Writing Outside Your Race – A Follow-Up

Share

Several days ago I wrote about writing outside your race, including a little bit about my own experience with it. As is often the case after I update my blog, I kept thinking on the topic, feeling out my feelings about it.

This morning I woke up and the first thing in my inbox was a recommended Medium post from Black and Jewish American astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, called “Hold Fast to Blackness.” I read that closely and made some sidebar notes and also left a comment.

I enjoyed the post very much and even though I haven’t had the same experiences as Prescod-Weinstein, I arrived at a similar conclusion, which I described as: “Even if people are not Black, aren’t read as Black, or are ‘one-quarter’ Black, they can recognize this ‘tent’ of whiteness and choose not to take shelter under it.” (If you are unfamiliar with the phrase “tent of whiteness” feel free to read CPW’s linked post.)

The Cover of Hardcovered Book: Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales

The Cover of Uncle Remus

Purely by chance I was in a children’s toy store in Ballard a few hours later with Kidlet and a friend. I came across the store’s sole copy of Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales as told by Julius Lester with illustrations by the great Jerry Pinkney.

I bought the book and began reading it over lunch. While Kidlet enjoyed the stories of Brer Rabbit I read aloud to her, what made a stronger impression on me was the clarity and insight of the Forward by Lester. Among other things, he discusses features of Black English vernacular, which made me think about a piece I’m working on and some questions I’d had about my own voice in writing and where does it come from.

The remarkable thing was that the Forward brought me around to something I’d wanted to address in my comment to Prescod-Weinstein’s Medium post, but deleted before hitting Send (because it was muddled and tangential). And that was this: if you are not Black (or Black is one of numerous racial identities you hold) and you are not under the tent of whiteness, what tent are you under? Where are you?

Over lunch and on the walk and bus ride home with Kidlet I kept turning this over in mind, thinking about Lester’s Forward, thinking about what Prescod-Weinstein said about “holding fast to Blackness” and I came to a realization about the white male protagonist I talked about in my last post — he is not white, after all. Or rather, he never really was in the first place, I chose to make him white, but I do not think he ever really was.

What I hadn’t talked about in my last post was that making him white wasn’t my initial choice, I actually considered it quite a lot and then settled on that as a decision. But it’s one of the few stories I’ve written recently with a first person narrator, and his voice arises in me from some place I can’t name, but which feels as real and true to me as any other part of myself — and I am Black.

So I’ve changed my decision. And due in large part to what Prescot-Weinstein wrote, I’ve decided not to put this fellow in the tent of whiteness, but to claim him for Blackness, as is my right — and his.

From a logistical standpoint, I haven’t got to change anything I’ve written about him so far at all — the possibility was always there, just not expanded on. Now I’m free to expand on it moving forward. It’s fitting that his Blackness is from his mother’s side; and it all fits in with the themes of the story — better, in fact, than if I kept him as white.

And that is why I love writing fiction these days, because it is like dreaming while awake. And I am grateful that I came across those two writings today by Chanda and Julius, and was able to be informed by them, to have taken another look at what I’d thought my dream (my story) was about and realize something crucial I had missed. And also, ultimately, something crucial about myself.

So we’ll see what more unfolds, as it does.

 

 

 

 

Writing Race: Writing Outside of Ones Race

Share

 

I read a lot about writing, and wanted to respond to a recent blog post on the subject of writing race – or specifically, writing outside of ones race.

Over at Zetta Elliott’s site, she published an excellent piece on July 16, 2015 called Race & Representation in Asian American Kid Lit.

The post looks at numbers related to children’s literature about people of color (published in the United States) and who is writing it. Elliott, a Black Canadian, was surprised by the statistics showing Asian American authors wrote a high percentage of children’s lit that was not about Asian Americans – in fact they published more literature not about Asian Americans than they did literature about Asian Americans. So she did the admirable thing and invited five Asian American children’s lit authors to offer their thoughts on why this might be.

Their responses are truly worthwhile to read, a lot of thought went into them and the result is a range of perspective and a great deal of nuance. Please go to Zetta Elliott’s site and take a look.

There were two thoughts that occurred to me as soon as I saw those numbers. But I didn’t see them addressed in the responses, so I’m thinking my thoughts are way off-base? I wondered if transracial adoptees (growing up in non Asian families) might be having an impact here, and also whether high out-marriage rates might be a factor (which would also increase the likelihood of an Asian American author being biracial). A good comparison might be to look at what numbers look like for Jewish American kid lit, as Jewish Americans also have a very high out-marriage rate (higher than but closest to that of Asian Americans). Are their numbers for writing within or outside of their ‘race’ comparable?  I don’t know if that information has been gathered, but I’d be interested to know.

At any rate, I am not Asian American so my ponderings on the topic are not that serious – please read the interviews if this topic interests you because they are very, very good.

For my part, I write fiction about Black people and non-Black people. And it only just occurred to me that I’ve yet to write a Latino character at all – not ever in my fiction, not even when I was a child. Isn’t that something? Hmm. I’ve obviously been Latina all my life, so why don’t I write Latina characters? Hm. A few theories comes to mind, but I’ll think about it some more before blogging about it.

There are Black people in my stories about Lysithea. The story I got stuck on recently is about a little girl who is a recent transplant.  She is Black, as are her mother and grandmother who’ve come with her.That whole short story collection is about relationships between people and their various hierarchies and plays for power and relevance. I talk about race alongside other markers of status and value, history and privilege. I also wrote another story from Lysithea about a young man who — though it is never explicitly said — benefits from his ability to pass as white. I write about these things subtly because it’s in the gray, less examined areas that I find the subject most interesting.

In the newer story and novel I’m working on, the protagonist is a young white guy whose father “might be Hungarian, might be Czech.” A PoC character has been taking shape in the back of my mind for this tale, but they won’t be featured in the short story, only in the novel. Research will be required.

I don’t feel any difficulty writing from the point of view of a man vs a woman, or a black person vs a white person. I attribute that to a high level of comfort and familiarity with those ‘identities’ even when I don’t possess them myself.

However let me be clear that writing another gender or race is not the same experience for me. When I write about men, I don’t even feel like I’m writing outside of my gender, I feel like I’m writing a less-emphasized aspect of myself. When I write non-Black characters, I’m drawing on a lifetime of immersion and observation.

Final Week of Clarion West Write-a-thon 2015

Share

This is the last week of the Clarion West Write-a-thon. It doesn’t seem possible that July is almost over.

First off, I’ve been terrible about updating – my sincere apologies to my sponsors for not following through in that respect. I have been writing (every day), but got pulled off the Lysithea project by the Muse (?) onto another, and was nervous about fessing up to that. I should have done better! I am really sorry.

Status of my goals:

I am $125 away from my revised target. Can I make it? With your help, I can!

I just received my Clarion West sponsor update and a very generous sponsor pushed us over the $500 mark – so the financial goal has been met! Thank you so much! I am so thrilled (and shocked!). Still, if anyone else wants to sponsor me and support this fantastic organization, read on:

There is still a spot for naming a character (one of the people who donated declined their “perk”.  That prize is yours for a $50 donation.

