Posts Filed Under 2020 deserves a category of its own

Hey white friends: We aren’t above the newly “woke.”

by renegademama

Lately I’ve been hearing, “It’s different this time.” “Something is really changing.”

Our Trump-supporting family members are using the word “murder” in reference to George Floyd. Those of us with Trump-supporting family members know what a big deal this is. People we would expect to really come to the rescue of Target are sharing MLK Jr.’s “language of the unheard” quote.

Sure, everybody’s favorite Florida boomer still pops into the thread to bring up the fact that Floyd did coke and wasn’t exactly a model citizen—because model citizenry is apparently the baseline requirement for not being murdered by police—but now, Florida boomer just seems pathetic. The desperate gasps of a dying racist.

Makes me think of Bob Dylan singing, “Get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand.”

In other words, we are moving on with or without your NASCAR-weeping ass.

Statues are toppled. Kids are done asking cities for permission they’ll never get. Kaepernick was told, “There are other ways to protest.” 2020 agrees.

Eight minutes, 46 seconds. Handcuffed, face-down. Two officers kneeling on his legs. One man casually kneeling on his neck—one hand in his pocket, serenity washed across his vaguely smiling eyes. The face of evil? Nah, the face of white supremacy. Also evil, but not uniquely so.

White people, tell me, do we not recognize that smirk? Just a little? In our uncles? In ourselves? Deep down in our blood, the smirk that rests in the knowing that most likely the state is on our side.

Our ancestors took their children to watch lynchings of Black Americans. They dressed in their Sunday best and drank Southern cocktails while young Black men hung from trees behind them. They took photos and sent them to family members who had moved out west. You know, to remind them of how things were back home. Model citizenry, etc.

They grinned. They smirked. Their eyes casually rested in the knowing that the state is on their side.

It lives in our blood though we hate to admit it. We hate to see it.

Uprisings in every city of America and 200 countries worldwide. NASCAR bans confederate flags. Ben & Jerry’s somehow pens a manifesto. Mitt Romney marches with Black Lives Matter. We tilt our heads to one side and try to process.

The whole world in a tidal wave: You will join us or we’ll roll on without you. Make a choice.
Here we are, witnessing the moment many of our white family, friends, and acquaintances are scooting off the fence. Family and friends wondering if there’s “maybe something to this Black Lives Matter thing.” Lord.

And we, we are the ones at the crossroads. We are the people they will encounter first. We are the ones on the other side of the fence, and our job is to get uncomfortable and get inconvenienced. Our job is to remember that white supremacy is woven through the fabric of our brains and bodies and lives. The water we swim in and never have to see. The smirk that knows.

In other words, we are the ones who need to deal with their bullshit. Who else could it be?

And yet, in my travels around the internet, I hear a lot of attacking of people quite clearly grappling with the extrication of what they’ve always known to be true. Sure, it’s fucked up. It’s also real. Is the goal to help move out of racism or is it for us to be the wokest in the room?

And friends, I see it in myself: Some idea that I’m better than, elevated. Hey, Janelle, shall we remind you of how you wanted to know why there was no “white club” in your high school? That happened, that was real. You really meant that.

YOU LEARNED SHIT IN GRAD SCHOOL, ya fuckin revolutionary.

We talk about how we want to be “allies,” we want to help, we want to do something, but the second our third-cousin twice-removed starts mentioning mixed feelings about the statues being toppled but shows genuine concern and openness, we attack the motherfucker for failing to embody the lexicon we learned in our Race & Gender class at UC Berkeley back in 2007.

Do we need to talk for a moment about the bullshit Black people endure every day not only overt racists and middle-of-the-road racists but also Super Woke White Women who figure it’d be best if they just kinda, you know, took over the local Black Lives Matter chapter?

They read Ta-Nehisi Coates, okay? They know things. And yet we somehow can’t work with the clunky, awkward friend who discovered she’s white a week ago?

