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Archive for the ‘childhood’ Category

Story of my life!

Here I am at Sunny Acres Day Camp outside of Albany, NY in 1980. I’m not sure how much I noticed, or minded, being the only kid of color in so many situations for so much of my childhood, but I didn’t really vocalize my feelings about it until years later. Looking back at pictures like this one though, I wonder what impact it had on me in the moment. Did it affect my personality? My confidence? My comfort? Were the camp counselors ever tempted to call in the authorities on suspicion of kidnapping when my white mom came to pick me up (as happened to this Virginia family recently)?

camp

Of course, my use of the term “only black kid” is, on the surface, in contrast to my usual “I’m mixed, not black” perspective. It’s true, I normally rant about how mixed is not the same as black, and have used a whole heap of web space exploring all the ways my experience is unique. But there is overlap too. It’s obvious that “black” is the way us mixed kids are often seen, and in turn the way we sometimes see ourselves. Regardless of how I understood race at the time (probably something like, Race? Ready, set, go!), here I am – the only caramel-skinned camper who didn’t owe it to a tan. It was a situation typical of my life as a child.

Ok, now you’re it!

Was this the story of your life too? If so, send me a picture of you as the only black kid to newmeadow@gmail.com or tweet me at @newmeadow #onlyblackkid and I’ll post it here! Please tell me your name and the city/state/country where the picture was taken. If you’d like, you can also include a brief paragraph describing your memories regarding the picture, or your general feelings about being the “only black kid.” I think these photos are really meaningful in remembering, and relating, what it’s like to be a kid of color.

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I understand what Barack is going through. I have also been doubted. Many have questioned my capacity to hold both a white girl and a black girl in the same body without combusting. Many have disputed my claims to ancestry ranging everywhere from Jamaica to Puerto Rico to the Pale. Many have wondered how I could have been conceived in a Hari Krishna temple, birthed by a Jew, and raised as a born again Christian. Many have requested an explanation for how I can have so much rhythm and yet so little street sense. Many have insinuated that it is impossible for me to love women without swearing off men.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that perhaps I am not one of you, that I am not from here at all, but from some foreign planet, a long lost broken off descendant of the big bang. These people have threatened to strip me of my blogging power, thereby depriving the rest of you of strongly opinionated, scarcely researched pieces on my complex inner life, occasional poems and lists of things people have said while high. Could you live without these things? Sure. You could also live without banana pudding and red wine and butter. But what kind of life would that be?

So I say L’chaim, haters! as I humbly offer proof of my deliverance from a uterus right here in New York state. The doctor said I didn’t want to come out, but out I came. And ain’t no putting me back in.

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Happy birthday, Dad.

On Monday morning, I called Dad to wish him a happy birthday. His wife, Vicki, answered and said she was about to go looking for him. She was worried. Dad is always working on something in the basement or the yard or the woods behind the house, but since he is now experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s his wandering can be dangerous. Twenty minutes later, on the verge of a panic attack, she finally found him quietly reading in their bedroom and had him call me.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hiya! I’m here. I’m always right here. I keep telling them.”

“I know, Dad. Happy birthday! What are you up to?”

“Oh, I’m moving the stones around. There are so many stones! These stones are thousands of years old and it’s just tremendous what people can do with them!”

“That’s awesome. Are you building something?”

“Well, I don’t know. The person that knows more about it is the person that I love the most and she’s sitting right next to me.”

“That’s sweet, Dad. Vicki is really great.”

“Yes, she is. And I’m wonderful. Tell me that I’m wonderful.”

“You are wonderful, Dad,” I laughed.

The conversation was funny, but it makes more sense than you might think. Dad really has spent most of his life doing archaeology and teaching kids at the state museum. Sometimes he was invited to my school where he passed around birds and chipmunks that he had stuffed himself. He has always spoken the language of leaves and earth and rivers and since his retirement, he’s been building furniture out of fallen branches. He started by leaving miniature handmade chairs outside of bookstores and Home Depots with little notes attached, saying “I’m an orphan chair, please take me home.” It’s no surprise that, even as he loses his memory, he’d be out gathering stones.

