Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sick day...

My son stayed home yesterday after informing me that while he wasn't sick, his "nose [was] nauseated" and demonstrating the sort of hacking cough that was guaranteed to make me the target of many side-eyed looks of consternation. When it had already been established that mama's l'il mucus machine would be cooling his heels at home, my husband commented that when he was a caveboy in the Paleozoic era, children didn't miss school for a simple cold. He grew up in a rural community, so pretty much the only thing that would keep one home would be an unfortunate run-in with a rusty farm implement, but even then, you were expected to dress whatever remained of your pulverized limb and get your pansy ass to school. The culture of sick has certainly changed.

So my son stayed home today and watched an episode of The Jetson's, worked on his flying saucer (it now has upgrades, including a balcony) and drew many, many pictures of spaceships. He was happy, but I'm afraid that I'm not very good at being a nursemaid. I've had enough experience with this now to know that the day always starts out with me being all loving and maternal, but somewhere around the sixth, "Mom! I want a drink!" I start to get a little teeth-grind-y. By the eighth or ninth imperious demand, I organize little union for myself all Norma Rae-style and go on strike. "Get. It. Yourself. You. Can. Walk." I will respond sotto voce through clenched teeth. And he will because the mamas-not-foolin' vibe is undeniable. Anyway, we survived the day and his little nauseated nose appears to have found some relief.

Whenever my son is sick, I inevitably reflect back on my sick days as a child. I believe that I picked up some of my less nurturing traits from my mother, who viewed an unwell child with suspicion and a bit of resentment. There was always a "Just what are you trying to pull?" type of tone behind her interactions with us when my brother or I were sick and I think this has some residual influence on me as a mother today. I wish I were more nurturing sometimes. I have a friend who has three daughters and she never seems irritated by being a mother, never seems distracted or anything less than available to her children. I admire her a lot - her selflessness, the strong pulse of the mothering instinct in her - but I do not envy her. I would be completely depleted as the mother of more than one. My essential selfishness is a weakness of my character, quite clearly, but it is an honest assessment. It is not quite the same thing as stinginess: I simply don't have anything more to give than I already do but what I do have to give is given freely and with joy. (The rest of what I have in me has always been earmarked for various creative projects - now that is what I am adept at nurturing and it nourishes me right back.)

Despite my limitations as a mother and a human being, I am determined to do my best and keep growing, even when my little guy asks for yet another snack. Deep breaths are always at my disposal.

Shalom, everyone.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blizzard baby: a birth post...


This was something I wrote a year ago on my birthday and seeing as I'm a little behind on everything to make a proper post this week, I'm going to bring you one from the archives today. I'm looking outside right now and there is little snow to be seen, brown grass is actually poking up between the little bit there is, and I find myself longing for an intense snowstorm of the kind we haven't seen for a while here in Chicago. I'm not a huge fan of winter, but there's something about bearing down and surviving something staggering together that makes us grow as people, forcing us to call upon our resilience. Anyway, here it is from last year. And I hope you have a great week!

I was born during one of Chicago's most historic snowfalls, the winter of 1967. I occasionally see footage from this period, old, black-and-white, grainy films, and I cannot believe that I have been alive so long as to come from an old, black-and-white, grainy time. The footage is always quaint, with the snow piled improbably high and bundled up city dwellers struggling mightily to make their way from Point A to Point B, crossing streets with toddler-like grace; footage of taxis hopelessly stuck in walls of impenetrably dense snow. From January 26 through February fifth, 36 1/2 inches of snow fell - this is north of my navel, just so you know - like a gaping hole tore in the sky where all the year's snowfall is stored and it all came gushing out at once.

The stories from this time are thrilling to hear as this is the sort of stuff that Chicago's brawny bruiser of a reputation is built on. In my own family, the snowfall resulted in my mother and I being socked into the hospital for two solid weeks: the city was at a standstill in its battle with the snow, and, clearly, was the punch-drunk underdog, clinging for dear life onto the ropes. Public transportation wasn't running and people couldn't drive. There was looting going on, people were desperate and frightened and paranoid. Somehow, though, one day my grandfather managed to get down to Michael Reese Hospital - it took hours but he was determined - and he was able to identify me, his third grandchild, in the nursery behind the glass, one blizzard baby among dozens of others. My grandmother used this bit of family lore as evidence that my grandfather and I always had a special bond.

