It Has To Be HRC

I voted third party in three presidential elections. I get it. I am not ever going to disrespect or belittle that choice.

So, my third party friends. I’m asking for you to give me a few minutes of reading time and an open heart.

Because while I have voted third party, and caucused for Kucinich and Sanders, I have been struggling for abortion rights since before I could even register to vote.

And I am terrified.

My first participation in politics was cold calling Washington State voters as a 17 year old for NARAL to ask for support for pro-choice candidates.

With other dedicated activists, I grew and then administered a grassroots abortion fund that provided funding for women in states without insurance coverage for abortion, for undocumented women, funds that covered travel from counties without abortion access for poor women who needed to take back control of their bodies and lives.

We funded minors who needed abortions. Women secretly getting abortions that were forbidden by their abusive partners. Teenagers crossing state lines to avoid parental consent requirements.

To raise funds, we performed The Vagina Monologues to sold out shows at a local theater. We painted “cunt” on the window as advertisement. People complained, but the City of Spokane had to actually defend our right to speech.

For this, Gonzaga University threatened to revoke my law school scholarship for “honor code violations”. A scholarship package I earned through excellent grades and community service. I was still on state assistance at the time.

The organization’s 501(c)(3) status was denied due to “our stance on the Bush Administration”, which was never part of our work. Our work was to empower women. But because of our private activism, we lost our non-profit status.

I protested in D.C. with over a million other women in 2004 with a large group of teen moms. The March for Women’s Lives. My travel costs paid by the Gonzaga Women’s Studies Department as a defiant show of support.

I see my work with addicted mothers as pro-choice in every respect. Women have the right to choose not to have a child, but they also have the right to choose to be a mother regardless of what society thinks about that choice. So I spend 40 hours a week and countless amounts of love and energy defending a woman’s right to choose. Every day. On the front lines. And I will for the rest of my life.

At this point in history, I can see the end of the right to choose from where I stand. And I have promised my granddaughter and her generation that we will not fail to protect her right to choose. Not on my watch. Not after so much struggle. We cannot go backward.

I think I have earned the right to say this without being called a sell-out.

Vote for Hillary.

I know you don’t trust her. I know she is not your candidate. But trust me.

Here is one thing I know about her:

With Hillary as President we will not lose our right to choose.

On this issue, I trust her completely. And she has earned that trust. Over and over.

If you aren’t biologically capable of pregnancy or if you have never experienced the fear that an unwanted pregnancy can bring, you may not understand how vital choice is. How fundamental it is to the dignity of women.

Without choice women are not fully allowed to be human.

Please. Vote for the candidate who can actually preserve my right, my granddaughter’s right, to be human beings.

It has to be Hillary.

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I Didn’t Come Out So Much As Fall Out.

July, 2005. I try not to edit. I want to, so bad, but here is my coming out story as told in real time.  I cringe a little, but overall. I think I had a lot of grace:

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I didn’t come out so much as fall out. I just fell in love with this girl. Plop. Just like that. Well, it is slightly more complicated, but not by much. I always had intense relationships with girls, when I had girl friends – all the way back to Heather who moved to Ghana, breaking my heart and starting a trans-continental letter writing campaign that lasted for years. We actually wrote a novel around our shared fantasy world, complete with illustrations, that we sent back and forth, alternating the writing of chapters. Think Heavenly Creatures without the matricide. Heather left in second grade. In high school female friendships were possessive and all-consuming and I only ever had room in my life for one primary girl friend. We’d spend nearly every waking moment together and generally get enmeshed to an unhealthy degree, it was so enthralling though.

Since 6th grade, my various girl friends and I were tagged as lesbians in the hallways of school. In a small town this stuff settles in thoroughly, and by my sophomore year, I had teachers approaching me to suggest that if I wore more skirts or joined in some co-ed extra-curricular activity I might get boys to call me. My father staunchly defended my heterosexuality in the Teacher’s Lounge by assuring all his colleagues that “plenty of boys called me and he’d be willing to bring in the phone bill to prove it.”

The only physical fights I ever got in were with boys who didn’t hit girls, but I was a dyke, so that didn’t count. It sounds worse than it was, in fact I enjoyed the reputation I had for being queer along with my reputation for promiscuity, pregnancy and practicing witchcraft. Shannon and I called ourselves the Pregnant Lesbians from Hell. We had mad, mad punk cred. We fed the fire with our goodbye-kissing and general physical affection.

But I always had a boyfriend, since the minute I could find a boy to kiss me in 7th grade right through until the end of January of this year. Often more than one. Having been an ugly little girl, and having such a fucked up father, getting boys to love me and act like idiots for me was satisfying and compulsive. So was boyfriend thievery, alienation of affections and the like. Didn’t matter if I even liked the boy, I just enjoyed the attention.

Sex was really not the point, and I was an ancient 17 years old before I ever had it. And don’t get me wrong, I loved sex with boys. At this point in my life I was what my friend Kraig liked to call a ‘boyfriend girl’ I always had one serious, longterm, monogamous relationship. Monogamy is actually one of my strong suits.

Which is why I never slept with a girl before. I was with M. from the age of 21, and I was happy, and I was faithful. But I always had some girl, someone who was so inside. When I was 26, it was the infamous G. and one day I just looked over at her, driving her red jeep with a sulky, concentrated expression and thought that the best thing in the world would be to lean over and kiss her on the back of the neck – right where the fine blonde baby hairs catch the light. But I didn’t. And that is the very second I thought, ‘okay, I’m queer.’ No big thing, mama. Just a little click. And life went on, same as ever.

