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Big thoughts

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“Mom,” little blue eyes full of concern gaze trustingly into mine as I wipe sticky hands and cheeks with a warm washcloth. “My butterfly is asleep and it’s not moving anymore. I think it needs more flower juice to wake it up.”

“Let’s look at him together,” I reply calmly, but my mind is racing. I intended to let the butterfly loose before this happened; I dearly wanted to avoid having this conversation with my three year old. What do I do, what do I say? What if I get it wrong?

My own introduction to death came at the same age, but at my grandfather’s passing. I was told that he was resting, that we wouldn’t see him again for a long time but that he would be resurrected into his heavenly body on judgment day and then we’d all be together forever, as if he’d been cryogenically frozen rather than the victim of a deadly stroke.

These are not messages I want to share with my son. I no longer feel any confidence in my knowledge of the future and I am okay with that. I want him to experience that humility in me, to understand that the unknown is not necessarily terrifying.

But…how?

We approach the butterfly’s cheery, flower-filled cage together. The butterfly is crumpled on the floor, its wings wrapped downward around its body. I brush it gently with my finger, but it remains motionless and brittle.

“Is my butterfly okay, Mom?” my son asks uncertainly, his voice quavering with worry.

“Yes,” I reply automatically. Wait, no…um…

“He is okay,” I continue slowly, feeling out each word as I go along. “He is just done being a butterfly now.”

“Oh!” my little son’s face lit up with excitement and relief. “Is he going to go back into his chrysalis again now?”

“Not this time,” I reply, gaining confidence as I go. “This butterfly has been an egg, and a caterpillar, and a chrysalis and a butterfly, and it has already done its flying and drank its flower juice and laid its eggs. This butterfly is all done being a butterfly. It has died now so that it can recycle its parts to make something new.”

“Like…another butterfly?” D follows uncertainly.

“Well, we need to have a little funeral for his butterfly so that we can send it back into the planet. The Earth has lots of special bugs who help take old pieces apart and recycle them into great new things like plant food.”

“So the bugs will feed my butterfly to a flower?”

“Something like that,” I have to chuckle at his bewildered expression. I’m not sure how we’re doing here at all, but I keep talking. “The butterfly parts will get recycled into flower parts and they will be part of the flower. And if a hungry baby caterpillar is crawling on that flower-”

“Then the flower parts will be baby caterpillar parts!”

“Right! And if a chicken eats the caterpillar-”

“Then the caterpillar will recycle into chicken parts!”

“Yes! And if a boy eats the chicken-”

“The chicken parts will turn into little pieces of kids!”

“You’ve got it, kiddo!” I’m grinning now. “What do you think about all of that?”

He pauses to think for a moment, and then- “Do any things eat kid parts?” he asks.

“Not really,” I reply. “Sometimes way out in the wild a creature wants to eat a person. But mostly we are the luckiest creatures of all. We live very, very long lives and use our parts all up, and when we are done with our parts the people we love give us back to the planet.”

“And then out parts turn into flower food?”

“Yep.”

“I see,” he murmurs, squinting his eyes a bit as he contemplates this new information.

“But mom,” he continues at last, “Where do all the parts come from?”

“Well,” I answer slowly, “We don’t know the whole story. But a very long time ago, a star died. And when it recycled its parts, it turned into Earth parts.”

“Was it a supernova when that star died, Mom?”

“Well, it was big. It was a big explosion. I’m not sure if it was exactly a supernova or not but it was enormous.”

“And all of our parts are recycled star parts?”

“Yes. We are all made out of tiny pieces of stars. We are star creatures.”

“So what happens when the Earth dies, Mom?” D forges ahead of me, intrigued. “Will the Earth pieces recycle into a new star?”

“You know what, buddy? I really don’t know. The universe is too big for me to know all about it. I think that is a what we call a mystery. No person on the whole planet knows the answer to that question. We can only make guesses.”

D returns his gaze to the dead butterfly and seems lost in thought for awhile.

“What are you thinking about, dude?” I ask at last.