I’ve also added a new incentive: Anyone who donates $25 from here on out will get an excerpt of my newest piece, a speculative western. Or, if they’d prefer, a second short story from Lysithea. Please specify in notes at the payment screen: “Western” or “Lysithea”. (Link to sponsor me.)

Thank you so much to all of my generous sponsors so far, and I hope I’ve not screwed up hitting my target by being absentee in the middle stretch.

Now as for the writing goals: I was supposed to write three stories for Lysithea and send out two for publication. Well I’ve completed one and have started two and have sent out one for publication. So I need to complete two drafts and send out something for publication. In the next six days.

Sudden realization of the task at hand.

Sudden realization of the task at hand.

 

Nose to the grindstone it is! I’m determined to meet the completion goals.

 


 

 

Now a general writing update.

This new story stormed in and took over my life! I have to believe there’s something psychological to it because I was trucking along with the Lysithea writing and then after the Write-a-thon officially started, I got stuck. I had a wonderful story I loved that felt like the best one I’d written so far, and then halfway through, STUCK. Wheels spinning, mud kicking up, the whole works. I was writing some really nice words and exploring character but the plot was going nowhere.

Then on the day of the Fremont Solstice Parade I was standing in the kitchen while Hubster made coffee, and we were chatting about a bunch of random things. I asked him a question that had been tossing around in my head for months: What if we knew when we were going to die?

We stood there talking for forty-five minutes, until I said, “You know, I feel excited about this, I’m going to take a little break from Lysithea just for today and write about this other thing while the enthusiasm is still fresh.”

We had plans to BBQ at a friend’s house and watch the parade with them. But I couldn’t stop writing. Hubs and Kidlet went without me, and apart from snack and relief breaks, I stayed in my room for 12 hours and wrote over 6000 words.

Spent a good week at the Hood Canal this month, too!

I even got some writing done when we spent a week at the Hood Canal this month.

And I’ve been writing that story ever since. In four weeks, and even after many revisions, I’m at over 16,000 words. I’ve cathected to the landscape and the characters, and it’s been an opportunity to explore a few issues I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  I don’t know how the novel will end – it’s definitely a novel – but I’m simultaneously writing a short story version of it, for which I’ve already composed the ending. It is, in my opinion, the best fiction I’ve written so far.

That’s the nice thing about doing new things, the improvement early on is so rapid!  I’ll be happy when I’m done with the short story because I want to send it out!

A benefit for me of doing this Write-a-thon has been that it forced me to send my first work of fiction out and now that I’m over that “hump” I’m seeing how unimportant it really is. Not even 24 hours after I hit “Send” on a submission, I have moved on. I’m not biting my nails about anything.

What I feel now is the need to write, complete and polish more stories so I have more to send. The more completed stories I have, the more places it will be appropriate to send them to.  I am so excited to keep working on Lysithea and to continually build this novel – it looks like I will be going back and forth between the two. I don’t want to create arbitrary deadlines, but I’m eyeing the end of this year for the completion of one of these.

Happy Writing,
Hafidha

 

Response to A MidLife Crisis

Share

This week I read an essay over at Hazlitt titled, A Midlife Crisis, By Any Other Name by Jess Zimmerman. The link came through my Twitter feed and several writers whose work I’ve enjoyed framed it as accurate and beautiful. It’s about a young woman, at the age of 32, deciding to end her marriage. But as I read the piece, little alarm bells kept going off in my head. As a reader, I felt I was being led down a false path, one which the author says she’s traveled and is grateful to have done. By the end, I was doubtful.

So I mentioned it on Twitter: For me, it read as a piece that seems like it’s saying s’thing, but is really misguided on abt a dozen things.

Eventually I realized a blog post was a better format for outlining (some of) the specific things that made me feel it was “misguided.” If I was going to use such a loaded word, I ought to clarify – for myself, at least. What’s posted here are the four issues – philosophical differences? – I felt most strongly about.

 

#1 The Denial of the Past Self As Real

I realized that, like many women, I had made all the decisions of my life on someone else’s behalf. I knew how to figure out other people’s expectations, and how to try to dodge their disappointment, and how to stay out of the way and not nag and not need things. I didn’t know what I actually wanted, at all.

For sure, the subordination of personal goals to help others achieve theirs is common among women; we are conditioned to consider others first, to take care of others. But is making decisions on the behalf of others the problem – or is the problem that only women are expected by society to do so? And here is my quibble: We are interconnected, interdependent. Even when we act independently, there are consequences.

It’s perfectly fine to say, as a woman: I will put myself first. But there are sometimes people whose needs come before our own, and the ways in which we honor that and who bears the bulk of the work … that’s all negotiable. That responsibility belongs to us all; it shouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of women. And in that respect I agree with the author, whose essay is ultimately about her realization that she has the right to prioritize herself.

It’s the rest of the stuff in there that kind of pissed me off.

“All the decisions of my life” weren’t made for me? That smacks of martyrdom, but more importantly, it sounds like eschewing responsibility for the past. And how does one move forward from that? I’m not talking about feeling guilty, either. I’m talking about claiming ones past decisions.

But here Zimmerman says, “I didn’t know what I actually wanted, at all.” That rang to me as a sophisticated way of saying, “That wasn’t me” — except that it was. Now I’m not speaking to the author here directly, but the general “you.” What you did in the past, it was you. You made decisions and sometimes they paid off, surely sometimes you derived some benefit. Other times you made decisions that didn’t pay off, that led to dead ends or your current disappointment. That’s why it hurts, that’s what can keep us up at night.

“I didn’t know what I actually wanted.” I don’t like this, either. Did she not want acceptance? Did she not want clothing on her back, to be educated, to be respected in some measure? Did she not want career options or to have an income? Didn’t she want to live in the city? To have a romantic relationship? People want things, but there is a lot to choose from, and feeling rueful about wanting the ‘wrong’ things isn’t the same as never wanting them at all.

If I decide I no longer want a thing, it’s not the same as “I didn’t know what I actually wanted.” I just don’t want it anymore. But I wanted it at the time. I say: Accept who you were. Accept the decisions you made. Even if you made them for reasons you now think are ridiculous.

This is important to me because I think it’s dishonest to distance ones current self from ones past self. You are who you’ve become, there’s no way around it. And one day you will be different again.

Contrary to what Zimmerman says later in the post – you can’t ever start over. She even says starting all over is the very nature of the female midlife crisis. I hope people don’t believe that.

 

#2 Equating the Yearning for Fulfillment and Meaning with “Privilege”

In a cringeworthy attempt to acknowledge the existence of privilege, Zimmerman suggests that Black men and the poor probably don’t have midlife crises because Police Brutality! Too Many Kids! Living Hand to Mouth!

I was appalled by this. Number one, because I haven’t found this to be remotely true, and secondly because it makes me think she has little connection with the people she’s talking about: Black people, the poor, the single moms making minimum wage she insists are too bogged down by life’s basic struggles to have existentialist problems.

