Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Day 2,367: Eleven



This year, I made a resolution. That resolution was to write more. I broke it.

I’ve been watching and wondering how to raise my children in the world as it is now and as it is going to be. I don’t know how to do it. On the plus side, I guess that has always been true. When I sat down all those hazy years ago to write a letter to my daughter for her fifth birthday, it was an admission that I was raising her in a way that was unlike anything I had expected. For almost seven years, I have been writing in this space, albeit sporadically, of late. I have always said that this blog is a long love letter to my children, so that they might know something about me if I were to die before they had a chance to really figure me out as a person.

Something interesting has happened: Time has passed.

My daughter is eleven years old today. When all of this started, she was four. When she started, she was, well…just starting. She is old enough now for her memories to be solidified. She is old enough to look like a small, skinny version of the self she will look like forever. She’s old enough for me to look back on the way she was when she was two and realize she is exactly the same, as we all are, even while she will never be the same, as none of us will. And I am old enough, and alive enough, to have written six of these birthday letters to her, starting when I wasn’t sure I would make it to write another one, and excepting last year, when I failed to write at all. I feel like I have run out of things to say, not because she has failed to provide enough material, but because I’ve been too busy living and getting through life with her and the rest of my family to stop and think much about it. But I will try.

Dear Lenny:

Today you are eleven. When you are my age, you may or may not remember yourself at this age. You might forget how you still liked to play with your little brother best of all, how you still played along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and wanted more stuffed animals. You might forget, in a few short years, how much you hated the idea of growing up, puberty, and everything that was coming your way. You might forget that I told you growing up is just what everyone does, and you probably never knew that I agreed with your sentiments and secretly wished I could change everything for you. You might forget, or be unimpressed by, how easily your shy self moved to a new town and did everything new that you wanted to do, without worrying or caring what other people were doing. I remember so little of when I was eleven. I wanted to be like a boy then—they seemed to have things so much better. But not you. You just want to be like yourself. I’ve always admired that about you.



You and I talk around things, not because we don’t trust each other, but because we are too much alike. Other people’s emotions are painful and embarrassing. Being held can seem a burden. I know. Believe me, I know. And so, we emote in a roundabout way:

You casually tell me that you are supposed to write an expository paper on the topic of resilience. You don’t say anything else. I ask you why you are telling me this. You say, well, I thought I could interview you. Is there a time in your life when you felt like you had to be resilient? I couldn’t help but be sarcastic: “Hmm, I wonder…what could I pick? I suppose I should pick cancer, though that isn’t the only thing I could think of.” And you refused to look at me while you asked me the questions and I gave you relatively short answers. You never showed me what you wrote. I learned from your teacher that she was so impressed with your piece that she asked permission to share it with the class.

A year and a half ago, I started writing a novel. I got twenty five pages in and then I stopped, and I haven’t gone back to it. The setting is all wrong. You asked me what it was about and I didn’t know how to tell you. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t for children in the way that books are written for children today as if they are a different species rather than small versions of adults. I wanted to write this book because of a story I heard two men tell on an Amtrak train when I was 25. I wanted to tell the story because I saw a picture of a house online and that was enough for me to go on. I was writing the story but the protagonist was a boy, and so I was ashamed to tell you about my novel, as I knew you would think I was writing about your brother when the protagonist was really me, but I couldn’t have my story be about a girl, because I didn’t want it to turn out sad.

I’ve written all of these things to you, including all of these letters for all of the birthdays you’ve had since you turned five, except for last year, when I was too lost in my own feelings of—what was it? Depression, I suppose?—that I didn’t write birthday posts, or much of anything at all. It is odd to admit that you have never read this blog—not any of it. It is past time for that to change. Perhaps you should start with the posts I wrote expressly for you. If you never remember anything else I’ve told you, I want you to remember these things:

One: Always have hobbies and interests no one can take away from you. You should fill your life with things that don’t require other people, places or things. You need at least one of these. I have writing, walking, baking, and listening to music when I’m alone. You have sewing, running, reading, and so many other things. Those are for you, so you will never be lonely, never be bored.



Two: Always read the last line first. It won’t spoil the story. In fact, it will help you know if the story will be worth working through. The most important lesson is to know how to end things gracefully.

And so, when I’ve written to you, I’ve said a bunch of things, always saving the most important for the last line or lines:

At five: If I ever get to a point where that’s all I can ask for, and the last thing I know is that you and your brother are there, it would be enough. I love you.

Six: And so it goes. There isn’t much left to do but turn anger into hope, and turn resignation into faith in your abilities to adapt and thrive. So for my daughter, a brilliant and funny and empathetic and beautiful little six year old girl, I wish for the best of birthdays and a hundred more. I wish for the opportunity to spend many more of those birthdays with you. I wish the world was an easier place. In the last six years, you have definitely made it a better one.

