PW and I have been attending graduation ceremonies in even-numbered years since 2000. Tonight, GForce graduates from high school. It’s the ninth graduation we’ve attended since 2000. That a lot of crossing overs!
Those of us who are able, thanks to good health or availability or both, are gathering to celebrate this crossing of a threshold. Stories spill out of us. We can’t even contain them.
I have never been one of those parents who wanted to freeze my child at a particular age, or to stop time, or to wish I could turn back the clock. However, I will admit to a fleeting moment of what I can only describe as anticipatory nostalgia.
When GForce was a baby, she had an infectious smile. I suspect most, if not all, parents feels this way. A baby’s smile is like a laser that cuts through the fog of parental sleep-deprivation and confusion. For me, the smile is an infant’s first crossing over from the blob of need phase to becoming a relatable human being.
I was besotted by GForce’s toothless grin. I’d stare at it, and when she wasn’t smiling I’d stare at this photo of her. And my recurring thought was, “Man, teeth are going to RUIN that smile.”
Yes, I actually thought that. One day, I said it out loud, to no one at all. But the act of hearing the words hanging in the air, as opposed to inside my head, was like a bucket of cold water. I could finally hear how ridiculous it was to want her to remain a tiny toothless infant.
I’ve never thought of GForce as “my baby.” I don’t know why. Maybe by the time I’d given birth in my late 30s, I’d had Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version of the Gibran poem, “On Children” embedded in my brain.
I have always felt like GForce chose me to bring her into the world. This notion has gotten me through some long nights where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. It’s felt like a buoy and a first place blue ribbon and an honorary degree, all at the same time.
As this day approached, one of my favorite singer/songwriters released a new album. I couldn’t have hoped for better. Thank you, Kris Delmhorst, for giving me the perfect song to accompany this ninth graduation in the past 15 years.
Every time I have listened to Delmhorst’s song “Homeless” over the past month, I have gotten that catch in my throat, in my heart, when she sings the question, “Do you know that you’re holy?”
The first time I heard it, I was making dinner. I wasn’t following along with the lyrics; they were floating out over the stove. I never saw it coming, this question, “Do you know that you’re holy?” It nearly buckled my knees. Tears fell into the clam sauce I was stirring.
My goal as a parent is for each of my daughters to be able to hear that question and to be able to sing back some kind of “Yes.” Or even a “Maybe.” Or “I want to.” And when they can’t answer that question, I hope they have communities of people they can call on to remind them. And if not, they can always call home. Or look up.
Homeless by Kris Delmhorst
The silence & the sea
Who you’re supposed to be
When the faces on the page and the faces in the mirror look the same
The cradle & the crutch
It’s supposed to hurt this much
When the highways turn to roads into streets into alleys
Then at last into paths you can’t get through
Do you know that you’re homeless
Do you know that you’re lonely
Do you know that you’re only passing through?
Years roll along
Sorrow turns to song
And your tears flow like rain into streams into rivers
That at last find their path to the sea
Do you know that we’re homeless
Do you know that we’re lonely
Do you know that we’re only passing through?
Do you know that you’re holy
Do you know that I love you
Do you know that above you is blue?
This song has been in my head all morning. I also recommend reading the following people’s takes on the Zimmerman verdict: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, and Andrew Cohen. Turn off the TV and read, people. And listen to music. And figure out what your personal contribution is, and will be, toward making the world a more just place for all. And then find some people to work with and get out there and get busy.
I have a lot of memories of sitting my parents down in the living room while I played a new record for them. I’d drop the needle, then come over and sit between them. I’d hold the album cover on my lap. If we were lucky, we’d look at the record sleeve with the lyrics printed on it. We’d sit and listen together, often commenting on a particular lyric. My mom usually ended up crying because, well, because that is how my mom rolls.
This scene played over and over throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. It was how I introduced my parents to Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near, Judy Small, and who knows how many other singers.
It’s not surprising to me to watch myself become a mashup of my parents, both as a mirror image and as the photographic negative of opposite-ness. That seems inevitable. What surprises me is watching my kids repeat a history that they don’t know.
