A Million Years Ago

California 2020, Photo by Donna Stoneham

I miss the air, I miss my friends
I miss my mother, I miss it when
Life was a party to be thrown
But that was a million years ago
~Adele

I can’t read any more. Nothing holds my interest. I’ve been skimming the same book for two months now, and I’m only 50 pages in. I keep reading a couple of lines each night, hoping there’s a turn of phrase that will draw me in. But there never is. I set the book beside my bed and dream of the days when I would read until my eyes could no longer stay open. Now I just lie awake, thinking about words that might move me. Words that once moved me.

Trying to write is an effort in futility. My sentences are all empty, meaningless. The story line wanders aimlessly, the characters are dull. I’ve stopped sending queries for my memoir. I don’t have the strength to live those experiences again. Not now. Maybe not ever. Perhaps those pages are best kept in a drawer, yellowed and aging, unseen.

I am drawn to catastrophic TV—Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead—I look for humanity in the horror. There is little to be found. I wonder who I would be in the battle at the end of the world. Would I hide in the shadows with a knife, waiting to protect my life from those who might try to take it? Or would I drink the poison in an empty room, welcoming the deep, dark forever sleep, an ending of my own choosing?

I took my youngest son to college amidst Colorado wildfires, soot-filled air, and masks. Next week, my daughter is driving through the Washington wildfires to return to school. California is burning. An apocalyptic orange envelops the coast. And we continue to drink from plastic water bottles and overload our landfills and question the science that tells us just how precariously close to death this little blue planet is.

I eat. Homemade brand Mint Cookies & Cream. Fudge Stripes. Spoonfuls of peanut butter with chocolate chips sprinkled on top. The spoons turn into bowls. There is no end to my hunger. I am insatiable, always looking for more, even as my stomach begs for a reprieve and the angles of my face turn soft.

The wine washes it all away. I’ve switched from red to white because it feels lighter. Chardonnay instead of Cabernet. At least for now. But there is no light to be found at the bottom of the glass. And the days grow shorter. The red beckons.

I think about my kids constantly, obsessively. Are they happy? Are they content? Are they surviving? Could they possibly be thriving? Are they carrying the same amount of weight I’m carrying? I want to lighten their loads, but my back is buckling. Are they asymptomatic carriers? If I hug them, will it be my demise? My mom’s? I am willing to sacrifice myself, but not her. My beautiful, white-maned mother, trapped in a castle full of fellow octogenarians, shouting to her loved ones through the windows, waiting, waiting in her wheelchair until it is safe to once again hold her grandbabies’ cheeks between her paper-skin hands.

I am angry. So angry. I’m angry about the invisible particles that might slip underneath my mask and make their way to my asthmatic lungs. I’m angry my seniors were robbed of their graduation celebrations. I’m angry so many choose to fight against the most basic precautions, that we care so little about each other and cannot be inconvenienced for the greater good. I’m angry a horrible excuse for a human was chosen to “lead” us through this mess, and that he fails miserably at every turn. I’m angry so many don’t see the grifter for who is, that excuses are made for his inhumanity at every turn. I’m angry my rainbow mask brings side-eyed, judgmental glances. I’m angry our black brothers and sisters are still fighting for justice and equality. I’m angry we cannot seem to love and respect each other. I’m angry my 25-year marriage ended the same way—with hurt and disdain and words that cut like knives. How can we have hope for peace and understanding in the world if we cannot find it in the place we called home for a quarter of a century? If we cannot protect those we once loved, how do we ever embrace those who are different? Who have dissenting beliefs? Whose faith is placed in a different god? Or no god at all? Whose skin is two shades darker?

I miss hugging.

Is this just pandemic life? Is this what we all are living? The fatigue? The dismay? The hopelessness that settles like a heavy, wet fog? The sirens’ call of a waiting bed at all hours of the day? Is this what we have brought upon ourselves?

Do I eat the donuts? Two or five? Does it matter? It doesn’t, really. Not in the vast scheme of things. I eat the donuts. All of them. Their sugary weight is a lump in my belly, holding me down when I’d rather fly away, tethering me to the dirt and grass of this earth. I lick the cinnamon sugar from my fingers—a luxury I shouldn’t afford myself when microscopic killers could linger under my fingernails. But I take the chance to enjoy the sweet because it feels momentarily safe—a small, insignificant comfort.

I haven’t been anywhere for weeks, after all.

There is no safe place to go.

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Inviting Myself to the Fight

I’ve been invited to a few fights in my life. Most of the fights I’ve participated in haven’t been mine. I find that I’m jumping into the fray far more frequently now that the election is near and racial tensions are high.

Sometimes I just can’t stay silent.

Illustration by Alice Skinner and quote by Desmond Tutu

Yesterday, I was scrolling through Facebook and noticed a friend’s post on Michelle Obama. This friend is someone I’ve always experienced to be kind and intelligent. The post was a derogatory statement about Michelle Obama “having the nerve to say white people who put her in the Which House are racist.” The post and its commentary raised my hackles… and then I saw the first comment:

“Gorrilla in heals.” (Original spelling included for full effect.)

