Categories
Life

She’s Off


I want to tell you what love looks like.

She is 18, about 5′ 7″ with dark blonde hair to her shoulders.

Love looks like her, fresh sweetness driven by curiosity.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She is 46, about 5′ 10″, a brunette with tints of red.

Love looks like her, powerful directness fueled by loyalty.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She’s a horizontal 5′ 3″, maybe 80 pounds, but it’s hard to say since she hasn’t eaten in days.

Love looks skeletal and radiant in her hospital bed positioned next to the living room window, so she can live in the light as the veil between Here and There thins.

I want to tell you how blinding love is when these three versions of her are supported by the same laminate wood floors at the same time, one over by the living room window, her breathing shallow, her eyes half-open as she drifts in and out of medicated sleep, the other two facing each other near the dining room table. 

The brunette by the table has enough vigor for everyone, despite the exhaustion of walking slowly, over years, then days, now hours, shoulder-to-shoulder with her shallow-breathing wife as she eases to the next phase. The brunette by the table not only has vigor. She has a plan. 

The 18-year-old who has just been given a firm hug by the brunette does not know of a plan. All she knows is that she’s come for one last visit with the shallow-breathing love in the hospital bed. All she knows is that the first person to see the top of her head as it crowned its way into this world is now leaving it. All she knows is that she will be one of the last people to see the first person who saw her. All she knows is that something about this business of first and last smacks at the heart. All she knows is that being there for each other at the beginning and at the end feels like a rare magic.

“So,” says the brunette Kirsten to the teen who is on the cusp of three months of travels. “Here’s a deal I have for you. I’m going to slip a big swaaaaak of Euros into your pocket from Ginnie and me, okay?”

Not sure what is happening, the blonde Allegra nods uncertainly.

“And at some point while you’re in some far-off country, you’re going to see something that looks really fun — like something you’d love to do, if only you had the money. Like, it would be a great adventure, but it costs a lot, so you’ll just have to imagine how cool it would be. Except, see, you’re going to have this stack of Euros with you, and you’ve been told you can only use them to do something you otherwise would never be able to. So the whole point of these…” she trails off as she turns towards the dining room table and grabs a stack of colorful notes, “…is that you use them in memory of Gin…” — she tips her head towards the form in the hospital bed, the same form that was bitten by a lemur in Madagascar, that carried pails of ashes up and down staircases in a crumbling French chateau, that hugged a baby sloth in the Amazon — “…so you need to find an amazing thing to do, and when you throw this money at it, you will be taking Virginia on one last adventure, this time with you.”

Having explained the terms of the deal, the generous friend, auntie, wife, soon-widow pushes the money into the 18-year-old’s hands. The girl’s eyebrows lift as she nods. The terms are accepted.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like a stack of Euros with strings attached.

It looks like a blonde teen and a brunette chosen-auntie locking eyes for a brief moment as they acknowledge the lasting imprint the slight form in the hospital bed will leave on them both, with the lessons of generosity and gusto she modeled for them.

It looks like the tears in the eyes of a melancholy mother lurking two feet behind her teenage daughter who holds a stack of Euros in her hands; like the tears in the eyes of a grateful friend watching a pal make things possible for her girl; like the tears in the eyes of a grieving intimate who knows her beloved chum is days from death.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like four unsteady women united on a laminate wood floor, four women whose lives have intersected in profound and unpredictable ways, four women finding balance by leaning on each other.

I want to show you what love looks like.

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Letter

Catching Up

April 15, 2018

Dear You:

Long time, no talk! We totally need to catch up! How’d your last Lone Wolf Howling at the Moon tattoo sitting go? Did your cousin ever return your thigh-high boots? He’s not to be trusted, that one; you might need to swing by his cottage and riffle through his closet if you ever want to see those 24 inches of patent leather again. Oh, and I hope that one scabby spot on your elbow finally healed up real good-like! I swear, it looked like a miniature Rhode Island (haha: “miniature Rhode Island”…redundant much?) for so many weeks I was about to start digging for clams inside that thing.

Me? Oh, I’ve been great! We’re having our usual crazy April weather, and people are being their usual crazy selves, acting like they’ve never seen such a thing before. Sometimes, this time of year makes me feel desperate inside and as though I might need to start clawing at the skin just below my cheekbones, but for some reason it’s not bugging me this year. A mid-April blizzard just feels like a good excuse to keep a thick blanket on my lap, a huge pan of barssss in the kitchen, and three pairs of socks on my feet, and what’s bad about any of that? Don’t answer! Harhar!