News flash: the burdens of racism, poverty, transphobia, etc. aren’t that you don’t get to experience universal crises of wanting happiness and struggling for meaning; it’s that you don’t have the resources to “indulge” them (as she put it), or that you have fewer or less than optimal options.

She also writes, “I am lucky in this way. I have the leisure and safety to notice whether or not I feel fulfilled, and to imagine that fulfillment is a reasonable goal.”

Nicole Scherzinger disagrees.

Nicole Scherzinger disagrees. So do I.

 

 

Somehow, in attempting to acknowledge the ways privileged people play out their midlife crises, she’s concluded that having a midlife crisis at all is an act of privilege. This is terribly misguided. It read to me that she’s saying when people’s needs aren’t being met (per Mazslow’s hierarchy of needs or somesuch), they actually operate on a lower plane of consciousness. I accept that this belief might be part of her journey and I don’t think she’s a bad person for it; I just hope she takes another pass. And to all others reading her work, I hope they don’t adopt that view.

She added: “I was lucky enough to get to think about fulfillment, and unlucky enough to feel I had to achieve it.” That sounds to me like a description of entitlement.

 

 #3 Total Confusion About the Ways Midlife Crises are Acted Out

In her sections that seek to define midlife crisis, I agree with very little. First, the most perplexing bit:

There’s been some research on midlife crisis in women, but it’s typically seen as a man’s domain, both in culture and in science. Researchers may include women in their studies, but their focus is generally on men; sure, women can experience midlife crises, but everyone knows it’s a guy thing. Of course women also have feelings about aging, but those feelings are seen as more concrete, more explicable: we have biological clocks, empty nest syndrome, menopause. Depending on whom you ask, we’re either too silly or too competent to concern ourselves with grand neuroses about mortality; we don’t have the cognitive capacity, or else we don’t have the leisure to be so self-absorbed. Either way, the existential collapse is a masculine enterprise.

 

Puzzled.

Puzzled.

 

So .. to sum up: Midlife crises of women has been studied, but it’s “typically seen” as a man’s thing, and researchers might include women in their studies, but their focus is “generally” on men, and sure, women can experience a mid-life crisis, but “everyone knows it’s a guy thing.”

Pardon? Is she upholding this narrow view, or is she challenging it? It’s all very straw-mannish anyway. “Of course women also have feelings about aging, but” — what is midlife crisis triggered by if not aging? Then she says it’s all biological – menopause and biological clocks. Very confusing.

For many women who form adult identities over a decade or more, motherhood triggers enormous apprehension and a host of complicated feelings. If they’ve taken time away from work or are underemployed, there are questions of where they fit into the workplace when they decide to return. Who are they? What have they given up? Will it be worth it? How can they integrate this new identity into their old one? Is it even possible?

Let’s not even talk about how women start to view themselves as they go from “spring chicken” to “hen” or even “crone” status because their bodies change. Looks and sex appeal – huge components of the stereotypical male middle-age crisis – affect women to no less degree. I am still giving a serious side-eye to that quoted paragraph.

And then the next sentence reads: “To be fair, most of the modern research on midlife crises focuses on questioning whether they are even a thing, for anyone.” You’ve got to be kidding me. To come to this after having read 1200 words about her midlife crisis! I felt like I was on the road to nowhere.

Maybe “midlife crisis” is too tainted with cultural baggage, but something happens to a lot of us, and if we don’t know how to call it by a name—if we’re women, for instance, and the common image of the “midlife crisis” doesn’t really have a place in it for us—we might not even realize we aren’t alone.

Is there any truth to the above passage? Why on earth was it set apart in such large font? Again, women have been talking about their own ‘midlife crises’ for decades. Even when they didn’t call it by the same phrase, it’s been there. Decades, at least. The idea that women haven’t articulated the realities of getting to a certain age and being torn about their life choices is so far out of the scope of reality. Why is she saying this? Who has she not been talking to? Look around. Talk to other women! We are here. We have been here.

All my life I’ve seen women (most of whom do not have college degrees) talking, thinking about, and reconciling themselves to their lives (or not); divorcing, redefining their relationships, changing careers. We have a whole genre of memoirs and self-help books by women who have reinvented themselves beyond the age of 30 and 40. Many of us women know, that contrary to being alone, we are actually legion.

Now what might be missing – with our contemporary focus on self-sufficiency and independence, on mobility, the nuclear family and having it all – is an unshakable ‘sister tribe’ of a support system; but that is very different from the realization that “Wow, I’m unhappy with the life I’ve been living.” That experience, quite frankly, is as common as dirt, and nearly as old.

Why is this wealth of history and experience being ignored in Zimmerman’s essay?

But a man’s second adolescence often goes by the book: a fear of dying, a desperate grasp at youth—after all, the book was written for him. For me, for the women I know, it’s less about trying to prove ourselves vital; it’s more about beginning again. We don’t have to wait until our 40s to feel that need, and a sports car won’t help.

 

At some point, the privileged man realizes that he can’t keep going forever. At some point, the privileged woman realizes she forgot to start.

 

This was almost something interesting, but it was yet another straw man – is it really only men making that ‘desperate grasp at youth?’ It being the trope doesn’t make it the reality. Has she not met the middle-aged woman who puts on a mini skirt for the first time after 20 years of marriage and heads to the club? The woman who gets the breast implants she always wanted at 42 and can’t wait to show them off? I have.

It sounds like what she’s saying that men’s midlife crises are about vanity, but women’s midlife crises are more substantial — they’re about centering oneself in ones life. I don’t buy it.

I believe what many people are looking for in midlife is passion. That’s the crux of the midlife crisis – the search for passion. How one seeks (or doesn’t seek) that passion is influenced by things like your socioeconomic status, personality, spiritual or ethical beliefs, and so on. In the past year I read a book by a psychologist or Buddhist (both?) about how many midlife crises manifest as marital cheating. People start their affairs because they want passion. And in our society, passion is often equated with sex specifically, and sex is readily accessible compared to other dramatic experiences. The clients would even say, “The fire’s gone out. I just don’t feel anything anymore. The affair made me feel alive again.”

But for most of them – and this was as true for men as for women – sexual infidelity was serving as a substitute for being passionate about their life on the whole. But it’s a familiar narrative, and it can be easier to think what you’re lacking is hot sex and not that you need to dig deeper and find something to care about other than making money or establishing yourself or whatever you’ve invested in for the last 10 or 25 years. And the older one gets, the more choices seem to narrow. The time to do something else with your life is running out.

This notion that a man’s ‘grasp for youth’ and a woman’s need to ‘start over’ are two different things – I don’t see the support here. They sound very much like the same thing. It may well be that the stereotypical masculine midlife crisis has a nihilistic air that’s about expressing dominance and virility. But one thing I’ve witnessed in my life is that for men who aren’t prone to running out and buying a motorcycle or having taboo sex, their midlife crisis can look like many other things – such as depression or overconsumption. It’s misguided to perpetuate the stereotype of the male midlife crisis, when there’s so much more there. And it does all of us a disservice.

