Years ago said with embarrassment. A joke of a town. Now it rolls from my tongue between puckered lips. I imagine dropping the H, adding a French inflection. O-Bo-Ken. Proudly, I say it. My home now.
I have come to believe that home is a tricky concept. Once I thought it synonymous with ownership. Of things, carefully chosen for their impact on others. Of a name printed on an official document. How wrong I was.
These two things happened:
My marriage ended.
Out went the years of credit card statements. The unused curtain rods. Cans of spray paint. The remnants of a previous career.
I’ve written about this before. The relief of discarding. Even my husband, the arbiter of cleanliness in our house, looks at me with exasperated eyes. “I just bought that.”
Still, I search closets, rifle through drawers, fill more bags with clothes for donation. The trash men must groan as they approach my house.
I know this is a stress reaction. The desire to control the uncontrollable. The ugliness in our country. The sense of violence that hovers just one provocation away.
We are nearing the end of the silly season and my stomach seems suspended on a rubber band. There are the backflips at every drumroll of BREAKING NEWS! There’s the low level of butterflies as I pull up the morning newspaper. About now, my instincts tell me to climb under a rock, but I’m quite sure I’ll bang my head on the ceiling of my cave fifty times a day checking my phone for campaign updates. Is that the definition of a political animal?
I will surely hold myself responsible if my candidate loses and I did nothing but whine. That’s the thing about politics. Its success sits both on your shoulders and completely out of your control. And it’s the lack of control that causes this persistent nag of nausea. You cringe with every gaffe by your candidate and revel in the mistakes of the other. You’re quite certain you have the winning campaign strategy, or ad, or tagline, but there’s no one, really, to hear you when you explain it to the television.
And so, six weeks out, I am registering voters.
The Treading Water Blog turns one this month. My sincere thanks to all of you who have stayed with the blog as I sought a more steady stroke. While I work on new posts, and to celebrate this anniversary, I am reposting the first Treading Water post, The Help.
I grew up in the least diverse section of Philadelphia and I was raised by an African-American nanny. But this is no rich, privileged girl story.
Frances was a part of my childhood almost since I was born. Three days a week, she arrived at our house early in the morning and stayed until my mother returned from work. She cleaned the house, ironed my father’s shirts, and cooked better than anything my mother could do on an entire Sunday. Don’t ask about the other two days. A revolving disappointment, if you asked my mother.
I’d come home from school and the kitchen would be filled with the aroma of fried chicken and the creamiest macaroni and cheese you ever tasted. Her meatloaf had a hard-boiled egg buried in the middle that we three kids fought over like the Cracker Jack prize. And her iced tea—a cup of sugar to a pitcher, she said, and we drank it by the gallon. She loved the daytime stories and the numbers and often came to work with her dream book, giddy with her winnings. She was a window into another world and I was enthralled.
Frances’ people came from down Virginia, as she said it, with a mother that taught her what she needed to know. Like washing your face with your own urine stopped pimples. Every summer she and her husband would drive south to see her aunts and uncles and the next generation. I always liked the way she said aunt, rhyming it with font and not pulling back her teeth like a horse accepting a bridle, like how we say it in Philly. If she had religion, she kept it to herself. Whether out of respect for our differences or because she’d seen too much to believe, I never knew. But she described not being able to have children as just the way it was and didn’t bother blaming it on the Lord.
Her husband, James, was a good foot taller than she, a gentle man with an easy laugh who, if truth be told, scared me a little as a child. I saw him rarely but knew how much Frances loved him. She believed men were in charge of their women, at least to a point, and when he said he didn’t like her morning breath—Frances’ love of Salem cigarettes the likely culprit—she took to tucking a mint beneath her tongue every night until her teeth rotted out. I was long out of the house before she finally got a set of dentures.
For as long as I could remember, Frances drove a Cadillac. Said she saved her money and could spend it on what she wanted and she wanted a Cadillac and so every few years, she’d pull up in a newer version of a used one. It wasn’t long before my mother thought that was a very good idea and traded her Chevy for a used Caddy also. The two of them, women of little means, special in their automobiles.
