Results for when I realized I was white

How I discovered I am white

by renegademama

When I was 14 or so, I asked my grandmother why we didn’t have a “white club” at school. I don’t recall her response, but I do remember feeling particularly smug and vaguely angry that there was a “Latino” club and a “Chinese” club but not a “white” club.

Oh the unfairness! Oh the disparity! Why do we celebrate their heritage but not ours?

And I didn’t think about race again, at least not much, until I dated an African American man in college and a stranger whispered “nigger lover” in my ear one night as he walked by us in a grocery store. I was shocked. My boyfriend was less shocked.

I concluded the stranger was some strange exception of horrible racist creature. He was, after all, approximately 97 years old. (Well, 70, but he appeared 97 to my fresh young eyes.)

And then, a few months later, when my boyfriend’s roommate took me aside and asked why I have to “take a good black man who was in college,” when so many black men were incarcerated. I concluded she was crazy. And mean.

She hurt my feelings. Poor Janelle.

Beyond these few moments, and a couple others, I didn’t really think about race. Well, I thought about how people made arguments “about race” when clearly they were not. I mean why do they make race an issue? It’s not an issue. I never see it.

 

Oh yeah, I had America all figured out: If ya work hard, you get ahead. And if you don’t get ahead, it’s because you made bad decisions. And if you get arrested it’s because you’re breaking the law, and people who break the law are more likely to be black. Obviously. That’s why they’re always getting arrested. (How’s that for some cyclic logic?)

I knew this to be true because:

  1. America was awful to black people but that was fixed during the Civil Rights movement;
  2. Therefore, we are all on equal footing now and if you don’t succeed it’s because you aren’t trying.

I learned it in school. It was fact. School teaches the truth.

And then, graduate school, and Professor Lee.

Oh, shit.

“Not all white people are white supremacists, but all white people benefit from white supremacy.”

WHAT THE WHAT?

She made us repeat it like a mantra. At least 3 times. I read Tim Wise’s White Like Me and bell hooks and David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness and learned how our economic systems benefit from racism and we read about the history of American immigration laws (have you ever read them?) and colonialism in the Philippines and elsewhere (yes, America has colonies but we call them “territories”), and we read about redlining and white flight (ever wonder how black people ended up in urban centers?), and we read some DuBois and Omi & Winant and literature by people of color and all of the sudden I realized I had been fucking lied to.

 

I understood America through white eyes. I understood the world through the mainstream, polished glasses of a nice clean history of “we used to be bad now we’re not the end.”

Go team.

I discovered I was white.

“Not all white people are white supremacists, but all white people benefit from white supremacy.”

She wanted us to see that as individuals, not all white people are bigoted. But she also wanted us to see that every white person – whether they are bigoted or not – benefits from the racially structured hierarchies in America. They benefit from racism.

Yes. Even me. Even though I am not “racist.”

How? And she explained whiteness. She explained that “white” is the standard. White is the background against which difference is measured.

In other words, it’s “white” until further notice. It’s “white” until proven otherwise. It’s “white” or it’s the “other,” and it has nothing to do with actual numbers, percentages of “minority” population. It has to do with power. It has to do with the culture of power. What do I mean? If a comedy film features a white family, it’s a comedy. If it features a black family, it’s a comedy for people of color. Think about it.

White is the standard. And I’m white. Therefore, I am standard, and that benefits me.

When I walk into a room, I don’t fear that I’m representing my whole race. I have never acted badly then thought to myself “Oh shit, I sure hope they don’t hate all white people now.”

Or, in other words, even though pretty much every Columbine-type-school-kid-murderer is white, I’ve never developed a distrust for white, socially awkward high school kids.

A few do not represent the whole.

 

“Privilege is passed on through history.”

Whatever. I grew up POOR!

But then I thought about how, in the late 1940s, my grandmother was the first woman editor of the University of Washington’s newspaper. After she graduated, she and my grandpa bought and ran small newspapers in northern California. The family business they built employed my family members for 40+ years.

In the late 1940s, black people were not allowed to sit in the front of the bus.

How can I deny that my grandparents’ access to education and economic success did not materially affect me in a positive way, directly, through my father? I thought about the loans my parents were able to take with financial backing from my grandparents, and how that benefitted me. My life. My quality of life. The neighborhoods we lived in. The schools we attended. My cultural knowledge.

 

“Why don’t we have ‘White History Month?’”

Because White History Month is every month other than February, asshole.

Oh, shit indeed.

 

“The culture of power determines which version of history is told and retold.”  

Prior to the Women’s Rights Movement, women were stuck in the home while men went to work and supported them. But then women were liberated and able to get jobs working outside the home.

Right?

WRONG.

White, middle to upper class women were “stuck in the home.” Women of color have ALWAYS “worked out of the home.” In fact, women of color were probably working in the homes of the white women about which our history is written.

So one of the most oft-repeated, trusted narratives about American history erases the history of women of color. It is dead fucking wrong. It isn’t even kind of right. They are erased. Non-existent. Unseen.

They are Chapter 10. They are a chapter that ends with “but then Martin Luther King, Jr., and all is well.”

They are Chapter 10. I am chapters 1 through forever, and every day I cash in on that fact, whether or not I support the systems making that happen for me.

 

I realized the reason I had never thought about race was because I was of the privileged one, because I didn’t have to, NOT BECAUSE RACIAL DISPARITY DIDN’T EXIST. I didn’t have to think about race because I was having a fundamentally different life experience than people of color. But I could ignore them, because of my privilege.

I was able to hang out in meltin-pot, “post-racial” land because the structures of this society allow (and encourage) me to “not see race” while continually feeding me narratives about “equality,” “multiculturalism,” “color-blindness” and “ghetto urban lifestyles.”

I spent a lot of time in graduate school in the library, writing at a computer. Like, hours. Whole days. When I had to pee, I would ask the person sitting next to me to watch my stuff so I didn’t have to pack it all up and carry it down the hall to the bathroom. I did it a 100 times.

