Anybody Have a Map

I’ve been listening to “Anybody Have a Map” on repeat the last few days. Sung by two different mothers in Dear Evan Hansen, they both exclaim in frustration, “I can’t find my way to you…I’m making this up as I go.” And when you and I, m’hijo, watched videos of DEH the morning of your trip, we both sobbed when these mothers and fathers worry about their kids–about their inability to completely, wholly take care of their kids.

A lot of early life felt very mapped: elementary school, high school, college, and then, in my case, grad school. I know that figuring out where you want to go to college is the big unknown right now, but it is an unknown destination (X) within a set of pre-mapped options. That choice is daunting (because choice in general is daunting), but, believe me, it’s manageable. And you will be ok no matter where you go. So it might not be until you finish college that you hit the big moment where you’re having to look beyond the edges of the map that you’ve been given and start figuring out where and how to trace in the roads and sketch out the obstacles. For me, writing the dissertation was when I hit my first big “oh my god you mean I have to decide what this is all means?” moment. But the second, and more long-lasting time, was when I had you. No parenting book, no parenting friend can ever really prepare you for all of the in-the-moment decisions along the way. And those small decisions often feel like they have the potential to have resounding, permanent impact.

I could regale you with stories of how scary and thrilling it is to be a parent, to not know how to do any of this, and still carry on. They’d all be true. Parenting, seen in this lens, is some sort of endurance exercise, a series of acts of faith, taken on because I have to believe that the wrong turns I take mean less than the moments when I get it right. And my instinct to protect you from the world–from its arbitrary and intentional cruelties–is fierce. So I still remember the day that I broke down, sobbing; it’s not important why, what’s important is how I sat out on the back steps to cry, not wanting you to know and not wanting to make you feel responsible for my grief. You were younger than you are today, but not that very young.

You found me anyway, and you wrapped your arms around me and you said, “It’ll be ok.”

M’hijo. For days after that moment, I kicked myself. I felt like I failed as a mother. It shouldn’t be your job to take care of me. Finally a friend took my hands in hers and said, “You’re being a great mother. He’s learning how to be vulnerable and how to take care of people from you. He’s learning it’s ok to cry.” Yes. And you also were learning that we are stronger when we take care of each other.

Day by day you’ll notice that the firmly-drawn lines of the map you have fade; you’ll need to go outside those expectations and take roads you can’t have anticipated. So will I. We’ll both be figuring out what it means to be strong together even as you leave our back steps and jet out into the world.

Under pressure, we come out singing

We were on our way up to the theater last weekend–to watch Rent -oh my heavens how much do I love that you enjoy musicals the way that I do! [1]–and you plugged your iPhone into the car’s USB port, just like any other time that we spend time in the car together. Tunes start to filter into the air and, just as we merge onto the freeway, Queen’s “Under Pressure” begins.

I learned several years ago–you must have been 11 or 12–that we would have our best conversations in the car. I think this is one of those side-effects of teenagering. If we sit across a table from each other doing something as threatening as eating a meal together, silence will reign. But the car provides an intimate canopy for conversation, facilitated by the fact that we are both looking ahead at the road and the traffic (not at each other), figuring out where we’re going and why. I remember one evening in particular a few years back; we were doing a mom-son book group that summer and you’d wanted..I’d wanted?…one of us wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird. And so we did. On the way home from the lake and the fireflies and the music hanging yet in the humid air, we talked about the scene that bugged us, the one where Scout is trying to make sense of Miss Gates who with one breath denounces Hitler and with the next vilifies and dehumanizes the African Americans of the town. Scout invites Jem’s help in figuring Miss Gates out; “Jem was suddenly furious. He leaped off the bed, grabbed me by the collar and shook me. ‘I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever ever, you hear me? You hear me?'”[2] I asked you what you thought; why did Jem get so angry, and at Scout? You said to me,”Mom, I get it, because sometimes you say something, and I get so angry and upset. And I know that what you said isn’t the thing that made me angry, but I can’t help myself.” There are many small moments like this that remind me of how self-reflective you are.

Singing in the car to the music that you choose is a fairly new phase in a long history of car journeys with you. I mean, I used to get to design our playlists. Do you remember that time we did a day trip to Minneapolis with Will and Natalie and I put on Taio Cruz and all of you started singing in the back seat? Or, heavens, I can still hear you all shouting along to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” I’d try to sneak in my Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin tunes, but those were not compelling in the face of y’all’s bubble pop. But don’t get me wrong–I danced in my seat too.

Now you have playlists, including a long one on spotify called something like “good music oh yay” which ranges from The National to Hamilton, from Kendrick Lamar  to Twenty One Pilots, from Joy Division and Journey to The Killers, Bruce Springsteen, Pentatonix, Enrique Iglesias, BETSY. I think you get a kick out of introducing me to music. Clearly, though, you also get a kick out of showing me up, because the other day you opted to play someone else’s “greatest 80s” playlist and, I swear, you knew those songs about as well as I did. (Which means that we both knew about 25% of the lyrics, and had fun mumbling through the rest.)