My father took ill when I was four, my brother six, and my sister a newborn and he didn’t work for two years. Frances still came three days a week to care for us, without pay, while my mother managed a toy store making god knows what, but clearly not enough to support three kids and a husband. We were barely holding onto middle class back then and Frances’ generosity got us through an impossible situation.
Frances was the one I whined to about friends’ disappointments and enduring loneliness. She was the one who taught me about loving myself. My mother’s advice was that I should always be able to take care of myself. Note the difference.
Frances and James had no children but she was a wonderful aunt to her nieces and nephews. She raised one of her nieces and put her through college. When that beloved niece was in her early twenties, a boyfriend murdered her. I was in college at the time, worried it would take the life out of Frances too. “Bad things happen. What can you do?” was all she said when I phoned her. “What can you do?”
I remember one time Frances and my brother had a heated argument. My brother was a bit of a troublemaker in the family and it distressed her to see my parents so worried about him. Their words grew ugly until he threw the n-word at her and she replied with something about him being a dirty Jew and they both cracked up and laughed hysterically, that not being a part of either of them. I don’t think they ever had a sore word between them again.
I was a young mother when she passed away. My parents and I and my mother’s best friend for whom she also worked, hired a car and an African-American driver to take us to her viewing in a part of the city that Mom was uncomfortable parking the Caddy in. Even I can see the irony in that.
Frances’ was the first dead body I’d ever seen. She was smaller than I remembered, with the waxy face of the artificially molded and her mouth stuck out more than it should from those damned dentures. We sat on one side of the room, dabbing at our tears while James and the family sat at the other. Frances had never called my parents by their first names, not in thirty years. This never sat well with me, starting with my teenage years when I tore through The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Black Like Me.
James greeted us with a nod and accepted our hugs, not using any of our names. Even deep in his grief, he was gracious to us and listened to our words about her importance in our lives. I wondered how James felt about his wife working for no pay for two years and that child rearing and housekeeping didn’t exactly come with a pension, but none of that probably mattered at that moment.
Yes, Frances was the help. She helped me grow into a confident woman. Helped me learn that people just do the best they can, even if it doesn’t always meet your standards or expectations. That bad things happen to people you love and that doesn’t stop life from going on.
I saw the 2011 movie, The Help. Like many, I was appalled at the racism and exploitation. But the movie resonated with me on another level. I recognized the love between Emma Stone’s character and the woman she thought of as her other mother.
I had that privilege.
Last night I watched The Walk, the story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire walk between the Twin Towers. The story’s heart-stopping climax portrays Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, caught on the wire between the North and South Towers as police wait to arrest him on either side. During our silly season, I, too, feel caught between twin towers. Not about which candidate to support. I have no doubt there. I am caught between hope and expectation.
Oddly President Obama first crystallized this dichotomy for me. His 2008 campaign was about Hope, yet behind that hope stood the expectation of success that any politically aware individual knew was beyond the ken. I worried that first-time voters would ascribe powers to him that he didn’t have. That their expectations were out of line with political reality and that their perceived betrayal at anything less than total success would lead them to eschew further political involvement. I suspect to some extent this may have happened.
Oh, those pesky rising expectations.
So where is the line between hope and expectation?
A president is neither king nor dictator. She or he is not able to decree that millions of jobs will be created. That racial divisions will dissipate. That other countries will bend to our will. Expectations of such can only lead to cries of foul. And yet, each candidate offers us the promise that to say it is so will make it so. We are destined to be disappointed.
Are we to desire little from our politicians and be grateful for the breadcrumbs scattered that replace meaningful action? No, our job is to beat the ground and demand more and bigger and better, but also to acknowledge that ultimately our expectations will never be met. Such is the mess of democracy.
The Buddhists teach that it is better to have no expectations and therefore no disappointments. And yet, hope is such a driver of action that to live without it means a poorer life. But political hope seems a fool’s errand.
