The Conversion Machine Part 1

Homosexuality is not only NOT permitted but gay men and women are encouraged to marry heterosexual partners and procreate for the sake of God. I know personally several such couples and as you may expect it doesn’t end well.

As a child my parents sent me to church camp. I grew up singing praise songs and laying myself bare before the lord with other children and their devout, fundamentalist mothers. Unlike my own thin, active, mother who had no interest in religious pursuits, these women could quote the bible by heart. They were large and soft, with a cascade of chins and bosoms that went on forever. I’ll never forget watching their heavy arms shaking as they raised them, singing and clapping along to a rolling spiritual, “How great Thou art…” The smell of strawberry rhubarb pie wafted through the air, just above the hymnals. I felt the twisting of my swimsuit straps underneath my dress, waiting to be set free as I threw off my itchy clothes and jumped into the cool lake. I was barefoot every summer at Reunion. That’s what it was called. A coming together of God’s believers. As a child I loved it. I called it Love Camp.

As time went by my parents lost touch with the reunion folks. Having been raised Catholic my mother had a hard time committing to any church. All she saw was rules. eventually she settled on the Lutherans, as they seemed the most benign. My Dad was raised African Methodist Episcopal and stayed committed to it for the entirety of his life, however he supported my mom on her religious journey because that’s what husbands do. By the time I was in high school my parents had abandoned all pretense of living a religious life. I had gone with my close friend Amy to church a few times and been saved a couple of times but ultimately I was the same person as before I walked down the aisle and bared my soul. Something was definitely missing.

After my first year of college in New York I decided the city wasn’t for me. I had no desire to go anywhere but back home. So I did exactly that and ran right into the Bahai faith. It started simple enough, a girl I’d known most of my childhood invited me to a coffeehouse. Having nothing better to do that night I decided go. Unbeknownst to me, that decision would seal my fate. At the outset it seemed harmless, sweet actually. I saw young people and older people at this makeshift little coffeehouse in an out of the way building. The most shocking thing and what I instantly fell in love with was the racial diversity.

Growing up mixed race was like walking a tightrope. I lived in constant fear of falling into the hands of either side. Making friends was akin to stepping on land mines. I craved acceptance as a child and never really found it. I wanted the black girls to like me. “I’m black too! I have curly hair and brown skin! Just look at my father!” My heart cried out to them expecting them to hear me. But it wasn’t enough. My hair wasn’t curly enough. My skin wasn’t dark enough. I talked like a “white girl.” I acted like a “white girl.” To them I was privileged with my long hair and light skin. My educated parents. So they pulled my hair and slapped my face and sent me away, a reject. So I turned to the white girls. The white girls who took pity on my strangeness. Who teased me sometimes but were just curious enough to befriend me. I remember three little blond girls who took me in to their white trash world of hairspray and nail polish. Their mother’s Playgirl magazines littering the couch. war movies on television and empty beer cans all over the floor while their dad snored, dreaming of his tours of duty in the heat of Vietnam. I remember their mother, racist, alcoholic and jealous of her oldest daughter Desiree. Her platinum blonde hair stuck out from her head in a fringe, a cigarette hanging from her lipsticked mouth. I remember Desiree doing cartwheels in the backyard in her cheerleading uniform while her mother watched her from the doorway.

“Those cartwheels look like shit!” She sneered. “You won’t last a week on the squad looking like that.” She took a huge swig of beer and headed back into the house, the screen door slamming behind her. It was not the first time I saw Sharon make Desiree cry. It definitely wouldn’t be the last. I remember playing barbies with her little sister Julie, naive and hell bent on following the rules where ever she could find them.

“Let’s play barbies. Here, you can play with the black one.” In Julie’s mind it made perfect sense. Looking back on it the fact that they even had a black barbie was astonishing. It had to have come in a pack their Dad bought.

“But she’s missing a leg!” Yes. Out of a sea of barbies I got to play with the only black one who’s hair stood straight up and was missing a leg.

“Fine.” Julie at eight years old was faced with her first ethical dilemma. “I guess you can be the Ken doll. She was satisfied with her decision. “Yep that will work perfectly.” She tossed the Ken doll at me. I felt nauseous and instantly lonely. I knew Julie had no idea what she had just done. I also knew it would probably never get any better.

It never did get any better. It only got worse. By the time I was in sixth grade I had a group of friends, all of us oddballs. They were all white of course. I had given up on trying to be friends with the black girls who hated me mercilessly. I was tired of being told I was a freak because I talked white and I had a white momma and why couldn’t my daddy stick to his own kind. I knew my black aunties and my black cousins loved me and that was the best I was going to get. It was still hard though. Achingly lonely. My mother’s family completely disowned us. I’ll never forget sitting with my white cousins whom I had met for the first time at Christmas time. We all sat in a row around my grandmother as she handed out presents. I was so excited, waiting for my turn. Would it be a talking doll? A stuffed puppy with its own brush and blanket? I watched my cousins opening their presents with unrestrained joy and when it came to my turn I looked up at my grandmother expectantly, barely concealing my excitement. She looked down at me, the smile fading from her face and handed me a check. I stared at it, completely confused. I looked over at my mother and saw her face flushed with rage. “I didn’t know what to get her.” My grandmother said nonchalantly and turned her attention back to my cousins.

“I knew this was a mistake!” My mother muttered angrily under her breath. “Give me that honey, I’ll get you something.” She took the check and stuffed it in her purse. I sat there blinking back tears watching my cousins unwrap and play with their presents. I watched my mother’s sister and my grandmother smiling at them, as they showed them off. They were like a scene out of a movie. I knew I didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew my father wasn’t even allowed to be there. I just wanted to get the hell away from those people and never look back.

