Ancestors: part one

When I was little, my grandparents’ house was my personal wonderland. The back yard had a terraced patio with steps zagging between lush, carefully-tended beds of flowers and shrubs. A shallow drainage ditch circled the property like a moat. By the door, a mosquito zapper lamp gave off a lurid glow at dusk and sizzled like a cauldron.

Their house was a split-level 1950s ranch with teal carpeting – not exactly the stuff of gothic enchantment. But even the indoors had a fairy-tale patina. A seaside landscape mural covered one wall. The spare room housed a small hoard of aloof dolls in satiny dresses. In the basement was a tall, old-fashioned clock with shelves built into the front, holding all sorts of trinkets.

When my sister and I would stay the night, we slept down there, in a cozy room with shutters on the high windows. I’d wake to blades of light along the wall and the sounds of my grandfather making breakfast upstairs. He liked to sing hymns while he worked. Sometimes the smell and clatter of bacon frying reminds me of his voice:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know He watches me.

I liked his hymns, but I didn’t know most of the words. My grandparents were Southern Baptist, and supposedly my father once was too, but we were Catholic like my mother. The first time I went into their church, I genuflected at the pew, and somebody actually gasped. Neither one of my grandparents ever said anything about us not being quite like them, but there were signs of how they felt: kids’ prayer books with Protestant theology, invitations to Sunday school events. Later, when I got to college, I found myself mysteriously subscribed to a magazine for “America’s evangelical youth.”

I joked about one of the articles with my mom during a call home, but her voice got unexpectedly tight. She asked for the name of the magazine. The next month it disappeared from my mailbox as abruptly as it had arrived.

Continue reading “Ancestors: part one”

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How to sew a poppet

I’ve got a new piece out in Luna Luna magazine, about creative ritual and tragically mediocre crafting skills.

First, gather the supplies: soft fabric, a sharp needle, sturdy thread. Buttons, beads, and bits. Cotton scraps for the stuffing. The internet also recommends a lyrical list of herbs (dittany, sandalwood, mugwort), but you don’t have any of those herbs. Arrange your materials as if you’re going to take a picture, but don’t actually take one. Feel good about keeping it real…

Inside your poppet will be a prayer, or a spell, or a wish. Inside will be memories transformed into offerings (a tarnished locket, a chipped crystal). Set these offerings on the table. Feel calm and pleased as you look at them, as if they are a poem so perfect you don’t even want to show it to anybody. A potent secret, to be hidden away.

Click here for the full essay.

Icebreaker

I’m standing in the middle of a new but familiar space – a standard-issue community center classroom, spotted with tables and stackable chairs. At the front, a whiteboard holds taped-up pieces of draft paper covered in cheerful instructions in English and Spanish. Tinny music is playing from someone’s smartphone, and the people in the room mill around each other, waiting for the song to stop.

We are performing the ubiquitous activist meeting opening ritual: an Icebreaker Activity.

I am virulently introverted; I dread Icebreaker Activities. This time we’ve been told to amble around like we’re playing musical chairs, with the optimistic encouragement to “move however you feel called in the moment,” as if forty-odd strangers are going to spontaneously be called to break into ecstatic dance. When the music stops, we’ll be given a question to discuss with whoever’s closest to us.

I actually like to dance, but right now all I can muster is a hokey white-person shuffle, smiling wryly to falsely imply I’m being awkward on purpose. The music stops as I shuffle near a black man who’s about a decade older than me. “I guess it’s you and me, huh?” he says. I do a goofy thumbs-up and immediately hate myself a little.

My partner is George, and he’s representing his labor union. I tell him I volunteer with a climate justice group. Up at the whiteboard, our conversation topic has been revealed. It’s a version of that cartoon where a school of little fish is ganging up to eat a big one, with a prompt scrawled below: WHAT DO YOU THINK??!

George and I look at each other. “Well,” he says slowly, “I think it’s a poorly phrased question, for one thing. Want to talk about something else?”

“Definitely,” I say.

It’s the first time anybody’s obliquely admitted to disliking these rituals as much as I do. My exposure to activists tends more to groups of earnest white people who want you to describe your experience of racial guilt during circle introductions.

We decide to just share why we’re there at the training. It’s the beginning session of four days of workshops and actions planned by a local coalition. The organizations involved are diverse but share a common target, a handful of powerful corporations based in our city. George is working to increase minimum pay and benefits for his janitorial union. Others in the room are fighting against slumlords, blatant wage theft, or threats of deportation.

“So,” says George, “what does your group do? Why are you here?”

Continue reading “Icebreaker”