Brain-Picking Becky

BFF’s musings and reflections on this crazy life.

A Bear is Born

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Anyone who lives in New York City is bound to see a celebrity at some point.  Being incredibly unobservant, I went five years without a single sighting.  Then, within just a few months, my little section of Brooklyn was transformed from a quiet, family neighborhood into a star-studded, hipster playground.  Believe me, this part of Greenpoint was not fancy.  But because there were numerous abandoned warehouses scattered along West Avenue, a litter-filled, broken strip of pavement on the East River that boasted a frightening amount of alley cats and a gorgeous view of Manhattan, quite a few television networks moved in: Boardwalk Empire built their 1920’s New Jersey boardwalk two blocks away, Lena Dunham and her girls with great hair yet no self-esteem moved in three blocks southward, and CBS took over a warehouse down the street to film their Broadway-meets-television flop Smash.  Our peaceful corner of the world had been discovered.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this hubbub wasn’t glamorous or exciting.  In fact, it sucked.  Whereas we once always found a parking spot right outside our building, we suddenly had to park a ten-minute walk away because trailers and equipment needed the street instead.  Crew members yelled at us for walking our dogs through their set, also known as the public sidewalk, and fans hoping to catch a glimpse of so-and-so clogged the delis, whose owners jacked up the price of a Modelo six-pack from six to nine dollars (for cans, mind you, not even bottles).

But this was our home – a rent-stabilized home with a yard, no less. My husband and our dogs, a mixed breed named Basil and a Boxer named Bear, loved that yard.  So, in order to keep it and to swallow the neighborhood transformation a little more easily, I devised a plan to turn us into super stars.  Or, more exactly, a plan to turn Bear into a super star, fulfilling the rags-to-riches dream I felt she so deserved.

— ◊ —

A few years before this transformation began, Dave and I enjoyed a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda.  Overflowing with giddy love the night we returned home, we visited our local bar and, drunk on beer, marriage vows, and personal pinball records, ran into our neighbor, Adam, standing on the corner with two big dogs, his Rottweiler named Zeus and Sarah the Boxer.

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“Why do you have Sarah?” Dave slurred.  She belonged to another neighbor of ours, a Polish man we often saw walking on West Avenue, and we’d never seen her with anyone else.

In his typical bro manner, Adam replied, “Well, dude, I hate to lay this on you, but her owner died this morning.”

As we pet sweet, stinky Sarah, Adam explained how her owner had been an alcoholic who lived in his broken-down car in the lot behind Adam’s house.  He’d get drunk and wrestle with her, to the point that they’d both draw blood on one another, then pass out in a pile in the backseat.  Adam discovered the man’s body earlier that day because Sarah, sitting on the pavement beside the open passenger door, was barking nonstop; her owner had died from alcohol poisoning that morning and his seemingly final act was to let his dog out of the car.  This was all shocking news to us.

“She’s a good girl, but I can’t keep her,” Adam said, gesturing at his already 100-pound Rotty who was only a year old.  “I don’t know what to do, man.  I just can’t have both dogs at my place.  This breeder in New Jersey was supposed to pick her up thirty minutes ago, but now he’s not even answering his phone.”

“No, no, we know this dog!” Dave exclaimed.  “You can’t give her to a breeder.  We’ll take her for the weekend, find someone who will spay her and be good to her.  Right, honey?”

“Yes, definitely,” I replied, knowing it was a question with only one answer.  But even if I’d had a choice, I still would have agreed.  Sure, she stank, she jumped, she licked, and, to be honest, I thought she was ugly, but, as Dave said, we knew this dog.  We could take a weekend out of our lives to find her a loving home.  Plus, little Basil would go nuts over a house guest.

I should have known what I was getting into when I first saw the look on Dave’s face as he listened to Sarah’s story, but I’d never “fostered” a dog before and honestly believed it would be a two-day commitment.  By the end of the weekend, our decision to keep her came down to a moment when Dave and Basil were both looking at me with pleading eyes, and I just couldn’t say no.  I blame it on the honeymoon vibes.

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— ◊ —

My love vibes had vanished by the time the neighborhood usurpers moved in.  (more…)

A Message to White Progressives

We call ourselves progressive, but what are we actually doing to progress our society toward a more just and equal future?


