Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Time Is Now

I was walking through Broad Ripple Village on Friday afternoon, just after lunch. It was a nice day; things were already cranking up for the weekend. As I headed toward my car, I saw two young women—maybe college-age, maybe in their twenties—walking toward me holding hands.

I smiled at them, but maybe they didn’t notice because, as they got closer, one called out, “We’re sisters!”

I didn’t quite know how to respond. I was pretty sure they weren’t sisters, but girlfriends. So as I passed them, I smiled again and said, “Well, whatever you are, it’s lovely to see you so happy together.”

Moments later, one of them yelled, “I love you!”

I turned, we waved, and went on into our weekends.

Yesterday, I attended the wedding of a young woman I’ve known since she was a child. Claire was raised by her mom, Nancy, who’s a lesbian, and her mom’s partner, Ann, and nurtured along the way by her gay godfather, Michael—and if anybody still wants to argue that gay people aren’t fit to raise children, they really need to meet her. Not to mention Nancy, Ann, and Michael.

Claire is bright, compassionate, fun-loving, competent, with a dazzling smile.

I got to know her because Michael, who’s been a friend for nearly thirty years, used to bring her to our Thank-God-It’s-FINALLY-Over gatherings on Christmas evening—which involved eating leftovers, viewing “This Is Spinal Tap,” and played pool. Well, most people played pool. I sat, still mostly catatonic, unless Claire came up from playing pool to play with my dollhouse.

It was a very cool dollhouse: Victorian, painted lavender with white trim. It opened from the front, revealing the doll family at work and play. The mom had a study with a tiny typewriter, the kids had an attic playroom with a hobby horse and a miniature copy of The Cat in The Hat. There was no garage, alas, so the dad was stuck in the living room, on the couch. Nobody was in the kitchen, which is pretty much par for the course in our real house. It was, however, stocked with little cokes and teensy bags of chips.

Claire would climb up on a stool (until she got tall enough to reach the top) and move the dolls and furniture around, making up stories. Michael would come up from the basement to watch sometimes, and it was always so lovely to watch him watch her. He couldn’t have loved her more than he’d have loved his own daughter.

I thought of that yesterday when the groomsmen and bridesmaids had taken their places at the altar, Purcell’s “Trumpet Tune” pealed out, and the huge doors at the back of the chapel swung open to reveal Claire in her bridal gown, with Nancy and Michael on either side of her. Light poured into the chapel as they proceeded up the aisle.

All of which is to say that I am really, really tired of people, especially those who think of themselves as advocates of gay rights, continuing to avoid the issue with the argument that “…it’s going to take time.”

Come on, people! This has been a major issue since 1992 when Bill Clinton sold out the gay community with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

By my math, that’s seventeen years! What are we waiting for?

Gay people all over America are raising wonderful children just like Claire. Their families are just like ours—closer sometimes, it seems to me, for the fact that the world makes it so difficult for them to be who they are.

It’s time to give them the rights they deserve.

You know, that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” thing we’re supposed to stand for?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What This River Keeps

For years, there’s been talk about creating a reservoir to control the flooding in the acres of river bottom land around Logjam, Indiana every spring, so few people take it seriously when the talk starts up again. But when government agents appear to survey the land and gossip abounds about deals offered and made, it becomes increasingly clear that it’s really going to happen this time.

Greg Schwhipps’ first novel, What This River Keeps, tells the story of what happens to an elderly couple, Frank and Ethel Withered, when they are faced with the inevitable loss of the farm that’s been in Ethel’s family for a hundred years. Ethel was born in the house where they still live; Frank farmed the land with her father and, eventually, by himself. He knows every inch of the river that runs behind it, where he’s fished for as long as he can remember. The impending loss is constantly in their minds, but they cannot bring themselves to speak of it.

Life was hard enough without this. Old age has forced Frank to lease his land to be farmed by someone else; Ethel is plagued with aches and pains—and sorrow. They are estranged from their son, Ollie, who lives in squalor in a broken-down trailer at the edge of their land, drunk most of the time, oblivious to any problems but his own.

What This River Keeps conveys the richness and drama of Midwestern lives that are all too often considered of little interest to serious fiction. Schwipps, recently nominated for the Glick Indiana Authors Award in Regional Fiction, grew up and still lives in small-town Indiana, and he renders its people and places honestly, respectfully and with compassion. Family is everything in this world—and what I love most about his book is how he made me see, for the first time, that land is family, too. For Frank and Ethel, to contemplate losing their land is as impossible, unbearable as contemplating losing one another.

