Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Politics of Childhood

I was born into the lower middle class.

I identify as female. I identify as bisexual. 

I describe myself as Christian, an Anglican. 

I am a democrat. 

I am the dust of a million dying stars. 


When Dad and I went to the grocery store - a sad and dilapidated Super Fresh, surrounded by poverty and the smell of urine - I found such richness in mangoes, in the soft green skin; in boxes of pasta which rattled with a sifting sound, a sigh; in jars of tomato sauce promising sweetness and sausage; in a red and gold foiled pouch of beans and rice, salty, filling, inexpensive. Every face I saw there was a story, men in wheelchairs with hard rubberized curves, fat women in Sunday hats, art students lost in the city. 

When we went, it was a delight. I couldn't wait to go home, for dad to fill a pot with broth and chunks of hard meat, carrots which hadn't quite spoiled, a dash of beer - I could taste, somehow, not flavors but emotions, pride, food on the table. In the grocery store I smelled the five dollar wine and the ritual of Saturday night dinner. And maybe it wasn't just pride, maybe there was a taste of something other, a desperation, a get me out of here, and an, I wish things were better. Things which my eyes were closed to, like the shadow of amputated legs, poverty's reliance on salt and fat and scrap, the inability to work, a need for a liquid panacea to idleness. 

In 2013, this is not an unfamiliar scenario. And the privilege I had then, being the child of educated, native parents, and being lucky enough to get an education of my own - that privilege is more gleaming than gold. And I don't think, for one moment, that I wasn't lucky. 

People talk and talk about the economy, how it is the hottest issue of the decade, how no politician can succeed without a solid plan - part hope, part funding, part lie - to fix those parts of our country which have fallen between the cracks. We need a better plan, absolutely, to set things right. 

If they were ever right, for everyone. 


That day in June, I wore my tie-dyed halter top, navel and back bared unabashedly, tight blue jeans, far too much glitter, and a grin. 

Baltimore heat makes you think about taking off all of your clothes, letting the shower head spray down on your nakedness, rubbing your wet self on something soft. It has a particular smell to it, part sewage, part sage, part sex. I sat on the curb of Charles street and let my skin soak up the scent of summer and freedom. 

I could claim my identity. 

I was young and foolish and terribly proud. Around me, men and women threw candy and beads, children laughed near-screaming, and I thought about my body and kissing and finally doing something which felt right. I saw shockingly beautiful women and their children, and their friends, and their partners, and I wanted to revel in their effervescence, the incandescent yes, the at last, the self. 

There's a bitterness that comes with too much happiness. The at last is not final. The positive will be negative. And being loved for a weekend in the June of 2005 was not, and is not, being loved for a lifetime in America. Hell, it isn't even being guaranteed basic rights. 

We talk and talk about values, and if we can get past dogmatic discourse, about civil rights. We engage each other in ceaseless debate, we poke holes in what some call religion, we make mockery of love. Politicians make or break their campaigns over this hot issue, and thank God, things have changed. Some things are better. Some things are right. 

If there ever were rights, for everyone. 


My introduction to fiction class had me quaking in my flip-flops, and the thick silver hair of my professor, along with the abundance of sweating undergrads, made me think that I had made a grave mistake. One assignment, a vignette of sorts, and we would discover (or so it seemed) the true writers, the elect, the muse-touched. 

I went home and wrote about church. 

Words started shooting out of me like corks from champagne - the way an Austin organ coughs and groans, the crisp hems in Sunday suits, the chittering Cantonese of the Chinese parishioners, the vodka and vermouth, the pink Tokay and wafers, my father's sweat, the smell of the priest's tobacco-stained mustache. I wrote about holiness and I wrote about sin, and it was all a part of one big picture, one theme, being an Anglican. 

Being Christian in America. 

And I had never thought about that before. And I was merciless. And yet, I believed. 

My piece was well-received, but somehow more than that I remember that I had looked at my faith, straight on, and had found it richer for my questioning. 

Faith is indeed glorious, and it is as gall, and it is haunting. It is confusing, and it mystifies; it is inherent, and it is mystical; it is reviled, and it is there, again,to be picked up and nursed. Faith is our curse, and it is our comfort. 

I find myself talking and talking of faith, as does the country. And it's not just faith - rather, we debate on which flavor of devout we are, which rules to uphold, which God to worship or reject. Politicians, who have faiths of their own, balance the personal with the public, and issues of morality are mixed in with legality. Faith is a pale thing, and yet more relevant than ever. Maybe, the more we talk about it, the more we can accept it all, the more we can learn to accept each other. Maybe talking about faith is going to make this country a better place. Maybe we can come together and all be right, all have faith or non-faith again.

If all of us were right. If any of us had ever found acceptance and love, for everyone. 


Reading comments on online news sites, from CNN to Jezebel, has forced me to realize (as if it weren't quite obvious) how liberal I am. 

It amazes me, still, that there are people out there who don't believe, don't understand, the fundamental truths of my life and of the life of my childhood - the rights given all people to be who we are, to love who we love, to protect our bodies from invasion and cruel, callous ownership. It never occurred to me, not for one moment, to judge how others lived their lives.

And then I look at the world around me, and I know that my naïveté has shifted, and those people who lace their words with hatred become a victim of my judgement. It's as if I've become a one-note character in the novel of now, in the future history of a people divided. As others are spiteful and ignorant and mean, so am I. I refuse to understand other people's viewpoints, when they contradict my own. 

I stand by my beliefs, and I am incredibly proud of them. But when did that pride become a rejection - when did my open-minded, righteous opinions become self-righteous and blind?

I am a democrat. And sometimes, I wonder, how could anyone be anything else?  And that is my basic failure, and America's failure; we are unwilling. We choose not to see. 

Everything I've described above, the silly small details of my life, fall back on the premise that some people are right, and some people are wrong. My childhood experiences molded me into a wild and rampant voice for liberalism and equality - and, you see, that's the way it is for everyone. It would be so simple to manipulate a childhood, to change the smells and the heat and the love, and make someone different. We bear a terrible responsibility - we create life, and we create our world. We have children, and sometimes, we fail them. 

Sometimes we make bitterness out of beauty. 

Watching Congress squabble and struggle over the financial future of our country is like observing how pitifully and how constantly we are divided, and I can't help but feel that some child, many children, will pay the price of right versus wrong, of liberal versus conservative, of narrow thoughts and small-minded adults. And I have the nightmare of those children, grown up, and becoming something that we wish we could fix.  They become us, they have our faults, they are representatives of our negativity. 

Sometimes, that nightmare is realized. Sometimes, we make monsters. 

I wasn't born that way. Were you?


I'd like to end this on a positive, because despite my fears and despite the sadness in the world, there is something so incredibly beautiful about life, about the gift of waking up in the morning, about sun and incense and red wine. Still, as an adult, I remember the seductive smell of beef stew, how the meat simmered in the pot, softening; I remember the shine on my arms of glitter and sweat, and my first strand of purple beads, and the strong, soft hands of cellists and ballerinas; I remember the pinch of Sunday shoes, and the dry, rice-paper body of Christ, and my Grandpere intoning the Epistle. 

And there's more, now, because coming into adulthood has brought so much joy, the taste of red lipstick on my wedding day, the smudge of it on my husband's cheek. I've been given wonder in the form of my sister, more precious each day as she grows into a brilliant beacon of the world getting better. I have family and friends, and I have food, and I have love. 

This, this is how we are born. Our eyes open and feel the light, and we are stardust. 

We should be this way, forever. 

1 comment:

  1. wow. you have a very seductive way with words. musical—but that's to be expected, yes?