Seven: … And she said, in front of the entire first grade: Because I love you. I will always remember you when you were seven, Lenny. Always—no matter how many more sevens I've got.

Eight: But I am doing this for her, for them. I am taking account of things they might be too young to remember or too innocent to comprehend. I am remembering for them. So, Lenny, know that I love you. You aren't just golden today, but always.

Nine: That's what I want for you in this ninth year, which changed everything for me thirty years ago. I want you to know what that means. You will always be yourself. There's only one Lenny. Don't let anyone forget it.

Ten: (empty space where words should have been)

And, before we get to eleven, I want you to have some last words.

You finally showed me that resilience essay. In it, you wrote: When we started learning about resilience, I could tell my mom had been resilient…Resilience to me is the ability to see past and bounce back from life’s setbacks. To overcome struggles and see meaning in life.

You wrote about me and about famous and resilient people in history. And then you chose this ending, which astounded your teachers: “Resilience cannot be learned or found: it is a choice we make, a path we choose to take, a trait we choose to acquire.”

I don’t even know if I actually agree with you—but it sure sounds good.

For the last five years, I have taught poetry to your class for your birthday. For the last two years, one of the styles we learned was haiku. Haiku are wonderful because the beginning is also the end. Last year, in fourth grade, you wrote this:

lilac trees, purple
and white, birds nest up high in
the sky, sweet bird songs

and this year, for your birthday, you wrote:

in early March air
I sit outside, enjoying
my eleventh year.


Eleven: Me too, honey, me too. And the third thing I want you to remember is that there is an exception to reading the last line first. When you have children, you never want to read the last line. You never want to know how it turns out. You don’t want to see the ending. There’s nothing that could happen in between that would make it not worth working through.

I love you. Happy eleven. --Mom

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Day 2,325: I Once Knew a Patriot

I was born in 1975 and the short arc of my history has lasted just 41 years, longer than I expected by 37, 32, 17, 6, or 3 years, depending on how you look at it. During four decades, administrations and social movements came and went, and injustice and inequality remained--though progress was made, it came in fits and spurts. The rights some had didn’t extend to everyone, neither in theory nor in practice. But in that time, no matter how tumultuous, some constants remained.

The press prided itself on holding public officials accountable, and were not prosecuted for it. We had religion and we had federal policy but they were not one and the same. Our highest public officials did not expect nor require adulation. Power transitioned peacefully, elections were held on time, losers did not refuse to concede, and most of the time, the Supreme and other Courts did not appoint politicians over the will of the people. Foreign governments did not interfere with our elections. Generals did not control our cities. Conflicts of interest mattered, and politicians at all levels could be held accountable. Individuals and communities protested, and sometimes, people were jailed, beaten, or even killed. When this happened, it was a blight on the country’s image. Sometimes, social progress was borne out of those struggles. Sometimes, it wasn’t. Civilians who worked for federal agencies were just that, civilians doing a job, and neither Congress nor the Presidential Administration wielded power over their livelihoods or ability to communicate with the public at large or public officials anywhere. Science was a goal, one of the highest and most esteemed professions; as students we learned about “scientific methods” in order to understand what was true, what was provable, and, even, what was important. Science was not seen as dissent, as going rogue. Academia was revered, being smart and learned was seen as a benefit to society. Enabling children to attain high levels of education was a goal we were bad at doling out equally…but it was a goal all the same. Society sought to fight the specter of nuclear war.

We had truth and we had lies and we had a general understanding that there was a difference between them, which was important.

It used to be different.

And when it was different, I knew a patriot. I’m writing this here to let you know that I remember.

I once knew a patriot who was a nun who knew I was an atheist and liked me anyway. She was so fierce in her activism for the poor that her order eventually forced her out of Chicago to a small town in Iowa, where she would be less conspicuous. I asked her why she would be asked to give up her calling just because she was so good at it, and I thought she might cry when she invoked God’s will. She is just one face that comes to mind as I think about the patriots I’ve known. There are hundreds more behind her face, and thousands behind the memory of the hundreds, and millions more besides.

I once knew a patriot. In fact, I knew quite a few.

I once knew a patriot who stood up for the rights of the disenfranchised. He came from Wales. She came from Mexico. He came from Haiti, India, Cuba, the Netherlands. She came from Ghana, Puerto Rico. He and she came from Bronzeville and the Bronx, the plains and the panhandle.

I once knew a patriot who dedicated her life to studying and attempting to eradicate inequality. She had been raped. He had had a drug problem. He was a Rhodes Scholar. She graduated high school at 15. She spoke seven languages fluently. He was a doctor. She had had an abortion. He had cancer. She didn’t have legs. He had been in prison. She had to escape her abusive family. He had been homeless. He married a man. She didn’t see the point in getting married, to a man or a woman or anyone.

