When Fiction and Reality Meet

Room

My favorite reading experience, where the book I was reading matched the circumstances around me perfectly, used to be easy to pick out. I often used to take the train from the Chicago suburbs to Champaign-Urbana, when I bounced back and forth between my parents’ house and college. This particular trip I took was in the evening in the middle of a cold, clear winter. While the train was usually full enough that I was obliged to make small talk with a seatmate, this time it was almost completely empty and silent. Every other time I sat under fluorescent lights with dull grey metal all around me. This time I found myself in a refurbished Pullman car. Red velvet lined the seats, with a fringed gold trim edging the armrest. A sumptuous carpet rested under my feet. The lights had a soft glow emanating from ornate sconces. I burrowed myself into my seat, cushioned and alone, and picked up where I had left off reading The Shining for the very first time. The opulence matched The Overlook Hotel, and as I glanced out the window at an endless stretching snowy winter, seeing a single farmhouse light in the distance echoed my own isolation and that of the Torrences. For nearly twenty years that has been my favorite.

I may have a new contender. I have been sick with a really horrible protracted cold, and my boys are now sick with the same excruciatingly slow virus. My husband is traveling for work, and the boys have now missed three days of school. Last night my oldest wanted to sleep on the couch, so when he went to bed I tiptoed to my room and grabbed a book since I was not going to be able to fall asleep at 8:30. I had bought Room by Emma Donoghue more than a year ago and hadn’t touched it since. I’m not sure if I was worried that my heart wouldn’t be able to take it, but for some reason it nearly jumped off the shelf at me this time.

We are told the story through the perspective of a five-year-old boy named Jack. He and his mother are held captive in a small room by the man who kidnapped his mother years ago. The book opens on his fifth birthday and describes how they manage to make a life for themselves in “Room”, a place Jack has never left. It opens on the day of the spring equinox. I began to feel eerie, as yesterday was the spring equinox as well. Jack describes what TV shows he likes to watch, and because this is set in contemporary times, they are all shows my children watched too. Backyardigans, Wonder Pets, Dora the Explorer. The way his mother helps structure their days reminded me so much of what it was like when the boys were small, when one day can bleed into the next if it is just you together in the house, seeing no one else, going nowhere else. A state I am in right now. It is just us, quarantined away from the world, only using the resources we have on hand, and with each other as our sole company. It is both intimate and confining all at once.

Jack counts his teeth with his tongue when he is trying to distract himself. Each time he does I do the same and am reminded that a crown popped off one of my teeth earlier in the day. As I think about when I’ll be able to get that fixed Ma takes a ‘killer’ (painkiller) because her bad tooth is aching very badly. She is also waiting to get her tooth fixed, though for her it may never happen.

I read more than half the book in that one sitting, entranced, both seeing myself and the day I just had and the day I was about to have stretched before me, and seeing how much more I had that they didn’t. A window. A telephone. Food in the cupboards. The ability to open the door and feel fresh air on my face. Things I would never have stopped to appreciate that I still have even if I don’t have the Outside right now.

I’m not capturing how odd it felt, how odd it feels when your reality and fiction blends so perfectly together that you cannot extract one from the other. It isn’t something you can plan, though luckily sometimes it comes together. I read a scene from The Signature of All Things where the protagonist laments how useless paper is on a tropical island exactly one day before discovering all our paper was a humid mess in Puerto Rico. We read Harry Potter for the first time through the 2016 election and the coincidences were spooky (though that is an essay for another time). I guess I’ll tell this story better after twenty years than I do now, but I wanted to say…

Books are magic in a totally unpredictable and unusual way. And in the middle of a boring household cold, I got to experience that again.

 

Happy Irish-Italian-American Day!

irish-Italian
[Picture of red tomatoes and a box of spaghetti above. Picture of shamrock and plaque that read “Home is where your story begins” surrounded by Celtic knots below]

I am half Irish-American and half Italian-American, more or less, give or take. On the Irish side there are a few Scottish and French ancestors, and on the Italian side we are more accurately Sicilian. This is a fairly common background for people who live near Chicago, Boston, or New York, as both of these European immigrant groups settled in these cities in large numbers. I get that it isn’t very common in the rest of the country โ€“ when I lived in Tennessee and Texas I was hard-pressed to find anyone who was either Irish-American or Italian-American, much less both.

