Wednesday, February 10, 2016

ten thousand steps

out walking, Crystal Springs, © 2016, Amber Schley Iragui


I don't write about exercise. It seems like an inconsequential and even impolite subject, something that should stay just between you and your running shoes. That is to say, the miles you ran yesterday? It seems embarrassing to publish those on Facebook. But since I don't exercise much, I'm rarely tempted to overshare. I error in another direction: I don't think about exercise much at all. And when I do, it is in an avoidant, fear-centered way—like I ought to be doing it, and perhaps liking it, and I'll start tomorrow.

But indulge me in this subject for a moment. I have been thinking about it lately, and the trajectory seems to be veering away from my old worn habits of hate.

First off, whether or not I admit it, I primarily view exercise as a means to losing weight. And, then, since I also think that the whole pursuit of losing weight is silly and overemphasized, I never truly commit to any exercise regime. I am not saying that good health is not a proper goal; it is an excellent goal. But it is no longer compelling enough to induce any suffering in the department of get-up-in-the-dark, put-on-exercise-gear, go-out-in-the-cold category.

Nor am I athletic. I cannot think of one sport I enjoy watching, much less actually playing. All the sports I was forced to endure as a child—volleyball for instance—were entirely comprised of dread and longing: dreading the ball would come anywhere near me and longing for the game to be over. Compared to team sports, jogging is fun. At least there is nobody counting on your participation.

The only physical activity I've ever looked forward to, and continued despite the feeling that I might just collapse, was dancing. And then I'm talking dancing to eurotrash at the Bulgarian Bar on the Lower East Side—drunks in suits, international students, Parisian tourists, an entourage of Indians who liked to dance with a chair. And it required no special gear, just something cute with flats.

And I cannot go any further down this road without a word about gear. Pretty much everyday of my adult life I have worn a cotton dress (or tunic or skirt), with a cardigan, and boots. In the summer with sandals. That is pretty much all I want to wear. It's comfortable, flattering, and goes well with my scarves and earrings. If I have to put on other kinds of things, like logoed tees in blocked colors, or ubiquitous black yoga pants, I feel done. Like my life is pretty much over. I might as well pierce my eyebrow and streak my hair green and buy some ugly Louis Vuitton purses.

So, well, exercise is not very me.

So when I saw online link to a New Yorker article with the byline "an essay on becoming a writer and a runner at the same time" I would have hardly paid it attention.  Except that it was written by Haruki Murakami, a writer I discovered last year and have a crush on. And surprisingly (or not, considering my crush) Murakami's perspective on running struck a chord. This bit particularly:
"...I don’t think there’s much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have will power. I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like."
Of course every good article about exercise will tell you somewhat the same thing, find some activity you like to do and then do that. Except I tried and never found anything I liked to do (besides dancing at the Bulgarian Bar, inconveniently located 3,000 miles away). So I'd go back to my typical pattern of joining a gym, working out primarily on the elliptical machine, hating the florescent lights and tv screens, deciding instead to run outside, realizing it's too cold to go running outside, recalling my hatred of workout gear, giving up.

But after reading Murakami's article it did strike me that there is one thing I do like doing that is some kind of exercise. And that's walking. Particularly walking with a camera, or walking to do an errand, or walking to get a coffee or see a view. However, if I attempt to walk for exercise—if I go out in sporty gear and try to keep up a brisk pace—the activity will go the way of all my attempts to exercise: I'll get bored and realize I'm wearing spandexy clothing in public. But if I go out walking in what I'm already wearing, and if I carry a camera, and if I don't indulge in silly self-talk like no stopping! or keep up the pace!, suddenly things change. I keep walking, I go farther, I forget this is a chore and I enjoy myself.

Around the time I read the Murakami article, I also read somewhere that 10,000 steps a day is a healthy daily amount. I opened the little health app on my iphone (I'd been avoiding it because I suspected it was designed to induce exercise-guilt), and found that I was walking far less than 10,000 steps a day. But at the same time I noticed that during our weeks in Italy—where we walked often but hardly enough to feel I'd exerted myself—I walked far more than 10,000 steps a day. And, trust me, I was not dressed in any special walking gear in Italy.