Too many children across our country open their history textbooks to a page like the one pictured above. I understand that most parents want to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible, but when we use language like “brought millions of workers” to teach our kids about this country’s history – about the way white people kidnapped people of color, stole them from their homes and forced them to work in brutal conditions for masters who committed horrible atrocities against them – we are not protecting our children’s innocence. We are not making them safer. We are not helping them. Instead, this language – this lie – is protecting, saving, and helping white supremacy. And in teaching these lies over and over, we have created generations of adults who don’t understand how our history connects to our present, how the fact that our country was established on the idea that white people are inherently better than everyone else means that our black and brown neighbors are still being systematically oppressed and murdered.

I’m not saying we need to share every gruesome detail with our eight-year-old kids. But we do need to tell them the truth in terms that they can process. Let’s start with “enslaved people” instead of “workers,” for example, and “stole” instead of “brought.” I understand the desire to present our children with a world full of peace and love, but instead of pretending like that’s true, let’s make it true. Right now, eight-year-old children of color are being forcefully separated from their parents. They are starving in cells where they’re held without reason. They are witnessing the violent shootings of their fathers and uncles, often committed by police officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Compared to this reality, using words like “enslaved people” and “stolen” when talking to young white children is nothing.

The fact that we recently elected such a diverse Congress filled with various races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations is thrilling to me. Representation matters, and voting for these candidates was huge. I do believe our children will benefit positively from growing up with this. But y’all, we have so much more to do! Voting in diverse people was step one. Now we need to demand legislation to end gerrymandering and reform our election processes – two ways in which the U.S. government currently operates against BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color). We need to call the principals at our kids’ schools and review the way slavery and race relations is taught. We need to write emails to textbook publishers and explain why pages like the one above are not acceptable. In an age where so many of us are always on our phones, there’s no excuse for not regularly calling, emailing, or posting on social media about these issues.

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Original t-shirt available now at Black on Black.

We also need to recognize that while these actions are important, altering our system from within isn’t enough. In order to be true allies, we need to put our bodies and our money where our tweets are. We need to show up at Black Lives Matter protests, patron local businesses run by BIPOC, donate to their organizations, read their books, visit their art exhibits, buy their music. Don’t think of these efforts as a one-and-done situation, but rather plan out how you can incorporate this into your regular routine. Maybe Sunday brunch can be at a local, black-owned restaurant like Daleview Biscuits and Beer. Or maybe all your friends can get birthday presents from a company like Black on Black. Or maybe instead of going to the same club every Saturday, you can try a new place featuring DJs of color. Taking action doesn’t have to feel like work.

But you know what does, and probably should, feel like work? The self-analyzation that needs to come along with these external acts. Healing our country requires that we white people look honestly inside ourselves, that we dig deep to figure out what’s buried in there from our own childhoods. A good starting point is to think back to what you were taught about the discovery of our country, our founding fathers, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and/or the Great Migration. What did your textbooks say? Hell, I wasn’t taught about Jim Crow or the Great Migration in school, but when I think back to my elementary social studies classes, lessons on slavery were definitely brief and always ended with how Abraham Lincoln, a white man, was a savior. Lessons on our founding fathers similarly focused on their positive traits, how they were strong, smart, and brave. And the pilgrims were to be heralded as the bravest of all because they fled persecution in their homeland, found a new home, fought for it, and flourished.

Now, let’s reframe these lessons using more honest words. For example, the pilgrims didn’t just fight for their new home, they actually committed genocide, or, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group” – i.e., the Native Americans. And our founding fathers may have been strong, smart, and brave in some ways, but they were also terrorists, as in, they “advocated and practiced the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Diving further into Merriam Webster, terror is defined as, “violent and destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.” What was slavery if not violent and destructive acts – beatings, lynchings, rapes – committed by groups of white people in order to intimidate a population of black people into granting their demands to work the fields, cook dinner, clean the house, have sex, etc?

For many of us, this process feels wrong. It goes against everything we’ve been taught, and it feels blasphemous to think this way about George Washington, our great American hero. But we can’t let our discomfort keep us from doing the work – remember, BIPOC are still being systematically murdered because we white people don’t want to feel uncomfortable about the reality of our country’s history. Instead of running from or explaining away our feelings, we need to be in and examine them. No one is saying you owned slaves or committed genocide. We so easily get defensive and start tossing around blame instead of being in our own emotions. The wrong-doing here isn’t the act of applying the word “terrorist” to our founding fathers. What’s wrong is that we’ve been taught to worship these white men while ignoring the rest of history. We as a country have never implemented a collective practice to reconcile our past with our present, to decolonize our society, to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, we celebrate it! And because we’ve never truly addressed what our white forefathers did to the African Americans and indigenous people, much less tried to amend it, we are incapable of fully addressing and amending what is currently being done to these populations.