Chicago, however, is city that dyes its river green every St. Patrick’s Day and has a bag-pipe filled parade. It is also a city that celebrates St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th with groaning tables of Italian food and the color red. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, Joseph the patron saint of Italy. It stands to reason, that in the Chicagoland area March 18th should be Irish-Italian-American Day. You know, split the difference and celebrate the best of both cultures.

My brother and I went back and forth on suggestions. Maybe of viewing of Brooklyn or Return to Me (apparently there is an Irish-Italian restaurant). I can’t remember if it is A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas that features characters who cannot be full mafiasos because they are part Irish-but I’m thinking I’m tired of Italian heritage being reduced to the mob. Maybe I’ll watch the beautifully animated Song of the Sea again.

My general feeling is that I would be best served eating Italian (and Italian-American) food while listening to Irish (and Irish-American) music. Gnocchi, lasagna, caprese salad, tiramisu, cannoli, lemon knot cookies, pizzelle, agli olio, espresso, eggplant parmesean, stuffed artichokes, pasta fagioli. Gaelic Storm, the Cheiftains, Van Morrison, Flogging Molly, U2.

The reverse would be all right too, if perhaps a tad less illustrious. I really do love a good stew, potatoes are always a favorite, and my oldest kid even likes cabbage. I can appreciate opera (Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti is heaven) and Frank Sinatra will always have my heart.

I could binge read, James Joyce and Dante, William Butler Yeats and Petrarch.

Check out the artwork of the Book of Kells, and the Renaissance.

Drink beer or wine.

And both places are beautiful.

You know, it is almost as if there is no wrong way to celebrate.

So for everyone out there who has both Irish and Italian heritage in America, in between Shamrock Shakes and sweets tables, there is one day that could celebrate both. Let’s do it!

Happy March 18th, everybody!

International Women’s Day and Day Without a Woman

devalue

Today is International Women’s Day. This particular March 8th is also, in the United States, Day Without a Woman โ€“ a general strike to highlight the importance of women and how their contributions of both paid and unpaid labor are grossly underappreciated. I have been spending all of this week leading up to today trying to figure out how best to honor both.

The easiest way to support the day and the strike is to wear red, a show of solidarity with women fighting for equal rights, opportunities and recognition. Done. I’m wearing red, my two kids are wearing red. Easy.

red shirt

The next is slightly harder. As women purchase 70-80 percent of items and services for sale, women are asked to refrain from purchasing anything today, to demonstrate how much our purchasing power is worth. Another way to do that is to purchase exclusively from women-owned companies. I will be purchasing an item to support the wonderful online site The Establishment, a bastion of intersectional feminism and support for writers (they pay every writer for every story they publish-which is unusual and welcome in the world of online publishing). I won’t be buying lunch, or dinner, or groceries, or clothes, or books, or my kids’ haircuts or an oil change for the car today.

The last is the most difficult. Women are called upon to strike from all paid and unpaid labor today. Except for the once-a-month tutoring gig I do get paid for, all my labor is unpaid right now. I am a published writer who last got paid for an essay in 2007, and a stay-at-home mom. When my husband is not traveling for work, we already share household chores and child-raising tasks equitably. He doesn’t need a reminder of what I do, and I feel appreciated. And if I refrain from writing, I lose the opportunity to advocate for recognition of the work that women do. So I won’t be taking time away from unpaid labor.

I also never thought of it this way before, but I have women in my employ. I am a chronically ill person who functions most weeks as a single mother would, taking care of everything while my husband travels for work. We have a service come and clean our house every two weeks to help. Vacuuming, washing floors, dusting high shelves, scrubbing toilets: I can technically still do all these things. However, the pain and energy cost of doing these chores (my fibromyalgia tends to flare) leaves me bankrupt for days sometimes, unable to do other things that need doing. I am so grateful to have the three women who do this work for me. Wednesdays happen to be the days they come. I appreciate what they provide for me so much, and know I am a more productive person if I let this work still happen. If they do strike today, I am completely supportive and understanding. If they do not, I will try to make sure to tell them how much I appreciate the work they do.