A month ago I began my non-serious, camera-in-hand, dress-and-boot clad walking. While it takes a little planning to get 10,000 steps into my day, it is not by any means difficult. Walking suits me, and I live in a neighborhood suited to walking (for example, the grocery store is a little over a half mile away).

It is silly that it has taken me so long to realize this. But I am happy. Happy walking around my neighborhood, keeping an eye on the birds and bums in the park, photographing plastic fairies stuck in tree trunks.

P.S. This article was supposed to be about uniqueness. I tried at first to play up the uniqueness of how long it's taken to realize that I wasn't going to start Exercising, but then realized that my situation is probably not that unique. However, to find what suits you and to run with it, to accept yourself as you are and do the best with that, is to take hold of one's true uniqueness—in the sense of one's true humanity. Uniqueness plus humility. I like that.

{ and for a more on-topic post,  here's Julia's blog }

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

winter, photos

looking off the front porch, © 2015 Amber Schley Iragui


Winter in Portland is mild. Snow is unusual, and lasts a few hours or maybe a day. It usually changes to rain, freezes again, coats trees and walkways in ice—and the city literally shuts down. Mostly though, winter here is wet. It is damp and cold and dark and rainy. But it is not bitter. It is the end of January and already daffodils are sending up green shoots, the crocuses are blooming. I have the window in my office open a crack and I hear the crows making plans outside.

At this cheerless time of year, an hour of sunlight is like gold. Yesterday afternoon it was sunny for a bit, and joggers appeared in running shorts. A boy walked down the road in bare feet. A quarter of an hour later it was dark again and raining.

after morning drop-off, © 2015 Amber Schley Iragui

walking to the grocery, © 2016 Amber Schley Iragui



puddles, © 2016 Amber Schley Iragui

ice storm, © 2015 Amber Schley Iragui

{More winter photos over at Day's Dearest Wish and Eine Hand voller Stunden}

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

So little is a stone

Amber Schley Iragui © 2015





B U R N I N G   T H E   O L D   Y E A R
Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

*    *    *    *    *

It has been raining and raining and I'm having a hard time adjusting. I know that's what it does here: rain. I was born here; I lived here till I was twenty-five. But after fifteen years in New York—with the sun, and snow, and occasional thunderstorms—it's hard not to feel it is just too wet, too deeply damp, outside right now. I lay in bed and think about hibernation, of crawling into a warm little cave and sleeping until spring. A cave with a fireplace, and clearly a mantle, and a deep soft chair, and some books—and then we're basically dreaming about hibernating in my own house. My house but a little farther away from everything; away from the passing cars and the bouncing children.

But I like the sound of the rain, I admit. I like the sound on the roof of my office, now, as I write this.

I didn't watch the State of the Union address this evening. I only know that this event took place because, while the kids were falling asleep, I checked Facebook and there were all sorts of postings about it. And it occurs to me that I doubt I've ever heard a State of the Union address. Not one I can remember, at least. And similarly, when David Bowie died a few days ago—alerted again by multitudinous Facebook postings—I could not bring his voice to mind, or any song of his I knew. Disturbingly, his face is mostly familiar to me because a friend of mine owns a David Bowie doll that she dresses up posts photos of on Instagram. And so it seems to me that as far as popular culture and politics go, I'm pretty much hibernating all the time.

Which is not to say that I don't pay attention to things. I do, but just to a select few things. And to those things I pay close attention. For example: dreams, typography, the birds I see in the neighborhood. I pay attention to my children, not always what they say as much as how they seem to be doing. I pay attention to the plants in my kitchen window, and to book covers, and New Yorker cartoons; I take note of new authors and wait for their names to appear and reappear before I buy their books. I have been paying attention to what's been happening in Syria and Iraq, and watching the refugees streaming into Turkey and Eastern Europe and worrying for them. But I can't, you know, take it all in. There is far too much to pay attention to and I live in this small stucco house with lots of windows, under skies heavy with rain, and have small growing things to tend.