Get this: I stayed up past 3:30 a.m. this morning watching the live stream from Coachella, and Beyonce was headlining. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you don’t get why she’s a thing, but we all have our failings, and that’s only one of your three thousand. Joking. GAWD, you’ve been so sensitive since Marla left. So what if she took the hand blender? You never made smoothies anyhow!! Anyhow, that Beyonce performance (SHUT UP AND JUST ACCEPT THAT FIVE BILLION PLANET EARTHERS MIGHT HAVE A POINT THAT SHE’S SOMETHING SPECIAL JEEEEEZUS YOU ARE SO HARD HEADED) was, like, huge. I won’t describe it too much cuz it’ll be wasted on you, but basically, she performed for two hours, sang more than 30 songs, and had multiple costume changes (Even you would have appreciated how hard she worked to keep her left boob hidden from the audience when the tape inside her costume started failing, threatening to unleash that flawless caramel orb to explore all kinds of public mischief. Did she miss even a single deep squat when Solange came out to dance with her? No, she did not. Did she hit every wa-wa knee bend exactly on the beat while clutching at her chest? Yes, she absolutely did. Did she prove that she is using the stage she has earned to pay homage to black culture and move some white people’s iggnrnt needles? Yes, yes, she did, and if you are unwilling to acknowledge the importance of Beyonce in a racist world, then I hope Marla comes back for your potato ricer.)

April 17, 2018

Sorry I got cut off mid-Beyonce rave the other day. I had to grade a few research proposals submitted by the messiest class I’ve seen in…hmmmm…carry the twelve…erase the seven…a heap of years. These tomfools started at mid-term in a compressed eight-week class, and every week since then, I have scratched my head and wondered, “What is up with this crew?” Like, you know how Marla used to make a big show about Wednesdays being Taco Night, and she’d sigh really loudly about how, as usual, she’d have to be the one to buy the groceries, and then, as usual, she’d be the one to brown the meat and shred the cheese and chop the iceberg? Remember all that ostentatious drama and then how Wednesday night would come, and there’d be no groceries bought, no food prepared? And you’d be all, “Hey, M, I kind of took it that you meant to make the tacos tonight. Did I misundersta–” And then she’d snip in and yell from under the afghan on the couch, “NO TACOS. NO DINNER. NOT HUNGRY.” And you’d be afraid to say anything because what can you say when someone’s all loud and put-upon and then they don’t even do the thing they were being loud and put-upon about, and you feel like you’re trying to show up but you’re kind of nervous because you don’t quite understand  the passive-aggressive complexity of the one who’s puffed up but not actually doing a single thing?

So this messy class is Marla on Taco Night. Get this: there were 25 students enrolled in the class at the start. The first week, for the introduction assignment, 13 of them participated. It’s an online class, so the only way I can get their attention is to rattle the grade book, post even more announcements, and send out emails. But, duh, like that doesn’t work when they aren’t looking at any of those things. By the second week, there were 11 students who turned in the assignment. My brain was all WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON? I teach this class all the time, exactly the same way, and pretty much most of the students get through in fine form. But this crop? These guys paid hundreds of dollars for this class, some of them taking out loans, of course, and yet they keep greeting every activity, every attempt to get their attention, with a shrug. The sheer WTF of this class has me confuddled. But then I got all sleuthy — you know how I still lose sleep over where in the fricking world Carmen Sandiego is — and realized more than half the students in that section are using Minnesota’s post-secondary enrollment option (PSEO) to earn college credits, which means the state pays for their tuition and books. Usually, PSEO students are all fired up and rad and stuff, but this particular messy section seems to have attracted a crew of ’em who can’t be bothered when it’s not making a dent in their fanny packs.

Yeah, so anyhow, as of today (two days shy of two years since Prince passed, kiss my ring and hold it to heaven), there are 18 students still on the roster — the rest withdrew or were dropped for non-attendance — and of those 18, only ten of them have a grade above a “D.”

I swear these studentios are in the grips of some magical-ass thinking that is telling them completing every third assignment is somehow going to tip a “C” their way. What bugs me the most is that I know, when reality comes over to roost on their chests, these some same students are going to believe their poor grades are my fault, and nothing is more exhausting than being held responsible for other people’s lack of effort. I’ma blame them for my shoddy housekeeping, if they come at me.

Honest to holy, pal, I know you thought Marla was a lot, but if you looked at this class each week, you’d be straight-up free-will handing her your spaetzle maker and telling her “Just take it. You ain’t so bad.”

April 19, 2018

Gawd, this puppy is getting long, and I know you hate having to flip the paper over to keep reading. I can just hear you now, hollering as you sit at that sticky Formica kitchen table: “Yer damn felt tip bled through, Jocey! You think I got time for deciphering this this fuckin’ mishmash?”

All right. All right. Just a couple more updates, and then I’ll leave you to dick around with your egg peeler, if you catch my drift. HARdeeHARHAR!!