I moved home and instead of the one girl inside, I developed a tribe of women, all of them inside, and it wasn’t possessive or enmeshed, it was amazing and warm. Two years ago I had a talk with M., I told him that what I got from my girl friends, I needed to get from him. I realized that I depended on women to provide me with things I didn’t have with him – affection, attachment, understanding, support and a particularly intense form of intimacy. That’s what it means to be inside. All that stuff. My best girl, B, left for the UK and she left a hole in my life, and M. couldn’t step in there. In fact he said he thought what I was asking for was unreasonable, against his nature – uncomfortable.

Boys were never allowed inside, that’s not what I wanted. They had other functions and only girls have ever got in here with me. For once, though, I wanted my boyfriend to be in. I wanted the whole thing, all of it. I realized my girls were triage for what I couldn’t feel with boys.

And I went to school and I was introduced to Her, and I remember thinking exactly “oh shit”. But I dealt with this before, right? I didn’t kiss girls when I wanted to. Crushes are survivable. And then it just went click, click, click, drop. So I fell in love with this girl, just like that. I left.

I never hid it exactly, but I didn’t tell him either. Once I asked her to park her car down the block and I felt so wrong and cowardly. So he eventually asked, and I answered and since then I think he needs to hurt me.

Strangely, the first casualty of my coming out, and there are surprisingly many, was my stone butch dyke friend and former womens’ studies professor, B. From the night M. told her, she evaporated. She has never offered to hear me on it, she has never offered support or help in navigating this. She just disappeared. As my closest friend after B, I have to say, though I don’t want to give her any importance right now, it fucking hurt.

M. also told his family. Actually, first his middle sister asked him “Is Mary seeing someone, and is it a woman?” Then he told his dad, his other sister, his cousin and his mom. He assured me they were all very understanding and not at all freaked out. Well they were at first, but M. reminded them that “Mary had a really fucked up relationship with her father”, and they all went “oooooh” and became suddenly sympathetic. That’s right folks, my father made me queer. Whew, I am so glad they can forgive me because obviously sexual attraction to women is a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Everyone knows that, right? They are polite, but clearly freaked. And distant. And really, just gone from my life. Since I have no family and they all at one time or another insisted that no matter what happened with Matthew, they were always going to be my family, that fucking hurts too.

Many, many of our friends have told M. that they ‘knew’ I was a lesbian, I mean I was all into that feminism stuff and I went to Pride, right? Nice. Tell the guy who just got left that his partner was faking it all along. People are so sensitive in these trying times.

School. People took a long fucking time to figure it out, but they did. Aside from some serious homewrecker gossip and a few idiotic comments, school people were fine. Except the Lawskool Lesbians. Please, don’t get me started. Warm family welcome? Nuh uh, more like I am Winona Ryder and they are the Heathers. I never get to join in their reindeer games and actually was informed I am not a real lesbian. Like I ever said I was. And if these are my lesbian role models, which thank god they aren’t, then it’s a wonder anyone comes out of the closet. Um yeah, I may delete that later. Moving on.

I can’t bring myself to call my Republican, Masonic birthdad. I just can’t. Firstly because he is going to freak that I left my middle-class partner who is a “really great guy” for economic insecurity. And secondly because he will push me to go back, probably spouting his philosophy of marriage at me (that marriage is WORK, and it is HARD, but those few times of happiness make it all worthwhile. Plus divorce is EXPENSIVE.) But also because I know what his reaction to “and I fell in love with a girl” will be. He will be profoundly awkward and uncomfortable, but he will try to deal. He is a good guy and all. But he will not tell his wife or his kids, and he will expect me not to. It will be a total taboo secret from my grandparents on his side, who are devout Mormans. I don’t do secrets. Not calling him means he can’t let me down. Yet. This one wakes me up at night and I still can’t think of a solution.

M. outed me to a Crone a while back. They were talking about K. whose partner A. hung herself last summer (was it really only last summer?) Anyway, said Crone was tsking that K. has a new girlfriend because she always dates women who have just left their men (or are still married). She thought it was predatory of K. So M. decides this is a Jim Dandy time to bring up the fact that I fell in love with a girl and started dating her right after I left him. He assures me he said it in a supportive way. The Crone hasn’t spoken to me since I returned from Italy. Oh yeah, she homeschools The Kid twice a week. That’s cozy.

Finally, one last thing – The Letter. After I wrote about what was going on in my life here in my own sweet time and as the mistress of my own sex life, a friend (one I never considered close or intimate, but someone I liked) sent me a four page letter detailing a list of wrongs I had committed going back to the first day we met. Apparently I am a ‘toxic (shudder) friend’. The last and fateful fuck up in my long line of fuck ups was that she had to find out about my queerness on the internet, at the same time as everyone else. Ye Gods, is there no decency in the world! My admission of girl sex recalled to her a memory of long ago. Wherein I had accused her of being a lesbian in order to hide my own secret desires. In fact, in this conversation I apparently uttered the words “I love dick!” and boasted that I had healthy, normal heterosexual intercourse 5 times a week. Now she saw, with alarming clarity, that I was using her as a scapegoat for my own issues.

And the worst thing? I felt guilty. I said none of those things. Could never say any of those things. It is so against everything I believe in about sexuality and privacy and, well, social grace. But I tried to think – did I do something? was I in denial? Oh lord. And though I hate to give this person one shred of importance (or whiff of victory), that fucking hurt. The self doubt? You win. I had it.

