Trayvon Martin Comes to My Back Yard

I am re-publishing this post, as my computer was hacked into on the day this piece was posted, and readers could not access it.

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      When I moved to the community of  Evanston, IL in 1983, many people jokingly referred to it as “the social experiment by the lake.”  The first town directly north of Chicago, Evanston sits along the shores of Lake Michigan, serves as the home of Northwestern University, and prides itself on its “diversity.”  The community has a rich history, a tremendous array of culture, and a committed population.  It remains one of a handful of communities in the United States where the school system comprises a great range of both races/ethnicities and socioeconomic strata.  People move here for this reason, as I did, when I bought this home when pregnant with my first child.  I wanted my children to be in a community– in parks, in schools, in activities –with kids from a mix of backgrounds and experiences.

            I sometimes choose to live in what I refer to as my “Evanston bubble,” meaning that – when it suits me – I surround myself with my like-minded friends and neighbors and can easily imagine (cough*pretend/delude myself*cough) that the whole world is Like! Us!  That raising children who understand – because they have first-hand experience – differences of background, outlook, families, financial means, expectations about how they will be treated in the world – will give them a tremendous leg up as adults living in the wider world.

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            My bubble was burst, no shattered, last week when I attended a community meeting across the street from my home.  Our alderwoman called the meeting in response to a neighborhood request, following two unrelated, very disturbing incidents that occurred within a couple days of one another: a stolen car that was torched at 3 am on my block (complete with an astonishing decibel-level explosion and pyrotechnics), and a long-time neighbor who was beaten quite badly at 7 pm in our local park, in front of his son.  He had attempted to get two young teens who were playing basketball on the sole court to relinquish it, as he and others had been waiting a long time for their turn.  The teens got pissed, made a phone call, and two others arrived on the scene to do the beat-down.

            No excuse for this.  None.  Anyone would agree that this kind of thing requires swift and decisive response.  What we did not agree on, as became abundantly clear at the community meeting, was exactly what that entailed.

            The kids were black.

            My neighbor who was beaten is white.  As was every single person at the well-attended community meeting.  Still, nothing could have prepared me for my neighbors asking, in total seriousness, why we could not just arrest anyone in an Evanston park who did reside in our town.  Why couldn’t we have a cop posted who demanded ID from all park users?  This broadened to the meeting constituency discussing the need to report any suspicious activity to the police at once (I, of course, agree), the first example cited being a neighbor who had observed a person of color driving down the street taking photographs.  (Pause for stunned silence).

            So. Here I am, with Treyvon Martin truly in my back yard.  Here I am, wrestling with the nearly-overwhelming issue of how we go about the process of attempting meaningful, productive dialog about the difference between real danger, where there is genuine threat of serious harm, and perceived danger, where there is only what exists in our minds.

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4th of July, 2013

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Summer days, and summer holidays in particular, bring about the most magical feeling – as if time is endless, and the warmth of the air, the stretch of the daylight, the celebratory relaxation will go on and on forever.

My first-ever officially-diagnosed back spasm has laid me low for six days now, causing me to cancel any 4th of July plans in favor of a day of rest, broken up only by a four-mile walk along my hometown’s lakefront.  Evanston, Illinois takes the 4th of July very seriously.  Neighborhood parks are overrun with children participating in a myriad of games, events and activities that have been organized by the city.  The granddaddy of all small-town parades runs for a two-mile stretch along Central Street, in what is a time-honored, quirky, charming (arguable), tediously long (inarguable) display of every single Tom, Dick and Harry organization that wants to march the route and wave to the delighted crowd.

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The beaches are jammed; every lifeguard the city employs is called to duty all day.  And the gorgeous stretch of lakefront park that runs from very near my home in the southeast corner of the city all the way to Northwestern University nearly two miles to the north, is packed with picnickers, large extended families who have staked out their turf, settled in for a long day that will be capped with the exhilarating fireworks display around 9 or 9:30.

This July 4th was a glorious day, one of the very best I can remember in my 30 years in my house.  The sun peeked in and out, perhaps to the dismay of beachgoers, but to the thrill of parade-goers and picnickers who most often wilt, or even faint in large numbers, on a typical Evanston 4th.

According to the most recent figures available, the general population of Evanston, Illinois is 65% white, 18% African-American, and 17% all other groups (as self-defined).  Because Evanston attracts so many families, the demographics of the public school system have always been quite different: 2012 information states that the elementary school system is currently 42% white students, 26% African-American, 18% Hispanic, with the remaining 14% all other.

A visitor would never have gleaned this yesterday, had they been walking with me.

The magical Evanston beaches, where I took my children nearly every day, and where they later served as lifeguards and beach managers, require a season pass to be purchased for any person over the age of 1, or a daily fee of an astonishing $8.00!   Yesterday, the exuberant beachgoers were comprised almost entirely of small groups, at least 85% of which were white.  Children and parents waited in long lines to buy popsicles, hot dogs and treats, just as I did with my kids.  By contrast, the picnickers cramming the park space for a solid two miles were at least 85% Hispanic, and comprised almost entirely of large extended families laden with grills, chairs, and what looked to be an amazing array of lovingly prepared food.