“I was just thinking,” he sighs, shaking his head as if to clear his thoughts. “I’m going to figure out the Earth mystery, Mom, but later. We need to recycle this little butterfly right now.”

“What do you think about recycling your butterfly?” I ask. I’m still not quite sure how D is taking this.

But D smiles.

“I think it’s the coolest of all.”

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Written by GRSeim

May 24, 2012 at 4:02 am

Underbelly

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My mother was present in the crowd the day that Martin Luther King told us about his dream. She lived in Mississippi in a house staffed by a black yard man, an elderly black cook and a black nanny who left her own children behind every day to care for my mom and her three white siblings.

It will shock none of my readers to hear me say that my grandmother was racist. She was a “sweet” racist who believed that employing black people was a charitable thing to do; that they were simple, childish people who benefited greatly from her patronage.

My mother and her siblings have struggled all their lives to reconcile their cherished memories of their mother with the blatant reality of her racism. My uncle has made a career out of seeking social justice. My mother became a public health nurse, eager to find ways to give back to the underserved community that her favorite nanny introduced her to as a child. All of my relatives are slow to talk about racism and quick to point out the good qualities exemplified by the previous generation: grandmother always visited the yard man every time he went to jail. She used to take her kids to visit the elderly cook in the state-run nursing home she ended up in once her declining health forced her to stop working. Her African-American servants liked her; she was racist, but she was a nice racist, and I guess that is supposed to make it all better somehow.

I never met my grandmother. She died of ovarian cancer the year before I was born. I grew up in the South, though, in an all-white neighborhood not too far from where she raised my mother. I remember the first time a black family visited our Southern Baptist church; I was eight years old at the time, and fascinated by the way the light seemed to glow from within their skin, the colors they wore, the way ice purple eyeshadow shimmered against the mother’s perfect eyelids like a frost in early spring. Her name was Christine, and I still feel a thrill when I think of her, so tall, so stately, so perfectly composed and dignified as she graciously ignored my stares, let me observe her and her family without showing any of the completely justifiable fury I certainly would have felt if I’d been in her shoes. She must have guessed that I had never seen a black person before. She was patient and gracious and invited me to her home for tea. She listened quietly without interrupting when I asked her nine year old daughter why all of her Barbies were black, and shook with laughter when her daughter replied, “It’s because they drink too much chocolate milk. We love that stuff around here. Did you know I was white like you when I was born? But then I started drinking chocolate milk and would you look at me now!”

My mother still complains about the vast quantities of chocolate milk I consumed in the weeks after that visit. I mean, deep down I knew it wouldn’t really change the color of my skin, but…it didn’t hurt to try, right?

I will always be thankful for the gift Christine gave me in letting me get to know her family, being patient with my childishness and ignorance, not abandoning me to a de facto inheritance of racism and bigotry. It was because of Christine that I became obsessed with Addy the American Girl doll and devoured her accompanying books, begged to be taken to Civil War reenactments, memorized speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington. Somewhere along the way I was introduced to feminism through Sojourner Truth. Later, I found myself completely swept away by Alice Walker, Billie Holiday, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Audra Lorde.

These women’s lives and messages resonate with me in a way that I can’t fully explain. Part of it is what we share in common. I was denied access to education and prevented from making autonomous decisions. I still don’t feel like I’ve been able to claim my sexuality as my own. I have a long way to go, and honestly, I’m never going to fully recover from what’s been done to me. I was taught from infancy that I had a place in society, and that place was at the very bottom of the heap. And I knew in my soul that it was wrong, that I was hearing lies, that if I fought back hard enough and long enough I would eventually succeed in claiming control over my life. Other women’s stories of perseverance and anger are deeply meaningful to me because that same fire and innate sense of truth has been my salvation.

