheric junkies and thugs will crowd my bedside, taunting me and tugging at me, and I'll have no way to make them disappear. 

*Whatever I have rigged up there feels way more elaborate than a knot, frankly. If you ever saw the show Get Smart, you'll remember the opening montage where Maxwell Smart walks into headquarters through a series of heavy, mechanized doors that slam shut behind him the second he's through. Bam, wham, whoosh, thud, whomp. I installed about a hundred of these over the course of my childhood, I'd estimate, every "I don't want to see anything" a nut or bolt or square inch of steel right between my eyebrows.

Now, clairvoyance isn't the only game in town for psychic ability to work through. There's clairaudience, where people pick up information aurally, and claircognizance, where people have flashes of pure cognition, and there's what I have, which is clairsentience. I get information in my gut that shows up kinesthetically. If I tune into a situation, I'll pick up degrees of friction/frictionlessness, heaviness/buoyancy, obstruction/fluidity, constriction/expansiveness, static, tranquility, speed, etc. I used to do intuitive readings for a living until I got very, very sick for a few months—my body went on strike, which is another story altogether—and once I was better I didn't want to do them any more. My point here is that the family lineage didn't skip me. I just squelched it and then rerouted it and then let it lay fallow, which is what I'm doing with it now.

The upside of having my third eye open never really presents itself to me. I'm sure it's fascinating, and there are probably perks beyond "I see dead people", which is no perk at all in my book. I fear-imagine that I'll feel like a baby again, taking in a mess of sights and sounds and feelings I have no context for, only this time I'd be motherless, unguided, left to fend for myself. A reverse Helen Keller with no Annie Sullivan. 

If I could be guaranteed somehow that the old third eye would sneak open just a bit at a time, if I could wake up at some retreat center staffed with trusty, old-hand seers, and find myself one-fifteenth clairvoyant, and get talked through that all day, and then two-fifteenths clairvoyant the next day—if I could move at a snail's pace, my hand held all the way, then yes. I'd like that. I'd do that. I would sign up.

But I never picture anything that gentle. I fear a sudden burst, or something else, something worse, closer to death. That's what I'm subconsciously braced against at night. It's not quite that I fear I'll die. What I fear is that something will happen that will make my current understanding of the world dissolve, and my identity with it, and then I won't die. I'll experience annihilation, then rearrangement, and then strangeness. Strangeness might be the worst, worse than death. Death feels familiar, cozy, well-populated, compared to what I fear. What I fear is exile. Strangeness, loneliness and exile, in some pure form. I stay vigilant because at any minute I think this could strike. And if it's going to strike, it'll surely strike at night. 

But I don't have to worry about any of that tonight. My moon is out. There's a book I loved when I was small; it's out of print now, but it was called When the Sky is Like Lace, and it was about three little sisters in white nightgowns who'd keep an eye on the sky for signs that a special kind of night was about to take place. These were bimulous nights, that was the word, and the sisters would sneak out through the woods to the sea and make spaghetti in a gazebo and dance all night and play poker with rabbits and exchange presents, all under this full, rare moon. I get exactly that excited on nights like this, but I don't move. I lie there, too happy to sleep, feeling so safe. The thing can't strike tonight. The moon is looking out for me. Debussy's piano wafts over me on repeat, and the moon is my mother, my bodyguard, my familiar friend. I gaze at her wide-eyed until she wanders away from view, and then I slip into sleep in the trails of her blessing, the world made briefly so easy.

P.S. The painting up top is "Clair de Lune", by Felix Vallotton, whom I'd never heard of until today. If you want a treat, Google-image his work. You might be all up in the Vallotton already, but I just got here, and I'm fresh with the fever about him. Go look. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

sun break

You can tell that my sons are real Seattleites when you ask them how they feel about sunshine and summer weather. "It's too crazy!" beefs Finn. "It was 68 at school the other afternoon and I was dying!" Fred rides around in the back seat on sunny days, grimacing and shouting, "My eyes!

