This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who here toil
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone.
–Scotland, Sir Alexander Gray
Today is the day. The referendum on Scottish independence. Many of you have asked me how I would vote on this issue, and my answer is……..snare drum roll, please!….
It doesn’t matter.
I was born Scottish by the grace of God. But we moved to the USA and I am now American. I have less than zero business telling anyone in Scotland how they should be voting on an issue of such tremendous import.
But I will say this.
To those who say that a free Scotland would struggle economically: you are probably right. But it has always struggled economically as part of the UK. That struggle is precisely why my family moved to the US when British Steel went tits up. Things were bad and not looking to get better; thank you, Mrs. Thatcher.
To those who say that the disentangling of these nations would be immeasurably complicated: you are probably right. What about the currency?! What about the EU?! What about the oil and gas?! The mind boggles at the details. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
To those who say that this entire independence movement is based on emotion: OF COURSE IT IS. For the love of all that is good and holy, OF COURSE the independence movement is emotional. Has any independence movement ever been anything but? But why does that make it any less credible?
The answer is that there is no easy answer.
My sense is that NO will win.
My sense is that Scotland will persevere regardless.
Scotland, as nations go, is a tough old broad. People love to quote that Alexander Gray poem, but never in it’s entirety. They should:
Here in the Uplands
The soil is ungrateful;
The fields, red with sorrel,
Are stony and bare.
A few trees, wind-twisted –
Or are they but bushes? –
Stand stubbornly guarding
A home here and there.
Scooped out like a saucer,
The land lies before me;
The waters, once scattered,
Flow orderly now
Through fields where the ghosts
Of the marsh and the moorland
Still ride the old marches,
Despising the plough.
The marsh and the moorland
Are not to be banished;
The bracken and heather,
The glory of broom,
Usurp all the balks
And the fields’ broken fringes,
And claim from the sower
Their portion of room.
This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who here toil
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone.
Hard is the day’s task –
Scotland, stern Mother –
Wherewith at all times
Thy sons have been faced:
Labour by day,
And scant rest in the gloaming,
With Want an attendant,
Not lightly outpaced.
Yet do thy children
Honour and love thee.
Harsh is thy schooling,
Yet great is the gain:
True hearts and strong limbs,
The beauty of faces,
Kissed by the wind
And caressed by the rain.
It describes a place that has historically been hard to live in and hard on the people who love her anyway. It captures the essence of Scottish-hood: a love of country borne of struggle. A terrain at once mesmerizingly beautiful and mercilessly unforgiving. A history at once profoundly inspiring and relentlessly heartbreaking. A culture and a people who always have been and always will be unique and powerful and inimitable.
With or without their sovereignty.
*msybe yes, maybe no
Someone recently asked me if I had changed since having my transplant, a question I’ve been asked on the regular since 2007. Leaving aside the question of why me experiencing some kind of transformation seems to be important to people, I decided, now that I have some distance from it, to actually ponder what I did learn or change about myself. Well, I wish I could be all Deepak about it for you and claim increased awareness of all things or expanded connectivity to all beings. Or even a commitment to flossing more than once a day. But I can’t.
“You’re probably nicer now? More peaceful?” the guy offered sanguinely. Oh, honey. You’re mistaking me for a country song. I did not go sky diving or Rocky Mountain climbing. I did not pray to be a rainbow shining down on my mother. And I very truly never spent a moment Hoping You Dance. He didn’t know me pre-transplant, so can be forgiven for imagining that I’m now somehow a kinder, gentler version of my 2007 self. But he’s still a bit wide of the mark.
The transplant simply was what it was: an effing terrifying health crisis. The kind people have every day across my town and across the globe. One that I, thank you Jeebus, survived. A privilege denied to many.
My primary memories of that time involve worrying about Bambina, who was 3 at the time, calming her fears and meeting her needs as best I could in order to keep her world as predictable and boring as possible. I may have psychologically survived the whole ordeal simply because I didn’t have any bandwidth left after chemo and transplant exhaustion to navel gaze about Poor Me. I just wanted my kid to emerge from it as unscathed as possible, and so any energy I had went towards her. Days I was certain I could not get out of bed lasted about 4 minutes until I saw how badly she needed to see me get out of bed. So I got up and got on with it, dragging my ass out from the covers and into the daily grind. Then as soon as the door closed behind her on the way to preschool I went back to sleep for 3 hours, then got back up and showered before she got home. Mama is down, but she ain’t out. Mama is wearing sweatpants but she’s no slouch. Mama may be a wee bit bald, but she is the queen of the combover! Recognize!
