All of us who are white in America were born into a country steeped in racism. Even for those of us who were taught that racism is wrong, that we are all equal, all God’s beloved children, regardless of the color of our skin, racism was something dark and deeply troubling we had to contend with, something that colored our whiteness.
It shaped our sense of self, our sense of justice, fair play, and compassion for others. It fostered a sense of collective guilt and shame for white ancestors who enslaved others or looked askance at those who did. For those today who persist in holding racist views. Even for beloved grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who ought to know better, and yet through the occasional disparaging remark and negative attitude revealed a meanness of spirit toward a whole race of people simply because of the color of their skin.
I learned at an early age that good-hearted people, people I loved and admired and thought I could trust, held racists views. That they could be, God-forbid, racists themselves. Who held views that filled me with shame and sadness.
I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who was not prejudiced, who spoke out against those who were, and who taught me through her words and actions to understand how wrong racism is.
I have been fortunate in that all of my brushes with “blackness,” black people and black culture, have been positive, enriching experiences, and have colored my view of blackness with a deep admiration and respect. My one negative experience was no exception.
Today, when the whole world is rising up to reject racism, to protest against its continued brutality, is a time for all of us to reflect upon our own “Brushes with Blackness,” as I call it here, the experiences that have colored our view of what black lives and black culture mean to us, to examine if we in any way contribute to those negative connotations implicit in racists views.
Do we merely look askance at the racist views and systems embedded in our society? Or do we do what we can in our small corner of the world to not only oppose those views, but to celebrate the beauty and braveness and wisdom found in black communities and black culture?
That’s what I’m hoping to do on these pages in a short series examining my “Brushes with Blackness.” This is the first. Three more follow.
In the Time of Corona we all need a little mothering on Mother’s Day.
A huge influence on my understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, is found in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV):
There was something complete and nebulous
Which existed before the Heaven and Earth,
Unchanging, standing as One,
Able to be the Mother of the World.
This Mother of the World, of course, is Tao in this passage. And what I see as God, the divine Creator, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s what evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for all its “children,” all individual being.
A tall order for a mere human.
Yet something about that passage spoke to me as a woman and mother. It drew within me the desire to embrace my children in that spirit. And I found the mothering of my own two children improved immensely when I was able to step back and project in some way this more expansive sense of mothering that allows them to feel loved and supported without all the worries and anxieties and criticism and fear that accompany a mere human sense of mothering.
This mothering is not as personal, intense, or myopic, as the latter. It doesn’t hover, it doesn’t obsess, it doesn’t fret. It frees them “to be,” and is based on an immense sense of trust—in myself, in them, and in the universe at large. In God, or Tao, or some divine presence or higher power that embraces all of us, and gives each of us the capacity to mother each other.
This is not to say that I often meet this ideal. Far from it.
But I know I mother my own children best and make fewer mistakes when I’m able to embrace them in that larger, more expansive way. And it feels more natural, less constricted, to mother that way.
I find this kind of mothering works best when all-inclusive. When I embrace all around me with the same mothering spirit. Not just my children, but all children, all people, all things—my home, my community, my work—even the individual objects that fill the space around me and the space outside my window. When I’m able to actually feel and identify with that potential, to “be” the “Mother of the World.”
Mothering, I learned, is a capacity that anyone can embrace: man, woman, child. You don’t have to be a mother, or have children of your own, to mother the world. When you adopt that stance, all things become your children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.
Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”
First printed in a slightly altered version on these pages in 2015. More “mothering” images below.
I don’t know if it has anything to do with Covid-19, all these mixed emotions that swell and rage and dissipate, often within a single day. But I think this lock-down acts like a incubator to warm and feed and grow them with no release valve.
It’s okay not to be okay, I’ve heard. That’s a relief.
First the joy: Singing and dancing with my granddaughter, listening to her laughter, feeling her fly-by hugs, snuggling while we read to each other. A trip to the beach to see the elephant seals, catching tadpoles in a creek.