{ Julia's poetry wednesday post }

Saturday, January 09, 2016

on spiders, and blogging, and four italian novels

I killed seven spiders today, mashed into kleenex against the bumpy walls of my home. As I'm writing this, two more spiders—anemic looking things with pale legs the color of old plastic—crouch on the walls above my desk. (Ok, maybe they aren't really crouching, but they appear hunkered down and vigilant, which I suppose is exactly right. All sixteen eyes on me). Mostly I ignore spiders, the gray-black ones that prefer the basement and their paler cousins who live upstairs. But it seemed there was a spider—crouching, cowering, crawling—everywhere I turned today, so I gathered my courage and began smashing. Last year I went after them with my little rechargeable vacuum, thinking how clever I was to not have to touch them while killing them. To my dismay they merely set up house inside the vacuum, spinning their webs and surviving for weeks, perhaps by eating each other. They would run around the inside of the plastic drum when I turned it on, but otherwise seemed content in their new home. And since the vacuum was the kind you empty by hand, I ended up sealing it in a plastic bag—partly to relieve myself of anxiety that the spiders would find a way out. This, of course, deprived me of its services. And, chagrined as I am to admit it, I left the thing in a bag for later and bought another vacuum. This year I am circumventing this whole problem by resorting to kleenex.

Otherwise, things are going well.

Julia, sweet dreamy friend that she is, suggested we blog again. And since I haven't blogged in so long the subject matter that keeps rising to the surface seems a bit unwieldy. Like what am I doing with my life besides being a mother and designing theological books and renovating our home and opening (and more excitingly, designing) a coffee shop or two? I just can't think.

So, moving onto something more bloggable: I've been reading Eleana Ferrante's Neapolitan series, four books detailing the tempestuous friendship between two women. The books are disturbingly obsessive, and do not make good before-bed reading. When I put them down I find my heart racing and my mind whirling. As the cluttered inner geography of the novels fade and my own life reappears, I find myself pondering the muse. The narrator of the series, also curiously named Eleana, is a writer; and her friendship with her "brilliant friend" Lila is a source of both pain and inspiration. Lila serves as Elena's muse, a situation Elena somewhat begrudgingly accepts. Much of the novels find Elena trying to prove, at least to herself, her success as an individual without Lila.

Which leads me, as I load the dishwasher or pack lunches, to consider the muses in my own life—friendships that gave rise to a poignant longing which found shape in words, or people who stimulated my own artistic vision by putting forth their own. And I realize I don't have many of those sharp and briny relationships eating at the boundaries of my consciousness anymore. Partly I don't have time for them, partly I don't have exposure to such people. I hang out with my family; I talk to other parents at my children's school in that cursory, cheerful, and exhausted way parents communicate; I have insightful phone conversations with my close friends—friends who have remained close partly because our friendships are healthy and supportive. No swampy longing and blistering competition wedging its foot under the door; any muse would find me asleep on the couch or, eyes-glazed-over, swiping my screen in Wordbrain.

All the more reason to post here. All the more reason to take up Julia's suggestion—twice a month, every second and fourth Wednesday—and run (ok, walk) with it. It's a new year. I have a five-year-old and a seven-year-old who attend school. I have a new camera and can manage to follow a line down through a paragraph about spiders onto Ferrante and muses and my longing for a little more longing, a spider crawling up my wall reminding me that being uncomfortable can sometimes be exactly what I need.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

of stars and tsunamis




I am sitting on a rooftop in Arch Cape, Oregon, surrounded on three sides by the crowns of pine and fir, one papery birch at my back. Before me lies a mist-smudged horizon and between us the cold Pacific, incessant and majestic. Overhead the sky is a dark, cloudless blue. The first night we were here, after everyone was in bed, I climbed the ladder to close the roof hatch and happened to look up. An intricate light webbed the space above me, perhaps a deck light reflecting off millions of wet pine needles. I screwed my eyes to make sense of the ghostlike streaks and stopped with a bolt of fear. The Milky Way lay parallel to the roof, a pale arc in the dark vault of ever receding space. What I understood as something near was instead our galaxy; the reflection of light off needles the burning of a million suns.

It's been twenty years since I last saw the Milky Way like this, bright in a moonless sky. The face of night seen as humans have seen it for two hundred thousand years at least, but unfamiliar enough to momentarily unlatch my breath and set my heart thundering. As if my heart wasn't thundering enough.

