My children are safe at home tonight

One of my sons has been asleep for a couple hours now, tucked in after a fun family afternoon, a good dinner, and a warm bath. 

The other just got home from a school dance, sweaty and flushed and "so pumped up." He smelled a bit, but I couldn't help but hold him tight as he told me about the dance and the music and the ice cream. He's had a tough year, and I was so hopeful that tonight would be fun. It was. And now, he is safely in bed, here with us at home.

Worrying about your child having fun at a middle school dance is a typical, expected parental concern.

Worrying that your child will be shot to death at their school is not, should not be, cannot become an expected parental concern.

Today, again, more children were gunned down while simply trying to go to school. While most of us are counting down the few remaining days of this academic year, some parents tonight are instead planning shockingly unexpected funerals. With this, the 22nd school shooting of this year and the third just this week, "2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members."

If we as a nation are not mortified and ashamed into real action by that obvious disregard for our children (and the converse which is the obvious idolatrous obsession with firearms), then we are truly beyond repair. 

It's the guns, stupid.

And don't even get me started on the fact that the white murderer was taken into custody without a scratch. If he'd been black, he'd have been blown to smithereens in moments.

Jesmyn Ward

Last night I had the profound fortune to meet Jesmyn Ward and to hear her discuss her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, with Aminatta Forna. I have been an enormous fan of Ms. Ward's since reading Sing, Unburied, Sing early this year, after which I immediately read Salvage the Bones. She won the National Book Award for both books, the first woman ever to do so. I'm now reading her memoir, Men We Reaped, and have in my stack of to-reads the essay collection she edited, The Fire This Time

If you're not familiar with Jesmyn Ward, please acquaint yourself for she is a stunningly gifted writer. Born in Oakland to Mississippi-bred parents, she was raised in DeLisle, Mississippi, as her parents moved back when Jesmyn was three. She was the first in her family to attend college, earning a BA and MA from Stanford. She also has an MFA from the University of Michigan and is now a professor at Tulane. Her family home flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and the storm, as well as south Mississippi, makes a regular appearance in her work. 

A few months ago, when I heard she would be speaking here in DC, I bought a ticket as quickly as I could, and last night, no amount of fatigue or running around all afternoon with the kids could keep me from getting to the event 50 minutes early to obtain the best seat possible (thank you, dear T, for leaving work early to meet me in the parking lot and whisk the children away so I could scurry inside). 

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Like the lit nerd I most definitely am, I went armed with a tote bag full of Ms. Ward's books, sat in my seat like the eager student I also am, and felt positively star struck when she walked on stage. She is a luminous human with real humility and a quietly powerful presence. I could not help but beam at her throughout the evening and even mustered the courage to ask a question which, per my usual nerdiness (who remembers the three-part question I addressed to Gabrielle Hamilton?), turned into a two-part query that she was kind enough to answer in full.   

She talked about how she writes, told us that beginnings are difficult for her but that she has to write linearly so soldiers on until the beginning is as it should be, that she is not the most confident writer, that her characters just come to her and then she follows them through their journeys. She doesn't like to write villians because “They’re flat and don’t engender empathy or interest. People are complicated. I don’t want my readers to feel easy emotions.”

She talked about why she writes, and why, despite her "love-hate" relationship with Mississippi, she moved back home after her brother's untimely death. 

"I am trying to bring forgotten stories from the violent past back into the light and into the public memory and imagination." Stories before her time but also during, as the only black student at an all-white high school one of her mother's employers paid for her to attend. Stories about beloved men -brothers, friends, family- lost to poverty, drugs, racism, and happenstance.

Why?

"Because there is an effort to disavow and rewrite that history. That results in its continuation." Same root, same violence. We see it every day.

Regarding home. "I left as soon as I could. But I have a huge family, and they are all there. I was missing out, time I couldn't get back...Living at home keeps me honest and lends urgency to my work." For, as Ward softly averred, "The violence of America endures." When asked by Ms. Forna if she believed a truth and reconciliation effort a la Canada's might be needed here, Ms. Ward replied, "Yes." Firmly, resolutely, "yes. But is there the will? Not now."

Ms. Forna replied that indeed, "the absence of a will to reconcile with its past is shocking for visitors to America." 

I hope desperately that in the immediate future we become willing, as a country, to own and atone for our past. I think efforts like the newly unveiled lynching memorial in Montgomery, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, are excellent starts but we need a national movement and a national reckoning. Ms. Ward suggested that we all read Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism post haste. I have ordered it already.

After reading several passages, shyly really, or perhaps just humbly, and answering all our questions, Ms. Ward received a standing ovation that brought me to tears. Then, in a largely polite fashion, people queued by number to have books signed and share a few words. Fortunately for the five books I had in my tote, the limit on signed copies was five. I had one inscribed for a dear friend and the others for starstruck me.