Then the grief: Son missing. Haven’t heard from him in a month. So unlike him. Called the jail, the hospitals, the homeless shelters, (not the morgue). Called his friends. Only one responded. She went to look for him where he’d last hung out by the riverside. But he’s not there, she said. Mostly it’s been cleared out, the tent city where the homeless reside.
I think: Even if he called, how could I help him? What could I say beyond I love you, get help, get well, stay safe, be strong, don’t give up, fight to get your life back. And then a week would go by with no word from him, and another, and another, and then I’m back to where I am now. When does it end? And in a way that doesn’t tear me apart?
Then there’s the in-between, all that lies between joy and grief: Can’t write, can’t paint, no time to myself. Homeschooling stretching out 4, 5, 6 hours a day. Constant worry about the virus, the isolation, the welfare of the nation, our democracy under Trump, my daughter and son-in-law trying to survive their lock-down, working from home. The court hearing for guardianship postponed again. My husband disengaged, rattling around the house trying to stay out of the way, trying to keep busy. Both of us eating too much. Tired all the time.
A major wedding anniversary comes and goes, un-celebrated. Unless home-delivered pizza and chocolate cake count.
A few good books and movies to distract us. Downton Abby movie last night, Ozark series last week. The Last Kingdom starting soon. The Immortalists by Cloe Benjamin, The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles. Escaping to other worlds.
Silly jokes and hilarious videos passed friend to friend by email.
Roses blooming, pool warming, frogs in full concert during the evening hours. Green hills, blue skies, wild flowers everywhere.
I’m blogging again. That’s something. First time in weeks.
So much to be grateful for midst the worry and grief. We have it better than most. How are you faring in this surreal landscape of Covid-19?
I home-schooled my two children for six years when we were sailing around the world on La Gitana. And now, so many years later, I’m home-schooling my 7-year old granddaughter since schools closed because of Coronavirus.
My daughter was a breeze to home-school. My son, not so much. We tussled from time to time. His daughter is taking after him that way. The other day when she was defying everything I was asking her to do, and then making demands of her own, I was at my wit’s end. So we had the “Who’s the boss?” conversation.
Do you remember that conversation from back in the day? I clearly remember it with my own mom many times, and later with my son. I never cared much for it no matter which side of the fence I was sitting, and yet here I was again, repeating patterns of old. Thinking this will not end well. And wondering, do parents even have that conversation anymore? Is it politically correct? Should we be in negotiations rather than drawing lines in the sand?
Clearly I was having misgivings, but I plunged forward nevertheless. The truth is, my granddaughter probably takes after me as much after me as she does her dad. We are both extremely stubborn.
The conversation turned out about as well as I could hope. The most she would grant me is that “adults” are the bosses of their “children,” but her eyes slid away from me when she conceded it, and her mouth looked doubtful. Clearly she was not going to say that I was the boss of her. She was letting me know this mild concession was solely for the sake of preserving screentime, or anything else I might want want to withhold until I got what I wanted. Not because she really believed it.
Which was fine by me by then. A compromise, of sorts. A truce. I’d take it.
We were both ready to move on. And she did settle down and do her schoolwork.
But later that day she took me aside. She had been thinking about how things had gone sideways earlier that day and she had some suggestions about how we (meaning me) could handle this better next time.
Instead of having the whole “who’s the boss” discussion, I could give myself a time-out, go into my room and think about what was upsetting me so much. I could sit cross-legged on the floor and breath deeply (she demonstrated how). I could play relaxing music of ocean waves on my phone. Or better yet, she could give me a spa day and paint my toenails. Big hopeful grin.
“Now can we go look at photos of newborn kittens on your phone, Grandma?”
I marvel at this child every day.
When I first started this blog eight years ago, I had planned on using it as a vehicle for writing about our 6-year voyage around the world aboard our sailboat, La Gitana. Below is part V of that Sea Saga. I’m reposting it here because in some ways all the places and homes we chose to live are a larger part of who we are. They shape us as much as we shape them. La Gitana shaped the lives of my children who were only 11 and 8 when we sailed out of Ventura harbor. I still like to imagine myself rocked to sleep in the bowels of La Gitana, or flying on her wings when I smell salt in the air and feel the wind rushing through my hair. I know my children must too. It was a sweet time in our lives that lives with us still.
