SolLit Dialogue on RACE, CULTURE & CLASS: Cleaving

Yesterday in Brooklyn, NY I saw young mothers strolling their own children, and Jamaican women strolling other women’s children. Mothers and nannies walked, did errands, negotiated cease fires between siblings, bartered lollipops for patience, tickled and explained the teaming stimuli of the surround.

I thought of the ease with which people, beginning as strangers to each other, proceed to bend and twist, adapting like a tree to the turns and swallows of the river alongside its bank, reaching toward the nourishing light. We reach beyond our strangeness and otherness toward familiarity, love and intimacy. We want to insinuate ourselves into family, village or social group.

Our particulars present themselves like exquisite phrases of poetry to be savored—the exotic not-me of you; the beautiful not-you of me. There is a strangeness to everything beautiful. Its power to compel our curiosity and wonder both attracts and scares us.

Our skins

Our skins do not constitute the great divide, but rather the great connect. Our skins breathe us into one another when we come close enough to talk, to touch, to share a coffee or a confidence or to watch the flowers brush against the scrubbed pillar of a gated driveway between brownstones.

Skin deep is plenty of ‘deep;’ deep as the heart, deep as the connection between my daughter and her new baby. Each cry of the baby speaks to my daughter’s breasts and her milk rains down. The baby’s noises penetrate my daughter’s sleep and mine, a room away with the door open. These are sounds of thriving, of adjusting, of digesting endlessly it seems—the milk train stopping at its tiny stations in Minna’s body, imbuing her blood with both sustenance and waste–emptying with our great anticipation into her diaper.

We read the diaper for its hieroglyphics: how well did she eat? Did she get enough? How profitably did her body work its alchemy?

What is it like for the black women changing the diapers of the white babies in their care? And did the children from their own loins remain at home with grandmothers or aunties awaiting money or opportunity?

The first act of diversity

A mother bearing a child is the first act of diversity. Before a child you are your uni- verse. After a child you occupy a di-verse.

On Facebook my daughter wrote: “My sweet little hedgehog. She pooped in my arms today and I started sobbing with joy. This intense desire for someone else’s happiness and comfort …it’s utterly insane and transformative. Or maybe I just need another nap.”

I know the root of the word ‘diverse’ does not, in fact, come from ‘di’ and ‘verse,’ but I take poetic license to bring these meanings together. A verse is a metric line, and two lines together harmonize, elaborate or contradict each other.

I think of the book, The Help, and of the brilliant portrayal of the love between a maid and the girl she raises. Theirs is a bond built skin to skin and eyes to eyes. The very marrow of the girl is her nanny’s wisdom. The intimacy and importance of their relationship thrives in a context hostile to its fulfillment in adulthood.

Think of the word, ‘cleave.’ It means to join and to sever. It means itself and its opposite. The intimacy of the slave-mother and her master’s child joins them initially and severs them later.

Let the DNA decide who’s a stranger

Recently a client of mine took her theatrically minded daughter—whose DNA is half Middle Eastern–to a casting company in Boston where she learned that the Hollywood look right now for female protagonists is one of slightly indeterminate ethnicity. My client’s daughter might look Native American, or Latina, or from the Middle East, or even slightly Asian with her dark almond eyes. Ethnic is in!

Anyone who is not me is you and you are a stranger until I know you. I fear you will bite me. I am wired to protect myself. “But to know you is to love you,” said one of my clients. I know what she means. As a therapist I sit across from human beings whom I come to love. The more I know someone the more I love them. The more I love them the more beautiful they become. And as they become more beautiful they become more strange. Strangely infinite, strangely fascinating. Like “cleave,” what is deeply familiar is also deeply, strangely particular.

I am too old to feel afraid of asking anyone a question and to ask if it is a polite enough question or if it is all right to seek information and insight about a topic not typically discussed in a person’s family, culture or country of origin. I am no longer afraid to ask when I am ignorant or uninformed. I am curious. Curiosity, like love, is a bridge over the rivers of experience that run between me and not-me. If I learn how you make sense of your world and you learn of my sincerity, then our understanding holds us like we would a baby in the most essential di-versity.