I once knew a patriot who protested war. I once knew a patriot who criticized the President. I once knew a patriot who didn’t believe in God. I once knew a patriot who was devout but not Christian. I once knew a patriot who wrote poetry instead of doing other things she could have done. I once knew a patriot who didn’t trust the police. I once knew a patriot who didn't believe in patriotism.

I once knew patriots, people of all walks of life, who did what they could to make the world a little less cruel, who spent their lives trying to be better and make something better.

I once knew a patriot who wrote things down.

And just because someone comes along and says this is all a lie, or calls him or her by another name, doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t true.

I once knew a patriot. I remember.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Day 2,318: Inauguration Poem

According to Wikipedia: "January was named after the Roman god Janus. Janus is also the Roman word for door. The god Janus had two faces which allowed him to look forwards into the coming year and backwards into the past year."

Janus

By Katy Jacob

1. The Door

It's not just the
opening or closing,
but all of it,
the slow, torturous creaking,
frigid air being let in,
the space the rats walk through,
the slam, the memory of steel
in the soft rotting wood,
the whole thing unhinged,
a knock knock knocking
incessant in the night,
it’s an opaque passageway
to everything unseen,
no way in and no way out,
and winter’s black boot
on the other side.

2. God of Two Faces

It isn’t a story of opposites,
not so much comedy and drama,
black and white, weeping and rejoicing.
No, it’s the way the welcome sun
blinds you from the snow,
the lakes that turn into
roads and resting places,
the extra light that lets you
see every bit of mud and decay;
it’s everything that’s trapped beneath
but will be dead by spring thaw.
It’s not so much looking forward and back
as it is not knowing where to look
or how or with whose eyes.
It isn’t the shock of the jagged scar down the middle
reminding you that our faces are nothing but newborn bones
but how easy it is to look, and to look away.

It’s a door, it’s a man with two faces, it’s
a God from an empire that destroyed itself,
it’s as similar and distant as
any other Friday in January,
the beginning of something unknown,
and the end of something else.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Day 2,301: Home

22

It was all mine. I didn't have roommates. My boyfriend had a key and was there often enough helping me take care of the building that the tenants thought he was the landlord. They thought that about him, not me, though I signed their leases, took their money, planted the flowers, helped to exterminate the apartments, handled their emergencies, tried to fix the industrial-sized boiler with a wrench and a blowtorch that one time. There was a liquor store and a payday loan store on the corner but there was also a bank and a bus line that took me to the green line or the blue line, however I felt that day, though I almost always walked, give or take the weather. The floors in the living room were beautiful but so lopsided my bookcases sloped sideways. The kitchen had counters but few cabinets and we danced in that kitchen since we were too broke to go to clubs. I would sit on the back stoop and watch the backside of the Madison street businesses. I could see men, always men, taking out garbage, shoveling snow, making deliveries. I didn't have legal cable but we spliced the wires that had been left behind and I got a few channels, because back then, that was possible. At 24 I broke my own heart and it was in that apartment that I had to learn to begin dating again, not having done it since 17. I kicked a man out of that place when he didn't want to use a condom, and that's one of the clearest memories I have of my first place of my own: me sitting on the couch in my bathrobe eating leftover popcorn, watching him incredulously walk out the door. I held parties there, albeit small ones. I tried to make friends with my neighbors as white people always did on TV, but I found that wasn't for me. When I left that apartment, my youth stayed behind.

25

I made $27,000 a year and was putting myself through grad school at night after working all day. Buying a condo didn't make sense, but I had saved enough money to do it, having no debt outside of $98/month in student loans back when interest rates were 7.5%. I found a mistake in the closing documents and wouldn't sign the papers until one of the largest financial institutions in the country gave in following my obstinate refusal to budge, and I was on their blacklist for years. I knew too much about the process. It was a second floor walkup, which means it was the third floor because this is Chicago and we downplay our struggles. When I had gallbladder surgery, my boyfriend at the time came over and walked down flights of stairs to help me with the laundry. There were two butler's pantries in the otherwise tiny kitchen and if I could have, I would have taken them with me to every place that came after. The condo had a shotgun layout, the only place I've lived as an adult that did not have a circular floor pattern. The building was vintage and I had no A/C, washer and drier, second bathroom or parking space. I eventually had a car while living there but I commuted by train and walked almost a mile home at 10 pm on weeknights after grad school classes ended. I rented a garage space a few blocks away and had to walk through dark alleys alone just to get home. I was an adult woman in that apartment, learning to have new boyfriends or lovers, throwing larger parties, refinancing and getting rid of my PMI. I didn't so much as paint in that place, and I made $50k on it by the time I walked out the door three and a half years later. I didn't walk alone; my fiancé came with me. He had moved in when we were 28, 7 months after we met, after we kissed for the first time in that shotgun hallway while he held some of my homemade banana bread in his hand. It was in the larger of the two bedrooms in that place--when I thought it might be better to leave him because he was being such a jerk--that he handed me a pearl ring he had hidden in his pajama pocket and said "I'm sorry, Kate, but I still want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me anyway?" That was one of many things I did anyway.

