The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.
I am one of those people who finds comfort in reading about food. The first of these kinds of stories to appeal to me was Bread and Jam for Frances.
This picture book, by Russell Hoban with illustrations by Lillian Hoban, features an anthropomorphic badger named Frances. Russell Hoban wrote six Frances books between 1960 and 1970 that were based loosely on the antics of his four children and their friends. Bread and Jam was first published in 1964.
The story opens with the badger family sitting the breakfast table. Mother, father, and baby sister consume soft-boiled eggs, which they talk up in an effort to get the older daughter, Frances, to vary her diet.
Frances prefers her bread and jam, and she sings little songs about her favorite food rather than acknowledging her family. Later, she refuses the veal cutlets, string beans, and baked potatoes at dinner, and reveals that she traded her chicken salad at lunch for—well, you know.
The next day the entire family has poached eggs on toast—the entire family, except for Frances. Her mother serves Frances her preferred meal. At lunch, her friend Albert has a sandwich, a hard boiled eggs AND a cardboard salt shaker (handy!), fruit, and custard. Frances discovers that her mother has packed bread and jam again. She watches Albert eat. When she goes out to the playground, she sings and plays with little energy. After school, her mother serves her a snack of bread and jam.
It’s the spaghetti and meatballs, however, that really break our badger friend and make her decide to eat something other than bread and jam.
I find it funny that young me decided to settle into a seat at the library and read and reread Bread and Jam for Frances.
I did not like jam, or most sweet things, when I was a child. I didn’t enjoy soft-boiled eggs, grapes, or black olives—all foods that people (badgers) eat in this book. My mother mostly cooked variations of Chinese/Taiwanese dishes, so I didn’t know what a breaded veal cutlet was, nor had I tasted custard. Moreover, I was a picky eater who would gaze at a huge party table filled with fancy foods and then ask for a piece of toast.
But I did like to read about food. I went through the other Frances books, all of which contain bountiful feasts. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and still remember passages about popcorn, pound cake, and other delights.
Eventually, I got over my fussiness, tasted many of the things I’d previously only read about—and started to enjoy those that I’d hated as a kid. I still like to seek out books about food. In fact, recently, when the news got to be too much, I opened up the New York Public library website and searched under for fiction with the keyword “cake.” I needed something that would go down easy. I figured that a book that featured something beautiful and sweet would be just the thing.
But I wasn’t actually eating cake myself—I didn’t even particularly want any. I just wanted to read about other people making cake, or maybe eating it. And then, I began to wonder why.
Of course, Bread and Jam for Frances isn’t really about bread and jam.
We don’t even learn what flavor of jam Frances likes; Lillian Hoban’s illustrations depict a reddish-pinkish splotch in the middle of a slice of white. Maybe it’s raspberry, maybe it’s rhubarb, maybe it’s the blood of fairies. We just don’t know. What matters more is the fact that in eating it, Frances is flouting the rhythms of her family’s life by rejecting what is on offer at meal times.
By contrast, Frances’s post-bread and jam lunch is both rich and orderly:
“I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said.And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread.I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinklesand a spoon to eat it with.”“That’s a good lunch,” said Albert.
This is a very sophisticated lunch, Albert! Frances goes from a white bread and sugary jam to black olives and lobster salad. She even sets out a doily and a small vase of violets.
What’s also interesting is that this is mostly a list; it tells us nothing about how the food tastes. We don’t learn that the lobster salad is tangy or crunchy, or that the cherries are ripe and juicy and their flavor dances on the tongue—because that is beside the point. The main description of eating is about how methodical Frances’s consumption of her food is; the last words of the book are “she made the lobster-salad sandwich, the celery, the carrot sticks, and the olives come out even.”
What matters is not the food itself, but the system. Frances takes one measured bite of everything, one after another. Her lunch—the flowers, the doily, the arrangement and recitation of items—is meticulous and perfect, and so is her method of eating it.
Frances eating her lunch isn’t about food—it’s about the restoration of order. Something as unruly as appetite—as hunger and desire—can be sated, arranged, brought to heel.
