Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sunday morning

the church bells in my neighborhood ring, hymns that I recognize as I walk the dog or in summer when I'm sitting on the front porch reading a book. I don't go to church anymore. A million small reasons and some big ones, but church hymns aren't any of those reasons. I have always liked church hymns. 

And the songs from that brief blip of time when I was in middle school at the parish school and to engage the kids at mass, the principal and kindergarten teacher teamed up to play guitar and bongos, encouraging us to sing loud and clap and sway in the pews, 

instead of the normally somber mumble-singing of the old people. Some of those old ladies still wore hats from the time when women were supposed to wear hats, a sign of feminine obedience when entering a church. My mother told me that when she was a little girl, if they forgot their hat, they had to put a piece of tissue on their heads, which I thought was bizarre,

but then I thought a lot of things were bizarre about the church. The guitar and bongos went the way of the principal and kindergarten teacher, who rumor had it, were having an affair. I have no idea if this is true. They were both single women and they were best friends, and these facts alone, coupled with the wacky guitar-bongo thing they'd cooked up, kept the rumor mill busy.

The last time I entered a Catholic church, I got weepy. It was a church somewhere in New Mexico. My husband and I were on a meandery driving tour of the Southwest, heading toward Santa Fe from Taos. The guidebook said the dirt in el Santuario de Chimayo had healing properties and I wanted to see this for myself. A few years before I had been in the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua and had the same compulsion.

What is it about these churches, anyway? The weird mix of touristy gift shops and saint's bones displayed in glass cases, some people wandering around taking pictures and some people falling to their knees and bursting into tears and urgent prayers. In Padua you could write your intentions on a piece of paper, read the prayer to St. Anthony, helpfully included in dozens of languages on the back, and slip the paper into a box beside the crypt where his body is interred. 

While my travel partner was sneaking illicit pictures (you weren't officially allowed), I stood in line for the crypt prayer and intentions. When it was my turn, the people beside me were praying in their different languages so earnestly, I was ashamed of myself. I won't tell you what I prayed for, except that it hasn't happened, yet, and before you can remind me, 

I know this is a child's view of prayer, asking God for something you want and waiting for a response. Even when I was a child, I didn't quite believe it. Still, the New Mexico guidebook says you are allowed to take some of the healing dirt, and believer or no, I like to cover my bases, so I took an empty pill bottle

and waited for my turn into the small room by the altar where the magical dirt was. It was just ordinary looking sand, filling a hole in the ground in the center of the room, the size of a child's sandbox, which now that I think about it, someone would have to continually refill. People were standing around the perimeter looking at it somberly, while I knelt down and filled my bottle. Hands shaky and suddenly with that weepy feeling 

whatever that feeling is called 

that includes bells ringing in your neighborhood, bongos and tissues on little girls' heads, best friends hounded and kicked out of a community they loved, road trips with your husband, saint bones and sand.



Sunday, January 24, 2021

On Bright Coats and Mittens

I am not a coat person, but I am enamored by the colorful coats worn at the Inauguration. All bright and solidly colored and did these women coordinate with each other? But there's no time to keep wondering about that because Lady Gaga is singing the National Anthem,

and I have to wonder about her enormous bird pin. Is she going for a Hunger Games vibe? But that thought goes away too because her voice is rising. She's reaching the part that only a few people can sing, about the rockets red glare and how the flag was still there. She pauses to raise her arm and there's the flag flying over the Capitol, where only two weeks before there was smoke and darkness and a mob of people trying to overthrow our government. But this day

it's all cleaned up and sparkling. Bernie Sanders is slouched down in his coat and wearing mittens and looking comically grumpy. Jennifer Lopez is singing This Land is Your Land and I am watching with my daughter and we are both teary. The first woman Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris is sworn in by the first Hispanic American Supreme Court Justice, Sonya Sotomayor, and I am teary again. The camera zooms in Mitch McConnell looking grimly over her shoulder and you can feel the weight of the moment, the old world passing,

and now for something new. A baby is fussing and a harried mom rushes to comfort him. One of the grandchildren of President Biden. 

He gives his speech and who knew how honesty could seem so radical?  

Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart...

Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our “better angels” have always prevailed.

In each of these moments, enough of us--enough of us-- came together to carry all of us forward.

And, we can do so now.

I have to leave for work, but first I catch the poet Amanda Gorman reciting her poem. She is only twenty two and standing resplendent in her bright yellow coat. Her hands move in a way that makes me think of birds. I can't tear my eyes away. 

If she is the future of our country, I feel better already. 

The afternoon at the library is a day like any other during our global pandemic. The masked patrons stepping up to the window to collect their ordered materials. The people out in the park, running, walking their dogs, or at home, turning Bernie in his coat and mittens into silly memes, sharing videos of their little girls watching Kamala Harris, dissecting the significance of the colorful coats, the Hunger Games pin. 

How is that we live in such a broken silly beautiful world?


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Where to put your rage when you live in a Democracy (Or hope you still do)

A friend knitted me a pink hat for the March. She couldn't go and she knew I was planning to. She wrote me a card. Please wear this for me, and I immediately burst into tears. We have a shared history of sexual assault, but that was in the past and we were over it, healed, we thought, but the new president's election brought it all back, fresh, his disdain for women, his mockery and bullying, and worse, and infinitely more painful,

-- all of these people cheering him on and turning a blind eye to it. I was back where I started, dazed and scared, angry too, which was a feeling I didn't have when I was a child being sexually assaulted. You know what? Let's call it rage. I was enraged. Honestly, I was a little scared of all of that rage.   