Overall, the essay conveyed an insularity and lack of lived knowledge around other people’s midlife crises. Which would be fine if the piece stuck to the personal, but Zimmerman’s reach was extensive. Related to this – I had to wonder, there is no mention of Zimmerman reaching out to others. Did she call on anyone (even a book or spiritual teachings) for advice or learning? I hope she didn’t go it alone. I hope others don’t try to weather such things alone.

#4 She Had No Self Before

Somehow we come around somewhat to #1. Zimmerman ends her piece with the line (speaking of her own person): “For once, she has a self.”

To this I say: We always have a self. You were always someone.

A Poem: Let Me Ask Instead

Share

Two months ago I responded to a call for poems from a local coffee house, that wanted to do a display for National Poetry Month and the Greenwood neighborhood Art Walk. I wrote up a poem I thought someone in a coffee shop could easily digest while standing in line, and emailed it. There was no reply; however, a few weeks later I ran into someone at a writing circle who said the solicited poems were up.

Six year old child plays with various toys at a coffee table.

Kidlet at Makeda

Today I finally found myself in Greenwood in the mid-afternoon and stopped into Makeda Coffee. I saw that the poems had been taken down but there is some nice visual artwork on display. The little place is undergoing minor renovations – walls being painted, cold cases being rearranged.

I ordered an Americano and a vegan donut, while Kidlet had a scoop of ice cream and played with the toys they have there. I felt silly for not coming in while my poem was still up, and didn’t ask about it. I hope if anyone read it, they enjoyed it a little. I’ll post it here.

 

Let Me Ask Instead

On this street I am shrugging past
all the people that I love.

Love never hurts
sometimes we just don’t rise to the occasion.

And that hurts, but you can put a stop to it,
sink into experience.

Sat down in a coffee shop
eyes reading and re-reading
fingers turning and re-turning
the same page,
two sides of the same page.

I’m distracted by the sounds
of a man in the corner.
Not a word comes out of him,
he’s dressed all in beige
and struggling
to unwrap an old hard candy.

“Sir,” I say, sliding back my chair.
“Are you opening a sweet thing or
undoing a knot?”

Writing Speculative Fiction

Share

Well I’ve been very preoccupied, writing speculative fiction. A collection of short stories, all taking place in the same earth world, where humans have embraced genetic modification, even creating an underclass of people known as Modifieds to serve them in multiple capacities. They don’t recognize Mods as people, and they call this split “evolution.”

I’ve written short stories and fiction before, but not taken it too seriously. I’m in a writing group now that I love, and am learning so much from.  I am on my 4th story  for this collection. I’m still assembling this speculative universe, it’s set in the future, but it’s a bit of a throwback as well.  I like the short fiction format as a way of identifying which characters and stories I want to dig into, vignette style. The second story was a spin-off of the first, and the third a spin-off of the second.

I’d like to go back and rewrite the zombie apocalypse excerpt  I posted earlier. In fact, I want to write it sans guns, just to see how that looks. But this current short story collection is where my focus is. As a beginner project, I’m loving it! I don’t know what I’ll be writing a year from now, but this is a happy process.

 

Seattle Zombie Apocalypse: A Semi-Autobiography

Share

Yes, I’ve not posted in a while. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction. I do want to finish my travel posts about Europe. They are pending! Next week I’ll have some big blocks of free time and may get them up then (don’t hold your breath). In the meantime, here is something to read.  It’s the second or third chapter of a novella I wrote a few years ago for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It was my attempt to answer the question:  “What would the zombie apocalypse be like for someone like me, a Black stay at home mom to a young child, living in Seattle?” I’ve not done anything with the novella, so I’m posting this for fun.

amateur doodle of a mother and child on the lookout for zombies

Scared of zombies doodle

I will only say a few more things about it: 1. It’s more ‘light’ and action oriented  than my typical fiction, 2. I was inspired to share it after my friend Everett Maroon posted an excerpt of a zombie story at his blog, Trans/plant/portation (go and check it out here).

Maybe Zombies aren’t dead after all! If you choose to read this chapter, I hope you enjoy it.  Feel free to comment even if you don’t.

Warnings/info: This story features a gun, several deaths, a little profanity, has undergone only one revision and is close to 3000 words.


Seattle Zombie Apocalypse: A Semi-Autobiography


I was standing at the door, balancing a paper bag full of recyclables. “I’ll be right back. I’m taking out the trash!” I called to Adween.

“Okay, Mommy.”  My daughter was in the living room banging pots together in her toy kitchen.

I had my keys in the other hand, and turned to lock the door. I always locked up, because it was too simple a thing not to do. The consequences of someone kidnapping my precious, one and only child were too horrible to imagine. All it took was a few seconds. And how well did I really know that guy across the hall, anyway? 

I walked past the elevator, passing through another door to the half-flight of stairs that led to the building’s entry. Another flight of stairs led to the underground garage. Blue recycling bins were lined against a concrete wall. I dumped my bag of papers and glass in one and took a look around. The garage had bright new lighting after a break-in the year before. It was almost too well-lit, especially during the day. But at night, the lights did make me feel safer. Nothing was amiss. Just cars and storage units, a few bicycles. Our condo building was small – only four stories and 16 units.

I knew the names of most of my neighbors because of their mailbox decals. I talked to a few residents – the retired couple below me and the friendly artist from Tennessee who lived one story up. There was also the guy across the hall who had the decency to mumble hello to me. The rest were a blur, sometimes purposely avoiding eye contact due to social awkwardness, or just too busy, breezing to their Land Rover or whatever that was way nicer than our 15-year-old Geo Prizm.

I jogged back upstairs to the lobby and paused. There was someone at the building’s front door, tapping at it and pressing their palms against the intercom buttons. I could hear static and a voice answering, “Hello? Hello?” The person at the door froze and slowly turned their face to me. We gazed at each other through the glass for a moment.  I saw a grey faced youth, maybe 17 years old. His clothes were disheveled and splattered with dark spots. The light over the front steps cast a yellow sheen on top of his brown hair, which stood up in disarray. His eyes were wide and uncertain, but as they perceived me, his mouth began to move. I could hear him through the glass but all that came out was growls and low grumbles. Now both his hands clawed at the door, and a second figure appeared behind him, reaching. My first thought: Zombies. What the hell. Zombies?

But this was Fremont, home of the world’s largest zombie walk, surely this was a prank. That’s what my brain said, but my guts said, “Adween!” and I moved toward the half-flight of stairs leading up just as I heard the BZZZZZZZZZ of one of my neighbors unlocking the front door. 

All you had to do was push. This was convenient when your hands were full of groceries, a box full of books, or a toddler, but I cursed it then, I cursed that damn door that could open without a turn of the knob. My heart leapt in my chest in sync with my foot leaping up two – no, three – stairs. I have no idea how I scrambled up those stairs so fast. I might have flown.