As I got older I became more and more aware of how I didn’t fit in. There was me and then there was everyone else. I would look in the mirror and wish I could see anything but my own face staring back at me. I was stuck between two worlds; hated by one, misunderstood by the other. As a means of survival I did what so many of us do. I threw myself into the arts. I could sing, I could dance, I could captivate an audience. It was my outlet. I could forget about not fitting in, about being bullied and teased. I could forget about being rejected by my own family. I could forget my self loathing and my loneliness. Under the stage lights I could be anyone I wanted to be and the audience would applaud. This carried me through middle school and high school where I lived in the choir room and through my first year of college as a drama major studying music, theatre and dance at Ithaca college. There was still something missing however. What had carried me through my younger years began to be a burden. I realized I didn’t want to have to be other people to be accepted. I wanted to be accepted for being myself. I wanted to dance but I didn’t have the feet or the back for it. I wanted to play music but although I could sing beautifully I was never any good at musical theory or mastering instruments other than my own voice. I realized I was on a path to nowhere and so that year was my last. Back home I had to regroup. I started working a series of dead end jobs to stay busy and tried to figure out what to do next. I was at a lonely, pivotal point in my life, ready for change and vulnerable as hell. The Bahai faith came along at just the right time, preyed upon my insecurities, and took over my life for the next nine years.

That night at the coffee house seemed like a magical one. There was music, there were people of every color who wanted to talk to me, there was a cultural life that I desperately wanted to be a part of. What I didn’t know was how these cults operate. They draw you in, figure out what you’re lacking in your life, and promise to fill it. They usually have a recruiter there who is skilled in the fine art of brainwashing and this night was no exception. His name was Oscar. Oscar Degruy. He was a tall black man claiming to be from the inner city of Chicago (coincidentally where I was born) and he was smooth talker. Smooth as silk. He focused heavily on one of the tenants of the Bahai faith that the eradication of racism is one of the most vital components. The prophet founder Baha’u’allah believed in the integration of the races above all other things, which obviously I loved. Unfortunately there were far too many stones in that soup. He and his band of converters worked on me at that coffee house until three o’clock in the morning when I finally relented and signed their card. I’ll never forget his intense gaze staring right into my brain. “What are you waiting for?!” I was so exhausted and I craved that acceptance so I said yes. It was as simple as that. I could have said you had me at integration. Interestingly Oscar did not fool my father who met him a few days later and actually did grow up on the west side of Chicago, surrounded gangs and violence. His comment to me was,

“If even half of those stories he’s telling are true he’d be dead in a hot minute. You don’t wave your gun around say those things in the hood unless you don’t want to see tomorrow.” Oscar in fact disgusted my father who saw him for who he really was, a wealthy cult recruiter from Los Angeles with a liar’s heart and a lack of conscience. As a young, starry-eyed brand new believer I failed to heed my father’s warning. Sometimes we have to learn things the hard way.

As these things go, as quickly as they unfold their peacock feathers, the bottom feeders come out to play. I had the misfortune to get trapped by one such bottom feeder, Navid was his name, Navid Falconer, and he would steal from me a thing that cannot be replaced, that cannot be atoned for, that there is no justice one can turn to. The moment I walked into that coffee house he set his filthy sights on me and in my innocence I was flattered never having been the subject of anyone’s affection in such a blatant way. Navid was from a prominent Bahai family, his brother and sister and both of his parents were active in the community. He was also a body builder. His upper arm was as big as my head. He intimidated me in a way I’d never experienced before. He took me to the movies. He took me to his house to meet his mother who warned me I was too good for him. He took me downstairs to watch a movie. He convinced me to check out his bedroom. It’s ok, you’ll be fine, you’re so cute worrying about everything. Just lay here and talk to me for a while. And then all of a sudden the dam broke. It was force and confusion and arms and suffocating and a quiet loss of innocence. He raped me in his bedroom while his parents obliviously went about their business. I could literally hear the floor creaking as they walked around. I’ve heard other rape victims say it happened so fast I didn’t have time to scream. It’s true. I remember the exact moment after it happened. I remember I was in shock. I told him “But I’m a virgin. I’m saving myself for marriage.”

“Not anymore.” he said and laughed. I’ll never forget that laugh. There was cruelty around the edges and in the middle was the kind of hilarity between guys after a particularly funny prank. It was a frat boy’s laugh. I felt all the blood rush to my lower legs. I felt like a block of ice. I laid there while he kept raping me staring at the ceiling listening to his parents walking back and forth and imaging strangling him to death with his own belt. It didn’t end there. These things never do. I wanted my power back. I HAD to have it back. So I stayed with him. I refused to admit he had stolen something so precious from me. I willed myself to believe it was consensual. That I had wanted that cruel theft. I remember him at my parent’s house. I remember my father offering him a beer. He had no idea what Navid had done to his little girl. Navid accepted it, another violation of Bahai law.

On Bahai Law:

The consumption of alcohol is forbidden
The use of marijuana and other drugs are forbidden unless prescribed by a doctor
Premarital sex is forbidden
Marriage is between one man and one woman
Homosexuality is forbidden and likened to a person with special needs or an addictive disease such as alcoholism
Backbiting is forbidden, one must not say anything negative about anyone else
One must remain politically nonpartisan
One may not criticize one’s leader despite how bad they may be
It’s ok to smoke because that’s harmless
One must engage in a period of fasting where one does not eat or drink from sunup to sundown
One must pray three times a day washing hands and face before each prayer
If one abstains one must say a long prayer at noon complete with washing hands and face and prostrations
One must proselytize, ceaselessly teaching the youth and the ignorant the tenants of the Baha’i faith so as to recruit new members
One should engage in the independent investigation of truth unless one is questioning the laws. Then one must shut the hell up and obey.

You can imagine everything I had been looking for when I walked through the doors of that coffee house and signed that card in the middle of the night. But unfortunately all I found was a litany of empty promises, terrible advice and an extension of a middle eastern lifestyle I wanted no part of. The governing body called the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel is all men and when you ask why, you are told that is one of the “sacred mysteries” you must accept. Another sacred mystery is the law on homosexuality. Homosexuality is not only NOT permitted but gay men and women are encouraged to marry heterosexual partners and procreate for the sake of God. I know personally several such couples and as you may expect it doesn’t end well. Some run off unable to deny their true natures, Some stay but lead secret lives heard about in hushed whispers over coffee, cigarettes; the victims of endless gossip. The kids are irreparably harmed, surrounded by lies and half-truths, raised to regard with cynicism even positive, well-meaning guidance. You must remain non-partisan and never speak ill of your ruler regardless of how horrible he or she may be. Men and women are considered equal but different, each encouraged to pursue their own equal but separate roles (I believe we’ve been down that road before.)

