Some Kind of Mistake

That night I prayed as hard as I could to God to make me blonde and blue eyed like my mother. I never wanted anyone to think I was someone else’s child ever again. To stare at me like I was some kind of mistake.

My daughter was born with fair skin, rosy cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. As she grew her wide eyes turned from a soft grey to a beautiful hazel. Her hair grew out in honey gold ringlets. Early pictures of her show a child akin to Shirley Temple, except that unlike Shirley, my daughter’s curls are natural and need no pinning up during the night. To put it bluntly my daughter was and is absolutely beautiful.

Of course I ran the gamut of well-meaning, curious onlookers trying to figure out how a woman with my caramel complexion could have had this poster child for caucasian beauty. I went through the process of explaining that her father is Scotch-Irish with a big red beard and I’m half Irish-Nordic-German so combined our daughter is a strawberry McDermott beauty. Ahhhh they say. Ooooohhhhh how interesting they remark as though my daughter were a specimen under a glass. I’m immediately catapulted back to my own childhood when I was in the grocery store with my blonde, blue-eyed mother and having brought along my blonde, blue-eyed friend. All three of us were slowly making our way through the two sets of doors and after the first, my friend and I had stopped to evaluate the candy. My mother stood beside us laughing as we drooled over the sugary gummy treats, the lollipops and the chocolate, candy coated discs. It was then that a well-meaning, yet ignorant older woman remarked to my mother how beautiful her daughter was. It seemed a harmless enough comment until my mother said, “No, that’s my daughter,” pointing her finger at me.

“Oh, I see.” The woman said and continued on her way but not until after she spent a good amount of time staring at me, then staring at my mother then back to me. I could feel my cheeks under my brown skin getting hot and my tight, unruly curls that stood out in a defiant springing mass becoming even springier and more defiant. The woman finally left us be.

“Did you choose your candy Kimmy?” My mother asked. Suddenly my mouth was as dry as the asphalt outside. The brightly colored gummies, lollipops, chocolates and other sugary treats made me sick just to look at them.

“No, I don’t feel like candy anymore.” I replied, blinking back tears. My friend ended up with a lollipop and the smell of it sickened me. I followed my mother and her should be daughter through the second set of doors and into the store. That incident left me with two truths. White people were beautiful. White people like my mother, like my friend. Brown people were not beautiful. Brown people like me. And I didn’t belong. That night I prayed as hard as I could to God to make me blonde and blue eyed like my mother. I never wanted anyone to think I was someone else’s child ever again. To stare at me like I was some kind of mistake. I woke up the next morning holding my breath, squeezing my eyes shut and willing myself not to move. Finally I couldn’t stand the anticipation any longer so I ran down the hall to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Of course I looked exactly the same. A single angry tear of betrayal slid down my cheek. I resolved to pray harder that night. And the night following. I’d pray until God heard me. Of course He never did.

My daughter has a different kind of experience. Everyone tells her she is beautiful all of the time. As she has gotten older her hair has darkened to a dirty blonde and her eyes are copper colored. She is still fair, however she is developing an olive tone to her skin and more of my features are showing themselves in her beautiful face. her hair is still wavy with ringlets when she lets me comb it. Otherwise it takes on a life of its own. She is four and 3/4 years old. I know when she is sixteen all bets are off. Multiracial children are beautiful, changeable beings. Their hair may go from straight to curly. Their skin may go from light to dark. Their eyes may go from blue to green to grey. Alice’s older brother Elliott had hair so straight it merely waved in the wind. On this latest Mother’s day he showed me a dark brown tightly springing ringlet on his head that I could not believe was there. “Look mom, I’m getting blacker!” He was so proud of himself. He was born with the biggest, bluest eyes I’d ever seen and straight honey colored hair, the lightest shade of brown.

My oldest son is the darkest of the three, with my complexion and my dark eyes and curly hair. He wears his ethnicity proudly, far more proudly than I ever did. I hope I contributed to that. People remark that we look practically like twins and of course I feel proud, considering I’ve experienced the opposite. I wish it were enough to take the sting out of the adoption jokes and the “maybe you stole her” comments but it’s not. People are far too stupid and its happened far too often. I’m just sick of  it. I want to grab them around the neck and say “Look white person. That. wasn’t. funny.” Of course I don’t grab anyone. I do however stare at them until they start blushing, hopefully realizing they shoved their foot not just in their mouth, but all the way down their throat as well.