Thus I have taken this approach.
I do not expect that any candidate for office will succeed more than she will fail. I do not expect to agree with every decision made. I will attempt to not anger about compromise that falls short. I will try not to hold them to impossible standards not ascribed to the rest of us. Yes, a higher standard of propriety and service for the public good, but not impossible, infallible standards.
I will support a candidate whose articulated positions generally align with mine. I will not be quick to turn at the first politically necessary divergence. I will judge success as a glass half full.
There will never be a wall built along our southern border. Thankfully, millions of immigrants will never be deported. Sadly, college will never be free. Neither will healthcare. I’m sorry if I’ve burst some bubbles out there, but I am a student of politics. My feet live firmly on the ground. I have expectations of small steps progressing with difficulty and occasionally a big ass change that warms my heart. I am both easily pacified and never satisfied.
I am hopeful for the next administration even though I know the opposition will do everything possible to thwart action. I live in hope because not to means I turn even more cynical and angry and withdrawn from life. And that is a deafening place to be. For now, I will temper those hopes for a better world with a rising expectation that sanity and compassion will overrule hate.
For now, I will sway on a wire in the clouds, balancing my aspirations with reality, ever mindful of the winds of negativity, and hope that I don’t fall off.
I don’t do well during the silly season. I judge people by the animal they support – donkeys or elephants. I am quick to anger and even quicker to argue. I fall victim to the outrage baiting that dangled before me on social media.
Fortunately, this year I have an antidote. [Read more…]
I can only speak for women of a certain age, but it seems harder to make close friends later in life. Friends made later in life never seem to gain the same intimacy. You socialize rather than confide. Maybe certain slots are already filled and life is too busy to start over. Maybe it’s the fatigue of listening to yourself complain for so many years that you are hesitant to expose newer friends to the same tired pity party. New friends get the highlights. Whole swaths of past milestones are never mentioned as if you could ignore their impact on your current life. It feels a little dishonest. Sins of omission, perhaps. But to these women, you are a different person, one more confident, more in charge of her life. These women have never seen you cry.
It is exactly why I adore them.
Why am I still stopping at red lights? Or stop signs? Or slowing through those annoying flashing lights of a school zone? All those ridiculous government regulations are costing me serious cash. Add it up. Every time I idle at a red light, gasoline that I’ve paid for goes up in smoke. And my valuable time ticks away while waiting for some arbitrary light post to change colors.
That’s it! No more obeying traffic signals.
I’d tell them to get their own car. Then they wouldn’t be walking where I’m driving. No, I intend to barrel down any street, speed limits be damned.
Why am I responsible for their decision to be in the road? Self-reliance, that’s what I’m saying.
Didn’t we all agree that traffic safety laws save lives? All those rules don’t stop us from getting to our destination. We just look out for each other and try not to be the cause of someone’s really bad day.
There’s no WE in America! Don’t you get that? Somewhere in the Constitution, it says my rights overrule the common good. I heard that and don’t ask me to use my precious time finding out if it’s true. Everyone should ignore street signs. We’d all be safer. You’d see a car barreling towards you and you’d get out of the way right quick. Or you’d get a bigger car.
Won’t more people die?
They already do. Does anybody care? Isn’t it enough that the government knows where I live? Makes me carry documents? Tells me to buy insurance? Banishes my six-pack to the trunk? Come to think of it, why did I ever take driving lessons?
That’s it. I’m done with seat belts.
Suppose you just slowed down a little? You know, give a little. It wouldn’t hurt much and we’d all be a little better off. All for one and one for all, like the Three Musketeers.
I’m a MERICAN, buddy. I will drive wherever and however I choose. After all, it’s MY OWN DAMN CAR!
Well, could you at least let me know where you’re headed so I can get out of the way?
You betcha! For all I know, you’re some kind of crazy ass driver. In fact, I’m going to buy myself a Hummer. No, a tank. You can never be safe enough with idiots like you on the road!