I debated about whether not only to jump into the fight, but to start it. This was a friend of my mom’s, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful or rock the boat.

But I did.

I rocked that boat until it almost capsized.

It was too important.

So I added this to what was a very one-sided conversation about how horrible Michelle Obama is:

“Perhaps if we were all a little more willing to listen to and understand the black experience–no matter who conveys it–there would not be such a great racial divide in this country. It’s interesting that this post was positioned as a statement about not being racist, and yet the first comment–which no one has countered–was Michelle Obama being called a “gorilla in heels” (which was also grossly misspelled). If that’s not a racist and ridiculously offensive comment, I’m not sure what is.”

What followed was a frustrating discussion about Michelle Obama whining about racists, about how Barack never deserved his second term, about how tired the post’s author was of the Obamas inciting racial divides, about how Obama was elected only because he was black, about how the author wasn’t racist because she’s a nurse who has always treated all her patients equally no matter what color…

But there was never an agreement or acknowledgment that “gorilla in heels” is a racist statement.

Instead, she countered that I called Trump names (and “which was worse?”), that my friends said vile things about him on my page, about how her friends were entitled to their opinions.

There was so much I wanted to argue, mostly about how calling Trump out for what he’s proven himself to be–homophobic (rolling back LGBTQ rights), xenophobic (“shithole countries”), misogynistic (“grab ’em by the pussy”), a failed businessman (3 bankruptcies and many outstanding, unpaid debts), a pathological liar (“This is a hoax…,” then “I knew this was a pandemic from the start…”), and just plain dumb (Yo-Semite)–was not name-calling, it was truth. but I ended with this instead:

“Which is worse? ‘Gorilla in heels’ isn’t simple name calling–it’s so incredibly, offensively racist. Seeing it and not calling it out makes me complicit. I won’t be complicit… on my page or anywhere else.”

And she replied: “It is called freedom of speech. It is not my job to call people out for their thoughts.”

And that’s where I knew the fight was useless. She was not willing to listen. Nor were any of her friends who continued to “like” her arguments.

Here’s the thing about the First Amendment: It’s not absolute. It does not apply to words categorized as obscenity, child pornography, slander, libel, incitement to violence, and various others. And in its purest form, it only protects individuals from government interference. So hiding behind its protections to promote racism is really a moral and ethical issue. The government won’t say that an individual shouldn’t call Michelle Obama a “gorilla in heels,” but does that mean we–in the name of humanity–should? Just because we can? And that we should turn a blind eye to blatant racism simply because “it’s not our job” to stop it?

That’s where I disagree. It is my job. It should be all of our jobs. If this country is ever going to bridge our racial divide, we all have to stand on the side of decency and humanity. We all have to take a stand for what is right, for what is decent, for what is human. Racist rhetoric is none of those things.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, I cringe when I hear gay jokes or homophobic slurs. I cringe and then I speak up. It is my job to protect my fellow humans. When I hear someone use the word “retarded,” I speak up. It is my job to protect and defend the disabled. Perhaps those jokes and words were once socially acceptable, but they’re not any more. When we know better, we should do better. (Thanks, great Mother Maya.)

The fight I invited myself to felt like a battle of epic proportions. When I was finished with it, I drank too much and cried myself to sleep. It feels insurmountable, this blind hate that fills so many hearts. I am fearful for my kids who are entering adulthood in such a broken and battered national state. They deserve better. We all deserve better.

If we’re not willing to stand up for those who have been systemically downtrodden, what are we willing to stand for? A leader who bullies, incites violence, mocks the disabled, praises white supremacists, rolls back LGBTQ rights, and lies every time he opens his mouth? How have we come to this?

My black friends will say we haven’t “come to this”–this is always who we’ve been as a country. Racism runs deep. It’s breaking its ugly head through the surface of all our lives now because it’s been unleashed by a leader who allows for and encourages hate and discord.

I was raised in an incredibly racist small town, home to many KKK leaders and members. It is hard to avoid internalized racism when it is part of the fabric of your life. I have to work every day to educate myself, to learn more, to listen harder, to be better. I have to work to undo what was part of my blood and sinew simply because of my geography. I have to do the same for my internalized homophobia.

I am willing to do the work.

Our fellow humans deserve it. They’ve always deserved it.

How long will we allow others to be held down because of the color of their skin? How long will it take before we all start listening? And believing? And changing?

It’s already been centuries too long.

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The Search for Understanding

BLM Protest Indy

Early on, I was wounded by words from someone I once believed to be a friend. I was recovering from back surgery, in a great amount of pain, on even larger amounts of drugs, and I saw the picture pop up on my social media. It was of three of my friends and Chris’s new girlfriend. They’d come from the next state over and were right down the street from me, attending a fundraiser. The caption said, “These girls. <3.”

In my shock and sadness, I texted my friend and said, “I’m sitting in bed recovering from surgery and you are all five miles away, partying as if I don’t exist? Not a call? Not a text? Nothing? I guess I’m a fucking idiot for believing my friends were my friends.”

She replied, “Don’t you dare cuss at me, and don’t take your issues out on me.”

And before I could say anything more, I was blocked. Via text and on every social media channel. Erased. Eliminated.

