Saturday, May 27, 2017

Light at the End of a Graduation

Last week I went to my nephew's high school graduation. The school was in York, Pennsylvania and it seemed like a very nice school. Example: when my husband and I parked in an overflow lot and began our long trek toward the building, a woman holding a baking pan and a spatula welcomed us to the school and offered us a brownie. I mean, come on, homemade brownies in the parking lot? How lovely is that?

I get teary at graduations. The band playing Pomp and Circumstance. The kids lining up in their caps and gowns. Their young faces are radiant. You can practically see the emotions scrolling across their features, a mix of excitement and hope, anxiety and fear, but mostly, it's joy. (Okay, I used to be a high school English teacher, so I know that some of that joy is related to them thinking: Woo Hoo! Thank God I am finally finished with high school!!)

My husband and I high-fived our nephew as he walked past and then settled in for the program. Introductions by the principal. Speeches by select students. This is the time, I confess, when I typically tune out and peruse the graduation program, reading the names of the students and seeing what honors and awards they've received, the plans they have for after high school.

The president of the student council stepped up to the microphone and gave the first speech. It was the usual speech you hear at these things. A rundown of fun stuff the class had experienced together over the years, how hard they'd worked, how ready they were to move on to the next chapter in their lives and make the world a better place.

I love the optimism of teens, the sense that the future is bright and their generation won't muck things up like the previous ones have. I want to believe them.

But I am struggling.

The night before the graduation the man running for Congress in Montana physically assaulted a reporter who asked him a question about healthcare. At the same time, over in Europe, our president who was attending a NATO conference, pushed the leader of Montenegro out of his way. I am trying to imagine any other president we have ever had in our country doing this--physically laying his hands on another world leader and pushing him. Obama, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan... I can't visualize it.

Something is different. We've taken a dark turn as a country.

My son, who graduated from college last year with a double major in history and computer science, argues with me on this point. Our country has never been perfect, he reminds me, and this particular time is no darker than any other. We went to war with each other once, for example. We've chosen despicable leaders before. In 1856 a congressman from South Carolina beat a Massachusetts congressman on the head with a walking cane.

So yeah, I guess we are somewhat more civilized now.

In the small town of York, Pennsylvania, the leaders of the class were still making their speeches. One by one. The vice president of the student council. The valedictorian. The salutatorian. The class president. The vice president. They were all teen girls.

The valedictorian told a story about switching schools, moving from the city school district to the suburban. Apparently, there is a large income disparity between the two districts, even though the high schools are only two miles away from each other. She talked about how the city kids have art and music classes in a hallway because there isn't enough classroom space, how they have fewer sports and honors classes than their counterparts here, at York Suburban. It's time to acknowledge the unfairness, she said, as members of the audience squirmed uncomfortably, and resolve as a community to do better.

The salutatorian had just came back from a science competition in Los Angeles. She spoke of the amazing projects she'd seen, the many talented scientists she'd met. As a person of color, she was inspired she said, to meet such a diverse group of people from all over the country and the world, already playing a part in tackling the challenges we face.

The class president spoke passionately about a book she'd recently read called Chop Wood Carry Water about the long, arduous, behind-the-scenes and often thankless process that must take place if we want to become experts in our fields. Trust the process, she told us. In the end we will achieve greatness.

Speeches over, the students filed up to receive their diplomas.

The next day, that man running for congress in Montana was charged with assault. He also won his election. The American president practiced his bizarre grippy-tug handshake on the president of France. Meanwhile, in the suburban district of York, Pennsylvania, the newly graduated students woke up to the first day of the rest of their lives, defiantly hopeful.

Remember these names. You will hear them in the future:

Parker Faircloth-Henise
Elizabeth Kuree Huh
Alexandra Jane Babinchak







Thursday, May 18, 2017

Displanted

The day before Mother's Day my daughter left home to head back to school, a nine-hour drive, alone, one she's done several times before, but still sets my mom-nerves on edge. I dug around in my garden to keep my mind busy, poking green bean seeds in the ground and transplanting seedlings, every hour or so, my husband calling out updates of our daughter's progress.

He's got some tracking thingy on his phone, and yeah, I know, there's a creepy/stalker-y element to this, but we can't help it. We want to picture our child in the driver's seat, coasting along on her journey, the closest we will get to being in the car with her

she's crossing the bridge in Cincinnati 
she's approaching Louisville
she's an hour outside Mammoth Cave

I go back to my digging and poking and mulching, relieved for the moment that she's safe and that much nearer to her destination. For the last few years I've been planning my garden ahead of time, drawing the plots out on graph paper, no longer content to randomly throw things in the ground.



There's a weird comfort in setting the borders, arranging the plants. Each year my plans are more elaborate, more structured. One large bed grown into two, and then grown into four. And now I've got side beds filled with herbs, a rock garden, corners stuffed with potted plants. In winter I checked out a stack of garden design books from the library and read them like they were novels.