So you know how I live in a city where we love snow, or else we should shut up and move? Part of my snow love relates to shoveling. Ahhhh, shoveling. It’s a beautiful therapy, that business of shussshing the blade under the flakes, scootching it along the ground, and then hoisting and tossing. With shoveling, there are clear parameters and clear ways of measuring achievement — kind of like how Marla would announce from her laid-back perch at the sticky Formica when you’d sliced enough potatoes on the mandoline?

The suck for me is that I did some hard shoveling a couple months ago during this one week when we got two feet of snow in the course of a couple of days. And since then, bud, I tell you: my left elbow is fucked up. Get this, though: Byron shoveled with me, and so did Allegra one day, and both of them experienced after-effects, too! Hold me close, young Tony Daaaaanza! (I know that was random, but it’s what I was feeling, so relax). Since the girl is young, her elbow bounced right back, but both Byron and I are still battling the pain of tennis “snow” elbow. Check this out: we can go to yoga and lower ourselves in chaturanga just fine, but if we want to, erm, freshen the air in the bathroom with some spray, pressing the button on the pump is excruciating. IT’S A FOREARM ISSUE, this elbow problem. 

It got so bad for me that I was going to order a brace or a strap. I even said “acupuncture” one time. But instead of spending money on something I just wanted to go away, I decided to punt. I remembered I have a bunch of compression socks I was using last year when my left heel was fucked up (note about aging: something will always be fucked up; if you’re lucky, it’s not the whole of you all at once), so I decided compression is compression, so why buy an elbow squeezer when I already have foot squeezers? The upshot is, dear Dickie, that I now spend my days with a sock on my arm, my elbow nestled into the heel section, and whaddya know the thing is actually feeling better by the day. BETTER LIVING THROUGH INVENTIVE PUNTING, SAYS I.

The nice deal about aging — there have to be silver linings when your body is always finding new ways to plague you, right? — is that I have, for a couple years now, been able to get to a mindset of “Howzabout instead of focusing on what I can’t do, I spend a little time enjoying what I CAN do? Howzabout that, O Noggin Fretter?” So my elbow squeals. But: I can still jump. And I do rewy, rewy love to jump. 

4/23/2018

Gad, how time whizzes! Here it is, more than a week later (Beyonce has already done her second amazing Beychella performance, with an even taller Nefertiti crown this time), and I’m still pecking away at this thing. Here I wanted to give you a bunch of recs for things I’ve been enjoying and talk up the mental diversions that give me solace in over-busy days. If I go on too much more, though, it will be another week before I send this. Soooo, quickly then: you really should listen to Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo — the story of a family of First Nation siblings that were taken from their mother during “The Scoop” in the 1960s in Canada, when the government went about fracturing indigenous families beyond the work it had already done for centuries. Young Cleo was adopted by an American family and rumored to have been raped and murdered when she was 13. Her siblings, with no idea where Cleo had been adopted to or what had really happened to her, ask a journalist at CBC to help track down the reality of their missing sister. All I’ll say is that I sat in a chair in our living room at 4:00 a.m., listening to the fourth episode, and there in the dark, I kept muttering, “Holy Shit.”

Also, I wanted to tell you to give the reboot of One Day at a Time a looksie. Listen, you crabass, just know you’ll have to relax into the live audience that feels like a cheesy laugh track, but once you give over, you will find yourself having a tv watching experience that makes you feel like you’re ten again, sitting on the shag carpet drinking Tang, watching any of the kabillion sitcoms that populated our youth. This reboot has been updated, and now it focuses on a Cuban-American family, covering issues that no other tv show has, as far as I’ve seen. It’s super charming, and every episode makes me cry in the best way. You know how Marla was a big effing Trumper and so it was a relief to watch her skitter off with your condiment gun because the news alone is hard enough these days without the negativity living in your house with you? Well, One Day at a Time is the best because it provides the feeling of a safe place in a nutty world.

Damn, I’m short on time again — have to get in the car and drive a few hours to a high school to do a site visit. Also, we had Allegra’s grad party this weekend (so many people and pancakes!), I got a Fulbright to teach in Belarus this fall (I. am. not. shitting. you.), and my most beloved friend Virginia has had her hospital bed moved into the living room so that she can rest in the light as she heads towards the light. She said the other day, “The boundaries between here and the beyond are erasing themselves,” and then she sent audio greetings to Allegra for her party in which she imparted a blessing upon the child who is about to head out into the world, reminding our girl that she, Virginia, was the first to see the top of Allegra’s head emerge from me when she was born. Then the 81-year-old in her last days told our 18-year-old who still has so many days in front of her, “I am holding you up to the face of God,” and every time I listen to her voice saying those words, I sob like you did when Marla bolted with your egg slicer.

Sorry this thing is kind of a sloppy mess. But, hey, that’s how I’m feeling, so suck it up, buttercup!