Since music is consumed very differently by 21st century children than it was back in the 1970s, we don’t sit on the couch together looking at lyrics printed on an album cover or liner. In fact, often, there’s nothing to hold at all. The music pours out of a little electronic device smaller than my hand, usually while it’s sitting in a docking station that creates bigger sound.
Last night, as we sat at the dining room table after dinner, GForce said she had a song she wanted to “show me.”
Me: Is it a rap song?
G: Yeah, but I think you’re gonna like it!
Me: I don’t know. I could probably count on one hand the number of raps songs I like.
G: Come on mom, it’s not one of those (makes hip hop hand gestures) “Yeah, come on bitch, let’s get drunk and have some sex…” Just keep your mind open!
When I stopped giggling, I reluctantly agreed to keep my mind open.
She pressed play.
Quiet shimmery synthesizer. Simple, shallow piano line, as though from a toy piano. More layers of sound. More toy piano, plunking out a simple melody.
At about 43 seconds, a man speaks the line, “When I was in the 3rd grade/I thought that I was gay/’Cause I could draw…”
Goosebumps. This is no ordinary rap song.
At about a minute and 42 seconds, a woman’s voice cuts in with a plaintive, “And I can’t change/Even if I tried/Even if I wanted to…”
My eyes welled up. I’m doing a Mom.
I looked across the table at GForce, hunched over her homework and oblivious to the floodgates that had opened. I thought back to how safe I felt, sitting between my parents as we listened to music together on the couch. I always knew they loved me—ferociously—even when they didn’t understand me, or were afraid for my safety because I was queer.
How lucky I am to have had my parents’ relentless and resilient companionship, support, and love for so long. So there I sat letting history repeat itself in the best possible way, and praying for the creativity and strength to love my kids with a fraction of the generosity with which my parents have loved me, with their open minds and their hearts being broken over and over.
When your new baby is put in your arms for the first time, nobody warns you of the looming lifetime of heartbreak. Yes, it’s hard to watch your kids experience physical pain. But that’s nothing compared to watching them endure the pain of fear, of rejection, of being unhappy, of wondering how they are going to get through another day of bullying, of being bewildered, confused, and struggling to figure out what the next right thing is, and whether they’d even want to do it once they figure it out. It turns out that even the deepest most irrational animal instinct to “protect my young” can’t protect my kids from the trials of being humans, attempting to make their way in a world filled with other humans.
The song continued. The tears filled up my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. GForce was working feverishly on drawing a picture of a person, whose features she then had to label with Spanish words.
Near the end, as the woman’s voice faded while she chanted “Love is patient (I’m not crying on Sundays)/Love is kind (I’m not crying on Sundays),” GForce looked up from her paper.
G: “Aww! How long have you been crying, Mom?”
Me: Since before the woman singer finished her first line. [Sniff.]
GForce came over to my chair, bent over, wrapped her arms around me, and rested her head on my shoulder. “Now I’m going to cry, too.” she said.
Then she told me that one of her best friends, who is straight, found this song and played it for her. Last year, on the annual Day of Silence, this same friend wore a Day of Silence T-Shirt all day to support G-Force and other kids in the school who spend every day trying to stand up tall in the oppressively heterosexist environment that is high school. A friend like that is solid gold, no matter how old you are.
An hour or so later, I found this video and we watched it together. By the time it ended, we were both crying. So runs the water wheel of life.
by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and featuring Mary Lambert
[Verse 1: Macklemore]
When I was in the 3rd grade
I thought that I was gay
Cause I could draw, my uncle was
And I kept my room straight
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She’s like, “Ben you’ve loved girls since before pre-K”
Trippin’, yeah, I guess she had a point, didn’t she
A bunch of stereotypes all in my head
I remember doing the math like
“Yeah, I’m good at little league”
A pre-conceived idea of what it all meant
For those who like the same sex had the characteristics
The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made, rewiring of a pre-disposition
Ahh nah, here we go
America the brave
Still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all His children is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written
3,500 hundred years ago
I don’t know
[Hook: Mary Lambert]
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to [x2]
My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm [x4]
[Verse 2: Macklemore]
If I was gay
I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately
“Man that’s gay”
Gets dropped on the daily
We’ve become so numb to what we’re sayin’
Our culture founded from oppression
Yeah, we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other faggots
Behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate
Yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color
Complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins
It’s human rights for everybody
There is no difference
Live on! And be yourself!