28





A few weeks after we closed, I turned 29, but 28 is precise and true. We negotiated the deal from Puerto Rico, where I had been sent for a conference, and my fiancé came along for fun. The house was an absolute mess in a neighborhood I had never heard of, on the far south side of the city. It was dark and dusty and the beds weren't even made. But there was ivy crawling cautiously up the red brick, beautiful windows, pine trees in the front, a huge expanse of back yard, a woodburning fireplace, and even a magnolia tree. We learned later that the couple who lived there had raised their family with the couple next door, and the husbands one day decided to "surprise" the wives with news of new construction built in the far south suburbs, and the couple who lived in our house almost got divorced, thus explaining why it looked like they weren't trying to sell the place, because she wasn't. It was 2004 and we paid too much and lost money on it in the end but not as badly as others did. When we came home from our wedding, it was still afternoon, and we opened the gifts we hadn't registered for in the living room of the first home we owned together. The day before the wedding, our car was broken into in our driveway. Both of our children came home from the hospital to that house. I designed and managed the rebuild of that kitchen and for that reason I sometimes miss it. We installed a new roof, windows, wiring. There was a steam shower in the basement, and towards the end of our time there, I sat on a stool next to that shower while my husband shaved my head with a bic and a can of barbasol. I became a mother there and with that I met other mothers. I will always remember lying on the couch in that house, pregnant with my son, trying to stay awake for the 2008 election results, and failing. When the phone rang and roused me from sleep, I knew before hearing who had called that he had won, that we would always be able to say that we lived on the south side of Chicago when President Obama was elected, just a handful of miles from where the first black President had once lived. But with hope comes the reminder of struggle and pain. I had cancer in that house--my world split from being the promise of young motherhood and the height of my career to something else entirely. With that, I couldn't feel much nostalgia for a place that held birth but also the possibility of death, new life but also the reminder of suffering. When we left, we didn't, because we couldn't sell. We became landlords, and I was crazy for suggesting we buy the next house in the first place, but we just jumped, and did it.

35







What can I say? My husband might never forgive me for making us leave. We bought it out of foreclosure, and two of our old houses could fit inside. There were three full sized ovens in the kitchen once he had them installed. We built a second floor laundry room next to the expansive landing large enough for furniture of its own. There were so many windows there were windows in closets, inside the chimney, windows so huge I couldn't even lift them. The space...the space! The sledding hill in the front yard. The library in the hall, the attic that was so far removed from everything else we couldn't hear our children scream at each other. The front porch was screened in and was almost half a city block long. My husband removed snow from the 125 foot winding driveway with a shovel. We could watch the sun rise and set from the third floor, above all of the other buildings in the area. We had a breakfast room and, for the first time, a garage. We held parties for almost 100 people and somewhere down the line, we became known for those parties, which still surprises me. Our porch was a gathering place. We got married there, again--right there in our yard, with the sloping hill of an aisle and a place for every guest. Our children will remember that house as the beautiful one, the one that was a magical place to be a kid, the one with hiding places and enough room in the front yard to go long for a perfect spiral. But utopia doesn't exist, and death crept in there too, as I recovered from an amputation there and struggled through cancer again, and maybe even worse, chemo again. We turned 40 in that house when I wasn't sure if that was possible for me. When we left, my husband cried, my children cried, and I thought I would miss it forever, but I was wrong. I didn't cry and I didn't regret it, even if the rest of the family held it against me. It was a beautiful place to be alone in, to steal away from the world, but the world was always there, and we had to go.

40



This house is what we were looking for when we left 28 and stumbled upon 35. It is the same in many respects, but with an extra bedroom, a half bath on the main floor, a one car garage, central air and a playroom in the basement. There's a Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs, a bay window in my office, a beautiful yard in a town where those are hard to come by, red cabinets in the kitchen, an open front porch, and way too many problems to fix. It's too small I suppose and we haven't had our first party yet. My mother lives less than a mile away and our kids love the neighborhood and school to distraction. There are no more children to be born, no more milestones of our own to claim, at least not any that don't seem impossibly distant (like our 20 year anniversary or me turning 50. can you imagine? me? 50?). The coming milestones are all theirs: middle school and high school and turning 13 or 16, learning to drive, falling in love, finding themselves. We are so grown here we have nowhere else to go. The house is a house, not a symbol of itself. I find myself hoping I don't have cancer again, period, not hoping I don't have cancer here. My hope is that we are given the chance to leave this place on our own terms, as we have done before, because the kids are done with school and we don't need to be here anymore. I hope we leave together, because we have made it as a couple, because I have made it as a person.

