Preparing for Bravery, Whatever That Means.

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I read Anne Frank’s diary for the first time in third grade and before that, Lois Lowry’s book Number the Stars, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and, after that, the collection of photographs and stories in We Remember the Holocaust, and then our family went to The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. soon after it opened and waited in a long line to get in. I read Maus by Art Spiegelman and Elie Wiesel’s Night and then, Day, and I saw Schindler’s List in a movie theater with my dad soon after it was released. My great grandmother and her brothers left Poland for New York soon after the end of the First World War, but those who stayed were killed by Nazis and a black and white photograph of one of these families hung on the wall that faced our front door for my entire childhood. My parents did not demand I immerse myself in the history that haunted one side of my family; it was my doing, first prompted by my grandmother and maintained by my overwhelming fear of death.


Other Jewish girls have written about their grade school fascination with the Holocaust so I know I’m not unique, I know I was part of a silent army of women who could not help but imagine what we would have done, had we been born back then. Would we have been brave? What does it mean to have been brave? Would our parents have had the foresight or money to send us away? Would we have been old enough to join the resistance? Would we have lived through the horrors and for how long? Questions like these hung over my head for years and only receded when I was old enough to see that my existence, as a Jew, was not considered a threat by my government. And so, my worries became entirely hypothetical, not actual. Lucky me.

Meanwhile, a year later, at 11, I got my period, as girls do. The only horror of it then was figuring out how to put in a tampon so I could go to swim practice. My right to an abortion was not a conundrum, even if I didn’t know it then: Roe v. Wade was not at great risk during the 1990s.


I was a freshman in college on September 11th, 2001, and my friends and I read Seymour Hersh’s articles in The New Yorker, listened to Democracy Now, attended academic debates about the necessity of going to Iraq and the threat of racial profiling. The conundrum remained, however, philosophical, for me, not immediate or practical. I was an eighteen-year old white woman in Michigan. I would not be profiled, nor would I be expected to go to war and none of the men I knew were volunteering.


I am thirty-three years old now. I have an almost three-year old son. In the 15 years since I went to college, I have despaired, albeit quietly, one presidency and been awed and buoyed by this most recent one. I live in New York City. Here, we are suspicious of everyone and no one and because we ride the subway shoulder to shoulder with each other, we generally shut down people who come in swinging. Most of us know the stranger is not the danger; the danger is the people who shove the stranger. I believe Black Lives Matter, I post articles about this, I put the words up on my Twitter background. But what have I really done? As sad as I feel about it, what the fuck have I really done? People in my city, the one I know to be tolerant, have, both very recently and for years, have been harassed and brutalized on the same trains I ride on every day. I just didn’t know it and I let myself not know it.  


I’ve woken up every morning since Wednesday with a hollow in my stomach. It is anxiety and I know why it is there.


Martin Niemöller’s words, words that are not hypothetical, bang like shrill, necessary bells:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


I wondered as a child when the time would come to be brave. When I imagined it back then, it was preceded by a knock on the door, a group of serious, awful men in boots, an order to follow them; it was death. It was everything I’d read about and the only part I couldn’t figure out was what I would do in the face of it.


Well. Here we are.


I know the time is now to say the hard things, yes, and to resist through protest and through words. It is time to speak for the marginalized, to speak as the marginalized, to organize peacefully with those who believe in the freedoms of every person living in this country, to look past Tuesday toward the future and extend a hand to the people like Martin Niemöller, who was, at first, a Nazi supporter, and then later, changed his mind.


Minds can be changed, but only if we speak up so loudly, it is impossible not to hear us.


Will I be brave?


Will you?  

You Just Never Know When You'll Say the Words She Needs to Hear

I wrote this Parent.co essay before Election Day and it feels odd to share something right now that does not in some way address the despair so many of us in this country are experiencing. But this piece, about how being a mom does not necessarily equip you to be a good aunt, does happen to be about feeling scared and uncertain. It’s also about connecting in those scared and uncertain times. Love to all who are feeling this - you are not alone.

Raising a Feminist Son, One Ponytail at a Time.

My son told me, a few weeks ago, to wear my hair down and when I tried to put it up, he said, “No, Mommy, I like it down!”

