Thursday, May 21, 2015

Advice for Living, from the Dead

So this just happened, thanks to the late-night conversations and gentle guidance of fellow writer Meredith Counts.

I don't know what to say, except what I am always saying.

The hands remember what the mind might forget.

I am grateful for my living, and my dead.

Please submit your mournful home tips to Dead Housekeeping. 250 words, make sure they are both practical and elegiac.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Mayweather v Pacquiao: Please See Us. Please Don't Watch Them.

via FeministIre, which made space for this guest post. I share it here because this is about money and culture if ever an essay was. Please read, and act as your conscience dictates. 

The author of this piece has chosen to duck SEO. She doesn’t mind if you know who she is, but please show the respect of not including her name, tagging her, or leaving comments that identify her by name. You are free to post this on your own blog or website, provided that you don’t change anything, or identify any of the individuals in it who have not already been named. If you get a lot of traffic from it, do please make a donation to the local women’s charity of your choice.

Yesterday I learned what a ‘rabbit punch’ is. In case you didn’t know, it’s a punch to the base of the skull, and is banned in the sport of professional boxing because it can cause spinal damage. Since most instances of punching someone in the head are illegal, it’s pretty much a no-no generally, but it’s also what Floyd Mayweather did to at least one of his former girlfriends. Or, well, allegedly did, since there are ‘no pictures’.

I also know what a rabbit punch feels like, and unlike Mayweather’s ex, I do have pictures. But you’re not going to get them. You’re not even going to get my name, not because you can’t easily figure out who I am, but because of the impact of SEO on my career, and how badly it’s been damaged by outing myself in the past.

It was, weirdly, three years to the date of this fight, and I’m only now starting to reclaim the first page of my search results for things other than what happened to me. Like it or not, people do think less of you once you’ve taken a few nonconsensual punches to the skull.

But also because if you need photographic evidence, or if you need the kind of evidence that’s needed to secure a criminal conviction that actually sticks, you’ll never grasp the size, scale, and depth of the problem of violence against women.

So, no pictures.

Yesterday I also found myself in a conversation on my friend and editor’s Facebook wall. My friend had written a piece about not giving Mayweather your money, and some complete tool argued that Mayweather has ‘served his time’ and that it’s a problem with the justice system, and not much concern to fans of professional sports. That, in fact, as a sports fan, he would be a hypocrite if he didn’t watch the fight. After all, if we held every man in sports accountable for every incident of violence against women, wouldn’t we run out of sports to watch? I told him I hope he gets his free will back.

But in a way, that guy was right. If you actually held every man in the world accountable for his violence against women, what would actually happen? We know that the extreme cases are just the tip of a very ugly patriarchal violence iceberg, which means that the stability of the world we live in relies in part on minimizing, denying, and enabling violence against women.

So what happens if you watch the fight, even if you don’t pay for it? Nothing. Mayweather gets richer, thinkpieces get written, and people call for radical action while others lash out at them for dragging us into some kind of PC nightmarehole where it’s Godwin’s Law everywhere you look. What happens if you watch the fight, even pay for it? The same thing.

What’s the point of not watching?

The point is what you do to make the world less of a misogynist shithole when nobody is looking, when there are no prizes. Because violence against women, the worst of it, the things that lay the conditions for it, those all happen when nobody is looking.

Sometimes radical actions are needed to draw attention, but real change is a new set of habits, a whole new pathway that lays out a very different outcome, both for women who are victims of violence, and the men who commit it. It’s in deleting someone’s phone number because he hit his girlfriend. It’s in not inviting a rapist to a party. It’s in choosing the respect for and humanity of victims, and of all women — not just the immediate safety — over the comfort of men who may or may not be remorseful or reformed. It’s in challenging male entitlement and patriarchal violence and in listening to women when they say ‘no’.

My ex received a two-and-a-half-year sentence for one of his assaults on me. His sentence was suspended entirely, and is up officially in less than two weeks. I guess you could argue that he ‘served his time’, despite never serving more than a few hours in a cell at our local police station.

Since there is no crime called ‘domestic violence’ in the place this all happened, each assault is treated individually. This meant that on the day of his sentencing, I wasn’t allowed to talk about how he hounded me while I was pregnant until I was suicidal, then told everyone he knew that I was threatening to kill our baby. I wasn’t allowed to talk about how he refused to call me an ambulance when my miscarriage turned dangerous, how he opened the door to a charity canvasser and stood there talking to him for 45 minutes while I tried to convince him I needed a doctor. (I eventually got one, and in retrospect, the hospital should have done a little more digging around instead of letting me leave with him the next day.)