I have often wondered how the circumstances of our births, those very few first hours and weeks, work to help shape the people we are to become. My husband and son were both born in the late spring, the time of shoots and flowers and no more blasted snow, and they are much more naturally optimistic people, constitutionally perhaps, than this child of winter. With my son, there were certain circumstances of his birth that made his debut challenging, but as soon as we could, we got him outdoors in the sun and gentle breezes. As soon as I could, every day I took him outdoors, trying to erase any trace of hospitals and medical equipment from his spirit, and that was how he spent his time, pressed up against me in his Bjorn, or, later, on a blanket, with his little fingers grabbing clumps of grass. For those of us who are late fall and winter babies in climates such as the one in which I live, the weeks and months following our births are not quite as welcoming and idyllic. Maybe the cold and unyielding conditions we are born into predispose us to being more familiar with the dark side of life, less full of sunny optimism. Maybe there is no affect at all. (I have a theory that this is why Californians have the reputation of being ditsy and naive: they only know one basic season, and that is mild. They don't have that familiarity with the darkness of winter. My good friend in San Francisco - who grew up in Kansas - has assured me that native Californians are absolutely disengaged from reality.)

On my birthday Sunday, we spent our day at O'Hare International Airport. My mother was flying to Texas to visit my aunt and needs a little help these days getting to the right gate. She missed her flight a couple of years back because she got disoriented, so now we make sure that she is brought directly to the gate. I was able to get passes for my son and I to go with her there from the ticket counter.

At first, I was resentful that my mother booked a flight for my birthday, knowing that I would be the one taking her and spending hours at the airport. It has been two years since we flew anywhere, and so it was an adventure for my son, who, after immersing himself in everything pre-Cambrian, has blasted forward like out of a slingshot into all things space. He got to watch taxiing airplanes and those preparing to land, luggage trucks and the guy with the directional thingamabobs. He had a veggie burger and fries at Johnny Rockets: what more could a six-year-old boy possibly want? (Actually, his own flying saucer, but he's going to have to wait on that one or a trip of his own to New Mexico so he can explore dinosaur remains at Ghost Ranch and evidence of extraterrestrials at Roswell: yes, my child is weird.) Seeing my son so thrilled with his day, and my mother genuinely appreciative, helped to turn my attitude around. I actually enjoyed my time at the airport very much.

Maybe I am moving beyond the circumstances of my birth to a brighter, warmer place. It certainly feels like something has been internally shifting for a while now. I will always remember the winter that has helped to shape me, though, and the isolation and bracing cold on my cheeks. I am glad to have the strength that comes from a birth in a blizzard.

Shalom, everyone.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inauguration Day...

In some ways, inauguration day was notable for its ordinariness. I had my breakfast smoothie, predictably bleary-eyed after another night with too little sleep. [It had a frozen banana, three soaked dates, a tablespoon of ground flax seeds, a dash of cinnamon, and orange juice: my signature breakfast.] My son, a kindergartner, was tormenting the cat with his overly demonstrative affection toward her and my husband was doing the dishes he’d intended to do the night before. As I said, just another ordinary day.

But wasn’t the day a little brighter, a little warmer on inauguration day? Or was that just my imagination? Despite my late night, didn’t I have a little more of a spring in my step, a lightness in my being? Did I really hear birds singing in Chicago in January?

We have been waiting for this moment for eight long years: for George Bush and Dick Cheney to be escorted to Air Force One as they took their leave of office and that airplane lifted them away, off to Texas or Wyoming or wherever the hell they came from, so long as it was no longer in the White House. The world heaved a collective sigh of relief. We had become like actors in a bad horror movie, where the monster keeps returning to wreak more havoc, then, suddenly, we peeked between our trembling fingers and they were gone and we couldn’t believe it. It was for real, this time: the monsters had left the building.

That morning, my son and I watched the inauguration as it unfolded, seeing block after block filled up with jubilant supporters. My son brushed his teeth as commentators remarked on how well Jimmy and Rosalind Carter looked, discussed how he has redefined the role of former president. We watched as the motorcade make its slow, symbolic journey and the hordes of spectators were cheering. I flashed back to a different inauguration, nine years prior, when my husband and I stood out on the streets with thousands: holding signs, screaming, furious. It was one of the coldest, most miserable days in my memory, and it helps to be reminded that I am from Chicago, my skin toughened by our brutal winters. Inauguration day in 2000 couldn’t have been more appropriate: it was raining, very cold and with dark, foreboding clouds overhead, the picture of gloom. It was a perfect day for such an occasion, actually. On this most recent inaugural day, though, it was sunny. I whooped and hollered with joy this time, tears streaming down my face as I tried to explain to my son that grown ups sometimes cry when we’re really, really happy. I could not explain how our tear ducts can release both tears of sadness and tears of joy but it is somehow in our wiring. He shrugged and giggled, buoyed as always by his mother’s silliness.