Navid didn’t last and thank God he didn’t. It wasn’t long before I was married to the cousin of the girl who introduced me to the Bahai faith in the first place. We set our sights on Portland, Oregon and it’s promises of a brighter future. We had no idea what lie ahead.

*To be continued*

Time Flies

We blink our eyes and suddenly our children are taller than we are. They are driving, working, getting married. Suddenly they are waving goodbye and our worlds collapse.

My husband has the most beautiful eyes. A light, clear blue, like the sky near the sea on a slightly overcast day. His eyes are as gentle as he is. My daughter and my younger son have eyes that change color depending on the light. Sometimes they are a rich, warm olive green, sometimes they look like glittering copper pennies. My oldest son has my eyes. Darkest brown, so deep the pupils disappear. Our eyes are as different as we are. One of the things binding my children to me, is that we are mixed race and therefore inherently designed to stand out from the crowd. Whether or not we asked for it, we will never be followers. Whether or not we chose it, we cannot help but to lead the way.

I think about my sons all the time. I think about how they were as babies and when they were the same age my daughter is now. How quickly time flies. It is this way for all mothers. We blink our eyes and suddenly our children are taller than we are. They are driving, working, getting married. Suddenly they are waving goodbye and our worlds collapse.

My daughter asked to wear makeup to church yesterday. At four and 3/4 (the 3/4 is EXTREMELY important) she wants to do whatever she sees me doing. Admittedly I’ve indulged her in the past, let her wear a little eye shadow, a little lip gloss. A little sparkle on her cheeks. It was harmless, just for fun, and yet I couldn’t help but feel the passage of time ever more acutely. I couldn’t help but think of the day when she doesn’t wake up wanting to be just like me. I couldn’t help but hope it never comes.

My oldest son is practically an adult now. Soon to be seventeen, he’s building his own views on life; on politics, religion, philosophy. He loves to debate. His voice raises, takes on a new timbre. His deep brown eyes light up with the fire of new ideas. Even when he mixes up his sources or flies off in odd tangential directions I am proud of him. I admire his certainty. In this way he is like his little sister. Just this morning Alice was leaping around the kitchen, asserting herself in the way only she can. It started with her watching “Creative Galaxy” on Grandma’s laptop. They were giving a ballet lesson. Inspired, I did a a few leaps, remnants of my ballet dancing past. Alice jumped off the chair and leaped after me, hopping awkwardly from foot to foot. Satisfied with herself she announced boldly, “That’s how you do leaps Mama. I can do it better than you, I’m a better dancer!”

“Oh really now, I had no idea!” I said laughing.

“Yep, I can teach you but you won’t do it like I can.” She replied matter of factly and went back to watching her show. Her easy confidence awes me. Whenever I am confronted with it I breath a silent prayer that the rush of oncoming years doesn’t crush it.

Unlike Alice, my oldest son built his sense of pride and certainty from the ground up. Also unlike his little sister, Jaden’s confidence was hard won. Jaden is a performer now, singing, dancing, acting, he shines on stage. He’s also behind the camera and has talked about wanting to do all of it for a career. He’s at ease on stage, loves having an audience. This was not always the case. At Alice’s age he was sensitive and suspicious. Where Alice runs towards anyone with a bear hug in tow and we have had to counsel her about strangers, who you hug and who you don’t, Jaden would glare ominously at anyone he didn’t know, daring them to try to touch him. Where Alice loves preschool, I ended up taking Jaden out of preschool because he spent most of his time in the corner, nervously avoiding the jovial mass of children. He was sullen at school, refusing to participate in anything, while at home with his family his personality shone. For him, preschool was a complete waste of time and money. We were paying for him to have a giant three hour anxiety attack three days a week. He didn’t fare much better with activities either in the early years. I signed him up for soccer and he would hold onto my legs crying, terrified of the soccer field. When he did leave the sidelines, instead of running after the ball like all the other kids he would dance after it like he was in a production of West Side Story meets team sports. It was absolutely hilarious. Naturally dramatic and naturally talented, he had a love/hate relationship with his gift. Shy of the limelight and desperate for approval, Jaden preferred being home away from crowds, strangers and unpredictability. He would perform for his brother and I, making up songs and goofy skits. We lived in a wretched little trailer on his father’s parents’ property and Elliott would sit in my lap on my bed while Jaden performed. Once he fell off the end of the bed. Unfazed he leapt back up and made it part of the show. I laughed so hard my sides hurt. He continued to struggle with his abilities and his fears throughout his childhood. It wasn’t until he faced his demons of self hatred and conquered his need to compare himself to everyone around him that his roots finally began to thread their way through the rich soil of the landscape of his life and his leaves began shooting through the dark earth. Since then he has been blooming before my eyes.

My middle child has been following his own star as well. Elliott has his father’s and grandfather’s aptitude for musical instruments. He can pick up anything and play it with ease. He’s also an artist like his grandmother, draws and paints. He’s good with his hands. Fourteen years old, he’s at an age where he’s beginning to take things seriously. At least that’s what we hope he’s doing. Although it’s a balancing act, basking in his easy joy is not a thing I would give up for the world. I want him to be more responsible, to take responsibility for himself and his actions. I also want him to keep his unaffected manner. When he was born, Elliott was the easiest, sweetest baby anyone ever could have wanted. He was always smiling, never fussed, never cried. He had an easy nature that made him an absolute joy to be around. I remember when he first opened his eyes, the nurse exclaiming “He has blue eyes!”

“No he doesn’t.” I answered woozily, having been drugged against my wishes (more on that in another post.) Sure enough when they put him in my arms his eyes were a deep crystal blue like the Ionian sea. They stayed that color for several years but eventually shifted to the changeable color they are now. It took me a long time before I saw Elliott as anything other than my baby. For so long it was he and Jaden and he was the youngest. My husband teases me about seeing Elliott permanently as an eight year old boy. The time of innocence mixed with unbridled curiosity. When he was in love with Harry Potter and Spiderman. When he thought his Stepfather was a hero. Before the edges of the middle school years left their mark upon my heart.