Once I looked over at the person next to me and my first thought was “Oh you can’t ask him. He’ll steal your stuff.

He was a young black man wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt.

I was sickened at myself. I was horrified at my response. There was absolutely nothing different about him from the 100 other people I didn’t hesitate to ask, except he was black.

I realized that not only do I benefit historically and presently, every day, from the color of my skin, I have also internalized cultural narratives regarding blacks and whites that manifest whether or not I support them.

“Hey, would you mind watching my stuff for a minute?”

 

But what now?

Does it mean my grandmother’s accomplishments are less badass? Nope. Does it mean I do not “deserve” success? Nope. Does it mean that I am a bad person? Nope.

It means that we live in a highly racialized society rooted in a history of discrimination and that we have a long way to go. It means that watching “The Help” and feeling bad is not enough. Sentimentality is not action. It means that I have had an advantage over people of color. Yes, always. Yes, no matter what. Because even if you’re poor and white you can join the culture of power by learning the walk and talk. But you can’t change your skin color.

From the day I was first introduced to this “other story,” I couldn’t get enough. Not because I’m some sort of saint or conspiracy theorist, but because I was curious. I was interested out of a sense of shared humanity. And I was fucking angry that I had been swindled. I wanted the truth. Or, I wanted a fuller picture. I wanted more sides.

That, my friends, is pathetic in its privilege.

I learned in graduate school what every person of color knows through life experience. I learned in graduate school that we weren’t “fixed” during the Civil Rights movement.

But when this information was presented to me I felt a sense of relief, because I think deep down I always knew something was terribly wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

 

I don’t understand the white rage I keep reading on the internet.

Just another dead thug.

He got what he deserved.

Run over the protestors. They’re making me late for work.

STOP PLAYING THE “RACE CARD.”  

I don’t understand it. What’s at stake, people? What’s at stake in accepting that racism exists? Or even entertaining the thought? Are people really so stupid they can’t fathom that other people might be having a different experience than they are? Is it really that hard to comprehend that something can exist EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T PERSONALLY SEE IT?

(Although you’ll see your privilege if you’re willing to examine your life honestly.)

Why the hell are people so unwilling to listen?

 

Let’s think about this for a moment. A whole community of people are saying this exists. Data shows racial disparities in economic, education, justice, and healthcare systems. Basically, ALL OVER THE PLACE. Unarmed black boys and men are killed without recourse. Repeatedly. The comment sections of these crimes are riddled with assholes shouting “Good. One less loser.”

Still people claim “Racism doesn’t exist.” But here’s the thing: The only way you can discount the words, lives, efforts and voices of hundreds of thousands of people is THROUGH THE RACISM YOU CLAIM DOESN’T EXIST.

You can only ignore them if they’re aren’t worth hearing.

You can only ignore them if they’re liars. If they’re just looking for a handout.

If they’re not human like you.

You can only ignore them by using the very narratives you claim aren’t happening.

And let’s be honest, we can only ignore them because it’s easy, because we’ll never have to walk a day in their shoes, and it’s just so much more pleasant to turn away, look away, focus back on our lives.

But the sand is getting skimpy and our heads are showing. At this point, if we’re not part of the solution we’re part of the problem.

I’m using my voice to talk to you. I’m using my voice to talk to my kids. But it isn’t enough. We’re looking for places to volunteer. I’m looking for actions I can take.

We’re at a crossroads. This cannot go on. We’re crushed under the weight of hatred, history, silence, violence, bullshit media and the insidious defense of systematic unequal distribution of resources, and at some point, none of us will be able to breathe.

 

It feels small and pathetic to be one person in this mess. I feel stupid and vulnerable and slightly insane to be writing this here, now. But fuck my feelings. Fuck feeling uncomfortable. Fuck the nonsense that keeps us quiet and content and cozy in our little post-racial dreamland.

They can’t breathe, and I’m breathing just fine.

And that is precisely the problem.

 

We leave in ten days. Still don’t know how.

by renegademama

“Mac, THIS IS THE CRAZIEST SHIT WE’VE EVER DONE.”

“Honey, I’ve been with you 18 years and this doesn’t even rank in the top ten.”

I guess he has a point, but dude. This is fucking nuts. We just got a place to rent in the Netherlands. As in, yesterday. So the day before yesterday, we were thinking we may have to delay our arrival date. That woulda sucked.

Look, I know people do complex things, but selling all your shit and moving to another country with kids really has a lot of moving parts. Who woulda thought?

Schools, housing, bank accounts, immigration application, cell phones, health insurance, drivers’ licenses, tax implications, shipping your shit overseas, getting to the actual other country, figuring out what to bring, getting from the airport to the town, getting the keys to the house, and then, once you arrive, remembering it’s an empty house because it takes 8 more weeks for your shit to arrive.

Sooooooo we arrive in Amsterdam July 6 with our four kids. We rented a VAN because that’s all we fit in, and we’ll drive to a hotel in Haarlem for 2 nights. The next day, we’ll get the keys to our house, and then we’ll head to Ikea to buy a sofa bed and beds for the kids, and pray to god they can be delivered that day so we have somewhere to sleep. DOES THIS STRIKE ANYBODY ELSE AS A SHIT PLAN?

Whose idea was this?

 

It’s funny how things change when you’re in the middle of them. They seem to get, well, super real.

A few times a day, I ask myself or Mac: “What the fuck are we DOING?” He laughs.

Are we really doing this?

Is this actually going to work?

If this works it will be a fucking miracle.

You know that feeling when you’ve been thinking and packing for a family vacation – and packing and thinking more – and you finally load into the car, throw it in reverse and know you’ve forgotten shit but you just can’t care anymore, so you just hope it isn’t anything tragic?

Yeah, I feel like that, only if I DO forget something, it could be a massive fucking problem. Like, I’m on the wrong continent to fix it. That kind of problem.