I was touched, at first: he sees me! My son is taking me in, memorizing what I look like, he really knows me! So I didn’t put my hair up. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I just laughed and said, “OK, sure,” and even though my neck was hot, I put the elastic back on my wrist and did what my two-year old asked. I kept my hair down.

Then it happened again and then, again, at home and at the playground and when I picked him up from school. And the whole thing hit me in the face, the same way my own stupid horse mane did whenever the wind blew: THIS is the patriarchy. I am witnessing it, I am HARNESSING it, every time I let this little boy tell me what I can and cannot do with my hair. And this is the moment, right now, when I begin raising a feminist outright. I don’t have to just set an example, I can teach an actual lesson. I can remind this self-important bully, MY TODDLER, what is outside his jurisdiction.  

Look, I get it, I know my son was probably just looking for the comfort of the familiar. He wanted my hair down not because he thinks I don’t deserve to wear it up but because I wear it down a lot and he likes what he knows. When my husband shaves his stubble, it takes me twenty minutes to remind myself he is still the same person.  

But.

Couldn’t this be the moment where it all starts? The trouble? Couldn’t this be the reason a boy gets the idea that he can tell someone what to do or, more specifically, what to look like? And if that someone is his mother and she says, OK, and she is the first woman he knows and loves, couldn’t that inform his entire understanding of what he can ask for and get when it comes to women?

I think I was a feminist girl (as all girls are, aren’t they?) before I knew what the word meant, but then, around age eleven, after I got my period at the state fair, grew out my radically short haircut, and started looking at myself through the eyes of everybody else, I lost my nerve. Since then, I’ve been alternately self-possessed and deeply insecure. Like all humans, I guess? I know I can’t undo that or fix whatever internal and societal disdain sent me on that obsessively self-aware course.

Or can I?  

I at least owe my son’s generation a man who doesn’t hate women. And I am pretty sure that starts with me loving him and at the same time telling him I can do whatever the fuck I want with my hair.

“Sorry,” I said curtly, sitting on the bathtub while he peed in a tiny toilet. “But I like it up.”

“I like it down!” he yelled.  

“Well, I like it up,” I yelled back, twisting my hair away from him.

He stood up, circling me. He grabbed at my ponytail with his tiny fingers. “No!”

“Yes!” I said.

It became a game.

Before I could explain to him that women can do what THEY WANT and he did not have a right to tell them what to do and he could wear HIS HAIR HOWEVER HE WANTED I DON’T CARE JUST STAY OUT OF MINE, he stopped being mad. I did too. It was lovely and then he screamed and koala’d me when I tried to give him a bath.  

The next time, I said something like, “I decide how I do my hair, not you!” And he said, “No, I do!” and I said, “No, I do!” and he smiled with all his teeth. (My repetition bit kills with only one person on earth and that is him.)

Yes, this is all standard issue toddler business, being finicky and demanding about inconsequential things. And sure, if I had a daughter, maybe she’d be saying the same stuff, barking at me to KEEP IT WAVY, DON’T STRAIGHTEN IT, MOMMY!

But that would be different. Or at least, I would feel differently about it. I am certain of that. I am certain that I would hear my daughter tell me what’s up with my hair and I’d think, that’s right, speak up, say what you want, demand it, tell me what to do!

Men have not been told for centuries how to look, dress, live, think, feel, love, bear children, birth children, get angry, die. But women have. I am certain – as certain as someone who does not actually have a daughter can be – that I would not want to encumber mine any more than history has already done, forever and ever.

My son, however – all our privileged sons really – could use some encumbering. So in my very miniscule effort to realign civilization against oppression and inequality, I will tell my son that, on this issue, he does not deserve to speak up.  On the issue of my hair, he can be quiet. On the issue of my body, any woman’s body, he can keep his opinions to himself, thanks, because we DO NOT NEED THEM. And I hope, I really, really hope, that every time I remind him of this, kindly but firmly, warmly but assuredly, maybe I am, in some slow but affecting way, chiseling into being the kind of man who is afraid to mess with a woman’s body, the kind of man who respects that body, the kind of man who knows how to fight, the way his mother fought with him about her hair, but who chooses to fight for gentleness, for women and men who are silenced by force, by rape, by assault weapons, by bigotry. This might be totally deluded and romantic. But for better or worse, I am deluded and romantic.

There are bigger battles than my hair and I know that and I hope he fights them all. I ought to start fighting more myself.