I shouldn't have read the article. I quickly flipped the page when I first saw it in the New Yorker. I ignored links to it on Facebook, the accompanying blood red map. I've heard this before, earthquake to hit Portland, skyscrapers tumble, bridges collapse. Twenty-year-old fears reared their gigantic heads: friends sleeping in tents, withdrawing wads of cash from the bank, stocking up on bottled water. I was at the beach on that day, in the mid-1990s, when some outspoken Evangelical man predicted--based on a dream--that a massive earthquake would hit Portland. I fell asleep imagining the water being sucked out from shore, leaving fish flopping and exposed like in the story of the Seven Chinese Brothers. And then a roar, a wall of water.

But that was then. Heck, now I've lived through two nice rattley earthquakes, nothing major. I was just outside of Manhattan on September 11th and watched the towers fall on television--the broadcast sound cut out while grainy images of smoking buildings and things falling from the sky shimmered silently on the screen. Less than ten years later I waited in Washington Heights for Hurricanes Irene and Sandy pass through Manhattan, each time stocking water in the closets, filling the bathtub.

But what the New Yorker earthquake article predicted was something far worse. And it was no dream; it was good science and vivid storytelling. And I read it, heart racing. A few days later I drove down to the beach for a few days with my dear friend Julia, all jittery. And now, less than a month from when I read the article, I am here again, enjoying two full weeks at our favorite house in Arch Cape.

Let us say that while the days have been generally relaxing and mostly wonderful, I am nonetheless on edge wiggle-wise, jumping at the noise of a truck downshifting or the slam of a door. Mid-conversation I find myself assessing my location, panickedly rehearsing what I'd do if the room started to wobble, the trees bob, the sand boil. The locations of children appear before me first, then husband, shoes, purse. A calculation on whether my iPhone is worth it. Or the beach tent, in the back of the car. The tsunami maps appear, the names of roads and alphabetized meeting places. (I drove the route on our second day here). I see myself dashing upland, grasping my son by the hand. I calculate the minutes I have until I hear the wave, high as the second or third floor this beautiful house. I take consolation in that, according to Google Maps, the walk time to high ground from where we sleep is only four minutes; the run time must be less.

Each morning I thank the earth that it continues to sleep, stuck; silent rock jammed against silent rock and staying so. I have three more nights to sleep perched next to the beautiful Pacific, and as much as I have enjoyed these two weeks of blackberries, tide pools, creeks washing out to sea, ice cream, and quaint beach town grocery stores, I will be happy to get in the car and drive out of this godforsaken tsunami zone. A hundred miles back to Portland affords me the luxury to worry about earthquakes minus tsunamis; and I will take that hundred miles thank you very very much.

Friday, July 24, 2015

a corner in harlem

On my street in Harlem, October 29, 2009, © Amber Schley Iragui





I
I'm not sure I should write this. It is difficult. It is full of potholes and heartbreak. Heartbreak that is not particularly mine, but to which I stand witness. There is a young man standing on a corner in south Harlem. It is an early November evening, and violet light deepens in the shadows between the buildings. He is looking at me earnestly, shifting his weight back and forth between his feet. He is smartly dressed, a messenger bag slung over an unbuttoned pea coat, with tan corduroys and brown wingtips. He is asking me for something. My mind is jogging back for an answer, coming up with answers which will not do--not for him. I don't have an answer. He speaks gently, as if to assure me, but also with an edge of desperation. He's sure I have the answer. I am uncomfortable and afraid. I don't know if he will let me go home, let me walk the few short blocks toward Central Park and my infant son with his sitter. Part of me worries that the young man will follow me; part of me longs to help him--but his questions triggered a mental avalanche. What he wants is reasonable, but the implausibility of him asking for it from me lodges between us. There is too much between us. I walked home, but he remained standing on that corner in my mind for six years now.

I sit before an open window of a beach house. Beyond the scaly limbs of a shore pine, a shallow beach rises toward electric lines and low shingled homes. A stretch of Hwy 101 bisects the seaboard and from where I sit the sound of passing traffic is just slightly louder than the sound of the surf. Yesterday, before driving west two hours to the Pacific ocean, I saw one person of color. He was working at the car rental where my friend Julia and I had hired a car, and he explained that it was only his second week on the job. He was well dressed, overdressed even, as he walked with a clipboard around the white economy, apologetically checking for dents and scratches.