Or maybe it is about the food, too. While I was writing this, my daughter nabbed Bread and Jam for Frances. Then, she wanted a soft-boiled egg for lunch—two, actually. She also asked for one for breakfast the next morning. Each time, it was my pleasure to remember the book, to be able to provide this small bit of comfort and satisfaction to her life.
Summer-wise, most of my reading is done in a hammock, slung under the grapevine, where the shade deepens from June to August.
This summer I set myself a few tasks: reread some favorites (the novels of Siri Hustvedt), find some shorter books (poetry, mixed genre, novellas) for an upcoming class to encourage students to be ambitious, and read interesting fiction to learn how to write interesting fiction. I wasn’t looking for “beach reads.” These were hammock reads.
Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way. I wanted books that demanded my attention, my re-reading, my deepening investment not in individual characters or poems, but in the entire enterprise of the book. Hammock reads require dissection, sifting, and leave me wanting to create my own map—like those books that include maps as their end papers, all unknown place names and craggy landmass, with accompanying genealogies. I wanted to chart the geographies and topographies of these books to diagram how their parts work together, speaking between and across the pages, verso and recto, text to text. Both The Sorrow Proper, by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) and Sarah Sadie’s We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. (Lit Fest Press) celebrate the pleasures of disrupture, delaying and toying with the reader’s desires.
Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled. Through the twinned story of a library’s eventual closure and a romantic relationship between a photographer and a mathematician, the book meditates on whether endings (which are always present) are endings. The library dies—sort of. The thing called the library, and known as the library, dies. Someone, either the photographer or the mathematician, dies. (Don’t worry, reader—this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed on page 10.) A young girl has also died in front of the library, and her death haunts the librarians, while her parents continue to observe the library’s present.
Because the book reveals that one of the lovers will die, and so early, our basic understanding of how narrative functions is disrupted. There is no suspense, not really. We are told, “things either intersect, refract, or pass untouched.” What we do not know, or what quickly becomes confused, is who has died. The photographer is an amateur, who only exhibits in the free space of the library—he only photographs objects, insists that to photograph people would be unethical. At one point, he tells his lover that “a subject is ‘captured.’ Photography is violent and cruel.” The mathematician is deaf; she communicates through notes and signs, teaches the photographer about proofs, how her experience of the world differs from his. (At one point he asks her what silence sounds like, but she tells him she doesn’t know what that is . . .) They connect through various signs—most poignantly letters inscribed on her body, as he writes on her flesh. After she, or he, dies, the book alternates between their grieving. Fragmentary chapters describe the photographer unable to throw away the marker he used to write on her skin. Another describes her wrapping and re-wrapping the writing in bandages to preserve it from the elements, the ordinary friction of the everyday, hoping to save for a little longer this memory of him and their time together. They both continue to exist, alone, yet together.
Alone, yet together, is the prevailing feeling of even the chapters where the mathematician and the photographer are both firmly alive and falling in love. Loss is present here too—traced throughout all their interactions. Both the structure and the prose (nearly prose poetry) insists it must be: early on, the mathematician writes to the photographer, “I will need you exactly always” and he thinks “in no world is always ever exact.” When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.” They write that the library has no floors, “MEANING NOT THAT IT LACKS A FOUNDATION, BUT RATHER, THAT IT IS A STRUCTURE THAT POSSESSES ONLY A SINGLE STORY.”
Perhaps the mathematician and the photographer are simply a possible story, a series of possible stories, in the library, as long as the library continues to exist. The reader reads the possible stories of them, as long as the book, the library, the culture of the book and the library continues to exist. Perhaps if and when the library and the book ceases to exist, so will the possible stories of the mathematician and the photographer, as well as any possible permutation of love stories, which are also every possible permutation of loss stories, and this is what concerns the librarians as they gather to bemoan the library’s fate, over beers and shots at the local dive bar. Perhaps what the book suggests through its exploration of the language of photography, mathematics, and the Many Worlds theory, is that we are all just “managing the dark.”