The girlfriend is not-a-girlfriend any more, and there has been a lot of crying and wishing about it. And people disappear and they cause pain and they let me down about it. But it was worth it. It always will be, even if I never kiss a girl again.

Like that’s going to happen.

Performance/Anxiety

Over the past year, I have come to the conclusion that I am an introvert. I think this would surprise most people who feel they know me well. My wife, for instance, still gives me confused-face when I talk about it. One of the first conversations I remember with her was about how mystifying my extrovert personality was to her. On the Myers-Briggs, I am reliably an ENFP, on cranky days, an ENFJ.

From 15 on, I was tagged as an extrovert. A social hub, and compulsive networker. I was a person who sought out public speaking opportunities, a risk taker and a girl willing to do potentially embarassing things in front of an audience. (Performance art, burlesque, Vagina Monologues.) Or in public spaces on the fly (Radical Cheerleading, Women in Black) in front of unwitting and often hostile observers.

I have worked as a community and labor organizer, in retail as the ‘face’ of a business, in social services, and finally, I am in constant and intimate contact with others in residential treatment as a group and individual counselor.

I wasn’t always like this. As a kid I barely spoke in school. I had a morbid fear of going to the bathroom in public places. At community or sports events you could find me in a quiet hallway or under the bleachers reading. I could sit and listen to music, or just think for long stretches of time. I had few friends and sometimes no friends at all. My family nickname was Mouse.

I still identify with that girl. If you see me unexpectedly in public, expect me to be flustered and out of sorts. Seeing people out of context has always disturbed me, and I think I come off as cold or annoyed to people who happen upon me in the grocery store or at the movie theater. If you don’t approach me, I won’t approach you because I am concerned I may be intruding. I am famous among people I am very close with for “Spokane-ing” people.When you live in a close-knit city, and you are discomfited by unexpected social contact, you develop a teflon bubble to protect your space on off-days.

I never answer my phone. Never. And if you leave me a vague message with no need for a response, I probably will take you seriously that you are “just calling to say hey” and consider your “hey” said and received. Small talk makes me feel like a living cliche, so I will attempt it, then kind of laugh audibly to myself. Which is pretty much the opposite of breaking the ice. I either make intense, steady eye contact or my gaze flits around the room like I am scanning for an exit. I may actually be scanning for an exit. If I am feeling super emotional, for instance, at both of my amazing weddings, I almost get tunnel vision, and later feel like the worst hostess ever.

I suspect many – if not most – performers are introverts. Observers, processors, people with an interior dialogue. People who rely most on their own counsel and trust their own conscience and taste. Thank god we are also extremely sensitive to input, or we’d be insufferable.

In work and art, when someone I respect says “you are too caught up in what you are doing to see that this is a mess and you need to scrap it and start over.” I almost always say “okay” and jump in from a different direction. But until you have this experience with me, you probably see me as rigid and not open to critique.

Being a child of trauma, I realize now that for most of my life I invited and lived in crisis. I believed the only thing I had going for me was that I was talented at triage. That this was all I had to offer the world. I think this is why everyone, myself included, assumed I was an extrovert.

So what is the point of all this self-scrutiny? I figured some stuff out. In the last year, I stopped pushing. If I am not feeling social, I stay in. I no longer panic if I have a project I need to complete and it isn’t moving quickly. As long as I am thinking and consuming influences, it will arrive on time. I get that looking, watching, reading and thinking are necessary and I won’t do my best until I have consumed and processed enough.

I no longer respond to every client’s phone call or request for office hours, it is better to sit with them when I know what my intervention will be than to immediately respond with empathy, but no plan. I think one of the skills I have to teach them is to sit with struggle and know the answer will come. In a true crisis, I can roll with anything, but it exhausts me and I need to rest and retreat afterward.

I’m a total weirdo. Not in a way I can hide. Not in a way everyone finds endearing. Sometimes even the people closest to me are exasperated by it. And I suck at remembering to explain because I live in my own head.  But I have a Lovely Brain. I need to feed it, I need to rest it and I need to shut it down occasionally and do something terrifying and fun. Preferably in front of a crowd.

Don’t Proselytize, Organize.

I don’t read or watch the news often. My birthmom, a social work lifer, told me that to avoid burnout I would need to limit my exposure to suffering because I would be seeing it daily at work.  I practice this avoidance scrupulously, and I especially avoid the news when I am on vacation. So, when I came upon Jill reading the news the night before the wedding, and crying, a large part of me didn’t want to know.

But that’s not how Jill copes. She reads and reads and processes and thinks and talks. So I quickly did know that a man had killed an entire class of kindergartners.

After these public horrors involving children, there is inevitably a discussion about why we are so much more moved by their deaths than by the daily monotony of adult deaths via, say, war, famine, domestic violence, the drug trade, despots, etc. Why are these children in our country who all died in one outbreak of violence more compelling as victims than all the children dying continuously worldwide?  These are valid questions about cultural norms and the tribal limits of our compassion.

But I think there is another point that is more hopeful to be made.  I think these tragedies involving children cause a particular grief because we know that unlike us – the adults – children have not yet participated in creating the culture that killed them.

We know we have participated at least passively, but they have only been victims.  After these events there is a brief, nationwide moment of clarity about how much we do not value the lives of children.  And we are all decent enough to grieve. But then we shake it off and start shouting political catchphrases. We pretend this is productive.