But, most of all, what I want to do today is explain just how many women make my world possible. I have lived in the world of women for a decade, a world of stay-at-home moms, retail workers, grade school teachers, pediatricians, nurses and volunteers.

I will start with school. From the early intervention services that my youngest had at age two, to the fourth-grade teacher my oldest has now, almost every single educator my kids have had have been women. Since preschool my oldest has been taught by at least thirty teachers and four teacher’s aides, and only three of them have been men. Since early intervention my youngest has had four speech therapists, and at least twenty-four teachers and teacher’s aides, I think one of whom has been a man. We have a male principal, but the vast majority of workers at the school, from the school secretaries to the lunch moms to the volunteers who organize fundraisers and room parties, are women. ย Grade school workers are notoriously underpaid and in a capitalist society being underpaid means being underappreciated. I love our school.

I went to work out today. Seven out of the nine receptionists I see regularly are women. When I peek in on classes, I have yet to see a male instructor. Most of the trainers are women. All of the instructors for early childhood classes at my park district are women.

I thought about spending time at our library. I have seen two male librarians over the course of nine years.

Where we get our boys hair cut, eight out of the nine hairdressers I see regularly are women.

Grocery stores, at least half the employees are women. Fast food and slower paced restaurants seem to be the same, at about 50%. So is our local post office.

Clothing and shoe stores? Almost 100% women.

Our local food pantry and community services administrators? 80% women.

Emergency room at our local hospital? The boys and I have only ever seen two male nurse versus about twenty female nurses. We’ve seen two male doctors versus at least ten female doctors.

The pediatrician’s office? All the nurses are women. Half the doctors are as well.

We would visit my mother when she worked at the offices for our local church. A full half of the support staff the offices, and roughly 90 percent of the teachers for both year-round parochial school and CCD were women. And these are just the paid positions. Mothers often volunteer to help even more. In fact that’s how my mother got her foot in the door for this job in the first place.

Most of the women I know, whether they work outside the home or not, do vast amounts of unpaid and unappreciated labor. I once had a conversation with other moms who were completely shocked that my husband did the grocery shopping for our household. I was told that to expect their husbands to do this task was completely unthinkable. Working women still do more household and child-rearing chores then working men. Stay-at-home mothers are still looked down on as if they aren’t contributing.

Most caregivers for disabled people and the elderly are women, both paid professionals and unpaid family members.

On top of all this, is the emotional labor that I have seen women do for free. The labor of keeping relationships healthy, families emotionally whole, communities functioning and working together.

The contributions women make to this country, to the world, are staggering.

The last other thing I am going to try to do today is to spend time not only thinking about how much would be lost without women doing the too-often invisible work of the world, but how much would be lost without their voices too. I have set my playlist to all the music I own either written or sung by women. I am reading I Am Malala for the first time.

women's voices

 

This is how I will spend today.

Portrait of a Walking Disaster

ankle-injury
This is a very old picture. No need to send me a sympathy fruit basket. Unless you really want to.

 

A (Barely) Fictionalized Account of My Klutziness Through the Years

 

2016

“Uh, honey?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“So I really hurt my ankle taking the kids to school. I’m having a lot of trouble walking.”

“Are you serious? How?”

“Ice.”

“Uh, I do not know how to handle this right now. Are you okay?”

“Sure, I’ll just ice it, I’ll be fine.”

 

2014

“Ooooooooo, I really screwed up my elbow! Like, I think it might be broken.”

“Are you serious? How?”

“Weeding the garden.”

“Weeding the garden?”

“Yeah, there was one weed that was really stubborn and I yanked too hard, and when it gave way I went flying.”

“Uh, I am in the middle of grouting the backsplash. Are you okay to wait?”

“I’ll put some ice on it.”

“Did you really need to weed the garden two days before vacation?”

“Who the hell knew I would break my elbow just weeding?”

 

2012

“I hurt my ankle. I can’t really walk.”

“Are you serious? How?”

“I was playing with the kids at the park, and I was pretending to walk the curb as a balance beam and I stepped off funny.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m icing it right now.”

“And elevating it?”

“And elevating it.”

 

2008

“So, am so glad your cell phone is working, I just called 911, and Mom and Dad. I shattered my ankle pretty bad. Dad’s going with me to the hospital, Mom is going to watch Nicholas.”

