The Fear of Being a Boy Mom

The Fear of Being a Boy Mom

The blood test results arrived, and I skimmed the summary via the online patient portal. The doctor’s professional analysis was not yet available, but I took the raw information and Googled the value for each chromosome. All chromosome pairings looked normal, as far as I could tell. I was awash in medical terminology, my head just barely above the surface. No Aneuploidy Detected. Result consistent two copies of Chromosome 21.

The magic of modern medicine was that this genetic screening could both tell me if the baby I carried had obvious chromosomal abnormalities and isolate whether the fetus had XX or XY chromosomes. I could learn my baby’s sex based on information taken from my blood. Or rather, our blood—the technique relied on the assumption that my blood was healthy and that I was female. Any deviations could be chalked up to the little stranger forming in my womb.

The sex chromosome showed an X and a Y.  It was a boy! When Alex returned from work, I held the phone screen up and watched his face change slowly as he drew the same conclusion I had. I’m so relieved, he commented. I have so much experience being a boy!

Over the next months, I began to transform one of our spare bedrooms into a nursery. Prior to the discovery of our baby’s sex, I was already passionate about creating a space conducive to any gender expression our child might have. No baby blues or passive pinks for us. There would only be bright, joyful colors. I wanted to leave negative space for my future child—they could color in their own lines. I did not want to tell this future human how or who to be based on a lab test.

I chose rainbowed crib sheets and multicolored polka dot wall decorations. I painted a turquoise accent wall and splurged on a plush, green dinosaur toy. And as I auditioned different window curtains to choose the most playful shade of yellow, I realized I was scared.  Unlike Alex, I did not have so much experience being a boy. But I did have so much experience being a girl. I had layers and layers of observations about the privileges boys around me received, the actions they took with and against me, and the experiences of my fellow sisterhood.

As I nested in the nursery, I felt the weight of my responsibility as a newly-christened “boy mom.” Yes, there might be dump trucks and trains and ABC blocks on the horizon. Then again, there might be mermaid tails and princess wands and Barbie dolls, too. I didn’t know yet. But what if my child did express himself in that traditional, raucous, boy way? How could I nurture in him the tools and discernment he would need to be a man in a world where so many self-purported “good guys” did heinous things to women?  I swore to the good God above that I would not dismiss bad behavior with phrases like locker room talk.

The questions I had were bigger than finding the right rug for the playroom. I didn’t want to blunt the edges of my future son into a dull, dissolute mother boy. Instead, I needed strategies for how to make his discernment scalpel-sharp. I hoped I could help him wield his power in the direction of equity, resolution, and kindness. My worst fear was that he become a man who succumbs to the trends of the market or corruption of power that often pass as success. How could I become a boy mom that raises her son to be deeply attuned to his conscience? Could I teach my child to use his empathy as a sextant to chart his life’s course?

I decided to start small. I would amass a children’s library that represented varied perspectives beyond his own. This boy could both love baseball and understand the tradition of hijab. He could make finger paint messes and understand consequences and clean up. There would be no shrugging mantra of boys will be boys in this house.

I also realized that I could not teach what I did not, myself, know. I might not be able to control the behaviors of this new, autonomous being, but I could work on my own knowledge and toolsets. I began to evaluate my own behaviors and habits—was I making inroads towards a just and peaceable world? My actions were already speaking for me. What did they say?

Yes, I gave financially to causes I thought advanced equity for women and people of color.  I recycled. I read anti-racist literature. I subscribed to podcasts about education initiatives and how nice white parents could elicit unintended consequences. But I started to see gaps where I could do more. The To Do list stretched much longer than I had anticipated, and the baby wasn’t even born yet. Everything already felt out of my control.

I sat on the floor next to the newly-assembled crib, surrounded by children’s books, and the realization came. No amount of parental preparation or discipline that I enforced could guarantee the goodness of my child. I could stack the deck in such a way that he was surrounded by community who loved him and challenged him, who inspired him and held him accountable. I could invest in strong education and literature. I could wrap my own morals around him as a cushion and hope he would make the right choices. But when all was said and done, I would reenact the same cycle I hoped to break.

If I attempted to do the emotional labor for my son, he would not learn how to do it for himself. I could stock his childhood library, but I could not take responsibility for his character. That would be his alone to grow.

Playing Chase

Playing Chase

I ran until air was a precious resource. Each breath, a pickaxe in my chest. Surely this time Chase would choose me. The leggy boys outpaced those of us in the remaining pack. They pivoted to face us, arms aloft. “Here, here!” they chanted.

I ducked and darted around them, determined to render my shortcoming of height irrelevant. I propelled my body into the emptiest green space down field. “Here, here,” I joined their chorus.

Chase’s eyes panned horizontally. I marked the turn of his head as he jogged back and forth. He saw me—the air was clear between him and I. The makeshift end zone was a breath away. As Chase turned left, he severed the link I imagined between us. In an instant the football spiralled skyward to Armando, our 5th grade Goliath. Armando scooped the ball inward and swaddled it with his body. He danced el jarabe tapatío around the fingertips of ten boys and into the end zone. In celebration, he spiked his precious cargo against the ground. The boys cheered.

The next time our loose alliance gained custody of the ball, we regrouped. I lined up left of center. Chase shouted, “Hut!” and I weaved frenetically through the forest of beckoning arms. I juked to the right and lost my ponytail holder. A brunette tangle of curls unfurled behind me like a comet’s tail. One completed pass, and I could be the Emmitt Smith to his Troy Aikman, I thought. But the day’s recess elapsed, and I made no catch. Wednesday and Thursday saw slower boys receive Chase’s passes. By Friday I knew I was permanently on defense. Even though I couldn’t see the cloth with my eyes, this playground team already had matching jerseys. And no matter how fancy my footwork, I was wearing the wrong color.