My husband stopped home for lunch and to watch Barack Obama’s speech, and we ate leftover rosemary potato pizza around the television, not something that we would normally do. I rushed after the speech to get my son ready for his afternoon kindergarten class, squished his shoes in his backpack, filled his water bottle, then rushed him out the door. For not the first or the last time, I’m sure, I was a little overly enthusiastic for the other moms, who tend to regard me with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Is it my red kitty cat hat with ears? The fact that I don’t drive an SUV? Is it just something that emanates from me, much the same way it did when I was in junior high and so desperately wanted to fit in the with popular kids? The difference now is that I don’t care about that, though I do wonder if they possess some sort of ability to sense instantly that I am not one of them.

After dropping off my son, I went to the spa and was lucky enough to meet three of my mama friends there. This phenomenal spa in Chicago was offering a free day to enjoy the hot tub, eucalyptus steam room, sauna and relaxation center. We were breathless and radiant with a sort of feverish relief: Bush was out of office. We dissected President Obama’s – I’m still in shock that I get to put those two words together - speech and reveled in one another’s company, continuing our conversation from the hot tub to the steam room to the relaxation area. We were politely shushed by staff twice, one we could just barely make out through the haze of the steam room vapors, and I found myself wishing that we could telepathically communicate because we just had so much to say and so much unbridled enthusiasm. There was another woman in the hot tub, there to celebrate the inauguration and her birthday, who remarked, “You are not like the other moms in my neighborhood,” and I had to laugh. No, we’re not like the other moms. Two of us are colorfully tattooed, one has blue hair, but more than that, it is how we unapologetically dig into life. We speak honestly about our highs and lows, our rage at the injustices of the world, our reveling in the beauty of it: I think this is our common denominator. We are very powerful women together, if I must say so myself.

On the ride home, I saw men out on the sidewalk on North Avenue in the Austin neighborhood embracing. The first time I didn’t think much about it, but then I passed another two men hugging and I thought to myself, “Well, that is strange. You don’t see men hugging in Austin. Handshaking, yes, fist-bumping, yes, but never hugging.” It was then that I remembered the inauguration. It was an exceptional day. I told my son earlier that it was one of the most important days of my lifetime. And when I went to pick him up from school that afternoon, it seemed like the other moms might have been a little warmer to me than usual. Or was that just my imagination?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Shalom, everyone.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bush Is OUTTA Here! Cookies (a recipe)...

I made these the afternoon of President Obama’s inauguration, when I was scrounging around the kitchen, looking for the odds and ends to make something sweet. I had oatmeal but no chocolate chips or raisins, so oatmeal cookies were out. I had baking chocolate but not quite everything I needed to make brownies. I remembered a cookie I’d had some years back from a long-disappeared dog-eared cookbook, a delicious cookie one with orange juice concentrate and dried coconut.

The BIOH cookies are not baked, which would make them especially nice in the summer, and there is a lot of potential for add-ins (see below). Consider this recipe a template to modify to your tastes and available ingredients, but I rather like it as is: moist, dense and nutritious. It’s the perfect cookie for saying good riddance to something ugly and savoring the sweet reward that comes from a renewed sense of optimism.

These measurements are approximate. Adjust liquids and dry ingredients as is necessary to make a dough that binds together.

1 cup quick rolled oats, ground in the blender
1 1/2 Tablespoons baking cocoa (unsweetened)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
dash of salt

Mix together in a medium-sized bowl with clean hands or a spoon.

2 Tablespoons smooth peanut butter, room temperature, smooshed around in a measuring cup

Add orange juice a little at a time until incorporated with the peanut butter. Add enough to equal 1/2 cup. (I haven’t tried this with defrosted orange juice concentrate, but that might be better.)

1/2 cup agave nectar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Add the agave and vanilla to the peanut butter mixture. Mix until blended together.

Pour this into the oat mix and mix until incorporated.

1/2 cup or more rolled oats (unground)

Add this to the mix until it is nice and mashed together. It should be thick and one big blob (like Dick Cheney, but that’s all my lovely cookies and Dick have in common) at this point.

With a cookie scooper or a tablespoon, measure out rounded cookies onto the tray of your choice. It helps to wet your scooping devise to minimize sticking as often as you need to do so. Refrigerate until cool, an hour or more. Enjoy!

Possible add-ins: Dried cherries (reconstituted and drained or as is), chocolate chips, mashed bananas, whole hemp seeds, whole flax seeds, sesame seeds, dried coconut (balled cookies would be good rolled in this), almond butter in place of peanut butter, carob powder in place of cocoa, etc. Also, play with the shape: you can make these round and roll ‘em in slivered toasted almonds for your next quick energy booster.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

St. Francis of the ants...