I'm deep Seattle myself, so on the one hand this deformity in my children pleases me. If I had to choose between cloudy forever and sunny forever, I'd pick cloudy, because that's reading weather. I don't like the sun berating me when I'm caught up in a novel. But I spent my first few years in New York, where the summer sun wasn't kidding, and except for on the most extreme, humid days, we loved it and it was good. Beach, pool, popsicle, sprinkler. The Official Weather of Childhood Fun. So I'm a touch bummed that my boys don't have the sunshine bug, especially since summer vacation is a long stretch when bitching replaces wonderment. 

When we moved to Seattle, just as I turned nine, I found out that the summer sun wasn't such a guarantee. On a summer morning, I'd be up at dawn checking things out. You knew right away if it was going to be a good one, a hot one. And you also knew if you were shit out of luck, if it was pouring and there was no hope. And then there was the middle kind of sky—overcast-lite, cloudy with a glow—that could develop either way. The trick there was to exert your will on the sky as much as possible while also managing your expectations and being ready for disappointment. 

But when it was a good one and I stood outside in the dawn with the sun flexing its muscles already, an outsized promise-thrill rolled through me, hinting at something better than any actual day could probably deliver.


I learned as a girl that you're supposed to stay out of the sun between the hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, because the sun does the worst damage then. Good to know! Those became my most prized teenage sunbathing office hours. 

It was a job, getting tan, or trying to. And you had to get tan. There wasn't a choice when I was young. Or, sure, duh, there was a choice, if you knew who you were and didn't care about fitting in and loved yourself unconditionally and other wondrous, far-fetched things. Like I said, there was no choice. And I had vampire-pale skin—I began more at light blue than white—so I had miles to go before I slept on a summer day if I was going to move the dial to ecru or, if heaven allowed, gold.


Back deck or yard where the sun was brightest 
Coppertone (SPF 4 in a slight nod to danger, a reluctant 6 or 8 if it was a scorcher, baby oil if fuck you)
Lemony-smelling tan accelerator (?) in a spray bottle
Bowls of water/strips of tin foil to set around me for their reflective powers
Walkman, once I acquired one 

Before I had my Walkman, because I was too clueless to bring a watch with me outside, I had no way of figuring out how long I'd been out there. I'd oil up and close my eyes and just wait. The first few seconds were fine. Then I started getting bored and hot and irritated and twitchy. But I'd grit my teeth and dig in, lying there doing nothing but willing brownness until I couldn't take it anymore and I had to dash into the house to check the time. Surely it's been an hour, or at least half an hour. No. Fifteen minutes max, every time, that I'd been out there before cracking. Fuck! And the house felt so cool, felt so good. No sun headache, lots of entertainment. The TV right there, all tantalizing. Refrigerator full of drinks. Fuck. But I'd go back out. 

After I got my Walkman, though, I was a force. I could lie on my back in the sun for an hour or even an hour and a half without flinching. My eyelids went hot orange and everything was Duran Duran or Van Halen (which was a little sexier) and the sun on my skin didn't feel like a test but something else, something sensual and, okay, maybe a test, but a good one, more like a dare. 

When I'd put in all the time I could stand, I was free once again to relax in the Great Indoors. Time to pop a Fresca and curl up in the cool, wading through reruns of Three's Company, enjoying vicarious television sunshine. There was a bathroom run at every commercial to check my tan lines and see if anything good was developing. Sometimes I felt guilty, like I should be out there fighting for it while the sun was still up, but the fan was on and The Love Boat was next, and there was always tomorrow, maybe, if the weather held.

One time I was on the back deck—bowls of water everywhere, tan accelerator accelerating, skin heating up, "Panama" pumping in my ears—when I became aware of a hubbub in the air above me. I opened my eyes and there were 20 or 30 or who-knows-what-horrible-number of crows in a crow-cloud about fifteen feet up. They were cawing and flapping and beating the shit out of each other, and it was the worst thing I'd ever seen. I yelled and fell over myself to get inside, spilling some bowls of water on the way. Work day over. Tan as I'm going to get. But once I got inside, it was great, because the crows had removed the television guilt.


The first time I went to the beach with the girls from my new school, I woke up excited and nervous. It was great to be invited, but I was a disaster of whiteness. But I had a plan. I would rise at dawn, sunbathe and use my new bottle of QT. Quick Tan. This was the answer to my prayers. A tan could come out of a bottle. I would never have to worry again. The air was still cool when I set out my towel at 8:00 am, but those were sunbeams, so something could happen. I was covering my bases. I spread the QT with an emphasis on my legs, stretched out on my towel and waited, until it slowly became clear that the shade I was going to take to the beach was partially-eaten Creamsicle: my regular vanilla, with streaks of sherbet-y orange. Scrubbing didn't help. 