I’ve surrendered. I’m at the point now where I’m saying “Okay, we have birth certificates, passports, immigration paperwork. FUCK ALL THE REST.”

I suspect this also a shit plan.

 

The hardest part of this move, however, is not the moving parts. It’s hurting people I love, which is really happening a lot lately. Goodbyes, real goodbyes. Grandparents with a voice that cracks as they ask Arlo to write them letters.

“Where will you stay?” asks Grandma.

“Right here,” George says, patting Grandma’s heart.

Tell me you can watch that without bawling.

That’s a really shitty thing, isn’t it? When you know something is right for you, for your family, so right that you just couldn’t shake it for years, no matter how hard you tried, no matter how many times you told yourself “You can’t do it.” “It’s too hard.” “It’s irresponsible.”  “It will hurt your family.”

We tried to dodge it. We tried to not go. But it because like a fire in our guts, this all-consuming thing that raged harder the longer we tried not to extinguish it, until we couldn’t take in anymore. We knew we had to go. And yet, in doing so, we are harming others. We are taking grandkids away. It feels unnecessary sometimes, ridiculous.

It feels so fucking self-centered. Funny how a thing can feel like all those things and still be right.

 

People have been asking me why we’re moving. They seem to want a clearly defined REASON. People assume we have a job change. That’s not it.

I want to answer the question, “Why are you going?” with the words, “Just for life, mostly.” To live, pretty much.  But that doesn’t go over well. Confuses people more.

And yet, that’s kind of all I can say. First of all, I spent a year in Spain from 1999-2000 and always, and I mean always, wanted to return to Europe. I didn’t return because I had Ava.

That dream went into hiding, mostly, poking its head up occasionally. Mac had the same dream, though he’d never lived there.

Why have we had that dream? Because we want to experience something else. Because we want our kids to experience something else. Another way of living, breathing, thinking, speaking.

We just felt like we wanted to DO SOMETHING. Try something new. Check out what it’s like to not live here.

And for the last few years, we found ourselves simply existing with no end in sight. We worked all the damn time to barely survive. Barely cover our bills. Barely keep from drowning. Is there another way to do life? Are we allowed to try? Could we just do it?

We started looking at retirement as the time when life was going to get easier, when we’ll live freer. And then we started thinking about how sad and risky that is, because who the hell knows if we’ll get to live that long?

We began thinking about our deathbeds, about how we’ll feel if we never tried doing a thing that lived in our guts and souls as the path for our families.

Look, maybe this is just a midlife crisis. Let’s not rule that out.

Y’all. We were feeling dead and just wanted to fucking do something. Is that enough reason?

 

And I’ll be real frank with you all right now:

I am extremely nervous about where our country is headed. I am not at all convinced we can defeat Trump and his authoritarian regime. We elected a democratic House and they aren’t doing shit. Congress is our last line of defense and they are cowering. They are cowards. The disgust I feel.

So yes, we’re getting the fuck outta here to see if it gets better in America so we can come back. I hesitate saying this because, well, let’s just say not everyone in my family is politically aligned, but also because I’m a white middle class woman. I ain’t even the person they’re coming for. Yet.

But yeah, we want out. That’s it. Period. We want out.

I feel ambivalence about this: Indescribable relief to get the fuck outta here, and deep guilt for getting the fuck outta here. A friend said, “We need people out of here, to remind us of other ways of living.” Yes. But I think of people who want to leave and can’t. Fuck. There’s no right way. There are no answers. I am deeply grateful. I don’t know. This is all so complicated.

But I can promise you I’ll keep writing and I’ll keep voting and I will keep fighting these fucking fascists with my words. I hope getting distance from America will allow me to understand her better, see her more clearly.

I realized while sitting at the foot of the Grand Tetons, staring up at those snowy peaks, the sun cutting through the trees – my beautiful, wild, scrappy country – I fucking love her. And that’s why my heart is broken.

If I hated America, I wouldn’t care about her being brutalized like this. And yet, I’m saying goodbye anyway. For now, at least.

God, nothing is simple, is it?

Here we go.

somehow my overall mood don’t even know how exactly

***

A relevant excerpt from my book

“Sometimes I would imagine myself on my deathbed, looking back on my life, and I would feel – I mean really feel – that this life is all we get. These years, one shot, ninety years if we’re lucky. And I’d grow so terrified of just not doing anything that l would grow almost frantic.

And yes, standing among those other mothers, I was searching for meaning, even when nobody was looking – for connection, purpose, color – some taste of recklessness in a neighborhood of neutral tones. I’ve always been looking for Barcelona.”

 

28 Comments | Posted in Netherlands | June 25, 2019

I’m done behaving. It got us nowhere.

by renegademama

On my book tour, on a flight between Washington DC and Austin, Texas, I sat in the window seat with an empty seat beside me. A man in his sixties sat in the aisle seat, and about halfway through the flight, I got up to pee. He moved to let me out.

When I came back, I stood next to him and said, “Sorry,” kind of shrugging, annoyed that I had to annoy him. I stepped back to allow him to get out of the seat to let me in.

Oddly, he stepped back toward me, positioning himself in the aisle directly in front of me instead of stepping forward so I could go in behind him. His position would require me to squeeze past him in the tiny aisle, my body pressing against his.

Surprising myself, I refused to do it. I just stood there. Fuck you, man. Get the fuck out of my way. I don’t want to touch you, and I won’t, and whether you’re doing this to be creepy or out of sheer lack of social skills, I don’t care. Get the fuck out of my way.

I stood there and stared at his back until enough time passed that it got weird. He looked back at me and I motioned for him to step forward so I could get by. He didn’t move. I said, “Move forward so I can get in behind you.” I didn’t even say please.

He looked at me irritated, like I was insane, like not wanting my groin pressed against a stranger’s ass was an irrational request, and I realized I have fucking had it with the tiny courtesies I extend to men who demand space in this world at the cost of women.