Something cool I learned: my four square garden pattern can be traced all the way back to monastery gardens in Medieval times. What is it about this particular structure, about any structure--

she's nearing the Tennessee border
she's on the other side of Nashville

Something sad I learned: My daughter has been away at school for two years now, and even though I am fully adjusted to empty-nester life, each time she comes back and then leaves again, it's a fresh loss.

I draw a line in the dirt for my marigolds, trying to envision them blooming like a flowery fence in front of my tomato plants.

she's outside the city
she's there, she's home

The dog trots out to bask in the sun as I nudge the seeds into the ground. I know how it goes. Mid summer and these bare beds will be dense with plants, the reality different, despite all of my planning, from what I can imagine today. Plants tangled up with other plants, some overgrown, some drooping. Weeds working there way through despite all of my mulching.

A pumpkin (did I even plant a pumpkin?) poking up in an unexpected place, hopping over the perfectly drawn border into the grass beyond.  





Friday, May 5, 2017

Dispatches from a Reluctant Activist

The hardest part is the drive downtown, the navigating of interstate changes, the search for a parking garage.

Confession: I live 12 minutes from downtown Columbus. As far as city traffic goes, it's on the light side. But I am such a baby when it comes to driving places, going places, I should say. Last month my husband's car was out of commission and he took mine to work for a week and I didn't even notice. I spend my days in one room for the most part, changing out of my pajamas and robe only to walk the dog.


And lately, to drive downtown to protest or to attend meetings or to speak to my state Rep or to my Congressperson or to pass out flyers. Ever since I marched in the Women's March in Washington DC, I made a resolution to Do Something each week.

Last week, for example, I wheedled my husband into marching with me in the Science March. Talk about reluctant activists. This march was a gazillion miles out of the man's comfort zone.

Also, I made it worse by giving him a sign to hold:



People came up to him, strangers. They said it was their first march too. They slapped him on the shoulder and thanked him for coming out. They asked him if they could take his picture.

It was excruciating for me to watch his discomfort, and finally, I offered to hold the sign, and people stopped me instead and my husband would squirm and say, "Actually, that's my sign."

But anyway, back to why I was driving downtown. It was for an Advocacy Day organized by Freedom of Choice Ohio. When I signed up to go, I had no idea what it was-- some all day meeting?

Turned out, it was a education session of sorts, where different groups spoke about issues affecting women and children and families in Ohio and the impact that legislation would have on them in the coming year. After we had the information, we would march over to the Ohio Statehouse and pair up with a buddy, and meet two-on-one with an Ohio representative to share our personal stories.

The day was alternately inspiring and crappy.

Inspiring, because the speakers were so smart and caring and dedicated and I believe in this cause, that women have the right to make their own medical choices without politicians interfering, that we have the right to plan our families, deciding if and when we will have children, that even the poorest among us have the right to our own bodily autonomy--

and crappy, because it all feels like such a long slog and who knew the democratic wheels turned so slowly, with so many layers and hoops to jump through.

I walked with my buddy, an older woman who seemed very quiet and reserved and stereotypically grandmother-ish, but oh wow, she surprised me when we met with our representative, how knowledgeable she was, and how passionate.

The rep himself, was a very nice guy-- thank you, Steven Arndt for taking time out of your day to listen to us, for sharing your own story and for hearing ours -- My story, for the record, boils down to Me, age fifteen, walking up to the Planned Parenthood in my neighborhood (yes, I really had a PP in my neighborhood-- a ten minute walk away) where I went for medical advice and to obtain birth control, because, oh my God, I was fifteen and sexually active, which is crazy to me now, what a messed up mix of contradictions I was back then-- an honors student at a private Catholic high school, a damaged girl clinging to a doofball boyfriend, scared enough to know that I did not want to get pregnant-- like the girl in my class who was publicly shamed for doing the "right thing" by having her baby.

That girl almost died of pre-eclampsia during her labor. I don't know what happened to her after, what kind of life she's led.

But I know what happened to me. I had opportunities-- college, graduate school and upper middle class life. Eventually, children, who were planned, wanted, loved. Still, I can't forget the poor sad girl I knew and the poor sad girl I was and how different circumstances could've been for me, and how lucky I was to be aware that there was a place I could go, somewhere safe and welcoming and non-judgmental.

All this I told Mr. Arndt and he nodded politely, but who knows how he will vote in the future on these issues, if it was worth his time or mine to have our conversation, if it changed anything.

I didn't know it yet, but the very next day, the Republicans in the House of Representatives would vote to take away healthcare from 24 million Americans. Part of their cruel proposal restricts the right of poor women to choose where they go to receive medical care.

Done for the day, and my new buddy and I walked back to our cars and paid for our parking. (another area of stress for me. How do I get the damn parking ticket to go properly into the slot?!)

We exchanged business cards and smiled at each other. Maybe we'll meet up at another of these things, my new friend said.

Most definitely.