I wasn’t allowed to talk about how he put his hands around my neck two days after I lost the baby. I wasn’t allowed to talk about the times he smacked me, punched me, told the neighbours I made him do it because, legally speaking, none of those things had anything to do with the one and only thing he was being sentenced for. I wasn’t even supposed to say very much about the actual incident because anything I said could be used by his defense barrister as a segue to talking about what a terrible person I was.

When you push a violent man’s actions back onto the legal system, you’re also pushing it back into a context where there really is no way, legally speaking, to acknowledge the depth, breadth, and absolute terror that comes with living in these kinds of conditions. The things that become normal would horrify you, and you would ask why I didn’t just go to the police, despite the fact that I did, and that, legally speaking, there wasn’t a whole lot they could — or were willing to — do.

There is, legally speaking, no comprehensive or holistic way to account for the realities of domestic violence in the legal system, partly because it’s a problem of an abusive dynamic that often has nothing to do with the law, which means it’s also a social problem, a public health crisis, and a totally preventable epidemic.

Three years ago, after my rabbit punches, the black eyes, and the permanent marks he left on my face, I was laying on a trolley instead of the slab it could have been, getting spinal x-rays and bleeding all over myself. I guess he’ll have, like Mayweather, done his time, and he’ll always have his version, where I made him do it. He’ll always have people who excuse him and believe him, and I’ll always have this scar on my face and this PTSD that fucks my life up.

But legally speaking, there isn’t much left to be done. So, now what?

Try not watching the Mayweather fight, not as something you do in isolation, but as one step of many present and future occasions where you build small habits into your life that make it harder for men to be rewarded for violence against women. Make it such a regular habit not to enable, deny, rationalize or minimize the impact that male entitlement and patriarchal violence have on the wider world that dropping your habitual actions into conversation would be like telling people how often you pee or brush your teeth or pick your toes.

Make it as boring and unremarkable as anything you do when nobody’s looking.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Not Pictured: 16 Years and Change

I have stood at this window more than six thousand mornings.

Gil and I took possession of this house just yesterday, in May 1998, a day that poured rain. When we woke the next morning, the first sound we heard was the raucous augury of crows, nesting in a half-dead tree we hadn't noticed out back.

I came down to investigate. Through this window, I saw a sanitation truck lurching past, the trash workers tossing in the wet boxes from our move. They followed behind the truck on foot, patting its iron flanks to forge onward, crying, Hey-up!

I drank my tea and tried to fathom how we'd own this structure, this land--in two or three decades, after discharging our debt. I patted my belly, where the baby grew.

Who will we be when it's done? 

How can I answer, now that I know? I want to warn the young woman at that window that in two years, everything she knows will be so changed.

She will be grateful that the mortgage is low, then, and that her new widow's benefit covers it. She will wake alone to the sound of crows, put the baby in front of cartoons, and come to this window to light cigarette after cigarette, furtively blowing her misery out the window.

Some days the sanitation guys will be there--they will sometimes see her, looking out at them from her window. She will wave at them, or they at her, as the trucks groan through, and they will move so swiftly, sweeping discards up and flinging empty cans in their wake, forging on, crying, Hey-up!

She will use the house as collateral for graduate school, living off loans and paying herself to read and think and stay sane.

She will carry the baby to and fro from the driveway to the back door, heavier all the time, a toddler, a preschooler, no daddy to carry that sleeping weight late at night like they'd dreamed.

She will refinance repeatedly over the years to keep it all going.

She will marry a man she now calls Charles Bukowski. She will get a teaching job when she is 40. She will do many other things she doesn't expect. Some of them she won't be proud of. She will buy a better car and an extension ladder after he leaves. She will teach herself to grill outdoors, and be really surprised how simple it is.

She will have the tree of raucous crows removed.

She will plant a pink flowering almond in her first husband's memory.

She will befriend someone who becomes her lover and then her third husband.

On a Monday in March, 16 years and change from the first morning, a realtor will come to see them at their request. She will know nothing of the tree of crows that is gone now. She will not know the story of the almond tree. Maybe she sees the view from this window as a difficulty. It is certainly lacking in allure to the casual eye.

The woman I am now should keep the blind drawn when we show the house. But for a few mornings more, I won't. I will stand at this window looking out, sometimes at the trucks that renew us and move on.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In the Practice of Her Calling

via Flickr Creative Commons, 2015 Photographer: Constanza
My mother was a nurse, and it defined her life. She fought her parents to become one, put herself through school without their money. They believed nursing was beneath her. All those bedpans. All that blood and stink. But my mom, who created doll hospitals in the backyard and ministered to stray cats and dogs all her childhood, marched herself to nursing school in 1949 and never once looked back.