On the other hand, though, as I explore the lives of these great women I am torn apart by our differences. I think the differences between our lives impact me on an even deeper level, because I know that it’s not right. I hear Wanda Sykes laughing bitterly about the racial disparity in prisons and I know she’s right. I can get away with absolutely anything and I know it because I’ve done it. I stole candy from the store all the time as a kid. As an adult, I stole diaper cream when I was too broke to buy it and my son broke out in a painful rash. I have taken off with grocery carts when I had no other way of carrying food home. I have been let off the hook for letting my tabs go a month past their expiration date, snacking on leftover food at work, smoking on our non-smoking building property. I am never, ever carded, not even at my twenty-first birthday celebration. People assume (wrongly, often enough) that I am up to good things when they see me, because I look “normal,” meaning white. I consider myself to be a basically good person and think well of myself and my moral judgment, but when I consider how often I’ve intentionally screwed up it’s humiliatingly obvious that I have nothing to congratulate myself about. I have not had problems with the police because the police don’t suspect me, not because I am morally superior to people who get caught.

I don’t really know how to make sense of my racist heritage, or how to continue the trend of progress in my children’s lives. I find myself agonizing over the most ridiculous things sometimes, like, should I provide my children with multicultural dolls, or does that send the message that other races of people are commodities to be collected? This particular dilemma is exceptionally silly because neither of my kids are even a tiny bit interested in doll play, but I continue to cause myself to break out in hives over this and other questions like it because I deeply want my kids to just see people as people. I want them to feel free to marry a person of color and have babies who won’t share my frizzy red hair and know that that partner and those children will be loved and accepted into the family. I want them to feel free to dislike a person of color without going into hiding for a few weeks to unravel whether or not their negative feelings are fueled by racism. I want race to not be a thing for them. I want them to just have friends and know people and be seriously horrified someday when I tell them how far we’ve come as a family from the days when our ancestors were fighting in the Civil War on Stonewall Jackson’s side.

I don’t know how much progress you can realistically hope to make in one generation, but more than anything else…I just want this to be over.

Written by GRSeim

May 19, 2012 at 7:35 am

Birth and the Patriarchy

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I am so sick of seeing women policing other women. Controlling other women’s choices through fear and shame is, and I can’t stress this enough, NEVER ACCEPTABLE.

Women approach childbirth with intense fear because doctors rape us, slice our vaginas with scissors without warning or concern for our pain and suffering, tell us that we/our babies will die if we don’t obey them to the letter, leave us out of the decision-making process when making vitally important and intensely personal decisions about our births, force us to take medications or have surgeries that we do not want, ignore our requests and pleas and routinely injure us and our children, sometimes fatally. And before you suggest going the natural birth route to solve all of these problems, let me just say this: I was raped by my midwife while attempting a homebirth. So don’t think that there’s an easy answer. Don’t tell us that if we would just obey you instead of obeying someone else, everything would be fine. Our poor judgment isn’t the thing causing the maternal health crisis in the States. Our fear is not irrational and it is not the problem. Our trust is not the problem.

The problem is that medical professionals have serious authority issues.

When you start obeying us, the crisis will be over.

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Written by GRSeim

April 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Remember who you are

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As I understand it, there was a black woman who lived a very long time ago. Her name was Susannah, and she was in a relationship of some sort (I’d like to think it was consensual and oddly romantic, but the odds are good that it was actually rapey and horrific) with a slave ship captain named John Hemings.

Susannah had a little daughter by Hemings, who she called Elizabeth. Hemings attempted to buy Elizabeth from Susannah’s master, John Wales.

I wish I knew why; I have so many questions about this story. Was Hemings a decent guy who would have settled down with Susannah given the opportunity? Was he abusive? Did he intend to harm Elizabeth? Was John Wales the abuser in the situation?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. What I do know is that John Wales refused to part with Elizabeth. He sold her and her mother to his future father-in-law, Francis Eppes, and then later inherited them back into his estate as part of his wife’s dowry. Francis somehow created a legal stipulation that required Susannah and Betty (as Elizabeth was called) to remain with his daughter and her heirs forever.

Again, I wish I could know so much more. Was it because Betty was part white that she was granted preferential treatment above the other slaves in Martha Eppes’s estate? Was there something else that was unique about her than made people uncomfortable with seeing her live out her life as a slave?