I heard the kid behind me, not shuffling, but bounding. What the hell. Zombies don’t run. Then again, zombies aren’t real, so why did I keep thinking about zombies? I reached the door to my floor and pulled it open, three feet more and I was pulling open the second door leading to my unit. SHIT. The door was locked. My keys! They were on an elastic band around my wrist, and I was shaking, trying to find the key. The keyring suddenly seemed littered with tiny membership cards. I also had extra house keys – for my brother’s place, the storage unit, and my in-laws’ house 300 miles away. SHIT. I was in the hall outside my door, trembling all over. I couldn’t register anything that was happening in front of my eyes, but I heard the pounding in my chest and then, the second door opened.

There he was, five or six feet away. I felt the key slip into the keyhole and I leaned into the door, turning the handle, my mouth wide open.

In the split second it took to yank my key out of the doorknob, he had replaced me on the welcome mat. I pushed with all my weight against the door from inside and tried to slam it shut, but he was on it already.

“You’re not welcome!” I screamed in delirium, confusing my monsters, I suppose. I kept pressing and pressing, and was puzzled as to why this wasn’t working, how could one young kid be so strong? Then I realized there were two of them now.  With my back against the door and my feet braced on the tiled floor of the entry way, my brain swam with profanities. There was nothing here to brace the door – no chair, no table. Nothing to hold them back.

Just then Adween came scamping down the hallway, “Mommy, someone buzzed on the wall phone!” she said, her face the picture of joy. She stopped when she saw the look on my face.

I made the call. I slammed back one last time against the door and used the recoil to run forward. I raced down the hallway, grabbed Adween with both hands, and nearly tripped over a step-stool under the intercom phone. I veered into my bedroom and shut the door. There was no lock on this damn door. No lock on any of the doors except the bathrooms. I tossed my confused child onto the bed and pulled at the side table. Jason and I didn’t have a large bedroom, but we had a full set of bedroom furniture. I heaved at the side table and practically threw it at the bedroom door.

“Mommy!” Adween was gaping at me.

“Not now, baby! You have to be very quiet!!” 

I pushed the side table against the door. I could hear the grumbling and scratching already. They’d obviously seen me come into this room. I weighed my options: dresser or the second side table? The dresser was heavier and I might not be able to move it, but the side table was on the other side of the bed, and would be tough to finagle out of its tight space. I opted for the dresser. I pushed and pushed. Adween jumped off the bed to assist.

“MOVE!” I screamed.

She protested, “I want to help you!”

“I need you to move out of the way and BE QUIET!” The space between the wall and our bed was narrow, there was barely enough room for me to do what I was attempting, never mind with her underfoot. If those … things outside my door figured out how to turn the knob, we were fucking toast. 

Adween hesitated.

“PLEASE sit back on the bed!”

I pushed and pushed, the dresser began to lift up out of its ruts in the carpet and I leaned low and heaved again. It slid. Adween climbed back onto the bed.

“What are you doing, Mommy? Are you being silly?”

I grunted and the dresser slid magically across the carpet to the narrow doorway, right up against the side table. Thank god for cheap particle board. I took a deep breath, then ran to the closet. Up on the topmost shelf was the gun, and on another shelf, a box of bullets. I reached for them, then paused. I plucked Adween off the bed and carried her through the closet into the master bath. I looked around for a second and set her in the tub.

She laughed, “Mommy, why you put me in the bathtub? There’s no water in here.” She poised one finger in the air. “And I have clothes on!” She was giggling.

“Wait here!”

I shut the door between the closet and the bathroom, and grabbed the gun and bullets. I loaded the gun and jammed a handful of bullets in the thigh pockets of my pants. My one pair of carpenter pants, thank the laundry gods.

With a moment to breathe, I could hear something other than the sound of my heart, and the two guys were pushing against the door. They were excited now, almost babbling, “Gagagagagagagagaga!” I could hear their tongues flopping around in their mouths, and the scratching.  I looked around. Where was my cell phone? I usually took it with me when I left the condo, even for a minute. I felt around and found it in my back pocket. For the first time in my life, I hit the emergency call button on purpose.

“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

“There are some sick looking men in my house! My condo. I’m at 4291 Milwaukee Ave N; it’s a green building. I’m on the second floor. These guys chased me into my unit. I’m here with my little girl – she’s 3 years old – and I have a gun!” That seemed to cover all the important bases, right?

“Please don’t shoot me!” I added for extra measure. You can’t be too careful as a Black person in America.

The 9-1-1 operator was calm, and repeated my address to me, and asked me my name.. “Officers have been dispatched.  Can you stay on the line?”

“I think so. I – I don’t know how long. They’re trying to get in the room.”

The dresser was inching back steadily. I stood in the doorway of the closet, ready to shut the door in front of me, but that would do little good. There was no lock and nothing to stop them from turning the handle and walking right in. I thought about locking Adween in the bathroom and holding these guys off – maybe they would get me, but the lock could be delay enough to give the police time to arrive and take care of them.

I opted to wait. One, I wasn’t ready to rely on anyone else to protect my baby, and two, knowing her, she’d just open the door for them once they started banging on it because what did she know? She was three years old. This wasn’t comprehensible to her. She had no concept of dangerous people who wanted to … whatever these guys wanted to do.

I was going with the zombie thing, and about the worst thing that can happen to a person is being eaten alive, so I looked over and – holy crap! They were in! The first one – not the kid I’d seen at the door, but a man who looked to be in his late 20s wearing red skinny jeans – had clambered on top of the side table and the dresser, and was taking the long way around the bed to get to me. I gulped, took a deep breath, aimed for the head like the movies all say, and squeezed the trigger. At the firing range I’m a pretty good shot, but that was shooting at paper!  The sound startled me and the bullet hit the wall right behind him – a hole right in the frame of the window. He paused. I don’t think he was afraid, but maybe curious about the noise. It seemed like there was something going on in his brain about what to do next, and I took that opportunity to aim again – from the corner of my eye I saw the kid opting for the bed route – and fired again. Bullseye!

I pivoted and shot at the teenager standing on the bed. I got him in the chin, but given his position, it went all up into his face and came out somewhere out the top or back of his head.

I backed up several steps so that I was further in the closet, but still had them within sight. The older guy was slumped against the window, his hands in his lap. The kid had fallen back so that his legs were still on the bed but his head and shoulders were on the toppled dresser. The phone was next to me on a little rack I keep in the walk-in closet for papers. I picked it up, holding the gun as steady as I could in front of me.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Kalissa!?”

“I’m here. It’s me. I shot them. They got in the room.” My voice sounded strange to me, like it wasn’t mine. I felt light-headed, queasy.  I wanted to close my eyes, this couldn’t be happening. But I kept my eyes open and on the bodies. What kind of mess was this. Zombies are not real. Do shots to the head even work on them?

“Are they moving, ma’am?”

My senses returned and I shook my head, what living thing can be shot in the head and still walk – never mind attack a person?

“No. They’re not moving. I need to check on my daughter.” I considered whether to shut the closet door or leave it open to keep a view of them. I kept it open and continued backing up, opened the bathroom door and called to Adween.

“Mommy! What’s going on? Wow, that was a lot of noise!” She was still in the bathtub, playing with Jason’s back brush, and looking at me with a raised eyebrow. Like she was thinking, “You’re in big trouble, missy!”