***

Traffic around us accelerated. A glimmer of silver approached from the onramp. I watched the vehicle carefully through the passenger side mirror. I felt Adam Smith’s invisible hand push cars to surround my navy Honda Accord. Pop music blared from the radio. I matched the speed of the other cars and steered the sedan deftly into the left lane.

Matt peered over his shoulder to joke with Dylan and Ben in the backseat. I enjoyed the company of these male friends. I fancied myself relatable, drama-free, and funny, and they must have agreed with my conclusions. The four of us were exuberant about the night’s activity: a local band would play an 18 and up show at The Underground. Our admittance was only contingent upon a wad of dollar bills and the black, Sharpie marker X’s on the backs of our hands.

I’d navigated this interstate many times under Dad’s watchful eye. My sixteenth birthday delivered both a driver’s license and a prohibition: Dad forbade me to drive on the highway until he personally signed off on my merging skills. Now that I held his approval, I volunteered to drive during group outings. I liked independence. My friends liked the affordable gas bill.

As I signaled my intent to swoop between moving cars, Dylan chirped from the backseat: You drive like a guy! I responded with a Thank you. Pride welled inside my chest, and I took the exit with a swiftness. It wasn’t necessary to ask what he meant. This was an endorsement of my prowess. Dylan felt I was strong, capable, assertive. At ten years old, I practiced the bob and weave on the playground yard. I learned to contort my body and adapt to make space for the boys. Now, my informal gridiron lessons paid off. I held the keys to a powerful new tool—I knew how to make men comfortable, even when I was in the driver’s seat.

***

Twelve months. The Midwest job I accepted the previous year was a golden road to financial stability. I no longer needed to pick up childcare shifts and manage reservations at The Whiskey Kitchen to supplement my salary. The god of industry required a sacrifice, however. It compelled me to exit my tight-knit community of Nashvillians and relocate across the country. Twelve months passed before I could arrange a homecoming visit to see old friends.

Now, we perched at a high top table on the patio of Mafiaoza’s. The 12th Avenue spot once served as our favorite Nashville rendezvous point for pizza and beer. My friends and former roommates, Lauren and Yves, sat across the table. I recounted the rigorous project management and software training I completed in the time since we last connected. Yves inquired about the role’s requisite domestic travel.

Between sips of beer I leaned forward energetically, elbows on the table. I missed my friends, and the conversation was comfortable and warm. I first met Lauren in the cinder block hallways of our alma mater. She rode a folding bicycle maniacally through the building, and I was enamored of her offbeat humor. We then shared an apartment during the early days of her relationship with Yves. The housing situation came full circle years later when I rented Yves’ spare bedroom for a time. And when they eventually married, I officiated their wedding.

Despite years of history together, I noticed Yves’ face change. He observed my casual posture and assertive gesticulation. You sit like a man, he interjected. The comment surprised me. I’d known Yves for years, even lived with him. He knew I loved big earrings, Joni Mitchell, and a well-timed makeover. I knew his bluntness. But when I inquired about his meaning, he could not articulate it.

I ruminated on the exchange over subsequent days of the trip. The comment followed me onto the return flight home. I formed a mental checklist of the evening’s elements. I had worn women’s clothing during dinner, and my haircut was a traditional curly bob. I sported lipstick and jewelry. I had not premeditated conversation topics nor made an effort to rebrand myself. To my mind, whatever personality changes I experienced over the year had been gradual.

I closed my eyes, and I heard the words. He said I sit like a man, but he meant to say that I sit like a woman in power. I had not noticed the self-possession and confidence I accrued from my adventure in a new city. In my new work world pressure was a privilege, and I had more professional responsibility leading teams and high dollar projects than ever before in twenty four years. And men, even male friends, were startled to find these traits separate from their gender.

I presented myself, newly actualized, enthusiastic, and wearing lipstick, and Yves’ instinct was that I had inherited his tribe’s persona. In actuality, independence merely sharpened the tools I always possessed. I no longer skipped and jumped around men to prove my belonging. I didn’t need to wave my arms and chant, “Here, here!” for their consideration. I stopped the chase, picked up the ball, and threw it. I’d always worn the right color.

Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage

Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage

It’s easy to feel like a fake. The voice in my head injects its unsolicited input: You’re overdoing it. Stop trying so hard. If it’s not natural, you’re doing it wrong. Do something else. Somewhere along the way I collected an inventory of ideas like this—gleaned from neighborly advice, books I’ve read, newspaper headlines, offhand comments from friends. I’ve even used this arsenal of judgments to silently criticize others. The tone-deaf troubadour singing off-key tunes in the coffee shop? It’s just not natural for him. The woman wearing leopard print spandex at the grocery store? That outfit is….a lot. The guy in class I just couldn’t find attractive? He’s so desperate.

I struggle to articulate why, in those moments, it feels urgent that I distance myself from others who I deem too much or not enough. Cognitively I support equity and justice for all. I love Lizzo and Jameela Jamil and all the other women pushing body positivity forward. I care about black and brown folks and those who are differently abled or neurodivergent or under the poverty line or living in bodies that don’t match their gender. I truly want all of these people to thrive. But if someone doesn’t have an obvious label that reminds me to be kind, why do I still recoil when watching them fail?