When I was in church
They taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service
Those words aren’t anointed
And that Holy Water
That you soak in
Is then poisoned
When everyone else
Is more comfortable
Rather than fighting for humans
That have had their rights stolen
I might not be the same
But that’s not important
No freedom ’til we’re equal
Damn right I support it [Trombone]
I don’t know
[Hook: Mary Lambert]
[Verse 3: Macklemore]
We press play
Don’t press pause
Progress, march on!
With a veil over our eyes
We turn our back on the cause
‘Til the day
That my uncles can be united by law
Kids are walkin’ around the hallway
Plagued by pain in their heart
A world so hateful
Some would rather die
Than be who they are
And a certificate on paper
Isn’t gonna solve it all
But it’s a damn good place to start
No law’s gonna change us
We have to change us
Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up
[Hook: Mary Lambert]
[Outro: Mary Lambert]
Love is patient, love is kind
Love is patient (I’m not cryin’ on Sundays)
Love is kind (I’m not crying on Sundays) [x5]
When I was in college, I read and wrote a lot of poetry. It was both luxurious and exhausting, like mapping a geography that constantly changed. That was when I first encountered the work of W.S. Merwin. I don’t remember in what year of college I met Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” but it was love at first read. The first line of the poem is inscribed into my memory, where it hangs out in the same room with lots of other firsts (stitches, swimming ribbon, kiss, love, broken heart, broken bone, etc.)
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
There’s something about year’s end for me that highlights the collision between the inexorable march of the calendar and the concentric, infinite whorls of life giving way to death giving way to life. Maybe by the end of every year I just notice this collision more, as though the previous 11 months have worn away the insulation on my nerve endings. Whatever the reason, by November and December, I’m moved to tears more, I feel like I hear and feel everything more acutely, I notice more stuff that’s in my peripheral vision, and words, phrases, and melodies tumble around in my head like too much laundry crammed into a dryer. When I slow myself down to sort all this out, I feel mostly bewildered, as though I’m sifting through a great pile of mismatched socks.
So I’ve been quiet here for the past couple of months.
And it’s not like I suddenly feel I have something really profound to share today. I just need to be reconnected with this discipline, and with the small and mighty community of people who come here to share, to seek, to find, to laugh, to cry, to wonder, to ask, “Where in the world are we (or is she) going?” That is, after all, why I come here, too.
A little more than six weeks ago, I was in a spectacular—and still unbelievable—car accident. While I was sitting alone in my car, stopped at a light, a man half my age drove into the back of my car while he was travelling at least 45 mph, according to the police. There was no squealing of tires to warn me—he never even hit the brakes. For me there was just deafening noise and intense impact, as if a bomb had gone off in the trunk. When the dust cleared, I peered out my windshield to see a car lying on its side in front of me. It was the car that had just hit me.
I couldn’t process any of this at the time, and I still can’t. All I could manage to say when I stumbled out of my car in a fog of shock was, “What the…What just happened? What??” Wave after wave of onlookers, police, and EMTs, approached me to ask if I was hurt. “I…I don’t know. Um, I think I’m okay. I…What just happened? What the??” As it turned out, the only significant damage was to the cars involved, and the other driver’s insurance rates. I was extremely lucky to sustain merely an addled brain, a badly bruised knee, and a little whiplash.
I frequently find myself reflecting on my luck, particularly at the end of the year. This year, my reflections on my luck were accompanied by the relentlessly looping soundtrack of the car wreck, with a steady drumbeat of newsflashes that made my heart hurt:
A couple of weeks ago, I heard that a dear friend—a college classmate and a woman I have admired and adored for more than 30 years—has some kind of cancer that her oncologist isn’t even sure how to treat. She also recently lost her dad to leukemia.