La Gitana, Our Larger Self – Sea Saga, Part V
We named her “La Gitana,” Spanish for the gypsy, partly in tribute to our family’s Spanish heritage, partly because sea gypsies are what we would be once we moved aboard her and sailed away, partly for my long fascination with everything pertaining to Gypsies.
I loved the music, the dancing, the clothing, the jewelry, the colorful furnishings of the caravans. I loved what they stood for, the capriciousness of their existence living on the edge of society, their adventuresome spirit, their playfulness and spontaneity, their wildness—all the things we grew up thinking of as gypsy-like. La Gitana symbolized all of that for us. We feminized the masculine gitano and added the lyrical signifier “la” for alliteration, and to show her singular importance. The, not a.
Of course she had to be feminine—all ships traditionally are. They are vessels that serve us, that carry us in her belly, under her wings. Her sails are softly rounded breasts bravely and proudly pulling us onward. And she was alive! So lively with a personality and purpose all her own—a creature, not a thing.
She seemed almost as alive to us as the other creatures that she cavorted with, the dolphins that played at her side, the whales that swam beneath and circled her, the flying fish that landed on her decks. Her spirit was all her own. But her breath, her pulse, her beating heart, her life blood, was us, the people who inhabited and cared for her, plotted her course, walked her decks, stroked her beams, and dreamed her dreams.
It was a symbiotic relationship. We trusted her and sank everything we had into her. And she depended upon us to steer her away from the harbor and allow her to run with the wind, to lead her to a safe haven and hunker her down when the hurricane blew.
Originally she was called “Swagman,” which is what peddlers and tinkers are called Down Under. We bought her from an Aussie living in San Diego who had commissioned her to be built in Taiwan—a Formosa 46, a 46-foot Peterson designed cutter rigged sloop with a center-cockpit. Cousin to the better known and more costly Peterson 44.
We had invested so much more than money in her—our hopes and dreams, our safety and security, our hearth and home, our larger selves. She is what separated us from the sea on those long ocean voyages and moved us through the air by harnessing the wind. Deep in her belly she rocked and sung us to sleep. When the storms rose she sheltered us from the rain. When huge rogue waves came crashing down she lifted us up. When the wind died away and left us floundering in the middle of nowhere, she was the still center in a circle of blue.
I cannot tell you the pleasure and affection I felt when we were ashore and looked out at her waiting patiently for our return. What it felt like to bring our dinghy aside her and hoist our provisions aboard. The thrill of weighing anchor and heading out to sea, raising her sails, watching them fill.
Hunkered beneath her dodger during night watches, I listened to the rush of waves and sails in the black, black night, and watched her mast stirring stars. Sleeping below deck as she rocked with the waves, her rigging humming overhead, the soft gurgle of the ocean whispering through the hull, was sweetness like no other.I loved sunning my chilled skin on her warm teak decks after a long morning hunting and diving for scallops. Falling asleep in the cockpit on balmy days in port, watching the stars gently rock overhead as she rolled with the soft swells.
How I miss her! But we carry her in our hearts and in our memories, in the words on these pages, and the novels I am writing. I like to think another family has taken over where we left off, hugging her close, and steering her on new adventures.
La Gitana—my larger self.
MORE POSTS ON OUR SEA SAGA
I wrote this tribute to my son seven years ago, shortly after the birth of my granddaughter.
Recently I posted a tribute to my daughter on her wedding day, and as I wrote it, I wondered about the tribute I might pay to my son, whom I love equally, but whose life journey, even while raised so similarly, led him down a very different path, often heartbreakingly so.
It always amazed me as my children were growing up how they had come to be, in some uncanny way, the embodiment of very different parts of my psyche. My daughter was growing up to be the woman I had always wanted to be—beautiful, brave, strong, independent and self-confident. While my son was turning out to be the kind of boy that I and so many young women were drawn too——wild and reckless, handsome and charming, sweet and funny, willful and stubborn—a born rebel, who cherished his freedom, testing limits and bending rules. Living with him was like living on a roller-coaster ride, full of thrills and chills that never seemed to let up.