The dark is what greets the reader first in the tangible form of Sarah Sadie’s poetry book We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. A slim volume, black front and back cover, simple white text, reversed on the back, as if one is looking through the book. One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried. There is a long poem that runs the length of the book at the bottom of all the pages that (not so) subtly tugs one’s attention downward. In the end, I had to read this long poem first, then go back to the individual poems, then read a third time, finding the connections, the hinges, between the self-contained poems on the pages and where they intersected with the long running text, like a news channel’s banner, constantly updating. Given the topics and recurring metaphors sprinkled throughout the book, I came to think of this running poem on the bottom of the pages as breadcrumbs (as the banner itself says on one of its numberless pages), like those in the story of Hansel and Gretel, those little morsels left as trail, as markers, for the reader to find her way back home.
Throughout the poems, things are left for the reader to find. Most notably, the “princess water toys” the speaker leaves in the bathtub, in the “small, one-bedroom apartment” they rent in another town, “in another part of the state” where her husband works “half of each week.” The running text poems continues: “I leave them there anyway, emissaries. // Belle sighing, Girls grow up. / Cinderella nods, tired. Even a queen grows restless. // [. . .] And Ariel, facedown, repeats We were here. We were here.” Perhaps these quick mentions of everyday things would go unnoticed, if it were not for the book’s dedication: “For Reed, who knew to leave the princess water toys right where they were.” The poems are full of the everyday: laundry, strawberries, “bad cold wine,” acorns, and Great Horned Owls that nest in the backyard (more on that in a moment). But all of these everyday things, these quotidian moments, are complicated—fraught—with a simmering unease, a dissatisfaction that erupts from the running text poem and disrupts each page, challenging. The poem, “Riff on the Definition of a Poem” is interrupted by the voice that says, “I’m changing my name, she tells her husband. What’s changed? he asks.” Or the poem “The Girl the Gods Let Go” that speaks of not being chosen, of being left behind, so continuing on with “minivans / and pool parties [ . . .] Four kids and a successful spouse, a dog, / and all was well, more or less” is complicated by the running text that reads “Already she questions and crosses out her first sentences.” Here, the “she” seems to reference the earlier daughter, perhaps the Ariel princess left behind, but no longer face down, and no longer voiceless.
There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.” The second and third owl poems are nearer the end of the book and in both, spouse and children are fully present, the furniture of human relationships, reflected in the watching of the birds. In one, the speaker proclaims, “Married // love is muscled and damn big, but hard / to spot, even with binoculars.” The final owl poem shows the family engaged in a project together, creating a garden, with a walkway and bench, for the neighbors who come to view the owls. The speaker refers to them all as “human constellations.” They “visit together, having been visited.” And near this poem, the interrupting text has become quieter, less voluble. Fist in its mouth.
Finally, this may be the project of the book. The bottom text, its breadcrumbs, a path for the reader to interrupt the closed forms of the poems, to meander in and out of the book, interrupting and challenging what seems quotidian, a depiction of the trials and difficulties of marriage and children, the navigating of relationships that are somehow—strangely—unlike where you thought you’d end up. But they are, also strangely, where you’re glad to have ended up. Because the poems must address both these states, the poet writes them both, and allows them to comingle on the page.
The last time I saw my nineteen-year-old son, he grumbled at me in the middle of the public library: “Just stop yelling at me all the time. I’m sick of it. I’m finally living my life how I want, and you can’t control me!”
For the record, I wasn’t yelling at him. I had told him that I left an Easter card from his grandma at his apartment. Also, “living my life how I want” involves not taking his medication and staying up all night playing Xbox, which means he obviously can’t be expected to go to work in the mornings.
But he’s right, of course. I can’t control him. I’m doing a whole lot of psychological and spiritual work right now to let that sink in and to create the boundaries I need in our relationship so that encounters like this don’t send me into brooding anxiety for days on end.
Being a mother is not the most delightful part of my life. And I’m not the delightful mother I wish I were. So I approach the upcoming Mother’s Day celebration with deeply mixed feelings.
Mother’s Day is often celebrated in church, but many people will come to worship on May 8 with ambivalent—if not downright hostile—feelings about the day.
There are plenty of women who are not mothers—some by choice, some who desperately want children but, for different reasons, didn’t have them.