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I was grateful to have the brief chance to be near Jesmyn Ward, to thank her for sharing her profound gifts, to wish her the best in her next endeavors. I was grateful to have a supportive spouse, to live in a city with such rich resources and opportunities, to bear witness to the strength and resilience and diverse beauty that really are what make America special. 

I was pensive on my drive home, speechless really. Tom and the kids were playing Monopoly despite the late hour. I poured a bourbon and made some scrambled eggs and sat at our kitchen table considering that Ms. Ward might still be signing books and hoping that she felt full in good ways. That she could feel and ingest our gratitude and admiration and that perhaps those sensations might offer her some company when her confidence falters or the loneliness of a blank page is undesired.

What the hell was I thinking?

People, as the end of school draws near, as homework and the elusive treasures that are matching socks have become familial albatrosses that make me want to run away at least once a day, I am both thankful and terrified. What were Tom and I thinking when we decided to let the kids go to sleepaway camp for six weeks? 

I know what we were thinking. Camp would be: an incredible opportunity for growth, independence, adventure, and the acquisition of new skills that I'd rather not teach (see: emergency shelter construction and axemanship, among others); a complete electronics detox as there is no electricity at camp save for the kitchen; a new context in all ways; a summer spent mucking around outside with eighty other boys. And lord, it was their idea!

And I still maintain that for Jack and Ol, camp will be a rare truffle.

"Six weeks?!" everyone exclaims.

"No visiting day?"
"No phone calls?"
"Wow- are you beyond excited? How will you spend that time? You and Tom must be THRILLED."

We are thrilled. We look forward to reacquainting ourselves as a couple with relatively little in the way of responsibility and schedule. We're going to take our first trip abroad together sans kids since before Jack was born nearly twelve years ago. All of that is fantastic.

But what is becoming abundantly clear is that I did NOT really consider what the boys going to camp meant for me. And as the time to head to Maine draws near, I feel a ludicrous push and pull of sorts: desperate to throw the undersized catch back out to sea and immediately desperate to reel it in again because honestly? It's adorable. 

In the ways families do at the end of a holiday or the last week of summer or, as it were, the last month of school. we're all fritzing out right now. I could literally not care one bit of one iota about anyone's homework anymore. So, while it incenses me that the kids aren't much motivated for it at this point (because that means I have to nag them to do it), I can hardly blame them. 

This afternoon, they were bordering on batshit nuts over rewriting a story in Mandarin and drafting an essay about colonial-era cooks. I excused Ol to go ride his bike, and an hour later after, admittedly, very calmly and capably completing his math homework, Jack went out to join. They teamed up with the girls next door to run a lemonade stand and came in for dinner, hot and sweaty, at twilight. Meanwhile, I cooked their dinner, enjoyed a glass of wine, and voraciously read some Patrick Melrose. It was divine. Reel in the adorable small fry.

And then, as dinner wrapped, it wasn't. OMG, cast the line as far as you can. All the way to Maine if possible! I'm telling y'all, I just quit. I most definitely yelled and I refused to get off the couch and away from my book. I refused to discuss colonial cooks for even one more second and for petes sakes, people, I DO NOT KNOW Mandarin. Not my wheelhouse. NOT.

I'm left, tonight, tired and vexed. Earlier, as I finalized our plans for bringing the kids to camp next month, my heart was pounding out of my chest. What if our beloved morning snuggle tradition ceases to happen after six weeks off? How will I tolerate not hearing my boys' voices for six weeks? (Apparently if your child celebrates a birthday during camp, you can talk briefly that day. Amen for Jack being July 4.) I mean, I don't go five days without talking to MY mom, and I'm 42 years old. 

What does it mean to have spent twelve years constellating around two bright starts and then have them go dark for a short while? In theory it sounds fantastic. But in practice? I'm starting to wonder. 

This evening, pissed to the nines and tired as get-out after a random bout of insomnia last night (stress anyone?), I thought about how very much I could use some real downtime. Not a night, not a weekend, not even a week. Some real, extended time to breathe and sleep and not be interrupted ad nauseum. To read a whole book in one sitting if I want. To garden without having to set an alarm to run carpool. To not for one spot of time think about colonial cooks or butts or feeding forever-starving little mouths, even if they're the most perfect mouths ever. 

I just checked on the boys. They are asleep, their foreheads sweaty, their lips rosy. They are finally quiet and still, and my eyes pricked with hot tears for how I will miss them and their silliness and their snuggles. I believe this summer will likely be a grand learning experience for all of us, one it seems I might need. For they aren't growing younger and sooner than the amount of time I've had them with me, they'll go. Off into the world, returning less and less as children who grow into adults tend to do. 

So I guess what I'm feeling is the first big break. The first tug that really pulls the line between us taut, straining at both ends, in opposite directions. It's harder than I expected.