I am done with it.

My new approach, when it comes to these mediocre, posturing white men – because let’s be real they’re pretty much the only ones I notice doing this – is get the fuck out of my way.

A man did his manspreading thing against my legs on an airport bench. I moved my legs to press against his, until he adjusted. He was in my space. I was in my own. He can move the fuck over.

A man did his mansplaining thing, explaining how publishing works, even though he had never published a book and I, um, have. I looked at him and said, “Why are you explaining my own career to me?”

When acquaintances tell me to “settle down,” or “calm down,” etc., because I have the audacity to speak openly and passionately about a topic, I tell them to calm down. I get to speak, and loudly.

I haven’t always been this way, and the truth is I have always accepted a certain level of bullshit from the men around me – ones I know and don’t – even when it made me very uncomfortable, or angry, or put me in positions of holding my tongue to “keep the peace.”

I’m not talking about a refusal on my part to extend common courtesy, or about sharing space with other humans, men and women. I’m talking about no longer catering to men who CHARGE THE WORLD with their voices, bodies, and assumed power to trample women around them.

I usually deferred to these men, hating myself for doing it, wondering what people would think if they saw me doing that. I’m supposed to be a feminist. I’m supposed to be strong. I’m so tough on the page.

But I have been programmed in a misogynistic world just like the rest of us. I have been sexually abused and nearly raped. I’ve been taught to be ashamed of my body, told my voice was like “nails on a chalkboard.” I have had sex when I didn’t particularly want it. To appease. Because I thought I owed them, led them on.

When I was younger, and thin, and thus interesting for the male gaze, I looked away when cat-called, walked faster. Shirked, while my blood boiled in humiliation. I never said a word.

I have listened silently while men ranted on and on about their mediocre knowledge, even if I knew more. Not always, but often, because something in me said, “You be quiet and let the man speak.”

I ain’t a fucking shrinking violet, but more often than not, I moved my body to accommodate theirs. I don’t even know exactly how I learned this behavior, but literally and figuratively, I shrunk to allow them space.

 

But lately I’ve been wondering: What did all this fucking good behavior get me?  

It got me a nation who elected a pussy-grabbing president. It got me millions of people voting for a party that wants to remove my daughter’s dominion over her own body. It got me no paid federal maternity leave, fat shaming, and a rising maternal death rate. It got me Harvey Weinstein (at every turn) and less money on the dollar. It got me “cover up in public when you nurse.” It got me the vast majority of the domestic labor.

And I’m white. ALL of this is worse for women of color. All of it.

As a whole, it got us damn near fucking nothing.

There’s something viscerally infuriating about looking at my country and realizing it voted against my body. Against my child’s body. Against my freedom. And for my assault.

And so I’m done. I’m done catering to overbearing, sexist men. I’m done stepping aside simply because they’ve righteously demanded it. I’m done keeping my mouth shut and I’m done pretending I’m smaller than I am to feed that delicate male ego, or because I am afraid of something I cannot quite define.

Am I angry? Of course I fucking am. I gave the world a chance, and played by the rules, and all it got us was “I moved on her like a bitch.”

From the President of the United States of America.

So get the fuck out of my way, and then, maybe, if I feel like it, and you shut the hell up long enough to hear my voice, we can talk.

Clearly, there’s no space for anything else.

 

Note: I wrote this piece a few days ago, and in between then and now, I read this, and, though a bit off topic (and it needs a whole blog post to itself), I want to draw attention to the intersectionality of all this. That we, as white women, while demanding our space in a man’s world, need to be acutely aware of how we take up space in a white world. Love you all. 

*****

Though it is about recovery from alcoholism, one of the overarching themes of my memoir is the sanctity of motherhood and how it is, in short, utter bullshit.

Practically the whole book is calling out the vapid narratives surrounding motherhood, telling my own story of battling with erasure, inadequacy (both real and imagined), and finding some peace in there, somewhere.

Check it out.

Also my upcoming tour dates

45 Comments | Posted in feminist AF | July 18, 2018

Family Planning on Ecstasy: An excerpt from Chapter 1

by renegademama

Friends, I am really excited to share this excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book, I’M JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE, which is out in EIGHT DAYS, on May 1. 

I cannot wait for you to read this.

And hey! I’m coming to a few cities. Check them out, and come say hello if you can. I’d love to meet you.

Anyway, here we go. Eight days. What a life this is.

 

From Chapter 1: Family Planning on Ecstasy

The first thing I did when I found out I was pregnant with my first child was head out to the balcony of our one-bedroom apartment and smoke a cigarette. It wasn’t even a real balcony. It was a gray stoop barely big enough for one unwatered plant, a dusty mat, and a twenty-one-year-old in vague denial. I would have preferred outright denial but found it impossible, having just peed on two sticks offering no ambiguity.

My plan was to formulate a plan out there on the balcony before informing the father, who was my boyfriend of three full months. We shared the apartment, but I made sure I was alone that afternoon, protected in isolation, so nobody would see me cry, or rage, or decide to handle the situation silently. I was never the kind of person who wanted company in moments of vulnerability. I never wanted a concerned friend to pat my head and smooth the hair off my forehead while I puked or cried. I wanted to lie in bed in solitude, where I could turn my head to the wall, stretch my legs out, and rise again smiling, while the world slept soundly in its room.

The last thing I needed was a loving and emotional man celebrating the seed in my womb before I knew how I felt about it.

Moments before, I had stared at those double lines with detached curiosity, a sort of numbed awe, as they popped up without hesitation in what seemed like a “fuck you” pink. I figured there could still be some mistake, so I took another test, and upon the second neon positive, pulled up my jeans, walked through the living room and onto the balcony, grabbing my Camel Lights and lighter on the way. I allowed my condition to sink one inch into my brain, where it hovered like a storm cloud creeping toward me. I knew it would shower me in panic, and soon I would feel it pouring down my arms and into my shoes, but those first moments felt liminal, half-real. I emboldened them with a cigarette. One more cigarette in the line of a thousand before it, a meaningless action of my same old life. An action of the nonpregnant.