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Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson died on July 22, 2018 after her throat was slashed in a hate crime.

Sure, we’ve outlawed slavery (except in prisons, which are disproportionately filled with black people working for little to no pay), we’ve granted people of color the right to vote (then created tons of obstructions to purposefully block them), we’ve passed the Civil Rights act (then did not enforce it), but these amendments have been treated as an end rather than a beginning – a measly beginning, at that. And now here we are, feeling defensive and claiming “not me,” or “I’m one of the good ones,” or “It’s not fair to lump all white people into the same category,” basically refusing to get past our own egos, insisting that our immediate reaction is more important than whatever anyone else may feel, thus blocking ourselves from truly examining how we benefit from and even contribute to white supremacy, no matter how unintentional it may be. And because so many of us white people keep getting stuck here, people of color keep getting murdered. No, I am not the one who shot Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in a Kroger store while yelling racist slurs, nor am I the one who stabbed Nia Wilson to death in her car. But I am a part of a society that allows this to happen. I am a part of the race that perpetrates it. And as long as so many of us continue to deny our role, nothing will change.

It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s okay to not understand. But it’s not okay to stay like that. Our kids are watching us – all of us, including those who aren’t parents. We have the resources and the power to change things, so please, let’s do the work and make some real progress toward a better future.

Resources for Learning More and Taking Action:


Instagram Accounts to Follow:

There’s an inspiring and educational dialogue happening on Instagram about race relations, art, music, gender identity, American history, and how this all intersects. Do not follow these accounts if you have not already started on your own work. It is not okay to go into their spaces and be disrespectful or to center the discussion around yourself. This is a wonderful opportunity to listen to and learn from others. Don’t waste it.

 

Images:
1. McGraw Hill textbook via Diversity Inc.
2. Black on Black original design.
3. Nia Wilson via CNN.

Writer’s note: A previous version of this post used the word “slaves” instead of “enslaved people.” I have since learned about the phrase “enslaved people” and prefer it to “slaves,” as it demonstrates the idea that slavery was done to a person rather than the idea that a person’s identify was being a slave. However, others feel that “enslaved people” is too polished, and that it glosses over the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Yet another testament to the importance of language.

Happy 2019 + New Publication in Gateways, an Anthology!

I’m thrilled to share that a revised version of my essay, Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe, has been published in Gateways, an anthology of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction from alumni of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Click here to order your copy!

As I reflect on 2018, I can honestly say that I am ending this year in happiness. The first half of it (and pretty much all of 2017!) was hard and painful, but things have balanced themselves now, and I feel that my family is finally emerging from our period of darkness. And despite all the crazy challenges this year brought me, it also brought more creative publications than any year before, and this makes me ecstatic.

Of course I’m grateful to every editor who has seen something in my words and deemed them worth publishing, but I am even more grateful to all of you who read what I write and encourage me to keep going. Part of my creative process is motivated by an impulse within me – a need to express, to tell my truth, to attempt to answer to some greater calling – but a huge part of it also comes from the joy of communicating with y’all. Knowing that you make the choice to sit with my words, to think about and even respond to them, is such a gift. THANK YOU.

I’m eager to see what 2019 throws at me, and I sincerely hope you stick around for the stories. Happy New Year to all!

Grappling with Thanksgiving

I love turkey and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I love passing on family traditions to my toddler. And I especially love sandwiches stuffed with Thanksgiving leftovers. But y’all, we have got to stop with this ridiculous story about the Pilgrims and Indians becoming friends over an ear of corn and living happily ever after.

I get that people want one good meal with their families, just one day of eating and drinking and not worrying about everything else. But it’s not like we’re doing this on a random Thursday afternoon. We’re doing this on a national holiday based upon a colonial myth that enables the horrible and ongoing mistreatment of indigenous Americans. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy the day, but maybe while we’re eating our turkey and cranberry sauce, we should also consider discussing the truth about our country’s history and how we can take action to support present-day indigenous communities.