‘K bye!!

SWAK,

Jocey

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Five in Five

One and Forever: Thursday, February 22

It’s a candy cigarette, so calm your tits.

It matters to this story that dusk is creeping around the edges, and thick, quiet snow is falling slowly, slowly from the sky, accumulating into a desert of white dunes outside the large picture window behind my back.

She’s talking, my great pal Virginia is, as she lies on the couch to my left, her feet elevated to help the fluids drain from her leg that swells each day from edema caused by the tumor that has inhabited in her pelvis for twenty years. Every day, to get through the day, her slight body is mobbed, swabbed, bundled, padded, and hooked — with nephrostomy tubes and bags, an under-skin pain pump the size of a hockey puck, gauze, tape, hooks, back-up systems. She is swaddled by the accoutrements of unbudgeable cancer, living graciously and gratefully in constant pain.

Very few people live an example.

Virginia lives an example.

Despite the lashings of medical equipment that snake beneath her clothes, Virginia’s brain roams wide and free. I’m taking trips with her brain now, as she talks over there on the couch, because we are catching stories for her next book, trying to capture them before she has a colostomy in a couple weeks, the next procedure aimed at improving quality of life. Writing is difficult business when sitting is often impossible, but if she can lie with her legs up, she can talk, and I can type.

So far, she’s told me seven-and-a-half stories — five of them about a neighbor boy she fostered, one about injustice on the playground, another about a woman on a park bench in Germany,. By way of a breather, we’ve let ourselves get derailed from a story about the day she met her future in-laws after I’ve asked some follow-up questions.

 

Now we’re talking about Richard, the youngest of her four brothers, the one I sometimes forget about because he was gone before I met her.

She was a senior in high school when he was born, but despite — maybe because of — that age difference, they felt a genuine connection. He loved writing, wanted to get into film, got a job with a kind of documentary company that at some point did a commercial involving a wallaby and luggage. Virginia remembers being so envious that Richard got to be on set with a wallaby, and she didn’t.

Not too long after Virginia returned home from a trip to Europe, her brother Dan called her to tell her that Richard, then 26, had been driving to Jackson Hole from Minnesota with a friend, for a vacation. Near Billings, in central Montana, Richard fell asleep at the wheel, and then awakening with a jolt, he over-corrected, and the car flipped and rolled into a ditch. With no seat belt on, he was thrown from the car and died within three minutes. His friend lived.

Later, after the immediate worst of it, after an undertaker named Mr. Graves readied Richard for permanent rest, Virginia awoke in the night, her heart racing. Panicked by the atrial fibrillation, she went to the emergency room, clutching her chest, and told the doctor, “It feels like my heart is broken.”

It was.

After Richard’s death, as his mother and siblings sifted through his belongings, Virginia claimed some treasures to keep her brother close: a pottery serving bowl which she had gifted to him, reclaimed now; a pair of his wool socks, eventually worn to nubs; a blue-and-green plaid flannel shirt, also worn to threads, and his belt, which became her default belt, her go-to, the only one she has worn now, as her own life winds down, these past two years.

Thirty-seven years have passed since Richard died, and his belt is with her as she dies by millimeters.

And so it matters to this story that darkness filters through the glass, soft snow sifts to blanket the ice-locked ground.


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racism

Grit

I wrote this more than a year ago. I am re-running it. The world is too awful.

SONY DSC

It was a glorious spring day, the hard edges of the air softening into mildness, the sun reflecting in puddles, spirits sitting up and stretching their arms to the sky. Awaking from the freeze of winter, everyone was out running, walking, looking faintly stunned by the exposed squares of sidewalk.

In the free-flowing hour before dinnertime, Allegra was just home from track practice, still in her shorts—shorts in March!—her long hair pulled back into a sweep of ponytail. She sat at the kitchen counter in relaxed hang-out mode, her body sprawling over two chairs, decompressing from her day with goofiness and random commentary about the broken zipper on her brother’s winter coat and how much she hates reading The Odyssey, a book that’s got her staying up late each night, slogging through the mandatory chapters.

Even though I’d agreed to go outside and play H-O-R-S-E with Paco and Byron, I was reluctant to walk away from her expansive mood. Sending the boys out to pump some air into the basketball, promising to join them momentarily, I dipped a biscotti into my latte and tried to convince Allegra that of course she had found it easy to run up a long hill during practice because she’s incredibly fit from her winter on the ski team. In return, she shucked off my reasoning, refusing to believe ski workouts translate into running fitness. Her light-hearted mood enjoyed my mock incredulous “In what bizarre land of teenage rationale does cross-country skiing—one of the best cardio workouts possible—not also prepare you for running?”