There are people whose mothers have died, and those whose mothers might as well be dead. There are those whose mothers abused them or stood by and let others abuse them. There are adopted kids (my oldest son and daughter among them) who wonder about their “other” mothers. There are women who have given their children up for adoption. Women who have had miscarriages. Women who have had abortions. Women who aren’t biologically female and so cannot ever hope to experience the very physical and feminine reality of pregnancy and childbirth.
Mother’s Day is riddled with landmines. I was relieved to get through our last worship planning session without any mention of the dreaded date. I thought I might get away with just ignoring mothers this year. But alas, someone emailed after the meeting and said, “Oh. We forgot about Mother’s Day. We should do something.”
We should do something. Fine. Here’s what I’m going to do: take a page from my more conservative Baptist upbringing. Not a page from how they celebrated Mother’s Day—with cheap carnations and sappy bookmarks and rhyming poems about a mother’s love being from heaven above. I’m going to take a page from how we Baptists used to celebrate Father’s Day—talking about God as the great and ultimate Father.
Celebrating earthly motherhood in worship is problematic on many levels. But lifting up the maternal qualities of God is, it seems to me, a valuable way to observe the holiday. After all, the earliest roots of Mother’s Day can be found in Greek and Roman celebrations honoring the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. And the modern manifestation of the holiday in the United States is based on women’s efforts toward peace, justice, and equal rights.
And of course, since it’s church, we’ll read the Bible.
The foundational Biblical image of God as creator is strikingly feminine. The writer of Deuteronomy chastises the people, saying: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (32:18). And in Isaiah God says she “will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (42:14).
The Biblical images of God as a nurturing mother provide a necessary corrective to contemporary religious rhetoric about judgment and punishment, getting even and building walls. In Isaiah God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (66:13). Hosea writes these words from God’s mouth: “I led them with cords of human kindness, / with ties of love. / To them I was like one who lifts / a little child to the cheek, / and I bent down to feed them” (11:4).
And another Biblical image is a necessary corrective to our tendency to think of mothers only as gentle nurturers: God says, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, / I will attack them and rip them open” (Hosea 13:8).
I love that some of these images are soft and comforting, while others are powerful and disturbing. Motherhood is as much about wailing in labor and viciously protecting our children as it is about kissing boo-boos and singing lullabies. In fact, some experiences of motherhood involve far more wailing than kissing.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we acknowledge the complicated identity of being a mother (or not) and the complex relationships that many people have with their mothers and other maternal figures.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we lift up the fullness of God and explore the rich and varied images for the Divine provided in the Bible and other religious texts. This broadened conversation matters not just because it allows us to understand God more fully, but also because it allows us to move beyond the strictly gendered ways we think about each other.
Many theologians will argue that God is neither male nor female. I prefer to consider God as female and male and non-gendered and multi-gendered. We could say that God is gender fluid, or gender queer: a fierce mother bear one moment and a generous father the next (Matthew 7:11); a father whispering secrets to children and a mother gasping and panting in childbirth (Matthew 11:25, Isaiah 42:14); an eagle spreading its wings to catch its young and a hen gathering her chicks to her warm body (Deuteronomy 32:11; Matthew 23:37).
Perhaps Mother’s Day can be a time to question rather than reinforce the gender binary and stereotypes so prevalent in our society. Rather than feeling shame around our own experiences with mothers and motherhood, it can be a day for us to acknowledge that none of us have perfect mothers; that none of us are or will be or would have been perfect mothers.
And if we must celebrate this secular holiday in the holy space of worship, perhaps it can be a time for us to recognize and celebrate the fullness of Divine identity; a time to praise the mothering God who gave us birth, to rest under the warmth of her wings, and to find power in her fierce love.
The day after my wife, our daughter, and I returned from Scandinavia, we squeezed through the entrance gate to the Denver Pride Festival.
Repeat: the day after my family and I returned from taking a trip only a small percentage of Americans are privileged enough to afford, we sat on a hillside and waved a rainbow flag because my wife and I are still not privileged enough to trust our marriage will always be legal.