But it’s not just the Alzheimer’s. Dad has always had trouble remembering things, especially names. Growing up, when knowing who called me ranked up there with the importance of food and water, he could never take accurate messages. “Melissa called for you. Or Meghan. Do you know a Melanie?”

“Did they call today, Dad?”

“Today or yesterday. You know I don’t like to answer the phone!”

“Why did you answer the phone?”

“To make it stop ringing.”

I used to think it was the effects of his previous alcohol abuse, back before he married Mom and adopted me. Or damage from the electric shock treatment they gave him in jail after he was arrested for stealing a Greyhound bus and plunging it into a lake. He was drunk then, but the stunt also had some larger social context. At least he said so in the book of poems he later wrote about it.

Whatever it is, Dad has always had trouble keeping things straight. Not baseball game scores or Native American history or what time to leave for work. Just certain things. One weekend in junior high, my friends and I were waiting outside of a fun park where Dad was supposed to pick us up. When he didn’t show, we called my Mom who told us that he had just returned home from attempting to pick us up at a skating arena in another town. Maybe he confused roller coasters with roller skates. Maybe he just had more important things on his mind.

Later that year, he staged a protest by burning the American flag outside the Albany courthouse. Well, he tried to burn it, but the flame wouldn’t catch. Still, it was enough to get him chased by angry veterans, his picture on the news, hate mail and phone calls and slashed tires. And it was enough to get me some hate speech of my own at school, from a few of my more conservative classmates. Dad wrote poetry about the flag burning too, featuring his persona, White Boy.

If he wasn’t at work, Dad could usually be found on the living room floor, leaning back against the couch with legs outstretched, cutting, folding and stapling his tiny booklets together. He wore t-shirts and Levi’s (which he called dungarees), and his brown curls had a spirit as wild as his own — he had no use for combs. His blue eyes glanced up from time to time to catch the baseball game on TV. When he got up, he left behind an outline of pastel paper slivers in the shape of his body. I didn’t get it at the time, but he was a giant of the underground press, self publishing and distributing more than 160 thousand pamphlets, in addition to his other writing. He sent out submissions constantly, each one with a self addressed stamped envelope. Our mailbox was always jammed full of fan letters, acceptance letters and, no doubt, plenty of rejections.

Between Dad’s exploits and Mom’s confrontational artwork (our dining room boasted an oil painting of Dad with the text Good Fuck), I was growing accustomed to not being understood by my peers. So I did what any self-respecting 13-year-old would do. I threw a keg party. It had all the requisite characteristics of an out of control bash — loud music, drunken breakups, uninvited guests, a visit from the police, and pizza deliveries that no one admitted to ordering. It also had some unique characteristics like our electric toothbrush being planted in the garden, the microwave being filled with dish soap, and the dirt from two broken houseplants somehow ending up in the piano. To top it off, a tape of the party was stuck in the video camera. (We got it out, but I lost track of that tape — if anyone reading this has it, please get in touch.)

Mom and Dad were in New York for the weekend, but Dad returned the next afternoon, earlier than expected. There I was, with a half-cleaned house trying to glue a broken leg back onto a chair. Afraid to face him, I hid in the study, where my “friends” had ransacked his papers. Pamphlets were strewn everywhere, ripped, crumpled, and missing. The following week, the pamphlets made their way around school along with stories of the party. Everyone knew my Dad was the infamous White Boy. And of course, I was in trouble. Not that much though. My parents were never great at punishment.

I don’t remember talking to Dad about what happened, the loss of his work, or my feelings about being the daughter of White Girl and White Boy. He just kept on writing, submitting and teaching. He kept on getting tattoos, performing his poetry in the nude and pitching for five softball teams every summer. And he kept on forgetting. But one of the things that remains constant, even as Dad’s memory gets cloudy and his ability to express himself erodes, is his enthusiasm. Last year, at his 70th birthday party, he gave an impromptu, five-minute speech about how beautiful we all were. Someone gave him a rainstick as a gift and he walked around the room showing it to each and every person. Dad’s excitement has always had a childlike quality and when you talk to him, it’s difficult not to get excited too. Even about stones.