That’s the cynical part. The hopeful part is that for a moment, we actually feel like something needs to change. Not legislatively, but fundamentally, radically. And we grasp something that is true. We do not behave as if children were important. Our laws and policies reflect this fact. And we are responsible, and capable of changing this. Now. Immediately.

If even just a minority of us could live in this clarity, if we fully accepted it, if we lived like we do care, deeply about everyone’s child everywhere, nothing could keep us from creating a world where children are actually safe and valued.  Laws would have to follow us, we would not have to follow behind the law.

Get Off The Bus.

Jill and I got married for the second time yesterday, December 15th 2012. I call it the paper wedding, and it was amazing and easy and communal and a gift in hundreds of ways.

Here is a photo of my second wedding bouquet. It is the second wedding bouquet that was a gift to me from a stranger. And also the second wedding bouquet given by a stranger who just wanted to let me know that they are happy I am married.

Image

(I noticed after posting this that the photos in the background are engagement photos taken by someone we barely knew at the time who wanted to support us, and the rainbow painting was from our engaged man/woman/couple friends who were showing the love. How appropriate.)

This feels like a sucker punch of love to me because, while I haven’t spoken to my family in almost 20 years, I am positive they would not be happy I am married to Jill.  I know my wife’s family is very, very not-happy Jill is married to me. Like most queerfolk, we have had to create a chosen family to replace the one we lost by being ourselves.

What did the poet say?
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.’

That’s not true for me. Or my wife. Well, more accurately, it isn’t true in the homes of the people who raised us or were raised up with us.

We’re taken in by people who don’t have to open the door to us. We rely on the love of our friends. We rely on the support of our community. We rely on the sense of justice possessed by our allies. We rely on the fairness of voters. We rely on the kindness of strangers with flowers.

A nun once told me a story about being at a village party in Korea. The sisters had brought along a busload of novitiates.  One of them vanished shortly after the party started.  Sister Lucy found her sitting alone on the bus in the dark, praying fervently.  “I don’t think God wants us to be dancing and feasting while there is so much suffering in the world”, the nun-to-be said to Sister.  “Well,” said Sister “I don’t think God wants us to be sitting in the dark alone grieving when there is a community trying to feed us and make us feel welcome.”

When legal marriage became a possibility, a friend of ours offered to travel to Spokane from Seattle to officiate our paper wedding. By the time the voters had spoken, he had a baby set to debut around the date we’d chosen – the first date possible, December 9, 2012. Since the timing of babies is both mysterious and sovereign, J.J. proposed we come to Seattle instead and join in a marathon mass wedding being planned to celebrate Marriage Equality. The people putting on this explosion of legal love were The Universal Life Church. A few emails later, I was on the phone with a woman named Daryn, who was so genuinely excited to help make our wedding happen she made me cry at work.

We drove to Seattle and stayed in luxurious hotel rooms gifted to us by chosen family, we ate meals gifted to us by friends. People I haven’t seen in years came to witness and cry with us, and they brought their children – including J.J.’s 6 day-old baby, Opal. Her mother came to our wedding the day after meeting us, despite lack of sleep and a recent C-section. The church emailed to say that a harpist volunteered. We were inundated with well-wishings.

We showed up half hour before the ceremony, to a gorgeous venue called The Sanctuary. It was filled with people. Guests and couples, of course, but also volunteer hosts, photographers, guides, and ushers. Everyone was smiling, and kind. We were introduced to our photographer, Doug. He was also genuinely excited to help document two strangers’ wedding day. Everyone was on point, except me.

Jill finished her vows a respectable number of days before the wedding. I finished mine in the lovely waiting room we were escorted to as we waited for our time. I had a hard time writing them, because I resent that we had to ask permission.  I resented that we had to wait and hope for election returns.  I resented that our families’ love is conditional.

But then I decided those reasons I was stalled writing vows should be in my vows, and it became simple. I wrote them in a few minutes.

Jill, you know I struggled with writing these vows, but we’ve felt married since August 20, 2011. I think we are already so married, the State had to redefine the word to restore balance to the Universe.

I suppose it’s like a friend told you – we’re trying to conceive when we’re already pregnant.

We’re in the middle. The part I wanted my whole life. I’m a better person with you than I ever was without you. I’m a more playful person, not the serious little thing I was as a child.  I am more convicted in my work because you support me and take me seriously as someone who can change the world.

We already made mistakes with our first wedding. We stayed the night before separate. I realized today when you went to get coffee that I can’t even zip my dress without you. I took my prescription twice. I am competent alone in everything but marriage, for this I need you.

I’m already your wife, no one can deny it. So let’s get married one more time.

After the ceremony, we waited in a hallway until a lovely woman announced “I present to you, Mary and Jill Malone” in the reception room, and a whole room full of strangers cheered and whooped. We came up onstage and were given delicately frosted cupcakes, chocolate, sparkling cider and a card from Daryn thanking us for allowing the church to be a part of our marriage. We chatted with friends, and took formal photos with yet another volunteer photographer, while a tiny child with an iPhone snapped pictures of us and grinned.  Someone has a lot of photos of us on their iPhone and they might not know it yet. More couples were announced, more cheering and whooping. Music played. People danced.

It’s human nature to be fixated on the place where something is missing. The part where we feel the Universe forgot something vital that all of us deserve. And it’s true. My wife and I deserve better than our families have provided. We should not have to have our rights approved by the majority of registered voters. We were born deserving marriage.

