Friday, January 31, 2014

Lean the other way

Last night my friend 'A' sent me a link to an article, this article to be exact. She was understandably enraged. These kinds of articles and news bring out a primal anger in most women I know. It’s similar, I think, to something James Baldwin wrote about in his potent essay, “Notes of a Native Son.” In that essay he remembers his dead father as an embittered man, stuck, by force, in a free-radical world of blatant racism and zero opportunity. Baldwin was headed that way himself, until an eye-opening experience in a night club shattered a tumbler full of whiskey, a mirror, and Baldwin’s growing hate. This was no way to live.

And he’s right, this is no way to live. But, as it stands right now, the doors seem permanently locked. The glass ceiling of equal pay is out of reach, and all I can do is sign petitions, rail vocally and verbally against this bullshit lack of balance, and cross my fingers that legislation will eventually pass that will bring my people, women, closer to equality.

It is 2014. Women make less than men. Period. And we wait. And women like me wonder what the scenario will be for our daughters (and our sons) in 10 years. My girl is weeks away from turning 13. A year away from signing her work papers and then delving off into the working world. One that sits atop a slick ramp. It’s not even ground. How do I prepare her for that? Or do I say nothing at all and let her figure it out.

“Screw this lean in shit,” 'A' said to me after reading the article. “We need to floor it!”

We do. We really do. I’ve been doing a little research for a project far afield of my usual writing life and the numbers for our humble county loom large and irreversible for women. And, being a writer and longtime observer of timelines and such, I know that these numbers, when projected onto the wall of the future, can produce some serious problems. Generations will be affected by this. Whole communities will fall, if we don’t reverse the tide.

Statistics only have meaning if you see yourself, or someone you love somewhere amidst the mathematical equation of human existence. When the equation reads: Women in Massachusetts earn on average, 22% less than men for full time work, women in Berkshire County earn roughly 24% less than their male counterparts. Additionally, Berkshire County reports a significantly higher percentage of female households (no husband present) with children under the age of 6 than the other three Western MA counties and the state average. Aaaanddd Berkshire County girls under the age of 5 have a poverty rate twice the state average (16%), at 34.8%.

The language is clean, practically medical, but the image is of flesh and blood and losing ground. A majority of women are raising kids on their own as the sole breadwinner of the house, yet they are paid significantly less than their male cohorts AND they and their children live in poverty.

Poverty, by the way, sucks. Ask me how I know. As any one of us women how we know. My friend 'B' gave a chilling explanation of how she stayed so thin raising her kids. It was the same story in my house, and in thousands of others across the county.

"Oh my god, who could afford food? The kids ate dinner and basically I ate what was left on their plate."

Can you imagine surviving on the leftovers of a toddler? I can. So many mornings, I'd lap up the last three bites of Cheerios, suck back the milk at the bottom of the bowl, then off to school we went. We kept the apartment at 55 degrees, sometimes cooler, in the coldest winter on record. And have to be thankful that we had a roof over our heads and that we hadn't run out of coffee or eggs or, god forbid, oil.

And none of us, were looking for handouts. Me and 'B' and 'A' reminisce with shame about the WIC checks, the angry people in line behind us at the grocery store, the stupid blue SNAP card that you could see from outer space, the judgment on the faces of the cashiers. Once, someone made a comment about my WIC purchases, and how they were taking too long. (By the way, WIC covers baby formula, peanut butter, cereal, milk, the basics so to speak.) I whipped around in a red rage, not prepared to ignore the comment.

"Would you rather we starve," I asked. "Are there no workhouses, no prisons?"

I finished up my transaction, my blood boiling. I was about to leave, then came back.

"I work," I hissed at the fella in the polyester khakis. "Full time. All the time. I went to friggin' Yale. Maybe if I made what you were making you wouldn't have to wait in line so goddamn long."

Not a proud moment. And not the last time.

Women don't want handouts. We are proud folk, the many that I know, and for all of that pride this system funnels us into prideless measures. The kids have to be fed. The rent has to be paid. We do what we can, knowing that if we made 25% more our lives would be totally different. What we wouldn't do with even $5,000 "extra" a year.

The myth of the alimony-sucking, child-support chasing freeloader is part of the problem. The other part, is simple. Pay us what you pay them. Why is that such a difficult move to make in the legislature? Pay us what you pay them. Free up the healthcare system, save millions on food stamps and subsidies and emergency assistance.

And watch as the next generation thrives because their mothers finally got a decent, fair wage.