Having spent my whole life biracial I have heard wonderful things. I have also heard things I wish I could wash from my mind forever. You’d be surprised how many times the phrase “You’re really nice for a black girl” has graced my ears. Or the litany of racially insensitive jokes people tell when they can’t define me and therefore feel safe letting their ignorant flags fly. Sometimes I think if one more person asks me “What are you?” I’ll slap them. And then I’ll say “See? I’m a human being. Who slaps.”

Coming from the era of little test boxes where you would be sitting in school and suddenly you were supposed to check a box labeled with your race. There was no choice to check more than one and when you gingerly walked your paper up to the teacher’s desk and asked her what to do she gave you an impatient/pitying look and said just choose the obvious one, implying the black one, hearkening back to the old one-drop theory wherein a single drop of “negro” blood rendered one a “negro.” My parents of course as I got got older always encouraged me to check African American for the scholarship opportunities. “Sweetie, they see you this way anyways. You may as well make them pay for it.” That just never felt right. It felt like a denial of who I was, who I am. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m a biracial being with a wholly new set of characteristics deserving of recognition. Because of our country’s system of identification I have always either felt invisible or far too VISIBLE never in-between. At forty-one I imagined I would have gotten used to being a circus attraction but no. One never does get used to that.

Things have gotten better for my children, although they are not perfect. The boxes have gone from other because they didn’t know what to call us, to one or more races which I’m actually happy with. One day the box will read multiracial and then I’ll know the walls are coming down. Other things are different for my children as well. When I was their age you did not see interracial families on television. No way. The families were one race, the children easily defined. It was daring to even have a side character that was another race on the show. Television was agony for me as a child because I didn’t identify with any of the families. The storylines were confusing, the way the people interacted was not the way my family interacted. And no one talked about the kind of bullying I experienced at school for being different. The only show that made any kind of sense to me was Star Trek. Star Trek was profound. Not only were there different races but there were different species and they all mixed. There were Multiracial humans and interspecies beings and everyone acted with a modicum of decorum the way my family did, not some stereotypical narrow set of behaviors the rest of the tv families seemed to portray. I spent many hours watching Star Trek with my father. He loved it, and now that I’m older I can see why. It was miles ahead of its time for so many reasons. One reason in particular that touched my heart deeply and gave me a sense of belonging the rest of the world lacked.

My daughter says she has cream skin. “I have cream skin Mama and Grandma has cream skin and so does daddy! But you have brown skin like Jaden right? What about Pop-pop? (Her name for her Grandfather. She used to call her Grandmother Grandmommy which was so cute while it lasted) Pop-pop had dark brown skin like dark chocolate right mama? what color does Elliott have? Is it darker cream?” I love how she is gentle and accurate in her observations. Her colors come from her box of crayons. She doesn’t understand the racial terms “black” and “white.” She doesn’t see one color as superior to the other and she doesn’t see anyone as fitting those descriptions. It’s beautiful, her state of mind, her level of development. It makes me wonder why that ever has to change. Why someone’s color has to matter SO much in this society. Why the colors can’t just mix and match into a marvelous rainbow.

My sons argue over who is blacker. I tirelessly tell them they are the same quarter African American. This does not satisfy them. “Jaden stole all the blackness and the tallness!” My middle son Elliott cries out. “It’s not fair!” He scowls at Jaden as if his older brother had any choice in his outward appearance.

“Dude, you need to chill.” Jaden gives his little brother his stock answer. Of course this is easy for him at sixteen, standing over six foot tall with caramel skin, naturally curly hair, a strong jaw complimented by Hollywood cheekbones, large dark eyes with a fringe of lashes and a gorgeous girlfriend.

“You will grow Elliott and you are just as handsome as your brother, you hear it all the time. You need to embrace your own version of beautiful. Look at those eyes. You know your eyes could stop traffic.” I’m not exaggerating. Elliott has a pair of the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

“But am I black enough to say the N-word?” Elliott asks this partly genuinely, partly to push my buttons.