But, it’s arrogant as well. There has been a conspiracy of strangers and friends all working to feed us and make us feel welcome, and all that was required of me was to enjoy the day and accept their gifts. Get off the bus, and enjoy the party in progress.

What Buffy Taught Me About Vocation…

….in which I try to explain the interconnectedness of Buffy, Radical Altruism and Attachment Theory. With mixed results.

My wife and I have conversations about how pop culture reflects our values. I think there is a large contingent of progressives who dismiss pop culture out of hand as toxic in all forms. We are not those people.

I actually get quite a lot out of pop culture. Like Buffy. Or SVU. Jill was talking about some crime drama she loves that I never saw, and she said “I love them because they are the kind of characters who, when there is danger, run toward it while everyone else is running away.

Growing up, if I could distill what I wanted to be as an adult in the world into one phrase, that would be it. I wanted to be the kind of adult who runs toward The Big Bad. But in a social-justice metaphoric-y way.

Which brings me back to Buffy. Buffy didn’t just run toward The Big Bad, she moved into its stomping ground, she bought real estate, she established a colony. If I had been born a generation later, Buffy would have been my role model. As it is, I had nuns.

Nuns model radical altruism. They place themselves into the places on earth where compassion and fairness and justice are least evident. And then they proceed to behave as though the Universe is ruled by justice, fairness and compassion. No matter the consequence. Even if it leads them to torture, imprisonment and death. Nuns don’t run toward the Big Bad, they calmly work around and inside it.

This explains the awkward mix of rage and pacifism in my character. Had I been a girlchild with access to the Buffyverse, I would most assuredly have a black belt today. Instead, I had The Sound of Music and Lives of the Saints. Long before I wanted to be Atticus Finch, I longed to be Catherine of Siena.

Once I got into law school, I struggled to remember how this person I wanted to be could operate inside the system. It had seemed clear when I started, but halfway through it all muddled. Attorneys don’t run toward danger, they descend after it has left the scene and attempt to assign blame and collect damages. At their best, attorneys are a social system’s accountability and it’s conscience. At their worst, they profit from misery and the doing of evil.

One day, we had speakers come into an ethics class, and they were from Circle of Security. By the time class was over, I was utterly convinced that I was in the wrong place. The road had diverged in the wood and I had taken the path more traveled. I blame hubris. I knew the system was A Big Bad. I guess I just thought I was going to change that.

The Circle of Security attachment theory goes something like this – children need to feel loved. If they don’t, they feel unsafe. If they feel unsafe, they grow up and seek safety in ways that, to the untrained eye, actually look more like seeking annihilation.

If this sounds wackadoo to you, I assume you had a loving childhood. And I am equal parts relieved for you and jealous. For me, it explained a lot. A whole lot.

I asked if Circle of Security could use a law school drop out with a background in Poli Sci and Women’s Studies, and strangely they said “Thank You, but no.” I had to go back and find my vocation. Where did I leave it last?

Parenting has always been my benchmark. Parenting changed me, parenting can change everyone. By extension, parenting can change everything. When I moved on from parenting as the central focus of my life, I got lost.

If you’d ever told me, even as I exited law school in the throes of existential crisis, that I would choose to work with addicts daily, I would have called you delusional. If you told me I would actually feel privileged and grateful to be allowed to do so, I would have gotten a little more cutting with my words.

My life has always been populated with addicts. Many of them died early and awfully. All of them broke my heart.

I now work with mothers who are addicted. Most of whom have been forced into treatment by CPS. Many of whom have abused or neglected their children, or failed to protect them from abuse and neglect.

I honestly believe being a mother can save them all.

Addiction and abuse have been The Big Bads in my life since forever. And I suppose I decided I could either try to build walls against them, pretend they didn’t exist, or I could gear up, put on my stompy shoes and walk right into the Hellmouth.  Like a boss.

All Hands On The Bad One

My wife has had two dogs during our courtship and marriage. Kali and Latte. Until today. We had to put Kali down today.

8 months ago, on a snowy day, I let the dogs out as usual. Two 12-year old spinsters, a black lab and a cattle dog, Kali and Latte have lived together since they were youngsters. Kali was 6 weeks old when Jill got her, and a year later, Latte arrived as a little 7 month old scamp. They have done everything together all of their lives. They eat together, they go out together, they come in together, they sleep together.

Latte is an acting-out dog. Jill says she was a cowering, fearful puppy who was obviously abused. She chews envelopes snuck from the trash, climbs up to sun in the windowsill when we are gone, runs off if she’s not on a lead. She has murderous intentions toward neighbor cats and scares strange men who get too close to Jill. On the lead she winds herself around the same damn tree, and then barks furiously at it until you go untangle her.

This particular morning I let them out into the snow and then went to fill their food bowls. When I first moved in with Jill, she would ask me to feed the dogs while she was in the shower. I must feed Kali first, “because Latte thinks she’s the alpha, but she’s not.” I resolved this by putting their food in the bowls while they were out in the morning, so they both got their food at the same time.

This morning, when I opened the front door, calling for the wigglybutts, only Latte was there wiggling.  That’s not unusual, Latte is the naughty child and has to be on a lead. Kali roams freely because, as the firstborn, she is the Responsible Child who always comes home. I let Latte in and then went to the kitchen window to see if I could see Kali.  Latte went to the filled bowls, sniffed, and then stared at me.