Whatever that reflex is, I also use it violently against myself. I am afraid of coming on too strong or seeming overly confident in abilities that others deem inferior. I know from conversations with female friends that we all grapple with impostor syndrome to some degree. Every new creative endeavor or project idea or clothing choice, for that matter, comes with a caveat. I’m new. Please be gentle. I wouldn’t qualify my choices, even laughingly, if there weren’t some imminent threat of judgment.

Earlier this year, I discovered that I am 25% Japanese. I have a biological grandmother from Japan who married a GI during World War II. This news came after a lifetime of socialization as a white girl. I was German and Irish, as far as I knew, and I could count on two hands how many people of color attended school in my rural Texas town. The majority of those folks were Hispanic. I’d always passed for white, with the exception of a few confused inquiries from people over my lifetime. A childhood boyfriend once told me I looked Chinese when I tanned darkly in the Texas sun. I told him he was stupid. The African grill cook at my college restaurant job asked me if I was mixed—maybe part Asian? No, I laughed, “But thank you,” and walked away.

With this DNA discovery, I was suddenly cataloguing any Asian person I’d known or cultural experience I’d witnessed. Were there any clues to this secret ethnicity that I missed along the way? I’d never been to Japan, and I’d never met any of my Japanese or Japanese-American relatives. I’d never had an affinity for broadly Asian culture other than loving sushi. I can’t count that—everyone loves sushi. That shit is delicious.

I mean, sure, DNA technically puts me in this category, but I don’t have any of the other street cred. I don’t know the language, the clothing, the music, the food. My life is devoid of the lived experience that many Asian-Americans know. Am I a fraud if I suddenly check the Asian/Pacific Islander box in my demographic information? To add to the sense of isolation, all of this information came to light during a pandemic. I couldn’t attempt to meet my newly discovered relatives and, even if I could, they might not want to connect. Cultural festivals were canceled, in-house dining at restaurants was closed. What should I do? I resorted to the Internet.

I found Eve Sturges’ podcast of other people who had discovered secrets in their DNA. One of the podcast guests mentioned a private Facebook support group, and I met others whose ethnicity was different from what they’d been raised to believe. We each shared our stories and traded frustrations. We recognized our deepest fears as headlines spread about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. We didn’t want to be fakes. We weren’t pretending to be BIPOC for personal gain. Please, god, don’t let us trample on the cultures we’re just trying to learn. How proudly could we, or should we, claim ownership of this heritage?

Someone in the group affectionally called me a “hapa”—a Hawaiian word used to refer to someone of mixed Pacific Islander or Asian heritage. I read blogs by others of varying racial backgrounds. Someone coined the term, “quapa,” meaning a combination of “quarter” and “hapa.” Is this me? I thought. I kept researching. I discovered NPR’s Code Switch episode, “Who Gets to Be ‘Hapa?‘” Nope, I was not Hawaiian. Maybe I should use a label that didn’t offend the people who invented it.

A friend connected me with Jo Oyama-Miller, the woman who leads Madison’s sister city relationship with Obihiro, Japan. She explained that the Japanese use the term, “hafu,” which is a transliteration of the word “half” from English. Even in Japan, where they value homogeneity, people of mixed race are considered inauthentic. I wouldn’t be considered Japanese by my grandmother’s country, either, even if I had been born there.

So where does this leave me? I can’t write Japanese kana, I never learned how to make miso, and I’ve only ever seen one Studio Ghibli film. Sure, I can take cooking lessons and read books about aspects of my culture. I can watch documentaries and listen to the Asian Enough podcast, but there will always be the risk of seeming like an overzealous white girl. Then again, maybe the most authentic thing I can do is to do it anyway, internal voices be damned. Perhaps the experience of being too much and not enough is what it means to be Asian in America. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.

What My Husband Taught Me

What My Husband Taught Me

Although we’ve only been married for three years, Alex and I started dating in early 2012. By my count, that’s eight years of learning each other’s favorites. It’s also ample amount of time to find those quirks that begin as endearing and become insufferable. A few years ago, Alex became so attached to his particular brand of running shoes that when they fell apart, he marched back to Movin’ Shoes on Park Street and asked for an identical pair. When they discontinued the line, he searched high and low on the Internet to find as many pairs as possible in size 12.5—both new and gently used. He bought them all at once. For the last several years our entryway has featured at least three sets of the blue and gray Adidas lined up like a little family. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

This lack of variety is anathema to me. Over the weekend a new acquaintance of mine asked me when my birthday was—upon finding out I was a Sagittarius her eyebrows lifted to the heavens. The only things I know about my horoscope are what I’ve deemed to be true: the wanderlust is real, when my gut says it’s important I do it IMMEDIATELY, and variety is oxygen and I need it to survive. I ask you, what’s the fun in getting new shoes if they are going to be exactly the same as the ones you had before? Sacrilege.