Almost from the day he was born he was a handful. I would ruefully tell other mothers how he entered the terrible twos when he was one and never grew out of it. At the tender age of two he ran away from home–twice. Once to visit his grandma five blocks away. Another to buy candy. A policeman brought him home that day when he was trying to cross a busy street with a nickel in his pocket. I installed locks on all the doors and gates after that.
Yet he was a loving child, a sweet child, popular with other kids and his teachers, even while he spent much of his early grade school days in the principal’s office. Not because he was a bully, but because he refused to be bullied, or see those he cared about bullied.
When he was 11, we moved on our boat La Gitana in Ventura Harbor. He immediately took up surfing, and learned to row and sail a dinghy. He became an avid sport fisherman, making all his own lures and rigging his own poles.
When we finally did take off on our journey there was always a line in the water and he supplied most of the fish we dined on. He could free dive to depths of 20 or more feet to spear a grouper or capture a lobster.
He made friends easily with other sailors and fishermen who were impressed by his skill and knowledge. He became a certified scuba diver at the age of twelve. He was a true Pisces—at home in the ocean he loved.
Trying to home school him was a challenge, but once I enrolled him in a self-paced program where we mailed his work back to a teacher for grading and feedback, it went better. Not that we didn’t have our moments.
By the time we reached Australia, he was 16-years-old and didn’t want to leave. In Australia at the time, many children that age left formal schooling to learn a trade. Often they lived on their own, helped out by the government, or boarded with those who were teaching them a trade. Chris was invited by a boat-builder to join his crew. When it was time for us to leave Australia, he begged me to let him. It was his dream to become the captain of a sports fishing boat, and this seemed like an opportunity for him to pursue that goal. I interceded on his behalf with his father, who, against his better judgment, allowed him to stay.
I’ll never forget the day we sailed away, leaving our son behind in Australia. I felt like the worst of all mothers, like I was abandoning him. And something in his eyes made me wonder if he was thinking the same thing.
At the same time, I felt like I was giving him an opportunity to be the man he wanted to be, to live the kind of life he wanted to live.
I had read books of young 16-year-old boys taking off on their own from Ireland to seek their fortunes in America, how difficult it had been for them, but how they had thrived. It’s what I had hoped for him. I trusted that he had what it takes to make it on his own. To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision.
He spent 18 months on his own in Australia. We exchanged letters and talked to each other as much as we were able. Always I asked if he was ready to come back on the boat, or go home to stay with his grandparents. Always he said no, he was fine. But I never really knew. I learned later that the old guy he had gone to work for was hospitalized and eventually died. I heard tales about him drifting around working as a carny, and later for a Mafia-type family who owned a string of Italian restaurants. He’s very tight-lipped about those days, and I do not press him.
He came home at age 18 around the same time we returned from our travels, and he was tall and handsome and had an Aussie accent. He seemed happy and confident. He spent some time with his grandfather, going mountain climbing and obtaining his GED. Eventually he became a commercial diver, working on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then he moved to New Orleans. Two years later when he returned home to California he was a heroin addict.
That’s when the roller-coaster ride became a nightmare. He couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t stay clean. He spent years on the street, in and out of rehab, in and out of jail and prison, in and out of hospitals when he overdosed. We took him in when we could, until we couldn’t anymore. On more than one occasion I moved out with him, thinking hands-on mom-care would help. It didn’t.
The worst part was when I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t know if he was sleeping on a park bench or was rolled up on someone’s couch, or lying in a ditch somewhere. When he was in jail, or even in the hospital, there was always hope. He was safe, for now. And maybe at last he’d hit bottom. Maybe this time he would begin to turn his life around.
Yet even in the midst of all this he showed strength and resilience, street-wise resourcefulness, and a basic goodness that would inspire him to share the little he had with those who had less.