Both my sons broke my heart in middle school. Their father having recently left for Oregon to marry his soulmate, Jaden went first. Puberty does strange things to children and mine were no exception. Full of rage at the world for its failings, disillusioned with the lies adults tell each other and their children, and ready for war Jaden needed his Father and there was nothing my husband or I could do to fill that role for him. He was both angry at his Dad for all the reasons teenage sons become angry at their Fathers and craving his love, attention and acceptance. It was not working for him to be so far away from his Father and no matter how hard we tried to make up for it, we had to accept that there was only so much we could do. Jaden was suffocating on his own anger and a deep sense of self loathing. He hated school, hated all the kids who went there and refused to make friends with any of them. He wasn’t expressing himself creatively and out of boredom he was antagonizing his teachers writing about inappropriate topics just to get a rise out of them. He scared the hell out of me making up songs about weapons and violence. I took him to the doctor and then to another doctor and then to a counselor and then to another counselor and they put him on a bunch of medications which only made everything worse. Of course I blamed myself the way most mothers will. I stayed up at night obsessing over what I was doing wrong, despite the fact that both my husband and my own Father said the same thing. It isn’t even about you. He needs his Dad. It was after an awful fight between Jaden and his brother during which Jaden scared his little sister by almost breaking her baby gate and threatening to kill Elliott (Elliott as we later discovered was heavily pushing his buttons) that my husband kicked him out. He went to stay with his grandparents on his Dad’s side and we gave them the expectations for him to follow. Of course they didn’t enforce anything and it didn’t work and Jaden decided he wanted to go to Oregon. I was grief stricken over what I saw then as a complete failure as a Mother. I still couldn’t see that it wasn’t about me. I just wanted my little boy back. The one who did shows for me on the end of the bed. The one who always asked me to sing him “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell before he went to sleep at night. The one who smelled like warm bread and new life and promises when I held him for the first time. The one who burst the closed chambers of my heart open as though it were a locked music box and he was the key to its symphony. The one with a little man cry and skin the color of coffee with cream, just like mine. The one with my eyes.

After Jaden left things only got worse. While Elliott was visiting Oregon for the Summer my Father died without warning and I felt like a part of me died with him. I could not understand how he could be here one day and gone the next. My Dad was so much more than biology. He was a mentor, a hero, a confidant and a friend. He was my music teacher and partner, we were in the middle of recording an album together when a blood clot changed everything. It was an astoundingly painful loss. I’ll never forget screaming at my ex-husband’s wife who is the dearest sister of my heart because his mother had texted me at four o’clock in the morning shortly before Elliott was supposed board a plane home. His trip was being cut short so he could be there for the funeral, and she felt that I was being selfish for wanting my son home and took it upon herself to tell me this. Angry doesn’t describe how I felt, I was livid. Nicole, or as I prefer to call her “the best Stepmother in the world,” told me later I was so hysterical she could barely understand what I was saying. Needless to say Elliott boarded that plane. Jaden did not, he was not stable enough to travel at that point and wouldn’t be for some time. I missed him terribly and it was during this time that Jaden tested the boundaries of every rule they set for him. He was making sure everyone was on the same page and everyone loved him enough to say no.

As Elliott headed into middle school and into that graceless time of puberty I was already in over my head and he took full advantage of it as any teenager would. Refusing to take care of even the smallest chore, his grades slipped and his attitude soared. My sweet green eyed baby had turned into a mouthy, lazy, manipulative teenage boy for whom I was no match. My husband and I tried everything we could think of and none of it worked because just like his brother he needed his Dad. I am a lot of things to Elliott but I will never be his father. Ultimately fate won out. I had sent Elliott on a trip to visit his Father in Oregon and he didn’t come back. According to them he didn’t want to come back. It was like being kicked in the head and then in the stomach because instead of talking to me about staying, so I could prepare and we could work things out he just flipped that switch. He even recorded me yelling as a power play in case any of us tried to make him come back. The sense of betrayal was acute. I wanted to cry out to him “How could you do this?! After your brother moved away and then grandpa died, now you do this to me? Why didn’t you just TALK TO ME?!!” But I didn’t. I knew it wouldn’t have done any good. I knew he wouldn’t have had any answers. Again my husband told me,

“This isn’t about you, boys just need their Fathers.”

“Then why does it feel like it is?! Something about all of this seems terribly unfair!” I knew he was right and I was right. I knew I had a right to my broken heart but at the same time I had to let go of what I had no control over. However unfair it seemed.

Like her older brother, Alice’s eyes were a different color when she was born. I held her and looked into her wide grey eyes, a shining silvery grey like white gold. Watching my other mixed race children’s features shift over time I waited for her eyes to find their color. So far, the color is still changing. Maybe, like her brother, it always will.

All three of my children have gorgeous eyes. Gorgeous eyes, gorgeous hair and gorgeous skin. All three of them are intense, talented and intelligent. They are testaments to the remarkable unique beauty of being mixed race. A gift only I could give them like the gift of their lives. The power in such a gift is that it is just that, a gift. As mothers we say to our children here is your one, wild life, now live it to its fullest. It is not our life to do with as we want, but theirs to do with as they please. As hard as it was for me to let Jaden  live his life the way he needed to, he has said over and over how grateful he is to my husband for kicking him out. For loving him enough to say no. He tells me how grateful he is for everything. For his life, for my love. He wants to be an example for his brother. He dreams of the day Elliott looks up to him. He already does, I tell him. He just won’t let you know it yet. My daughter loves her older brothers with every fiber of her being. As hard as it is that she has to say goodbye to them, the time they do spend together is magical. I feel high in a way I struggle to find the words for when all my children are together under the same roof. It’s as though the top of my head might pop off and rays of sunshine will shoot out of my open skull. It’s as though my heart is a smile. My children march to the beat of their own drummers, others follow where they have led. I myself have followed them and discovered the secret. That no matter how far apart we are, we will always be as close as the breath on our lips. My children carry me in their hearts, in their minds. They wear me in their skin, in their gorgeous eyes.

 

Wolves In the Woods

It isn’t easy to raise a daughter. In fact it is rather like navigating woods full of wolves.

It isn’t easy to raise a daughter. In fact it is rather like navigating woods full of wolves. As mothers we are caught between two hells. We find ourselves sheltering our daughters from every danger until they are naive and unprepared for the world and its cruelties, or exposing them slowly to the world’s viciousness praying their lights are not suddenly snuffed out like a candle between wet fingertips.