However with the pile up of trauma and loss we’ve experienced this year, I’ve found it deeply important to ruminate on little joyful things that still exist. I need them as touch trees to find my way back out of the forest of despair. And as I confided to my close friend, Kitty, there are many things that are wrong in my life, but at least I chose the right partner. Maybe it’s a good thing that when Alex finds something he loves he clings to it for eternity. In the spirit of that joy, I share with you the top ten lessons I’ve learned from my husband:

  1. Koop’s Arizona Heat will transform a grillable into the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Furthermore, the world of mustard is wider than you could know.
  2. Ritual can be beautiful. Every morning Alex makes coffee and sits on the back deck to throw the ball for our 85 pound rescue dog, Arrow. He then comes in and makes a very deliberate breakfast sandwich to fuel his day.
  3. There is always a way to pack more items into a hatchback, car trunk, or moving van. And the way to do that is for Alex to Tetris these items into the space himself and for you to get out of the damn way.
  4. VOTE. It’s important to watch and listen to the world around us. We are connected. Don’t take for granted that our relative comfort will remain indefinitely. We must fight to preserve what is good and right and to expand our privileges to others.
  5. It is possible to be very soft and sensitive and have a convincing gruff outer shell. This is a development born out of necessity, and sometimes that shell is heavy to carry.
  6. No creature is happier than a dog with a ball. Except maybe a man with a dog with a ball.
  7. A well-curated reading nook is desirable. To pass muster, the nook must be on a screened-in porch or by a window, and extra points are assigned for the presence of a bird feeder.
  8. Solitude is important and refreshing from time to time. (Again, Jess, get out of the damn way).
  9. Love letters can look like a clean kitchen and a freshly mowed lawn.
  10. Heaven is a big, rowdy crowd of our favorite people. The party soundtrack is a very important ingredient to get there.

It’s Personal: My Experience with Pregnancy Loss

It’s Personal: My Experience with Pregnancy Loss

When I started spotting, the rust seemed surprising but potentially harmless, according to what I read on the Internet. I felt a little crampy down low in my abdomen, the familiar ache of my lower back, like the monthly rites I’d observed since I was twelve. Another unexplained pain that I’d inherited from the mothers of mothers before me. Most of my wider social circles didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex, and I had only begun to tell close friends and family the weekend before. I wanted to eschew the convention of waiting until the end of the first trimester to spread the news. After all, if I lost the pregnancy, I’d be telling the people in my life anyway, and I felt the traditional silence during the first three months contributes to a misunderstanding of how common pregnancy loss really is. I’m not superstitious, I thought, and pregnancies are not gained or lost by words.

Over the weeks that passed, I was observant. I know my body well, but I’d never known my body under these conditions. So when the cramping started I tried to give it grace. I chanted silently, please, please, please, as I applied the loving heat of my warm palms to the full throb underneath my belly’s softness, pressing against the pain. I talked to the unknown person inside me, the person who was doing the hard work of becoming.

I was sweaty, sticky like the late summer heat that hung in the air, as I sat across the patio from friends and shared our good news. No I haven’t been experiencing morning sickness, and I feel very fortunate, but they aren’t kidding when they say you’ll be exhausted. Yes, we are excited. Thank you.

No one told me that I would politely excuse myself, barricading the bathroom door to discreetly take stock of what was happening down there. When I saw the first blood clot, I gasped Oh no reflexively, before my brain understood what I’d said. I returned to the table outside, resumed the friendly small talk, quietly tapped out a message to my doctor on the smartphone under the table.

When I finally got the call in the morning from the nurse, she was the first one who needed me to speak the truth of the situation into the world—to describe the timing, the color, the consistency. I hadn’t even mentioned the symptoms to Alex yet, hoping the conversation would be moot before I’d need to share. But the nurse needed to know, so I began. She was polite, professional. “The doctor does want to see you at 6:00 tonight, given your symptoms. It’s not a bad idea to do more than just order some bloodwork to be done, but no need to panic.”

My first prenatal visit would be two weeks earlier than scheduled, and it would be to hear the OB/GYN walk a verbal tightrope as she explained the possibilities. “The abdominal beta test will likely be inconclusive, it’s too early to tell, but we will do it just in case it could offer reassurance.” Alex sat nervously as she palpated my lower torso, looking for any signs that indicated the embryo had attached somewhere outside the designated area where babies grow.

They scheduled additional lab work and a Friday morning ultrasound, at which point I would have more conclusive answers. No one told me that I would manage several work calls and a training seminar while I waited for results, pretending professionally that the world I’d hoped for wasn’t crumbling around me. The stuffed dinosaur I bought, the one baby toy I gave in to purchase this early in my pregnancy was the only witness when I cried during my lunch break. Later, Alex would find me weeping as I cleaned the bathroom, coaxing me to lie down, letting me cry into his shoulder as I talked about my feelings of grief and loss and frustration at having to start again.

No one told me this, so I will tell you. At least one in four pregnancies end in a loss. 25%. One quarter. That number is so much higher than is publicly understood. Although people use the term miscarriage, I find the word itself is a misnomer, a lame attempt to describe a complex event in a single word. As if the person whose body carries the baby has much control over the intricate assembly of DNA occurring within. As if that potential life has been misplaced or mismanaged. As if it were simply a mistake made.

The truth is that many early pregnancy losses are unexplained. According to Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” roughly 90% are due to chromosomal complexities that cannot be tracked at this stage. The genetic building blocks aren’t piecing together correctly and the system shuts down—the foreman says gruffly, “Start over,” and hits the button to halt the assembly line.

What I didn’t know until I experienced this myself is that it would take several days before my body was done clearing the debris, and during this time I’d get to experience the creative ways my brain deals with grief. It’s not an instantaneous moment of trauma, like a car wreck. It’s more of a tsunami that leveled my town. I still had to wade through the ankle-high water as I went about picking up the pieces, worrying about aftershocks and flooding even once the damage was done. It was an exercise in endurance, where eventually I stopped thinking about how sad I was that I was losing the pregnancy and started waiting for the moment when the pregnancy was fully lost. At least then I could grieve without the abdominal pain. At least then we could start over.