They start eating at the same time every day. They wait for each other. A balance of power.

Looking out, I saw Kali in the snow of the side yard. Flailing. Recently in the mornings, she had stiffness upon waking and she walked with an unsteady gait. But she recovered quickly. Not today. Outside the kitchen window, Kali was a black knot in the flat white yard. Flailing. I ran outside and tried to right her, but she was panicked, like a horse that has broken a leg she rolled and pitched, trying to get up. Her eyes were whites. I was sure she would break a limb. In my p.j.s, slippers and t-shirt, I grabbed her around the ribcage and held onto her. She would not be still.  I called for Jill, but she was in the shower and could not hear me, so I sat in the snow with the flailing dog and held on. Jill came out about ten minutes later and I had to tell her – “Her back legs aren’t working, I can’t let go or she’ll hurt herself.”

We carried Kali in and called the Mobile Vet. He arrived in his white, 1970s van in about 45 minutes from 30 minutes away. He was elderly and spoke with that halting, breathy voice. Like Katherine Hepburn. He looked Kali over and remarked that for a 12 year-old lab, she was in perfect condition. Liver, kidneys, teeth. But the problem was that labs were generally expected to live for 10 years – ish. Kali had outlived her spine. It wasn’t sending signals to her back legs regularly, so they just didn’t work. No pain, just no signal.  He said she might rally, and be fine for awhile, but inevitably the issue would recur. He suggested waiting, and enjoying a few more weeks with her.

It was 8 months. Kali reeled around like a drunken sailor, but she adapted. She enjoyed her spring and summer. She basked in the heat and refused to eat her kibble unless we added the yogurt we’d fed her when her spine was so bad. Imp.

In the last couple weeks, though, she seemed befuddled. Confused. Sometimes instead of trotting in, she would stand at the door and stare at us. Like she wondered who we were. She seemed frightened, and when she’d lose control of her bladder and bowels, ashamed and bewildered. She ate occasionally.

Latte sensed a shift in power. She stole Kali’s uneaten food, flagrantly. She pushed her aside to rush out the door,and then again on her way in. She pranced around like a little pony because she was finally the strong one.

When the Mobile Vet came today to put Kali down, Kali followed him out from the doorway as he went to his van. She got as far as the porch, then Jill convinced her to sit and be petted. Latte came out onto the porch and I put her on the lead. She wandered around the yard sniffing as the vet gave Kali a sedative and Jill held Kali’s head on her lap. While the vet prepared the euthanasia shot and explained how it worked to us, Latte poked her nose at me until I sat on the bench to scratch her. Latte buried her head in my lap after the vet gave Kali the shot and we waited.

Once Kali stopped breathing, Latte went over to her. She almost stepped on her, she got so close. I reached out and put my arm around her chest to keep her back. She snarled at me and yelped.

When we were first dating, Jill would leave her apartment every morning and sternly admonish Latte – “be good – rise above your nature.” Jill always said she identified with Latte, “who tries to be good.”

Sometimes we’d be in bed, and Kali would come into the bedroom doorway and she would just sit down, look at us, and tip her head to the side. And then we knew Latte was into something. If Kali was away from Latte it was because she didn’t want to be associated with the mischief Latte was into.

Latte came running out when we got home at dinner time today. Jill filled her bowl but she wanted out, out, out. She got all excited, and ran around the porch looking. Subdued, she returned to her full bowl, and stared up at me. I had to encourage her to eat without her sister.

Our Latte. She tries to be good.

From the wayback mo-chine. When I still thought going to law school could help me change the world.

(Originally published on GirlMom.com circa 2003)

Give Me Just One Good Reason

Many days I get home from work and class at 3 p.m. and realize I haven’t had a chance to eat or pee since 7:30 in the morning. I pick up the mail and sometimes, if I am lucky, there’s a child support check. The last one was for $184.63. The check stub helpfully informs me that the non-custodial parent now owes me $8,807.29. Every time I open one, I fight the urge to send it back. Pride is nice, but we need the money. My family is in the home stretch, we’re almost there, but still. Right now we need the money.

Sometimes I look at the years ahead of me before I graduate and I just quake. How will I do it? Why am I doing it?

Getting to the point where, no matter what happens, we never have to depend on sporadic child support checks is one good reason I don’t quit.

After school, the teenage girls start appearing on my doorstep. Sometimes we bake zucchini bread and listen to music. They tell me all their secrets. Their home lives are pretty bleak. Parents who work long hours and still can’t pay the bills, parents whose addictions are more important than their children, parents who are too tired at the end of the day to spend time with the girls. They get most of their clothes from the free box at the center. Their parents party with the neighborhood kids. Oh yeah, plus all the usual teen-age self-doubt, feelings of un-prettyness, and pressure to be like the girls in the magazines.

It all makes for a pretty hard adolescence.

In my neighborhood, many girls survive abuse and neglect, sexual assault, poverty and violence during their teen years. A lot of them end their teen years with a baby on their hip. When I was a pregnant 19 year old, the older women in this neighborhood told me I could still be anything I wanted. They told me never to let society’s opinion of me as a young mama change my plans and goals. They knew how hard it was to resist, because their lives were narrowed by what was expected of them. But now a woman can resist, and they support me and my family as we do what needs to be done.

How dare I work the system? Why should I get so much financial aid? Why should we encourage women who get pregnant early by giving them scholarships, welfare and health benefits? Just who do I think I am?

