Thursday, February 22, 2007

What are your muses?

What inspires you to write, to paint, to sing, to see beautiful things? What are your muses?

A brief list of mine:

The crescent moon this time of year that sets just after sunset, hung in the sky like a half-eaten slice of melon: below it the evening star swinging like an electric lavelier

The way Ben touches my hand in a quiet moment just before he looks into my face

The voice of a long forgotten lover over the phone and the way I can hear him smile when I say his name right after his hello

The lap of a wave on any beach, anywhere

The song of a warbler on an August Sunday on Huron Bay

The spoken word of someone else talking to her child without convention or care

The love letter of a long-dead poet to her eldest daughter

That hour of the day just before night when the palette narrows into grays against a purple sky

The way each of my parents has gotten sort of weepy over the strangest simple things

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Smooth sailing?

It was a night crossing,
stars bright from horizon to horizon.
We sailed into the clear water as the sun rose:
a large shark swam lazily beneath us
and the rocks appeared.

Orchids and magnolias

I am taking a writing class. It’s been a very interesting experience: a very small class and lots of free writing and talking about things that might get in the way of the creative process.

Tonight, an extraordinary thing happened.

Our leader, David Storer, asked us to try an exercise in releasing the creative brain. It’s just Jeannette and me, and we dutifully close our eyes and listen as David asks us to relax. He says “Just bear with me, sort of new agey….” And we do. "Be here now, what do you see? What does your creative brain reveal?"

I begin to write. I see only a white orchid, with very narrow, delicate, pink stripes leading to its center. The orchid is perched, as orchids are, atop an ungainly wooden stem, above two clown shoe green leaves. The rest is just green, not in focus. As I write the orchid, the rest comes into view. I feel the grass waving against my bare leg, feel the cool, moist dirt against my bare foot, feet. I am walking beyond the orchid, but reach down to feel it as I pass—the petals resilient and cool. The orchid nods at my touch. Beyond the orchid, a clear stream, rolling over pebbles the size of oranges, but flat and colored like lentils, shiny. The water washes over my feet, cold and clear. The orchid, behind me now, is still there.

The exercise ends.

David asks if we want to share and looks directly at me. I am embarrassed to say what has happened. It’s all too Georgia O’Keefe. But I do say this: ‘I am amazed. When I write it’s because I see something, or hear something, and try to describe it. Haven’t ever felt this before, where I saw something internally, and the images were amazing.” I can’t say a thing about the white orchid.

David is so gentle. He nods and says thank you and turns his teddy bear gaze to Jeannette.

“I see white magnolias, everywhere, it’s amazing. A big house and green lawn. Peeling paint on the house. But the magnolias…” her voice trails off as she closes her eyes.

“OK, sister,” I say, “I wasn’t going to say it, but you have given me courage, because I saw a white orchid.”

We all laugh, and talk about how amazing it is to just let your head see what it sees.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A frank talk about race and adoption

I am not feeling charitable. For the first time since we moved to Ann Arbor, a retail clerk asked me if Ben was my foster son. This happened fairly routinely in Port Huron, but not here. It's taken eight months. You may think I deserve this, or it is an innocent question, or he meant well. All of that may be true on some level. My answer is, and will always be, "He is my son." No other answers will be given unless we know each other.

It made me think about how often people have reached out and touched Ben's hair, an overtly racial gesture which offends me. So I am passing this along. Maybe it will shock you, or offend you. I hope it makes you think, and spares some other little kid the sort of violation I am growing increasingly tired of.

My son should not have to be your teacher. You have lived to be 40, 50 maybe even 70. You are white. You say discrimination is bad, illegal, unthinkable, some of your best friends are black. You may even mean well. You have never touched a black person.

You have never reached out your hand and felt black skin under a rolling tear. You have never touched the dense hair that tops a black head. You have never seen the naked genitals of a black man or woman. If you are male, you might have, because your curiosity got the better of you and it seemed exotic. If you did so I bet you did so by being a patron of what we now call the sex trade, because you wouldn't have dreamed of being intimate with someone who wasn't your color.

Now, my son and I are seated next to you, on a plane, at a supper, at a lunch counter, in the bus. You do not know us, we have never seen you. My son is small, on my lap, defenseless. You reach across that barrier between us and you touch my son.

You feel his hair.

The tight curls touch your extended palm but it is not enough. You tip the heel of you hand up, and you pass through his hair again with your fingertips, applying pressure because you must feel it. It doesn’t feel like the "carpet" you taunted another child with in fourth grade. It doesn’t feel “nappy.” It is human hair, attached to a living breathing human, my son.

