My grandfather died this morning. There were things that we diverged on–the churches we attended, the politicians we voted for, the sports teams we cheered. There were so many more things that we shared–faith, a love of knowledge and reasoning, joy in time spent together, family dinners, corn hole games, basketball, gardening, cooking. When a man at his church gave him cases of sorghum, he passed them to me because he knew I’d actually cook with it. When his neighbor had a bumper crop of plums, he brought me a bag full at my brother’s wedding. I brought him back some plum cinnamon jam.
I have early memories of driving to Oklahoma to visit him and Memaw on Thanksgiving. That’s always been our holiday. The one that he and Memaw would wake up in the middle of the night to change out the ham for the turkey in the oven. They moved to Tennessee when I was still in grade school and went from a day away to an hour up the road. I have the path to their house memorized. I know where to stand on their steps for the annual family portrait. I know that dessert will always get eaten while the kids are outside playing.
Gramps was a Pentecostal pastor, and I’ve always been Catholic. I remember him asking me one time what I was doing in a picture. It was May Crowning, and I was the one crowning Mary. Looking back, I’m sure it looked like his granddaughter was not only worshiping Mary, but worshiping a statue. What I remember from that conversation is that he asked me questions and respectfully listened to my 14-year-old explanations about Catholicism. There was no judgment, only a desire to know me better.
We got to have one last conversation this Thanksgiving, which we celebrated together even if the food was made by others and we skipped the picture on the stairs. He used the opportunity to tell me that all grandparents are proud of their grandkids, but that he’d be proud of me and brag on me even if I wasn’t his. He told me that he was so happy that I took my mind and have applied it to my career. He told me that he bragged about my academic achievements to his friends. Gramps didn’t have many degrees, but he had a brilliant mind. He loved me, and I miss him.
Over the past day, I’ve found myself thinking about my relationship with books. There’s a give and take implicit in choosing the word relationship. Books give me windows into other ways of thinking from cyborg Cinderella to a natural history of earthworms through a social history of the Memphis civil rights movement. Those are the books I’ve read parts of today (Cinder, The Earth Moved, and An Unseen Light if you’re interested). My interests are wide ranging; my pace is a frequent cause for comment. In return, I give books an audience. When I choose them, I give their authors’ words life. Without readers, books are bound paper. With readers, they contain multitudes.
Lately, I’ve been on a reading jag. Part of it is because I’m anxious about things that are coming up and reading is a way to occupy the parts of my brain that would otherwise go spinning off in less pleasant directions. Part of it is because I started listening to audiobooks on dog walks. We walk 5 times a week; that’s a lot of time to listen. I also find pleasure in books in a way that I don’t find in my phone. I’d rather read for an hour before bed than spend it on the internet. I sleep better that way.
I read once the kids have gone to bed. I read at work. I read in snatched moments when the kids want to be left alone to devise their own worlds without mommy’s adult brain interfering. I close the book when they ask me to play too. I strive for balance. I never want my drive to read to overwhelm my urge to actively live. I also don’t see those desires as being in conflict.
50 books have come through my life this year. They cross genres and lengths and styles. They’ve brought with them multitudes.
There’s a song I love by the Okee Dokee Brothers called Walking with Spring. This duo is my favorite kind of kids’ music in that they are talented singer songwriters who write songs without cussing that I can, in good conscience, play around my kids. There’s a lot of things going on right now. Some of them are external and some of them exist only in my mind. But the thing about stuff that happens in your head is that it can be as real as the things happening outside of it. Sometimes in the quiet spaces I’ll hear their lyrics:
We’ll take it mile by mile by
Hour by hour by
Day by day as we climb
And then it’s week by week by
Month by month by
Year by year
For a lifetime.
And it makes me smile. It’s funny what can make you remember to take a breath.
Dear other mother,
I cannot fathom the depth of your grief and confusion. Nor can I understand the nuances of your story, what made it a better option to take the substantial risk to leave your home and come to foreign land with your child instead of living in the home you’ve known. I cannot know what you experienced.