Showing the next crop of girls from my neighborhood that we are not defined by where we come from, by our sexual choices or by the fact that we are female is one good reason I don’t quit.

Working in the free law clinic at the law school means talking with people who are at the crossroads of poverty and crisis everyday, people who have nowhere else to turn. We have to deny most people help. Turning them away is largely my job. I hate that part. But when I give a terrified, crying woman the phone numbers for the domestic violence program, and I know that the program could save her life – actually save her life – that’s when I love my job. And I want to do more.

Why do I think I can save the world? What makes me so special? How can someone like me help these people? Isn’t it all just the way the world works?

Knowing I will someday be one of those lawyers who has the privilege of helping that woman is one good reason I don’t quit.

At school I have a knack for connecting with the other mothers. We look like the rest of the students here, but we’re not. We’ve got kids. Somehow we find each other.

Once a social worker told me that instead of getting my bachelor’s degree and going on to law school, I should enroll in a nine-month vocational program and become an assistant social worker. Welfare doesn’t pay for mamas to get bachelor’s degrees. I am privileged not to need welfare anymore, but I wouldn’t be here without it.

When one of my mama friends tells me her social worker is trying to get her to drop out of her four-year program and enroll in a vocational program to become a legal assistant, I can tell her not to listen to him, she can do this. When another tells me she feels like she may be too stupid to succeed I can tell her that she’s fine, it’s just the jitters we all get when we transfer from a community college to a university.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m nothing like these people. I’m not educated enough. Why do I put myself through this?

I now know I am not a statistic. I know no one is defined by their class, their race, their gender, their reproductive status. The joy I will feel thinking of that idiot social worker, how convinced he was I could not succeed in college, and how he almost convinced me as I fill out my law school applications is one good reason I don’t quit.

In a women’s studies class, a student tells me that women should have to play the game, become one of the good old boys, make all those silly career moves like learning to play golf. We should become one of the boys if we want to succeed.

Screw golf. I hate golf. Even if I were a ‘boy’ I’d never be one of the boys. I refuse. Having been a part of many groups of strong, smart, amazing women, I know something he doesn’t. Women can change the world for each other. We can support and love each other and create a way for us to be who we are, without compromise.

Why can’t I just make things easy on myself? You have to go along to get along. Compromise is the only way to get what you want. It’s a man’s world and women just live in it.

Being able to imagine living in a world that is a more just and safe place for all women is one very good reason I won’t ever quit.

When the choice is between two distinctly different forms of getting screwed…

I started writing this story in the last entry, but it seemed to derail the point.  I do love this story, though:

In a Gender Studies class, when I was 32, our professor Jane gave us what she thought was an unsolvable problem to discuss in small groups, presenting our solutions to the rest of the class. Given the economic liability a child posed for women in the workplace, the necessity of a dual-income household, and that we also know the overwhelming majority of the work of raising children is done by women when the child is the product of a heterosexual partnership… how would a straight woman plan out and execute a life where her career was as fully developed as possible, and she was able to parent a child simultaneously. How would she have both, without sacrificing either?

Almost all the groups came up with the same, unsatisfactory answer. A mother could delay having a child until she was well into her career and established – about her 40s. She then could perhaps have more flexibility in maternity leave, and more income to hire the help she needed. There was no way they could see for her to parent the way most women want – full time for the first few years until the child attends school, without sacrificing both her career and her economic security. And her children would come at a less fertile time in her life, possibly requiring adoption or medical intervention – both expensive. She also has less of a chance to see her children into adulthood, and to see her grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up.

Our group solution was unanimous: the woman who wants both motherhood and a career should have her child or children in her teens. She should have and raise her infants and toddlers when she is at the end of high school and beginning college. Her time will be more unstructured, and she will have the energy of youth. When they go off to full-time school, she can start working in her field without the huge financial burden of daycare. And she will not be starting her career trajectory later than her peers. She also will not interrupt it to take time off for parenting. Yes, it isn’t ideal, but then wasn’t the point of the exercise to show that women have very narrow options?

Jane said “Did you really just convince a class full of 20-year-olds that the best option for women might just be teen parenthood? At a Jesuit university? What happened here does not leave this room, people.”

Gestation as Self-Preservation

I used to have this friend, Allison Crews, she was a teenage mother, like I was, and an activist, like I am.  She wrote about being a young parent, and she made a community for young mothers called GirlMom.com.

She used to say something along the lines of “If I told the whole story of my life, no one would ever believe me.” If they made a movie of my life, the script would be rejected as too fantastical.  So I tell my story in parts. Build up to the required suspension of disbelief.

One part of the movie script of my life is that I was a teenage welfare mom.  Like a lot of children from violent homes, I graduated high school and immediately tried to create the safe feeling of family that I never had.  I moved out at 17, got married at 18 and had a child at 19 and by 20 I was a single mother and my husband was long gone.

I didn’t accidentally find myself pregnant. I think this is more common than we know. I got pregnant on purpose. And I will never regard my pregnancy as a mistake. I did and always will see it as a survival mechanism. A charm to ward off the kind of life I knew girls like me were supposed to end up living.  Addicted. Unhappy. Empty. Statistically speaking, if I did not make some sort of radical move, my life would go down a predictable – and predictably self-destructive path.

But as Alli would assert through GirlMom, a decade after teenage me really needed to hear it, “We are not statistics.”  When your choices are brutally narrow, is there really any such thing as freedom to choose?