“I would not recommend you use that word. I don’t think it’s good for anyone.” I tell him this knowing his favorite music is full of it and although my father was against its usage, these days things have changed. But still my multiracial son is fair enough to raise not only eyebrows but fists and for his safety I caution him to steer clear of that word. For his own good. “Out of respect for your Grandfather keep your language clean.” I tell my sons, knowing my daughter already uses the F word but luckily NOT at preschool.

I absolutely love being a mother. I just run out of steam sometimes and wonder if my children are secretly plotting against my sanity. I think it’s a mom thing. Perhaps we do lose a few brain cells along the way. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I disagree with that. When you’re the mother of young children who turn into teenagers and then you have another young child, I think what doesn’t kill you makes you stupid. “Huh? I said I’d do what? Has anyone seen my keys? I don’t think I showered yesterday…or did I? Wait! Don’t throw that out, that’s my yesterday coffee! I know my shirt is on inside out, I’ll fix it before I go anywhere. I seriously think I forgot my kid’s middle name…” The list goes on. At the end of the day I congratulate myself that they are alive, well-cared for and they all know I love them. This is especially important for my boys who spend so much time in Oregon. I have to remind myself that the myriad conversations I have with their stepmother about them counts to a tremendous degree. Ultimately I know each and every one of my children was wanted, loved and meant to be. Their undefinable quality is part of their unique beauty, their multiracial identities are not a mystery for the rest of the world to solve but rather part of their own profound natures and their business alone. My kids are marvelous to behold, just by existing in the world, and they remind the little girl inside me that I’m not just some kind of mistake.

 

 

Rain Dance

We cannot live our lives in fear of missing moments, of moments ending, of failing to extract every meaningful drop out of our children’s existence as though they were dishrags to be wrung out, to be twisted.

This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
Cause we won’t
Although we’ll want to…

–Billy Joel

Truer words were never written. As much as we try to hold onto those precious moments they end up slipping away from us like the soft cotton of a dandelion head. And all we have left are our memories.

When Jaden was a baby (he’s sixteen now) I remember one afternoon willing myself to commit him to memory. This won’t last I told myself. The way he smells, his little, chubby hands and feet. His big, wide, innocent eyes. Remember this! I willed myself. As if it were possible. As if time, the great thief that it is, were not lying in wait to steal that and so many more moments from my mind like an ever empty and waiting void.

A poem by Langston Hughes reads

“Life is for the living.

Death is for the dead.

Let life be like music.

And death a note unsaid.” 

The beauty of these words is that they speak to our deepest fears and then tell us how we  should handle them. Life is indeed for the living. I could spend the rest of my life trying to memorize each moment with my children, or I could simply surrender to the joy those moments with my children bring me. It is a choice. I could not have known this at twenty-four. I barely know this at forty-one. Another aspect of this philosophy and a truly important one is that it relieves us of guilt. Here’s an example; my daughter is playing and I’m writing and she calls for me. Does she absolutely need me? No. Does she want time with me and is that important? Of course it is and I will give her that time. It just doesn’t have to be RIGHT NOW. Life is for the living and that means my life is for me as well as hers is for her. If I want to really play with her, I mean really be engaged I need to give to myself first so I’m not this empty vessel. Will I miss out on time with her? Of course I will. Will the sky fall? No. Assuredly it will not.

We cannot live our lives in fear of missing moments, of moments ending, of failing to extract every meaningful drop out of our children’s existence as though they were dishrags to be wrung out, to be twisted. It is simply impossible to stop the hands of the clock of time. The earth will spin regardless of what we do and our children will grow older as painful a process as it may be. Why not enjoy the ride? One thing all children need to learn is how to entertain themselves. It’s a shocker I know. In this age of immediate gratification it seems an almost foreign concept. It’s important to remember that by catering to her every need I am in a sense robbing her of her ability to live her life to its fullest. I don’t want her running back to me every time the rain begins to fall. Rather I want her to dance in it.

I want her to dance in the rain and think nothing of the thrilling splash of the puddles, the gentle spray of droplets on her face. Because that as well as anything else is part of the human experience. Whether the rain trickles down lightly so we have an afternoon of damp cavorting, or in great sheets so we are soaked to the bone in a matter of minutes, the rain wakes us up, pulls us from our complacency and drowns out the sameness of our otherwise predictable lives.