I do that now, count the black people I see. The day before yesterday I saw two: a mother with a magnificent afro and flowing orange gown pushing her fairer-complexioned toddler, similarly afroed, in a grocery cart. They were leaving the market as I was arriving, and she was narrating their departure in motherly sing-song. The day previous I saw no Afro-Americans, although a Hispanic family of four walked by our home around lunch time. And the day prior to that I espied a black arm resting on the window ledge, in a car ahead of me one lane to my right.

I recently moved home, to the eleventh whitest city in America, from New York City, arguably the most diverse place to live in the US. My husband and I moved here to be near my family, but also because the school situation in New York City was frustrating. For one thing, the students in my son's kindergarten class, at a public elementary in upper Manhattan, were primarily Dominican. It was by no means a bad school, the principal--a diminutive Afro-American woman who glowed in pastel cardigans--was a stellar leader. I whole-heartedly adored her. But the natural concerns of a school with a majority-Dominican student body (for whom English was mostly a second language) were at odds with my goals for my son. I just wanted him to like school, to love his teacher, to associate learning with positive emotions. I didn't need to "bridge the literacy gap"; whether or not he learned to read in kindergarten was irrelevant to me. After months of fighting with him over homework, and regular reports on his failure to learn to read, it was clear his education wasn't going the direction I'd hoped. He disliked school and I began longing for a simpler, and more appropriate, educational environment. And so, for that reason and others, we moved to Portland, Oregon. To a tree-lined neighborhood with craftsman homes and a novelty butter shop. A neighborhood with antique malls and boutiques selling linen smock dresses and raw-crystal jewelry. And not a black person, not a brown person, in sight.

It took a few months for it to sink in that I didn't see many non-white people in my day-to-day activities. When I'd moved New York in 1999 it took a few months to realize that the cloudy weather I was accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest wasn't going to appear. Ever. In New York it was mostly going to be blue skies. And now moving home it similarly took awhile to register the homogeneity around me. The cashiers, baristas, gas-station attendants, receptionists, garbage-haulers, even my friendly postman, were all white, mostly tattooed, and generally thirty-something. The families transitioning through the homeless shelter where we volunteered were surprisingly all white too. The parents and teachers at my children's new school were white. One child in my son's class had olive-complexioned skin. Blink, blink: one child was a wee bit not white looking. So I started noticing the people of color I saw each day--I spotted a young black man with dreads riding a skateboard north on 33rd, another young black woman crossed Williams at the slow pace I associated with people crossing the street on 125th in Harlem. Once a day, or once every-other-day, I saw a person who was, or could pass for, black.

I'm not sure what I think of this. I'm sad. I'm sad for the loss of color and I'm sad that this loss of color makes life simpler and less exhausting. Life is flattened, less beautiful but easier. School here is good for my children, they love their teachers and classmates and excitedly relay what they are learning. Playdates do not involve bridging inscrutable social barriers, or a require tireless diplomacy. When I express my concerns for my son's education with teachers or other parents there is nodding and recognition. We are on the same page, a mostly white page it seems. And I chose this page, dare I say fled to this page, out of frustration and fear.

When I moved to South Harlem in 2008, a few months before my son was born, I had already lived in New York for nine years. I loved the diversity of people and languages in New York. I loved the Jewishness, the way you could go just a few blocks and find an entirely different ethnic group, a Puerto Rican barrio aside a Polish enclave. I enjoyed the way people in New York asked "what I was"--a baffling question in any other American city. So when we moved to a renovated building on 111th street, between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass, I expected much of the same. To me it just seemed like we were moving near our parish so that Charles could be on time to church and I could be late with minimal hassle. Columbia University was close, and Central Park was one block away. It was an easy commute to work. I hadn't considered Harlem at all.