I’m not talking about Florida boomer. Fuck that guy. Wrap him in his confederate flag and bury him. But there is racism and a refusal to listen, and there is a moving away from racism and a former refusal to listen.

If anyone is required to make this distinction, it’s us.

Times are either changing or not. We are undergoing a mass expansion of white minds or we are not. We see ourselves as the problem or we don’t.

How can we see the face of George Floyd against pavement, claim to be allies, yet lack the stamina and patience to understand that the road to a new way of thinking is awkward, clunky, and downright “offensive.”

ARE.WE.SO.DELICATE.

Before I taught my first university class on my own—which was an English class I divided into four sections (race, gender, class, and power), featuring the writing of Baldwin, X, hooks, and others—my advising professor told me this: “Your students are going to say inappropriate things. They are grappling with hard ideas and they do not yet have the vocabulary for it. Don’t attack them. Ask them questions. Keep asking questions until they are forced to trace their idea back to its beginning.”

These are not students who said overtly racist things. Slurs, etc. That’s different.

What I’m saying is that the road out will be messy, complicated, and nuanced, and it is our job to open doors, get out of ourselves, help others the way we were helped. I don’t think it’s our right or place to adopt the justified anger that may exist in people of color who are absolutely done dealing with white nonsense, and extend it into our own interactions as if we are the same.

We are the people who need to humble ourselves and remember the person who woke us up.

Because somebody somewhere woke you up. If it was your parents, somebody woke them up. If it was your grandparents or great-grandparents, well, somebody handed those badasses a pamphlet. Nice work. But still, at some point, we had to be pulled, possibly dragged, from our soothing pool of white.

We are the people whose ancestors took their kids to lynchings. We are the descendants of slaveowners. We are the ones who told Martin Luther King, Jr. that though we agree with his cause, we just wish he’d wait.

We are the ones who could wait.

THIS IS NOT ABOUT GUILT. This is about seeing ourselves as a member of a vast history, a larger whole, a single voice responsible for lifting our brothers, sisters, friends, family, and acquaintances, out of the web of a brutal lineage. We need to get into the new road and lend a fucking hand. It won’t be clean and it won’t be easy.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew just before the Civil Rights Act, on his nephew’s 15th birthday.

In it, he wrote the following:

“In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

Heaven and earth shaken to their foundations. A world recognizing the smirk of a white man during a lynching, some of us within ourselves. It is a terrible witness, a piercing truth, but it is ours, and we can welcome the shivering sun.

 

Love to you from the parking lot

by renegademama

I’m writing today for one reason alone: To recount for you exactly how fucked up my days are, how poorly I’m functioning, in case you suspect everyone is doing better at this than you are.

I find myself secretly believing that all the other humans are quarantining better than I am, as if they all have some Secret Pandemic Insider info that was handed out—you know, at some point—and I, unfortunately, was absent. This is why they are coping like adults while I watch 15-year-olds do the same dance on Tiktok for three hours straight while telling myself I’m a loser.

I know it’s a sort of ego trip to think I am more fucked up, more disturbed, more deeply affected or deficient than others. To think, in other words, that I’m special. I know this, but knowing things is so damn useless sometimes.

And intellectually I know I am not wholly alone in my strange numb space. I’ve read a hundred accounts of people saying they feel brain dead, unable to focus, hyper-angry over nothing, in a time warp, etc.– and yet my self-repulsion is intact.

I feel like I “should” be doing better.

Who defined how we “should” be behaving?

MY BRAIN, obviously. Reliable guide that it is.

My friend Jack used to say, “We’re all in various stages of ‘my case is different.’”

As in, as you grow up, you realize you’re just like every other goddamn person on the planet. You aren’t better or worse. Being one among many is annoying as hell until you break through the immediate shock of realizing you’re quite standard. Then it’s the freest place possible.

I’m just another asshole on the planet. I’ve nothing to prove. I’m as well or poorly equipped as every other person handling or not handling life.

But sometimes, goddamn, I just feel like I’m the only one “here.”