I mean, where do you put it? How do you let it out, without hurting others? Because, let me tell you, the anger I felt when I saw that man brag about grabbing women by the pussy and then watched people I know, friends, family members, neighbors, shrug it off-- well, that rage had better go somewhere. I made a cardboard sign. 

I cut it to look like a stop sign and I painted it red and pasted letters on in white: NO. I went to Washington with another friend. She was mad too. But the drive there felt more like a road trip. 

Rest stops. McDonalds for lunch. We stayed with one of her friends on Capitol Hill. There were other women there, friends of the host. None of us knew each other but we all immediately clicked. No one had to explain to each other why we were there. In the morning I put the pink hat on, and the truth is, I felt a little silly. 

I had never been to a protest rally before, unless you count this one time I went to the board of education, after the state of Ohio decided to cut funding for school librarians and I made a speech outside the building about how a librarian saved my life when I was a child. I was a nervous wreck that day because I had to speak through a megaphone.

This time I just had to walk around in public wearing a tightly fitted knit pink hat and waving a No sign. I could do that, damn it. The minute we stepped outside the house, it was a sea of pink hats. Crowds of people, mostly women, walking from every direction. They weren't screaming. They weren't carrying tiki torches (that would come later, for the aggrieved white men who like the idea of grabbing women by the pussies or kneeling on the necks of Black men and don't want to be called out for it) No,

the women were talking, laughing, moving toward the Capitol, a crowd so thick you could get lost in it, get squished in it, but I was never afraid. Which is interesting, when I think about it now, because several people--all trump supporters coincidentally--called me before I left to express fear, to tell me they were "thinking of me," 

which I laughed off, said, Don't worry, when what I wanted to tell them was F off, but I'll admit, there was a small doubt of What if they were right? What if the crowd did get out of control? 

But there, in the thick of it, with people laughing and chatting and waiting in lines for the port-o-potties, the funny creative signs, the making of new friends, the picture snapping, and all of those absurd pink hats everywhere you looked, how could you be afraid? 

In some moments you could even feel joy. There are more of us, I thought, and that was before I knew there were 500,000 people at the march. Millions of people rallying at the same time in cities all of the country, all over the world. Maybe we could all do something constructive with our rage?

I did. I learned my congressmen's names and state reps' names and phone numbers. And called them. A lot. I went to townhalls and wrote postcards reminding people to vote and wrote letters to the editor and went to more marches and canvassed neighborhoods for candidates and joined organizations to help fight back unfair laws, and voted, of course, 

and all of those millions of pink hatted women combined with so many other people-- Black Lives Matter people (who, according to some of my now former friends and neighbors, have the audacity to say that Black people's lives matter), and scientists freaked out over Climate Change, and children terrified of being gunned down in school, and immigrants and refugees and gay people and trans people-- all of us standing up to say NO

to human rights abuses and corruption and fraud, 

voted too. And the person we voted for won the election by 7 million votes.  

So, if you find yourself on the other side of that, enraged, I hear you. 

But don't carry your arsenal of guns to the statehouse to try to kidnap the governor or set up a gallows outside the Capitol so you can hang the Vice President or break through the barriers of the building and scratch your balls on the Speaker of the House's desk or beat a police officer to death with an American flag and then turn around and tell me it was nothing, let's all move past this for the sake of unity, 

I heard that enough when I was a child, and this time I say what I couldn't say then


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Not numbers

March 13, the day we shut down in Ohio because of the global pandemic, I recorded in my planner the number of Covid 19 cases in the state and in the country. 

4, I wrote. 

1,015 in the US, I wrote. 31 deaths. 

And then, I just kept doing that, the squares on my planner, which used to have how many pages I'd written each day or how many words, appointments, meet-ups with friends at restaurants, writing workshops I was teaching, school visits-- became an exponentially increasing list of virus cases, a catalog of deaths. I don't know why I felt compelled to do this, but once I started, I couldn't stop. I wanted to know. I wanted to see it, this slow-moving tragedy, distilled down to numbers. 

And the numbers quickly became horrifying. I remember back in the spring hearing the president brag about how he'd saved the country from 2 million deaths, and now, because of him, we'd only have one hundred or two hundred thousand. The day he said this, March 30, 2020, I wrote in my planner:

2,314 deaths in the US, 

so, 100,000, the lowball number that he was bragging about (remember, at the time, he was saying "it will all go away by Easter") was incomprehensible to me. 

For the record, we reached that number less than two months later on May 29. 

We passed 200,000 dead on September 22.

We passed 300,000 dead on December 14.

I read somewhere that when we hear about mass death, humans tend to go numb. Show us the picture of one dead child, the toddler in the firefighter's arms the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing, for example, the bloodied body of that one precious little girl, and we are gut-punched by horror and grief.  

But, tell us that 230,000 people died in the tsunami in December 2004 

tell us 500,000 people were murdered in Rwanda that same year 

tell us that yesterday alone in the United States of America 2,624 people died of Covid, 

and while we feel awful, of course, our minds can't seem to handle what that means, each number a person, precious and individual.

I started a new planner on January 1, 2021 and I am no longer writing the numbers of cases, the numbers of deaths. 

Instead I am reading stories about the people who died. I'm following a project put together by my writer and artist friend Josey Goggin. She calls it the Art of Death and each day she paints a watercolor picture of one American who died of Covid on a page in the soon-to-be-former president's book The Art of the Deal. 

Follow along with her project here --if you want to stop thinking about numbers and remember the human being who is behind each one.