But we did live in Harlem, albeit a rapidly gentrifying corner of it. And almost immediately I sensed the hostility. Not from the black tenants in our building, who were young and upwardly mobile, but from the people on the street who felt my presence meant the displacement of their people. I was used to being largely ignored by black people, a geeky white girl in glasses with long brown hair. But suddenly I was visible to them because I represented the white people taking over. I didn't understand this; I didn't self-identify as the white people taking over. At that time I was mostly concerned with the things first-time mothers are concerned with: lack of sleep, nursing, teething, high temperatures, what happened to the person I'd been before I'd had a child. I was walking to Duane Reade to get more diapers not to make a point about race relations. Not to flaunt my white privilege. I don't think I'd even heard that term, white privilege.

But despite my foggy brain something of what was happening around me did sink in. I found myself packing my son into his stroller and heading south, out of Harlem. Away from where my presence meant anything. I walked to the Duane Reade that was farther away because it caused less anxiety for everyone. And there was also the fact that when I stayed in Harlem I was asked for money, more than once with the preface, "I'm not going to hurt you, but..." A black man once yelled at my husband, across a street: "You rich white people moving in and pushing us out! You know that!" I also noticed something else, black people attributed far more importance to my actions than I did. I often stopped to take photos of light falling into empty lots between buildings, but whenever I did someone would pass by and make a comment like, "Gonna put a building here?" or "Is that lot going up for sale?" It took awhile for me to register that when black residents saw me taking a photo they thought I was in the position to own, or sell, the empty lot--or at least I was working for someone who was. I wanted to say, "Look I'm just some bedraggled mother who likes to take photographs. I can't buy and sell New York real estate." But over time it became clear that for them that I was in that position, that somehow being white made me eligible, in some way that they weren't, to buy empty lots in Manhattan.

Which brings me to the boy on the corner and what he wanted that November evening. I was raised poor, in poverty that was, at least economically, more severe than the average black Harlem resident. My parents, while more than qualifying for food stamps, never applied for them because food stamps meant not depending on God. We prayed that God would provide our modest mortgage payment, because often my parents didn't have it. And sometimes money did arrive in a white unmarked envelope, brand name groceries in brown boxes. We also prayed that the gas in the tank of our car would stretch like the oil in the widow's jug in the First Kings story of Elijah and the famine. We were homeschooled because our public school was abominable and there was no money to live elsewhere or for the unbelievable luxury of private school. I do not want to dwell upon this too much, but suffice it to say that what I carried with me to New York and into Harlem was the sense that I was far less privileged than most people. And although my adult choices, and education, had propelled me out of poverty I did not feel particularly entitled. I had arrived, a white woman with a baby and a hardworking husband, in Harlem because Harlem was conveniently located and had reasonably priced housing. And I arrived into a Harlem coffee shop with free wi-fi where I was busily working on freelance design project when I realized my babysitter's hours were nearly up. And I stood, stowed my laptop, and headed for home--noticing as I did so that a young, well-dressed black man had watched me get up, had got up also, and had followed me out the door. I noticed that he followed me to the corner, where I stopped and he stopped and I gripped my laptop bag tighter and he turned to me and asked, politely, what work I did and how I got my job and that he was looking for a job and didn't know how to get one. He said he'd applied and applied and never got any responses. He said he'd finished college but still couldn't get a job and that he'd been to libraries and read newspapers and asked friends. And he wanted to know how I'd gotten my job and what I did to get it. And did I know of any jobs he could apply for?

And that is when it first occurred to me, foggily, as I paced back through my life for some answer, some bit of direction, that while I had risen a good way in my life due to university and wise choices and good friends and a few moments of serendipity, the culture I'd risen into was my own. I did not have the obvious barrier he had. The world I now inhabited, old Harlem residents aside, held no animosity or fear or anxiety on my part. I stumbled over a memory of a job posting I'd accidentally come upon a year after graduating from university that sent me to a small publishing company. And the publishing company didn't hire me but offered me an unpaid internship. And when the internship was done, a part time job, and from there a friend sent me a job opening at a publishing house in New York. And my godmother happened to know the director at the publishing house, and sent a letter of recommendation. And here I was, gainfully employed doing work I loved, with a home and a husband and a baby. And while it was not impossible that a similar train of events could happen to this young man within the circles he inhabited, there was something more--what exactly I couldn't say--between myself and his reality. Between where he stood, earnestly asking, and my minor successes, backing away unsure.

