Sometimes

“She’s staring again,” Juan Jose’ remarked to Crystel on Tuesday. The three of us were dining at Pizza Luce. The 19-year-olds sat across from me. I was looking past them, merely looking, not staring at all, at the people coming in the door, the servers rushing into the kitchen, dodging for silverware, the water pitcher, the food that was ordered.

Crystel shook her head back and forth, “She always does that, you know that.”

It could be a girl Crystel’s age that will pull me back to the horror of being raped. A toddler sitting on my lap, dozing, her limbs a rag doll. Trusting. Safe. No worries. What would she have to worry about? She’s 2 years old. At 4, adorned in colorful scarves, beads, and unmatched socks. A Jasmine Princess at 5. Loving Johnny Depp at 8. Being the first to jump in the pool, the first to ride her bike, the first…

“I’m writing stories,” I say in my defense.

I’m studying people. Their familial relationships. Body language. Emotional state. Piercings. Tattoos. Eye contact.

That morning I studied a photo of a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl. She had long brown hair, parted in the middle, smiling eyes, smooth face. She looked happy.

I pictured the 14-year-old who raped and killed her. How much bigger he would have been than her. His height, weight, and strength. My stomach tightened.

I was her.

8 years old

8 years old.

The young girl with a smooth face. Smiling.

I was no match for a 14-year-old.

My four older siblings just kept getting older. And I would always be the younger.

The running track already set. An oval that I would run round and round.

Never getting away.

I asked for help when I was 9. I was afraid. They were bigger. I needed help.

None was forthcoming. I became that 10-year-old. Only I didn’t die.

It lives within me. The assaults. The rapes.

The watching of others.

Renewal

On days when sun warms my shoulders and tiny green leaves push aside matted brown ones, the idea of spring’s renewal buoys me. 

I was raised Catholic and the celebration of Easter and spring have always been linked. But I’ve drifted away from the Catholic Church. The Easter rituals of my youth—the stations of the cross, Easter vigil, joyfully meeting the day in a new dress, hat, gloves and shiny shoes—are no longer relevant to me. 

Easter is meant to be about immortality. Rebirth. But what does Easter mean to me now? I have more years behind me than ahead of me. The idea of rebirth in an afterlife should be coming into sharper focus, but isn’t.

Without the religious underpinnings, Easter feels odd. But Easter is still about gathering my family, enjoying a good meal, hope, and renewal.

The midwestern world is coming alive again after a long harsh winter. That’s reason to celebrate. My life and nature go on with their seasons. 

Cultivating Hope

Lately, I have been struggling to feel optimistic. The Ukraine invasion is heavy on my mind. In the big world, there are many other pressing problems (you know the list). Yet I want to be hopeful. In fact, I kind of insist on it. 

I have been heartened by the astonishing global reaction to the Russian invasion. 

I also remind myself that historically, when cataclysmic events have changed the world order, sometimes positive change happens too. It may be that having been through something terrible, people vow, “Never again,” as the Greatest Generation did after WWII. Their commitment to preventing more world wars held for decades, not perfectly, but mostly. Taking the long view gives me hope.

I strive for perspective and balance. I remind myself my own life is fine. But sometimes I backslide into overwhelm: How can we find lasting peace, address the climate crisis, shore up our democracy, and so much more? It all feels insoluble. What can one person do? 

What I finally come to is, what other choice do we have? We have to keep trying to change and improve the world. And that means hoping.

Howard Zinn, in “The Optimism of Uncertainty” expresses what I believe better than I can—

To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. 

If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. 

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Rethinking

During a recent trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), I was surprised by a curator’s note about a sculpture in the Native American art gallery.

She said she’d reconsidered what she’d written about the sculpture years before. I’d just begun to read the note when a friend called me away, so I don’t know the exact points the curator made. 

To me, the actual content of her note didn’t matter as much as the phenomenon it represented. I was struck by her admission—that an institution like a museum would acknowledge the need to reassess. I also appreciated her basic statement—she sees things differently now.

Since the late 1970s when I became an adult, many Americans’ views have evolved regarding race, gender identity, sexual harassment, and so much more. Marijuana use was flat-out illegal in the 1970s, but now recreational use is legal in 18 states, and a number of other states permit medical marijuana. Until 2015, same sex marriage was illegal in many states. 

A lot of widely held views from 40, 30, 20, and 10 years ago have caused immeasurable harm. 

Pain caused by ignorance is real even if the person or institution didn’t intend to be hurtful, but that’s a different category of wrong from meanness or a stubborn refusal to learn as new insights become available. Intention matters. 

Historical context also matters. I’ve abandoned many views that seemed mainstream years ago. I know better now. 

This is a small personal example, but when our sons were babies more than 30 years ago, we had bumper pads on the crib and covered the boys with blankets. They also had stuffed animals in the crib to keep them company. I wouldn’t do it now, given what we’ve learned about babies smothering and sudden infant death syndrome. I didn’t know better then, but I’ve learned and changed.

Sometime in the last 10 years I read that commenting on someone’s non-European name was ‘othering’. Until it was pointed out, I had no idea. I thought my remarks would be seen as taking an interest in the person. Now I understand those comments are offensive and I no longer say them.

I don’t know what the MIA curator learned—if her perspective about artistic merit broadened or if she gained an enhanced cultural awareness. I’m grateful she acknowledged the change and hope museum-goers don’t judge her on her past views without considering her evolved views.

People do learn, regret, try to improve, and change. I certainly have. I also realize what seems right and appropriate today may very well be judged harshly forty years from now. 

Happy January Birthdays

January, a month of fewest births and most deaths, is where we stand fighting the latest variant of Covid. How wearying to be still writing about this unwelcome virus. But like glitter left from wrapping paper or cards, it won’t be dusted, swept, vacuumed, washed, or wished away. Lots of people have stories about trying to rid the nasty stuff from clothes or rugs or skin, but no one really knows the secret to beat the stuff. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay inside, but the hated Covid, like unwanted glitter, stays in the air. 

Our family has a tradition of January births, even among in-laws. The older generation of January birthday holders has mostly passed, many on December dates, but there are four of us who are happy to celebrate. Birthday cake is a nice treat after holiday chocolates and cookies. Maybe there’ll be one more chance to get that sweater or book that wasn’t under the Christmas tree. Even better, everything is discounted and can be bought for yourself with little guilt. Even if there can’t be a party, there are safe ways to gather family or friends. If all fails, Zoom offers forty free minutes to talk with your relatives in sunny Florida. 

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst often runs through my mind at this time of year.  Rossetti’s beautiful words describe winter: “Icy wind may moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like stone…” and that often experienced January weather of “Snow on snow on snow.” As soft and gentle as January is icy and lonely, versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor and others fill my blue light time when it is neither day nor night. You have to sing through to the end of the song for its encouragement that “as empty as I am (of gifts for the Baby Jesus), I must give my heart.” 

That is a magic message. If our basic physical needs are met, then we can push through January, holding each other tight inside our hearts until free once more to meet personally during spring’s warmer days. Until then call a friend, send a note, take a walk. We’ve figured this out and know how to make the weeks pass. In honor of the friends and family who are no longer with us to celebrate these January birthdays, I will treasure mine.