So, if pressed to identify some kind of metamorphosis, I can cop to a couple of things. On the philosophical side, I suppose I am simultaneously more afraid and less afraid of everything. I’m more afraid of dying in one sense because I don’t have the intellectual fiction of most people that it won’t happen to me. I fully know that I could go tits up in the next 5 minutes for any number of reasons, and this terrifies me to my core only because I have kids. The thought of leaving them is the third rail in my brain that I’ve had to touch several times already. No amount of time or distance ever makes approaching it easier. It is the darkest, blackest, most soul-devouring prospect in the universe. It is the Harry Potter dementor made real, a malevolent specter that, when pondered for more than a fleeting moment of “what if”, leaves me fighting for breath, certain that I will never feel joy again.
On the other hand, I’m less afraid of dying because, well, it is what it is. Come at me, bro. I already know I can’t control it, evade it, fight it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. I made my uneasy peace with it years ago. It’s like finding out at 5 years old that there really is a monster under your bed. It’s real, it’s always there, but it’s not going to devour you tonight. Or tomorrow night. Probably. And so you just learn to coexist with it. You know it’s there, you wish it weren’t, but you just busy yourself with other things and try to ignore it. You turn that clock radio up, turn the box fan on and go to sleep because that’s what people do. In my case, the creature crawls out about once a year, flops on my bed and scratches its balls while announcing “mah bed now.” And I (with the assistance of vancomycin) wrestle it back below. Yeah, it is unsettling and disquieting, but that’s how the monster and I roll. But I also don’t fret too much because I know in my heart that, should the world continue inexplicably to spin without me, those I leave behind will be just fine. A parent’s job is to prepare your kids to live a happy, fulfilled, productive life without you. I just do that anyway with a little more urgency than I otherwise would in a different world.
Beyond the mortality question, I’m also a mixed bag of compassionate understanding. In one sense, I just give everyone the benefit of the doubt because I have needed it myself so many times. I’m skipping the parent meeting not because I’m lazy or uninterested but because I just returned from my pheresis appointment that physically ruins me for 24 hours. It’s dialysis for the white cells, with all the fatigue that implies. I’m sending regrets to your dinner out not because I don’t want to come but because I can’t eat at buffets or consume sushi. And I for realz cannot eat at your sushi buffet! I’m a bit scattered in replying to emails, not because I’m a jerk who thinks you aren’t important. I just always plan to respond once the kids are in bed, and some days I am too tired to even slide one finger across an IPad, even though I KNOW you need a response. I really am sorry about this. Fatigue is kind of a constant in my life, mostly due to treatments and meds. When I can drop some meds, I’ll be more on the ball. But the truth is that every single day I open my eyes I feel like absolute shit. Really. Tired, nauseous, a bit dizzy, and Not Ready For Prime Time. I just need an hour or so to ramp up, get my head right, and tamp down the barfies. Then I’m off like the rocket you have come to expect. But I really truly no longer remember what it is like to awake and feel normal. Someday! Someday. But not today. If it were not for people in the meantime choosing to assume the best about me, I’d probably have not a single friend and people would avoid my kids like the plague. So I understand the desperate importance of humility in my judgments of others, the acknowledgment that I really truly don’t know what challenges they may be facing quietly and courageously in service of needs greater than themselves.
Having said that, complaining bitchasses need to stop complaining. :) Or, more politely, I simultaneously have LESS patience and compassion for malingerers. To be fair (refer myself back to “humility” statement above), I can often be too quick to slap the “that’s BS” label on some nice person’s valid complaints. I own that. But by and large I just cannot listen to anyone bemoaning their Rich People Problems. All I think while hearing the, “and then she totally waah waah, and my sandwich was boo hoo wrong, and the paint color was two shades too dark, and can you BELIEVE the vacation beach house had no garbage disposal?!” Is 1. Are your children healthy? 2. Are you? 3. Do you all manage to eat every day with a roof over your head? 4. Do you have one person in the world who loves you? If yes: THEN SHUT THE FUCK UP. You are already more fortunate than 98% of this planet’s population. Take your good fortune and RUN, Muthaf$cka!. Let all of this petty stuff go, take a look around, and enjoy your family’s health. Because when it’s gone, no shade of paint or type of beach house or insufferable coworker will matter. You will look back and regret every second you spent on mental and emotional dysentery when you suddenly have a real problem that can’t be fixed by whining.