Then, somehow, within the space of two sentences, the subject changed. In the giggly lightness of the air was a feeling: at this minute, I could expound to my daughter about anything, and she’d hear me. Even though I’d had no intention of “having a talk,” suddenly it seemed like exactly what we should do.

So. Inhaling deeply, I mentioned the email we’d received a few days before from her godmother, a message that asked parents to talk to their kids about the realities of racism and what it’s like for children of color to move through their days in our country. Her plea was born out of sadness at a local hate crime coupled with love for the beautiful skin of her black and Native American children.

Truly, when the message came through, I felt supportive and hopeful that individual voices could rise up and come together to erode entrenched ignorance, but, at the same time, I also was certain: “I don’t need to do a formal sit-down with our kids. From the first day of their lives, they have been cradled in a house that not only espouses tolerance but one that requires it. We have dragged them all over, put them in uncomfortable situations where they are the minority, demonstrated in every hour of every day that all human beings have equal rights to acceptance and love. They’ve helped set up chairs at gay weddings, and they saw me bat away tears as we stood in The Smithsonian reading the plaque on the Woolworth’s counter where four African-American college students staged a policy-changing sit-in.”

Yet, as I watched my healthy, happy blonde daughter, her blue eyes gleaming as she cracked jokes, I was struck by her openness and confidence—and how those traits had come unthinkingly to her as a member of our country’s dominant race. We’d never had to teach her not to raise the hood on her jacket, lest she look suspicious. We’d never had to talk to her about putting on a positive face in public even when she was having a crummy day, simply so she didn’t intimidate the people around her. We’d never had to counsel her about treating people with more respect than they might deserve so as to avoid the designation of “uppity.” We’d never had to explain to her that the culture of her ancestors had been systematically dismantled to the point of eradication. We’d never had to warn her that she’d have to achieve twice as much in life to get half as far.

We’d never directed her attention to the advantages she enjoys due to the color of her skin.

Realizing that the conversation in our house didn’t need to be about tolerance and acceptance but, rather, about the nuances of white privilege, I leapt.

“Hey, Allegra, can we have a serious minute here?”

Teenagers want adult conversation. They are ready to be talked to where they’re at, not where their parents remember them being…when they were ten, seven, four, one. Her face told me: this girl was ready for a serious minute.

“So did you hear about how some kids at Denfeld doctored a picture of one of their classmates—a black kid—by drawing a noose around his neck and writing ‘Gotta hang ‘em all’ and then sharing it on social media?”

The gasp that came out of her mouth originated in her gut. No, she hadn’t known that. She had heard something had happened at Denfeld that people were talking about, but she knew no particulars. “You mean, like, they were saying he should be lynched?”

“Exactly—and not just him. They were saying all black people should be hung. On some level, these kids might have thought they were being funny. On no level were they being funny. You get that, right? And do you know about the history of lynching in this country?”

Something like a strangled gargle came out of her mouth as she tried to respond. “Yea, I’ve read about it in some books. I know it mostly happened in the South, but didn’t it happen here in Duluth, too, a long time ago?”

Confirming the reality of that sad event, I added, “And Jenna and Anne are really upset by what these kids at Denfeld did because it’s just another ‘thing’ that shows how alive racism is in the city where they’re raising Robbie and Sadie. Because she was so upset, Jenna sent out a message to some folks, asking us to be sure we talk to our children about how different daily existence is for Robbie and Sadie than it is for white kids like you—to be honest, especially for Robbie since he’s male and black. So I’m talking to you now. I will talk to Paco, too, when the time is right.”

As Allegra’s eyes became shiny with unshed emotion, I told her about the conversations they have had with Robbie as they help him find ways to move through the world and cope with the reality of being black and male in the United States and, more specifically, in our very-white city.

“Wait, why can’t he put his hood up?” she interjected at one point.

Referencing the story of Treyvon Martin, I asked, “Do you know what happened to him?”

“Well, I know he died, and I saw his name online a lot, but I never read the stories. I have a lot of homework, you know!”

So I explained how Treyvon Martin decided to walk to the gas station to get a snack. I explained how he was gunned down by an over-zealous member of the neighborhood watch. I explained how that teenage boy, a mere seven years older than Robbie, had been killed for wanting some juice and having his hood up. And I asked her: “Can you imagine such a thing ever happening to Paco?”

Continuing to reel, she almost shouted, “It would never.”

“That’s right. Although all of life is uncertain, we can feel fairly secure that Paco could put up his hood and walk to the gas station for a snack—and that he would come home fit and fine. It’s not like that for black boys. They have to move through their days defensively. Even when they’re having fun and just joshing around, some part of them still has to be on alert.”

As we continued to talk, I discovered that although my daughter’s homepage when she goes online is MSNBC, she does a cursory scan of the headlines but generally doesn’t read the articles. Thinking of myself at age 14, I understood. Each morning, racing to read Ann Landers and the funnies, I would hustle past headlines about Israel annexing the Golan Heights—boring—or the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat—who?