Because we've fucking earned it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A lived life

About a year ago, I was asked to provide a list of ten things that have inspired me in my life; things that caught me off guard, buoyed me up, or brought me low. The pitch was that these vignettes would then, by some miracle, be turned into performance pieces that would run for a whole week to warm up the frigid mid-winter night. So, without much thought that these little vignettes would be performed for the public, I wrote them, sent them out, and then invited my mother and my boyfriend (now fiancée, he proposed on Christmas night, story to follow soon) to the performance. These little scenes of MY LIFE, my actual life, were laid before us all. Complete with music, actors, action, and some tears. So here it is, in no particular order of importance, my unofficial year in review. A life lived, and more scenes yet to unfold...

The admiration of a younger man
I had always admired his thick black hair from afar. He struggled a lot, and that struggle was made more romantic by his Spanish accent and his sad brown eyes. My heart always flipped a little when we would go to the restaurant and he would be at our table immediately, and the way he knew my name, and said it like he meant it. He and I talked a lot about love. His broken heart, my broken heart, of course, he was too young. Like six years is that big of a leap, but I have morals, you know. The divorce was awful, I never told him about the divorce, I didn't want him to think I was hinting at some impropriety.

Of course, at my age, what is improper? Truly?

I felt my eyes on his face a little too long. I didn't want to be one of those pathetic “older women” drowning in lust and loneliness. I stayed away from the restaurant to avoid even the possibility of feeling my own patheticness. Two years later, I was with my appropriately-aged, balding boyfriend when I saw my non-lover. It was my 35th birthday, he was drunk and he stopped us both in the street.

“This might make you both very uncomfortable,” he slurred, “but I asked for her number when I heard that she was single. I was very serious.” He turned to the boyfriend and shook his hand. “You are a lucky man,” he said with that adorable accent. “I should have asked for her number sooner.”

Upon realizing that everyone is transfixed by my stunning daughter
The auditorium is thick with breath and body heat. It seems like the whole town and their spawn have turned up for this 6th grade holiday music concert. Babies cry, elderly grandparents squirm and sweat in the self-contained humidity of the place. Suddenly, the whole room goes dark as pitch and the choristers file one-by-one onto the shabby risers.

They are all shades of pink and white dresses and black dress slacks; all heights and various stages of awkward gawkiness and obesity. It's a tough age. On the top riser, in the very back, shining under the lights, is a tall girl in a plum dress. Her hair, a barely contained Afro, holds a purple flower. She smiles and sings and giggles a little in between songs. No one can take their eyes off of her. No one. The audience is transfixed by her. I am transfixed by her. Such a beauty. Later, after the concert, people comment. “She's so grown up,” they say. “She's such a darling. What a beauty. I couldn't stop watching her.”

I see the girl in the foyer after the excitement dies down. A head taller than her peers, light years away, it seems, from their round faces and awkward smiles. I catch her eye. In the light, she is even more beautiful, like something in a museum, some ancient tablet filled with an inexplicable energy. I want to be nearer to the girl. She smiles broadly at me and waves. The sun comes up even though it's dark outside.

“Hey, Mom,” she says, “Could you hear me singing?”

The true origin of pleasure
The blonde crying in the corner is starting to irritate me. So is the young hipster/cyclist who claims he has “nothing better to do on a Friday night.” I regret leaving my socks out in the hallway, outside of the supposed sacred space where we have just finished an hour and a half of qi-gong and meditation. My face hurts from crying all afternoon. Twenty children are dead in a town I have never heard of until today. The people surrounding me are childless, sad, but relatively unconcerned, it seems, with the tragedy. One has just come out of a 7-day silent retreat somewhere in the mountains. A tanned, long-legged beauty came back from her trip to paradise early. I guess the beach wasn't doing it for her. She says she missed her mother. The meditation instructor looks familiar, I've met him before, he was living in a housing project, high as a kite, talking to me about struggling as a single father. Now he is here, he is clean. I am ready to bolt and not come back. The candles are burning low, the roses in the middle of the room are dying, my eyes are closed. Then a voice, his voice, low and a little too chill, slips through the silence.

“Remember, pleasure grows on the tree of sorrow.”

I breath hard and sigh. That explains everything.

The right to love
I went to my first lesbian wedding in D.C. It was beautiful, the brides were stunning, the flowers, the turquoise and orange cake...everything made me smile, and I got to wear a big ol' southern hat and wasn't in the least put off that I missed the Kentucky Derby because we were in the middle of the ceremony. A few months later, the country is exploding with weddings. New York, Washington, men and women who have spent a lifetime loving each other beyond the limits of culture, suddenly they are married and the world knows. I scrolled through at least 100 pictures of weddings that were a long time coming. I've always been a softie for true love.

