essays


Though I’m far from religious, I’ve always liked the Christmas season, because it’s the time of year when people are often their most generous.  Every December I love picking out toys or books for those Toys-for-Tots programs and buying a couple extra cans or boxes at the grocery store to later place in food drive bins.  I know these tiny acts aren’t going to change much, though, and I know I should be charitable all year round.  That is what’s bad about Christmas season–it’s seasonal.  Temporary.  For less than four weeks, we smile at strange men in red suits and beards, give change to people on the street (only if they’re ringing bells, though–somehow that legitimizes panhandling), and sing along to what are objectively very silly songs.  (I’ve witnessed a businessman in a suit hum along to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ with no sign of embarrassment.)  Why can’t that last longer?

Why can’t I give books to kids whose parents can’t afford them in April or July? Why do we save our generosity for this brief dark stretch of winter? It’s still going to be cold in January or February–colder, even.  People will still be looking for a warm place to stay the night, especially after so many have faced foreclosures and evictions this year.  There aren’t many stables around these days, and no Magi showing up with frankincense and myrrh, whatever the hell those are.  Who’s going to help them when Christmas has come and gone?

I really hope he wins.  I don’t know if there’s anyone who can stitch this fractured patchwork of a country back together, but if there is, it’s probably him.  Comes from the middle of the west, not the heartland but at least the lungs or liver, son of an immigrant and a single mother, multiracial, educated–Obama’s story sounds like the kind you’d hear on NPR during “This American Life”.  He talks to inspire, and that’s something I think we’re lacking these days.  I’m not sure I buy everything he promises–after living in two states with incarcerated former leaders, I don’t hold much faith in what politicians say–and I wish he’d stand up more for what’s right and worry less about what’s going to be popular.    But when every opinion poll seems to shift with a stiff breeze and the color of a necktie at a debate appears to be crucially correlated with voters’ perceptions, I guess I understand why he’s trying to play it safe.

Still, I really hope it doesn’t backfire.  I don’t know anymore what “the average American” wants, because living in a blue-state, blue-collar bastion and a city where “minorities” outnumber the silent majority, my views are probably more than a little skewed. I’d like to believe I live in a country where longtime Democrats like my grandmother won’t vote against Obama just because he’s black.  I’d like to believe most people possess enough awareness and a long enough attention span to remember what happened after 9/11,  after Enron, after Abu Ghraib, after the last election, after Katrina…But I’m not sure that these wishes are realistic, or just idealistic.

I remember what it was like last time.  Too young to vote, I helped register other students at my school and then burned with frustration as state after state fell to Bush.  The electoral map showed a continent divided, narrow bookends of blue bracketing a stubbornly red expanse, and nobody really talked about recounts anymore.  I wondered whether it would change, especially when scandals started popping up left and right and when Katrina and Jena laid bare the terrible results of centuries-old racism and poverty.  I wondered whether I’d be proud of my country again without reservation.  If Obama wins on Tuesday, I think I will be.  Because if folks across America, black and white, young and old, actually vote for him, that’s the real sign of hope: not that Obama himself is some Superman or messiah who can transform everything, but that we as a nation are willing to change.  We can lead ourselves to a better place if we can overcome our differences, or at least I hope so.

Please vote, but don’t stop at voting–there’s so much more to do outside the curtain of that booth.

I’m not much of a believer, but check the PostSecret blog religiously.  Honest, it’s the one ritual I do each Sunday: click on the favorites menu, scroll down, and read each of the week’s new entries.  Sometimes they make me laugh, bring a sad feeling or just puzzle me.  A scant few make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, it’s as if I wrote them and sent them in. This week there are two about coming out and one about superstitious wishing.  Another one reads, “I’m 20 and I can feel that my body wants me to have a baby, and the scary thing is I kind of want one too.”  As a twenty-year-old who occasionally hears her ovaries screaming “BAAABY!! Look, there’s a cute baby! Time to make an embryo!”, I understand that slightly alarming confusion, and why it’s posted on the website: what makes a sentence or story into a secret is that it’s scary.