I have moved us again and again and in truth it has been me, I have pushed us in and out of houses. If any of these walls could talk I cannot imagine what they would say, but I will say this: thank you, and I will always remember you and love you and the way you held us and let us go.

Happy new year, everyone. May you always feel at home.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Day 2,295: Wise Men

Even after six and a half years, I look around and realize I am the youngest person in the waiting room. Women who are much sicker than me, which is most of them, since as far as we know, I might not be sick right now at all, still look at me with a mixture of pity and alarm. It is worse now that I don’t bother to bring my husband with me to my appointments, unless a mammogram is involved, in which case, he isn’t allowed to wait with my anyway. I am 41 years old and nowhere near young, but when sitting on a couch alone, hair so short it isn’t possible to tell if it’s on purpose or not, wearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan tshirt I’ve had for over a quarter century so it can’t qualify as ironic, waiting for the oncologist—and I am confronted, again, by people who regard me as someone who shouldn’t be there at all.

And so I am young, but only because I am in an environment where it is normal to be old, or at least aging. I am healthy, which is regarded with some measure of suspicion, as most in the room are not. I am impatient, while many around me would probably like to wait a while longer to hear the news they are there to hear. I know what is going to happen, and I am not nervous, though I probably should be.

I know that the oncologist will tell me that I look great, that I am doing everything right, and that I should enjoy the holidays with my family. I know that I should feel relief when his three minute exam shows that nothing is amiss. But I don’t feel relief. I don’t feel fear or dread either, because I don’t feel anything. I am not here to learn whether or not I have cancer. I know now that I am likely to discover any solid tumors myself, as I have done twice. I also know that if my cancer has metastasized and turned terminal, I would most likely be aware of it already before I showed up at the doctor’s office.

I know that I am doing this because even cancer is like life, with its obligations and rituals.

Before my oncologist arrives and we dance the dance we agreed on years ago, wherein he forgave me for knowing too much and I forgave him for not understanding that, a young resident arrives. I had been expecting the physician’s assistant I have known for the last six years, and I was oddly looking forward to the small talk.

This woman who arrived instead is young, much younger than me, perhaps in her late twenties. She seemed impossibly new at this. As she began interspersing her medical questions with questions about my life, I realized that someone must have taught her to do this. It seemed obvious that she didn’t really want to know about my recent move, my kids’ adjusting to their new school, the fact that my son hasn’t had night terrors in years, my husband’s new job or our plans for the holidays. She asked questions and I answered them but she didn’t want to know. It was easier for her to ask me about my medications (none), any illnesses or issues (none), irregular bleeding since that D&C three years ago (none), any worries at all? (none? Except that I have a fairly large probability of dying much younger than I should, which is something I’ve had to live with for years, so it doesn’t qualify as a worry anymore…but no one says that, because no one wants to hear that). I briefly wonder what it is about her demeanor that seems so…off…though she is perfectly polite and professional.

It hits me the way only crucial things do, all at once and in such blinding fashion that you are embarrassed you hadn’t thought of it before.

She sees me, and she sees the differences between herself and me, which makes the similarities more striking. She doesn’t have children, a husband, a house, she is working on starting her career, not trying to take a break from it (she tells me these things either directly or indirectly). She also, of course, doesn’t have cancer, once, twice, or otherwise. I have done some of the things she would like to do and a bunch of the things she would not. If I am me, a person who fifteen years ago was like her in many ways, she could be a person like me in the future. I am older than her but not old enough. And as has happened so many times before, I find myself sitting in an exam room, trying to make it easier for the other person on the other side of the table. I feel relieved for her when she leaves.

When my doctor comes in and does all of the things I know he will do in exactly the fashion I expect, I am out of words. I have nothing to ask him, nothing to tell him, except that now that I have moved, we are neighbors, which I know he doesn’t want to hear. Instead of a question or series of questions, I just say the thing that needs to be said:

“I know there’s nothing for me to do, one way or the other. Just keep plugging along.”

“That’s right. There’s nothing for you to do that you aren’t doing.”

There’s nothing we can do, he is saying. You will either be in the 70% of women who ultimately survive this or you will not. I cannot tell you which woman you are. And then, the words underneath the words he does not say:

And what if I could? What would you do differently?

I think about that as I leave, after I make the appointment for my mammogram, wherein I explain in a normal tone of voice, when asked, “so it’s just a right side image you need? Do you have a left breast?” that no, I do not, there is nothing there to image. I think, if I knew how this would turn out, when I was a child, as a young woman, before I had children, or even now, what would I do differently?

