Last year’s playful meme is this year’s dreaded reckoning.

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I’ve been reluctant to share for fear it will hurt and offend and embarrass my family, and I hate that thought. However, that kind of thinking contributed to the situation we now face. Of course, I have had many, many confrontations in person, and will probably have many more. I hope to get better at it, but I won’t let myself stop doing it.

At the same time, I hope that there is also some usefulness in pulling back the curtain on my family’s history with race, or some small sliver of it. Let’s stop giving safe harbor to these ideas in our families. We can love our relatives and call them out at the same time–some would argue calling them out compassionately is an essential part of love.

If, for some reason, you’d like the paper version, let me know your mailing address.

reluctant writer versus cannibal

We talk about them as if they have a disease we can cure—but maybe they are wise to fear writing. It is an old-testament God, a colonizer, a cuckoo bird, a confidence man. Maybe they see what we have hidden or forgotten.

We have all resisted writing at some point, perhaps through some instinct that we’ve since been trained to forget. In the fifth grade, I was given a photograph, neatly cut out of an old issue of National Geographic, of a man with deeply wrinkled skin and a fur-lined hood. In my memory, he looks like a cartoon: Eskimo. I could write all kinds of things about him: He rubs noses with his wife, he eats chocolate covered ice cream bars, he lives in an igloo and eats seals, penguins and polar bears, who are also his best friends. I can’t remember if he eats human flesh, or if that’s China. Or Africa or Hawai’i. “Possible cannibal,” I might note, in parentheses, “check encyclopedia.” He doesn’t cook his food, he has one hundred different words for “snow;” I could write about him for days. But I didn’t. I had been asked to describe the picture using my senses. I was supposed to be a little phenomenologist, to limit myself as a writer in the way I would later learn that Michel de Montaigne suggested we all ought to: “I would like everyone to write what he knows,” he commands across centuries, “and as much as he knows.” He thought such restraint might prevent us from slapping labels like “barbarians” on the unfamiliar, from judging the world against our own limited experience of one corner of it. Maybe I was possessed by Montaigne as I faced that writing task.

Ok, here’s what I know: from the stubble below his nose, I know he is a man; from the lines around his eyes, I know he is old. Even this knowledge will be complicated for me, one day, but not yet. He is certainly wearing a fur hood, and I know this would be very uncomfortable on a hot day. “An old man is wearing a fur coat. He looks cold.”

Failing to take his own advice, Montaigne offers a second- or third-hand account of his cannibals: They treat their prisoners like honored guests before roasting and carving them up to share with friends and family, a feast not for nourishment, but revenge. This old man in a cold place is my prisoner (or guest), trapped in the frame of a cropped magazine page. My task is to carve him up into sentences, rich and plump adjectives, then feed him to the teacher—who, after tasting a bit, looks at the ceiling and knits his brow as he chews. “I don’t think it’s quite done,” as if the meat is still pink. Baste it, pop it back into the oven. He sends me back to my desk with instructions to elaborate, to make my description richer.

“A wrinkly old man is wearing a soft fur coat. He looks very cold.”

Still not rich enough for his palette.

“A very wrinkly old man is wearing a nice and soft fur coat. He looks very freezing cold.”

I just wasn’t getting it. I added long trains of adjectives because I didn’t know what else to do, and moreover, I didn’t know why I was supposed to do this. The old man knew who he was. Mr. Brown and I both had the picture in front of us. What could I possibly accomplish by scratching down every synonym for “cold” I could think of? I didn’t understand that this was a rite of passage in my cannibal culture. I was being asked to prove my skills with  linguistic weaponry so that I could join the adults in battle.

There is undeniable violence in writing: to name a thing or a being is to reduce it, to force it into a concept that it has not chosen, one that might be a very uncomfortable fit. A procrustean bed. In that early act of incomprehension and accidental resistance, what I didn’t see was that there is no escape from such violence. To call the man a man was to privilege his facial hair, erasing the million things that distinguished him from every other man on the planet—not to mention to build on the shaky foundation of the gender binary. I dubbed him old, insisting on his wrinkled skin and afflicting him in my imagination with groaning joints, failing memory, weak teeth. Montaigne cracks open a label, “barbarian,” but he cannot escape from an even more insidious one, “them.” Those who are not us.