When Your Career and Your Kid Keep Saying No at the Same Time.

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I have, for about ten years now, coveted work in areas where rejection is assumed. I’m an actor and a writer and a total fucking idiot. If you make things whose value can be debated or annihilated or worshiped on the Internet and whose necessity is also not obvious to certain members of the population, you probably experience the same. And you’re also a fucking idiot. You’re my kind of fucking idiot. We idiots are propelled by the gamble, the likelihood of no, but the chance, however infinitesimal, of yes.

It’s spiritually exhausting and also exactly what living with a two-year old is like. My son is two and doing exactly what two-year olds are apparently supposed to: saying no. He, like the looming gatekeepers I encounter out in the grown world every day, says no to every previously unquestioned directive, suggestion, modest request, EVERY. THING. And he does it with panache. He’s not just saying no; he’s shouting “I DON’T LIKE THAT!” in response to all pants and baths. He’s laying out his logic: “I DON’T WANT THAT BECAUSE…[MUMBLED MADE-UP WORDS THAT OFTEN SOUND LIKE A LONG, LONG BEAR]”. He’s slick, too. “Let’s sit down for dinner,” I say, matter of factly, because that’s how the books say you’re supposed to do it. “No thank you, Mommy,” he replies, demure as he shoves stacks of novels off a bookshelf. “Oh! That’s so nice, Sly,” I say, disarmed, and then he yells, “You act nicely!” and I realize it is all a metaphor. He tosses those novels on the floor the same way the gatekeepers of my grown-up world toss the things I make on the floor and not because they are monsters. Like my two-year old, for them, yes does not come easily, nor should it. But, unlike for my kid, it’s not in the name of their development; it’s in the name of mine.  


I know my two-year old is mucking around in a swamp of good developmental shit, from which he shall emerge…stronger? Wiser? Older? Whatever, I know it’s as it should be. And I know all my professional failures are “opportunities for growth” (VOMIT) too, whittling my character and the character of whatever it is I’m working on. Ugh. I KNOW. But good god, it is a fucking slog, a massacre of my tremulous confidence.  

As a woman, my first instinct is not to persuade someone to do something they do not want to do. No means no. Move on. Do something else. DON’T PUSH!  

But.

I’m talking about not walking naked to the playground; about having a carrot instead of a cupcake the size of my head; about not leaping off the back of the ten-foot tall slide. And I’m talking about making my living, not just some bullshit creative exercise. These are the battles worth fighting, the nos that are worth questioning.

I wonder if Sly feels this way. I wonder if, when he tried for twenty minutes, to vault up onto the kitchen counter to get to the soft cookies, sobbing and screaming, he was also spiritually exhausted. I wonder if he thought, there has to be a better way! Or, she has to see how much I need this! She has to understand I deserve this!

God, I act like he’s the only one saying no, but I’m saying it too. And yes, sure, I know what’s best and I know that cookies are not the answer (most of the time). Oh, but if he only knew how badly I want to be that cookie, to be the thing the bastions of art were trying to scale impossibly tall countertops for.

How do you make yourself impossible to refuse? How do you fight these battles without actually fighting?

Probably the answer is to keep trying and to listen sometimes; to accept that pants cannot be avoided, but to demand that carrots be accompanied by cookies. Because of course they should.  

It sucks when your kid and your job are saying the same annoying thing to you. But maybe everything is a phase, for everybody, not just toddlers. And I can either carry this struggle the way a parent carries a balloon, like it’s a burden. Or I can carry it the way my son does: like it’s a dream. He doesn’t hold on to it too tight, either, delighted when it bops into view, and amazed when, inevitably, it flies away.

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?: Thoughts on a Legacy of Living in New York.

I am behind this man as we approach the escalator and I am hoping he is a walker, the kind that sees moving stairways not as boons to leisure but as assistance in the unending race to arrive. Turns out he is the latter. Saints be praised! Now I have one less reason to slow down. Behind me, a woman is right up on my heels. We are nearly jogging, us three strangers, and there are more of us in front and behind, our knees all lifting to blast past the inert on our right. This is New York. I’m not sure if it’s New York distilled to its essence, but it is unmistakably New York.