The Scandinavian countries we visited — Finland, Sweden, and Norway — approved same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s and legalized gay marriage in 2009, six years before the U.S.; that knowledge faded the colors in the rainbow flags all around us at Denver’s Pride Festival. But in Scandinavia, Meredith and I never knew where it was safe to hold hands or kiss in public; at the Denver Pride Festival, we kissed long in the midst of hundreds of people, our arms wrapped around each other, our daughter exclaiming, “EWWW!”
A black man working at a gas station in Sweden in 1927 was such an anomaly of difference in that country at that time that people drove for miles just to glimpse him. In 2017, we walked through a more diverse Scandinavia, but most of the people of color we saw were in service positions, and everyone of every color turned their heads, curious, to see Mitike between me and Meredith. It was a relief to walk unremarked through the Denver Pride Festival.
In Americanah, which I started reading on IcelandAir on our flight home, Chimamanda Adichie asks me again and again to hold my privilege up to the light and examine it carefully like an Icelandic sunstone. Her sharp voice is tinged with humor, but it cuts. Who are you, American white woman, to travel so freely through this world? No one looks askance at you. In the Copenhagen airport, a man conducting a survey on an iPad speaks to you in Danish because your height, your skin color, your hair and eye color (every gene that you inherited from ancestors who farmed only two hundred miles southwest of there in Schleswig-Holstein) tell him you are Danish. Do you imagine it will ever be this easy for your Ethiopian daughter? You make her a world traveler, teaching her how to easily flash her blue U.S. passport; you teach her to try cold-smoked salmon, to whisper inside the medieval stave church, to revel in the sea spray in the Norwegian fjords, but you cannot teach her to glide through the world the way you do, because her skin color, hair, and eye color (the genes she inherited from her ancestors seven thousand miles southeast of Copenhagen) will be barriers. Customs officials will often ask how long she has been a U.S. citizen; they will speak slowly in clearly enunciated English, though English has been her primary language since she was eighteen months old. They will carefully scrutinize her visa. And you will be staying in our country for how long? And you plan to do what? Back home, at the Denver Pride Festival, people grin at our family of three because we are diverse; we are the dream so many LGBTQ people dream. Their eyes linger on Mitike’s face. She is the daughter they want. She is so beautiful, so exotic. They say to us, You must be very proud of her. She has such lovely features, not African at all.
In Stockholm and Oslo, but also in the Norwegian port city of Bergen, we walked past immigrants who have resettled in Scandinavia. I guessed at their stories, based on what I have heard from my refugee students. I imagined the Somali woman and her children who strode past us in Oslo had first spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda. I imagined the Syrian men who stood talking at a bus stop in Stockholm had paid a boatman to take them on the risky crossing of the Mediterranean. I imagined the Afghani man and woman talking in the Bergen fish market had escaped their village and the Taliban, as one of my students did, on horseback. The world knows that the Scandinavian countries are welcoming to immigrants, and that my country — historically the most welcoming of all — is abruptly not, as Trump works to halve the number of refugees we accept. And how odd, that Trump’s supporters are mostly descendants of immigrants who came from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy. How quickly we forget. At the Denver Pride Fest, I waved my flag in gratitude, as usual, that my country’s highest court has insisted that my marriage to my wife is legal, but I also thought of the times in these past few months that I have stood in this same spot in front of the Colorado Capitol Building, holding up signs that plead for openness to immigrants. What kind of nation do we want to be in the world, anyway?