On the more practical side of things, I have learned one key thing. To never ask a sick, injured or bereaved person “What can I do to help?” I now just show up with food. Or rides. Or babysitting. And then I leave. My job as the friend of a person facing something is to unburden that person. Requiring that person to ask me for help, however well-intentioned, is about the most burdensome thing I can do. In all my years of dealing with health challenges, I have possibly managed to actually ask for assistance about 4 times. And each time was truly difficult and stressful because I knew the people I was asking had full plates of their own (eternal gratitude to a heavily-pregnant, ready-to-birth Nancy for almost single-handedly ensuring the contents of our DC house made it into the moving truck to Boston). So now I know to Do rather than Ask. I used to say, “Let me know if I can bring you dinner.” As if the sick person is going to call me and be like, ” Yeah, my kids would love a large cheese pizza tomorrow night. Could you do me a solid?” Never going to happen. So now I call and say, ” I hope your kids want pizza this week because Auntie Esther is delivering, baby! What night works best?” Unburden the already-burdened. Just show up and help. Don’t stay. Don’t hang out unless specifically invited. In my case, don’t expect homemade (I’m the ho that made it!) because any food I’d prepare you would be another form of affliction. So I’ll just be of service via takeout and then move along.
So, with all respect to people who really do have Regarding Henry stories, I just can’t claim the same. I’ll paraphrase the late, great Robin Williams describing the agony and ecstasy of cocaine use: “It expands your personality!…..But what if you’re an asshole?!” So I guess my answer to “how have you changed?” Is that I subscribe to the Williams Theorem: That transplants, like cocaine, expand your personality. Whoever you were at your core before the transplant is who emerges from the rubble of the transplant. People who are bitter now were probably bitter then, or predisposed to it. People who are generous and kind now probably always had the capacity whether it manifested or not before. Me? I’ve pretty much always been a judgey, impatient woman who loves well and cooks badly. Seven years later, as much as I wish I could claim otherwise, you all are just getting More Of The Same.
Since the apparent suicide of Robin Williams yesterday, social media has lit up with tributes rooted in profound disbelief that a man so funny could have been in so much pain. In every outlet, people are sharing memories of adolescence informed by Dead Poets Society. Memories of childhood on the couch with grandparents enjoying Jonathan Winters and kids enjoying Mork. Memories of all of his varied and influential roles on the big screen. These tributes are often accompanied by lists of “favorite Robin Williams quotes.” Only, the quotes are not Robin’s. They are his characters’. A difference with a significant distinction.
The power, appeal and danger of celebrity is that it makes us feel like we know someone we have never met. It gives us a sense of ownership of that person based on what their work has meant to us in our lives. Robin Williams becomes special to us because Mr. Keating spoke to something in us. Because Mork evokes memories of our childhood. Because Adrian Cronauer spoke to the hopes and heartbreaks of a generation. We felt like we knew Robin Williams. We obviously, sadly did not.
How often do we bring this same false sense of knowing to our personal lives? How often do we assume we know someone based solely on what they have effected in our lives, rather than on what is actually happening in theirs? That’s my brother, the doofus. That’s my sister, the earth mother. That’s my cousin, the yuppie little miss perfect. That’s my niece, the child who always achieves and makes me proud. Families have a way of setting up narratives, story lines. With characters who are expected to play their defined roles. We see it played out at Christmas dinners across the land. You arrive at your childhood home a grown man and within the hour you are the Kid Brother from 1986. You arrive a fully-realized professional woman and leave an insecure 14 year-old. We see the peace rupture when a “cast member” no longer plays their assigned role. When they no longer recite the words we expect them to say, that we need them to say in order for our continued role-playing to make sense. We think we know people. We really, truly don’t.
Just for today, resist thinking that you know someone. Ask yourself “What DON’T I know about this person? What could I learn about this other, precious human that might have absolutely nothing to do with me, my needs or my expectations of them?” See beyond the public laughter and witness what remains privately when the laughing stops.
While you are doing that, consider dropping even one element of your OWN character’s facade. Back in the day, in the midst of personal and professional turmoil, I called a friend to lament my situation, my inability to get out of the hole I had so spectacularly dug for myself because doing so would reveal my current abject failure. Abject failure was not part of my character’s back story, not in the approved script. My role in my family and in my life was to be the Golden Girl. To achieve. To be smart. To be successful. Failure was for other folks. My role specifically called for near-perfection. My friend, the amazing JMW, changed my whole life simply by giving me permission to go off-script: “What’s the worst that will happen if the world finds out you are a sometime fuckup just like the rest of us? You don’t owe anyone a cleaned up version of yourself. You owe us the real you. People who can’t deal with the real you can just move along.” Boom. That script? It’s not worth the imaginary paper it’s written on. It’s not gospel. It’s not canon. It’s something I can rip up and rewrite at will. Yes, that will throw the rest of the cast into chaos, maybe. But they are responsible for their roles. Not me and not mine. From that moment I began to rewrite my script. Began to blog about my fuckups. Began to laugh about them. Began to unload the weight of carrying the hopes and dreams of previous generations on my back. I will achieve what I achieve. The ghosts of my poor, striving ancestors will be proud either way.
