Choosing Discomfort: Time to March

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Recently my husband complained about the weather. “I’m done with winter,” he said, glancing out our kitchen window at the muted gray sky. All the snow had melted leaving behind the messier side of the season.

I agreed. Winter without snow looks, and feels, especially dreary. But I know the monotony of these cold spare months will eventually turn into spring, and the contrast between the two will be a gift.

I’ve always felt this way about seasons, about life. How we need the light and the dark, grief and joy, to feel fully alive. If we want to taste all the flavors, we must drink out of every cup, even the less appetizing ones.

Choosing the cup of discomfort, for example, instead of ignoring it. This has been on the periphery of my mind for years, but it rose swiftly to the surface after my country’s recent presidential election result.

What a wake up call that was, to many people I know, in particular, white people. Getting more particular, white women. Even more so: Myself.

Women of color, people of color, were not surprised. There was a scathing and funny Saturday Night Live sketch about this “phenomenon.” A group of white liberal city dwellers (in a neighborhood that looked suspiciously like my old one in Brooklyn) choked on their glasses of wine watching the election results while their two black friends rolled their eyes and howled in laughter at their ignorance.

It’s uncomfortable being called out as a rube, even more so as a perpetrator, but that’s what you are when you stand by and do nothing. When you’re even a little surprised by the widespread virulent and rampant racism that has been around for decades, centuries, that people of color live with every single day.

A writing friend wrote a short and fiery post entitled, MLK Isn’t A Holiday. “It is a call to action,” she said. But more often than not, for white people especially, it’s a day where many Instagram and Facebook feeds are rife with hopeful images and love filled quotes, mine included. Then, nothing. Until next year, Dr. King.

I squirmed in recognition. I have been that person. I am that person in some ways, but I’m changing. It’s a daily practice. It takes effort, and often, it’s uncomfortable.

This Saturday I’ll be attending the Women’s March on Washington. I signed up in November, a week after the election. Early on there were rumblings of discontent. About leadership, about the proposed name (The Million Woman March, which had been an African American women’s protest in Philadelphia in 1997).

Some white women couldn’t understand why there was a controversy at all. Why they were being asked to “check their privilege” and let women of color lead the way (literally and figuratively).

But the women who sowed the seeds of this march knew why. As momentum gathered, it was clear that after an election where 53% of white women voted for Trump, they alone could absolutely not lead this march.

I was relieved when minority activists took the helm and the march was renamed. The Women’s March on Washington is a respectful nod to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington in 1963, and came with a blessing from his daughter, Bernice King.

Racism within feminism has been a sticking point for decades. Transferring the bulk of leadership to minority activists was a chance for this march, and feminism, to go broader and deeper than the core concepts of equal pay and reproductive freedom. Those rights are vital, of course, but they are not the only ones that matter.

This quote from a recent Vogue article explores the layers of meaning behind the march:

“Where past waves of feminism, led principally by white women, have focused predominantly on a few familiar concerns—equal pay, reproductive rights—this movement, led by a majority of women of color, aspires to be truly intersectional. So though the Women’s March has partnered with organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America—and though second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem is now an honorary co-chair [along with Harry Belafonte] —the march’s purview is far more sweeping. Women are not a monolith, solely defined by gender; we are diverse, we represent half of this country, and any social justice movement—for the rights of immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, for law enforcement accountability, for gun control, for environmental justice—should count as a “women’s issue.”” 

Women’s rights are human rights, to quote Hillary Clinton, and on Saturday, January 21st 2017, the day after the presidential inauguration, women and men are coming together to raise their voices and their fists in protest.

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Can’t make it to Washington DC? Check out this incredible list of sister marches across the country – wait, let me amend this – across the globe.

https://www.womensmarch.com/sisters

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A Light Goes Out

“As women, we are told that to be the guest is to receive. We are told that to be the host is to give. But what if it is the reverse? What if it is the guest who gives to the host and it is the host who receives from the guest each time she sets her table to welcome and feed those she loves?”

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

For many reasons, 2016 has been a year of loss. Politically, for the majority of Americans, and also literally, regarding so many notable deaths. But as the year wound down to a close, I found myself haggling over a life with a higher power I normally don’t believe in.