Nothing to see here, folks. Just another woman on a balcony having a smoke.

That February afternoon was cool and bright, and as I watched the cars do nothing in the parking lot of our apartment complex, I thought about being a senior in college, my job as a waitress, and the few months Mac and I had been together, most of it grayed and hazy from alcohol, fast and romantic and possibly fake. I thought about how he would respond if he were there.

He would smile a soft smile. “Wow,” he would say, “I love you so much,” and his eyes would fill with grateful tears as more supportive words crossed his lips. He would study my reaction with his huge brown eyes. He would look as if he had waited his whole life to hear those three words.

I am pregnant.

I took a drag, inhaling I could have an abortion, but exhaled the startling realization that I would not.

And with the thought, the cigarette grew foul between my fingers. I stamped it out beneath my foot and wondered how the fuck I had ended up here again. I understood the physiology of pregnancy. I did not understand how that wasn’t enough.

In my defense, the first one was an honest mistake. I was eighteen, in my first semester of college, and had spontaneous, unprotected make-up sex with my long-term boyfriend. I knew immediately I would not have that baby, and I did not feel guilty about that decision, though I suspected this made me something of a monster. I felt sadness, but at that age, in that life, I mostly felt relief. We had sex, and yes I happen to have a uterus and ovaries hell-bent on reproduction, and our act was neither smart nor mature, but it was his fault too. My defense was that of a petulant child, but I had no interest in spending my whole life paying for a five-minute interval of questionable sex with a man who could walk away if he felt like it.

As I stood on the balcony, I wondered again, Who the hell gets pregnant accidentallymore than once?

I stared at the horizon and shook my head in disgust as I traveled the recesses of my brain looking for answers, recalling only a woman in my freshman comparative literature class. She had told me, “Getting an abortion is like getting your teeth cleaned.” When I raised an eyebrow, she explained, “It’s just something you have to do.” She was in her thirties and married to a local rock star. She had bad teeth, three children, tattoos, and that haircut of the ’90s where bangs were cut stupidly short in a band right against the forehead. I respected her.

Her teeth cleaning theory sounded erroneous if not downright depraved, but her nonchalance convinced me I would be alright, and that I was even perhaps not quite as foul as I had believed during my trip to the clinic that week, feeling like a slut and regretting with my whole heart those minutes in the dorms.

Apparently this is a thing women do.

That seemed true. I did it.

But I would not do it now.

And it didn’t feel like the fucking dentist.

Back inside, I stretched out on our quilt-covered couch, clicking my tongue at Fatboy, the giant black-and-white cat we inherited from Mac’s childhood. When feeling particularly affectionate, Fatboy would turn his head and glance at you from across the room. But that day, he folded up in the crook of my knees and stared up at me, as if he knew things were heavy.

I took a deep breath, looking around the apartment, the carpet so bland I couldn’t tell what color it was, the kitchen and bathroom floors a yellowed linoleum with pastel blue squares, ripped up and black at the corners. The cabinets were a 1970s brown with gold handles, and metal mini-blinds hung above a box air conditioner in the window that would sputter along against California’s Central Valley heat. That summer, we moved our mattress beneath the little box, creating a pocket of decency between the white walls. Our television sat on boards and cinder blocks. It was the kind of apartment that never felt alive or permanent, but Mac and I were kids and in love, and it was ours.

He was nineteen and I was twenty-one.

•     •     •

I was right about Mac. He did smile through tears and say all the lovely things I suspected he’d say when I told him I was pregnant, but the next day he added, “If you don’t have our baby, I can’t stay with you.” I considered telling him about the moment I knew I wouldn’t have an abortion, but instead I merely nodded. I wasn’t ready to speak the words, “I am having a baby.” I was stretching the liminal gray a few days longer.

When he spoke those words, he didn’t read my face to adjust his tone. He was not afraid of my response, or conflict, and there was no subtext. It was merely data to inform a decision. If his statement had been a threat, an attempted entrapment, I would have left immediately on those grounds alone. Fuck you for even trying to get me to stay, I’d have thought.

But that’s not what he said, and I knew it, because he said it with warm acceptance in his eyes and mouth and forehead—the way he looked at me when he said everything, even when he yelled and postured and I thought maybe I hated him. Or, perhaps that’s why I hated him, because he seemed capable of only adoration, and even in his anger he was devoted and irrationally loyal. It made me feel a little sick.

I get it, man. You can’t withstand the resentment you’d feel toward me if I didn’t have our baby.

But he is not why I had her. I was always going to have her and I knew it, though I didn’t know how to explain that I knew. I didn’t understand yet that motherhood is a lot of knowing without knowing.

But I knew her. She was already made.

I was afraid of having a baby. I was afraid of committing to him like that. I was afraid of what my parents would say, but Mac misread this fear as indecision. I had her because she was meant to be here and I was meant to be her mother, and I believed that in the same way I know the sun will rise. I had her because the moment I knew of her, she existed, like a strange new friend who moved in and wouldn’t leave.

I told myself I was about to graduate from college, that I wasn’t that young, that Mac was going to be a good father—and I loved him, or thought I did. In this way, I rearranged the facts, the furniture of my life, to accommodate my new friend.

Two weeks later, Mac peeked his head over the curtain while I showered and said, “It’s going to be a girl.”

“I know,” I said, and laughed. How weird we are, I thought. Clairvoyant.So in love she’s already shining through—through the blood and walls of my body.

We thought of names. We thought of Aurora and Leah and Althea, but one day while I waited for customers to arrive for dinner in the restaurant where I waitressed, I flipped through a magazine and found an article about Ava Gardner.

We settled on Ava Grace, as if anything could be more beautiful.