In Schwipp’s novel, as in real life, small things help bring resolution to sorrows that can never truly be overcome. A nice, plump catfish on the line, a little girl, a dog you’d thought you’d lost running in leaps and bounds toward you. You go on, you have to. Despite all you’ve lost.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Building a Rainbow

Black, white, Hispanic, the twenty young women assigned to the Writers’ Center of Indiana’s third memoir-writing workshop at the Indiana Correctional Institute for Girls file into the visiting room for the first session looking wary. They’re all dressed exactly the same: khaki pants, ugly green v-necked shirts, plastic sandals. Their hair is poorly cut, their complexions pale from being locked up inside. No makeup is allowed. Some have crudely done tattoos; in some cases, their arms are criss-crossed with small white scars, evidence of cutting. Too many look dazed by the too-high dose of whatever drug some medical bureaucrat prescribed to control them.

The volunteers—writers, teachers, college students—call the names of the girls in their group and the girls go sit down, glancing back at the others still in line. There are six marbled composition books on each table, two each: the one with the “Building a Rainbow” image pasted on front for the writing we’ll do in class, the other for the writing they’ll do between sessions, on their own.

“These are for us?” at least one girl at each table asks.

They ask it every year and, every year, are astonished when we say yes.

I talk to them about the rainbow image, a scaled down version of the huge poster that hung in my office years ago, when I began teaching. “I grew up in a poor family,” I tell them. “My dad drank. My mother was sad. I had big dreams, but I thought whether or not they’d come true was all about being lucky or not being lucky.

"I was confused about happiness, too. I thought it was about how nice your house was, how much your parents didn’t have to worry about money, how much stuff you had. I thought it was a state of being. Once happy, you stayed happy, like being in a place.

“But, in fact, you have to make dreams come true,” I say. “Look at the rainbow. It’s under construction, covered with stick people painting, hammering, working cranes to put things in place.

"And, as for happiness, it’s no more than a collection of mostly small moments, strung like beads on a necklace, throughout our lives.

"You can learn how to take the hundreds, maybe thousands of small steps you’ll need to take make your dreams come true; you can learn to recognize and cherish those small moments when you feel right with the world and to build on them until the weight of happy moments is greater than the ones that hurt you and make you sad."

They listen.

They open their “Rainbow” notebooks and, as instructed, write “I remember, I remember,” dredging up all kinds of memories—happy and sad. I ask them to pick one happy memory and do the “I Remember” exercise again, dredging up details about that one thing. Willingly, they bend their heads to the task—all but one.

“I don’t have any happy memories,” she says, scowling.

I go and sit beside her. “None?” I ask.


“When you were little?”

She shakes her head.

“Toys?” I ask.

“I had a yellow ball."

I ask her to tell me about it.

“It was big. My brother busted it when I was twelve, and all the air went out of it.”

But she smiles (for the first time) when she says this. “I loved that ball,” she goes on. “I had it from when I was three and my brother was scared I was going to beat him up when I found out.”

“But you didn’t?”

“Nah,” she says. “It was funny he was so scared, though.”

I ask if she remembers when she got the ball, and she does. Her uncle bought it for her at Walmart. It was at the top of a tall bin full of balls of all colors and sizes. There were yellow balls closer to the bottom, and her mom said she should just get one of those. But she wanted that yellow ball. Her uncle tried to climb the bin, but it was too rickety. So he went to get an employee to help and, when the man got the ball and held it out to her, her uncle told her to say thank you.

“I ran up and hugged his legs,” she says. “I loved my ball so much. It looked like the sun. Yellow is my favorite color, ever since then.”

By now, she’s talking and writing. Smiling, even laughing at what she remembers. Her mom was wearing a blue dress; her uncle an orange shirt that made him look like a huge tangerine.

Near the end of the class, I ask if anyone would like to read what she's written to the group, and she raises her hand.

So there is one remembered bead for her necklace of happiness: the day she got the yellow ball.

And one, I hope, for the memory of writing about it.

There’s a bead for my necklace of happiness, too: watching her face change as writing took her back to that happier time; listening as she read her memory aloud; thinking maybe, maybe it will make a difference.