Life is for the living. That means each moment is a gift for us to do with as we please. There is no guidebook. There is no test with a looming answer sheet lying in wait to point out all of our mistakes. On the contrary. Our life is ours. To jump up and down in the rain, to wrap ourselves in a blanket and binge watch Orange is The New Black, to change careers ten times, to drop out of college. To teach our children to swear in preschool. To lose at poker, to win at poker. To get pulled over five miles from home after drinking one too many glasses of wine at dinner. To run out of gas in the middle of the intersection and laugh hysterically about it. To fart in church. To be gracelessly, embarrassingly, unabashedly imperfect. To live. Because life is for the living. So my darling…LIVE.

Destiny

She kept fucking up.

She kept swallowing the goldfish, running over butterflies before they had a chance to flutter past gorgeously.

Who could love a died-in-the-wool screw up like her? Not even the cat who eyed her warily.

She was too fat for her best dress. Too thin for her mother to worry about her. “You have control over that girl! And it’s that sour attitude of yours driving them away, not your ass.

She hated her name. Grace meant all the things she wasn’t. Her name should have been Selena or Georgiana. Or even Tia. The last of those evoking a kind of reluctant sympathy. But no. Her name was Grace and she had yet to live up to it.

It was long after everyone was asleep and the clocks smiled 3:15 that Grace became Rita. Armed with only a braided satchel containing lipgloss, a passport, some valium and one ticket to Brazil scattered with greasy fingerprints she disappeared into the night.

She was never heard from again after that rainsoaked, changeling evening and her mother was satisfied.

Kimkoa 2018

The Conversion Machine part 2

She was the first friend I had who didn’t care that I was mixed. She just wanted me to dance with her, to do gymnastics in the yard, to talk about all the secret wonderful things about being a girl.

I have to talk more about Desiree. Funny and sweet, she was the kind of friend every girl should have. She was beautiful but unaffected by it and we spent all of our time relishing our childhoods. As I mentioned in part 1 her father was a vietnam veteran and as sweet as his daughter. The man did not have a racist bone in his body. He was a large man with a belly that hung over his camouflage pants and surprisingly kind eyes. He would start drinking every day in the early afternoon, and not long after that his best friend, another vet and a black man would show up and join him. They would share stories of their tours in Vietnam often crying. Rick was a kind drunk, a watery-eyed, wistful, lost drunk, a true casualty of war. He had my picture on the wall next to his daughters. He used to call me his other daughter. Not his black daughter, or his daughter’s black friend. He was never like that. I was his daughter. He would squeeze me and I never minded his beer breath or his sincere sadness. I was just happy to belong. Desiree would do her routines for him and he would get so excited clapping his huge hands. “That’s my girl! Knock ’em dead Desi!” Her little sisters Julie and Jessica and I would watch her in awe. I was endlessly proud of my pretty blonde friend.

Sharon was nothing like Rick. Desiree’s mother was cruel, spiteful and jealous. She would turn on you when you least expected it. She was an angry drunk and she was drunk all the time. We learned to ignore her except when she was yelling at Desiree. After that Julie would cry, Jessica hid and I balled my fists in anger.

When things were good, they were really good. we would play every game imaginable. We would make up dance routines to Paula Abdul and Madonna. We would play at the school twirling on the gym bar. We would stay up late watching scary movies. We would play imagination games in the bedroom, the one bedroom all the girls shared. Eventually we’d fall asleep, a tangle of little girl arms and legs. Those nights were marvelous. And then the birthday party happened. My mother dropped me off at Desiree’s house, and there was a horrifically violent war movie playing. Now we were maybe eight years old at the time. My mom came in and said matter of factly,