Whatever the reason behind it all, Betty and her children stayed with John Wales. She had four children by a fellow slave, and then John Wales took her as his concubines. Betty gave birth to six children by this man who had owned her as property from birth.

John Wales had children from previous relationships as well; one of them was a girl named Martha Eppes. She inherited Betty and her children, six of whom were actually her half-siblings, when she married Thomas Jefferson in 1772.

Martha Eppes was intelligent, a good writer and seamstress and well-read. People liked her. By all accounts she was interesting, pretty and bright, and had a good sense of humor (sadly and predictably, there appear to be no surviving descriptions of Betty).

Martha and Thomas had six children together. Martha is believed to have suffered from gestational diabetes in each of her pregnancies that wrecked havoc on her body and ultimately killed her. The first Jefferson child, Martha (called Patsy), was the only one who lived a full lifespan; she died at 64 years of age. Her younger sister, Jane, died when she was one; Martha endured a still birth a few years later before giving birth to a fourth child, Mary, who died at 24. After Marry, Martha and Thomas had another daughter, who they named Lucy Elizabeth. She died as an infant. Martha conceived one more time. I find it telling to note that she gave this last baby a recycled name, also calling her Lucy Elizabeth. I have spent so much of my life dreaming about my future children and carefully crafting their names. I can only imagine the kind of jaded depression that would lead a person to just stick a decent name on a kid without thought or apparent tenderness.

Martha Jefferson died a few months after the second Lucy Elizabeth was born. She was only 33 years old at the time. Thomas Jefferson suffered a nervous breakdown following her loss, and the little Lucy Elizabeth soon followed her mother to the grave. Thomas Jefferson never recovered from the loss of his wife. He moved to France a few years after her death, leaving his surviving children behind in the care of their aunts and uncles who were still serving the Jefferson family as slaves.

Two years into his stay in France, Jefferson decided to summon his younger daughter, Mary to join him. Mary was only nine years old at the time, so she was accompanied by the youngest of her slave aunts, Sally, who was fourteen (note that this whole time that Martha was birthing little daughters only to rapidly find herself attending their funerals, Betty and Martha’s father were successfully birthing babies left and right and then setting them up to live out their lives as slaves).

Historians argue about this next chapter of history quite a bit, but I do not personally find it difficult to believe, particularly when taken in context with the rest of this family’s sad story.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally (his dead wife’s half-sister) apparently began an affair while in Paris. It grew into a relationship that lasted for forty years. They conceived a child while in Paris, and Sally and her baby returned to the States with Jefferson’s promise of freedom.

The young baby died soon after their return to the free world, and Sally went on, living as Jefferson’s concubine and slave for many years. She had six children in all with Thomas Jefferson, with four of them surviving to adulthood.

Meanwhile, little Mary, who was attending a convent school in Paris while this relationship ignited, returned home and married her cousin. She gave birth three times in four years and then died of health complications caused by pregnancy and worsened by depression. Only one of her children, a little boy, survived.

Jefferson granted each of his mixed-race children their freedom when they came of age, but curiously, he never freed Sally. His surviving daughter, Martha, eventually set Sally free after Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826 (he was 83 when he died). Sally went to live with her adult sons, who were living free, dignified lives in Charlottesville. She remained with them for nearly a decade, living independently in their own home, and she got to see one of her grandchildren born and take part in that child’s life before she passed away in her early 60’s.

This story applies to our lived today on so many different levels. I am so sick with anger and stress right now that I can’t stand to delve into all of it.

Read this and ask yourself, do you really think that race doesn’t matter, that life is what you make of it? What happened to the black babies born on the Jefferson’s property whose mothers were not raped by white men, who were clearly black? Those people and their families undoubtedly remained in slavery, and then in segregation, and then lived through Jim Crowe and the violence that marked the Civil Rights movement and descendants of those slaves are almost certainly following the news right now, hearing people attempt to excuse George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin’s murder because of whatever problems Trayvon may or may not have had at school and if I were the one holding my babies tight in fear as I watched that story unfold, knowing what this society owes me and seeing how this society continues to treat me and mine like shit…well. I’m not living with that fear, I am not carrying that load. But speaking as myself, within the context of my own life, I have no excuse, I can think of no defense. I feel sick, weighted down, broken. This is ugly. This is as ugly as it gets.