So today I’m giving you the gift my friend gave me: permission to flip the script. To rewrite it, delete entire sections, rip it up, burn that mother and all its expectations down. You don’t owe the world a funny, happy, shiny version of yourself. You don’t owe the world a Facebook-ready photo shoot of contentment and joy and fulfillment. You don’t owe the world a damn untrue, inauthentic thing. You owe yourself the opportunity to be the real you. The unscripted you.
The amazing, talented, loveable, fucked up you.
I wish we could find a way and a place where we as Americans could talk about race.
The past couple of weeks have found me ready to throw up my hands and declare a pox on all our houses. It all started in an online discussion forum (doesn’t everything start in an online discussion forum?) about a woman of color at a particular enterprise who was “passed over” in favor of a white woman recruited externally. The boards lit up, the comments were coming fast and furious. Then a white woman said what I had been thinking, which was, “This happened 15 minutes ago. None of us has ANY idea why one person got the job over the other…yet. So let’s keep the powder dry until we know what we are dealing with here.” Well, thank god I didn’t say that out loud, because unfortunate white lady commenter was attacked with full artillery for her privilege, her racism, her ignorance and her insensitivity. And I’m thinking, “you got ALL that about this woman from a simple comment urging restraint?” Who’s judging who based on color here?
On the flip side, I saw a discussion about the Staten Island man who died after being put in a choke hold by the police. I saw the video, the unnecessary force. With my own eyes. A white commenter chimed in that the guy was resisting arrest, que sera sera. He saw no such force in that video, which blew my mind. What I found even more mind-boggling was his refusal or inability to acknowledge that, had the man been white and living in Darien CT, the police would not have taken him down like that in a million years. That, it seems to me, is pretty clear. But not to this guy.
Both situations just highlighted for me how far we still have to go in this country in dealing with our painful racial history. It’s something we don’t want to talk about because it forces us to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Specifically, that for a period of time in the history of this great nation that we love so much, humans were considered the property of other humans. The United States of America practiced human slavery. It’s a terrible, awful, unspeakable thing to have done. It is a blemish, a cancer, a stain on our history. And it occurred less than 200 years ago. Hell, it was only 70 years ago that Japanese-Americans–American citizens!–were rounded up like animals and placed in camps amid patriotic hysteria. And double hell, it was barely 60 years ago that Ruby Bridges, a child, received death threats for the terrible crime of trying to attend the same school as her white fellow citizens. When black people had to pass a test to vote, when civil rights activists were murdered with impunity. This is not ancient history. It is modern history, and its repercussions still reverberate around us and through us as individuals and as a nation.
The problem I see in these situations and others like them, is that when it comes to race, ours is not a SHARED history. Whites and People Of Color experienced these events in such different ways that we almost don't have a common language or framework in which to approach them. The POV of the white guy seeing no issue with the police response to the asthmatic Staten Island man is a very classic, "I have never seen or heard of this happening to me or anyone I know. Therefore I have trouble believing that this actually happens." And the white woman run out of the discussion about hiring practices. I don't presume to know what went on there, except to say that it is rarely fair or constructive to take structural, societal issues like racism and pin them squarely on any individual, especially one who seemed in full agreement with your concerns, if not the tenor in which they were expressed.
As I lament the lack of safe spaces to discuss race in our country, I am reminded of my father. My dad was, for probably the first 40 years of his life, totally racist; and I say that in the kindest, tenderest way. I say that with the standard white person disclaimer, "I mean, he didn't hate anyone or wish harm on anyone" as if he deserves a prize for not being violent and hateful. Great job! Here's your cookie, Dad! But he would have told you himself. He was just raised with a sense that white people were better than brown people. It was something he internalized from his earliest days. You may be poor and from a farm and looked down upon by others (ie, whites). But you are still superior to THEM. You know, them. It was so much a part of his upbringing that he didn't even notice it. Then we moved to the USA where there live many more "brown people" than in Scotland. His kids became friends with said brown people. He worked side by side with said brown people. He could no longer maintain his old, subconscious views because damn if they don't work just as hard as he does, and raise their kids with the same values as he does. But what gave my Dad the ability to change was the safe space afforded him by those coworkers who could just have (rightfully) said, "Eff this dude. He's an a-hole. It's not my job to educate this ignorant old man." But instead they listened to his "negro" jokes then pushed back on him to wise up. They challenged him every step of the way but never demonized him. We kids did plenty of that at home, starting fights if he used inappropriate terms for people. It's safe to say that it took a multicultural village of friends, family and coworkers to drag my father into the 21st century. And to his credit, he got dragged willingly, if no less confusedly. But get there he did. And it saddens me that these places, these spaces, these opportunities for whites and people of color to talk together, to interact, to learn from each other, seem to be disappearing in a fog of recriminations and intransigence. Where the crazy people, the most damaged people, the ones least open to acknowledging that I may not know everything there is to know about YOUR experience, on both sides seem to be controlling the dialogue.