I want to slap you. Or better yet, I want to reach up to feel your chrome dome, or your hair spray laden coif. Run my fingers through it. The most intimate sort of touching one human does to another, and you feel free to do it to my small son. I want to inflict it on you. But I know what you would do. If I raise my hand to touch your hair you will move your head away. Because you don’t want a strange adult to touch you, but you will touch my son’s head of hair.

You would not touch a white baby, because you have touched white babies. You know how they feel. Maybe you touched your own, or your sister’s or your neighbor's. But because you have never welcomed a black person into your life, you have never touched black, African hair.

You feel free to do this because I am white and my son is black. You assume several things about me, and about Ben, and all of them are deeply offensive.

First, you assume that you may do this intimate thing because you and I are the same color. Brother or sister, you and I are a world apart. Because of Ben and what I have learned being his mother for three years, I think of myself as something other than white.

Next, you will assume I rescued him. Rescued him from the ghetto, or crack, or foster care. You don’t even begin to know what our reality is. I consider him simply and completely my son. No one rescued anyone, we love each other and we are a family. That is all.

You assume you can ask how I got him. My response to you is “ Do you know whose birth canal (or vagina, depending on how prickly I am feeling) YOU passed through? Would you care to tell me the circumstances of your conception and birth, please, here in this public place? Would you enlighten all of us on your kinship circle? Are you sure you are your Daddy’s baby?”

You think my son is lucky. He is not lucky. The family he was born to could not support him because of an economic system so squarely resting on the unpaid labor of generations of black people. That same system that handed you a privilege simply because you were born white took away my child's birthright to live in his family of origin. He is not lucky that he could not be raised with his half brothers and his birth mother, and his father and his half sister. Luck has nothing to do with it.

So, when you see us in public, my son and me, would you simply greet us politely, chat about the weather, and know in your heart that we are a happy family? And then welcome someone from a different culture into your life. Get to know them. Ask another adult what it feels like to live in his or her skin. Embrace someone who doesn’t look like you. Step outside your tight-assed little circle and live.

Don’t make my small son your social laboratory. Grow up. Get a richer life. Keep your hands and your questions to yourself. We are not your teachers, you are responsible for learning your own lessons. Get started.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I was practically raised on horseback, if family legend has it right I rode our horse before I walked. (The same family said that I swam before I walked: at home in water and on horseback before on land--the metaphor for my life.) Anyway, when I started at Smith I still hoped that maybe I was a good enough equestrian to bring my horse. This was an outrageously expensive proposition, but if I could make the equestrian team, I could get some sort of a package that would make it cheaper to bring Keni San, my beloved.

The day of the try out arrived, and I rode my best. A Midwesterner in a strange land--The East--on a strange horse. The verdict? I had "too natural a seat" to succeed in the rarefied air of Eastern equestrian competition and I didn't make the cut. It took me at least a decade to understand that all those years of riding bare back and swimming from horseback doomed my career as a jock, but added a dimension to my life I would be enriched by. No one else in my family carried the passion for horses, so, while I was at school, one was sold, and my beloved Keni, a gentle, tall, gray quarter horse, was given to a riding school for disabled kids where he, no doubt, patiently enriched the lives of many challenged kids.

I bring my too natural seat to all I live. I cannot be but who I am: the love, the grief, the ragged around the edges self. And that is a whole picture. Being someone I'm not is like trying to do the perfect hunt seat, but having a natural rythmn for something a bit different. I don't think I'd make the cut. So I continue to say what I think, admit my faults, make mistakes and learn from them. I also continue to love with my whole heart this damaged world we have the great good fortune to live in each day.

This morning Ben flew into one of those stormy rages typical of toddlerdom. We had a trying pre-verbal bi-polar it's the end of the world if I can't watch TV sort of morning. After two time outs and trying to talk him down, I just sat there at the top of the stairs wondering what I was supposed to do next. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Ben.

"Here, Mommy," he said with a smile and handed me my glasses. "I love you," he added.

Just like that the rage passed. We managed to eat breakfast and get out the door into the 6 degrees below zero day with a minor fracass about whether mittens were required. They were.

Reaching this age has made me understand there are some things I simply am, others I am not. I am not the world's most perfect mother. I will never argue a case before the Supremes--something I thought in my younger days I'd be doing with regularity. (Change the world complex writ large.) I will never figure out why Ben's world falls apart, then is put back together without me helping. I will never understand what an unnatural seat would be on a horse, or why you would want to have such a thing.

Which is not to say I won't really like the scenery flashing by.