Before the loss, Alex and I sat around a backyard fire with a couple who are expecting. We had just shared our good news, excited to be in the same cohort with them as first-time parents. As we stared into the flickering glow, we shared our concerns and fears about bringing a new and vulnerable life into the world in the midst of a pandemic, in a society awash with violence, selfishness, greed, and resultant political unrest.

We thought about the ways we had been wounded in our own lives, our complicated relationships with our parents, the tools we wish we’d had on hand to navigate the hardships of life. And there was one thing on which we agreed: to bring a child into the world is the physical manifestation of hope. It is the tiny step forward, a whispered vow, an existential contribution to the greater beauty that could be amidst the pain that is. We can offer up our best efforts to imbue a sense of empathy and bravery into a child beyond simply wishing for high test scores, physical prowess, or creative acumen. But true courage is in knowing that we will not be able to control the world around them or the choices they make and choosing to move forward anyway.

Despite the abrupt collapse of our expectations for a child in the next 40ish weeks, Alex and I are already parents. It’s just that our journey to embody hope in a broken world starts with how we move through grief to begin again. We’ve been forced to live the kind of brave that we hope our future children will be—to lay a foundation before we know who will live in the house or when they will move in. It’s scary. It sucks. But, it can also be beautiful.

If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, please know you are not alone. Below are a few resources that have been helpful for me.

Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support

PALS (Pregnancy After Loss Support)

Life After Miscarriage with Shelly Mettling

ReplyForward

Feelings Are For Feeling

Feelings Are For Feeling

“To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

Desmond Tutu

“Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

Tibetan proverb

These are difficult days. It’s been said multiple ways by many people over the last six months, but I cannot get away from the fact that this season in American history and culture feels dark. We are suffering, collectively, from both known wounds—systemic racism, wealth inequality, and a general capitalist scarcity mindset, for example—and new ones, like the life-threatening nature of COVID-19 and our country’s lack of empathy towards the elderly, the differently abled, and the immunocomprised. Some in our circles are demanding angrily that the government relax restrictions on group gatherings, citing the massive impact on the economy and their offended sense of freedom, while others are terrified for the lives of their friends and families who could be killed by reckless individuals passing on the invisible death.

This isn’t news to you, I know. You’re feeling exhausted, too.

For me, the darkness has me turning inward more frequently—I have an altered sense of what feels urgent and important as compared to this time in March. In the early months of the pandemic, there was concern for my fellow man, but there was also a sense of adventure—that I would have the chance to test my mettle, like a child playing war. And when the novelty wore off, along with the affirmations that I would maximize my time at home to advance my own enlightenment, I could no longer hide the fact that my life, our lives, are and will be irrevocably changed.

In the previous post, I mentioned the concept that trauma is not what happens to us, but within us. This is doubly true, but the reality is that some days I still feel resentment at how many craters life has left in the lives of myself and my friends, in rapid succession. The meteor shower falls disproportionately, and some of my loved ones are still scaling the residual bluffs created by giant, falling debris. It’s disheartening to be in the process of deep personal transformation just to have more trauma interrupt the journey.

I have one dear friend who survived the loss of a child just to have this damned virus take her father from her way too soon. Another had to fold her business just as she was taking the leap to take additional professional advancement courses. Several friends who had to scrap their plans for weddings and baby showers, canceling or delaying the well-deserved celebration of life’s joys. Folks laid off in droves or working part-time hours, grateful for some small paycheck while also balancing homeschool education for their kids. Teachers wearing themselves ragged to adapt their curricula, trying to hit an ever-moving target of in-person, then remote, then partially remote scenarios. It goes on. Pain is surely creative.

Nothing is right or just, and I am angry. I feel helpless to protect the people I love. And I know that this righteous anger is also a convenient distraction from my own worries and fears; a new job prospect collapsing into dust, searching for a new job and training remotely, the emotional rollercoaster of familial and ethnic identity discoveries, and maintaining important relationships despite physical and geographical barriers.

My husband and I have been telling each other our dreams lately, usually right after we’ve stopped snoozing our alarms on alternating schedules, and we have a few minutes to lay in bed, awake, warming to the idea of consciousness. It’s been a melange of fantastical scenarios that scream STRESS! Missing the train for an international trip due to lost passports, gaining consciousness in an unfamiliar house and learning you’ve been drugged, running from violent dissidents with explosives, horrible scenarios in which we lose our beloved dog. Our hearts are full of loss (both real and imagined).

As Glennon Doyle would say, “Feelings are for feeling.” So, I’ve given myself space to feel the anger and the hurt, but I also hear my inner child, the optimist, the one who is usually out front waving the “Hope!” flag. She’s been quarantining, too, and she needs some time in the sun. A chance to dance like a goof in the front yard just to make the neighbors laugh.

In late 2019, I read “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” It is compiled based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it was enlightening to hear from two spiritual thought leaders on the ways they approach hope and happiness amidst the shifting sands of fortune. I discovered the quotes above from that book and jotted them down in my Notes app, unaware that they would come in handy in this moment.

There are little things I’ve attempted to do to harness this chest-baring bravery—thrilling in the casual conversations shouted across backyards and parks with friends who distance socially, working on loving my body for its abilities and intuition, as opposed to how it appears in photographs, investing in new books and media subscriptions to continue expanding the diverse, creative ideas in the world, buying stamps to send postcards and books to pen pals across the country. I’m learning that hope is an exercise in endurance. Refusing to only feel the sad feelings or the hard feelings, and scraping the barrel for the remnants of joy. Savoring them when they are there. Lapping up gratitude where I didn’t know it flowed before, and trying to give others the opportunity for thankfulness, as well.