When enough bridges cross the river between us, our banks will be joined as will our collective DNA. We will all be mutts and mongrels, and, as in the case of dogs, stronger and hardier because of it. We will have our legacies and ancestry documented in millions of digital bytes on Snapchat and Facebook and recorded for posterity. Our mixed backgrounds of race, nationality, culture, and so forth will constitute the ingenuity and curiosity and love from which we are all born. We will not erase race or religious belief out of hate or fear, nor aim for some kind of false purity of race or soul. Our particulars will constitute aspects of interest and will tell part of our stories. Increasingly we are globe dwellers, living in concentricity rather than behind battle lines, though the world is full of those now, and they are all losing battles.

The DNA of villages

When my daughter fell apart last night, crying with weakness and fatigue and sore nipples and the overwhelming love she feels for this tiny daughter who takes up all the room in the apartment, the City, her world, she said, “I can’t imagine doing this alone.”

To Hilary Clinton’s “village,” we cannot tell the story of our humanity alone. Not in our homes, not in our cities and towns, not in our synagogues, churches and mosques, nor in our countries nor our world. There is me and there is not-me.

We do not need to speak of diversity as if it needs to be built or made room for. Diversity is already the composite nature of the bricks that make our world. We need to see ourselves as diverse because we are, and to love ourselves for it.

Recently some friends and I took our kayaks down the Bearcamp River into Ossipee Lake in New Hampshire. The bigger, stiller body of the lake had already warmed quite a bit in early July, inviting our own bodies into it for swimming and cooling off. The less inviting icy cold river twisted and bent, hosting a number of tiny beaches below campsites where pop-up tents, RVs and trailers sheltered lots of folks over the July 4th weekend. From the Native American center, strains of music played by a wooden flute melded into Latin pop and Country Western.

Everywhere, we steered around flotillas of river rafts, some housing caches of beer and wine as well as children, adolescents and grandparents tied together by ropes and laughter. No one revolted against the goose bump raising cold of the river. Whether blue-lipped or numbed, everyone loved the river because that was where they were; no choice to be made about the river being cold. The river that carries you is the one you have to love. This life in many verses is the music we make.

As we kayaked by the rafters, making jokes about our poor steerage and debating the likelihood of rain, we all said “Happy Fourth!” Even those for whom English is an additional language. I don’t think any of us were so much celebrating independence as a nation from Britain as we were stirring around in our “melting pot,” chillin’ out; not boiling in the cauldron we’ve made for ourselves out of a hatred that comes from fear: fear that you are not me, not like me, are against me.

Here’s where I meander like the river and then land

Once I saw the parents of a young woman who was dating a man twice her age. They drove for four hours to my office to convince me of his evil motives so that I would “help” their daughter break up with him. They contrived for him to lose his job. But when I met with their daughter—a young woman with an educational and career trajectory for her life—it seemed clear that this relationship was part of her love story. And she had not been harmed. Her parents refused a meeting with all parties present. After all, it is hard to demonize someone with a human face. It is hard to demonize someone skin to skin, eyes to eyes.

I know a woman named Rozzie, who is proudly “all Italian.” Also a geneology fan, she recently sent a tube of saliva to Ancestry.com for DNA analysis. Full-blooded Italian grandparents notwithstanding, she delightedly reported some rogue DNA from Germany and Great Britain and Jewish regions in Eastern Europe with a small percentage of “unknown.” “Give me the pizza with everything in it,” she laughed.

Skin does not divide but joins us. We will tie our rafts together and choose each other because on this planet we are whom we have to choose. The literature of Bearcamp River is one of interwoven stories while rafting camp to camp on Independence Day. Minna’s first stanza cries out before there is an “I” to sing it. She cries at the moment she is cord-cut and held at the same time. Cleaved. Di-versed.