Is text just a cage in which we trap bits of our experience, torturing them into the shapes of nouns, fattening them with adjectives to enlarge our feast? And are the “reluctant” students naïve, or damaged, or lazy, to resist being recruited into this ritual mangling of the world? Or is writing, like the hunt, the way we sustain ourselves, a brutal but inescapable necessity for our species?  What would happen if we entertained their fears, if we entertained our own, if we allowed ourselves to see the violences we commit on these pages?

February, New Jersey

I walk atop the six-inch glacier that covers every surface, booted and bundled, and sit in an Adirondack chair to bask in the sun.

This place makes no sense to me.

My neighbor, heartbroken, has emptied her cupboards into the glacial yard: pretzels, shredded wheat, cornflakes. Her alcoholic ex, in recovery, had sublimated scotch into cereal. Better than smoking, I think, glad the yard isn’t sprinkled with crumbs of tobacco.

The dog forages enthusiastically. She has a delicate constitution and will be sick from the stuff, but I can hardly begrudge my neighbor her angry grief. I had mine not long ago, with different rituals but the same unreasoning despair. Days like this, days that forced me to realize I was in a place I didn’t understand, those were cupboards I wanted to empty. Cursing the state and all of its particularities, I would cry for home, desperate for her. Later I realized I had in fact cried for her, desperate for home. I am healing now, and I know because I can bask in this sun and the mysteries of this place dispassionately. My neighbor will heal, too, and I will know when the dog stops foraging.

A woman I barely know sends me text messages, leading with polite questions, following with lists of bitter complaints: cheating ex-girlfriend, nosy landlords, unsatisfactory cell phone, lack of transportation. She will heal, too, but I may not know. There will always be a reason to complain. From her, I learn that complaint is a ritual more unsatisfying than her wireless plan.

fledge, o fledglings!

Day 1:

Veronica and I head to the porch in preparation for crafts night, but are derailed by two little birds who don’t fly away no matter how close we get. We run inside to regroup. I am guessing that they are badly hurt and I will have to euthanize them with a two-by-four. Oh, god. I creep up closer to get a look. One has guts oozing out of its feathery breast. I wish I’d never seen them, but now that I have, I’m morally obligated to do something. Right?

“I wish my dad were here. He shot a chipmunk once. He told me it pirouetted like a drunken ballerina.”

I wish Veronica’s dad were here too. I tell her about the time I slipped on a frog in the swamp and smashed its back legs but couldn’t bring myself to finish the job. Charlie, the biology teacher, stepped on it with tears in his eyes. I wish Charlie were here. Veronica tells me about a book where a girl dumps a guy because he is not man enough to finish off the dog they hit with their car. I am glad neither one of those fictional characters are here.

We go downstairs to regroup again and to get some distance. I picture myself with a board smashing beautiful birds and I can’t find resolve. Veronica says maybe they will heal. I latch on to this: Who am I to play god, anyway? I find faith: If god had wanted the birds dead, they would be dead.

I throw them some bits of oatnut bread, thinking they will peck out the seeds. I don’t have birdseed just lying around the house, after all.

Day 2:

The birds have retired to the shade of a chair. What I had thought were guts was in fact a whole lot of poop. A whole lot of poop now covers the space under the chair. I am glad that Veronica’s dad did not make pirouettes out of them, and I am disturbed to realize that my first impulse upon encountering urban wildlife is to smash it with a board.

I give them a strawberry.

I do my research.

Jimmy seems to know the lingo of birds, and he clearly understands the sakes. Stakes.

Ray is a matriarch on the dove message board. Judy is made up. Ray provides scads of useful information.

I learn that If I had smashed the doves, I would be in jail. Or maybe in “jail,” but still. I don’t know how to let mom and dad know they’re alive and well. I think about making a sign, but there is no English-Dove translator on the internet.

I will find a way.