Not long ago I was texting with my oldest son, sending him pictures of his little sister. She’s going to be a beautiful woman he told me. I know, I replied. You’ll need to look out for her, I’m counting on you. Don’t worry mom, she can hold her own he texted back. God I hope you’re right I thought to myself. I made up my mind to continue that conversation with both of her brothers in the coming months. You want to believe your children will be there for each other, will love each other all the way into adulthood. You pray that they will help each other stay afloat in rough waters once you are gone. Of course there are no guarantees.

My daughter sees the world as a friendly place full of wonderful people. Everyone is her friend. In fact when I take her to the park and there are no other children she will ask “Where are the friends?” She is truly a social butterfly. Yesterday when I dropped her off in the morning for school she ran into the room and gave her teachers bear hugs. “I love hugs!” She shouted merrily and ran into my arms grinning.

“I know you do pumpkin.” I smiled at her, relieved to see the calm, happy and safe atmosphere of the classroom where I was leaving my baby girl. When I picked her up, she was her usual happy self and gave all the teachers their round of goodbye bear hugs. As we headed down the hall to leave, I paused to clock her out on the computer like I always do. Alice always plays with the toys on the floor by the front desk or talks to the teachers.  Today she noticed there was a man installing the school’s new security door.

“Look mama, he’s fixing the door!” She stood there watching him.

“That’s right sweetheart…” I barely had the words out of my mouth and she had run past the desk and bear hugged the electrician! I was shocked.

“Alice, Oh my goodness!” A thousand things went through my mind at once. I was momentarily frozen. Finding my legs I ran over to her, summoning words. When I got to her, I noticed the man was smiling from ear to ear.

“Well that was a ray of sunshine! She just made my day, she really did!” He teared up and I instantly swallowed what I was about to say. I stopped short of reprimanding her. Alice came over to me and took my hand.

“She’s everyone’s friend.” I said to the man, and he thanked me still smiling. I was humbled by the joy my daughter brings to everyone she meets.

“I love hugs!” Alice yelled out merrily skipping to the car with my hand in hers. “He said I’m sunshine!” She was proud of herself.

“You are sunshine baby.” I let her have the moment, racking my brain for a way to talk to her about stranger danger and the wolves in the woods and all the evils lying in wait for her the minute I turn my back.

As I said it’s not easy to raise a daughter. It’s like this beautiful balloon of innocence floating before me and I don’t want anything in the world to puncture that purity. At the same time I have to prepare her for battle in the real world. I want my princess to be a warrior princess, slaying the beasts of the field and emerging victorious. I don’t want her waiting for the hunter to save her from the wolf. I want her to be able to save herself.

One day last week Alice came home from school and told me another little girl tried to beat her up. It was the first time anyone has ever been mean to her. She said the little girl hit her and pulled her hair. “She had to go to reset mama.” Alice was confident this was enough of a consequence. “She is NOT my friend.” She said this matter of factly. “I’m hungry can I have a snack?”

“Of course you can.” I turned to my mom who had picked her up for me and was the one who talked to Alice’s teacher. She confirmed what Alice had said and that Alice hadn’t done anything to upset the other girl. “Oh dear that’s the first time that’s ever happened but likely not the last.”

“You’re probably right.” My mom agreed. “But the teacher said the other girl reset herself and they were fine after that.” It was the first time my daughter realized not everyone is going to be her friend. Alice is a beautiful, headstrong girl. You don’t necessarily know she is mixed race until you see me, although that may change as she gets older. Jealousy is a powerful motivator as is racism. These things ran through my mind along with the powerful thought about what Alice will face when she is in grade school. In middle school. In high school. As an adult. I faced my own round of bullying when I was little. Growing up in the 80s and 90s was tough if you were a mixed race kid. You didn’t see mixed race families on television. I was one of only two mixed race kids in my entire elementary school. The only one in my junior high. One of a handful in my high school. I was undeniably unique and now that I’m older I can see I had my own unique beauty that was difficult to ignore. This setup left me a ripe target for bullying.

I had a horrible bully in the 4th grade. His name was Eric. He bullied me every day in school, holding me down by the throat on the playground so he could kiss me. Grabbing me between the legs when he stood behind me in line. Teasing me mercilessly. It took my poor parents ages to get something done about him, the principal of the school was slow and stupid and immovable. He was eventually expelled after the teachers who witnessed him bully me in the ways I just described complained about him. Unfortunately for me it didn’t end there. One day he found me after school when I was buying candy at the quick stop on the corner of my street.

“You little bitch.” he said to me and grabbed my nose, twisting it so I was forced to turn my head and neck. He was literally holding me up by the nose. The pain was excruciating. “I know what you did! I know you told on me! If you tell anyone about this I will kill you!” Saliva dripped from his lips. We were in the back of the quick stop with the soups and soy sauce bottles. He let go of my nose and ran out. I could hear the bottles clinking as he brushed them with his jacket. I steadied myself with the other shelf, tears streaming silently down my face, my cheeks burning hot with anger. I did not tell my parents about it until years later. Too late for them to have done a thing about it. That night and many nights after I dreamt about grabbing one of the largest soy sauce bottles and smashing it over his head. I wished I had. I was angrier at myself for not having fought back harder than I was at him for attacking me. I still am. I want my daughter to grab that bottle and hit her attacker over the head. I don’t ever want her frozen in fear because it may take years for her to melt. If she ever melts at all.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost

I want the woods to be lovely for my daughter, the way they were for Robert Frost. I want them to be full of icicle trees, softly falling snow and the occasional picturesque farmhouse. I want this but I know what hides in the shadows and lives only to swallow her whole. I have to teach her to keep her eyes open, her guard up and her sword at her side. Of course the lessons don’t end there. Supposing the worst and someone hurts her. Tries to steal her glory, snuff out her light. She needs to learn not to wear it like a second skin. That it doesn’t matter what anyone does to her, she will only grow stronger and more beautiful. That she is not now and never will be anyone’s victim. Not my girl. She is now and will always be a survivor. A warrior princess today and as a woman, a warrior queen.

As I said it’s not easy to raise a daughter. But one look into those sparkling eyes, one mighty bear hug from those strong little arms, one bask in the warm rays of her sunshine and you know with your whole heart it’s worth it.

