Thursday, March 22, 2012

Trayvon Martin

For the last several days, one of the last things I do before bed is read articles like this one:

Police ignored witness whose account was different from Zimmerman’s.“One of the witnesses who heard the crying said she called a detective repeatedly, but said he was not interested becau
se her account differed from Zimmerman’s.”

And this one:

Mr. Zimmerman's unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Trayvon Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode and does not seem to be an act of self-defense as defined by the castle doctrine. There is no pr
otection in the "Stand Your Ground" law for anyone who pursues and confronts people.

I go to sleep. I wake up a few hours later and start reading again, articles like this:

According to his mother Trayvon was a happy child who loved to play sports and wanted to fly planes. I know him. I mean, I’ve met plenty of Trayvons in my life. He loved math and wanted to be an engineer and loved to work with his hands.

And this:

Can you imagine the scenario if the races had been reversed, and a beefy, armed black civilian patrolling his neighborhood had fatally shot a slim, white teenager whose hoodie filled him with dread?

Also this:

I fight for every young black man who looks "suspicious" to someone who thinks they have the right to take away their freedom to walk through their own neighborhood. I fight against my own stereotypes and my own suspicions. I fight for people whose ancestors built this country, literally, and who are still treated like second class citizens. Being quiet is not an option, for we have been too quiet for too long.

I sit at my computer with my black son safely tucked into bed and feel an aching tightness in my chest, tears burning in the inner corners of my eyes as I look at photos like this of the Million Hoodie March in NYC's Union Square.

I wish I could have been there. I would have taken both of our kids and rounded up as many of my friend's kids as would have let me. This is an important lesson.

I haven't told my kids about this yet. I'm dreading it. My son isn't even five. When he's in his bed at night I always go look at him. His beautiful lips poof out in slumber. His skin is perfect and glowing. His eyelashes rest on his cheeks and his arms are often raised above his head in a frozen sleepy stretch. That is my baby. I put a photo of our sleeping kids on fb a few weeks ago, and a cousin of mine in another state commented, "Gracious! Your babies are beautiful!" It's true. You should see them.

What gets me more than anything is the uncovering of this truth in the African-American community of the very specific "rules" parents must teach their black sons on how to survive. I read articles like this:

It’s tough finding the balance between encouraging
a black boy to storm the world with confidence and at the same time to fear for his life. But that’s what I must do. I know that at this very moment some have just sucked their teeth in disgusted disbelief and decided that I’m exaggerating. I wish that I was. I’m not. If I were, Trayvon would be alive.

Then I read this one and my heart breaks into thousands of sharp, angry pieces:

It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry but that’s the truth. Blackmaleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could possibly save your life.

Tonight at Beti's school, I got into a conversation with a
n African American mother about this topic of the "rules" we must teach our sons. She completely agreed. Her son is ten, and after the murder of Trayvon Martin, she sat him down and went over these rules. Rules like, "Don't run in a neighborhood" and "No matter how disrespectful someone is being to you, never talk back" and "Never ever go into a neighborhood where you don't know anybody, and if anybody asks what you're doing there, respectfully tell them your friend's name and which house it is." Her son is ten. This afternoon in Beti's class, he and a couple of his classmates interrupted "choice time" for "Poetry Break." He was carrying a big sign announcing what they were doing. His poem was about spring, about green, about things blooming, about life. Yet he is a threat. A ten-year-old poet.

In about ten years time, our son might be walking down the street to go to our local market to buy a soda with friends. If things in this country remain the same, it's highly likely that someone who thinks my baby looks "suspicious" will either, at best, alert the neighborhood watch or call the cops, or at worst, do what Zimmerman did in Florida.
As responsible parents who love our son, we must prepare him for the reality of what he will face in his "blackmaleness."

I cannot let this go. I have become a person obsessed with justice. I am not by nature a community activist or organizer but if someone in my city doesn't organize a Million Hoodie March soon, I may just become that person. It's all I think about. Can someone please tell me where to go where I can march with my home-made sign demanding justice? Someone? Constantly barraging my friends' fb newsfeed with news about this case isn't cutting it for me.

I need some outlet for this rage I have been feeling for the last week.

For the time being, I'm writing this here and hoping anyone who reads this will click on this link to sign this petition. It's a tiny thing that I can do. Please sign. If you have ever seen my baby boy's face, either in a photo or in person, do it for him. I cannot live with the thought that this killer Zimmerman is out free tonight. I can't bear it.