“There were some bad guys in the house, baby girl. I’m protecting you. Stay in the tub until I come get you out.”  I looked back through the closet. No movement. I asked the 911 operator, “Do you know when the cops will be here? Tell them not to shoot me. I’ll put my gun down before they get here but I don’t want to put it down yet until I know for sure these guys aren’t going to get up.”

“They should be there any minute.”

“Okay. I’m going to wait in the bathroom with my daughter. Someone else is going to have to buzz them into the building because I’m not walking past these guys. I am putting my gun down in the closet. It will NOT BE WITH ME IN THE BATHROOM.” I felt ridiculous emphasizing this but I had no idea who they’re sending to my place, it could be a dumbass or anybody.

“Please, tell them. The gun is on the floor in the closet. I’m going to be unarmed in the bathroom with my THREE YEAR OLD daughter. Tell them not to shoot us.”

“Kalissa, I’ve told them what you said.”

I had to take her word for it. I put the gun down and grabbed a spare tension rod that was in the closet, slid into the bathroom, and locked the door. I huddled with Adween in the tub. I know I’d said I was unarmed, but I needed something more than a toilet brush to defend myself. Anything could still happen..

I heard the sirens ten seconds later, and waited for the police to somehow get into the building. Surely one of my neighbors had heard the three or four gunshots? I felt the floor shudder a little – that was the sound of the front hall door slamming, and I could hear footsteps tramping up the stairs, voices. I took a deep breath, and lowered the curtain rod.

Adween thought it was hilarious that I was in the tub. “Mommy, you’re silly! Why we in the tub without any croves on? Are we having a party?”

I grabbed her with one arm and gave her a tight squeeze. I was still worried about being shot by the police, and I didn’t want to be near her if they fired at me. Paranoid? Stranger things have happened. Like zombie looking dudes chasing me into my bedroom for no damn reason. I’d rather be alive and paranoid than dead and the deceased plaintiff of a civil suit.  I stepped out of the tub and stood ready at the door. I listened.

“Ma’am! This is the police! We’re in the bedroom!”

I heard some mutterings of complaint as they maneuvered around the furniture and bodies.

“I’m in the bathroom with my three year old daughter. I am NOT ARMED.” I quietly put the curtain rod between the toilet seat and the sink, then returned to the door.

Another cop’s voice, closer now – he must’ve been in the closet. “Gun here on the floor. I got it.”

Another cop, “Calling it in.”

I heard another sirened vehicle pull up to the street out front.

“Ma’am, you can open the door now.”

“Okay, I’m opening the door, please don’t shoot me. My baby is in here.”

“Ma’am. We’re not going to shoot you. You can open the door.” He was sounding a little irritated now.

I opened the door, and held my hands up.

As his eyes adjusted to the bright bathroom lights, I could see a moment of understanding pass across them as he looked at me.

He nodded grimly, and peered behind me. Adween had popped up, all wide eyes and big smile, “Are you here for the bathtub party, too?” Then she cupped her mouth and howled, “Arrooooo arrooo!”

How to Pack Light for Travel with Kids

Share

I’ve received a few requests to post something about how to pack light when traveling with children. It’s taken me a while to get to this topic because of self-doubt. Do I know how to pack light? Or do I just pack lighter than average? What do I know? There’s loads of Internet advice on packing light, what do I have to say that hasn’t been covered?

how to pack light for travel with kids

Our bags for Europe.

Well I’m done second-guessing myself.  Below you will find my advice.  And because I recently read Ayoade on Ayoade, I wrote about this as a faux-interview, in which I (as blogger La Reina Cobre) interview myself (HSofía). No, I’m not as informed, clever, or adorable as Richard Ayoade, but you’ll just have to deal with that if you want to know my secrets.


LaReinaCobre
: Give us the details of your trip and what luggage you and Kidlet took.
HSofía: We spent three weeks (20 nights) in Central Europe in November 2014. We had a carry-on size rolling suitcase, a large purse and Kidlet’s miniature backpack. (See photo)

LRC: So, what’s the deal with packing light? Why is this so important to you?
HSofia: I don’t like hauling bags, basically. It makes me hot – even when it’s cold – which makes me sweaty, which nobody wants. I’m paranoid about losing things, so the more bags I have, the more time I spend freaking out: Did I forget that? Where is it? Was it stolen? WHERE IS IT? That doesn’t make for serenity. I also like to be organized when I travel – something I mostly fail at in daily life – and every night I take an account of where everything is, discarding the day’s receipts, etc.; the less stuff I have, the faster that process goes. Lastly, I prefer to be agile when I’m on the road, like a panther fleeing zombies. I can’t be that panther if I’m lugging a suitcase big enough to stuff a grown man in, even if it is on wheels.

LRC:  In the photo I see Kidlet has the miniature backpack, isn’t she old enough to have her own luggage? Or are you worried about her ability to outrun zombies, as well? 
HSofía: Kidlet has a roller backpack we purchased in Colombia after our primary suitcase was stolen in Bogotá, but I decided not to bring it. We were traveling for only three weeks, not two months, so we needed fewer things which translates into less luggage. Also, I knew we’d be moving from city to city at a faster pace than either of us was used to, which meant more travel connections on buses or trains. It’s good to imagine worst case scenarios, so I pictured Kidlet trying to keep up with me in a train terminal if we were in a real hurry. Impossible. I would end up carrying her bag, my bag, my purse, and trying to hold her hand. I currently have only two arms and two hands.

Kidlet on train with headphones, pencil case, sketchbook, water bottle.

LRC: So Kidlet’s backpack was more of a purse than luggage?
HSofía: Well put. Her mini backpack is small but large and sturdy enough to hold an 8oz bottle of water, a few small sketchbooks, her pencil case, her iPad mini and her headphones. These were the things she’d use when we were in transit between cities, and sometimes she took the backpack out during the day, minus the tablet and headphones, which we usually left in our room.  It’s important in general, but for young kids especially, go as small as you can, because the bigger the bag, the more inclined you are to stuff it, and then who wants to carry it? When your kid’s whining because they’re understandably tired and the bag is too damn heavy. Or when your kid is sick or half-sleep and can’t even walk in a straight line. As parent, always remember that you will wind up carrying that s*** – maybe for just a few minutes, but also maybe for half a day. Always ask yourself, “If I have to carry this s*** how pissed off am I going to be about it?”

LRC: So what did you carry around in your purse? It looks roomy.
HSofía: It holds a lot but doesn’t scream TOURIST. It’s the purse I use at home. Most every day in Europe, it held the following: slim notebooks, coins purse, phone, portable device charger, USB cable(s), a guide book or maps, the day’s toiletries including quick makeup, allergy meds, and tissues, and a book or magazine to read. It was also roomy enough that I could stow our hats or scarves in it when we went into a place that was well-heated. Kidlet complains if she gets too warm, so it was important she have layers I could easily stow. In between cities, there was room in the bag for our passports, tickets, more books, kidlet’s stuffed animal, water bottle and snacks.

