Friday, October 17, 2014

James McBride lecture

Yesterday, a stellar volunteer in my program at work asked if I wanted his extra ticket to hear James McBride speak downtown due to his wife being sick.  I had read McBride's book The Color of Water several years ago and given away two copies of it since then.  As a white mother raising two black children, the book meant a lot to me, and I've carried its lessons with me for years.

The older I've gotten, the less it bothers me to go to events alone, so for two Thursday nights in a row, I drove our little VW bug downtown to go to a solo event.  I found parking a thousand blocks away and rushed to get to the packed venue right in time.  In the dark theater, I found one of the last available seats in the upper balcony, next to another solo female.  Besides the dozens of high school students who had been given free tickets, I think my neighbor and I were the youngest people there.  Portland is a very literary city, so it makes sense that events like this sell out.  In fact, the MC gave a ten minute introduction, not of James McBride, but of the history of the Literary Arts & Lectures itself.  There was a lot of self-congratulatory applause among the very white crowd, not that I'm criticizing.

The first thing McBride said upon reaching the podium was, "It's so nice to be here in such a white...I mean, nice crowd."  I guffawed louder than I thought possible.  He never prepares what he's going to say prior to a talk, so his lecture was pretty meandering, but I knew I was going to dig it when he started off by poking fun of Garrison Keilor.

As the lecture went on, I began taking a few notes.  Here are some things I want to remember:

"Cynicism is toxic to your dreams."

He spoke about Frederick Douglas having a black wife and white mistress living in his house at the same time.

He read a lot of William Saroyan as a child, an author I was introduced to while teaching credit-ESL classes to a largely Armenian population of students in Southern California.  It was a good reminder to pull out his short stories for my own kids.

Lastly, and probably most importantly for me, he circled back around to the importance of forgiveness.  He told a story about being in a meeting of black students at an ivy league university in which the president had made prior racist remarks.  The meeting was to come to a resolution.  The president apologized and in the tense conversation, a black man in blue-collar uniform stood up to say that he forgave the president.  He was booed.  McBride spoke about how disheartened he was by this reaction.

He went on to say, "If you lose your innocence, you lose your power" in regards to the danger of becoming cynical.   He explained that artists who become cynical lose their wonder and thus their power.  Cynicism is something I struggle with, so it's no wonder I wrote this down.

As I walked out of the auditorium, I listened to the comments of the crowd and felt relieved that I didn't have to talk to anyone.  I walked through the well-lit art museum grounds to my car parked those thousand blocks away.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Silent Night

My daughter started soccer practice a few weeks ago in the afternoons.  My son isn't interested in playing, so while he plays on the monkey bars, I read or text or instagram.  During one soccer practice recently, my son needed affection.  He climbed on my lap and began humming.  It wasn't until a few moments in that I realized that the 'lullaby' he was humming was "Silent Night."  We sat together on a hard bench on a soccer field in September, rocking to and fro. All was calm, all was bright.  Mother and child.

Wisdom from Ray Bradbury, via Granger

I attended four years of AP English at a stellar public high school, and I have a degree in literature from a Presbyterian liberal arts college and was still never made to read Fahrenheit 451.  I'm closing the huge gaps in my education.  Toni Morrison comes next.

Granger turned to Montag.  "Grandfather's been dead all these years, but if you lifted my skull, by God, in the convolutions of my brain you'd find the big ridges of his thumbprint.  He touched me.  As I said earlier, he was a sculptor. 'I hate a Roman named Status Quo!' he said to me.  'Stuff your eyes with wonder,' he said, 'live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds.  See the world.  It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.  Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.  And if there was, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away.  To hell with that,' he said, 'shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.'"

Friday, October 3, 2014


The word was "hatch" on my son's reading homework.  He had misspelled it "hach" and was asking me what was wrong with it.  I tell him to go look it up in the dictionary, but then realize he has no idea how to do this.

He brings the little paperback Webster's dictionary from the dollar bin to me, and I show him how to look up a word.  We get to the correct page and he eventually finds the word "hatch."  I instruct him to read the definition.

"to cause the young, esp. of birds, to emerge from an egg."

His eyes bug out.  He grabs his homework and points to the picture under the word "hatch" of a bird cracking its way out of an egg.

He exclaims (and I truly mean exclaim...he was excited), "It's just like this picture! How did it know?!"

How did the dictionary know this?!  Oh my gosh, the wonder of discovery.  I wanted to jump up and down with him, to laugh and maybe even cry at the wonder of a book that contains nothing but facts about words.