There is no fiercer love than Mama love.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

To Take Over The World

This morning at work, I had a conversation with one of the seniors in our program about my daughter. A group of the Ethiopian elders hang out at the local shopping mall drinking coffee and talking, and I had run into them yesterday while taking Beti to buy some new shoes. This particular elder wasn't at the mall yesterday but he'd heard I had come by to say 'hi', and I told him about how we're prepared to buy Beti many pairs of shoes in her childhood thanks to how fast she is and how hard she is on her shoes.

The next few minutes was a bragging session about our daughter.

"She is faster than all the kids in her class, even the boys."

"That's because she's Ethiopian" he said, going on to name all the famous Ethiopian runners through history, nodding with pride as I described how fast and strong she is.

"She does all her homework for the week in just one night, turning it in four days early. She wants to be a doctor and is determined and smart enough to do it."

He nodded proudly again and said, "That's good. It's because she's Ethiopian."

"Actually, last night she didn't finish her homework for the week but only because she wanted to help me clean. She swept and mopped the house for me, which I didn't even ask her to do."

Again he nodded and smiled. I told him that Abe isn't quite like this yet though. He got a concerned, worried look on his face and said, "He needs to learn."

I've thought a lot about the differences between our two kids, both Ethiopian, but one having spent his early childhood in Oregon and the other in a small city in the north of Ethiopia. These were two very different early childhoods, and I can't quite tell how much is nature and nurture and age difference. I really can't. What I know now is that our kids are very different from each other, especially when it comes to areas of helpfulness, responsibility, and diligence to finish a task.

A few months ago I was at the home of another of our Ethiopian elders whose teenage daughter was braiding Beti's hair. After she finished, Beti ran over to me and crawled in my lap, hanging on to me while squirreling around being a squirmy worm of a big girl with new braids. My friend looked at us disapprovingly and began to fuss at Beti in Amharic. Beti looked downwards and got very still, then moved away to play in the other room.

Our friend explained to me when I asked what she told her, "Do you like what she was doing?"

I thought about it a second or two and admitted that it wasn't pleasant to have a squirmy kid on my lap.

"She is a big girl and shouldn't be hanging on her mother like that. I told her that her job is to help her parents and that she shouldn't do what she was doing because it's not nice for you."

Hm. I wasn't sure what to think. This way of thinking sort of flew in the face of all I thought was true about bonding and attachment. Physical affection is so important, and shooing her away didn't feel quite right (though I was relieved to have my lap back).

A few weeks later, I had let Beti climb into the basket part of the grocery cart where babies sit, just for the fun of it. She was so happy to be facing me as I shopped, pushing her around the store. While doing our shopping, we ran into this same Ethiopian friend who was there with her elderly mother. We talked for a bit in the cheese and lunch meat aisle, and then my friend pointedly asked me why I was letting Beti sit there "like a baby." When I told her that it was just for fun, she again mildly scolded us both, telling us that kids are supposed to be a help to their parents, that she should be walking beside me putting things in the cart for me or even pushing the cart, not being carted around herself.

While we know a fair amount about our daughter's beginnings, one thing we don't know exactly is what was expected of her by her community of adults. I think it's pretty fair to believe that at even the early age of three and four, she had responsibilities. Yes children in Ethiopia are treasured and doted on; they also are given serious expectations to succeed in life and responsibilities at a very early age. The fact that on Beti's first morning with us in Oregon she went to the back deck and began grinding stray coffee beans with a toy boat and screwdriver handle makes me think that she was probably the principle mortar-and-pestle girl in her first home. This was expected of her. It was her responsibility to perform this task for her community.

Is this a bad thing? It's certainly different from the American way of raising young kids. Very different. I think some might say that kids just need to play and that by giving them too many 'chores' at a young age, you're robbing them of the one time in their lives that they can just be kids, period.

If that's true, that kids raised with these serious responsibilities are more serious and less joyful, then it doesn't explain the joy we saw among kids in Addis Ababa. We saw no Ethiopian kids having public meltdowns, talking sass to their parents, copping attitudes with adults, refusing to greet or say goodbye to friends. In general, the kids I saw there were respectful, kind, and happy.