“Under Pressure” came on as we drove towards the Orpheum to see Rent. You’ve been singing “Seasons of Love” for months now, and the tickets to Rent were a gift from me for your birthday in April. Rent is a rock musical that tackles the painful effects of the AIDS epidemic (it started on off Broadway in the early 1990s) in a society that persistently and insistently disenfranchises and marginalizes poor, queer, brown people.[3] It finds strength and voice in facing death, recognizing the unfairness–the social inequality–of mortality, and making love and art emerge from those ruins. As Mark says late in the musical, “The opposite of war is not peace; the opposite of war is creation.” It is also a musical of people under pressure and, as I watched the people on stage, I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to “Under Pressure”:

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out

“Knowing what this world is about” is both this big existential crisis (a Sartrean cry of loneliness) but also–also also– a recognition of structural inequality: people on streets, people pushed out onto the streets. And Rent gets at the heart of all that: people on streets, people pushed out onto the streets. Also just like “Under Pressure,” Rent believes in love, in giving love ” one more chance.”

I don’t study musicals. I just love musicals. And I think that one of the reasons I love them so very much is because even as many (more than you might think!) confront pain, grief, destruction, social inequality, racism, classism, and sexism, the structure of musicals works toward redemptive finales, toward tentative resolutions. Powerful anthems and/or show-stopping numbers tend to close out shows. You don’t get soloists and ballads at the end; you get many voices, harmonizing. You get the collective, figuring out together what it means to move forward. You get the world after Hamilton dies, considering the meaning of the personal amidst the big sweep of History; you get all the friends, except Angel, remembering how Angel’s love and generosity transformed their possibilities; you get Evan Hansen writing to himself, with the company joining in, symbolically providing a community where before he felt alone; you get all the Alisons singing together in Fun Home as they “fly away.” “Look at me fly away!” Even the “quieter” musicals seem to demand redemption through some sort of collective process.[4]

Here’s the thing that I feel I know and that I want to share with you: singing together with people makes life and contentment and futurity feel more possible, no matter how you’re feeling before that gasp of air that precedes that moment when you join your voice to someone else’s. Here’s what I think you don’t know about me yet: I sang in church choir throughout my childhood, and what I loved the most were songs with soprano descants that I would float my way through, pretending that the harmonies emerged from my throat out of pure joy, not planning. When I got to college, I auditioned for a number of a cappella groups and got into the newest one at Stanford then, Everyday People. You know, I was never the biggest soloist. At the time, I really wanted to be and sometimes felt bad that I didn’t shine the way I wanted to. Now, I look back and realize how much I learned and gained from harmonizing and keeping beats and ooohing and aaahing around others’ voices.

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The first definition of the word kinship is “blood relationship.” But the second definition is, broadly, “sharing characteristics”; the synonyms are words like “rapport,” “affinity,”  “harmony,” and “closeness.” M’hijo: singing with other people puts you in kinship with them. It makes you work with them towards a common goal–whether that’s having fun, sounding “good,” or something else entirely.

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You and I, we are kin in all these ways. We belong to each other. We sing together in the car, tripping over lyrics and laughing at each other; more often than not, we hit chords together and glance at each other in satisfied glee. Together, we make music that makes my face move into a smile before I even realize it.

I tell friends that I hear you singing all the time: in the shower, as you do your homework in the living room, as you make yourself breakfast. The house will be quieter when you go off to college. I’ll probably start singing all the time, trying to fill the air. So, just call me. As you fly away, whenever you’re under pressure,  when there are bridges you’ve burned, call me and sing with me. I’ll be there. Our love doesn’t fix the world. But it makes the work we need to do within that world seem that much more doable. I go out into the world every day hearing your voice in my heart; there is so much more inside me now.

 

Digressions

1. Let’s say it started with Hamilton, since it is the first music we saw together. I never want to forget that for months–months–we sang along and learned the lyrics and absorbed as much Lin Manuel Miranda trivia that we could. Listening to Hamilton led to scouting out other musicals on spotify. Somehow you found Heathers and American Idiot. We went to NYC to see Hamilton with the help of a conference. Once there, we walked in and out of the Richard Rodgers theater as if in a dream; the older couple behind us remarked during the intermission, “heavens, how do people know what they’re singing? It goes by so quickly?” We giggled to ourselves because we knew how people do it because they were us: singing along to the soundtrack every time we got in the car. Hamilton is still a touchstone for us–a stage and experience that led to the joys of sampling, hip hop histories, other musicals, U.S. histories, discussions about democracy and slavery and the Continental Congress.
2. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 1960, 331.
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_%28musical%29
4. We each listened to all of Dear Evan Hansen on our own this week, after the Tony Awards.

Movimiento número uno

Este es un proyecto, un comienzo. Desde hoy y hasta que tú te gradúes de la high school, te voy a escribir algo cada día. Tengo como meta el poder entregarte algo –un libro, unas canciones, mi corazón escrito en páginas, mis palabras estirándose hacia sabiduría– en ese día de tu graduación.