We went to Scandinavia because I wanted to travel somewhere where we would be safe, and all the guidebooks promised that nowhere is more open and more tolerant. In city after city, we stayed in hotels that cheerfully gave me and Meredith a double bed, glanced at our common last name, welcomed us with a bright nod and (always) breakfast the next morning. I imagined living in one of those cities, never returning to the U.S., happily enrolling Mitike in one of those reputable Finnish schools or dropping her at camp in the Norwegian mountains as Meredith and I prepared for a holiday in some quaint village. To be born American and to be liberal is to be always embarrassed abroad, ashamed of the president (in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq just as I rode a bus into Nicaragua — now, in 2017, there is Trump), ashamed of fellow Americans who are too loud and too certain they deserve preferential treatment, ashamed of a history that has included slavery and Native American massacres and now continues into modern times with acquitting Philando Castille’s killer and withdrawing from the Paris deal on the climate and refusing to provide health care to all its citizens. Traveling, Meredith and I taught Mitike to speak quietly, attempt words in other languages, show extra gratitude. Maybe they’ll assume we’re Canadian. It jolted us to walk into the cheerful fray of the Pride Fest in Denver, where scantily clad people shouted and waved rainbow fans, flags, underwear, boas, posters, pinwheels. We were quiet, too European. We sat on a grassy hill and observed, and fit in nowhere.
We walked into Oslo’s Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Museum, and gazed in awe at the grandly renovated Oseberg, a Viking ship from 834 CE that was discovered and dug up on a farm in 1903. Two women had been buried in the ship, in state, along with horses and dogs and cows, armor, kitchenware, clothes, tents, a wagon and a sled. The Vikings honored their chiefs in this way, since they believed that they would be able to use all of these objects in the afterlife, in Valhalla. I loved the mystery of who these honored women had been. Days later, at the Denver Pride Fest, I wondered what might remain of us one thousand years from now. Mitike’s plastic beads, maybe, some of our metal tooth fillings, the matching rings Meredith and I wear — the hard diamonds still sparkling. In this era that overdocuments everything, will any document remain? Something will have replaced the Internet, rendering it as inaccessible as floppy disks and VHS tapes are now, or all of humanity will have been catapulted backward by climate change trauma to survival — campfires, carved wooden tools, pictures painted on stone walls again. And someone will find some fragment of evidence from 2017, one thousand years before, and wonder about our lives, how we lived them, who we were.
An older acquaintance hears we traveled to Scandinavia and exclaims, “You took Mitike there? To the most racist countries in the world?” I was speechless for a moment. Racist? The 2017 UN report includes all of the Scandinavian countries through which we passed in the top ten happiest countries in the world. Norway is first. Maybe Sweden is only tenth because it has struggled with race relations as Sweden invites more and more immigrants across its borders, but our family’s experience in all of Scandinavia was positive, or at least no different from our experience in the U.S. Women of color did a double-take to see Mitike with us; they often studied her hair (perfectly done in neat microbraids and beads, scalp oiled, thank you). Small children stared. But the mostly blonde and blue-eyed residents of Scandinavia were unfailingly friendly to all three of us. What I wish I’d said to my acquaintance: Being white doesn’t mean you’re racist. What I did say: Have you been to Oslo? It’s quite diverse. A true but weak answer. The Denver Pride Fest was whiter than Karl Johans Street in Oslo. The summer camp in Keystone where I just dropped off Mitike is the whitest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s all more complex than what we see.
My wife and I stood in a green mossy forest of tall spruce trees (are they called Norway Spruce in Norway?) and watched our daughter search in half-serious earnest for fairies in the shadows of the clover leaves. And then, one day later, we stood in Denver’s blue-sky sunshine with our arms around each other’s waists, our daughter close. Oh, yes. I know to be grateful for this life.
For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. On the way home, on IcelandAir, Mitike leaned her head against my shoulder and murmured, “We’re lucky to be able to travel to places like Scandinavia, aren’t we?” I nodded. Unbelievably lucky. Guilt nagged at me. Look at us with our blue passports and our resources, hopping on planes and trains and boats, wandering cobblestone streets, posing for pictures in front of medieval towers. Look at us and our comfort, our ability to leave our secure little house in south Denver and peer into others’ windows. Even at Pride back in Denver, I continued to feel this mix of luck and guilt. Yes, we are a minority, and yes, maybe my wife is right to be cautious in certain neighborhoods and certain situations about how out we are, but after this parade ends, we’ll walk back to our car and drive home to our dog, who will greet us with his curly wagging tail, and we’ll make dinner in our kitchen together and hold hands before we eat, the little circle we make a protective shield for our family. We’re lucky to be together in this complicated world, right now, no matter where we are wandering.