I don't mean to idealize a place that I have only spent very limited time in. I know that the child-rearing culture there isn't rosy perfection. I have just thought a lot about what we expect of our kids and how we might be hindering their ability succeed in life by providing for them these "magical" childhoods of shiny kid-fest entertainment and little responsibility.

Why is most everything we ask our son to do usually a fight and the opposite with our daughter (most of the time)? Does it have to do with how they were raised? Possibly. I really don't know. Truly, I don't. Yes, I know that Beti's willingness to help may just be her desire to please us, based in fear and insecurity. I get that. But again, I just don't know.

A Liberian elder I drive to exercise class every Tuesday morning told me this morning how crazy she thinks it is that my father-in-law is resisting getting help in his old age from his nine children. She said in her thick, thick, thick accent, "If I coulda talk to him, I'da say, 'Oh my broda, dontcha see you blessed and lucky to have nine kids!? It their JOB to helpa you when you old man!'"

She's right, exactly right.

Most cultures have this expectation that adult children should take care of aging parents. The difference is in how early people are expected to start contributing to their families and communities. In the U.S. it's not really expected much at all, not much more than a cursory, "We're trying to teach our kid responsibility so they can be independent adults," not in the sense of "If my kid doesn't go fetch water today, we can't wash our dishes or do laundry or have anything to drink." The stakes are higher in some places than others.

One Ethiopian family I know here has a teenage son whose "idol" (his own words) is his father. The father won the green card lottery from the U.S. Embassy and came here seven years ago to work to bring his family over. He worked as an orderly in a nursing home but by the time he'd saved enough for visas and plane tickets for his wife and three children, he'd missed the window of time to bring them over. So he had to reapply and wait two more years. He didn't see any of his kids for five very long years. Can you imagine? His youngest was only a toddler and was reunited with his father as a school-aged kid. I can't imagine. The father is now in nursing school, and his oldest son wants to be an engineer. He works day and night to help his family and to earn high enough grades to get a college scholarship. He told me all about how his biggest desire in life is to make his father proud of him because "my dad sacrificed everything for me."

Beti wants to be a doctor too. With her drive and intelligence, I have no doubts that she can do it as long as she doesn't get "soft" by living in this child-centered culture. Sometimes I think that these hard-working, intelligent, and driven Ethiopian kids are going to get over here to this "land of opportunity" and take over the world. Their Ethiopian parents are going to expect it of them. As an adoptive parent, will I expect it of them too or just be surprised when it happens?

I don't know. I really don't.

Today was Fred Rogers' birthday. I love him. This speech is fitting.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More Firsts

We hope our children are adventurous enough that they have a life full of "firsts," but for the time-being, it's so much fun to watch our daughter experience "firsts" that involve this little world we live in here in Oregon. You know how fun it is when you get to show out-of-town guests the wonderful place you are living in? That's what we experience every week with Beti. Following the "rules" about newly-adopted older children, we have been very careful not to overwhelm her with stimuli. We have yet to go to Disneyland or the like. However, now that she's been here for seven months now, we feel it's safe to start introducing her to some of these cool things:

First cotton-candy

First time bowling.

First time to experience the anticipation about the tooth fairy.

First cherry pie with whipped cream.

First time pushing a baby in her very own stroller (an item she's been asking for for months).

First snow angel.

First bite of Voo-doo donuts (which ended up also being her first experience as a wedding guest in a donut shop for a marriage blessed by "the spirits of RC Cola and Kenny Rogers. Hey, we live in the city whose motto is to keep it weird.).

First Martin Luther King Day.

"My dream is to turn the world upside down."

For a little girl whose own personal world was turned pretty upside down, I say about that dream of hers: fair enough. You go on, girl. Do it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Making Future Sorrow Manageable

This week, Beti brought home a book by James Herriot called The Christmas Day Kitten. I had no idea. I started reading it to her and about halfway through gasped in surprise. Split second decision: do I keep reading or send the book back to school? I kept reading.

See, in the book, there is a stray cat who shows up every three or four days to a farmhouse to get fed. She goes missing for three months and then appears back at the farmhouse, bedraggled and sick, holding her sole kitten in her mouth. She knew she didn't have long in this world, so she made a plan for her soon-to-be-orphaned kitten, to make sure he was in a safe, warm, loving place before she had to leave him.

They named him "Buster" and he lived a long life, bringing joy to his family.