Lake George, 1982 <----------------------------> Thatcher Park, 2007

So, here’s to you, Dad. You drove me crazy growing up, but I think I’m starting to get it. The world is crazy. You actually make a whole lot of sense. Happy birthday.

Please visit my facebook page for the musical pairing to this post, dedicated to Dad, who — you’ll be shocked to find out — is not on facebook. He’s in the garage.

Links:
Poet of the Hard Pavement Returns to the City Mission, 1988
SEEING RED, WHITE AND BLUE – FLAG BURNING ANGERS VETERANS, 1989
Nary A Spark, No Flags Burned in Park, 1990
Teaching’s Easier Through A Thick Skull, 1994
Underground Press Conference, 1995
Just Because I Didn’t Leave The Driving To Us I Got Jailed And Juiced Good
It’s A Table, It’s A Bench… It’s A Dutch Throwback, 2003
Fan Is At Home With His Favorite Team, 2003
Taking A Seat, 2005
The Albany Poetry scenes, as seen through Dan Wilcox’s lens, 2008
Freedom of the Press: Artists Publish on the American Presidency, 2009

Buffalo by the book: Western New York’s rare books collections
University at Buffalo Poetry/Rare Books Collection

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If you’ve been following my blog for the past few weeks, you know that I posted a diagram of a wheel that represented the various aspects of my life and mind. I promised that each week, I would write about some portion of that wheel. First, I wrote about food, then sexuality, then family, and last week, about exposure and writing itself. The only things left to tackle were money and meditation.

Albany, 1986

But let’s face it. I hate talking about money and I procrastinate more than I meditate. So instead, this week I watched a bunch of old home movies and came across myself, happily typing away on my very first typewriter, given to me by my grandparents for Christmas, circa 1986. Yes, my Jewish grandparents loved nothing more than to celebrate Christmas with me and my parents, over whole wheat apple fritters and a glass of champagne.

NYC, 2011

And here I am today on my state-of-the-art, now-completely-obsolete-since-the-new-one-came-out-last-week, MacBook Pro. I’m no longer wearing footsie pajamas, but I look pretty organized with my handmade calendar and world map. And I’m still fascinated by the sight of my own words on the page.

This week, I plan to meditate at least a couple times and come into some unexpected cash. So I’m sure I’ll be able to think of something to write. In the meantime, please enjoy this video while I tidy up the trial size items under my bathroom sink.

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Last week, I posted a diagram of all the aspects of my life and promised that each Wednesday I would explore one segment. The following story is about my relationship with food — one of my earliest memories of turning to food for comfort. It’s told in the third person for no good reason.

She had just gotten off the bus from school. She didn’t have any money, but still, she paced around the store eyeing the candy display. When a couple of customers came in and ordered milkshakes, she knew it was her chance.  The ice cream was at the far end of the counter, so the cashier would have to walk away and leave her unsupervised next to the sugary treats. She scanned the rows of chocolate bars out of the corner of her eye and waited until the girl at the register walked away. Then in one swift motion, she grabbed a Snickers, nudged it under the cuff of her winter coat and up into the sleeve. In the next aisle, she pretended to browse the grocery items and daily newspapers. If she peeked over the top of the shelves, which were just about her height, she could see that the cashier was still busy scooping ice cream. What if they made eye contact, she worried, and the thought made her suddenly hot. The plastic wrapper of the candy bar stuck to her arm. She didn’t dare adjust it. With deliberately slow steps, she made her way out the door, down the stairs, and alongside the brown panels of the store. No one came after her.

She knew eating candy was bad. Her mother didn’t keep sweets in the house and the sweetest thing she ever got in her packed lunch was fruit leather, which was sort of like Fruit Roll-ups minus the sugar. She usually got her fill when she went to her grandmother’s house, digging into the cookie jar every time she passed through the kitchen. Now she wasn’t sure which was worse, eating a candy bar or stealing it. The anticipation of consuming the forbidden delicacy was almost too much to bear. She needed the chocolate bar. It was the only thing that would make her feel better. The only thing that could take the sting out of being alone. She could practically taste the creamy milk chocolate and feel the gooey caramel melting on her tongue. She ducked into a side street on the way home and devoured it, bite after chewy, perfect bite. As soon as it was gone, she wished she had another.

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