•     •     •

I told my mother I knew she was a girl; she didn’t think that was strange at all. When I asked her what the hell I was going to do with my life now, she said, “Well, honey, you’re going to have a baby.” Her simplicity and perky use of the word “honey” shot red annoyance down my spine.

My mother’s perpetual optimism made me wonder if she existed in some sort of sociopathic love cloud. As a young girl, I joined in her optimism, jumped on the “it’s going to be great!” train with glee, but over the years, as each new beginning almost never turned out “great,” I realized her outlook was as much fantasy as it was hope. It was a story to justify rushing headlong into another disaster, the same thing we’d done for years. Businesses. Marriages. Personality improvements. Diets. It was always going to be different this time.

It was an old, raw burn, and her sweetness still stung.

The moment she mentioned relationships, mine or hers, somewhere in me the memory of my former stepfather stirred, the way we moved in and out of his house like a vacation rental. But mostly, I remembered her suffering and how I thought I could fix it, how the solution was perfectly clear to me, how everybody said I was “very mature for my age.” My mother used to say, “I don’t know how you see the things you see, Janelle.”

I didn’t either, but I wished she’d see them too, because I was tired. And even at twenty-one, I was still tired, perhaps more tired than I’d ever been, and I had long since stopped believing in her dreams.

And yet, I always called her first, to bathe in the optimism she turned toward me, too, toward the person she believed I could become. I needed that. I needed to believe things were going to be different right around the corner. That sick hope was infectious, seeping into me whether I wanted it or not, and as much as I distrusted it in her, I clung to it like a drowning woman, because at least it was something.

“But how do you know, Mom?” I didn’t mask my irritation.

“Because you are going to be fine, sweetie.” I wanted to throw up.

She must have told her mother right away, because the next day Grandma Joan called and said, “You know you don’t have to marry this guy just because you’re pregnant,” and my jaw hit my flip phone. I wasn’t anywhere near marrying Mac. I barely knew him. I am merely going to have his baby, Grandma.

Being a woman born in 1930, Grandma Joan of course assumed marriage, and I assumed she would push marriage. She was in her seventies and a Mormon woman who had made her husband dinner every night since they were married at eighteen, and if she was not home in the evening, she prepared the food and put it on the counter so all he had to do was heat it up. He had been the quarterback of the high school football team and she had been the new girl in town—and a cheerleader. It was a movie, and yet true. They still held hands when they sat on the couch together, and they flirted like teenagers. He was sure old Benny at the post office was waiting for him to “kick the bucket” so he could swoop in on Grandma.

She would smack his leg, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, Bob,” with exasperation and a kiss in her eye.

At family functions in her home, all the women would bustle around the kitchen for hours preparing dinner for thirty while the kids played in the basement and the men watched football in the living room. After dinner, all the women would bustle around in the kitchen for hours doing dishes while the men watched football in the living room, and the kids ran around in the basement. By the time I was a teenager, I wondered what the hell was wrong with these people. But I loved being in the kitchen, where my mother and three aunts talked and cooked with the chatter and laughter of a lifetime of sisterhood, occasionally popping out to rescue a screaming baby, talking of report cards and breastfeeding and wayward teens, of Grandma’s silly ways and how she really should sit down, she’s tired, but she never would. When she finally did, my uncles had begun barbequing on the deck outside and nobody played in the basement anymore.

I sat with the men, too, as babies crawled around their laps, each of their faces illuminated with the television screen as they watched sports, speaking of things I didn’t understand, like “downs” and “bad calls” and “finals.” I felt honored when they spoke to me, a little nod to my sport-less existence. I understood their acknowledgment of me was a quick trip beneath themselves, a little jaunt to a place less sacred. They were, after all, the ones who got to do nothing while groups of women worked on their behalf.

Although the kitchen was warmer, and had better conversation, sometimes I would sit at the dining table between the living room and kitchen, so I could watch both ends and refuse to commit.

At twenty-one, I joined the women in the kitchen for good, though I had always promised I’d never be like them. “I’m not going to get married until I’m thirty,” I’d say as a teenager at our annual Christmas party, “and I won’t have a baby until thirty-five.”

“Good job,” my aunt would nod. “Just don’t rush it.”

“Of course not,” I’d answer, irritated that she’d even consider the possibility of me ruining my life with an unplanned pregnancy at a young age.

I was the youngest of my cousins to have a baby.

People surprise you, though, especially when they’re old and sick of the bullshit, and I saw Joan anew the day she called me, after fifty-five years spent with my grandfather. While she spoke, I wondered how many women of her generation married terrible men because of unexpected pregnancies, and then stayed because of more. I felt myself, for an instant, counted among them.

“Thank you for your concern, Grandma, but it’s different with us,” I said.

I may be in the kitchen like the rest of you broads, but I am different. I could not articulate how, exactly, but I knew I wouldn’t end up washing dishes while the men watched other men slam into each other on brightly lit screens. It seemed archaic and absurd. I would demand freedom, even within the confines of pregnancy. I suppose that, too, is something women “just have to do.”

If I had to guess, I would have said my future would unfold more along the lines of my paternal grandmother, Bonny Jean. She was an intellectual, a fiery Christian Scientist, and natural skeptic who believed in God but not doctors, grassroots journalism, and stockpiling mayonnaise in case there was another Great Depression.

She grew up behind the stage with her parents, who were traveling actors. I once attempted to explain “gay people” to her because, you know, as a relic she wouldn’t understand such things. She spun around to face me in her house robe and said, “I grew up behind a vaudeville stage in the twenties. You think any of those people were straight?” I never tried that shit again.

She had five children from 1945 to 1955. They were raised largely by her father-in-law while she ran her newspaper, which she and my grandfather purchased in 1956. Bonny Jean would attend every local city council meeting, critiquing what she saw in scathing weekly editorials, which she would often dictate over the pay phone in the city council hallway. She once fought the head of the San Francisco plumbers’ union, a man with rumored Mafia ties, who was trying to take over her small town’s water council. When she broke the story and refused to back down, he threatened her. I once asked how she managed to fight a man like him as a woman in the 1960s. She said, “Oh, that was easy, honey. I was not afraid of him. The truth is a strong defense.”