I cried. I saw the parallel. I started to discuss the symbolism with our kids but decided against it, just letting the story stand on its own. All I remarked on, through my tears, was how wonderful that the mother cat made a plan for her kitten to be safe and taken care of. My kids nodded and asked to go on to the next book.

Later this week, I found a book at our local library called Big Cat Pepper by Elizabeth Partridge. I don't actively seek out sad books about sick and dying cats, promise. This week, they just came to me on their own. This one was lying out on one of the kids' tables at the library along with a few others that someone decided not to take home. I checked it out.

Tonight I decided to read it with our kids. Again, I had no idea. The little boy loves his cat Pepper and plays with him under the apple tree every day after school. He can't remember a day in his life he was ever without Pepper. You know where this goes. Pepper gets sick and the boy sits vigil by the soft spot he makes for him on the couch. His mother lets the boy stay home from school the day Pepper dies. Together, they bury him in the flower garden.

Beti is reading whole long chunks of words on her own these days, so I was never more thankful for this new skill of hers than when I read the page in which the boy asks his mother, "Will he be afraid, Mama, way down deep?" I couldn't read her answer, so Beti did.

In Beti's sweet voice, she read, "His spirit is forever--it can fly, fly, fly."

The boy struggles through lonesome bedtimes without his friend and marks the spot in the garden with a hand-drawn picture and Pepper's favorite toy. He feels Pepper's fur on his legs when the wind blows and he knows Pepper is always with him.

Does it make me morbid that I read these sad books to our kids this week, kids who already know a lot of loss? They seemed more concerned about the fact that I was crying than anything. We have three cats, and they discussed which one would probably die first. Abe asked if he could miss school when that happens and if we could bury our pets in our backyard too. He said he wanted to be able to visit them. I said that was a good idea.

When Beti first got here, she was terrified of our cats. If one came near her, she'd jump onto the highest piece of furniture in the room. Now, things are different. One cat regularly sleeps with her and the skittish one who hides from most people actually lets her carry him around the house, purring on her as she carts him around. She has a way with them. They're now her friends.
I know the pain is coming. Two of our cats are older than twelve and the other is middle-aged. It's like the comedian Louis C.K. said about puppies, "It’s like, if you buy a puppy, you’re bringing it home to your family’s saying, hey, look, everyone, we’re all gonna cry soon. Look at what I brought home. I brought home us crying in a few years. Here we go. Countdown to sorrow with a puppy."

I guess my logic is that because I know it's coming eventually and because our kids have already known such loss, it's best to get it all out in the open than pretend that we're never going to feel grief again. Fred Rogers said, "Whatever is mentionable is manageable," so I'm mentioning to our kids the reality that our cats are not immortal creatures.

I just hope it's a long way off from now. Please God, let us have those rare cats who live to be twenty. That'll get us at least another five years.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Doing and Not Reflecting.

I'm not exactly sure why I seem to have stopped writing for this long of a stretch. It probably has to do with the usual reasons of not having much time by myself, just me and my thoughts. I get that mostly in the shower.

Being the sort of person who is a "doer" is a value of mine but then I seem to not be able to find the balance in sitting quietly and thinking.

In the evenings, I've been doing my "homework" of getting through the second season of Downton Abbey before it's pulled from streaming on PBS. This is very important work. I only have another hour to go.

During the day, we sometimes have a revolving door of kids coming to our house to play, friends coming for dinner because they don't cook and their former-chef husbands are out of town for stretches, neighbors popping over to talk because it's not frigid outside anymore. I also love to share my afternoon tea with whomever happens to be around.

Then there are the grown-up duties of registering our little one for kindergarten in the fall, applying for a transfer into the school we love (the one our big kid is currently enrolled in), getting up-to-date on immunizations, keeping on top of homework and clutter and daily dinners. Scouring Pinterest for cooking inspiration has become a new favorite activity of mine.

There's the jobs outside of home. For Ted, teaching and sometimes auditioning and coaching sessions. For me, the varied assortment of duties from networking to advocating for a senior in public transit court, to collecting money for another senior whose daughter (my age) just passed away in Addis Ababa to tacking new paintings up in the community room and distributing lunches and bus tickets.

I don't think of our lives as being any busier than anyone else's. Sometimes I just miss the stretches of quiet, the time to think. How to be a "doer" in this life while being sure to find time to reflect on all the "doings?"

I don't know. Downton Abbey and Pinterest and recording the goings-on with Instagram are certainly not helping with this.