Nobody said anything at the beach, and it got cloudy pretty soon so we didn't stay long anyway, so I guess I got lucky.

My bathing suit that year was a one-piece in skinny royal blue and white diagonal stripes that aimed down in a V-shape. What promise the early mornings held was whittled away by the feeling of lying next to the other girls, whose bodies looked perfect. I wasn't fat, but I was so pale, and I had stretch marks from developing too fast. Nobody else had those. I stole glances down at my body while we all lay in a row, and tried to find the parts that looked nice.

When I was a little girl in New York, my problem was my shoulder blades. My best friend, Allison, had blonde hair and golden skin, and her shoulder blades jutted out in a cool way in her halter tops. My shoulder blades didn't do that. I used to try to stick them out, but that was uncomfortable/unsustainable and I never knew if it was working. At thirteen, non-jutting shoulder blades seemed like a dream dilemma, now that my pale skin was such a problem, and these marks.


For years as an adult, I disliked the noonday sun. It was so battering and obvious. But one summer day in my late twenties I was walking through my neighborhood to a coffee shop a couple of blocks away, and I had a change of heart. The sun was beating down from straight above, but everything looked good. The clouds were high and light and the sky seemed taller than usual, and the blue was pale and hazy, like the sunbeams were almost visible. And the sun was hot but it felt therapeutic. I flashed on the Aztecs and their sun gods, and in that moment the light and heat on my head felt both personal and impersonal, like receiving a blessing in a crowd. It was for me because I happened to be here and I received it, but it was for everybody. And here was the sun, a god I could see right up there, giving us everything in plain view, making the planet habitable, giving us life. I felt acutely grateful for it, and when the gratitude gets that acute on the receiver's side, it seems as though something like love is implied on the other.


It's always summer in Hawaii, basically. I went there on my honeymoon for my first marriage, and then again with a couple of girlfriends a few years after that marriage ended. And then I went again a couple of years after that, and that's where I met Dave, which I'm going to talk about just a little, but first I have to sing the praises of Hawaii for a second. In Mexico (I'm suddenly dragging Mexico into it), the sun feels challenging and masculine, but in Hawaii, everything feels lush and feminine and maternal, splashing out with the luxuries and the wish fulfillment and the TLC. 

I met Dave on a yoga retreat. We were in a little group of people in a rented house on the North shore of Maui, and five days into the ten-day retreat, after five days of wanting to, we got together. On the sixth morning, I woke up with the sun, with Dave right there. The light was streaming into our room around the corners of the shades, and I knew as I watched him sleep—I didn't hope, but knew—that I was going to get to keep him. I got it, I got all of it; I was good just how I was, and loved how I was, marks of all kinds and all, and I was getting what I'd hoped for, exactly, like this was the kind of thing all those bright, balmy mornings of my youth were hinting at. I sat up on my elbow beaming at him, until he woke up and beamed back.

When I got back to Seattle, I visited my folks, and told them I'd fallen in love, and showed them pictures of Dave. There was one photo of me and Dave on the beach in our bathing suits, standing and embracing and smiling at the camera under a blue sky. My dad took the photo and disappeared upstairs a while, and when he came back he'd blown it up into an 8 x 10 print. "I played with the color a little," he said. "Is this close to what it was like?" 

Who knows if the color was right? How could I say if it was like that, if the sun shining on us gave everything that exact tint and brightness? But his instinct to try and bottle it, the generosity and impossibility and hope of the gesture, I got it and loved it and said that it was.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

snow white

This is something I've been putting off talking about because I was afraid I was going to look stupid or do it wrong, somehow. But then I remembered that passively protecting my image is maybe not my highest ideal, and maybe I can handle looking stupid or doing something wrong. 