It’s a damn shame, because I really do wish we could talk.
I’ve wanted to write a post about this, but this blogger did it perfectly. Read it. If you have a grand daughter, a niece, a young woman you care about. Read it.
“How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.
Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.
If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:….” Read on and do likewise.
“Mama, tell me a story.” Baby Sister says that at least three times a day. I used to love it because it was a great chance to casually introduce themes and topics like her first day with us after her adoption (you ate all the yogurt that Nanjing hotel breakfast buffet had!), school fears (you were nervous but that’s how you met your BFF Jilly Hooper!) or her heart surgery (you were so brave! And the first thing you asked for your first solid meal afterwards was a big plate of peas!).
Aaah. It was all so simple then. Food, folks and fun: the three key building blocks of children’s storytelling. Now, weeks later, I am running out of stories. Interesting ones at least. You and I may not be enraptured by the heroic tale of The Little Girl Who Ate Peas, but damn if that little yarn didn’t buy me three days of respite from story creation. Unfortunately, now that she is an urbane and sophisticated “almost Kindergartener” my little Story Urchin has had it with the daily gruel I’ve been slopping out lo these many days (please sir, may I have some more?). The Three Fs no longer cut it and the pressure is on to deliver something better than “Yay you! Yay peas!”
Thinking back to stories that Bambina ate up, I tried talking about books she used to love at each age, forgetting momentarily that my girls could not be more different if they tried. Bambina could discuss books for hours. “Mama, are you aware that JK Rowling’s inspiration for the name Dursley originated in….” Baby Sister’s reaction to book talk? “Mama, that boring.”
So I tried telling her stories of cool things she did as a baby. But that just pissed her off because I was apparently disrespecting her current, adult individuality. “Why you keep talking about babies? I’m not a baby! Stop telling baby stories!”
I tried many avenues of interest, each a deader end than the last, each found wanting in a variety of different ways. None considered a successful or worthwhile vehicle for satisfactory entertainment. Desperation obviously set in.
Which means of course that I have, as of this writing, told her no fewer than five (5) stories about poop and pee. Yes. Much like the desperate and lesser-light comedian who must resort to saying “fuck” plus something about tits when he senses the 3-drink minimum crowd’s enthusiasm ebbing, I have silenced the better angels of my nature and am now in full scatology mode for survival.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. That time I farted monumentally in 2nd grade to much embarrassment, shock and awe is a proven crowd-pleaser. As is the time I rolled down a hill for fun and consequently got covered in dog shite because, hello, it was 1978 in Scotland. Leash laws and basic “don’t leave animal feces everywhere” sensibilities hadn’t been invented yet. We were totally still littering in ’78. And not wearing seat belts. And eating a brand of jam whose mascot was a ragdoll in blackface. So leaving entire grassy knolls riddled with dog poop bullets was not even on the radar of human concern.
I’ve shared the story of when I was 2 years old and I fell into the toilet. I was so proud to be using the bathroom myself that I failed to note that if I didn’t hold the sides of the toilet seat I was going to go right into the commode. Which I did. To this day I can summon on command the disquieting and inchoate feelings generated by my little toddler butt cheeks submerged in toilet bowl water, legs trapped up in the air, as I screamed for my mum to liberate me from my porcelain prison. I can tell you every detail, how the sunlight shone through the window just so, and the look on my mom’s face as she crested the stairs to see only my legs and head emerging from the bowl, pulling me from the wreckage while repeating, ” I told you to wait for me! I told you to wait for me.” Baby Sister particularly likes that detail, mistaking (or is she?) my mom’s concern for disappointment. Like, not only were you stuck in a toilet which is gross enough without one more detail, you got in trouble to boot. Excellent! She gave that story a 9.5.
So you see my dilemma. If it bleeds it leads, which is no way to go through life, son. So help me out, friends. Tell me a story I can tell her. I promise I’ll change your name. Especially if it involves poop.