The tie that binds
It always happens in the deepest, muddiest hours of the early morning. Just after midnight. I guess that's when he decides that he's too drunk to do anything but drive himself to the hospital. Of course, I will go, even though I have vowed a thousand times not to, to “leave his ass there” for all eternity. What has he ever done for me these last 10 years besides borrow money and ask for favors? But I go, of course I go, and I will most likely go every time, because I do not see a drunk with dirt under his fingernails, red-rimmed eyes and in sore need of a toothbrush. I still see a little boy with hair so blonde it shone gold in the sun, bare-chested and thin, and grinning from ear to ear because his big sister fixed his cap gun.

The perfect man
Soon, my son's voice will transform from the sweet, barely audible bird song to the thug-like drone of an adolescent pre-man. That is why, every day when he jumps off of the bus and comes bounding across the driveway to give me a hug, every day when I lean down and notice that he is smelling my hair, as he has done since he was a struggling infant, I remember what it is like to have the unconditional love of a good man. And I forgive him for dismantling nearly all of the kitchen appliances before 6 a.m.

Young farmers
The blazing heat rises off the fields before 8 a.m. Today, this is not New England but a Georgia plantation. But work must be done. The veggies need watering, the chickens need feeding, the coop needs cleaning, and the water needs to be changed. Oh, and then there's the weeds. All of those straggly soldiers that popped up during last night's rain. Out in the field, just behind the July haze, three young farmers, each with a college degree and a somewhat privileged past, are bent over a shriveled spinach row, heads adorned with bandanas and straw hats and sweat. From the road, it looks like a resurrected ritual.

A good cup of coffee
“Mom, you really need coffee in the morning, don't you?”
He has set up about 80 feet of plastic Matchbox racing track across the kitchen floor, and a make-shift bridge above connects the two counter tops.

“Yes, I really do.” I duck under the bridge, my knees creak and the shoddy structure shakes. I can smell the rich brew and taste it's nourishment. Thankfully, it is after my first sip that he lands the remote-controlled helicopter directly into the brimming bowl of cereal.

My third baby
The foal is standing out in the field alone, his head low to shield his eyes from the driving rain. I see him every day, motherless, his lean legs carrying him to grass and water where he can find it.

“How old is he,” I ask, admiring his stout shoulders. He could be on Roman battlefield. He is so noble.

“Three months. They wanted him weaned right away. I'm surprised he is still alive. My guess, he won't make it much longer.”

His name is Thor, and I sneak out to him every night at dusk to feed him, to lead him around with the makeshift rope bridle, to escape my life in the house of expectations. Sometimes, I've had a bit too much brandy, but Thor doesn't seem to mind. He runs to me when I call him. He nips at my shoulder, I bite his neck to teach him boundaries, just as any mother would do. He is mine.

“How much do you want for him?” I ask the woman, the same woman who demanded that he be torn from his own mother, the big lady who eats organic food, believes in Montessori schooling and teaches yoga and compassion out of her living room.

“Well, he is a good dressage prospect, I'm thinking at least $1,200.”
I hang up the phone. Less than a minute later her husband calls.

“I'm sorry about that,” he says. “My wife has no idea what she's talking about. We'll take the $300. And thank you for taking care of him. I feel so bad about...”

“You should stick to dogs,” I say and hang up again.
He is mine. And I am his. It's a simple story for once.

Hooking the big one
At 4:30 a.m. the boat slowly backs out of the dock, and the lights of the town fade as we head out into the Sound. The water is a black glass under a purple sky. The handsome skipper gestures to the swivel chair welded to the boat.

“Ladies first,” he says. I put out my cigarette on the bottom of my shoe and take a seat, gently easing the pole into my hands.
“I'm left handed,” I tell him. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Not today, you're not.”

The line is hissing in less than a minute, and I pull and reel and pull and reel, sweat gathering at the small of my back. My arms burn, there is already a crude pattern of scrapes on the inside of my wrists. I see the silver belly getting closer to the boat. I have him. I have him all to myself.

“It's a big one,” the skipper smiles.

For once, I have no interest in talking to a good-looking man. My focus is on the bass. He is the one I want. The last five feet of the line is the hardest fight. But, he is up, and in the bucket wriggling, defeated but beautiful.

“That's at least 25 pounds or more,” the skipper says, clapping me on the shoulder and handing me my smokes. “It's gonna be a good day for you.”

“What'd I tell ya,” the captain yells from his perch above us. “The women always catch the monsters.”