I do know that hearing your story breaks my heart open. Part of my brain wants to protect myself by not imagining our positions reversed. By halfway mentally acknowledging your pain without experiencing any myself. But you don’t have that option. This grief is your life. When I try to picture having my two-year-old or four-and-a-half-year-old taken away from me in a place where we are not native language speakers, without being told how to find them again, I know that the sadness I feel in merely imagining fails to meaningfully compare to your reality. All it provides is a crack to let empathy pour through. Empathy without complete understanding seems better than no empathy at all.
I hope you find your child. I hope that the agencies holding you both find a way to work together to make it happen. Since there are many people on the ground working from their hearts to help, I hope some politician has the will to give them the tools to expedite the process. I write to my elected officials every day; so far the answers are platitudes with no action, but I promise to keep telling them that I, their constituent, demand that they be better and hold people accountable to the facts of the situation. Because facts still exist. And the fact is that you do not know where your child is. And that is unacceptable.
I don’t know your story. I don’t know the details of why you came. I can’t understand the depth of your pain. I believe you and your child belong together. I pray for you both. I’ll keep writing to those with whom the buck stops.
I can barely stand to imagine your pain, which is, after all, the literal least I can do.
“There is more to life than the perfunctory, mechanical, aspirational day-to-day vibe. Behind it all is a passion that gets you up in the morning or keeps you up at night. You let the gifts inside of you pour out.”
Today I had the privilege of conversing with Rabbi Micah Greenstein at Temple Israel. I have always admired his ability to look beyond religion to express spirituality, philosophy and ethics. His opinions and beliefs about our city are inspiring. It’s been a rough few days, and he expressed, more elegantly than my circular thoughts, ideas that have been going through my brain about where we go from here.
All this to say, today I had a conversation that gave me pause and hope. It was a gift.
That girl looks so much like my girl.
I recognize her curls and her reaching hand.
I know her pink shoes.
What I thankfully don’t recognize on my own girl’s face is the fear.
Since I’ve first seen the picture, we’ve all learned more about the girl and her mother. We know parts of their story and that they were not separated. But they could have been. And so many were; that’s where I find it tragic. And kids are under foil blankets and playing behind fences and living in tent cities without their moms and dads. And they are kids.
They are kids.
How can that be controversial?
They are kids.
It’s been a year since I posted here. Despite starting a writing group (that has morphed into the lowest obligation book club imaginable), I haven’t done much writing at all. What I have been doing is reading, which has been even more reckless than usual–jumping from sociological studies of how race and class influence southern identity to YA novels that take 18 hours to finish to fiction by my personal literary heroes (Lauren Groff, I’m looking at you).
There are so many things that are about to happen. Which, as those of you with chronic anxiety know, is one of the worst states of being. That which is about to occur is so much scarier than that which is occurring. All these projects and deadlines and life events converge in September and October. I can do so little about them now, except prepare by making lists and DIYing a pickle barrel (for work–seriously). What I can do is read and sink into vast oceans of words that take the other thoughts away.
I go through period where I feel an intense need to write. A thought burrow into my head when I’m taking a shower or chopping vegetables that I cannot let go without releasing it onto a page. It’s been a long time since I felt that need to connect my thoughts to paper. I’m still not there, but maybe it’s closer than I think.
The parameters of my life are flexible and kind. Marriage, children, family, work, projects, books. Life feels less like a balancing act and more like a revolving platform. Some days feature more kids and work, other mornings, like today, feature books and projects.
One thing I struggle with is guilt. When doing one thing, I worry that I should be doing another. When sitting alone on my day off on a porch with a cup of coffee and a book, I think lingering thoughts that I should be at home with my children playing silly games and monitoring toy sharing. I try to remember to be glad to be here. With my book and my coffee and knowing that silly games will be there this afternoon. Like I said, the parameters are kind.
I come across these days from time to time. Days when I cannot sit still or see one more niggling task to its end. I find them suddenly, often on cloudless days when the trees are leafing, and find that all I can do is enjoy the moments when I can lose my focus. When I can let incessant driving towards a goal cease. When I can watch leaves and birds and clear skies and mercifully accept that what needs to get done will. And that which does not will pass away. When I come across these days, I also come across perspective. Rather than trying to fight through, knuckle under, brace against the distractions, I let them wash over me and pull me along their current. Towards a place I did not realize I needed to go.