I pump my fist and whisper, “PIGEONS–AND DOVES–FOREVER!!!”

queenie of new orleans

Art makes daily rounds of the block that his house and my apartment share; he strolls and he picks up trash. He looks like a retired sea captain: bent, grizzled, sporting a blue wool cap that looks like it was standard issue along with a peacoat 75 years ago. He doesn’t stand up straight but he performs numerous lithe bends to the ground to retrieve napkins, flyers, and cigarette butts. He doesn’t carry a bag, so I assume his pockets are full of debris. There must be some logic connecting his current occupation to his past career as sea captain. Maybe the logic of patrol, or of cargo. What logic, my almost-always narcissistic mind asks, will connect my post-retirement occupation to what I might one day call, if only in retrospect, my career? What if I have to wait until then, until my days fill themselves up with whatever comes naturally, in order to see the essence of all the work I have done? If I volunteer at a library or something, well, then I’ll feel vindicated. Or if I babysit for families on my street. But what if I become a soapbox preacher in some grimy downtown? What if I roam the streets as a vigilante enforcer of parking ordinances? I wonder if Art daydreamed about a time when he would finally have enough time to keep up not just his own yard, but the entire block. I wonder what else Art does with his days.

Queenie doesn’t exactly accompany Art on his wanderings; she confines herself for the most part to the sidewalk in front of 3 houses. She patrols too, but a more limited domain. Maybe she is mapping out his route on a smaller, but exact, scale. Instead of picking up trash she detains each passerby for a moment, letting them scratch her. She doesn’t purr much, but her pleasure in being scratched is still obvious. She walks in tight circles in order to give the scratcher access to all parts of her back, occasionally flopping on her side and presenting her neck and chin for consideration. This might be why her red collar is so frayed that it looks like the hair on those naked troll dolls that always gave me the creeps. She gets a new collar every few months–always the same, red with tiny reflective paw prints–but it turns into troll hair after a week or two.

If Art sees me scratching her, and he usually does, he points to her with sea captain’s forefinger and smile and asks “ever seen a cat loves attention like that?” Sometimes he uses her name, which always sounded like queenie until he told me the story of it: her mother’s fur, when you saw it from a certain angle, looked green. He assumed that the same would be true of her kitten, so he named her Greenie. It’s not true, though, and I choose to ignore this story because it’s obvious to me that her name is Queenie. At some point I might tell Art that he has his cat’s name wrong.

Queenie has gotten very skinny lately, so I ask Art how old she is. “She’s a Katrina survivor,” he says. “Eight years old.” This neighborhood got six feet of water, so Queenie must have been on a rooftop somewhere, maybe in an attic, starving both literally and for attention. I wonder if the SPCA spray painted “CAT” on his house or dropped off food and water and then spray painted “F/W” with a date. I wonder if she accosted rescue workers the way she now accosts passersby, if she patrolled a small block of rooftop, if they looked forward to seeing her on their rounds the same way I look forward to seeing her on mine. Did they ever imagine her future, being scratched by people like me who walk our dogs and don’t know what this place looked like underwater?

I wonder if Art evacuated and what he felt when he came home to find Queenie, alive and affectionate as before, or maybe more so. Maybe she was as aloof as the average cat before the storm. I don’t ask. I’ve always felt like, having witnessed it all from the relative comfort of Baton Rouge, I’m an outsider in such talk. I know enough to know that there is a discourse of Katrina, and I also know enough to know that it’s more nuanced and complex than I can possibly fathom. I can listen avidly, but to ask questions feels irresponsible because I can’t know what memories or implications or connotations they might bring up. I guess we’re never exactly in control of our questions.

Art is grizzled enough that when, on a twilight walk with friends, I saw him hunched in the front seat of his parked car, I turned back to make sure he was still alive. I didn’t walk up and poke him or anything; I squatted next to Queenie and scratched her while keeping one eye on his crooked shoulder, waiting for it to move. It did, and I ran to catch up to my walking companions. I said, “I had to make sure Art wasn’t dead.” I don’t think they heard me.

the opposite of pride

You’re at dinner near the beach with a bunch of people you kind of know; you are “partying” this weekend even though you have never been very good at it, and you’re proud of yourself for keeping up, for not retreating in the face of distinctly uncomfortable moments—when grown women tell girls who might be twenty years old to take their shirts off—but you are out of your element; you don’t know the rules of these Romans. You shake your head and walk away, but you also make sure to be visibly laughing, so as to kill nobody’s buzz. This is what the weekend’s about, apparently, and you signed up for it because you wanted something new and distracting, something uncharacteristic, something that might loosen you the hell up. When crowds take pictures of strangers dry humping on pool tables, you chase scenes from The Accused out of your always-too-serious mind, you wave away the statistics that say you’re not the only one here whose body contains memories that void such scenes of the possibility of pleasure. You summon the sentiment from handpainted signs around your city, back home, to “THINK that you might be wrong” even as your brain screams about cycles of oppression and violence. They’re just having fun. Loosen the hell up. Look away if you must, but make sure they can see you’re laughing.