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My idea is not perfect, but as a parent of a three-year-old, I’ve decided to focus on learning about the Tuscarora, a Native American tribe based in New York. The website I’ve chosen to use as my guide offers facts about things like their traditional foods, toys, and hunting tools, how they fled from North Carolina to New York because the British attacked them, and what their lives are like now. My plan is to read these facts aloud, pass around some pictures, and talk. Then, after exploring these materials, I’m going to pull up this list of online stores run by Native Americans and pick out something with my son. We white folk too often purchase “Native-inspired” products from places like H&M or Target instead of giving our money directly to the Native American artists who did the inspiring in the first place – many of whom are living in poverty despite the fact they’re making the authentic versions of the products we seem to want.

On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things, including the opportunity to learn about our Native American neighbors, to spread the truth about our history, to use my money to support an amazing community, and to hopefully inspire my son to do his part in making this country a truly more equal and accepting place.

Huge thanks to Jen Winston (@girlsupplypower) for inviting Native Americans to take over her Instagram site this week and educate and motivate people like me. Check out Allen (lilnativeboy), Urban Native Era, Corinne Oestreich, #DearNonNatives, Tranny Cita, and Cleopatra Tatbele for more info on how to support Native Americans.

Photo credits:
N085/365 Corn Doll by Helen Orozco

Dancing with Relapse – New Publication!

While anorexia was familiar, intoxicating, even empowering, it was also a terrifying hell I thought I’d escaped from.”

After spending a decade in therapy working to finally put my eating disorder behind me, why have I spent the past five years writing a novel about a teenage artist who develops anorexia?

My latest essay, “Dancing with Relapse,” published today on The Women Who Get Shit Done, reflects on recovery, relapse, and the risks and rewards of fictionalizing my past demons in YA novel Bone Girl. Check it out!

Your Sister’s Ghost

It is 6:30 pm, Father’s Day is tomorrow, and we have nothing ready for your dad. To be honest, I was relying on your daycare teachers – for Mother’s Day, they helped you make this adorable and extensive art project that I completely love – but it seems like they don’t feel the same about dads. Your dad is a particularly chill one and not into fake holidays, but still, we have to do something. Or rather, you have to do something – I have to cook dinner.

“Why don’t you draw a picture of MommyDaddyLewis for Daddy’s special day tomorrow?” I suggest.

You run with this idea, literally, straight to your art table where you pull out a piece of blue paper and some markers. I wait until you’re settled then return to the kitchen to boil water for pasta.

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A few minutes later, I walk back in and glance at the three figures you’ve drawn in the middle of the page. I’m impressed; they’re the most detailed, complete images you’ve ever made, and I’m ready to burst forth in motherly praise. But before I say anything, you start drawing another figure in the top left corner, smaller than the rest of us and clearly separate. Without prompting or even a word from me, you say, “That’s my sister.”

“What?” I reply, taken aback.

“My sister.”

“Your sister?”

“Yes.”

I am stunned. We haven’t talked about Baby Wow since right after I lost her six months ago now. We actually haven’t talked about siblings at all since then. While her recent due date certainly triggered many things inside of me, I’ve been very careful not to mention this around you. In fact, I never even told you she was a girl. I first shared with you that I was pregnant when she was eleven weeks in utero, but then had to tell you just one week later that she wouldn’t be born. You were sad, but only for a couple of days. By the time the genetic test results came back and we’d learned her gender, you were long over it.

Thinking back to those days surrounding the procedure still hurts. But I have to put my own emotions aside so that I can be present and explore this moment with you. I don’t want to put words in your mouth or sway your thoughts in any way, so I decide to begin with, “Do you have a sister?”

“Yes,” you reply in the same intonation as an older kid might say, Duh.

“Okay. Where is she?”

“Here,” you say, tapping your drawing of her.

“I see. So do you have a sister for real, or just in the picture?”

Seriously and without hesitation, you say, “For real.”

“In real life, or just pretend?”

“In real life, Mommy.” I can sense the annoyance seeping into your voice, but I decide to push on just a little more.

“Okay, where is she for real?” 

“Mommy, she’s right here,” you say, pointing to the air beside you.

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Writing While Mothering

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Lew and Nana sharing some morning tea in Massachusetts.

I am alone this weekend for a writing “retreat,” and while the mental and physical space is glorious, I miss my little bug.

It’s so strange how parenting never stops. How it’s all or nothing. How it simultaneously feeds you and feeds upon you. The act of finding balance is constant and crucial.

I’m lucky and grateful to have my in-laws. And I’m thrilled for the opportunity to once again dive into my stories and not resurface until I damn well please.

But also, I’ll be looking forward to those sweet texts with pictures of Lew, enjoying retired life with his grandparents, without me.

To all the mama writers out there – you got this.