Moving from racism to sexism…do you really think that Jefferson would have taken issue with women having free access to birth control? He lost his own cherished wife due to complications in pregnancy, and their entire eleven years of marriage were dominated by death as they lost child after child. If ever there was a man who understood contraception as the foundation of women’s healthcare, surely it was Jefferson, whose life of suffering and loss would have been entirely prevented had he and his wife had access to any of the fantastic birth control methods we have available to us now.

To the conservatives and religious folks that think they have the right to judge other people’s major life decisions…go back and read it again. Put yourself in Susannah’s shoes, Martha’s, Betty’s, Mary’s, Sally’s. Can you honestly find fault with these women? As I see it, the only person who acted wrongly in this story was the slave ship captain who fathered Betty, and even with him we do not have enough information to be able to guess whether he might have been violently, criminally evil or merely a product and victim of his times like all the rest. For the women, and particularly the women of color in these stories, life was a terrifying drudgery,something to be escaped. How long can you go on trying to survive in a world that does not value you as a human being, that doesn’t care about your life or your fate?

In 1839, 13 years after Jefferson died, a man named Charles Goodyear invented the first rubber condoms and IUD’s (I’ve read that people were attempting to use sheepskin condoms and diaphragms made of halves of lemons before this point, with very little success). Congress banned the propagation of information regarding these life saving devices thirty years later, arguing that the information was obscene, and went on to make the U.S. the only Western country to criminalize contraception (at the time, or across the board? I’m not sure, need to read more on this point).

I wonder as I type those words, if Congress bothered to get Martha Jefferson’s take on contraception before making that decision, or if they took Susannah or Betty’s stories into consideration.

Women need contraception. We need to be able to have abortions if our life circumstances make them necessary, and we need to be recognized as the only appropriate persons to decide what constitutes necessity. We need strong laws protecting us from rapists and abusers. We need these things because our lives aren’t livable without them. We are vulnerable, not because of our femininity but because nature doesn’t really care if we live or die beyond childbirth. Left unchecked, our reproductive systems will work us to death. We have the technology, we have the resources; to force us to return to the kinds of lives Sally and Mary endured would be heartless and brainless, and tragically it would not be long before that kind of pigheadedness could be construed as murderous as well. Women die due to the simple inability to access contraception all the time around the world.

All I can say is, my daughter and I will not be those women. We will not be sent back to live such heartbreaking, empty, tragic and fleeting lives.

We will remember where we’ve come from, and we will not be forced back.

Written by GRSeim

April 1, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Let’s just start off with this: I am not posting the photo on the Internet.

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I wrote this down a few moths ago, forgot about it, found it again today and still like it. That doesn’t happen often, so I’ve decided to share it.

Spoiler alert, though: I am not posting any nakey lady pics. Some people do that, and that is fine, more power to them…but the Internet is not anonymous enough for me to feel comfortable posting pictures of my unclothed body. I’d love to hear more from other women about their relationships with their bodies, though, particularly those whose bodies do not fit the Western idealized blueprint for beauty. Do you feel beautiful? Do you value beauty? How do you define beauty for yourself? What makes you feel beautiful?

I stepped out of the shower on the morning of my scheduled c-section and admired my pregnant body for the last time. I knew that I was unlikely to have any more children, and I secretly longed to take a picture of my naked self so that I would always remember how beautiful and alive I felt in that moment…but it felt weird to rejoice in my own nakedness, and so silly, to love my body and to feel so good in my own skin when everyone around me was sighing about stretch marks and bloating. I certainly had my share of both! I caved to the societal pressure to perceive myself and my body as inadequate, and I didn’t take the picture. I have kicked myself for that so many times since.