He saw himself as a “Rider on the Storm,” riding a long wild wave that would surely crash him on the rocks unless he could hold on tight and ride it out, and manage to turn it at just the right moment. He couldn’t control it, and he couldn’t stop it, but he could perhaps outlast it. And he did.
He claims now I helped save his life. And sometimes I believe him. My love for him was so strong, my prayers so constant, my will so fierce, nothing could make me let go, nothing could tear him away from me. That’s how I saw it, willed it, demanded that it should be. But I know better. A mother’s love isn’t enough to keep a child safe. Yet still, still, we would so believe.
Sometimes I think he’s the bravest person I’ve ever known. No one else that I know could survive what he’s survived. I know I wouldn’t. Even his father, strong as he is, would not have survived that craziness. Few do, I’m told. Only fifty percent of heroin addicts survive their habit, and only half of those who do eventually lead drug-free lives.
I’m proud of him for being a fighter, a survivor, for not giving up, for having the stamina and courage to start over again and again and again—with nothing, no job, no money, no prospects.
I’m proud of him for winning the heart of the woman he now loves, for helping to bring their child into the world and raising her together, for caring for this child with such love and tenderness. For becoming the Father, the rule-maker rather than the rule-breaker, the Authority Figure in his young one’s life, someone she will look up to, and trust to care for her and keep her safe.
I think of those fairy tales and journeys heroes take, how they go into the dark, scary places of the world, do impossible deeds, overcome unimaginable challenges, fight off terrifying monsters, then save the princess and ride away with her on a white horse. To some degree, in some measure, he’s done all that.
I see him as the warrior turned woodsman who has built a home on the edge of the forest. All the scary things are still out there, but now he’s a seasoned fighter, and he has something other than himself to protect and keep safe. He’s guarding hearth and home, this dragon-slayer, demon-hunter, who has lived with and among dragons and demons for so long.
His body art tells the story of his survival and his path to recovery. Draped along his upper chest are the words “Riders on the Storm” to remind him where he’s been. On his shoulders and across his back are nautical stars and a compass rose to guide him through the storm.
On his arm is an anchor with the word “Family” wrapped around it, to help keep him grounded and remind him of what’s he’s fighting for. Beneath his heart are the infant footprints of a son he almost lost and is seeking to regain. Soon to come, he tells me, are the fingerprints of his tiny daughter whose hold on his heart is so fierce.
Perhaps we all live at the edge of a dark forest, at the edge of the wild, with the dark scary things we fear forever yawning at our backs—addiction, disease, poverty, financial ruin, failure, loss of loved ones, war, famine, even enslavement for some. Perhaps our life journey is to keep ourselves strong enough to survive the darkness, and bright enough to face the light and keep walking toward it.
I trust we all shall continue doing so.
NOTE – His journey is still ongoing. He’s out riding that storm again. Re-reading this post somehow comforts me. He’s strong, he’s resilient, he’s good and decent. He will survive.
I get this message about once a week from my granddaughter’s mother. It goes into great detail about the pain she hopes I will suffer.
As some of you may know, I am trying to gain permanent guardianship of her daughter after she was taken away from her mother by Child Welfare Services. This is not the first time her daughter has been put into my care by the courts. I raised her from age 2 1/2 years to four years.
This message I get is by no means the least hostile or vicious. It’s just I can’t repeat in a public forum the vile things she says on a regular basis about me and my son, my husband, and even her own mother, who all support me in this effort. Things that would make a sailor blush.
Most of the time I can blow it off. I know it’s the ramblings of an angry, unstable mind.
But every time I sit down and try to write a new blog post, these words come to mind and won’t go away. So maybe I just need to get it out there so I can move on.
I like to blog about what’s forefront in my mind, what excites and inspires me, and yes, what disturbs and troubles me. I guess I just can’t wrap my mind around the kind of darkness that would say such things. It’s staggering to me. If nothing else it’s inspired my own prayers to go much deeper than ever before.
Despite this spiteful barrage of texts and emails I receive from her, there’s still much that inspires me each and every day of my life, not least this precious child who lives with me.