Here, in this unmistakable city, you can live in an 800 square foot apartment with a child, two children (MORE THAN TWO CHILDREN?), and you can be fine and happy and without any more want than anybody else because, as we all know, our rents and mortgages pay for the square footage not of our units but of this adrenal snarl of a city we’ve agreed is worth sharing with those in similar units under and atop us, stacked up efficiently for a relatively small number of miles (72.8, if you live in my borough). I agree to this, every time I re-sign my Brooklyn lease, which I’ve done for almost ten years.


You can spend an entire day or a week or a month in Brooklyn, walking places, riding the buses, trying to ride the G train, and you can never go into Manhattan and be no worse off, maybe be better off. I have been trying to extract my fingers from the sweaty grasping hand on the other side of the water for a little while now, but it is tricky. It calls out with work, or the promise of work, with buzzing nights, shows and dinners, and cavernous buildings filled with bears and bones through which my son runs wild-eyed and shouting. It is both why we stay here in Brooklyn, a slow-running R ride away, and why we wonder if we should just abandon ship, since we don’t go out the way we used to, thanks to the kid and some dormant domesticity he has unearthed in us.  


Is it people telling us we will want more space that makes me think I need more space or is that we have only one window in the living room and I want to see more outside from inside? That is sort of a distillation of what suburban life can be, isn’t it? It is, for a price that is not bad, having a good view of the outside world from inside. You don’t have to leave your house as much, everything you need is there and in your lovely backyard, in your driveway, your garage. Home is not only your refuge, it is your Brooklyn; it is the place you can spend long stretches of time, happy, warm, spreading your arms out and spinning in circles and not bumping into anything.  


I’ve been thinking about all this as I read about Syrian refugees. How absurdly easy it is for us to decide to displace ourselves, to choose our home from all the places that will be happy to have us (and our down payment). We are so lucky. Right now, we are, my husband and son and I, New Yorkers, not because we deserve to be but because we were lucky enough to get to decide to come here. Or, in my case, come back here.


My great-grandparents got of out Poland in 1920. Poor and Jewish, unwanted there and here, they came anyway and they rented apartments in Brownsville. Their daughter, my grandmother, bought a house in East Flatbush with my grandfather. Twenty-something years later, my dad left  for college and for space, in every sense of the word, and he didn’t go back until we told him there was going to be a grandchild. Now he and my mom rent an apartment in Downtown Brooklyn a few blocks from where my grandma worked for the Board of Education until she was 70. 


A vein of my mom’s family has been in America since the 17th century. She’s a descendant of Anne Hutchinson (whose Wikipedia entry is BANANAS), the midwife and anti-establishment spiritual leader who was made a refugee by her Puritan community in Massachusetts when they banished her for being a smart, loud-mouthed preacher. She went to what is now the Bronx (42 square miles) and that is where she died, killed by a group of Siwanoy in retaliation for the massacres of a whole bunch of other Native American tribes, massacres that had been ordered by dude the Dutch West India company put in charge of New York.


Am I New Yorker? Am I an American? These, in my opinion, are irrelevant questions and, in any case, the answer is as much yes as it is no. But if you want to say I’m a New Yorker, and sometimes I do very much want to say this, than anybody can be a New Yorker, anybody who wants to slog it out here, where we glance dismissively at the slow moving cretins beside us and then hurry on to wherever it is we think we’re going. Come here, live here, try to get out of here, this is a city that is not without a history of cruelty to the displaced, but certainly a city with a history of folding in its displaced, so much so, we’ve forgotten that way back when, we were not welcome here either. I hope many more refugees come here, from Syria, from Turkey, from Pakistan, and may they hurry along ahead of me or glare at me as I scurry beside them or pay me no mind at all.


Yesterday, I saw a lone kid dancing on the Q train. He was swinging from the bars with the ease of a slack bit of rope as we huffed over the bridge. The sun was making its early December exit. There was music playing. The kid was so young, barely a teenager. Do you remember when you swung on the subway bars? You know what I mean. When you swung on any kind of bars? I don’t. I never did the monkey bars. I was too scared. You can step halfway inside people’s lives here in the span of a minute, even less. It’s all borrowed, the land, the views, the trains, the subway bars for swinging. It wasn’t like I could imagine exactly what it felt like for my body to rise up and over and down the double bars splitting one set of seats from the other. But maybe I could. Maybe I did. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to leave New York, not yet.