I wish I could say now that I took his name and number and helped him find a job. I didn't, though. The street was dark and my babysitter needed to catch the train, and I needed to nurse my son, and I was awkward and anxious standing there. Why was he asking me, I wondered, and not someone more obviously qualified to help? Charles told me, later that evening, that I should have taken the young man's number and he would have called him. Why hadn't I thought of that? Maybe I hadn't thought of that because when his questions revealed to me the gulf between us, a gulf I hadn't acknowledged was there until that moment, I was left off balance and speechless.

Other people have written eloquently about this gulf, about the difference between the reality of Afro-Americans and white people in this country, and that is not my purpose here. I write this because it is mine to stand witness. To acknowledge my part in this sadness, and my flight nonetheless from gazing too closely at it. A year or so after the incident with the young man, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I begged Charles to let us move someplace less stressful. Less black. Where I didn't have to face animosity walking down my street. We moved up to Hudson Heights, a diverse but predominately white (and Jewish) neighborhood in the Northern reaches of Manhattan. A cliff overlooking the Hudson river with nice parks and large apartments. And then, when the school situation there seemed less than ideal, we moved here--to the eleventh-most-white city in America. Where the number of black people I see in one day has never exceeded the digits on one hand.

The young man still stands on the corner in Harlem. I still don't have any answers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

what it is like to be married to my husband



I am still suffering under a nasty cold that I've had for over a month, but that is not a story anyone would care to hear. More interesting is my husband, the enigma—my "handsome oppressor" and a first-rate goofball. I could go on in this way trying to describe with contradictory words (for example, both principled and devious) the kinds of adjectives he brings to mind. But no.

All I wanted for lunch was chicken broth soup. He wanted Mexican. But since tortilla soup was not even going to cut it, we headed to a favorite restaurant—a comfort-food place with a bustling lunch crowd. However, they were only serving clam chowder. We moved onto a second, yet more bustling restaurant: they were also serving clam chowder and something called beer-cheese soup. Yuck? So we moved onto a third, and completely empty, restaurant that did happen to be serving a chicken-broth based soup. We sat down and ordered.

And yes, my husband did give up on the Mexican food idea for me, and yes, that is also what is it like to be married to my husband, but no that's not what I'm writing about either. About half way through our meal Charles looked up and said, "Wow, this place has gotten busy!" Indeed it had, all the booths were filled. He then said this classic Charles thing: "We probably helped to pick-up the business by coming in!" (I'm not sure he used the word probably.)

So: we do things and they have a direct and immediate positive influence on others. This is what is like to be married to my husband, because he is always saying things—and doing things—in this way. Comments like this used to ricochet around me in their incomprehensibility: either this man was horribly pompous or merely ridiculous. I couldn't tell which. Or both? Inside my more comprehensible universe, if a restaurant crowd picked-up around one o'clock in the afternoon it was because that happened to be when people were hungry, not because we were seen eating there.

Here is a little story to sum up this difference:
A miserable-looking gent is sitting on the side of the road with a sign that reads help me. I walk by. I look at the man and wonder: is this is a man I should help? I consider my realm of influence; I try to gauge how much time and effort I have to give vis-a-vis how much he will need. Ultimately I decide to help (for the record, more often than not I'd probably just continue on my way). I sit down beside him and ask about his problem. I try to empathize. I try not to offer solutions but to hear him out. I begin to feel a little down myself, because his problems seem insurmountable. But I'm there and I can listen. I eventually excuse myself and tell him I will pray for him and will be by to check on him tomorrow. This all takes at least an hour.

A miserable-looking gent is sitting on the side of the road with a sign that reads help me. Charles walks by. He stops and says hello and engages in some light conversation. He reaches a hand down and helps the guy to his feet. He walks with him to the corner and points him in the direction of a coffee shop. Then he reaches into his pocket and gives the man a twenty and a comradely pat on the back. He goes about his day. This all takes at most ten minutes.

I used to think I was totally in the right, right? Obviously. But it's been eight years of arguing with Charles and blinking in disbelief. Lord God, it hasn't been easy to see things from his perspective, but I think I am finally getting it. I'll take that twenty, thank you.