Children and parents and strangers and alligators
It’s a strange day to fly across the country, leaving your kids behind. Of course I'm aware of their impermanence, everyone is talking about how vulnerable they all are. I refuse to open the emails from the New York Times urging me to learn the backstories of the children who were murdered last week, or to pursue the details behind the phrase, seen on an airport TV, "police correct their response timeline."
Maybe I owe it to these families to study their faces and tuck myself into the weighted blanket of the mistakes that were made at the expense of their children's lives. Maybe I owe it to mine not to do that. Also, I am thinking about the violence that takes the lives of so many children in my community every year, of the child at my son's elementary school who watched his father get shot and killed a few weeks ago, about how misogyny, racism, greed, and our American mythology have been joining forces to murder our country's children for a long long time, and this is just one of the most visible signs of that (though others witness reminders every day). Many people, I'm sure, have written about that much more eloquently this week, which I would know if I was brave enough to look at the internet.
My friends are watching their kids sleep this week. They are embracing clinginess. I am traveling 3000 miles away from mine so that I can experience a post-covid-infection-rumspringa in New York City, with one of my favorite people in the world, who loves making plans, canceling plans, and meeting strangers and following them to a second location as much as I do. There's this thread though, like a spider would make to drop down from the ceiling and onto the book you are reading in bed, tying me to my kids, tugging at me. There is a Taylor Swift song about this, so it must be true.
I almost couldn’t watch my Top Chef episode this week, I was so out of sorts. But I did. My hairdresser told me we disassociate when we watch screens. I wept, maybe too much, when one of my favorite contestants had to pack their knives and go. They were so gracious about it, too, lamenting not the loss of $250,000 furnished by Pellegrino and a feature in Food and Wine magazine, but the leaving behind of someone who had become, over the course of the competition, a very dear friend. You could see their thread pulling, when the one who stayed glanced behind them as the door shut on their friend. Tug, tug.
This week, we celebrated my son's last day of Kindergarten, You may recall that nine months ago, after I dropped him off for his first day, I ate an Ikea hot dog in my parked car, listened to Babyface, and cried. Many of you read about it at the time, and thought to yourselves “I have those feelings too!” or “Woah, this is a lot of feelings!” or even “I thought Momspreading was a sexy newsletter about moms who give it up to the whole neighborhood. Clearly I am in the wrong place.”
There was not a hot dog in sight at the end of year celebration (sadly), but the emotions were high. Our car windows were smashed the night before, in the saddest of ways, where the person who did it was so desperate they didn’t even take anything. It’s routine and senseless and reminds us both how close we are to constant crime and also how far we are from the very painful lives of many who I would consider part of our community. My husband took our daughter to preschool that morning, only to find that her class was shut down for the rest of the week due to a covid outbreak. And of course, children were murdered in their classrooms, just for living in a country where people in power really don’t care, or don’t remember how to care, about other people’s children. My team was in the playoffs. I was locked out of my computer. I got my hair dyed blonde and it was/is somehow very, very wrong. A lot was going on. And, I thought to myself, “I am the mother of a child who is now, as my niece used to say ‘in the grades.'”
I got to the school a little early to help set up. The sweet dad who always volunteers for these things, bakes fresh sourdough bread, and once dropped a loaf on our back steps in his rollerblades when my husband was sick, was already there. The kids in the Autism classroom were outside chilling, and one decided that he was our helper. “Oh I get it.” he said “The kids will eat the cookies. The kids will drink the drinks.” He munched on a school-lunch burger, which didn’t look half bad, while he helped us carry a full tank of lemonade.
Parents arrived. All the kinds of parents. One family was dressed in matching, traditional Mexican red outfits, all five of them. They looked incredible. Another kid had a lei made out of one dollar bills. My kid wore his velcro bowtie. There was a palpable feeling of apprehension, of pain and simultaneous joy. The threads were weaving a web all around us parents, sitting there in chairs too small for our butts, obsessed with these babies who had somehow learned their letters (for the most part), and how to resolve conflicts with I statements, and how to be friends with someone who doesn’t speak their language.
When it was over, someone had hired a brass band to parade around the school grounds with the principal, who is leaving after eight years, and the other six teachers who were also moving on. The starting salary for a teacher in OUSD is $52,905.14. The average rent in Oakland is $2,772. I followed them on their march around the school, with my daughter, no longer light, nodding off in my arms. They stopped at the corner of 48th and Lawton to sing Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You).” A kid in my son’s class, with bright blonde hair, abandoned his family and stood in front of the band, mouth agape. Some neighbors joined. Some watched from their steps with their babies, who they will likely send not to our school but to one in the hills. The principal wore a crown and cried quietly, smiling. I thought about all of the times I left groups of children in my work. How much it hurt. We wrapped our threads all around the perimeter of the school, and this time it was the love these teachers and leaders had for these 300 children, to whom they would forever be connected.
The next morning, Frank picked me up in a Lyft at 4:47am to head to the airport. He told me he was from Brazil but had lived in Boston before coming out west. Frank told me he had parents in Somerville. He also had parents in Saugus, Woburn, and a town near Billerica whose name he couldn’t remember. He was obviously using “parents” to me something like “family,” but I don't correct it, because he didn’t ask me, and also, who am I to say he doesn't have ten parents in the greater Boston area.