“My daughter is not allowed to watch those kinds of movies” (she had no idea I had regular nightmares from the kinds of movies I saw at Desiree’s house.) Sharon just sneered at my mom several drinks in by that point, smoking at the kitchen table. Rick immediately turned it off and apologized profusely. My mom wasn’t exactly comfortable leaving me there but I desperately wanted to stay so she relented. As soon as she left they put on “Bachelor Party” and I couldn’t figure out why there were so many breasts on the television. The majority of us turned our attention elsewhere and began playing. Unfortunately things began to get worse from there. Sharon decided she was going to really tie one on. Jealous of her daughter’s popularity and desirous of attention she began making a spectacle of herself. If you’ve ever seen Sharon Stone in the movie “Casino” that was Sharon. I was walking from the living room to the bedroom to get barbies hoping to not have to be Ken or the one legged black one when I heard Sharon call or rather slur my name. I looked over and she was sitting on the toilet, her pants around her ankles, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The bathroom smelled like hairspray, perfume and stale cigarette smoke. She had blue eyeshadow on up to her eyebrows and bright spots of blush on each cheek. She had lipstick on her teeth.

“So are you having fun?” she slurred at me.

“Um, I guess so.” I wanted to get out of there, had to get out of there.

“You guess so? You can’t say anything nicer that that?! Hand me that toilet paper.” She was angry now and I knew I had to do something, anything.

“Yes ma’am. Um I have to go, I have to get the barbie dolls for everyone.” That seemed like a reasonable way to leave.

“I have to get the barbie dolls for everyone. Jesus Christ!” She mimicked me in a cruel, high pitched voice. “Get out of here then!”

I booked it out and down the hall. I found Desiree. I didn’t want to upset her on her birthday but I had to say something.

“Des…Your mom’s drunk and she’s going to the bathroom with the door open.” Desiree looked crestfallen.

“Ok, I’ll deal with it.” She left the room and headed down the hall. I could hear Sharon yelling at her, berating her, calling her snob, a little bitch,

“I guess I’m not good enough for you and your little bitch friends!!” I did what I had always been taught to do. I called my mom.

When my mom showed up I had gathered up my stuff and Desiree stood in the doorway crying her heart out, My mom kneeled down and hugged her.

“Desiree? Do you you want to come with me? I can call your friends’ moms and you can come to my house. We’ll get you a cake and you girls can watch movies and have popcorn and no one will yell at you or make you cry.”

“I can’t.” Desiree said between sobs. “I have to take care of my little sisters.” She cried and cried,

“They could come too. I know your dad wouldn’t mind I’ll talk to him.”

“He’s passed out. I have to take care of my mom.” So we had no choice but to leave her there. I heard Sharon call her a cunt as I walked to the car. She stood in the doorway crying, and watched us drive away. I’ll never forget her pale little face streaming tears surrounded by falling snow.

I clung to my friendship with Desiree like a child clings to a favorite toy. As time passed she started to grow up and grow up fast. Finally past the barbie rule I was just one of the girls at her parents’ little duplex and if I ran fast enough I could get to her house from mine in less than ten minutes. She lived right next to our elementary school and after my horrible ordeal with Eric the bully from Hell my parents moved me from that school to one across town with an optional program and kids from “the right side of the tracks.” Truthfully I loved the new school, fifth and sixth grade were an oasis compared to my earlier elementary school years. I made friends, some of whom have lasted until today. One was a friend and then family member until recently. She was the one who invited me to the bahai coffee house where I first encountered the conversion machine. In an ironic twist of fate I married her cousin. I suppose we’d still be friends/family if I hadn’t confronted her in a bipolar rage about the abuses and humiliations I suffered as a member of the bahai faith. Don’t feel sorry for her. I’ll give you an example.

Right before my ex-husband and I were supposed to get married, his entire family wanted us to go to Seward (a neighboring town) and get couples counseling from a man named Ivan. Now I was completely and totally against this for good reason. My first encounter with Ivan was walking into Ian’s (my exhusband) house and everyone was sitting around him as he was talking. We took our seats and what came out of his mouth I’ll never forget. He had a thick Belgian accent and was extremely fat. Even his ears and lips were fat. As we took our seats he was talking about “gays.” He was relating a story about a “gay” he knew who was a complete pervert. “They keep their pee and poop in jars under their bed. They are very perverted. You must stay away from them at all costs.” What?! Did he just say that?!  I looked around the room and everyone sat calmly hanging on his every word. My god, I thought, there are children present. I looked at Ian and said

“We’re leaving.” Unbeknownst to me in their family it was a cardinal sin to leave when Ivan was pontificating his sick drivel.