Three months after my daughter was born, my little toddler son stretched his body across my stomach and paused to examine my c-section scar. He frowned for a moment, and then inquired, “Is this where our baby got out of your tummy?”

“That’s the spot,” I assured him for the millionth time.

“Is it an owie?” he asked again.

“Having babies is very hard work,” I replied. “Some parts of it hurt a lot, but I am safe and happy and don’t have any owies now. This line on my tummy lets me remember what it was like to have a baby inside my tummy.”

He smiled and patted my midsection, which jiggled and squished under the pressure of his little hand.

“Your tummy is empty now, huh, Mom? No more babies in there!”

I felt tears spring to my eyes, and then realized that I was gently stroking my own stomach…and again, I was washed with feeling of tenderness for my body. I felt proud of how hard I’d worked, how much I’d endured, how much I’d learned, and profoundly grateful to have had the immeasurable blessing of a healthy body that was able to create beautiful babies for me to love, all on its own.

I looked at the shriveled, scarred, lop-sided mess that two pregnancies had left behind, and smiled a little.

And this time, I took the picture.

Written by GRSeim

March 28, 2012 at 7:20 am

Death: less pearly gates and light-filled tunnels and more like the DMV.

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The intoxicated homeless man stumbles towards me, waving his arms above his head. My children don’t react to this common sight at all. I shake my head in amusement and greet him, “Hello, Jimmy. How’s Elizabeth today?”

“Oh, she’s doing well,” he slurs politely. “And how are my favorite kids doing today?”

“We’re just looking for ducks and squirrels,” my little son informs him.

“Ah, those are some tricky critters to catch, aren’t they,” Jimmy smiles congenially, absent-mindedly flicking some crumbs out of his whiskers as he slows his gait to match our rambling pace.

Darren sighs heavily. “I’ve never caught a squirrel before,” he confesses sadly, his shoulders slumped.

“I did, once,” Jimmy confides, “but it got away before I could show it to anyone.”

“That’s a bummer,” Darren sympathizes.

“Well, yes it was,” Jimmy laughs ruefully. “But it wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last.”

Jimmy and Elizabeth spend most of their nights in the abandoned schoolyard by our house, and most of their time in the day is spent walking to and from the various churches and community centers in the area that host free meals for the poor.

Here is what I know about them: Jimmy is abusive, sometimes violent. Elizabeth is an alcoholic, and on her last legs. They have three sons who, quite understandably, refuse to have any contact with them.

Every time I hear someone trumpet personal responsibility as it relates to healthcare, gun safety, childcare, the minimum wage…I always want to tell them about Jimmy and Elizabeth. These people are not well. This last winter nearly killed Elizabeth.

Whatever has happened in the past that lead up to their current predicament, they are suffering now and need help, but who will help them?

Their children, who I’m certain have suffered decades of abuse and neglect at their hands? People who will be doing remarkably well in life if they are even able to function normally as adults when you consider the kind of start they had in life?

Or perhaps these generous community centers and churches should ban together to care for our city’s most vulnerable residents: the ones with cancer, HIV, the ones who left limbs behind in Iraq; the ones with dangerous mental illnesses, addictions and criminal histories, stress disorders, violent tendencies and perverted sexual habits? How do you see that working, exactly? Do the Sunday school teachers and front desk receptionists take shifts?

Jimmy and I both know who should be taking this responsibility on: it’s me. I am a CNA and I am completely capable of dealing with people like him. I am not afraid of him. Before I had my kids, I spent about 50 hours a week bathing adults, brushing their teeth, doing their laundry, literally cleaning their shit. And here’s the thing, I don’t just do it, I enjoy it. I connect with these people and sometimes change their lives. I have a unique talent that society desperately needs. I am the answer to this problem.

But I can’t do this work for free.

I can understand how people can look at the situation and think, you’re an alcoholic, you won’t go through treatment, you’ve done this to yourself…why should I pay for your mistakes?