“Oh my God, are you serious? How?

“Ice. I was taking out the garbage and I was wearing the wrong shoes and they slipped, and I went down hard and I tried to put weight on it but I couldn’t, and I had to crawl up the driveway in the snow, and then my cell phone wasn’t charged, and then I left the portable phone upstairs and I had to crawl upstairs and then I called Mom and Dad, but I couldn’t call you ’cause the cell phone wasn’t charged and we can’t call long distance from the house, but I could call 911. And it hurts really bad.”

“Uh, I don’t know how to handle this right now. Are you okay?”

“No, but I will be.”

“I’ll get a flight back, but I came out on a regional, I don’t know how fast I can get back.”

“I’m icing it until they get here.”

“And elevating it?”

“And elevating it.”

 

1993

“Mom, I think I really hurt my ankle!”

“Oh no. How?”

“I kind of missed the last two steps of the stairs.”

“Are you serious? How is it you can be graceful in dance class, but you can’t walk to save your life?”

“It’s not like this happens all the time.”

“Uh, I don’t really have time for this. Your brothers have soccer and boy scouts tonight. Can you ice it until I can get you to the doctor?”

“Yeah, I can ice it.”

 

1991

“Mr. DeMarco? Yes, thank you for calling us. Your daughter is still in the Emergency Room, we have not transferred her to a room yet. As soon as you get in the receptionist should be able to direct you here.

“Hmmmm. Well, it seems she was trailing her fingers along a wall by the fairground’s bathrooms and the hinge side of the door closed on it and took the tip clean off.

“Yes, hard to believe but I am serious. Is she okay? Yes, I’d say so. We’ve cleaned the wound and have given her painkillers, so she appears to be in good spirits. Oh and we’ve iced and elevated it until we could get you in and get a consultation with our surgeon.”

 

1985

“Awaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh”

“Oh no, Michael, there’s blood everywhere!”

“Are you serious?”

“Kristin, are you okay?”

“Awaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh”

“How? Just how?”

Sob, hiccup, sob “I was pretending the couch was balance beam, and I fell off and hit the coffee table.”

“Why on earth would you do something like that? Just two days after moving?”

“I didn’t know I was going to get hurt just (sob) PLAYING!”

Faint muttering stage whispered just loud enough to hear. “I thought those dance lessons were supposed to help her be less of a klutz. What are we paying all that money for?” Louder “Lorena, you go call the doctor.ย  I’ll go grab the ice.”

Rubbing of temples, pinching the bridge of his nose, muttering again. “Ugh, I do not know how to handle this right now.”

Loser

wilted-flower

I have been meditating on the idea of loss this morning. Fear of loss, the imagined specter of what might be, is horribly powerful. The fear of attack, the fear of hunger, the fear of oppression, the fear of disability, the fear of failure, the fear of war. The loss of dreams, loved ones, security, ability.

What is one of Donald Trump’s greatest insults, one he uses all the time?

Loser.

We are terrified of loss, and terrified that that loss will define us in ways that make us less than. Others will see the taint of loss in us, and we will no longer be good enough, worthy enough.

Failures of empathy are often failures of imagination, we do not want to imagine how horrible it would feel to sit with the losses that other people do. It seems contagious. This is why many people shy away from the grieving, or take up protective denial at how bad a situation is. Truly understanding what someone else is going through makes us acutely aware that it could happen to us, and that is frightening.

Life is frightening, and having evidence at our fingertips that it is capricious is more so. Some people want to believe that when misfortune happens the unfortunate person brought it upon themselves-poor choices, lack of faith in God, excessive vices, ignorance. Some people don’t want to believe the situation is as bad as it seems-they diminish someone else’s hardships as a way of distancing themselves.

Those of us who have felt loss that was stinging and life-altering will wonder for a long time if we did something to cause it, we hide how bad it was away from our loved ones out of compassion as we don’t want you to feel frightened. But, if you have felt deep loss, deep oppression you know in your bones that Trump’s assertion is all a lie. Experiencing the losses of life are not indicative of your worth as a human being, they are an inescapable part of being human.