When I told her about the pregnancy, I thought I heard a touch of sadness in her voice, despite her congratulations, because for a split second, they sounded like condolences.

The hardest person to tell was my father. I was barely old enough to handle him knowing I had sex, and yet I had to tell him there was an actual human growing in my body, deposited there by the sperm of a man. Telling him felt something like bra shopping with my mother at fourteen: uncomfortable in a deeply shameful, yet unknown way. Everybody has sex. Everybody gets boobs.

Still, somebody please kill me.

I had always felt my father saw me as a kid who was going to do something impressive in life, who was going to become a lawyer or doctor or at least make a lot of money. Instead, I was joining the Mormons in the kitchen. I knew he wouldn’t say it, but he would be disappointed in me. He knew how many times I had stood at family functions declaring my plan, and he knew I never consciously abandoned that.

It’s hardest to fall in front of those you’ve convinced, through years of tone moderation and personality suppression, that you are not the type to falter.

•     •     •

I stopped smoking and drinking immediately after my balcony denial, which felt wholesome and deeply mature, despite Mac’s and my decision to move out of our apartment and into his parents’ house on their ranch. They lived in a dome-shaped house about ten miles outside of Davis, California, the clean, well-manicured town where I went to college and met Mac.

Davis boasts the second-highest per capita number of PhDs in any city in the nation, and a special tunnel for frogs so they don’t get killed on the road. The town is teeming with students, artists, and intellectuals on bicycles, but also suffers from an epidemic of highly educated, splendid liberals. I learned to spot and avoid the latter from a distance of approximately one hundred feet, having had many years’ practice. The problem is not that they’re liberal—surely one can learn to live with that—it’s that they can’t quite understand why a person wouldn’t dress her child in only organic cotton, or shop solely at the co-op, where they sell nineteen dollar olive oil pressed from olives grown on blessed trees in sacred Native American valleys.

These are the kind of people who call gentrification “restoring the neighborhood” and spend four years on a waiting list for a $1,500 a month preschool while claiming to deeply understand the plight of the underprivileged. Davis is the kind of town where everyone breathes social justice via diversity stickers on their Priuses, but many citizens request that the kids from the Mexican enclaves surrounding the town simply stay in their schools. It’s not about race. It’s just…you know…let’s talk about public radio. Do you support it? It’s kind of my cause. That, and the ACLU.

Most of the mothers in Davis were married, in their late thirties, and living in $700,000 houses when I showed up at age twenty-one, unmarried and pregnant. When I realized nobody would talk to me at the park, having dismissed me immediately as some sort of teen-pregnancy situation, Mac and I bought a pink diaper bag with a giant rhinestone Playboy bunny on the front. It was my subtle “fuck you” to everyone who wouldn’t talk to me anyway, and it almost convinced me I didn’t care.

I turned twenty-two that March and finished my last semester of college in September of 2001, two months before our baby was due. Mac worked at his father’s slaughterhouse on the ranch, and our bedroom was where Mac had played with Hot Wheels and G.I. Joes as a boy, and hid his weed at fifteen. We shared the home with five other people: his parents, two sisters, and his sister’s boyfriend. All the bedrooms were upstairs and opened into a shared center hallway, kind of like Foucault’s panopticon only without the glass. His family was kind and relaxed and pretended we weren’t kids about to have a kid, but I felt exposed and watched—too close to people who weren’t quite mine, humans I knew but didn’t understand, and whom I was still trying to impress. They were family, but I didn’t want them to see me naked, or notice I stunk up the bathroom or yelled at their son. I self-regulated, even though there was no guard in the watchtower.

We bought a crib and an oak dresser, which we wedged together in a corner of the bedroom. I lined each drawer in lavender-scented paper with tiny pastel pink flowers on it, and I bought clothes from Baby Gap and Gymboree and Marshalls. I bought most of them in “newborn” size because they were the cutest and least expensive. I didn’t know they were discounted because babies outgrow them in twelve minutes.

We had a keg of beer at our baby shower, and Mac came because we were “too in love to be apart.” I received about seventy-five various bath items because when my stepmother asked, “What do you need for the baby?” I answered, “Bath items.” I didn’t know you were supposed to “register.” I didn’t have any friends telling me about pregnancy or babies because only losers had babies this young. And I never hung out with losers.

My pregnancy was like living in a dream, a sort of ethereal fantasy ticking by in nebulous form. While my belly grew, I spent my days petting hand-smocked outfits with embroidered ducks and imagining our little threesome. Mac and I played pool at my local university’s student union, and I wasn’t even embarrassed of my belly. I wasn’t embarrassed of my age, or Mac’s lack of career, or that we lived in a room in his parents’ house. Those things weren’t in the dream.

But I couldn’t help but feel inklings of shame as I walked to class during that last semester, when I barely fit in the desks, because the sidewalks and grass and offices on campus were the places where women like me rarely succeeded, and nobody was impressed with expanding uteri. These were PhDs and MAs and lovers of Derrida. They could see right through me: I was the kid who lost, the girl who failed. As I walked I remembered maybe I was going to be more than this, but then I thought of Mac and the baby girl to come. I thought of that love and squared my shoulders.

We went to peaceful birthing classes and breathed together and when Ava came it was fast and insane and Mac sat by me and held my hands and never broke my gaze. The nurses said we were the most beautiful birthing couple they had ever seen.

I wasn’t surprised. It was the only way it could be.