So far, it’s kept me breathing. I hope it keeps you breathing, as well.

Rocks in the Riverbed

Rocks in the Riverbed

Ask yourself about your childhood. Was it a happy one? When you recount the story of wiggling your first loose tooth with your tongue or the time you got the chicken pox, is the sun shining in the background? What about the trip to the park where you flew kites with a neighbor kid? Or visiting Santa at the mall? Or falling off your bike? Or the stray kitten you found in the alley?

I realized recently how often I recite stories about my past beginning with, “I had a pretty happy childhood.” The stories I tell are often accompanied by a rye, self-deprecating humor where I retroactively giggle at the failures, the scrapes, or the desperation with which I navigated the world as a six-, ten-, or fourteen-year-old. I have many a joyful image stored away of tromping through the underbrush in our rural backyard with a gaggle of friends, dancing to Ace of Base albums with the neighborhood girls, or dressing in homemade Halloween costumes expertly crafted by my mother. The girls that lived across the invisible property line from our tan brick-and-stone house used to say that our family was “All-American.” Two parents, still married, one son, one daughter, all churchgoers and involved in the right amount of extracurricular activities.

That image of us as the perfect, normal family used to hang in my mind like a postcard on the fridge. Of course, I knew it was a generalization and would humbly say, “Nah, no family is perfect.” However, even that response was part of the glossy print I’d composed of our life. Polite people don’t brag, I thought, and besides, my brother and I had just been fighting over who could use the desktop PC in our family’s dining room. How human. No one close to me had died. I wasn’t battling betrayal or divorce or abuse. I had opportunities to hone musical skills, compete in spelling championships, read books, play sports. I was #blessed.

However, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Life, uh, finds a way.” As I graduated from teen to adult, the reality of complex wounds, bereavement, and guilt began to crack its way through our family’s smooth shell. Drama and in-fighting among church leadership cast shadows on my belief system. I formed adult relationships and navigated the pain of infidelity, molting the chaste innocence that my mother had wished for me. I supported my boyfriend (now husband) through his father’s untimely diagnosis and death from malignant brain cancer. I helped my mother coordinate an intervention for my alcoholic father. I discovered via DNA test that I am not biologically related to the man who raised me, and that the man who passed me his genes also passed away before I could meet him.

After the intensity of the last decade and a half with grief building in new, creative ways year after year, I adopted stoicism as an advanced guard against fear. The longer I live, the more grief I will see, I quoted to friends on multiple occasions. I thought of that mantra as my form of the Doris Day song, “Que Sera, Sera” — that it wouldn’t keep me from living life, but perhaps I wouldn’t be so taken aback by pain if I knew it was waiting for me in the wings. I became bold and forward with my feelings, keeping no secrets and defiantly opening my arms to the world, sharing my authentic woundedness with friends and acquaintances alike. I saw myself as a rock protruding from an inevitable river of grief — holding forth bravely to fight against its slow, steady erosion of my being.

This approach sparked a fascination with family secrets — so much so that I imbibed every word of Dani Shapiro’s podcast of the same title. I listened to it in the car while running errands, while jogging around the nearby lake, while walking the dog in our Midwest neighborhood. I read books and watched documentaries about them. And then, amidst the stories of others who have uncovered life-altering revelations, I heard the words of Dr. Gabor Maté:

“Trauma isn’t what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”

The world stopped. I paused the recording. I rewound it and heard it again. And again. And again. My vision of the rock in the middle of the river, whittled and smooth, blurred into a fine mist, and a new image took its place. I am not the rock. I am the river. I am in constant forward motion. I cannot change my origin, and the path where I have been is set. Instead it is grief that is the protrusion, the sudden push displacing me from where I’d intended to go. I will tumble around it, regrouping and coming back to myself, and grief will be the one that eventually sinks beneath the surface, worn to a pebble in my riverbed.

These boulders of grief are part of my story, but they are not my destination or definition.

I am the whitewater. I am the rapids. I am the river.

A Reflection

A Reflection

I’m on a kind of runner’s high ー that euphoric inner glow, fed by adrenaline and endorphins, my brain’s reward to a body that has gone the distance. I’m just across the finish line of this past weekend’s Rise! Yoga and Writing for Transformation retreat, led by Molly Chanson and Julie Tallard Johnson. I’ve spent three days alongside poets, writers, and bloggers, each of us delving into the inner sanctum of our hearts to surface the truths we’ve buried out of fear, shame, guilt, and vulnerability. It’s this, the realism, that will form our best work.

As part of this discovery, we are instructed to find a myth that most clearly illuminates our writing intentions and aids us in wrestling with the dynamics that muscle us away from the important work of meaning-making.  I begin, reciting my own intention as a mantra: Listen to my heart. Listen. Listen. Listen. I name the equal and opposite force that works against this endeavor ー the silencing of my one and precious voice. I am afraid. My fear makes me hesitant, small, quiet. But out of the silence, I hear her name:

Echo.

What a tragic creature she was. Her voice reduced to a whisper in the quiet places. Her body rendered into oblivion not once, but twice from fickle men. Wanting her and not wanting her, each worked his violence upon Echo’s being ー her only sin having obeyed the order of Zeus.
It seems Echo’s life and legacy is centered around the punishments she endured; we use her now as an explanation for the reverberations of the songs in our own mouths. She still serves us. First employed by Zeus to distract his wife, Hera, from the god’s adulterous ways, Echo caught the full retaliation ー conscripted by the betrayed bride to a life of imitation. Echo would never speak her own sentences again.