I was inspired by a pal of mine on Facebook this morning. There's a post that's been circulating on the Internet, written by a playwright here in Seattle, called "Walking While Fat and Female — Or, Why I Don't Care Not All Men are Like That" , which is a good and important read, so go for it if you haven't run across it. And I see lots of women sharing it, but not so many men, except my pal. This is how he prefaced the link:

There are times when I'm embarrassed to be male. Not because I've given or received the abuse Courtney Meaker describes so simply and eloquently here, but because that abuse just isn't part of my life, and that privilege is an embarrassment for our entire culture.

And when a guy piped up and said he was tired of the collective shaming that men endure, my friend replied like so, "Really? Because it's easy to avoid that collective shaming. If I didn't want to think about any of this, I wouldn't have to. No one forces me to read these articles, women don't force me talk about it, there are no consequences if I ignore it. What are you tired of?" 

The conversation went on, and my friend did a damn good job addressing what he saw as a responsibility on behalf of men to actively contribute to the dismantling of this unfair privilege and the oppression that keeps it in place. And it meant a lot to me to see a man take this on publicly, and see him not only accept the discomfort that comes with recognizing his privilege, but take a stand and gracefully deal with the pushback that followed. 

In that kind of discussion, I get the narrative privilege of being among the oppressed, since I'm a woman. When it's just talking time, nobody wants to wear the oppressor suit. (Out in the world, in real time, being the oppressor is the comparative jam.) But if we switch up the discussion, and turn our attention to white privilege, then that's my suit to wear.

I've been alive for nearly 45 years on this earth, and if there's one thing I've given minimal thought to during that time, it's the privilege I experience just by virtue of being white. And hey! That's part of this dreamy loot bag of prizes I get for my skin color. Like my friend said above, I don't have to think about it if I don't want to. I can organize my day so it never comes up. And, in fact, I've been doing just that. I live on the white end of a very segregated city that feels whiter than it really is. My friends, with very few exceptions, are white. My family is white. I mostly read books and watch movies and television shows about well-to-do white people. It's how I've been doing it, and I never thought to sweat it. Soaking myself in all that whiteness just feels familiar and cozy and unchallenging, and nobody can accuse me of spending a lot of my entertainment hours challenging myself. I'm somebody who can spend three hours in the bathtub replenishing the hot water with my big toe.

Last summer, a Twitter hashtag begun by a woman named Mikki Kendall—who tweets under the handle @Karnythia—woke me up from my long slumber. The hashtag was #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which has a long backstory that you can google if you're curious, but at its heart was frustration and disappointment with mainstream white feminism. The hashtag took off, with women of color venting about their experiences, and white women jumping on in various ways: to defend themselves, to chide, to offer support, etc. 

The hashtag caught my attention when somebody I follow started responding to Martha Plimpton, who thought that the conversation was divisive, and then she and Karnythia got into it, and anyway, ANYWAY, the upshot, for me, was the realization that I had spent basically zero time in my life listening to women of color—particularly Black women—and learning about what it's like to live in a culture that doubly disrespects and devalues you.

Embarrassing. Not just a little embarrassing, either, but cold-water-in-the-face embarrassing. I'm a grown woman who professes to care about people, and the attention I'd given to race was the passing, get-upset-at-the-news-when-it's-in-my-face-and-then-change-the-channel kind. It didn't stick with me all day, it didn't linger in my mind, it didn't wake me up at night.

But something happened. You hear the phrase "hashtag activism", and it sounds tepid and half-assed, but you have to acknowledge social media for giving a microphone to whomever feels like picking it up. A shard of democracy remains there. And what is a hashtag besides words? Nobody ever started a social and cultural fire without them. For the first time, at age 44, I woke the fuck up and started seeking out Black women's voices. Better late than never, I guess. Around the same time as the #Solidarity hashtag, someone started a #SmartBlackWomenOfTwitter hashtag, and I went on a follow-binge. (This is the part where I worry about doing this wrong, but fuck it, this is how I did it, and I'm open to correction/suggestion.) I listened to conversations that were outside my white world, I went and read blogs written by Black women about their experience in white society. I questioned if this was okay to do, like if this was quietly invasive, somehow, but this seemed like a place to start, and I hoped that if I just lurked and stayed in listening mode, I would be doing more good than harm. 