He carried the dictionary around the rest of the day.  Both kids asked before bed how we know what's in the dictionary is correct, so I explained who Webster was and then ended up talking about the Oxford English Dictionary, which then led to us at the computer googling pictures of the original OED and then the current one with its twenty volumes, and the kids were just amazed.  We then talked about etymologies and how amazing these are and found the origin of the word "clue," which blew their little minds.


She asked her little brother, "Do you know what 12 times 1 is?"

He thought for a beat and answered, "13!"

"Nope" said with a small degree of smugness.  I interjected with the short math lesson, "Anytime you multiply a number by '1', the answer is the other number."   She didn't like my interjection and sulked a bit, saying something I don't remember.  Her brother said, "It's like you just wanted to show something I don't know, and that's kind of mean."  I backed him up, gently, saying, "Yeah, that's is not nice to point out what others don't know and not be willing to let them learn."

She dropped her shoulders and her head and skulked away to her room.  After a few minutes, she came to the kitchen with a bulging backpack.  She opened the fridge and started packing up baby carrots, cheese sticks, apples.  I asked, "What's this project you're working on?"  She didn't want to answer, though I knew what she was doing.  I made a decision to just let it ride out instead of making an issue of it.

She continues packing, and I ask where she's going.  She says, "I can't say."

"Well, I'm your mom and therefore responsible for you, so I need to know where you are."

"Somewhere near our property, but not on it...Can I cross the street?"

"Sure, but don't turn the corner to go around the block."

She finished packing a few things and went for her shoes.  I said, "Hey, I got some pumpkin cookies at the store today.  You want to add some to your bag?"

She walks into the kitchen to the box of cookies and says, "How many should I take?  You choose."

"I think two would be good."  She puts them with the rest of her snacks before putting on her shoes and walking out the door.

I watch her from the front porch.  Her bag is on her back and she slowly walks to the end of our block, crosses to the other side, walks the length of the block, crosses back over, does it again.  She keeps stealing glances at me over her shoulder, so I try to hide that I'm watching her.  Eventually her friend down the street comes out and asks what she's doing.  She decides to run away too.  They go down to her house so she can pack her bag as well.

They both walk up and down the block, crossing the street, crossing back.  Her friend asks, "Are you really running away?"

"No, not today because I have to go to soccer practice."

This routine goes on until we leave for her practice.  She had not wanted to go out of fear of hurting her broken wrist, but I know how protected it is with her cast, so I make her go.  Once she gets on the field, she's on fire.  She plays like a maniac, taking a break to guzzle water and then throw her bottle back down on the ground like a pro-athlete.  At one point, she falls on her broken side, and I cringe, not knowing what the reaction will be.  She springs right back up and keeps running.  When I ask her about the fall later, she says she doesn't even remember it.

Back at home, I help her shower since she can't get her cast wet.  The three of us sit in the living room reading aloud the next chapter of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  She is really into it and also very affectionate with me.  As she goes to bed, she hugs me and says, "My momiye" (the Amharic way of saying "my" is to add "ye" to the end, so she's essentially saying, "My mom, mine." It's incredibly endearing to have one's name made possessive..."You are mine, we belong together, without you, there is no me.").

Every night  I tell her I love her, and while she will always hug me and kiss me, she rarely if ever says it back.  Tonight, on her own, before I have a chance to say it first, she tells me she loves me.  I tell her that I hope she never runs away.


"Because I would really miss you, and I'd never sleep again if you went missing."


It took way longer than I had intended to get out the door to go to the "park" a few blocks down (it's actually just a big cemented parking lot with adjoining playground for the local catholic school).  There was the requisite chaos of cleaning up after dinner, signing homework, and packing school lunches, but then we couldn't find the dog leash and my husband was too ensconced in a project to help find it, and I was ready to scream at somebody.  Husband drags himself away to prove that he has no idea where the leash is and then promptly finds it.

I'm wrangling a dog, my own two kids, plus my friend with her preschooler who is riding the plasma car to the park.  It was all a bit much.  As we crossed a street, I apologized for my sour mood by saying that I need to be more aware that these are the days that I will look back on with longing and nostalgia.  She said, "Yes, except that you won't even remember this particular day."

That statement struck a certain level of panic in my gut.  I want to remember.

On the way back from the park, my son pushes the preschooler at dizzying speeds on the plasma car all the way home.  She's laughs her head off.  Around the corner from our house, everyone is stopped, and she's laughing in a particularly maniacal way.  I'm commenting on how funny it is, and then we notice a long line of pee darkening the sidewalk.  We carry the wet plasma car a little ways but she eventually gets back on, and my son keeps shoving her towards our house.

Even this I want to remember.