A veces se me hace que no te he dado mucho. No creo, por ejemplo, que podrías leer estas palabras. Es un misterio y algo que nunca comprenderé cómo eres una copia de mi y, sin embargo, no eres nada parecido a mi. Unos días terminas mis frases; otros días nos miramos como si fuéramos extranjeros.

Pero esto sí que es la verdad: siempre quiero seguir conociéndote. Me importas. Lo que tú pienses, sientas, vivas, imagines… todo esto quiero saber. En mi vida antes de que tú llegaras, jamás imaginé un amor como él que te tengo y para el cual tengo pocas palabras.

Compartiendo lo que “sé” contigo, pues, es una de las formas que tengo de demostrarte el amor que te tengo. Pero ojalá todo esto nunca sea un monólogo, porque si sí, pues, sería una verdadera tragedia.

Happiness is a state
of mind not a state
of being nor a state
of affairs. What I mean

is happiness means
something only when
you’re not reaching toward it
but instead reaching towards making

love happen in the world, making
justice live in our bodies, stating
truths in kind-hearted ways, minding
the footprints you leave in your wake.

You know you will wake up happy
when you believe you have a place
in this world and that it needs you like I need you
because you love it like I love you
and our love is not a state it is a universe.

honk your horn

My car’s wheels hug the highway as we curl towards town;
this is where we slow down, where fields dwindle
and houses grow. The day wraps sun around me and, after
a long winter, my batteries charge.

On that cross street, you know, the one right outside of town,
a minivan idles and a boy hangs out from a side window like a centaur.
From this far away I can still see his grin
and he pumps his arm in the air, the universal–isn’t it?–sign to honk your horn.

My brothers and I walk over a highway bridge every day.
We leave early enough so that we can stop. Drop our backpacks.
We lean over the railing. Raise our arms.
Pump them with glee.
Grins on our faces, we wait for trucks to honk.

There is always at least one trumpeting call amid the blur
of cars and trucks hurtling toward somewhere not here.

Every time we hear that sound, relief and gratitude course
through our nerves and we scream our excitement.

My car leans; I hit the horn; the boy grins wider;
my car volleys on. I don’t think he could see me grin and, maybe,
probably, I could not truly see his grin. But he knows the call.
I know the response. The joy just happens.

Longue Durée of Goodbyes

April 16 2017

To those of you who celebrate Easter, happy Easter! Today is the end of my Lenten practice of writing something creative–usually a poem–each day. I discovered that I was capable (and enjoyed) most of it. Saturdays/weekends were the most fraught days, since often I was getting home too late to have much headspace for words. This insight–that I most enjoy playing with language in the mornings–is not terribly novel for me. More worth noting was that I could still, on most evenings, enjoy the writing practice. So my allergy to writing in the evenings turns out to be mostly a habit, not a fact.

I am finding myself asking now, here, at the end of Lent, what it means to celebrate Easter within a secular framework. Throughout Lent I thought about and worked on sacrifice and commitment as practices of meditation or reflection. But Easter shouldn’t be, I think, a leave-taking of all of that. To the degree that Easter and spring arrive hand-in-hand, I feel like Easter should be, for me, about honoring my practices, my failures, my attempts and moving forward into renewal.

Longue Durée of Goodbyes

On the plane we sit waiting for takeoff.

He’ll be leaving soon, all on his own. This trip
is one domino in what will be a short chain
of dominos, one toppling the other
until the last one tumbles
and he leaves.

Parenting is the longue durée of goodbyes.

I can remember, through blurry photographs,
a time when he never left my side when he slept
on my chest when he curled into my ribs
when he ran to me after missing me
for five minutes.

Year by year I know less about him,
his smile like the Cheshire cat’s.
I ask him questions exactly like those
that my parents asked me. He answers
exactly as I did, mocking my need
to know and building his brick wall.

When he offers me tidbits of information,
these glimpses of the man-in-the-making,
I try to be restrained. Don’t scare him with my
need to know, my motherly voraciousness, my
expectation that he still be five with no boundaries
that keep me out; I tell myself don’t say a word. Listen.

There are windows in his brick wall, the way
he teaches me his cultural vocabulary or smiles
when we joke around and the way we sing
together on the street and he forgets to be embarrassed
as his bass and my soprano call and respond and soar.

On the plane, I extend my hand for the in-flight magazine.
I intend to sudoku until we take off. He keeps
the magazine, turns to the crossword puzzle, takes my pencil,
and starts to solve it. He asks me about a clue. I lean in
and we fill in the blanks together.

Day 44 – no poem, just thoughts

April 13 2017

I’m staying with a friend in Jackson Heights while I attend a conference in NYC. My friend’s neighborhood is overstimulating me in all the awesome ways: overhearing conversations in lots of languages; all sorts of ethnic and racial diversity; fruit on display that I’ve never seen before; taxis zipping into small spaces; horns honking; people talking on the street in small and large groups; people selling stuff on the street.

Of course, now, at the end of the day, I’m exhausted. This prose will just have to count as my writing of the day. I’ll try to process the sights sounds smells touches excitement more for tomorrow.