“Oh that’s just Ivan, trust me he means well, he’s an awesome guy,”

“Uh-uh, no way in hell am I staying around to hear anything else this guy has to say and I don’t care if your family kisses his feet when he enters a room, I AM DONE.” Needless to say we left and that was not the end of it. Not by a long shot. So back to Lindsay. My friend of thirty plus years and then family. She took it upon herself to convince me Ivan was worth the effort despite his disgusting side tangents. She felt Ian and I absolutely had to go to Seward and I told her NO WAY. So she, Ian’s sisters, his parents, several of his brothers and best of all Ivan himself all organized an intervention. Ian took me to his house under the guise of hanging out and suddenly I was sitting at a table with everyone staring at me and asking me questions about what I was so afraid of, and why couldn’t I be open with everyone and why didn’t I trust Ivan. Let me tell you I gave them ten minutes and then I was out of there. They called my name, I didn’t care. When Ian finally got to the car I started screaming at him. I told him if ever did anything like that to me again it would be the last time he’d ever see me.

“How dare you?!!” I was filled with rage. “He’s a pig, and I don’t know what the Hell is wrong with you people!” (He really was a pig, he would tear open packages of raw ground beef and eat them by the fistful.) Ian was all apologies and shitty explanations. In the back of my mind I knew I’d have to go to Seward and listen to this blowhard. I was beginning to see the dark side of the bahai faith. The side the conversion machine so cleverly hid from me. I rode with Lindsay to Seward. I just wanted to get it over with. She was chattering on about Ivan’s accomplishments, that he took in wayward youth and helped them get back on track. That his methods were unorthodox but he saw results. Her endless blathering made my head hurt and I tried not to be sick over what I knew was going to be a shit show. I didn’t know how right I was.

When we got to Seward things were fairly benign. I found Ian and he was at ease, which he often was, he never rattled easily. Ivan’s wife ushered us into another room where we sat across from Ivan who had a large white paper notebook on an easel that he could write on and flip when he wanted a clean page. Most of what he said was difficult to follow and made little sense. But a few things are burned into my brain forever. One of them was when he was talking about Ian’s cousin Tea, a minor Ivan had taken in because she was having troubles. He related to us that not only did he let her sleep in bed with him and his wife, he told her as a way to be more comfortable with her heavier stature that “making love to a fat woman is like making love to a cloud in the sky.” Is that really how you should be talking to an underage girl? I thought. But I felt stuck, caught up in the machine. It was as if the longer he spewed his bullshit at me the more my brain started leaking out of my head. I kept looking at Ian for some kind of sign that this was all so very, very wrong but he showed nothing. Nothing but a blind acceptance and reverence. When we finally got our assignment I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We were to have sex that night and make as much noise as possible. He wanted to be able to hear us across the compound. So like good little soldiers we did exactly as we were told. I hated every perverted minute of it. I kept wondering when my brain would find its way back into my head. The next morning when we went to the restaurant part of the compound everyone was all dirty knowing smiles. Ivan laughed loudly and said we put on quite a show. He was right in that regard, it was a show. There was nothing real about our entire visit and it was just as terrible as I feared it would be. I had little contact with Ivan until the wedding where Ian and his family wanted him to make a speech. It was uneventful and I heard nothing more UNTIL

Ian’s mom broke all ties with Ivan because he was accused of molesting several girls at his compound for wayward youth, among them Ian’s cousin Tea. It was a huge mess, Ian’s sisters were under Ivan’s spell and went against their mom to defend him. Ultimately he was guilty and just like insular religious communities everywhere, he was not prosecuted by the authorities like he should have been. He merely lost his voting rights. It’s appalling the way the assembly handles these things. One has to wonder what would be bad enough for them to involve the authorities? Not rape apparently, or child molesting. God only knows. Needless to say Lindsay and I are no longer friends. I mean the whole Ivan thing and then she invited me to get a pedicure for my birthday and I ended up having to pay for myself. Luckily I had cash on me.

So I didn’t want to lose Desiree as a friend but I could tell she was running with a faster crowd than I was and I didn’t even understand her new way of being. It was middle school and I was pretty much the same, but suddenly she was all hairspray and eyeliner and miniskirts and boys. So many boys. One of the last times I saw Desiree was just before her mother almost burned the house down. Drunk as usual Sharon passed out in bed with a lit cigarette in her hand. The bedroom went up like a lit match. I never knew if Sharon was burned or if she woke up in time to deal with her bedroom engulfed in flames. I know they kept living there, the back of the house black from the fire.