The voiceless nymph then fell in love with Narcissus, a man who could only love himself. She had not the tools to express her heart. The effect was to reinforce that his was the view that mattered ー his voice, the one she repeated back to him. When Narcissus languished by a pool, she bound herself to him in an act of despair, wasting into invisibility for a prize she would never receive. The other stories tell of her suitor, Pan, who when rebuked, tore her limb from limb. Her body scattered from corner to corner, she only retained a facsimile of the song she once sang.

I dream of Echo ー she awakes me at night, starkly. Her story is the cautionary tale every mother tells her daughters. To raise a girl in a world filled with men who would relegate her as a foil to their own purpose, something to manipulate, rail against, obtain love from ーeach day of motherhood must feel like preparing a soldier for war.

And yet, here I am, having protected the message in my heartーnot perfectly, but with love. In the past I’ve emulated Echo in her loyalty to unworthy causes, trying to make it work out of my trepidation. In the past I’ve wrapped myself in the lie of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” In these moments, failure has been the truest miracle ー ended relationships, lost jobs, missed opportunities that were not meant to be. They’ve given me second chances, despite myself, to run across rocks, amidst fire, to push against those who would wield my voice as a weapon. To train for this moment.

So I set my intention deep within ー to sing where Echo cannot. I anoint her my patron saint, my mother martyr ー her story of self will live through the one I tell, her words amplifying my own. The gift I take from this story is edifying: I must be true for me in order to be true for her ー a voice for the voiceless.

A Letter to My Mother

A Letter to My Mother

The vow you made years ago
in the safety of your heart
was to launch your own ship onto a rocky reef,
to keep the treasure in the hold
from the hands of a watery god.

You were weather-worn, soaked in sea brine,
skin cracking from the salt spray
and thirsty.
You threw the bowlines,
dragging the anchor of your own wounds
deep along the ocean floor–
Prayers shouted to the gulls
and all else who would hear.

I am thirty four now,
awaking on an unknown shore,
battered, bruised, sun-blind from sudden light.
I cannot see you, but I sense you are there.
You left me! I scream,
eyes wet with rage.
My fists drum a frenzied beat
against the trunks and mussel shells.
I stumble through bracken,
counting the leaves as if they are sins.
The sharp edges slice cloth from skin
and skin from flesh.
I draw a map from scar to scar
and sing the bitter refrain:
You left me!

The forest cracks open, a cocoon of green.
I find you, smiling.
You are a child, pink and glowing,
not yet met with time’s erosion.
I shout, raw and ragged ー You left me!

You clasp my hand with tiny fingers,
saying: Listen.

You were the treasure.
You were the boat.
And you were the storm.

My child, how could I leave you
when you are the destination?

A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

I am disoriented, the world around me murky, as I grasp for answers. The at-home DNA test results I’m viewing this Friday afternoon show that a quarter of my biological makeup is originated from Japan. This is impossible, you see, because I am descended from a long line of proud Germans and a cuvée of English, Irish, and French. Both sides of my family have done the genealogy to prove it.

Bewildered, I navigate to the Family Tree, mostly bare with dotted lines for the names of relatives I know by heart, but who have not submitted their own biological building blocks to be meticulously analyzed. There are a few names I recognize on my mother’s side: a first cousin who now lives abroad, a distant cousin I last saw at a Thanksgiving gathering about 20 years ago, a woman who shares the same last name as my grandfather. Other names and thumbnail photographs of faces I’ve never met. My mind is generating theories. Perhaps this brand of DNA test just isn’t as popular as others. Maybe Dad’s side haven’t submitted DNA since they are certain of their origins in Germany. I see no one with my maiden name, but there is a surname, Hibler, that is similar to my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Could it be a misspelling? Was it anglicized when they emigrated? I send another follow up text message to Dad to ask if it rings a bell.

In the gap between my question and his answer, I think of the myriad times I’ve been back to Dad’s hometown since I was a child, arriving after a long journey in the back of a minivan with a stiff neck and a little dried saliva on my cheek. Bleary-eyed, we would emerge from between rolling waves of corn like the Israelites from the Red Sea if the desert were less arid and more attractive to ConAgra. We’d stop first at Grandma’s house to unload some luggage, stretch our legs, and make small talk while I eyed up her candy dish of Werther’s Originals. After an hour or two we would drive over to the family farm a few miles away, where Dad and his two brothers spent their adolescence and where my cousin, Matt, and his family still run the operation alongside my Uncle Reynold.

From the vantage point of the long gravel driveway, the farm looks like it could be cut from a classic postcard. The white farmhouse is now outfitted with a wraparound porch (an addition some time after Dad had moved away), and there’s always been at least one German Shepherd whose barking will make you triple check that you’ve got the right address. More than once I’ve sat immobile in the car, hatching an escape route in case the dog forgets I’m related to her people.  The original barn stands in the classic red and white Midwest uniform, and in recent years they’ve added additional large shop buildings and engineered an impressive grain silo and truck-loading facility. It’s a whole thing.

While Dad would make his way down to the shop to do man things with the guys, surrounded by tractors and other larger-than-life farming implements, Mom and I would shout, “Hello!” while simultaneously letting ourselves into the kitchen. In the early days we might find Aunt Barb soaking some sweet corn for dinner or tidying up her otherwise immaculate house; Kellie and I would wander upstairs to do whatever preteen girls do — admire a collection of stuffed animals, talk about school, or spy on the rest of the family walking back and forth on the lawn outside.