Lecturing my teen, I was learning a great deal.

I continued, “Imagine how Robbie feels when he goes to Target. Odds are, he’s the only black person in the store. People stare at him. Now, you and I would stare at him because he’s so striking. That kid is beautiful, right? But a lot of Duluthians would stare at him because they think he’s up to no good. They might think he’s going to steal something, or if he’s just being an excited ten-year-old in the toy aisle, playing around with a Nerf dart gun, you can almost be sure someone will walk past and think, nastily, ‘Yea, another black kid with a gun.’”

Allegra made a noise of protest. “He’s just a kid with a toy. Are people really like that? People wouldn’t really think that, would they?”

Just then, Paco popped his head in through the door, “The ball’s inflated. We’re just waiting for you out here.” I waved him away, promising I’d be out in a few minutes, as my brain processed Allegra’s reaction. When we raise our children with values of tolerance, with a feeling that there is nothing more desirable than diversity, we are simultaneously raising our children to be ignorant of the subtle, wearing, enduring awfulness of racism. My daughter knew only the ideal, not the reality.

“People are like that, hon. And Robbie knows it. He’s a sensitive kid; he totally knows it, and it affects him. Then think about what it’s like for black kids to go to school here. Often, they are the only black face in the classroom. Imagine if a helicopter dropped you into an entirely black area, and you had to walk into the school the next day and make a go of it. Even if everyone were super friendly, still, the main thing on your mind would be, ‘I’m the only white person here.’ Even if you wanted to raise your hand or try to make a new friend, some part of you would feel inhibited.”

Allegra agreed, “Oh, I’ve noticed in all my classes. Usually there are only white kids, and if there is anyone who’s not white, there are only one, maybe two, non-white faces in the room.”

I added, “I really noticed it at your holiday concert. During that amazing finale, there were 400, 500, maybe even 600 kids on the stage. Out of that, there were probably five black kids. Those young people, in every hour of every day, know that they are different from what’s considered the ‘norm.’ On top of that, they have to worry that if they’re walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could get shot, possibly killed. Every week, the news covers more stories of young black men, along the lines of Treyvon Martin, getting stopped by police, and during those interactions with the law, they are shot and killed.”

Confused, Allegra asked, “Who kills them?”

“The police do, sweetie. The police do. It’s a huge problem in this country. I really thought you knew about this…”

“WAIT, WHAT?” her eyes almost spun in her head, and her tone escalated. “WHAT? THE POLICE SHOOT THEM? THE POLICE KILL PEOPLE? I THOUGHT THE POLICE HELPED PEOPLE.”

Hell if we haven’t raised her in the frothiest of bubbles. She continued to splutter; I continued to explain—extraordinarily glad to have been the pin popping the bubble I had blown.

Eventually, seeing Byron’s head out the window as he started towards the house, on his way inside to see what was taking me so long, I shifted into high gear. “Here’s the important thing, my dear duckling: the next step, after awareness, is to know that you can never be a silent witness to racism or homophobia or any kind of discrimination. No matter how much it makes you nervous or nauseous, no matter how much it feels like conflict, you have to stand up in the toughest moments. If someone is being treated with injustice, if unfair attitudes are present, if hateful words are being used, Allegra, you have to stand up against that. It might be figuratively that you’re standing up, but it might be literally—where you walk to someone who is being persecuted and put your body by and with them. But it’s essential that you don’t just try to make yourself flat and disappear while hoping that the moment passes. You are part of it, so stand up. There was one time someone came into our house and used racist and homophobic language, and the situation was so sticky that I let it go. I didn’t stand up. I will never be that person again, though. No matter the consequences, I will never be that person again.”

As I recounted that day, the details of which were complicated but with which Allegra had some passing familiarity, I burst into tears and stood up. Leaning my head out the back door to slow Byron’s progress, I wiped my eyes while calling, “Allegra and I are having a talk about Jenna’s message. I was just telling her about that day when we didn’t know what to do with the bigotry that sauntered into our house. We’ll be done soon. Why don’t you and Paco start a game without me?” Letting screen door slam shut, my eyes welled up again.

I was crying. Allegra was crying. Clearly, my work was done.

Fluffing the long blonde sweep of her hair with my fingers, I reminded her that there are movies, videos, books that can teach her more. I suggested that if she has another research assignment at school, she might consider a topic like the boarding schools Native American children were sent to or even the broader concept of “assimilation.” I reminded her that her godmothers will always be happy to talk to her. I reminded her that part of her purpose in the world is to care for all the Robbies and the Sadies as much as she cares for the Pacos.