 

A Woman

All this shit I been through
I don’t wear it on my skin
It doesn’t live in the curve of my spine
The swing of my hips
The rustle of my skirt against my legs

All this shit I been through
It doesn’t kill my smile
Or dull the sparkle in the pupils of my eyes
It doesn’t mark me
My blackness is a beacon

All this shit I been through
It doesn’t stop the music of my voice
My song rolls out through my mouth in a mighty wave the notes dripping like honey over the souls of my lovers
My heart is as big as the sky

All this shit I been through
Can’t stop the momentum of my fierce message
My words march before me stomping down my enemies, over them I stand forever victorious

All this shit I been through
Makes me stronger
Makes me
As bright as the sun
As smooth as butter
As soft as moonlight
As cool as still water

All this shit is what makes a woman
A woman.

Kimkoa 2018

Endlessly Restless

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wished I could fly. I think most of us do. We watch superheroes shoot through the sky like comets and part of us soars with them.

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wished I could fly. I think most of us do. We watch superheroes shoot through the sky like comets and part of us soars with them. There is something so beautiful and fantastic about the idea of wings. To think one’s body can master the heavens in such a way. Ironically, I have a terrific fear of heights and am horribly claustrophobic, so the only means of flight afforded me- the airplane- I cannot enjoy. I like to think if I could control my flight pattern, my speed and my direction, things would be different. That if I were able to stretch myself across the sky unencumbered by the limitations of my body I’d feel free.

Unfortunately my body and I don’t always get along. I may dream of flying, yet I am forever attached to the earth as I have no actual wings. Being bipolar is like having a faulty connector in my brain that is irreplaceable and therefore the rest of the circuitry is continually affected by it. That is what it means to have a chronic condition. The medication I take may keep the symptoms of my illness in check but it is not a cure. I have been on a rollercoaster of medications for most of my adult life and my body has suffered their various effects to a significant degree. When not battling these effects I am battling the effects of the disorder which are physical as well. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Of the many medication side effects, among the very worst of them is restless legs. Anyone who has ever had this knows how terrible it is. Imagine having invisible wires attached to the nerves in your legs that are sending electric currents nonstop and as a result your legs have an unrelenting need to move. The feeling can extend itself up your spine and into your shoulders. This will give you some idea of the horror of restless legs. When I’m suffering from it, I find myself continually rocking back and forth and moving my shoulders like a strange clockwork creature being remote controlled by some other being. It’s like some bizarre kind of torture that these medications which are so effective at controlling the psychotic symptoms of bipolar disorder cause the person taking them to go crazy dealing with their side effects. For anyone with restless legs, always feeling like there are electric currents running through their body, one has to wonder how do they relax? How do they calm down? There are medications that combat this awful feeling however they have their own side effects; grogginess and fatigue among them.

As you might guess this hasn’t exactly made parenting the easiest thing in the world for me to do. Taking a hot bath does help, which I often do, adding lavender or chamomile epsom salts to help calm my agitated mind and body. I find myself in these moments of quiet tensing and relaxing my poor legs while worrying about the smallest details of my daughter’s world. My sons having grown to adolescence and living out their day to day lives during the school year miles away in Oregon, I am spared the kind of obsessive worrying over them that I used to engage in when they were younger. Such is not the case with their younger sister. At the forefront of my worries is whether Alice will manifest a version of bipolar disorder at some point in her life. It’s impossible not to fear this outcome and yet I obviously can’t know what may or may not happen, the future is indeed a mystery. In light of this truth my mind leaps to all the things I may have some element of control over and I obsess in my mind over them. Whether I’m doing enough for her in those areas. Whether or not I measure up to some unnamed ambiguous standard. It’s as if there is some ratio between Alice’s well-being and my well-being. Alice’s happiness and my happiness. Alice’s success and my success. I know this is not unique to me.

For most moms, it’s hard not to hyper-focus on some aspect of our children’s lives, using it as the barometer for our own worth as mothers. Even those ones of us who consider ourselves “casual” parents, if we really soul search and dig deep we’ll find ourselves admitting that we too keep our self worth to at least some degree tied up in our children’s accomplishments. Why is this? Is this even a bad thing? Isn’t it a naturally occurring phenomena that ensures a child gets the right support and motivation they need? Who decides what a “good mom” is and how she should act and what or how much she should give to her children? Obviously the edges are clear, at least to a degree. We use those edges to ease our fears that we are failing. In cases of abuse or neglect, or the opposite end of the spectrum complete indulgence, we can point to those moms and say ha! That’s not me! That means I must be doing a good job, right? Right?!! If only it were that easy. There is no black and white when it comes to parenting. The shadows and shades of grey exist for all of us.

Ultimately we have to accept ourselves and our limitations. We have to realize that there will be days, weeks, months or even years where we feel like we are failing our children in some way and we need to hear we are NOT utter failures. I had tea with a good friend recently who talked about letting go of her shame over needing to hear she was doing a good job. She called it “living for the kudos.” I think all mothers have that inner craving, that constant need to know we are succeeding in giving our children the very best of ourselves. In the same way my legs need to move, my heart needs to hear, needs to know without a doubt that my daughter feels loved and supported by me. It keeps me going, keeps me fighting the good fight. As the K.D. Lang song goes “constant craving has always been…” Perhaps that constant craving is essential for all of us to wake up in the morning and live life to its fullest. For our children and for ourselves.

As I wrote previously I have always wished I could fly. That is what makes children so amazing. Their imaginations. I watch Alice play and she really can fly. This morning she was all messy hair, beautiful stubbornness, wild child. I was trying to get her ready to go and she picked up her fairy wand with its rainbow ribbon and was instantly a fairy. “You’re the fairy mommy and I’m the fairy baby and we can fly together! Can you put my wings on?” I thought for a minute about saying no and then changed my mind. I wanted to fly this morning. She pointed to her cloth wings my Aunt gave her for her birthday. I helped her put them on and she took off down the hallway laughing, her ribbon streaming behind her, arms outstretched. “Come on mommy!”

“I’m coming!” I yelled to her and then stretched my arms out running after her. It lasted only a little while but that was enough. I forgot about my legs, my failings, my troubles and everything else tying me down. I flew this morning. My daughter set me free. She gave me my wings.