On Christmas morning, as PW and I were walking into church a couple of hours before the service started, we encountered a woman standing outside Emmanuel looking at the various signs on the doors. “I’m looking for an Episcopal church,” she said. “I just found out that my husband of 34 years has been having an affair for the past three years, and I need to find a place to sit in church with my fine young son.” Sure enough, they showed up for the service and the son sat with his arm around his mother the entire time.
This past Friday, a long-time friend of my parents and college classmate of my mom’s died after a long ordeal with cancer. Barbara Higdon was classy, brave, brilliant, and one of those trail-blazing women on whose shoulders generations of other women stand, many of us without knowing it.
The day after I heard about my friend’s diagnosis, I was walking through Chinatown and was frozen in place by this graffito:
There are many more heart-hurty news bits in the mix, but those three, plus the graffito, best capture the variety. As I was sitting in church on New Year’s Day, in the stunningly beautiful Lindsey Chapel, the low winter sun came streaming in the windows in such a startling way that many of the people in the congregation turned around and looked up. The room and the congregants were bathed in a brilliant, other-worldly light.
Meanwhile, Bishop J. Clark Grew (ret.) was preaching about the currency of hope, and how this year’s familiar Christmas narrative reminded him that the divine rarely breaks through in our lives in ways we expect. As if on cue, the words “for the anniversary of my life” floated across my mind’s eye in an unbroken line.
After my initial reaction (“What the heck? THAT’S not how Merwin’s poem goes!”), I felt like a dog resisting the pull of the leash. I wanted to investigate these words “for the anniversary of my life,” to spend a long time sniffing them, tumbling them around in my brain.
I don’t know if “for the anniversary of my life” and the graffito’s message “She knows she’ll never die!” were the divine breaking into my consciousness, but I’m open to the possibility. Maybe the openness to the possibility is the whole point. This morning I felt driven to pull one of my favorite books off the shelf: William Stafford’s “You Must Revise Your Life.” This slim little paperback is a combination magnifying glass and life raft when I encounter life’s mysteries. I mostly don’t want a decoder ring for life’s mysteries; I just want new ways to look at them without drowning.
The book is only 118 pages long, and in my copy I have folded over dozens of pages, underlined many passages, and bracketed entire paragraphs, usually putting stars next to the brackets. At the bottom of page 81, I have a couple of sentences bracketed, with a star, and above it I wrote, “This is it!”
“[T]he product is expendable, but the process is precious…The process is the process of living centrally and paying attention to your own life. Surely that’s worth doing. If you don’t, who will?”
In the sense that we all have an expiration date, the noun-ness of our lives is expendable. It’s the living itself — our verb-ness — that’s precious and unbounded by time: the ways we choose to live, whom and what we choose to notice, to share, to explore, to accompany, to hear, to carry with us. Sometimes we write, and sometimes we are surface on which others write. Barbara Higdon’s physical matter is dead, but the essence of her life cannot be extinguished; I’m still discovering ways in which she is written into me.
Like many people out there writing our lives from one day to the next, with and without words, I find myself beginning this year in wonder and mourning. I don’t know the ratio of one to the other, because, honestly, I feel filled with immeasurable amounts of both. Which brings me to another little poem, this one by a 12-year-old girl from New Zealand.
May your year ahead be so bold and brilliant. May your wonders be deep and your mournings be shared.
Dark, Dark night.
The trees. The river.
One more day;
For so slow goes the day.
Before the end
the world goes round
The world begins the day.
The night has gone.
The day for the end of the world
once more begins.
Once more begins the sun
Slow, so slow.
Go on, world, live.
Begin, sweet sun.
Begin, sweet world.
The people live and die.
People die alive
By Lynette Joass Age 12 New Zealand
From “Miracles: Poems by children of the English-speaking world,” collected by Richard Lewis.
Here’s a song for this post: Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “Breaths.”