•     •     •

I met Mac for the first time in my living room the night before Halloween, thirteen months before Ava was born. I was living in a converted garage in a house I shared with four eighteen- and nineteen-year-old males I had found in a newspaper. Three months before I responded to their “roommate wanted” ad, I returned home from a year studying abroad in Spain. I tried living with my mother up north in Mendocino, California, and found a job waitressing, but got fired after two weeks for counseling the owner on how she could improve her business. I found myself bored, embarrassed, and broke, so I moved back to Davis in the fall and began waitressing at an “Asian fusion” restaurant and drinking too much.

I had long before decided I could not live with women. They were too complicated. They needed things like talking and support and genuineness. I needed things like rum and Coke and silence. So I asked those boys looking for a roommate if I could move in, and they said yes immediately upon hearing I could legally buy alcohol.

Three months later, a man I had never seen before sat stoned against our living room wall, next to the television. He had a beard that stuck out in every direction and a head of hair that looked exactly the same. It was as if somebody had taken a donut of three-inch-long black curly hair and popped a face into the center of it. He was a high school friend of my roommates’, a newcomer, thin and tall and quiet, and I would not have noticed him at all had he not said something witty. In our house of drunk eighteen- and nineteen-year-old man-boys, nobody was saying anything witty. I beamed my eyes at him from across the room in curious surprise and locked them with his. They were the kindest eyes I had ever seen. I remember that moment exactly as it happened, in slow motion, as if it were a scene in a Meg Ryan movie. The Eye Lock. His were deep brown with eyelashes that carried on ridiculously, but it was their gentleness, their steady calm, that made me want to know more.

…keep reading by preordering now: 

19 Comments | Posted in what the fuck is a writer | April 23, 2018

Once in a while, you get shown the light. By a dog.

by renegademama

I’m not entirely sure, but I think I like my dog better than everyone on the planet except my kids but even that is questionable. Did I say that out loud?

We have a blue heeler named August West. We call him Auggie. When we  got him, our Labrador had just passed away and because my husband and I are ruthlessly devoted to questionable decisions, we got another dog right away and consequently I looked at Auggie as a rude interloper and pathetic substitute for what I really wanted.

Trying to understand my feelings, I googled “Getting a new dog after your dog dies” and read about 900 articles suggesting that one shouldn’t get a dog immediately after a dog dies because the new dog will seem like a pathetic substitute and rude interloper.

Weird.

So then I was grieving both my dog and the addition of a new dog who I low-key hated, which added guilt and shame to my already mountainous guilt and shame surrounding the sudden death of my Labrador.

In short, I believed Auggie was an astronomical mistake, and yet, one I could not, or would not, ignore.

He was this round black and white spotted little thing with soft, floppy ears and keen, engaged eyes. We said he looked like a fat seal. George noticed one of the markings on his side was in the shape of a heart.

And he is a fucking working dog. I knew if I didn’t train him thoroughly, giving him all kinds of jobs, he would find himself a job, and it would probably be Eat The House.

So, against a large portion of my desire, I devoted myself to training our August West, who, in case you aren’t familiar, is the alcoholic in the Grateful Dead song “Wharf Rat.”

What.

So there I was forcing myself outside with this dog multiple times a day, taking him to puppy training where he would leap for the sky in pursuit of other puppies while I stood on the leash (as directed by the teacher), thereby causing him to occasionally do these gravity-defying acrobatic flips in the air.

I was convinced Auggie was the worst pup in the class with the worst parents.

But I kept going on account of the house-eating situation.

And one day, I noticed something. I noticed the fat seal learned commands by about the tenth time we did it. I noticed he looked at me and cocked his head to one side, waiting for the next command. I noticed he followed me around the house like a duckling behind its mama.

He appeared, in a word, to exist just for me, and I noticed.

I taught him to sit, stand, go down, and wait. I taught him fetch and “leave it” and “catch it.” I taught him to shake hands, sit on my right and my left. I taught him to go around behind me and come to the front of me. I taught him to walk on a leash, stop when I stop, go when I go, sit when I pause.

And as we worked together, I noticed that when I was with him, I was free of the pain in my brain. He came a few days after my dog died, six weeks after my grandmother was murdered, and 12 weeks after my grandfather died. He came in the middle of me writing my memoir on alcoholism and motherhood.

He came when I was enduring a pain I had never known, and reliving through my writing a pain I believed would never be surpassed.

I noticed that when I was with him, I was in my body, on the ground – outside of the swirling mess in my brain — communicating with an animal intuitively connected with me. It was so simple, so loving, so tangible:

Sit. Correction. Sit. Correction. Sit. Success. Treat.

 

It wasn’t vague or complex or twisted up in emotion. It felt clean, direct, and pure.

It was a dog watching me, observing me, learning me, and me, learning him, committed to teaching him, and what I noticed is that one day I looked at that fucking dog and realized he was healing me.

After I’d write a section of my book that tore my heart into shreds, I’d head outside with Auggie and sometimes I’d give him whole strings of commands with signals only. No words. No sounds. Just a couple of friends working together.

The way he watches me. The way he sits in front of me, waiting, observing, at the ready. The way he jumps on my bed when I’m resting, puts his paw on my chest as if he’s patting me. The way he wags his tail when I say his name, and sleeps on the kitchen rug while I cook.

I have never loved a dog like this. (Don’t tell my last dog, who I loved, too. But this is like WEIRD.) I didn’t even know this was possible, and I wonder if it’s because he came when I was pissed off and broken and full of terrified rage, and I was committed to protecting myself from humans, from the violence and agony they cause, and here comes Auggie as if to say, “Okay but you never said anything about fat seal pups. Can you let me in?”

There’s that Dead song that says “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

For me, I guess it was a dog I wasn’t ready for.

 

Also, HE WAS TOTALLY NOT ALLOWED ON THE BED. I AM IN COMPLETE CONTROL.

*****

“Fiercely talented word-warrior Janelle Hanchett grabs your guts with her frank, brutally funny, and moving memoir of modern motherhood and addiction. You won’t want to let go of this book.”

Ann Imig, editor of Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now

28 Comments | Posted in I fucking love my dog. | January 28, 2018