Alice VS the Unicoirn T-shirt

My daughter is often stubborn. I have to remind myself to look closely at her, to kneel down and look into her eyes at eye level.

There is something about kneeling down and looking into a child’s eyes that aligns us with their perspective. Suddenly their quivering chin, the tears on their flushed cheeks over some trivial matter have a new and relatable purpose. The matter is no longer trivial. Our compassion grows.

Raising children is a tough business. Not because humans are somehow flawed until reaching adulthood, but because the world is demanding and we as parents feel a great burden in both navigating a demanding world and wanting our children to be able to navigate that same demanding world. One has to wonder, should we put that pressure on them? On one side we say yes because God forbid they fall through society’s cracks and we are left helpless to defend them as adults. On the other hand we don’t want to harden them as the world is hard. We don’t want them becoming liquid cement and turning the world into a concrete jungle with no spaces left to breathe, to stretch one’s wings and fly.

My daughter is often stubborn. I have to remind myself to look closely at her, to kneel down and look into her eyes at eye level. It keeps me from “flying off the handle” so to speak. It keeps me grounded. I can see my eyes in her eyes. I can see my own stubborn nature. I can see her father’s mischievous grin. I am reminded of a time when I questioned everything, when I challenged the answers my parents would give me. Alice is more stubborn than I ever was and as difficult as she can be, I relish that streak of stubbornness because I am less afraid of stifling her spirit. If anything unjust comes her way it brings out the fight in her and I love to see it. I know my daughter will never become liquid cement.

Sometimes as parents we just want things to be easy. We want the elements of life to add up in neat little boxes. We want our kids to eat this, wear this, do it this way. Because shouldn’t life be easy every now and then? Don’t we deserve a break ONCE IN A WHILE?! That is usually when our kids decide Oh no. Hell no. You’re not boxing me in and checking me off like that and good luck trying! This morning was one of those mornings. I just wanted everything to go smoothly. I wanted to drink coffee. I wanted my muse to sit blithely on my shoulder telling me exactly what to write. I wanted Alice to wear her unicorn T-shirt. Was I being rational? No. I just wanted those things because I wanted them. Because I deserved them damnit! But did I really deserve them? What does that even mean?? What situation could I pluck from life and say this should be mine? As though there was a list made when I was born of “life situations Kimkoa deserves.” No that list doesn’t exist and no, none of those things were going to happen. I got to drink tea. I struggled through yet another morning of writing and re-writing. Alice wanted and wore her grey sweater, not her unicorn T-shirt. Why? Because the sweater is soft. I tried reasoning with her. The unicorn T-shirt is soft too. No, she wanted the grey sweater. I had in my mind the last time she wore her ballerina skirt and pink tights and how happy she was in that sparkly unicorn T-shirt. I wanted to recreate the outfit. It went something like this:

“Just this one time, please be reasonable! Ali, you love your unicorn T-shirt!”

“No, I want soft clothes! That’s not soft! I want my DADDY!”

“FINE! No Easter candy after school if you won’t get dressed!”

*Hysterical crying*

“Here, Alice touch the T-shirt see? It’s soft and you wore it last time. You need to listen and follow directions. ”

“I want my GREY SWEATER!”

I stopped of course and realized how I was the unreasonable one and how she was curled up in a ball kicking her clothes away over something so small, so ridiculously unimportant. I had to be the one to let go, which was so hard to do because I wanted her to look a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way and she could feel it. She could feel that pressure coming down on her beautiful, sleepy little head and responded exactly the way I would have at her age. With a resounding NO WAY.

As adults standing up for ourselves is just as difficult. The world says look a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way and we feel that immense pressure coming down on us terrifically. Once we are adults there is no one to stand as intermediary for us the way our parents did when we were younger. We are left to fend for ourselves and the world can indeed feel heartless at times. That’s why we have to let our kids stand up for themselves sometimes when they are little so they know how to do it when they are older. So they can believe in themselves and in their abilities. It takes real guts to stand up to such a force when you are a child and it takes guts as an adult to not just let our children spread their wings but to spread our own. We have to dig deep and remember our childhood selves who were strong enough to shout no at our moms and the unicorn T-shirt because we want that soft grey sweater and we damn well deserve it. It takes guts to be the ones we believe in, the ones worth looking up to, the ones we hope our children will become one day.

Stuffed Animal Conference

I was picking each animal up, and putting it on her freshly made bed, and the little girl in me realized I could do whatever I wanted with her stuffed animals.

My daughter popped awake at 5:30 this morning. She was part of the alarm of the day, which is always set for me, the one who doesn’t need to be up that early. Basically I’m used to my husband’s alarm going off intermittently from 5:30 to 6am (the James Bond theme song) during which time I get up, get my natural energy caffeine substitute since I cannot have coffee, check email, facade book (no that was not a typo) and the gram, or simply lay there wishing his alarm were set for 6 while he continues sleeping. My mother is the same way, I hear her alarm go off and she will turn it off and disappear back into dreamland which is something I’ve never been able to do. Anyways, my daughter decided today was the day I needed to start mothering two minutes after I opened my eyes. At least I was prepared for her jumping into bed, hearing her voice in the hallway “I’m thirsty!” Lately she’s been waking up in the wee hours of the morning and stealthily creeping into my room and then suddenly leaping onto me “I want to sleep with you!” Then of course she proceeds to beat me and my husband up for the rest of the night; a punch to the eye, a kick to the balls…she likes to keep us on our toes.

So as I stumbled out of bed and made my way upstairs to get her water I realized how much that half hour of just me and the quiet house meant in the morning. Even though Alice is in preschool now and I have time during the day, I assign myself work to do and don’t consider it “free time.” What many people don’t realize is how easy it is to get behind when you are “your own boss.” If you don’t do the laundry you end up living under it. If you don’t grocery shop you are at the store every day and dinner is always late. If you don’t clean…well we all know that story. When I was trying to do everything myself and take care of all three kids full-time I slid into a special kind of insanity I don’t even have a name for. Really my days are manageable for the first time in a long time. That being said, living with two adults who work full-time I feel a great need to account for my time at home and when not writing I am either engaged in some kind of chore or running errands or taking the occasional nap when needed (No I won’t apologize for that! Bipolar people need their sleep!) I also spend time pacing because that is how I think. My son does this also. In fact if I have not already written what I am going to write in my head I like to write at the counter so I can walk around it between paragraphs. (Yes you can laugh at that image.) The earliest part of the day is different though. Hushed and dark, before the world has called for me I swallow the beauty of my own existence in huge gulps. That time is mine to relish or squander as I please, regardless of the expectations of others. It is not stolen, nor gifted me but earned fairly and earnestly and I do notice when it is infringed upon.