Then, with a final squeeze of her shoulders, I headed out into the sunshine, where my healthy, happy, blonde, blue-eyed fellows waited patiently, largely unaware of the tectonic shifts that had just occurred in the kitchen.

Openly, confidently, sure of our place in the world, we played H-O-R-S-E, our only challenge the muddy ball that coated our palms with thawed dirt and pebbles.

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Twenty minutes later, after washing the grit off my hands, I checked on Allegra. She stared vacantly at the computer, attempting to complete a Current Events assignment that asked her to write a summary of a news article. She’d chosen one that had Turkey in the title because, ever since we lived there for a year, she is always interested in Turkey. Yet when it came time to condense what the article was reporting, she was stumped.

“I’ve looked it up and read the words, but I still don’t get what ISIS is. Mom, what is ISIS? What country is it in? How many people are in ISIS? What is this Charlie Hebdo? Also, what are border smugglers? And why would Turkey just let people flow back and forth through its borders?”

Filling my lungs with air, I licked my lips, summoned some saliva, and started explaining a few more of the world’s complexities.

Just another Wednesday night, really.

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Prince

A Good Neighbor: Remembering Prince

I pull up to the high school — running late! — and park at the curb. It’s my first time driving since shoulder surgery, my first time behind the wheel in six weeks. I’m shaky.

As I put the car into Park, Allegra bursts through the doors of the school’s glass foyer and hustles to the car. Her face is impassive. Reaching across my body with my left hand, I engage the emergency brake. The car idling, I hop out and let the sixteen-year-old slide into the driver’s seat.

She buckles in, gives me a sideways glance to see if I need any help, and there, then, my question explodes: “Have you heard?

“Heard what? What do you mean?”

My face is red. I am sobbing. Again. I’ve been sobbing for an hour. I thought I could keep it together in public, but I can’t.

In front of the high school, my confused kid at the wheel, I melt down. Grabbing at my glasses, I set them on my lap while I wipe my eyes, cry some more, wipe again.

“Prince died. They just announced it an hour ago.” Saying the words sets me off once more. “He was only 57, and they don’t know what caused it, but they found him in Paisley Park, and…”

I dab at my face, give her a rueful grin, and say, “I’m a wreck. Obviously.”

Equal parts startled and shrugging “just another Thursday with Mom,” Allegra attempts to adjust to the news and my upset. Five minutes before, she’d been stashing books in her locker; she hadn’t realized that sometimes in life, you walk out a door and into someone else’s pain.

Rallying, my girl tells me, “I’m really sorry.”

I laugh a little while I’m crying, tell her I realize it’s weird for me to be so distraught, assure her that we can get going so she doesn’t miss her appointment.

For a quick beat, she is silent. Then she says it again. “I don’t know what else I can say, but I’m really sorry, Mom.”

I thank her, run my sleeve across my eyes, and the adult in the car adjusts her mirrors and pulls away from the curb. Six minutes later, the car is in a parking garage across from the orthodontist’s office. “Hey, kiddo? I’m just going to stay here in the car, okay? You know how to make your next appointment, and be sure you validate the ticket. I just can’t see people right now. Plus, I want to hear what they’re saying on The Current.”

For twenty minutes, I sit in the car, listening to the music that defined decades of my life, listening to grieving associates put words to the shocking loss of their idol, mentor, boss. As I frantically text with a slew of friends, my phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I answer it. It’s a particularly special college pal. Outside of a few emails exchanged each year, we’ve largely fallen out of touch.

But Prince died.

She had to call. It’s a short conversation, full of love and memory.

And then she’s off to a couple afternoon meetings, mopping at her eyes, and I’m sitting in a concrete parking garage, my brain a jumble of thoughts.

I remember the summer of 1984, when I was seventeen. At long last, Purple Rain had come to Billings, Montana. Giddily, four of us tittered in the dark theater — Prince! So hot! Seexxxxxxy! At one point during the movie during a particularly lusty solo during which Prince ground his axe into his crotch, I leaned over to my friends and stage whispered, with what passed for humor in that time and in that place, “I’d give anything to be that man’s guitar!”

I remember the dress my mom made me for a formal dance and how it HAD to be purple. With fancy sleeves and flourishes.

Family dress

I remember dancing at college, always dancing at college, to his songs, to covers of his songs, our sweaty bodies slamming into each other with abandon, clinking hips with my best buddies in the crowd, our arms raised to the ceiling.

I remember going to see The Jayhawks at the Fine Line in Minneapolis, and midway through the show, the energy in the room changed. Looking over my shoulder, digging my elbow into my pal Colleen’s rib cage, I gaped. There he was, at a table in the back of the room. Of course. He was always doing that — checking out the local scene, seeing what was happening in his city, scoping talent.