A few weeks later, I told another friend that I felt I was being replaced so easily. There were so many pictures of Chris and his new girlfriend hanging out with those who used to be my friends, too. It was like an Exact-O knife photo: Cut this one out, add this one in, no one cares about the difference. When I told this friend how I felt, she said I was “making it all up in my head.”

Earlier this week—nearly two years after the other former friend incidents—I wrote this to another friend:

“I wanted you to know that my unfriending you on Facebook wasn’t personal. I had to unfriend everyone who immediately became friends with Chris’s new girlfriend. I wasn’t emotionally ready to see it all play out online. I’ve healed a lot since then. If you’d like to someday be friends again, I would love that. I miss you and your kids. But if you don’t, I understand.”

And after explaining to me how her divorce was far worse than mine and how her pain usurped anything I might feel, she replied, “I’m sorry you blame me for doing something that you perceive as hurtful to you.”

I texted back, “It’s not a blame thing. It’s just an ‘I was hoping my friends might think it through and give me a little more time to heal’ thing.”

And she said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Two years later, still unseen. Still unheard.

~ ~ ~

Last week, I watched 13TH with Sam—my tall, broad, blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy who had marched over 100 hours in the Cincinnati Black Lives Matters protests. He texted me every time he left and every time he returned home. I was worried about him, of course. He planted his body on I-75 to stop traffic. He could have easily been caught up in unintended violence. I worried about white supremacists, rogue cops, stray bullets. I worried he might be a random casualty.

But you know what I never worried about? I never worried about him being a target. His white skin and the blonde curls peeking out from under his ball cap kept him protected. He was not at the end of anyone’s scope. He was no one’s target.

~ ~ ~

For 400+ years, our black community has been beaten, incarcerated, killed. They have lived within a country that silences them because their skin is dark. They have endured systemic racism in every institution that is considered American. But this country was never meant for them. They were always intended to be slaves. And the 13th Amendment confirmed that. When it was no longer fashionable to hang them from trees, they were thrown into jail cells instead.

Controlled. Quieted.

No matter how much they protested, screamed, cried, begged for mercy, we have refused to hear them. Their voices have meant nothing to us. Their words, empty.

~ ~ ~

In the microcosm of my own experience, I think about the pain I have known since I came out and left my heterosexual life and marriage. It has been enough to bring me to my knees, to consider jumping from 9th floor balconies, to cry myself to sleep on so many dark, lonely nights.

And my personal pain?

The pain and erasure that has threatened to destroy me over the past three years?

It’s all-encompassing. It consumes me. It paralyzes me.

And it’s nothing when you consider the collective pain of American black lives.

~ ~ ~

Perspective.

~ ~ ~

I spent most of my life protected by white people who loved me and by white picket fences that separated me from the rest of the dark, ugly underbelly of this country.

I knew so little about systemic racism because it wasn’t about me.

It didn’t affect me.

It didn’t threaten me.

Or my mother.

Or my sister.

Or my children.

So I chose to continue not knowing the things that were vital for me to know.

~ ~ ~

In a recent Psychology Today article about the importance of being heard and understood, this quote was the one that resonated:

“… if we don’t, or can’t, experience others as understanding us—who we are and what we’re about—then all of our other wants can end up feeling relatively meaningless. Not feeling that others really know us can leave us feeling hopelessly estranged from the rest of humanity.”

I wanted my former friends to see me… really see me. To know me. To look beyond their own white picket fences into the world of same-sex attraction… and confusion… and fear… and tumult.

To see both sides of the end of my marriage. To understand that a divorce is never one-sided–not even if one spouse finally understands her true sexual orientation. The other spouse always contributes as well.

To still be considered part of the humanity I’d always experienced.

I wrote about all the things that went wrong during the divorce, including the things that were my fault.

His, too.

But no one wanted to read them.

No one wanted to know.

It was so much easier to use the Exact-O knife and cut me out of the picture. The edges were much cleaner, the resultant photo less messy.

The words were there. The story was there. My friends refused to see it.

They declined the invitation.

~ ~ ~

So, too, have we collectively declined the invitation to hear the stories of our black brothers and sisters, to acknowledge their pain and loss, to make reparations, to move toward peace and understanding.

Stepping outside of a comfort zone is hard. It challenges in ways that make us uncomfortable in our own skin and within our own experience.

But there is no true transformation until the butterfly fights its way out of the cocoon with unsteady, untested wings.

There is no understanding until we agree to dig deeply, to place our fingers in old and unrecognized wounds, to endure the pain of what we’ve chosen so far to ignore.

Internalized racism.

Internalized homophobia.

White privilege.

Heterosexual privilege.

To deny it is to refuse to hear the story.

But within the story is where the truth resides, where the hard work is done, where the next chapter begins. Or perhaps, the next book. The one where the stifled protagonist steps out of the darkness.

The one where the understanding and empathy begins.

But we must be willing to read or listen to the story to begin the understanding. We must accept the pain the words may cause. We must pick up the book and crack the spine to reach the deep, unfamiliar insides.

We must listen.

And then we must listen some more.

 

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