And I’m painting again, at last. A new watercolor class. Soon I’ll be back to my novel. In the meantime, I may re-post things I wrote about years ago that still inspire me.
Please bear with me until I get my groove back.
And say a prayer for this woman who lives in such darkness, who wants to blame me for the loss of her child instead of looking into the mirror. I used to feel deeply her pain, empathize with her as a mother, but she’s worn me out with her hate. Now I am ever more determined that this child should never go back into a home where such vileness lives.
I ended a blog post at the tail end of 2018 with this wish list for 2019:
A Look Ahead – What I Want Most
A happy ending for my son.
A happy ending for my novel.
More novel-writing, more painting, more blogging.
More artful living.
More Love. Lots and lots of love, for all of us.
My wish list for 2020 is much the same. For one year, it appears, was not long enough to fulfill these wishes.
The happy ending I’d hoped for my son seems less likely now than ever. His addiction has once again robbed him of everything he built during four years of sobriety.
The happy ending for my novel is still on hold. We took it off the market while I sent it to a professional editor. And the editing I had begun was postponed when my granddaughter came to live with me.
Instead of more writing, painting, and blogging in 2019, there was less and less. I did not blog or paint or write at all last month.
More artful living? More love for all of us?
Not so much last year.
The one gift 2019 gave me (which is huge and fills my heart!) is hope for my granddaughter when she came to live with me. Hope that she will remain in my care–happy and safe, healthy and strong, responsibly cared for and dearly cherished as she grows into a young woman.
May this blog post be the beginning of a bright new year for all of us.
One of the joys of grandparenting is revisiting stories I loves to read my own children and sharing them with theirs. What fun it was to read to my granddaughter some of her father’s favorite books, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge. Equally fun is discovering new favorites all her own, like the audibles we’re listening to of Junie B. Jones series narrated in that delightfully scratchy and droll voice of Lana Quintal as Junie B. rebels against riding the stupid smelly yellow school bus, and gets back at that meany boy Jim who invited everyone in room 9 to his birthday party but her.
A new recent favorite is the Pete the Cat series, and my personal favorite I Love My White Shoes. This groovy blue cat with the yellow eyes and long skinny legs has a new pair of white hightops that he loves, loves, loves! So much so that as he strolls along he sings this song: ” I love my white shoes! I love my white shoes! I love my white shoes.”
But then, “Oh no!” he steps into a huge pile of strawberries, turning his white shoes red. What does Pete do? Does he cry? “Goodness, no!” He just keeps strolling along singing his song, “I love my red shoes! I love my red shoes! I love my red shoes!”
And when through a series of accidents his shoes turn blue, then brown, then wet and white again, what does he do? He just keeps strolling along, singing his song, which changes according to the circumstances: “I love my blue shoes! . . . I love my brown shoes . . . . I love my wet shoes . . .!”
The illustrations are so vivid and cheerful, the cool cat’s insouciant optimism so infectious, with the repetitious sing-songy verses undercut by unexpected riffs from the past (Everything is Cool! Groovy! Rock N’ Roll!), we don’t even mind when, at the end, the story points to itself and sets out the “moral” in black and white on the page:
“The moral of Pete’s story is
No matter what you step in
Keep walking along and
Singing your song . . .
because it’s all good.”
So simple. So wise. And for all its triteness, so encouraging to this grandma and her little granddaughter, each of us in the throes of transition, our lives turned upside-down since she’s come to live with me, not knowing what will come next as I petition for permanent guardianship, the decision so completely out of our hands.
All we can do and must do is just keep strolling along, singing our songs, reading our books, enjoying our sweet time together in the here and now, come what may, regardless the shifting landscapes and incidences that continue to color our lives.
Knowing, like that great, wise, groovy Peter the Cat says: It’s all good.
[NOTE TO READER: While the Junie B series is new to me and my granddaughter, it’s been around for a long time, since 1995! Pete the Cat is not as young as he is cool either, having debuted in 2010. If you younger parents and grandparents know of newer book series you think my sweetie might like, please let me know. She’s an “old soul” first grader.]