I remember dancing at GLAM SLAM, twirling under the lights, laughing with my friends as the room flickered red purple yellow. Then. A buzz. He was there. In the balcony. Watching the floor. Excited, joking yet almost self conscious, we hollered at each other over the driving beat: “WHAT IF HE WANTS US TO BE BACK-UP DANCERS?”

I remember a great regret: an evening of drinking at a Minneapolis bar, getting chatted up by a couple of fellas, and having one of them announce, “My dad is rich. He’s friends with Prince. I know Prince.” When we lost our minds and peppered him with questions, he finally said, “I can call my dad. We can go to Paisley Park tonight, if you want. I’ll have him send a car.” Dubious, guarded, wanting to give over to what felt like exaggerated claims, we watched him make a call. We hemmed. Hawed. Finally said, “Hey, how about a rain check?” Forever, I will bemoan my reluctance to get into a car with strangers.

I remember my husband saying that because he grew up a couple miles from Paisley Park, his family would hear music floating through their windows some nights, the notes soaring from parties and performances, the resonant glamour filtering into their workaday hours.

And that’s why I’m sitting in a parking garage, crying. The sponsor of many of my best times; the inspiration for thousands of my finest gyrations; the badass who refused to let his roots limit his reach; the source of my belief that magic wears boots; the genius who demonstrated it’s possible to be masculine and feminine, black and white, big and small, demanding and accepting, flirtatious and somber, shy and bold, controlled and generous; the artist who redefined self-definition and showed a Montana girl weighted with expectations, shoulds, and people-pleasing habits that it’s beautiful to live however the fuck you want — was gone.

Sitting in the car, digging through the glove box for a napkin, I also remembered something else, something more remote.

I was ten in 1977, and I just didn’t get it. Whenever I turned on the tv or looked at the newspaper — heck, whenever I walked into the produce section of the grocery store — there were all these people, crying and leaning on each other, blowing their noses. Some of them were in a state of hysteria; some of them were even making pilgrimages to a place called Graceland.

What the? So Elvis had died. I knew Elvis. He sang rock ‘n roll. He was famous for helping start it. Or something.

Whoa. Those old people were losing their minds. I mean, calm down already. He was just a singer, and they hadn’t even known him for real.

But now I get it: they had known him for real. Elvis did for my parents’ generation what Prince did for mine. That business of blowing the shutters off a battened-down house and making the unthinkable possible? Elvis did it, too, with his pompadour and swiveling hips. Three years after Elvis’ death, in 1980, a similar sort of collective outpouring happened when John Lennon was shot.

In each case, all those people leaning on each other, crying in public, telling stories about the man who’d changed their concept of the world, of possibility, of acceptable — all of them were comforting each other in the face of a very particular kind of grief: the sadness that rolls intimately through the individual heart yet is shared by millions.

We who loved Prince have been doing that this week. We’ve been sharing our grief together, publicly, in the process assuring ourselves we weren’t alone; we were part of a thrumming mass of love and adoration. So we share our stories about a man of greatness who, to the end, stayed connected to his community of origin. We come together to pay tribute to a complicated genius who was always, unquestionably, A Good Neighbor.

Later in the day on April 21st, after the orthodontist’s appointment, after school, after I’ve stopped crying and startling my teenager, I am given the greatest of gifts: a new Prince memory to treasure.

“Hey, Mom.” I hear my girl’s voice calling from her bedroom.

I’m hanging up some clothes, so I yip, “What?”

No answer.

“What is it, Leggy?” I try again, stuffing the hanger into the closet.

No answer. She always says everything best without using words.

So I do the thing called shutting up and listening.

And there it is. Spinning ’round on her turntable. He’s singing. He’s suggesting, “Let’s go crazy.” The track is full of all the vim and color and joy I ever hoped would pour into my kid’s ears.

Last fall, this same teenager had admitted, as we drove to a Taylor Swift concert, that she’d never really sat down and listened to the guy called Prince. On the spot, her cousin offered up her iPod. Driving towards Minneapolis, we listened to Purple Rain together, the car throbbing with guitar and falsetto.

When it was over, Allegra agreed. Yeah, that was good.

Some days later, I mentioned to my best friend, the same friend I elbowed in the ribs at the Fine Line when Prince slid into the room, that Leggy was getting into vinyl. That she’d recently heard Purple Rain. That she’d liked it. That it was fairly spendy to find a copy, even online.

True to form, this friend, this Colleen, said, “It would be one of the pleasures of my life if I could send that album to your girl.”

So, on that night when my heart is a fragile, vulnerable thing, the sixteen-year-old takes the album she received from her mother’s friend of thirty years, and she sets the needle into the groove.

“Hey, Mom.”

Then his voice.

And all the dots of my life connect in the most elegant circle, a closed loop with pulses of purple sparking in the middle.

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