LRC: One of your on-line pals asked you to talk about carry-on essentials, would you say that covers it? 
HSofía: Yes, I would. A thing for carry-on is to know what you actually do – not what you fancy yourself doing, but what do you actually do in transit? En route to a foreign land is not the time you’re going to learn that new handicraft or do a hobby you never make time for at home. I really just listen to music, write, and zone out. On a good day, I’ll read, but usually am too antsy. My number one carry-on essential is earplugs. I have misophonia and ADD, so earplugs cut down on sounds that make me want to murder people, and tune out some of the stimulation. Headphones are a good substitute for earplugs, but then you’re draining your phone battery just to stay out of jail. {makes scale-hands} You have to do the cost-benefit analysis on that one.

LRC: So what about your main suitcase. What was in there, I’m guessing clothes?
HSofía: Right, sadly you can’t get through Europe for three weeks in a single outfit, so I was forced to pack a suitcase. Every time, I think I’m gonna go minimal, but then there’s this pile of stuff all around and you’re like, “Oh no, it won’t fit.” Packing clothes brings up issues for me. I’m picky about colors, don’t wear low-cut tops, shorts or short skirts, and I’m a busty size 14 with thunder thighs and a shelf booty. Finding clothes outside of the US with those parameters is a full-time job so I pack carefully. Fortunately I didn’t have any fancy agenda, I wasn’t going to any galas. And weather was in my favor – traveling to Europe in November means no sweating. There is a balance in packing durable clothes that we could wear casually and still feel proud to be in.

Boots, jeans, coat, bag, hat, in Italy.

Boots, jeans, coat, bag, hat, in Italy.

LRC: So did you pack a lot of clothes?
HSofía: Well. I had to take into account how often we’d have access to laundry – I estimated about once a week based on where we were staying, and drying time. You have to remember most places outside of the US, dryers are not easily accessible, even if you’re staying at someone’s home. Ultimately, I packed a pair of jeans, a pair of jean leggings, a lightweight black skirt, fleece leggings (worn under jeans or to bed), another pair of thick leggings, footless tights, a yellow hat, a thin silk thermal shirt, two long sleeved shirts, three or four short sleeved shirts, a couple pairs of socks and underwear, two sturdy bras. A thin fleece pull-over with a zip neck that I wore regularly. A long cotton scarf for my neck (crucial!) that was also used at night to protect my hair twists. A very thin cardigan that I wore a lot, a hat and gloves. I had an incredibly lightweight down coat that I bought specifically because it can be stuffed into a bag the size of a football.

Kidlet had two pairs of pants, a pair of leggings, four long-sleeved shirts, two sweaters (she wore the pullover far more), a set of thermals (usually worn to bed), socks, undies, a long t-shirt for sleeping in, two dresses (I overestimated how warm Italy would be), a cotton blazer, the squishy down vest, and a coat.

LRC: That sounds like a lot of clothes.
HSofía: It was too much. I liked the option of a skirt to wear w/ the footless tights and the fleece leggings were great under jeans near the end of our trip when Prague had an icy fog. But next time I’d skip the thick leggings, choose one pair of jeans and one long-sleeved shirt. You find when you’re traveling that some clothes are very comfortable to be in for 12 hours while you’re trekking around, and you want to wear those more the others. Keep in mind that we were outdoors a lot, so most people saw just our pants, shoes, and overgarments. For Kidlet, I’d have packed more pants because her shirts were protected by the sweaters she wore all the time, whereas her pants got grubby from her obsession with sliding across restroom floors.  I also packed a pair of crocs for Kidlet, which was unnecessary because we weren’t going to any pools or staying in hostels with shared showers. I don’t think she ever wore them. She wore her favorite sneakers every day. I wore my Fleuvog boots every day. I’d packed flip flops and a pair of black flats but never wore them. It kills me that I lugged around THREE sets of footwear for 21 days. I also packed a “just in case dress” – a total waste.

LRC: What’s a “just in case dress?”
HSofía: It’s a dress I pack just in case I get invited to something where you need to dress up a little. Which has never happened, and never will until the trip where I don’t pack the “just in case dress.”

LRC: So it’s like an amulet … against being invited to fancy shindigs?
HSofía: I guess. But I’m not taking it again. I’ll risk it. When it comes to clothes, my tip is go with basic items that are easy to keep clean, decently made, and low-key, but take things you love to wear. In short, take the most comfortable clothes you own that you also feel good to be seen in, just remember you can’t take them all.

LRC: The word count is getting to 2000, we need to wrap it up. What else?
HSofía: Books. I have this personal problem where I think I’m going to read books I’ve had laying around for years at home … like yes, it’s on the plane to Italy that I’ll learn what Schopenhauer was talking about. It’s ridiculous. Even after toning it down this trip, I crammed half a dozen in the suitcase. Of course I picked up more books while traveling, so came home with ten books. I’ve since got a Kindle so that won’t be happening ever again, I swear. I also had several guide books, but I dispose of those after I’ve passed through the relevant city. I’m a shedder, which means you pack things that can be got rid of along the way because they’ve been used up before the trip is done.

Also in the bag: Clear plastic toiletry bags, extra writing/sketch books and a bag of crayons/markers. We used the extra books but the crayons and markers went unused because I brought so many that they were always in the suitcase. I go with travel sized toiletries as much as possible. Don’t worry about bringing extras of ordinary items, unless you have special health needs. I shed whatever toiletries are leftover and unneeded the night before I fly back home. Most places supply bathing toiletries so you might not have to buy them at all. Before we left Seattle, I got my hair braided with extensions so I had no hair products for myself.  I always bring some low dose melatonin for sleep adjustment.  Allergy meds, ibuprofen, and earplugs to help sleep at night – you never know what the pollen or noise situation will be. These latter take up negligible amounts of space and affect the quality of your experience, so are worth bringing with you.

LRC:  Overall, it sounds to me like you could’ve done a better job with packing.
HSofía: Yes, and I say this every time, but I will pack MUCH lighter on my next trip. I learn more every time, and every trip’s different – climate, accommodations, length of time. But it’s fun.

LRC: Any parting words?
HSofía: There are pros and cons to packing light, so don’t view it as a competition. It’s about not packing more than you’re willing to haul around. I don’t like hauling things around. Some people don’t mind. No way is inherently better or worse, it’s simply about aligning your luggage with the experience you want to have.

 

Before Sleep, a Reading and a Poem

Share

It’s near the end of January now and I’m reading several books simultaneously (as usual). The difference is that I’m trying to decide which book to finish this month so that I can have completed three books in January (I have reading goals! See: Goodreads). I have a feeling it might be Richard Lewis’s Living by Wonder. My former rowing coach suggested it a year or so ago and I picked it up again last week and resumed reading.

The essays, all on the subject of the imagination of children and ‘poetic understanding’ – that wondering curiosity that connects us to the parts of ourselves and the world we cannot articulate – are easy to read but deeply thoughtful.