I looked back for her. Playing at the back of her closet, I would lift the lids from two hat boxes to reveal her enticing separate selves before marriage: in one, the glad girl’s turquoise pillbox with a sequined net veil, bought with her first paycheck. In the other, the stiff, formal cap of the nurse, banded with a thin ribbon of black velvet. She'd pinned the Florence Nightingale Pledge to the satin inside: pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.... 

"Isn't it scary, the hospital?" I asked her once. I was seven.

She stopped whatever she was doing. Maybe she dried her hands on a towel, or smoothed down the sheets for bed, with a practiced hand.

"No, oh no," she said. "I like the hospital. It's where people get better."

When we were writing the eulogy, about 20 years after that conversation, my sister came up with the best detail: that our mom's hands were cool when you were feverish, and warm when you were cold.

She was the consummate nurse: always there and unflappable. She made even the most unacceptable acts of care somehow okay. She performed private ablutions for us as if just pouring tea. She held our heads, wiped our bodies, washed our linens, and woke in response to the lightest, faintest cry.

When I was12, an anxiety so deep took hold of me that—every night for three years—I crept into my parents' room and stood by their bed to call her name. Without fail, in that deep, interstitial hour of fear, her eyes blinked open at the first whisper: “Mom.” 

“What do you need, baby?” Awake, no transition, just present and waiting to know. What I needed was so complicated that it became simple. I needed her awake to know I was there. That’s all. I would settle down with my pillow and blanket on the floor beside her, reaching my hand up as she reached down to hold mine. The terror retreated to a distance, and I slept. It was true what my sister said: If my hand was cold, my mother's was warm. When mine was hot, hers was cool.

I inherited those hands. I have used them to soothe my child for 16 years and counting. In this, the worst winter of our lives, I have used them a lot. Sometimes I feel them doing the only good possible, which is to say, I feel it when they fail.

They are good hands, as my mom’s were. They often work well. But in the nights of my adulthood, I know what my mother knew: Sometimes, your hands can't make things better. Sometimes, the most healing hands won't do. Yet those nights you will lay your hands on anyway, knowing all the harms you can't touch.

Other posts about my mom are here and here.
For a glimpse into my own tenuous mothering skills, click here.

[photo by Constanza, Flickr Creative Commons]

Five Star

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Angel of the House Has Left the Building

Here is all I know about the day my mother left:

I wasn't alive. For as long as I could remember, the family had told hilarious stories of hijinks and mayhem that did not involve me. They always went something like this:

Older sister: Mom, Dad, remember that time when we had all those jars of pennies, and we counted the pennies, and there were so many that we had enough for all four of us go to Six Flags together?
Mom: Of course!
Dad: That was so fun!
Older brother: Haha, yeah!
Me: When was that? I don't remember.
Everyone in unison (turning to me): YOU WEREN'T ALIVE.

I was six years behind my sister, seven behind my brother. For all the really epic family stories, I was never alive.

The story of my mother leaving was epic. We know it was epic because it only came out on special occasions, and was always told as if it was funny. It often came out at Thanksgiving, right after my mom had re-emerged from the marathon of dish-doing that had followed the swift blur of eating that had been the pivotal target of hours of turkey-making, which started at six a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, just before we kids got up for the marathon of interminable, inexplicable, dependably dull Parade Watching.

As we handed around the pie and coffee, Older Sister or Older Brother would inevitably say, "Mom, mom, tell the story about when you left home." And my mom would tell it. Every time she told it, the details were essentially the same. Every time, all of us laughed. Every time, I was not alive.

The story of my mother leaving was not funny at all. This I have only learned in the years since I heard it, amid those peals of relief-laden family laughter at Thanksgiving. I know now that my mother's story was not funny, because I have lived it. Many times. So has my Older Sister. Together we, the two remaining women in our once-nuclear family, understand how serious a day that was.

We know it was serious because we have never since discussed it. Never once, that I recall, have my sister or I mentioned this story to the other. Our mother is gone, and what can it prove? Only what we already know.

My mother was gone for less than 24 hours. One day, the story goes, she got so fed up that she left my dad a note, left the two toddlers who were not me in the care of a neighbor, and took the bus downtown. She checked in to the Fairmont Hotel. She booked a hair appointment for the next day at a salon. She took a bath, slept soundly, dressed with care the next day, ate a leisurely breakfast, strolled through the aisles of expensive clothing and perfumes, got her hair did, and then...

...checked out of the hotel and came home in time to make dinner.

Did she hesitate? Did she consider never returning? Did stranger, harder, distinctly more permanent solutions cross her mind, then or ever? We will never know. We enshrined the story of her brief rebellion in hilarity, as though it had been made only for our amusement. Like everything else our mother did, it was all about us.

Never once did any of us ask her a single serious question about that day.

So we will never know what made her return. We know perfectly well what made her leave.