It was bracing to hear what a pain in the ass white women can be for Black women. Besides stories of outright racism, I heard a lot of weariness with the barrage of "But I'm a white woman and I don't do those things!" that Black women get. Like if you want to vent about your experience with white people, you have to always throw in a long disclaimer, "...except for Christine Adams, Molly Sims, Jennifer Christensen, Frances Niedermeyer, Corinne Davis, Tracy Smith and the other 234,758 awesome white women who would never do that, whom I'll name for you in a second after I have another sip of coffee." 

In that Facebook discussion about male privilege, my friend linked to a cartoon which makes me laugh and laugh, and is transferrable to this very thing. Here you go:

Even if I haven't personally collared a Black woman mid-complaint to impress my innocence and the innocence of many white women everywhere upon her, I've certainly had the thought, "Well, not all white women are like that. I'm not like that," which drags the conversation in my head back over to me, away from where it ought to be, which is with my fellow humans who don't get to enjoy the sweet, sweet perks I get to enjoy because of the color of my skin. And there are various things in my life which have conspired to make me feel small/unimportant/unworthy/invisible—some of them cultural, some of them personal and familial. I have some problems with self-confidence as a result of those things, and that feels pretty difficult to me sometimes. When I take a goddamn minute to think about people who have received far, far worse messages from birth, and live in a culture that makes them feel unwelcome, unprotected and dismissed every single day, my heart squeezes and it better squeeze. 

In my house I have some super flattering, totally unhelpful mirrors. The mirror in my bathroom and the mirror next to my closet...god bless them. They're liars. I love them to bits, but they're obsequious little bastards straight out of Snow White. They make my figure look adorable in ways that I regularly—and with some sadness—come to understand are not quite true. Whenever I leave my house and run across  alternative reflective surfaces, I'm all fuuuuck. Mirrors. You were not straight with me. 

White women have these cultural mirrors installed everywhere that tell them they're the fairest, best, most important of them all. You might think that's not what you're getting out there if you're white like I am, but you are. We are. And you have to work a little bit—leave the house, as it were—to get in range of a less flattering, more truthful mirror. Once I started paying attention, what I saw in this new, clearer mirror, was a privileged, coddled, comfort-loving creature. I say this with love and compassion— and not, indeed, to hate on myself—but I saw something a little grotesque. Think about The Hunger Games, if you've seen it. The people who live in the Capitol—your Stanley Tuccis and Elizabeth Bankses—are wealthy and pampered and disconnected from humanity. And they look ridiculous, like fancy, freaky space poodles. When Dave and I saw the movie, the analogy hit me: I'm one of those space poodles.  

(I come back to the idea of narrative privilege, because if we're in a Hunger Games analogy, you want to be Katniss Everdeen. You don't want to be Stanley Tucci. You don't want to be Elizabeth Banks. You want to be the cool heroine who has to struggle nobly for survival, not the glitter-covered asshole eating hors d'oeuvres and watching the destruction from the sidelines. But if I'm white, and if I'm not thinking about this, and I'm not trying to figure out what to do next, how to make it better—even if I am doing those things—that's exactly what I am until this culture changes, and I better know it. And if that's not what I want to be, then I better get my nose to the grindstone. And, shit, isn't it enough to have all the real-world privilege? What kind of jerk then demands to also have the most flattering role in the story?)

That's what I am. It's the luck of my draw, being born white, and also the result of my own long unconsciousness. I may be a lovely person in many regards, but I have a huge amount of privilege and I have done next to nothing to offset this. I'm at the beginning, the very beginning of my work. And the thing is, I'm still trying to figure out what to do, what's mine to do and what's not mine, how I can best help. 

There's a video that was going around the web a little while ago of a woman named Glozell Green, a comedian who went to Disneyland and saw a black princess there for the first time. It's beautiful and sweet and heartwrenching, and you can't watch it without falling in love with her. If you can, a) I don't fucking want to hear about it, and b) you better go set off a grenade in your heart chakra. This is it:


 All I know is that the Glozell Greens of the world, be they five or fifty, mean something to me, and I want them to walk around in a world that sees them, that loves them, that welcomes and celebrates them and tells them they're just as beautiful and worth every bit as much as anybody else alive. And if some heads don't get pulled out of some asses, that's not going to happen, and when you're advocating heads getting pulled out of asses, you have to check yours first.