We can compound the effects of loss upon people by being too frightened to face it, to look it in the eye. And if you have yet to really experience loss you will be even more frightened. This is where privilege comes in. I had the privileges of being white, straight, middle class, educated, thin enough, pretty enough, Christian enough, free from sexual abuse. By the time I got to college, I had two beloved grandparents die, and that was the most I really knew of loss. And my fear of losing anything was palpable, it felt, at the time unendurable. When you haven’t lost much yet, losing feels like it will be worse than death.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who have had more than their share of loss, and looking at other people’s losses might sink them with the weight of all the unfairness of the world. Adding other people’s losses onto their hearts is too great a burden, and they may turn away.

Loss is something we will all have in common, if we don’t already.

To have a leader who looks at anyone who has ever lost anything as a “loser”, with all the degrading connotations that implies, is unconscionable. If that was the only despicable thing he had ever done, it would have been enough for me.

Although, I suspect he is more frightened of loss than any of us will ever be. He has done everything in his power his entire life to ensure he never has to endure the sting of loss even once. And his lack of human feeling matches the measure of his fear of being a “loser”.

The antidote, the key to empathy, the key to really understanding and alleviating suffering, is then bravery. Facing down your fear that something horrible will happen, because if you live long enough something always will, is imperative. Difficult and excruciating, but imperative. Face your fear of loss with as stout a heart as you can, knowing that this scares every single one of us, too. Then we can actually take practical steps to truly help each other

Expecto Patronum

expecto-patronum

These are dark days. Exhausting days. Days that promise a new affront to decency and stability every damn hour.

I am trying.

I have been filling a journal with things that make me happy, unfailingly happy.

Activities.

Songs to dance along to.

Song to sing along with.

Foods.

Movies and TV shows.

Reminders to take my medicine on time.

Reminders to breathe.

Lists of things I want to teach the boys.

Things I can do to make my environment more orderly.

Beautiful things.

Silly things.

Lists of painters I love.

Lists of comic strips that make me smile.

Reminders to stretch.

A list of exercise classes I can get to quickly.

Nail polish colors.

Names of people I love.

Inside jokes with my husband.

Lists of things with soothing textures-smooth stones and fluffy hair and grass.

Descriptions of places I love.

Little things I can to do show my family I love them.

 

Anything I can think of to pierce the darkness, it goes in the journal.

 

I flip through it whenever I need to, and I need to almost hourly right now.

 

I am not going to lose my soul to this fight.

Expecto Patronum.

I’ll Get to You Soon

midnight

It’s a new year.

It’s finally a new year.

You know those years when, at the end, you recap and try to enumerate everything you did, everything that changed, everything important to you, and then realize there is no way it all could have happened in one year? That you must have Hermione’s ability to turn back time and have lived each day as thirty hours instead of twenty-four?

2016 was definitely one of those years.

It doesn’t surprise me much that my whole little family has been sick, that we spent New Year’s Eve at home, in bed by 8:45 for the boys and 10:00 for the adults, that I took a two hour nap with my sick youngest child and then laid still in bed while he napped for another hour after I woke up.

This was a year of emotionally processing everything at breakneck speed. This was a year of having your head hit the pillow and the phone ring seconds after you fall asleep. This was a year of poring through stacks of research and finding the answer you’re looking for with bleary bloodshot eyes when you’ve gone too far to give up. This was a year of turning on a dime, being willing to change course and direction with a second’s notice. This was a year of finding that the things you took for granted could disappear. This was a year of pushing yourself past the point of exhaustion to catch at the beautiful truth that has made all of it worthwhile. This was a year of affirming that so much of life is worth putting in thirty hours when you only have twenty-four.

But.

I am tired.

I feel like I’ve aged all those extra hours this year. They line my face in a way I don’t recognize, so that even in my transcendently happy moments they are still there. My body needs healing and strength. My soul does, too. The brief span between Christmas and New Year’s usually affords me enough time, enough rest to steel myself to begin it all again. Enough time to refocus, to make lists, to take stock, to start.

Even when I am sick, it has been enough. I am always sick. I even picked up a few more chronic conditions this year, in the midst of everything else that happened.

This year feels different.

Welcome 2017.

I’ll get to you soon.

I think I’m going to need a few minutes though.