Don’t take Ray, I pleaded, thinking of the little boy I’d known years ago. The one his mother, Lucie, called “My Special Little” because he came years after her first two children, and really, he was special.

The sweet boy who my parents doted on like a grandchild, who spent many afternoons of his baby and childhood in my parents’ house while Lucie cared for my mother.

Little Ray, we called him, even after he grew up. It was a fitting name, because he was such a beam of light.

I didn’t know how to pray, but I did it anyway.

That’s what you do when the outlook is grim, but you dare to hope. I dared to hope and every night before bed I’d imagine him as a young man, approaching my mother.

They’d embrace, he’d play her a song on his guitar, and then she’d send him back to earth, back to us.

***

The day after I visited him at the hospital, we drove upstate. I checked my phone constantly for news. Nothing. We arrived to so much snow my husband had to drag our luggage from the car on a toboggan. I felt anxious. Fear folded and unfolded in my heart, but I ignored it. I made dinner. We put the kids to bed. I prayed again.

Midmorning the next day, I checked my phone. A message appeared. I took one dragging deep breath and then dropped to my knees on the floor.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve and he was gone.

***

We are all novices in grief. Each time we experience a death, we begin again.

I mentioned this to a friend and she asked me to explain. The only way I can is through parenthood. It’s like having a second or third child. You think you will remember everything. You have the experience stored in your body, in your mind, but with the new child you marvel at every detail, at all you’ve forgotten.

Ray was eighteen years old when he died. I knew him mostly as a baby, as a little boy, and only in passing. I was living in Manhattan when he was born, in Brooklyn when he was growing up. I’d see him on occasion when I’d come home to visit. I’d hear about him from my mother often. She loved talking about Little Ray. He brought her joy, made her smile.

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When she was dying he came to visit with his mother. I watched him run around the rooms of a house he knew well.

He was a breath of life for her. For all of us.

***

New Year’s came and went. It was 2017 and I realized I never picked a word for the year as I had in the past. A couple days before the funeral, on my drive to therapy, I went through a dozen words. Nope, nope, nope. Nothing worked. It was a raining and the sky was a leaden gray. The wipers squeaked across the windshield.

Life can turn on a dime, Lucie said at the hospital, and I knew this was true. I wanted my word to act like a sponge. I wanted to soak up my life. The good and the bad.

I knew the right word arrived when I felt my eyes prickle with tears as I sounded it out in my mind. Receive. Yes. That was it. I thought about the quote from the memoir I was rereading, When Women Were Birds.

“What if it is the guest who gives to the host and it is the host who receives from the guest?”

If I looked at my life that way, maybe I wouldn’t feel so drained by my children’s incessant needs. Instead of feeling emptied, I could be filled. It’s a choice, I realized. A flip-flop perspective. Receiving love while offering it.

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But I knew it wasn’t just love I’d have to be willing to receive.

You don’t get one without that other, messier package: pain, sadness, death.

***

The funeral was terribly hard. In some ways, it hurt more than my mother’s. He was 18 to her 58. Maybe it’s because I had a cushion of shock for hers, or perhaps I shouldn’t compare it because pain can’t be quantified.

I struggled to remain composed during the service, but sobs bubbled up my throat the moment it began. The packed room was muffled with weeping and the occasional gasp of disbelief, all of us wondering the same thing: how had this happened? How could Ray be gone?

Several times I had to remind myself to stay present. I wanted to check out, buffer the pain, but I kept going back. I told myself to stay. To receive.

Listening to his friends speak about him, his girlfriend, his family, it was like meeting him, and losing him, all over again. As I covered my mouth with my fist, I watched the people who loved and knew him best stand up at the podium and honor him with words and music, through tears and laughter.

Many said they could feel his presence in the room. Grief and love washed over me in equal measure.

At one point, a woman silently offered me a pack of tissues. Thank you, I whispered, and she nodded. In that moment I loved her.

We were all connected in that room, every one of us, strangers, friends, family, because of Ray.

From behind the podium, Lucie implored us to hold onto the love and peace her son embodied. Love each other, she said, and we did.

I weep for our loss, and the world’s.

I love you Little Ray.
Thank you for shining your sweet light on my family.
We will always hold you in our hearts.

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