Being Counted

tbaby

In October of 2008, Scott was on tour in Seattle and I was sitting at my dining room table working on my first memoir, when the number of our adoption agency flashed on my phone. We had been waiting a solid year since we finished the last of our paperwork. I picked up with a shaking hand. The voice on the other end said, “We have a beautiful ten-month-old boy for you….”

I opened my computer to find an email with two photo attachments, which I forwarded to Scott as I dialed his number. The blurry photos were of a gorgeous infant with dark, thoughtful eyes, a wide forehead, skinny legs and a face like one of the famous Ethiopian paintings of wide-eyed angels that adorn the ceilings of their churches.

“There’s my son,” said Scott. “Look at him. He’s perfect.”

I was smitten. I wore my little angel around my neck in a locket. I blew the pictures up and put them in every room in the house. I carried them around in my purse and shoved them in the face of everyone who would look.

“Look! My son! Isn’t he terrific? Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t he clearly a genius?”

angel

One day, I met my friend Joel for coffee and began our chat by enthusiastically foisting Tariku’s pictures on him. He oohed and aahed appropriately, and then he said, “I’m here for you if you need help. And you’re going to need help. For instance, someone is going to have to teach this kid how to handle the police.”

I said, “He’s not even a year old, Joel.”

He said, “It goes fast.”

I thought he was being a tad hysterical. But Joel is a black man, and now, a few years later, as Baltimore is smoldering and I can’t look at pictures of Freddie Gray’s face without crying for that young man’s mother, I see that Joel wasn’t being hysterical. Not remotely.

Tariku is seven now, reed thin, goofy-toothed, adorable and all wild boy. He’s taller every day, all of his pants two inches too short because I can’t keep up with him. And as I watch him lope through the park like a gazelle, I think, How soon before he’ll be mistaken for a teenager? How soon before it’s not a mistake and he is a teenager? With every inch he grows, how much less safe is he?

all grown

This should not be a mother’s first thought upon looking at her growing boy.

I’ve found myself stuck every time I sat down to write this past week– unsure how to write about Baltimore and unsure how to not write about it. For such a big mouth, writing about race doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m personally terrified and politically enraged about the brutal institutionalized racism in this country, but when it comes to writing about it, I feel overemotional and under-qualified.

Then I read this sentence from Kevin Powell’s amazing “Why Baltimore is Burning:”

“They know it is madness that so-called progressive, liberal, human-rights, or social-justice people of any race or culture have remained mightily silent as these police shootings have been going down coast to coast.”

That’s me, I thought– the mightily silent. I acknowledging my privilege, cry over pictures of Freddie Gray, make it out to a protest or two once in a while, read books by people smarter than me, retweet people more clever than me… It’s really not enough.

I joined some amazing women at a blogging conference this last weekend, including Kelly Wickham, Luvvie Ajayi, and Kristen Howerton (see: the people I often retweet who are more clever than me), and walked away feeling inspired. These women challenge me to read and write more about race. To reach for my own voice in the dialogue, even if I don’t have anything new to say. It’s not an originality contest, it’s about being counted. This is how I begin.

Friday Faves 1/23

blacklives

1. I loved Kelly Wickham’s Talking to Children about Ferguson and Social Justice post at Little Pickle press. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach these tough topics in a developmentally appropriate way. I don’t want to raise Tariku blind to these deeply important issues, but I don’t want to frighten or overwhelm him either. Kelly writes, “The easiest definition [of social justice] presumes that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Teaching children that everyone is deserving of such things means teaching them to value diversity and all people. Instead of tackling all those things at once, however, it’s best to choose themes based on the questions that children are asking.” She also suggests using art projects to explore different topics, so that kids have a way of expressing feelings that might come up. It’s a terrific post and was extremely helpful to me.

mlk
2. Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.? This biography series for young readers covers a broad range of historical figures. The stories are clear and engaging. For a brief moment now and then, these books can help me get Tariku more interested in Rosa Parks than Spiderman.

buddhaboard
3. The Buddha Board is the best holiday present we got this year. It’s simply a board with a ceramic surface, a brush, and a water receptacle. You paint on the board with the water, and as it dries the image fades. It’s a great emotional release as well as good practice at creating and letting go, again and again. I’ve spontaneously used it during some difficult conversations to paint funny pictures of my feelings (ie- a head on fire). It brought some humor to a hard moment. Tariku has been practicing his Japanese characters. I have no idea where he learned them. Don’t look at me- I just paint heads on fire.

moleskin
4. This extra large, ruled, soft cover Moleskine notebook is The One. I’ve used these notebooks as journals for years. My garage is filled with stacks of them. The Buddha Board got me thinking that for the last six months, I’ve drifted away from writing in my journal. Journal writing is important to me because, much like the Buddha Board, the writing is about process rather than product. Journals have always been the place I write terribly, messily, carelessly. It’s easy to shove aside when I’m racing toward deadlines. But journaling is essential to remembering who I am, and it informs and deepens my other projects. I’ve recommitted to it and have been busting out the Moleskine again.

empathy.
5. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. Jamison manages to combine a mastery of craft with an ability to still leave the raw emotional seams showing. These brave essays reach both outward and inward, exploring sticky things like empathy and sentimentality without wrapping them up in a forced bow. It’s awesome.