If we stayed through Sunday, which we almost always did, it was imperative that we attend the Sunday morning Lutheran church service. I knew not to wear high heels to this event, because to get inside the building we’d drive for about a mile on a white gravel drive, kicking up clouds of dust that looked more like a dense fog. More than once I’d teetered over the rocky road precariously walking from the car to the church building, praying I wouldn’t turn my ankle and embarrass my entire family line before we got inside. I always had the sense that they knew we were coming ahead of time and were watching the road as if in advance of a parade.

The outside of the Trinity Lutheran Church building was fitted with white siding and a stately steeple; inside the nave of the church were prim and perfect rows of wooden pews facing an intricately painted altar, complete with a large statue of Jesus in purple and yellow robes. As a child, I felt like Technicolor Jesus and I could have shared clothing, we were so similar in size.

It’s the basement of that church that I envision now as I consider my 9% German DNA. Downstairs from the sanctuary is a portion of the wood-paneled fellowship hall papered over with family portraits. Some are official framed family photos, some are printed in black and white on paper, and all bear the names of family lineages. Multiple generations. Dietrich. Engel. Andorf. Müller. Badenhurst. Schroeder. Engelhardt. Each pale face staring hard at the camera as if this picture is just one more burden — one more task they must complete to fulfill their duty as upstanding citizens. They look tired (and a little pissed off). Over the years I’ve met several of the great-aunts and great-uncles or cousins once and twice removed, many of which are descended from the people in these photos. I can never remember exactly who is related to whom and who is merely a neighbor, but it’s safe to say that even neighbors are family after years in the same community. Everyone’s fate feels intertwined.

I go back to diagramming family relationships on the back of a napkin. The DNA match with my maternal first cousin means that we definitely share a grandmother. Here I’m connected to this surname Hugoe, which matches my maternal grandfather. I know that Mom’s parents divorced and remarried more than once, so I start to wonder if there are more secrets held over from that generation, passed down to us quietly amidst the chaos of blended families and hardship.

Mom calls me with the answers to some genealogical questions I’ve sent her. She confirms the vague memory that my great great grandmother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma,” and was part Indian. Could her ethnicity have been misattributed during that time in Texas? I begin constructing a nest from the small details I glean –each hunch becomes a thread, a feather, a windward leaf as I try to make sense of this information. I flit from here and there sending cryptic messages to the unfamiliar connections with whom I share part of my self via the 23andMe website. I tell them I’ve just gotten my results and would be interested in discussing which ancestors we have in common. I reactivate an old Ancestry.com account and begin scraping the database for the vital records and newspaper clippings of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. There is no rest. There is no stop. There is only the perpetual roving — a frenetic mental movement to push ever forward. The thrumming between my ears becomes a word, chanted in monastic rhythm: More. More. MORE.

Although this mystery of the Japanese DNA initiates a Nancy Drew-like investigation on my part, I wish I could say that I am completely scientific in my approach. Yes, I have an articulated list of possibilities written out, however, when my brother jokes, “Are you thinking Mom isn’t telling you something?” I immediately laugh it off and tell him my theory of Tiny Grandma’s true ethnicity. I am fixated on the assumption that the secret is generations removed and born of a time when the Texas census responses were handwritten and often misspelled or illegible. After all, I reason, it would have behooved her to assimilate into White culture in a Southern farming community in the 1890s.

Around 6:00 in the evening, I press pause on my scrambled research and join my husband and some friends on a social distancing “Happy Hour” via online web conference. We are among the throngs of people who have turned to digital engagement to try to stay connected in the age of COVID-19. We’ve fixed ourselves cocktails and are sitting in the upstairs office, side by side, grateful for some semblance of togetherness as we regale them with anecdotes about our dog, Arrow, and exchange updates about job status, headlines we’ve read, and funny Internet memes. One part of my brain has been expecting a call from Mom, and I’m subtly checking the clock on my cell phone every 15 minutes or so.

Finally, at 7:00, a few hours earlier than anticipated, I see the incoming call and duck out of the room to answer. Finding an isolated spot in the kitchen downstairs where I can lean nervously against the counter, I say, “Hi there!” There’s a buzzing energy in the air as I hear her greet me, and without hesitation she says, ” There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just say it.”

This is not the first life moment where I’ve received difficult news, and I meet it dry-eyed, measured, even. It’s as if I’ve gained the superhuman power to move faster than time, and so from my vantage point each detail Mom shares is lofted smoothly into the air, drifting calmly toward me. I gather them from their suspended trajectory, as if to set the details down on the counter top for later inspection. My peripheral vision is a swirling mist, but I am focused on making sure that she (and our family) will survive.

There was an ex-boyfriend. She and Dad were on a break. The ex-boyfriend was half-Japanese. She is very remorseful. She has found an obituary from 2012. Will I be okay? She has told Dad. He has gone on a drive.

Mom and I hang up the phone. Time returns to its standard cadence, the transcript in my mind parrots our conversation back to me. I love you don’t focus on shame I will be okay I love you we will work through this I will call Dad make sure he’s not drinking I will be okay call me if you need me I will be okay I love you this will be hard everything will be okay I love you.

I leave a voicemail and text message for Dad: When you are ready, call me. I love you. Don’t drink about it. I sit back, hoping to get word that my life hasn’t completely unraveled in the matter of minutes I’ve been standing in this kitchen. The fresh knowledge of this secret, held for three and half decades, is moving through our family like a cyclone, and all I can do right now is wait to see where the houses land.