The United States is, truly, the greatest country in the world in so many ways.  Or perhaps it is more correct to say, it is so many different countries, existing side by side.

We have so much more to do.

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One Paragraph

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This is where I write, in the  back sun room of my house, a room with three walls of solid windows overlooking my yard and garden.  My laptop sits on a reclaimed-wood table I had made for me, having fallen in love with it at a local flower shop and cajoled the owner into giving me the name of the man who had made it.   And this is the way it all looks to me when I sit down to begin, when the picture of what I need to say remains out of focus, out of my reach.

Today I struggled.  Today’s particular form of struggle involved looking up an ungodly number of words in the thesaurus.  Really.  Ungodly number.

I finished the chapter I have been working on.  !!  And whereas I wrote more than a paragraph, it is one paragraph that will allow me to lay my head on my pillow tonight feeling like I have done something.

“As if it is the most natural thing in the world, as if she has done this a million times, Madeline reaches for the breast of a fifteen-year-old girl.  She squeezes the nipple, and she directs the breast from a position slightly above Dustin’s head into his eager, expectant mouth.  For a few fleeting seconds, Madeline feels she has been given a magnificent gift.  In a featureless hospital room, with an exhausted adolescent mother whose breast she holds in her own hand, she has been granted a moment of profound grace.”

Now the scene looks like this.

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A Report on the Natural World, part 2

PhotoArtA segment from the novel-in-progress, from the chapter I had requested feedback.  As my daughter said when she was about eleven years old:  “It’s contemporary fiction.   You don’t know everything.”

 

 

“Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position.  I think his head may be a little bit too far away.  From the breast.  Your boob.”

            Sierra looks from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Madeline, and her mouth again falls open.  She is exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.

            Madeline looks around the room, says to Sierra, “Would  it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”

            “Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she says.  “Yes.”

            “Yeah, you go head, Mad.”  Billie waves Madeline towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she speaks.

            The aunt, the uncle, the cousins, who have been murmuring among themselves with downcast eyes, decide at this point that they will excuse themselves and get refreshments.  Madeline edges to the side of the bed and sits down with a tentativeness that resembles slow motion.  Seated a respectful distance from Sierra, she tucks one leg underneath the other, letting her foot dangle casually off the side, in an attempt to project calm confidence.  And with the simple movement of raising her rear end slightly off the bed to tuck her leg, she gets her first real glimpse of newborn Dustin Roy.

            Tears threaten to well, pour, spring from her eyes.  The sum of tears inside her threatens to flood the room – Billie, still holding a pile of meticulously-folded things, Sierra still cross-legged on the bed with her mouth agape – they will be swept up in the great salty tide and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swoops up Dustin and saves him.  She saves him.  She seizes him and holds him and swaddles his blanket tight and rubs her cheek against his newborn hair and smells his skin and makes a pact, a pact that very instant that she will do anything in the world to protect him, anything at all, forever, she will do anything she needs to do for the rest of time as long as there is time, because he is there, and he is perfect, and he is new, and everything is possible for him, everything, he will have a good life, he will…

            “MadMad?  What should I do?”

            Madeline keeps her eyes fixed intently on Dustin, as if pondering the question quite seriously, until the dam that threatens to burst has proven it will hold.

            “Um, let’s try again.”

            Sierra goes through each step — positioning Dustin, squeezing her nipple, then maneuvering the outer third of her breast so it comes down to Dustin’s mouth from above.  After each separate move, she looks back to Madeline, and Madeline nods.

Creation: Agony/Ecstasy. Repeat.

IMG_0003“Before they moved the TV down here I was pretty much all alone by my lonesome a good deal of the time.  People was in and out, but for the most part didn’t really pay me no never mind.  Course I was in better shape back then, younger, chugging along pretty good even if I was getting up in years.  And don’t think that I’m complaining cause I ain’t.  I like my own company just fine; it gives you time to think.

            But then they fixed up the room right next to my own so the whole family could have a place to assemble, and they made it real nice and cozy, too.  And what with the TV down here, well suddenly I had me a whole lot of company, and these folks who had breezed in and out of my room for all that time before was living their lives right in front of my eyes, so to speak.

            I had me a family, for the first time ever.”

Those two paragraphs + 1 sentence = the majority of the writing that I have done on my 3rd novel in the past several days.  The good news is:  I like those paragraphs.  The bad news is: obvious.  It’s two paragraphs.

I have to make some decisions about the structure of this work before I can go much further.  In the meantime, I keep tinkering around with the beginning, the part that I know, the part of the creative picture that is clear, while I continue to grope around in the near-darkness pursuing other parts of the picture — the ones that have blurred, the ones that I am trying to stare at, the ones I am trying to sneak up on while they least expect it.

Agony.  Ecstasy.  Repeat.