 

Here’s my typical day: Wake up at 4am for no apparent reason. Look at my phone. Feel bad about that. Read until 5am or 6am. Listen to an audiobook until I fall asleep and sleep until 8am, or just get up at 6am and feel like shit all day. Have coffee. Have more coffee. Say good morning to George, the only kid who gets up before 9am now. Tell myself we should get Arlo into bed earlier (he’s probably sleeping until 9 because he’s up too late). Sit on the couch and/or get in my bed and listen to a book while playing stupid games on my phone. Until 11am or 1pm or 3pm.

I get up occasionally to eat or help my kids. Shower. Sometimes I tell myself, out loud, “GET UP JANELLE,” and I shake my head and ask the dog what’s wrong with me and feel like shit.

I’ll tell myself to write. DO SOMETHING! I’ll go downstairs to grab my laptop. Then I’ll come back upstairs to my room, to work, set my computer down and pick up my phone again.

At some point I try to invent one thing to do: Clean my room. Do the laundry. Vacuum downstairs. Respond to work emails. And I usually do that thing. Sort of. And then I’m so exhausted I feel I can’t do more.

What the hell.

Once a day I tell the kids we’re getting off screens and we do chores and they play or I send them outside. Sometimes this is three or four hours. Sometimes it’s one hour. Sometimes I enforce this “healthier alternative,” sometimes I hear them back on their screens and don’t care.

Every now and then I have a burst of energy for half a day where I feel almost clear-headed and okay again, and I’ll do work or write or catch up on adult shit like bills or whatever. But mostly I walk around in a state of uselessness, malaise, and soul-tired weirdness that I’ve never known before. I can’t follow a train of thought. I literally stare at walls sometimes. I particularly hate the wall-staring. Complete blank space in my brain.

WHAT IS THAT?

Mac and I were joking that they should start a new game called “Is it depression or regular quarantine life?”

My mental health has been a bit, in peril, for a few months now, and it worsened when this all started. Because my feelings of depression have been getting worse since October, and I’ve entered a state of apathy that was a bit terrifying, I called a doctor to discuss.

She said “Well, we can give you medication, but it’s hard to tell if it’s circumstantial or chemical. Everyone is so messed up right now.” I’m paraphrasing.

For now, I’m waiting it out, but it’s nice to know she’s there. And how shocking is it that we are living a reality that causes a mental state akin to those that require medication?

I just feel so cut off: from you, my brain, my loved ones, my whole life.

 

On Saturday, April 25, Mac’s cousin Chris was killed in a car accident. He was 30 years old with a fiancée and toddler son, and we love him and his family very much. They are in Kentucky and Mac was going to try to get there to be with them, but we were told that immigration “couldn’t promise” that there wouldn’t be a problem with him returning. So he stayed, and on Wednesday, we “attended” the funeral via Facebook live video.

Within two minutes of the video starting, Mac and I were choked with tears after reading a comment, “Love to you from the parking lot.”

Love to you from the parking lot.

And the comments streamed in. “We’re right here!” “Sending you prayers from our car!” “Love you, brother, from just outside.”

Ten people allowed inside, just immediate family members, and Chris’s friends sitting in the parking lot, circling them.

“They showed up anyway,” Mac said, looking at me.

We showed up anyway too.

Ava’s school sent the email letting us know about Ava’s “virtual graduation ceremony.” About the caps and gowns we can pick up. About the senior trip to Disneyland they officially canceled. Reading about the sad replacement, the pathetic “streaming event” to “honor my child,” it felt ridiculous and enraging. Fuck your online bandaid.

My rage masked a heart breaking for my child. It all turned to outright crying. Sobs. I’m not much of a crier. Especially like that. But it all shattered for her, her disappointment, what she’s losing—the final ritual culminating twelve years. My little girl.

And I can’t do shit about it.

Love to you from the parking lot. 

 

We’re all sitting in the parking lot right now, aren’t we? Waiting outside the circle where life seems to be, held up in strange, liminal gestures that feel half-human.