Waiting for food to arrive, you’re arguing, playfully, about pronunciations. Your table gets loud, but the whole weekend has been loud and unleashed, no big deal. You forget about the couple next to you, the one from whose table you borrowed a couple of seats. It’s their Memorial Day getaway too, but they’re not here for clubs and trampolines and loud double-entendres. They look like newlyweds. The man asks you to keep it down and you feel chastened because you remember just then about public space and you know they’re right. The table is overcome by the shared embarrassment that naturally follows such a moment, but you’ve all been on both sides of such moments plenty of times before. You catch the man’s eyes and mouth your sorry with an apologetic smile. The awkwardness will pass; you make quieter jokes and draw on the napkins with crayons. A waiter reiterates the man’s request and you nod. Inevitably, one of your party jokes about taking a date to a sports bar; rude but harmless, perhaps a mild salve to wounded pride.

The conversation at your table splits into smaller ones: you lean towards one couple because they look nervous; you assure them that everything is fine. “I don’t want to cause any trouble,” says one; you agree. “They can be so aggressive.” You double take, confused; you have heard that they many times before and you didn’t think that they was in her vocabulary. In the pause, you hear from across the table, loud, “…would let us get away with it if we were Black.” You look straight at the speaker and slit your throat with your finger, frowning. She laughs. You say it’s neither funny nor true and she stops. She is very, very drunk. The voice next to you is even more nervous now: “he’s looking at us. Shit…gonna start something.” She is wrong. The couple looks angry and mortified; they are eating silently. You feel angry and mortified, too, but you are complicit. You can’t separate yourself from this. Your patented move, your turn away with shaking head and overcompensating smile, is unthinkable now.

Get up and go apologize? That would make it worse, would create a spectacle, would embarrass the innocent and  insult the guilty, making them louder. Walk away from here, get out? You don’t trust your table left to their own devices; maybe you have an inflated sense of your ability to restrain them somehow, or maybe a sense of duty, an absurd sense that is the only thing staving off the purest kind of shame, hopelessness, powerlessness. You did not dream that these ideas were in their hearts. You try to imagine what is going on in the minds of the silently eating couple and you know you can’t fathom it and your entire body aches with the fact that you are one of this number, that you are an inseparable part of It. That It is everywhere and that you didn’t know it, or that you knew it but were arrogant enough to think that you could be elsewhere. You are dumbfounded and you are dumb. For the first time, you understand that everywhere means everywhere. 

Excusing yourself to go to the restroom, you find the waitress. You tell her what happened. You want to ask her to ask your party to leave, but you feel crazy for asking this, especially when you see the look on her face—overwhelmed, trapped, unsure what to do. She’s a kid. You can’t ask her to soothe your guilt. She offers to let you pay their tab if they agree to it. There must be a better way, but you can’t think of it. You’re not sure why you are trying so hard to fix what you know is unfixable, but you know the reason is ultimately selfish. Perhaps the only unselfish thing to do would be to feel this fully and privately, to sit with it and ache and squirm. You pay for their meal and ask her to send apologies, but you feel more impotent and ashamed than ever. You ask her not to tell anyone at your table, but you’re not sure why.

After the couple has left, you do as well, taking the drunkest of your party back to her room. You ask your friends to bring you the meal in a box. You hold it together even when you’re confronted by the anger of your party—you don’t ask how they found out because you are surprised to learn that they are angry at you, talking to you about them and how they are. “I work in the ghetto, so I know. I’m telling you…” You let them take advantage of you to get a free meal. They always do that. You stay calm as you refute their points, as you offer evidence, as you explain your thinking. But none of that matters, because you are in the grips of unreason now, and in this realm, you have actually made their irrational case for them, you have provided exhibit A, created another anecdote that will be distorted into proving a point about them. By asking an obnoxious table to keep it down a little, and then by ignoring the racist insult that followed, by practicing restraint, a Black couple is assumed to be “playing the race card” to get a free meal. If you had practiced the same restraint, if you had done nothing, there would be no such twisted evidence for your table to bring home and spread. You have fucked up. And how.