And I think I would probably have quit my steady job in an uncertain time, jumped into buying a house before we could get rid of the other one, moved my family, held onto a concert tshirt bearing the image of the man responsible for my first-born’s name, taken the el to the hospital, fidgeted in the waiting room out of pent-up energy rather than nervousness, accepted my own anger as either a character flaw or understandable response to all the rest of it, and, when called upon to say something meaningful, I would have looked at the younger version of myself who didn’t know what was coming, as she wrote notes about a slightly-older woman in a chart naming which cells had gone wrong, and said:

“After doing this for a while, it gets easier.”

On a day when many people think about birth and death and what comes in between, for one reason or another, I leave you with this. I would not have done anything differently, even had I known—especially had I known.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Day 2,249: Make America Great Again

Welcome to Trump’s America. There are so many things to say, but I am only going to say one of them.

Now is the time to rage.

I see it everywhere, on social media, in the so-called elite media, everywhere: now is the time for soul-searching, to hope, to pray, to show we are better, to teach our children love. And I am so tired of it. No.

Now is the time to rage.

We live in a false meritocracy. We live in a society hellbent on the belief that people get what’s coming to them, good or bad. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, it’s karma. We talk about a revolution, and I am reminded of my Iranian professor in college who looked at a bunch of clueless privileged white students and said, incredulously, do you know what happens in a revolution? A lot of people die. She hadn’t seen her family in 17 years. I hear people say, when it comes to cancer, that your attitude is everything. A smile can cure your cellular dysfunction. I hear people say this about giving our children more freedom, not because they deserve it, but because THEY DON’T NEED IT. People say, but bad things don’t happen that often! Our kids should be happy! And I think, happiness is easier to come by if you don’t have to suffer horrific trauma first.

Bad things don’t happen, we tell ourselves, everything will be fine. But they do, and no, it won't, if we don't make it so. Terrible, awful things happen every day, to people everywhere, to most people. All of the horrible things that just don’t happen? Cancer, rape, child abduction, hate crimes, bankruptcy, the abuser winning, all of the things that seem impossible have happened to me personally or someone I know and love. Suffering is real. Chaos is real. Pain that doesn’t end except with death is real. This is not cynicism. This is not despair. This is not a bad attitude. This is an acceptance of the state of affairs of the world and a refusal to think it can be solved by “thinking better.”

White people are so afraid of losing the privilege whiteness has brought them that they are willing to sacrifice the greatness of their nation to defend a social construct. Men are so afraid of losing the privilege of their maleness that they would rather watch the world burn. The healthy, the rich, those who have never lost their freedom, who are used to winning, have the luxury of saying…I am ashamed, things aren’t as good as I thought they were, this country isn’t as great as I thought it was. Because you know what? It was only great for you. And no, that isn’t a way to segue into feeling sorry for those who feel left out and so voted for a person who will make them feel less left out than others. When the white supremacists love a man, when the KKK endorses a man, when everyone in a long laundry list of not good enoughs is suspect (black people, immigrants, Muslims, women, gay people, Jews), my sympathy is so lacking you’d have to scrape it off the bottom of my shoe.

Optimism has been spun the wrong way. Optimism is not what will save us. What will save us is an understanding that the world is cruel, and the only way to combat that is for people to make proactive decisions to combat it.

I haven’t written much in my blog in the past year or so. It isn’t because I have run out of things to say about cancer. I’m not sure I was ever really writing about cancer in the first place. It was cathartic for me, writing this. But I was trying to say something bigger, something about death, and how it is coming, and how knowing that changes everything, but not in the way you think.

I stopped writing because I was enraged at the state of affairs all around me, all the time, and I wanted to have some friends left, so I kept my mouth shut. I was enraged at white women in my age bracket, liberal women, who were so saddened and shocked by Ferguson and were writing blog posts about how they were starting to understand the terror of being black in America. Instead of thinking we had elevated the conversation, I was thinking, where the hell were you for all the 45 years of your life when this is how the world was? Why was it ok for you to not see it? Every time a man wrote something about how he realized it was wrong for unconscious women to be raped, because now they realized, or had a daughter, I wanted to rage at them for denying the humanity of half the world so casually it was akin to drinking coffee all their lives and switching to decaf because gee whiz I found out it was healthier. All of the “but I believe in the goodness of people” just made me angrier. I believe in the goodness of people too. I believe in the goodness of all the people who are deemed unworthy, whose goodness and humanity are denied every damn day. I know the work it took, the centuries of effort, to strip that humanity away, and I know that it will take a hell of a lot more than hope and prayers to make it right again.