After I got Alice her water I tried to start the day with her and it did not go well. Alice, like every 4 and 3/4 year old (the 3/4 is extremely important) is less than cooperative when tired and kept insisting she did NOT have to go potty. I of course insisted she did and as every mother knows that is not a battle one can win. Ultimately I lost my patience and yelled, giving her bottom a useless smack. I felt instantly terrible and she continued to insist she DID NOT HAVE TO GO and needless to say she ended up cuddling her father who missed out on fifteen of his cherished snooze minutes. The battle over and lost, I was left wanting to feel proactive and instead feeling defeated. So I chose to let her boss her own body (she eventually did go potty of her own accord, and had a dry nap, then had an accident later in day go figure!) and I got her dressed, hair done, eating cheese and oranges and watching a show all before 6:30. I had time to kill so I decided to make the beds and put away her laundry. After making our bed I started work in her room and something happened. It was a small thing and yet not a small thing. It was a lightbulb moment that would not turn on for me until later this afternoon.

Alice, like every little girl, has a stuffed animal menagerie. Having missed out on my time from this morning I inadvertently took it back by creating a something in her room. I was picking each animal up, and putting it on her freshly made bed, and the little girl in me realized I could do whatever I wanted with her stuffed animals. So I started lining them up and arranging them sweetly along the side of her mattress. I was putting one with the other and before I knew it there they were holding court on her bed. I heard the bathroom door open as my husband having finished his shower began making his way down the hall. “Hey babe, I called, look what I did for Ali.” I felt proud and sparkly eyed at the sweetness of the picture.

“It looks like they’re having a conference.” He said, smiling.

“You’re right. It does. A stuffed animal conference.” We hugged and I felt a little better about the day. What happened next I hadn’t planned on. After driving Alice to school and finding the door locked I realized it was professional development day and school was closed. What? Huh? Oops. Alice was thrilled. I had plans that were suddenly not plans any longer. The day had its ups and downs. I lost and won other battles. But specialness still won out. We had spent the morning upstairs, a kaleidoscope of cartoons, play dough and a variety of snacks and I was writing this post in between those parenting moments. Suddenly I remembered “The Stuffed Animal Conference.” “Alice, I did something special in your room!” I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t thought to show her before.

“Really? Can I go see? Should I close my eyes?!” She was so excited.

“Yes of course, hold my hand.” I led her down the stairs and into her room.

“Open wide!”

“WOW!” She was as excited to see them as I was to show her and she began adding to the group from her toy box, it was adorable. I thought suddenly oh, she wanted my time. The lightbulb clicked on. The one thing every battle with her has in common is that it makes everything take longer. Today I gave her the gift of my time and the most special part of “The Stuffed Animal Conference” was that it was spontaneous and given without expectation or request. It didn’t even take that long, but it was my time and she knew it. So often as parents we want to give our kids so much…when all they really want is time with us. It doesn’t have to be a long time either but it has to be genuine. Not side glances they have to steal from us while competing with a computer screen or an iPhone. Real, honest-to-goodness time. The funny thing is, that doesn’t change even as we get older. As adults we compete for each other’s time just as often…and we make just as much noise when we don’t get it. 

Motherhood

Heavy wine head
Exhausted
Hot baby knees
Love
Little fist sweaty curls breath
Anxious warm restless
Moving just enough to startle
Nonsense whispers coughing
Stubborn feet pressed against thighs
Soft blanket snores humid dark
Air purifier whirring
Laughter behind a closed door
Sudden joy.

Kimkoa 2017

Pregnant Toys

Her toys keep getting pregnant and giving birth to each other. This is not how her brothers played. None of their toys were ever pregnant. They were too busy shooting things and doing tricks.

Today I wrote a lengthy post about raising children. Then I accidentally deleted it. After frantically searching my computer for the file I found the first draft of a blog post entry when I intended to start it a year ago. I had forgotten all about it. The memory of it is stunning. I guess some things are meant to be. Here it is. I’ll rewrite the other one tomorrow…

Alice has just finished the bath that I started. It usually goes that way, I go into the bath to clear my head and she finds me and jumps in.

Well I have too much to say as usual and no way to organize it so this may just be a wasted effort. But I can’t really think about what else to do, so I’m writing anyways. if you don’t like it just stop reading right now.

I don’t know what success means. I really don’t. There are a lot of successful people I don’t like and pastimes that I guess are popular that I just don’t care about.

I think searching for God matters. And laughter. And taking care of children. Not much else.

My husband is an unusually good man. I don’t know if I deserve him, I haven’t decided yet. There is a lot I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t decided if this is worth reading or not. That should tell you something.

I think a lot of things I shouldn’t say. And I say things I shouldn’t have thought of. A lot of it is funny though so it kind of makes it ok.

Alice is insisting she is pregnant. I can hear her through the door. She is telling her father “Yes I am! I am pregnant!” His calm denials make me smile. No, he says. Mommy was pregnant with you. His voice is always kinder and higher pitched when she confronts him with Life’s miracles. “Huh?” Her honest wonder hurts somehow.

Her toys keep getting pregnant and giving birth to each other. This is not how her brothers played. None of their toys were ever pregnant. They were too busy shooting things and doing tricks.

I’m trying to figure out if I was this bold at her age. She is 3 and 1/2. I think so. Which terrifies me now that I am older and so easily contained.

I relish in her defiance. I secretly rejoice each time she screams “No!” Those are my screams I think.

I like to think of my daughter ruling the playground with an iron fist. Like the gangster I dreamed would rescue me one day.

A badass in her mother’s name. A lioness.

Rainbow

Sailing on the waters of change
Waves as catalysts
Sea foam dreams
Greenish-blue froth of truth around the edges of my mouth
Secrets bubbling out lightly,
In a damp, salty spray
A swift and arching newness of life,

As a mighty Rainbow.