I don’t want to be in the parking lot. I want to be hugging Chris’s parents and I want to feel the sun on my face at Ava’s graduation and see her between her grandparents’ beaming heartbroken pride and I don’t want to wait for a future that may also be a strange replacement.

And yet we show up anyway, don’t we? We sit in the parking lot. We send the love we’ve got. We scramble up walls we never asked for, grieve, and wait.

I suppose someday I’ll accept this isn’t a proxy life. This is real life. And we’re all here.

Maybe I’ll let go, hang out with you wherever we are, one among many again, where things feel warmer and a lot safer and I can see your eyes.

Until then, love you, brother, from just outside.

***

This is a painting by Wendy Kwasny. It’s a rendering of a photo of my son Arlo. You can find more of Wendy’s work at www.wendykwasny.com or on Instagram.

****

Bored? Join us for my memoir workshop: FROM MEMORY TO MEMOIR.

This workshop usually sells out with a waitlist in 48 hours, but we start next week and there are four spots left.

I’m also offering a $50 quarantine discount.

Just sign up and I’ll send back $50. Or email me and I’ll send an invoice with the discount.

 

“I live a hope despite my knowing better.” What else can we do?

by renegademama

I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who says something helpful in times like this. I say to myself “Janelle! You have created this channel to the world, now do something with it. Say something profound or insightful or at least funny.”

I want to be the person who rises up, scans the world, and speaks to the soul. Instead, I’m more the person who starts eating a lot of gruyere and watching YouTube videos of groundhogs eating carrots.

Like Dan Rather. Fucking Dan Rather always knows what to say. You read Dan and you think, now this guy, this guy knows how to stay chill in the apocalypse. 

All I did was start a free blog in 2011 while I was supposed to be working, and then I wrote what I wanted to read about motherhood but couldn’t find (to paraphrase Toni Morrison), and I never expected anybody other than my mom to read it. And she always has.

So, I’ve never been prepared to be the voice of anything, though clearly I have no trouble using mine. I’ve written things I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole now. I’ve regretted my flippancy. I suppose I’ve “grown,” but I’ve never known what to say when the world feels so raw, so burning, so without a place to land. When kindergarteners are shot at circle time. When a young black American holds a cardboard sign that reads “I can’t breathe” for the fourth or hundredth year in a row. When California burns.

When we’re all thrown into the cosmos, untethered, clinging to hope in the future; and in the meantime, to people singing to each other on balconies while their elders die in overcrowded hospitals.

You see, I hate the fucking platitudes. I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you to be strong or take care of yourself or go outside each day (I literally did that the other day on Instagram), because the fact of the matter is I’m not doing anything that’s elevated or enlightened or demonstrating some greater self.

Any talk from me about how to endure this with grace or deep knowing is just sort of funny. I suggested that people really TRY to go outside because we went to a park and I felt like a fucking warrior for putting that together (with Mac).

But it did help. And I made myself go because so many people had insisted that it helps, so I try to write if I have anything to offer.

But in general, I’m more the one looking at “helpful suggestions” and thinking “oh fuck off and let me play Two Dots” than I am the one picking myself up and Doing Better.

Although I always, eventually, pick myself up and do something, which is better I guess than doing nothing.

You’re welcome. I’m available for life coaching if anybody is interested.

Lately my mantra has been “Just don’t make anything worse.” Because sometimes I start fights with strangers in Wisconsin or lash out at people or use my tongue to slash people because I feel like shit and I’m tired and my head hurts and they crossed my path at the wrong time.

Luckily, I’ve learned how to own that shit and apologize, but I get sick of the apologizing, too.

The truth is I’ve spent most of my time staring at walls or my phone, playing games on it (the phone, not the walls) and listening to audiobooks. I’ve been preferring old, sweeping novels like Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov, and nonfiction that really fucks me up, like Noam Chomsky’s collected speeches or Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The novels are entertainment. The nonfiction a desire to understand. Both are escape.