Some time ago, maybe a year, a friend told me she had stopped reading my blog because I was so angry. I was offended, but only momentarily, as I’m not easily offended. And I was not offended for the reason you might think.

I was angry, but not about having cancer. If you read back on the six and a half years of this blog, you will not find any anger over that. I was angry at the injustice of how cancer was framed, at how illness and health are juxtaposed as oppositie sides of the morality coin, at the misogyny in treatment, the corporatization of disease. I was never angry for myself. That is the kind of anger we just elected to run this country. I was angry over the injustice, which is collective, never personal.

I was angry because while I could accept that there are things that cannot change, such as having cancer, I could not accept that there were things that could change that did not because people refused to act. People prayed instead. People chose hope. People bought pink merchandise and ignored research.

If we organize over love and harmony, if we focus on the good of the world, we miss something crucial. Not everyone is loved. Harmony is rare. Good is a choice that can be thrown away.

When my children ask me if I will die I do not tell them of course not. I tell them of course. But hopefully not anytime soon. You never know though. When my son asks me, mom, how many ways are there to die, I tell him…infinite ways. But there are also infinite ways to live. I do not ever say “everything will be fine,” though I sure as hell wish someone would say that to me. I say “things will fit into the world we live in, and I am trying to make that better for you.”

I am not enraged at this election simply because it affirms that a large portion of society doesn’t believe in my humanity. Yes, it grieves me that the message is that I am not fully human because I am a woman, because of my religion, because of my disability, because of my health status, because I have loved and fucked people who were not white or Christian, because my husband has been hungry and homeless, because I have been sexually assaulted, because I might die young and not be worth the trouble.

My rage is not for me, or even for my children, or all of the people I know and love who are less protected than I am because of the color of my skin or the zip code of my residence or my ability to pass as God-fearing if I need to. My rage is bigger than that.

I am enraged, as I always have been, that we have been given this gift, of living in this world with a myriad of people and possibilities, and we choose instead to squander it and host competitions over who is worthy. I am enraged that I am so so tired, I have been through so much over the last six years, and all I wanted was some time to relax and focus on my kids, and now I don’t know what kind of world I am raising them in, so I cannot relax.

And so this is what I am saying, what I have always been saying. It is not enough to want things to be better, to believe in a better tomorrow. It is not enough to want the world to be a better place. We have to know that the world is capable of being a terrible place. We have to believe the people who tell us it is so. We have to recognize that much of human history is the story of people trying to will other people out of existence and the rest of human history is the enraged fight of survivors who refused to let that happen.

Years ago, I gave a speech when I left a job. I was the research director of a small nonprofit working to help people who were underserved by the financial system. And when I left, I felt this need to say that I did not do the work that I did because it was right, because I wanted to help people. I did the work because I had been the people we were trying to help, and I knew I could be one of those people again. If the shit hit the fan, I wanted to be a part of a world that made it harder to stick to the wall. And, here is the punchline: I believed the shit would hit the fan.

Boy, did it.

A few weeks ago, my husband became frustrated with me over how obsessed I was with local racial politics in our old neighborhood. Katy, he said, I thought this would change when we moved, I thought you wouldn’t be so focused on this anymore. Can’t we be happy we are here? That we got out?

I will admit we have been stressed, with moves, and me quitting my job. But let’s face it: that’s just a smokescreen for the fact that right then and there, I wanted to divorce him.

How dare you, I said.

And through my anger and sadness I said what I have been wanting to say, what I have been saying all along, what I beseech you to say to yourselves:

This anger is the only force that ever changed things. This anger has kept me alive. This anger is not a byproduct of my experiences or personality.

This anger is my best thing. It is who I am. How dare you try to take that from me.


And lest you think I am lost, I forgave him.

Welcome back to our America. It was never as great as we thought. Doesn’t that make you mad?

It should.

Let’s get to work.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Day 2,243: Fly the W

On September 10, 2001, I ambled past a security line that didn't exist yet and made my way to the front row of the first base side of Wrigley Field, so close I could hear the opposition talking in the dugout, with a man who had a child he didn't want me to know about, and watched the Cubs crush a team from Ohio on the night before the ballparks closed and the planes stopped flying.

As a kid, I didn't play baseball, except the one summer, when I won the sportsmanship award, since I had such a good time watching other people care more about the score than I did. But my brother was a pitcher, and when I was tiny, say, 4 years old, I learned to keep statistics at baseball games. This was back when families considered children differently. I had taught myself to read the year before, so they figured I might as well bring a pencil and paper to the game and make myself useful.

At home, my childhood summers were filled with the sound of wiffle ball games and pinners and the Cubs on TV in the background of everything we did. I traded 45 records for baseball cards with my brother and the neighborhood boys. I always wanted to get Ron Cey and Gary Matthews. Who are they? you ask, if you're not from Chicago.