Coming out–to myself, my closest friends, my parents, in that order–was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I almost had a miniature panic attack in the middle of French class one winter day, when it dawned on me that being attracted to women wasn’t just a fluke or a phase, that all those labels, stereotypes, and slurs that society tends to apply to non-straight people could now be used against…me.  That realization scared the shit out of me. Maybe I should explain: I wasn’t afraid of gayness, per se, but of becoming a rainbow-tinted target at already-tense family gatherings, and how I would actually hold up under the pressure of being that “other” I’d read so many high-vocabulary critical theory articles about.

See, as much as I strive to be an independent, strong, smart Woman with a capital ‘W’, my greatest fear is that deep down, I’m actually a coward.  I don’t look particularly tough, I can’t bench-press my own weight, and I’ve never punched anyone, though a number of my friends probably wouldn’t believe it.  I’ve learned some ways to camouflage my inner weak-kneed wimp, by learning how to fix things and yelling back at harassers on the street.  But I still don’t always fit the adjectives I admire most: strong, capable, outspoken, fearless, respected.  Maybe it’s from being a blonde or having big breasts or growing up a girl in this culture of Barbie dolls vs. Tonka trucks, but I hate feeling more like those other words: small, powerless, frightened, dismissed.

In coming out, I feared losing what power I had over my life and voice.  Would my parents believe me, or consider it a passing phase? Would I have to defend my own emotions to fundamentalist religious friends? I was afraid of becoming invisible and yet a bull’s-eye at the same time, yet staying silent scared me even more, knowing how easy it had been to delude myself all those years, how much I had missed.  So I gathered my courage and spoke my secret, anxious as a little kid who just ate that entire stash of chocolate her mom hid away in the cabinet that was supposed to be too high for her to reach.  I finally did it.

It wasn’t as terrible as I’d worried, or as it could’ve been.  Certainly not panic-attack-inducing.  And it felt really freaking good not to keep that particular secret from my parents and friends anymore.  But I suspect my poor mama is still afraid that she’ll never have grandchildren to spoil and feed and sew Halloween costumes for.  I want to tell her not to worry about that, but it’s hard to explain that even though I never could picture myself married to some man, bearing his children, I’ve always imagined raising kids.  I’d love to watch my child learn to walk and dance, tell bedtime stories and make up explanations for what clouds taste like and why worms eat dirt.  I want to teach my daughter how to fix a bike and never be afraid of herself.  This is a secret I really hope to share with my mother someday, once I find the words.

Secrets aren’t just silly childhood whisperings, they’re the reason we invent rituals and superstitions, why we pass on secret family recipes, play drunken “Never Have I Ever” games and value friends’ loyalty.  It’s in the sharing of a secret, rather than its making, that lends weight and color to something that was once hidden in darkness.  Before I came out, I was scared.  Now I’m still plenty scared, but I’m not alone because others know.  That’s why PostSecret is so popular and the self-revelatory graffiti in the library bathroom is so prolific, why our tongues loosen when we drink.  Though I’m twenty, I didn’t start to feel “grown-up” until I started facing my fears and telling them.

When I have children, I know they’ll keep certain small secrets from me just as I did–still do–from my parents, like that time I smoked or wasn’t actually staying at Emily’s house or stole Dad’s CD.  When I have children, I will be scared for them, that they will bruise more than just their knees and grow up to wear hidden scars inside them.  But I hope my kids will never hesitate to tell me when they’re frightened, when they’re in need of help, when they’re in love.  I sincerely hope that any panic attacks in French class will be the result of pop quizzes and not crises about their sexuality.

If we weren’t all so afraid of ourselves–what we’ve done, or not, and regretted–would we trust each other more? Would you tell me your secrets if I promised to keep them safe? If I tell you mine, will you believe me?

I am a lifelong professional parade-spectator. Taken to my first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans at barely four months old, my parents placed me atop a ladder as “bead bait”, my round cherubic cheeks sure to attract loads of plastic loot. Later I watched Fourth of July extravaganzas in that birthplace of stubborn American independence, Boston, and held a sparkler in my two-year-old fist, fixated by its fiery glow. By the time I was in elementary school and back in Louisiana, I had absurdly high expectations for ambulatory celebrations: no less than a dozen floats stacked with costumed revellers and decorations; music, of the jumping, dancing, heart-thumping variety; delicious food and drink on sale from carts and card-tables; flashing lights and/or fireworks; and confetti or beads or other flying debris, at a minimum. I’d also developed strategies for proper parade-watching, which sometimes involved ladders and butterfly nets.

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