Ian and I had over three hundred people at our wedding. Neither one of us had any idea what we were doing. After Ian proposed I said yes because I didn’t know what else to say. I had no idea what love was. I’d never had a boyfriend other than Sir Rapes A lot (Actually After Navid raped me we went to the local spiritual assembly about it and they did nothing other than advise us to pray about it. Truthfully I’m quite sure they didn’t believe me. The whole process was humiliating at best. Shortly after that I heard he did it to another girl. Someone new to the faith, naively investigating it and blindly trusting. Someone just like me. A victim of the conversion machine.) And then Ian. We were kids. We’d followed Bahai law and stayed chaste, Ian’s mom really pushed for the nineteen day engagement period. She wanted us signed, sealed and delivered. I don’t know why she pushed for it since its an encouragement not a law, but I can guess. Bahais take that chastity law pretty seriously.

So it was a flurry of activity. nineteen days is not a long time to plan a wedding. especially when everyone we knew plus the entire Bahai community would be there. The night before the wedding I called Ian and told him we were making a mistake.  He said it was just cold feet. He showed up the next morning with a dozen red roses. It was the sweetest gesture, I thought he’s right, this is just nerves. Of course it wasn’t just nerves.

This next part is the hardest part for me to write. The wedding ceremony was beautiful, my father sang, I felt like a princess. Then it came time to say our vows. Bahai vows are different than other vows. All you say is “We will all verily abide by the will of God.” So our vows said, it was time for the kiss. I didn’t know what to expect but I hoped for butterflies or shooting stars or even fireworks. But I felt nothing. It was like kissing my brother. I felt tears of shame and ager start to well up behind my eyes. I blinked them away and made the kiss long and dramatic so no one would catch on to how I really felt. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, waiting until marriage to kiss someone, to have sex with someone is a terrible idea. The few people who make it work are just that. Few.

I cannot say I regret the marriage. I would never say that. I have two beautiful sons from that union that I wouldn’t trade for the world. There was just so much hardship, judgment and pain they had to endure from the divorce. They say children are resilient and they are, but they are also fragile in ways we are not. They want to be held, reassured. They need security and they need hope. Children are hopeful creatures. In the midst of great turmoil they carry with them a heart shaped balloon of hope. They carry the hope that behind the next door will be an angel, fairy, leprechaun, unicorn…happiness.

Julie came by my house many years later. I hadn’t seen her sister Desiree in years. She said she just wanted to say hi, to see how I was. She said her father died, that he kept my picture on the wall all the way until the end. My other daughter she said he called me. she said I gave him great joy and she thanked me. I looked at her freckled cheeks and pin straight blonde hair. Her blue eyes sparkled.

“Julie you look exactly the same. Like time stopped for you.” She laughed and shook her thin hair.

“I could say the exact same thing about you!” I had to smile.

“So how’s your sister?” I hoped she was free, free of her mother and all of the pressures of being too pretty too soon.

“She’s gone, she left right after dad died, I’m never sure where exactly she is maybe Colorado. She doesn’t like to feel trapped anywhere. She drives an awesome truck, sometimes she visits but she hates mom so she never stays long. I miss her.” Julie lowered her eyes. A single tear slid down her freckled cheek.

“I miss her too Julie. All the time. Next time you see her you give her my love. Tell her I say good for her for going her own way, It’s a brave thing to do.”

After Julie left I smiled, thinking of my friend traveling the country on her own terms. She was the first friend I had who didn’t care that I was mixed. She just wanted me to dance with her, to do gymnastics in the yard, to talk about all the secret wonderful things about being a girl. Not once did she ever make me play with the broken barbie. That was Julie’s thing. Desi didn’t even like barbies. She was always ready to grow up, she liked magazines and cars and makeup. She liked walking through the neighborhood and checking in with all of her followers. She loved going to the movies. And she could spend hours playing Super Mario brothers. For a while at least, she was my sister and my best friend.

To be continued *

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*

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