When I was 20, I lived in Chicago for one semester, and one day, we walked from our apartment to Wrigley, on a whim, paid $5 and sat in the bleachers. No one wanted to go to the games then.

When I was 26 I agreed to go to a Cubs game with my ex-boyfriend, and it was a Cardinals game at that, and he had lost a bet and was forced to wear the St. Louis jersey. It was over 100 degrees and we were in the bleachers, and we waited and waited for the game to start, but it never did. There was no social media then, no texting even, but phones started ringing all over the ballpark, rumors started swirling, and soon enough we learned that Darryl Kile was dead, done in by a heart attack the night before, and they called a baseball game off for grief. I've always wondered if we knew he was dead before his family knew.

I had a professor in college who loved baseball more than was probably rational. He visited Chicago a few times every summer just to watch the Cubs play, and I met up with him once beforehand in a Jewish deli where we had pastrami and cream soda. That day, Kerry Wood, who was 20 years old, threw 20 strikeouts, and after the game, my professor called me to say "When I die, I will be able to say that, if nothing else, I saw that happen."

My 10 year high school reunion was held in one of the frat-boy bars of Wrigleyville about a block from the park in 2003. I'm sure the planners didn't even consider that the Cubs would be playing in October. It didn't turn out how we expected; really though, does anything? That night a guy named Steve Bartman reached for a ball, and our reunion, the neighborhood, our city and our collective consciousness exploded in a fit of misplaced rage and endless, gut-wrenching disappointment for so long we forgot what it was really about.

One day I turned around, and I was grown. It happened slowly and all at once. It was now my job to bring baseball to my kids, so one Saturday I took my daughter to a game and inexplicably caught a foul ball hit by Nate Schierholtz, but I thought my hand might break from the impact and I dropped it. She reached down for it and a grown man took it from her, until another man gave him a Chicago look and he looked at us full of beer and sheepishness and regret and handed it over.

A few years later, my husband and I saw a young kid, only 22, hit a grand slam in the first game of the NLCS.

I found myself knowing there was other parenting advice to give, but telling my son anyway that a triple is the best play in sports, because it doesn't exist. I could have told him something about grace and what lessons there are to learn, but instead I told him a triple's just a double and a guy who ran like hell.

That same son is a switch-hitter, if for no other reason than he started playing ball before he knew you were only supposed to walk to the plate from one side and not the other, and we didn't bother to correct him. This year, right around the time he turned 7, he finally had the chance to play catcher on a day that was so hot his coach poured water and ice over him in the middle of every inning, as the catcher's equipment weighed almost as much as him, and he was dripping with sweat and his face was so red he looked combustible, and the team he played was older and slaughtered them until the game was called early. Kids on his team were crying and exhausted and frustrated and I wondered what to say to him when it ended, deluding myself, as parents do, into thinking I had something to teach. He looked at me and said "That team was really good, weren't they? Wow. And mom! They let me catch for four innings." He was all smiles and I knew if given the chance, he would've started right in again.

For years, we lived on the South Side, and commuted several times a year to watch a team that charged too much for everything, considering. It angered us, the money and whiteness of the crowd, the inaccessibility of it all, the greed, and we kept telling ourselves we wouldn't do it anymore, but we lied.

We had Harry Carray and then we didn't have him anymore. Ron Santo died before he was inducted into the hall of fame. Sammy Sosa blew kisses to his mother and thrilled us while he lied and cheated and our hearts broke. Next year never came, someday sat out in the distance. They built buildings for the sole purpose of selling tickets for a chance to watch a team that never won when it counted, across from the only ballpark anywhere built amidst apartments where people actually lived, where you could watch the El speed past, where you could never forget you were in Chicago, no matter how hard you tried.

And because we are who we are, even our hopeful refrain on its best day sounds like an existential plea: Fly the W. It's the sports version of Fats Waller telling us, let's waltz the rumba, because it's impossible, really, but...why not?

Why not?

In a city beleaguered by its own faults and dealings, in the shadow of our tragic violence and corruption, we made a legend of failure in a beautiful canvass of brick and ivy.

For more than 100 years, we followed a game that looked like ourselves, full of unfulfilled promises, scandal, injury, illness and even death, because we couldn't help it, because we knew that any history is the story of the most deserving people never getting to see their dreams come true, because the possibility of winning would be a redemption for our memories.

And then, next year came, and we found ourselves in someday. The night was long and the rain was imminent and we couldn't decide whether to watch or hide or sleep. And then?

We saw ourselves jump with the joy of childhood, this motley crew of us, this multi-racial group of rookies and retirees, immigrants, Ivy-leaguers, and cancer survivors, and at that moment, our reflection seemed perfect.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and we were alive to see it happen.

Holy cow.