At the airport, two young tech bros stood in front of me in the TSA pre check line, wearing sunglasses, thought it was 530am and cloudy, and, most importantly, we were also inside. The one who looked like he has a 70% chance of being named Colson told his friend the tales of his dad's refusal to put on the air conditioning, even when it was 77 out. Colson's dad is cheap these days, and suggested Colson go into another, cooler room, rather than waste electricity. I felt for Colson's dad. Maybe he was trying to save some cash. Maybe he didn't think his kids needed to be comfortable every minute of the goddamn day. Colson explained that he has "PTSD from that shit." Now I have PTSD from listening to Colson.
At the gate, they call people with disabilities to board the plane first. I look around as no one comes, and wonder whether people with disabilities would fly more if they really knew they could consistently rely on such supports. I think of a scene in Reid Davenport’s film, “I Didn’t See You There,” where he pleads with the helpers at the airport not to touch his body, but to let him slowly move himself from the wheelchair into his seat.
They begin the long, absurdist classifying; Mosaic, Elite, American Elite Advantage, a triple redundancy. I always side-eye the nervous nellies who hover by the door, ready to pounce as soon as their group is called. This morning I am the worse hoverer of them all, advancing incrementally on the door as my group gets closer and closer to being recognized as citizens of the plane. I will not be associated with the rest of Group C. I will get a spot in an overhead bin, because I deserve it. Glancing furtively at the other people, hoverers and the chilling-in-the-back-ers and the I'm-just-gonna-happily-pound-this-breakfast-sandwhich-till-they-same-my-name-over-the-loudspeaker-ers, all I can think is: Someday, someone I love will get lip fillers, and I will have to live with it.
I wish they boarded places in reverse, so that everyone heading to first class, or extra leg room, or basic plusy plus plus, had to make awkward eye contact with all of the people that they have paid to be segregated from, like the parents who walk past our Title 1 neighborhood public school to get to the gated private school around the corner, who I fantasize feel some shame and even loss.
I have a complicated relationship with flying. I love being on a plane, all closed in tight, going somewhere, with all that “uninterrupted thinking time,” as Cal Newport calls it, from being disconnected from my phone. But I hate turbulence, and know when it happens that I will die, not from the plane crash but from my own boundless fear. Once, when I had visited my sister in Santa Cruz for the weekend and couldn't seem to get myself to fly back to LA, my brother in law, 20-years-sober, said "what about tequila?" Since then, I sometimes hold a nip of Jack Daniels, something I have not drunk anywhere that was not a plane since college, when I would literally drink anything. Just stroking this nip, or twisting off its tiny top and sniffing it, is enough to make me feel safe. Sometimes I take a small sip. Sometimes, if it's very rough, I drink the whole bottle, straight, with my head down in front of me, and fall away to numbness and a very bad day-time hangover.
My neighbor in row 21 and I get to talking about her son and grandson, both disabled by completely different birth complications, both doing well. She told me about how the teachers at her grandson’s elementary school made all of the students and staff go through simulations every year of what it was like to "learn in different ways." They had to make a Christmas ornament blindfolded. They had to try to get their lunch in a wheelchair. They were made to see both how vulnerable but also how resilient the disabled kids were. Now her grandson is working full-time at a Walmart, and just got engaged. He told his grandma that at first he and his fiancee, who also has some disabilities, were going to get genetic testing when they decided to have children. Then, they changed their minds. They decided that if they have a child with a disability, a child like them, they will raise that child. If they don’t, they would raise that child. This couple, not yet parents, were already spinning their threads and casting them wide. They were already practicing the difficult work of parenting; loving what is.
She had great-grandchildren too. Her thread has wound down to several generations, and now she is taking her end of it to a Jimmy Buffet themed retirement community in central Florida, where, (and I saw extensive photographic evidence on her phone of this), the living is sweet. I would subject myself to all sorts of discomforts to avoid living in a a Jimmy Buffet themed retirement community. And I questioned some of her interpretations of what constituted success or acceptance for her disabled grandchild. But for once, I didn't judge my neighbor. I’m happy for her. I think she'll be really happy there, listening to Keith Urban’s keyboardist play a Friday night set at the big palapa, as long as she can keep the alligators away.
The night after the graduation, my neighbor invited us to gather in silence. We sat in a circle of chairs on the lawn next door, in a quiet no one seemed to have planned to last so long. Someone came late after a baby was put down, another neighbor cut through the yard, breaking our meditation, but no one seemed annoyed. It reminded me of Quaker meeting, the religious practice, but also the game “Quaker meeting” that we used to play as kids. Obviously suggested by some exhausted adult, the first one to break the silence lost. That person was always me. In our circle of neighbors, when some of us were finally moved to speak, no one had any resolution. People cried, others raged, others didn't say a word the whole time. We agreed that we could be "united in discomfort," wanting to take action and not clear what that was yet but resisting an urge to pacify ourselves.
My friend Garrett, who gave sent me one embarrassing photo of himself each time his Bucks lost to Celtics this month, thinks loving others, especially strangers, is the answer. He is rarely wrong. Sitting on a couch in New York, which there is also a Taylor Swift song about, still in my nether-wear at noon, with my day packed with activities I will likely bail on, I would like to think I am gathering more webbing for my children, more connections. Maybe I'll return home with something to tell them about how people are finding joy and togetherness here, about a "mitzvah" performed or received, about how it feels to step out a door and be enveloped by other human beings. Maybe I'll just return with a feverish anxiety: How could I have been away from them so long, just to drink wine in Prospect Park in the daytime without their interference?? The pigeon at my window is telling me it’s time to get dressed. See you later, friends.
The movie Emergency, a first original feature by Carey Williams, is available now on Amazon Prime. It is entertaining and thought-provoking and stunning. I’ve never seen anything like it and it makes me happy to get to be a human alongside great human artists like this.