Teenage girls need purpose. If they are denied the opportunity to do something important, they will create their own agenda. No one expected me to go to college – despite being a brainy girl. No one told me there was such a thing as financial aid. My parents’ college fund for me was 480-something dollars. (They’d borrowed from it.)

I grew up in Spokane, Washington, where good-paying jobs for creative, intelligent, if somewhat odd girls are scarce to non-existent. After high school, I worked in service corps with poor kids. I went clubbing a lot. I painted pictures. I wrote in my journals. I cultivated my apathetic look in coffee shops. I learned to smoke like Marlene Dietrich. I felt lost. I needed an anchor.

So, I engaged in what one sociology textbook told me, when I finally got to college, was “an act of creative defiance.” I wanted a life, and I started to build it with the only tools at my disposal – my love, my energy, my creativity, my unshakable optimism and my own body. I got pregnant.

Our kids aren’t supposed to have the responsibility of saving our lives, but over and over again, from all kinds of mothers, I hear that theme on repeat. “My child saved my life.” From drugs and alcohol, from apathy, from self-hatred, from aimlessness. From Bad Romance. It isn’t fair to expect that becoming a mother will save you – and god knows, it often won’t save you. But sometimes, if you work as hard as you can, and luck is with you, even in what other people see as the worst of circumstances, becoming a parent can change everything.

Your stuff is still with you, but there is now a compelling reason to work through it. You are still lost, but people see you – you are no longer invisible – and sometimes they reach out to help you find your way. You may still doubt yourself, but as Alli also used to say, you just fake it till you make it. And slowly you realize that faking it is how everyone learns. There isn’t actually anything fake about you at all.

If you were always told that you can’t do anything right, an infant will build your sense of competence. And isn’t that what our task in adolescence is? To learn we are capable. If you don’t learn that from your family of origin, where will you learn it?

You cannot smoke your honor, you cannot
show it to your caseworker, you cannot
pay it in the supermarket for a can of beans.
Like freedom it doesn’t exist
unless you make it  — Marge Piercy

All new mothers feel a sense of accomplishment when they make a squalling infant content. There is an urgent need – the baby is crying. There is a mystery to be solved – why is the baby crying? There are limited choices at your disposal – feed the baby, change the baby, rock the baby, distract the baby, adjust the body temperature of the baby through clothing or de-clothing them. Still crying? Repeat. Eventually, the child stops crying. Victory. And only you have cracked the code. You are uniquely qualified to make the world right for this one, helpless human.

Luckily, when you are a 19 year old club kid, you are accustomed to sleeping very little. So, in a very real way, 19 year old club kids are unusually suited to the task of single motherhood. I still spent my late nights awake, moving rhythmically across the floor, messy-haired, eyes circled in dark rings and dressed in what a lot of people would consider my skivvies.  (My mother always wondered when underwear had become outerwear. It was the 90s.) But I had a baby in my arms.

I found myself constantly rounding my age up, and his age down, to try to place myself in a less shameful age bracket when I talked to people – especially teachers and medical providers.  I look significantly younger than I am, even, so this never helped me to be treated with respect.  I just looked ashamed of myself, which on many levels, I was.

To radically accept and defend a woman’s right to choose,
we must acknowledge the multiple ways that women come to make reproductive choices.
By marginalizing teenage mothers, even within the feminist community,
we are failing to recognize the realities of countless women and their children.
— Allison Crews

I found Alli, and GirlMom when I finally got to a lovely equilibrium. I was 30ish, and The Kid was in that indiscriminate age range where he looked to be anywhere from 7 to 9, though he was actually 11ish. He looks young, too. People no longer were shocked that I was his mother, and he was not yet old enough, lord help us, to be mistaken for my date. GirlMom helped me realize that I was still ashamed of something that should actually be a huge source of personal achievement.  We had both survived, and more than that, we both grew just as we should. I spent a huge amount of time on that community, because it felt like reclaiming something for myself to see these young mothers throw down for each other.

Of course, the internet was not around when I needed a place like GirlMom, and in all actuality, neither was Allison Crews. When I first became aware of her, Alli was – I think 18 or 19. her son was 3. She was still living as a teen parent while I had reached the safe harbor of my 30’s. She had already become a published author, and a serious activist presence.  She was never one to hide her struggles, and she had many. Disordered eating, trauma, anger, self-destructive urges. I believed I had to wait until I was perfected to do the work of changing the world, and here was this girl, young as she was, throwing herself out there, her flaws becoming part of her power.

The year after I found GirlMom was the year I had my great coming out as an activist.  My ex once said “I often wonder what kind of impact you would have had if you hadn’t had a child so young.” I told him that having a child is the only reason I became an activist at all.  I wasn’t held back by it, it was my motivation. For eventually going to college, for leaving law school, for leaving him, for coming out, for being myself.  We have to show our children that there is a life worth living, without compromise.

Having a child doesn’t save everyone, and it didn’t save Alli. She died in June, 2005. It was an accident, a strange twist of fate, but it was also connected with the darkest places in her life. The little reservoirs of self-loathing that stay alive inside us, souvenirs from growing up a girl in this culture.

I have GirlMoms so integrated into my life over the last 12 years, I forget that we know each other only through the ether. We have all survived, and more than that, we have all grown just as we should.

Girls like me have raised presidents.
We’ve raised messiahs and musicians, writers and settlers.
Girls like me won’t compromise and we won’t fail.
— Allison Crews

Alli & Cade