You spend the balance of the evening alone; you hold your tears back until they have all gone out to rub up on each other against pool tables. The sobbing that follows feels self-indulgent and silly, as if you are a child who has just been disabused of her naïve notions about a harmonious Small World. But you are not naïve; you have no such notions. You are not worried for the insulted couple; they were visibly pissed off, of course, but why would they put any more stock than that into a group of obnoxious drunks? The despair that’s latched on to you is one part about your own stupidity and three parts about the point it has driven home for you: it is everywhere. Your teacher once compared racism in the United States to smog in Los Angeles. You can’t live in L.A. and choose not to breathe in smog; it’s going to get into your lungs, into everybody’s lungs. Still, these are not the people you expect it from. This table is educated, it is diverse in ethnicity, class, nationality, region, home language, sexuality. There was not a Tea Partier in the bunch, not a white man, much less the straight Southern white man with a Confederate flag license plate holder, the specter we use to contain all American racism in our imaginations.

But so what? Where do you take this, now? It makes you think about the self-loathing that seems to link the parts of the weekend together, about the anger that we seem to take out on ourselves and each other, about the reasons why you don’t want to loosen the hell up, not now. About how you and everyone you love breathes this smog, and about how you can possibly keep loving them, and about what your life will be if you don’t. About self-righteousness and holier-than-thouness but also about knowing that they were just plain wrong this time. About feeling hamstrung but remembering that you are not, not really.

dialect poem II

for my grandmother. I loved the way she talked. After I grew out of laughing at it.

Never had a couch,
Certainly not a sofa.
Only the old davenport:
each unnecessary syllable
another lumpy cushion.

Oh my land
we knew her mild expletives
but not her stories–
born from Norse stoics,
bred by American gothics,
she knew how to be invisible and unmovable;
self-effacing and all-powerful–
a simple, omnipotent country girl.

You’re like to lose your britches,
a sharp yank by the beltloops
and into her arms we shrunk,
dwarfed by her sturdy density,
pinned like butterflies.
That pragmatic love meant nothing more or less than
protection from the elements,
survival ensured at all costs.
Her affection had no time for coddling.

En route to matriarch,
Naomi obeyed the 1950s:
made children with matching initials and
hand sewn prom dresses;
gave both her names away
in favor of Mother;
hosted bridge clubs and PEO and unironic wiener roasts;
collected porcelain birds,
made jello and called it salad.

Aw, heck
prone on the davenport now,
she waves us off with a bony arm,
scoffing at the television–
can’t hear the damn thing anyway.
I lean in to say goodbye.

She smells of the indignity
of a body outlived.
Eyes rimmed red, cloudy pale blues catch mine.
Her voice is stronger than the rest of her:
you sure are a heckuva good lookin’ gal.
In her tiny arms I am buttressed.
Her words and I
no longer dwarfed by anything solid.

We are what’s left of her.

remarks for louisiana teach for america alumni

for the 20th anniversary summit

One thing I learned as a special educator is that as often as not, the thing that really disabled my students was not within their own minds or bodies. They were disabled by rhetoric: by the labels, diagnoses, gossip and euphemisms that were used to describe them. And once I saw this, it wasn’t long before I realized that such disabling rhetoric targeted not only my students, but entire swaths of Americans who failed to toe various invisible lines.

I believe that the way we use language creates our reality; the way we talk about each other matters. This conviction led me, after five years in the classroom and two as a program director in SLA, to study the rhetoric of the achievement gap as a doctoral student in the LSU English department.

My favorite philosopher said that “metaphor is never innocent. It orients research and fixes results.” I think it’s an important insight for all of us in education. When we refer to teachers as being “on the front lines,” or “in the trenches,” where do students figure in those violent metaphors? If we are “racing to the top,” we’re speaking as if there is still going to be a bottom—so who might find themselves there? If we talk about poverty as if it’s a disease with measurable “risk factors,” then we shouldn’t be surprised when researchers crank out data that suggests poor kids are less capable than rich ones. Wallace Stevens would rush to remind us that “what we said of it / became a part of what it is.”

I don’t need to tell you why Louisiana is a great place to think about this stuff, because I suspect that many of you have, like me, spent hours reveling in the unexpected and powerful uses of language that abound in our state.  The things that come out of my students’—not to mention my neighbors’, colleagues’ and friends’—mouths continue to make me laugh and think and imagine. And if there is a better way to talk about each other (and I know that there is) then I’m pretty convinced that we can learn it in this place.