But if there’s anything I’ve learned through providing end-of-life care, it’s this: we humans make way more shit than any of us can ever clean up on our own. Even if you have been a self-made island this far, I promise you that you will not die that way. You will absolutely end this life indebted to someone. You don’t get to be awesome and do it all on your own; nature prevents that.

The only choice you have is will you die indebted financially or spiritually. I probably won’t ever be able to prove this, but I believe that we rest easier in death when our debt is a spiritual one; the people I’ve cared for are just a little bit immortal, and I know that sounds silly but it’s real. I talk about them, mimic them, reference their stories, share their memories.

I remember their favorite colors.

I grieve their passings, even when we don’t particularly like each other or get along well, because we share a real human connection that can’t be defined or set down on paper.

When was the last time you experienced that kind of connection in our current medical system? Has your insurance agent ever remembered your birthday, or your favorite dessert?

Have they ever named their child after you, to keep your memory alive after you’re gone?

Our society needs change. Our president is fired up to tackle the healthcare system, I say let’s ride that wave and see where it takes us. It can not be made any worse than it is now. Don’t wait to find that out first-hand.

Written by GRSeim

March 27, 2012 at 6:56 pm

For Trayvon

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He’s standing in the street, gesturing wildly; his voice is raised loud enough that I can hear him a block away. Ice cold tendrils of fear work their way through my stomach. I’m alone and it’s getting dark. I have my baby in the carrier on my back, and my three year old is trying to pry his fingers out of my hand so that he can chase pigeons (why are there always pigeons, everywhere I go?). The man is yelling at a bicyclist who is waiting for the signal to turn.

The bicyclist is white. The other man is black. And I’m a little scared of him.

Am I safe? Should I proceed, or pick a different path to my car? What is going on?

I replay the situation in my head. I try to erase the colors and accompanying prejudices from my mind. What I see is a man, speaking loudly, moving energetically. I see another man standing not two feet away from him, not reacting to the outburst in any visible way. I know that if I were standing that close to an unstable, potentially violent person, I’d be doing whatever I could to extricate myself from the situation. This guy is sitting still. He doesn’t appear to feel threatened. We’re on a main road. I have my phone in my hand if I need to call 911. I am hardly defenseless on my own, either. I have martial arts training, a strong set of lungs and a great big ugly temper. I know that I can trust myself to take care of myself. I choose to continue, but cautiously.

The light changes as we approach, and the cyclist slaps the black man on the back.

“I’ve gotta run,” he says, smiling, “but it was great to run into you again! I’ll give you a call soon!”

“Just drop by whenever! Right over there,” the black man points to a high rise building that dominates the block next to us. “I’m in the penthouse, you can’t miss it!”

He turns away from the road, grinning broadly, and sees me watching him. I know I probably look surprised.

“Man,” he smiles, dropping to a normal speaking tone, “I haven’t seen that guy since grad school! I thought he’d moved away. What are the odds?”

He saunters off in the direction of his million-dollar penthouse dwelling, still smiling and shaking his head at intervals, galvanizing the pigeons into flight as he departs. My son sighs in exasperation and quickly begins seeking out a new group of winged targets.

I’m alone again. My hands are shaking. I feel sick. A sudden rush of tears sting my eyes, triggered by overwhelming waves of relief? Frustration? Guilt? Some combination of the three. My baby is beginning to whimper for another snack. My son is still jerking against my firm grip on his sleeve.

“Let go! I need to chase that bird over there!” he wails, arms flailing blindly as his prey disappears into the dusk at a tantalizing waddle. I realize that, while I have been lost in this internal battle against my own prejudice and bigotry, my son has remained completely fixated on the hunt. He didn’t even notice the impromptu class reunion.

Maybe my hesitation escaped his attention as well.

Maybe he didn’t notice the fear that had to have been visible in my eyes.

Maybe black men will be able to express emotion safely in my son’s company when he reaches adulthood.

Maybe things will get better.

Maybe.

Learn more about Trayvone Martin and take a stand against institutionalized racism here.

Written by GRSeim

March 21, 2012 at 6:42 am