In my house, I’ve told myself that the ONLY thing I absolutely must do each day is keep my dishes washed. Everything else is extra. And when I wake up, I say to myself “I’m going to do the dishes,” and then I can’t seem to get off the couch or dressed or out of bed, but I tell myself “just do the dishes.” And I do. And then, once I’m up, I seem to do other shit.

I turn the television off for a few hours a day. I turn the music up loud. I send the kids outside no matter what to ride their bikes. When I run out of underwear, I do laundry. I invite the kids to cook with me. But the dishes are my only real goal now.

Ava was supposed to come next week for her Spring Break. I’ve been looking forward to it since Christmas. It is a strange, strange feeling to be separated from my daughter in a legal way. As in, the EU won’t let me. It is a strange feeling to wonder if she’d be safer here.

She’s a senior. Her prom, senior trip, and graduation ceremony may be cancelled. She is angry, heartbroken, unsure, and without her Mom, her Dad, her brothers and sister.

The other day she and I got in a big fight, and when it was done and she was chatting about her day, and the kids were yelling “goodnight, Ava!” over my shoulder, I just dropped my head and cried in a way I haven’t in a long, long time. She couldn’t see or hear me. She didn’t notice it in my voice. Mac watched me from across the kitchen table.

Here I am, away from my baby and my parents. Here I am. Why.

I wasn’t doing so hot before any of this happened. I was barely functioning after having done that slow march into apathy and gray isolation—five hours a day in bed, ten hours a day on a screen. I’m ashamed, sort of, but it is what it is.

After our neighbor and a friend independently told Mac they thought I was depressed (and I thought I was hiding it so well!), and I started wondering if maybe I should start drinking again because I’m in a new country and fuck it and the relief might be worth the destruction it would bring, I started making some changes that were helping a lot.

I got into a physical therapist for my pain. I signed up for a little Dutch class. I got a therapeutic lightbox (thanks, renegade mothering Facebook page). And I found a therapist.

She asked me what I wanted out of our work together. I said I wanted to be nudged into new perspectives just enough to survive this. I don’t want the pain gone. I don’t want to be “fixed.” This isn’t a fucking self-empowerment seminar at a Los Angeles Marriott (why am I like this).

I know these things pass. I know we get through them.

I just want slivers of light in my brain to keep me going, to keep me from blowing up my life.

I want to not make this worse. I want to maybe help somebody. I want to not miss time with my family. I want to not scream at them. I want to face the shit inside myself instead of run from it. I want to write to my friends on that blog I created.

 

“Janelle,” she told me. “Look what you’ve gotten through. There’s strength and resilience in you. You just can’t find it right now.”

And she said that when we’re all numb and down in the black and terrified, we lose access to our own inner strength. We just can’t find it. We look into ourselves and seem to find nothing but confusion, fear, that insidious flat-lined gray.

So we look outside ourselves: To screens, to booze, to fights with loved ones or strangers in Wisconsin. We look to control things. We look to understand things. We look to politics and the tribes they create. We look to Russian literature or the news. We look, really, to anything.

And none of it works.

She reminded me we already have what we need. She reminded me we always have. She reminded me that it’s not that I don’t have strength, it’s that I’m looking for it in the wrong places.

It’s good news, I think, to know that the grit and love are within us, and we just forget sometimes. We forget about the resiliency we’ve demonstrated the entirety of our lives or even the nine years we’ve been together here on this silly website, living through those babies dying in kindergarten and the crumbling of our nation and all the times we thought for sure this time there is no way out.

Yet we’ve always gotten out, or through, haven’t we? Until it passes.

“I live a hope despite my knowing better,” said James Baldwin.

I’ll meet you there.

 

Arlo living his hope by setting up a busking gig down the road.

***

Need a distraction?

I’m teaching two online writing workshops in April and

offering a $50 quarantine discount. 

30 Comments | Posted in 2020 deserves a category of its own | March 27, 2020