Also got into a strange mental state whilst I was reading the chapter on solitude. Found myself suddenly doubting whether poems even exist. I must be tired, thinking like this. But for a few minutes I sat here wondering whether poems were just a sham, and maybe I’d been hoodwinked, for all these years. What was the difference between a poem and any other group of words, really? Then I sort of snapped out of it, and wrote a poem. Well, I wrote a line, and then another line, and it could have been prose, but took on the physical shape of a poem.

Strange, yes, but don’t have too much time to think on it; it’s Kidlet’s bedtime, and I have rowing practice in six and a half hours. Here’s the poem, in any case.

Untitled
Could I lie here on a bench of the gallery?
I’d like to do that, fall asleep surrounded by this art.
Wouldn’t mind people coming and going,
head soaking up the comfort of their footsteps.
With my eyes closed I’d sense their bodies moving
all through the room, piece to piece.
Attach a skein of yarn to a leg of each person
and tack it down every time they paused, and let
it keep unraveling. I’d be in a web by end of day
woven around and below, woven out of the hardness
of the room. I’m facing the ceiling with my eyes closed
strumming songs on the overlapping paces of strangers.

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Share

Several weeks ago, my friend Lori over at Project Based Homeschooling mentioned a book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Over the next 72 hours, I saw this book mentioned across social media. A lot of people I knew were talking about it. Normally I avoid trendy things until they blow over (or forever) but when I read the premise – getting rid of the things you own that don’t prompt a “spark of joy,” I bought the book.

The premise appealed to me because of inklings I’ve been grappling with over the past year. When Kidlet and I were in Colombia last winter, I noticed how clutter was not a way of life for everyone, especially people who didn’t live in the city. Due to its three mountain ranges, history of guerrilla warfare and poor government investment in national infrastructure, Colombia is a difficult country to navigate once you leave the metropolitan areas; this makes bringing goods into small town and rural communities very costly.

One of the consequences is that in those smaller places you don’t see a lot of extra stuff in people’s homes. There are no Walmarts, Targets or Fred Meyer one-stop-shopping stores where you can easily buy things you didn’t know you ‘needed’ until you saw them on display. There is no Amazon delivery service or Zulily. There are still toy stores, market places and shops that sell knick-knacks, necessities and cheap sundries, but they are mom-and-pops.  Most people walk to them or take a motorcycle, horse or mototaxi. This is not to say that Colombians are minimalists, nor do I want to romanticize their existence. What I’m saying is I noticed how, because of circumstances often beyond their control, people managed to have a lot less ‘stuff’ and still live comfortably.

This is something I’ve observed often outside the US/Canada, and may be one of the reasons I enjoy traveling. Kidlet and I stayed in normal homes/apartment rentals for our visit to Europe, and while there I paid attention to what possessions the owners chose to have on hand, and how they organized them.  I also thought about what we brought with us, for three weeks: One large carry-on suitcase and my purse, plus Kidlet’s tiny backpack for her mini tablet, headphones, and sketchbook supplies. At the end of the three weeks there were clothes and books I’d packed that we never wore or read. Eighty percent of the little items I’d packed “just in case” were never used.  Several people have suggested I write about packing light with a child and I will do that later, but for now I’ll say — I could have packed lighter! And wished I had.

My clothes out to sort; all my remaining clothes in closet (including coats).

My clothes out to sort; all my remaining clothes in closet (including coats).

So, what does this have to do with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Well, it’s about accurately identifying what one needs and loves. I followed Marie Kondo’s directions as outlined in the book, beginning the process of discarding with my clothes. Just my clothes. (I’m leaving Kidlet and Hubster to do their own discarding later if they want.) It worked out just as she said. When I pulled a plastic tub off the top shelf of Kidlet’s closet marked “Out of Season Clothes,” I found stuff that did give me that “spark of joy” – but I hadn’t laid eyes on them in two years. Because they were in a bag in a closed container on the top shelf of a closet in my daughter’s room. Additionally, I could wear them right now, this month; so much for “out of season.” Meanwhile, there were items hanging in my closet that I looked at every day and didn’t like to wear.

When I was done pulling out the clothes that neither sparked joy nor met a real need, I’d filled four 13-gallon sized bags with clothes — alarming because I’d already ‘decluttered’ three such bags’ worth of clothing a month ago.  In one day, I let go of 50+% of my clothes. I don’t miss any of it.

The second category of items to discard is Books. I was looking forward to this because books take up a lot of space in our 2-bedroom flat. But it’s been trickier. I have far more books than clothes, and some of the books I’ve held on to for years have come to symbolize old aspirations and my past.

I also noticed more pushback from virtual on-lookers. Whereas no one suggested I hang on to clothes, or that it was good to have a closet full of outfits, many of my friends reminded me of the virtues of keeping physical books. Clearly, I have more bookworms for friends than fashionistas (not that the two are mutually exclusive), but I was intrigued. The fetishization of books is another thing I’ve been (idly) contemplating for a while, especially as Hubster has shifted mostly to digital/e-books and I imagine myself as a righteous defender of the independent bookstore.  It’s tempting to take this generally good thing (a book) and rationalize holding on to it because literacy, education and open-mindedness are so valued among my circles.

But there I was, defending the e-reader as preferable for some kinds of books, defending the whole process …. and in responding to my friends I discovered something: that I want to change my life, and that means removing the barnacles from long-held virtues so that I can actually grasp them again.

Marie Kondo strongly encourages honesty in this process — and the truth is I still view the book as a talisman. Kondo writes of clients with dozens of religious charms in their home, and they’ve had them for years, though the charms — if you take them literally — lose their value over a year or so. There’s a mindlessness to it, the idea that a thing retains its value to you forever. As if this object, long after you’ve paid it any attention, is still doing work for you, imbuing you with desirable gifts or powers.

Looking down at my pile of books — Kondo recommends putting all of them in a big pile on the floor to realize the enormity of ones collecting — it was apparent to me: I don’t need this kind of ‘luck.’

All my books - and some of Inara's - in a big pile to sort.

All my books – and some of Kidlet’s – in a big pile to sort.

Some of my books qualify as “sentimental items.” Kondo recommends sorting sentimental items last, but I was confronted with some yesterday and today. What inspires sentiment isn’t always positive. Letting go of some books has been about letting go of aspirations of who I want to be or skills I hope to acquire. And accepting that I am still not that person, even if I’ve had the book for 10 years. Emotionally, it’s not easy. But it’s been better to get rid of these books. They are attached to old, unrealized hopes which have just withered into shame.

If I pick up a book and feel shame, there is no doubt that it’s got to go. I had to take a deep breath and accept that there will always be another book to read, another really, really good book to read.  Not necessarily to possess, but to read. And share and reflect on.

What I am learning in this KonMari process — which I’m still at the beginning of — is that accepting when I have Enough books, is tied to accepting that I am Enough. Enough doesn’t mean Finished or Perfect, nor is it a prescription for the future.  What is in my life today may not be in my life tomorrow, what I love today I don’t have to love tomorrow. The excitement is beginning to mount as I have a much clearer view of the books that do spark joy – with the excess out of the way, I can see them and spend more time with them.

1 2 3 19