On Thursday, I picked up my son from school and, as is customary, asked him how his day had been. "It was...okay," he said, sounding a little less cheerful than usual. I asked him what happened. "Well, Jack said that he won't be my friend anymore because he was trying to stomp on an ant and I stopped him."

Apparently a wayward and hearty ant found his way into my son's class that afternoon and made a home for himself under the couch. Despite the decibel levels, overexposure to Hello, Kitty backpacks and having to endure the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, I would say that that is one smart and fortunate ant to have found Ms. Roberts' kindergarten classroom. It is a tundra out here in Chicagoville: I'd hang out under a couch too if the other option was to burrow underground.

"So what happened?" I asked him. "I rescued the ant anyway and now he's safe." And Jack? "Jack said that he would still talk to me about aliens and spaceships, so we're still friends."

This might have been the first time I know of that my son was asked to put aside his convictions to maintain a friendship. This ant incident was no small thing as Jack happens to be my son's favorite classroom friend at the moment. Of course, I am very proud of his decision.

I think that it is very courageous for our boys to go down the path of nonviolence, something that in general our larger culture gives lip service to supporting but repeatedly fails to reinforce. From toy guns and war play to the notion that "boys will be boys" and everything that implies, those who actively swim against the popular current, whether by nature or nurture or both, often find themselves swimming and swimming, unable to find land upon which they can catch their breath. Every year, I realize, there will be more pressure on my son to "fit in," to squash that ant or just get out of the way when someone else does. But, for now, my six-year-old chose the path of civil disobedience, of Gandhian nonviolence, and he put his warm little body between the other boy and the ant. What happens next time? Or next year? Or the year after that? When will he decide that those lowly ants aren't worth the social risk?

As I wrote recently, I've become reacquainted with a lot of my old friends through Facebook. These are a lot of my crazy old college buddies, the ones who encouraged me to grow out my armpit hair and wear a tank top around Kansas with pride because, as a Semite, my pits were the most impressively filled out; these were friends who went to protests with me, plotted with me to circumvent any damn thing that vexed us. What I found is that everything my parents and their friends told me was just a phase - my vegetarianism (now veganism), my feminism, my far-left leaning politics - was not just a phase: it was here to stay and it only got more so as time went on. Now in many ways, we become more nuanced as we age: that is only natural as we get more exposed to different people and different views. It's not only natural, it shows growth and depth. Nuance, however, does not necessarily mean that one abandons her views: it helps buff off the sharp edges, that's all. Many of the fantastically leftist older people I know have assured me that they only get more left of center as they age.

Still, despite my outspokenness, I can't help but think about how many times I have bitten my tongue in order to avoid conflict, given my tacit approval of something I disagreed with because I didn't want to be That Person yet again. It can be exhausting to reject so many of our cultural values, to be honest, so I try to spend the majority of my time modeling what I do want to make manifest rather than protesting. This isn't to say that that I have become meek and complicit but that sometimes I have looked at that symbolic ant, shrugged, and said, "Go ahead. I just want to live my life. Do what you want." Sometimes I am tired of being the token vegan, the token feminist, out there in the decidedly omnivorous, misogynistic mainstream culture. This is why anything counter-cultural is so much more appealing to me, always has been. Still, there have been times that I've turned a blind eye to something I've disagreed with just to make my life a little easier. I'm not proud of this.

When will my son's essential goodness, his core convictions of compassion, start to erode a little in order to blend in more seamlessly in this world? It kills me a little to think of that gradual wearing away of his innocence. This is not to say that my son is an angel, but he really doesn't understand intentional meanness. Isn't that sane of him? The mama bear protector in me, though, worries that he is going to be targeted by bullies down the road and wishes he would toughen up just a little. He is still so tender, which is not exactly a quality that's encouraged in boys by society, and something that the meaner children pick up on like heat-seeking missiles.

How do we create real boys - complex, sensitive, multifaceted and courageous - for this world? How do we protect ourselves without eroding our values? I have no definite answers, but I will say this for now: I am proud that my son speaks up for the ants.

Shalom, everyone.

Monday, January 12, 2009

My list of grievances…

I am feeling irate lately, though there is no particular source that I can channel my considerable angst against, which sort of just compounds the feeling of irritation. It is just a general feeling of being rather “put out” as Prince Humperdinck put it with such succinct verve in The Princess Bride. And I don’t want to be some pouty misanthropic sadist so it’s best to get it all out of my system, right? Thus, let the trumpets herald, as the List of Grievances is unfurled.

1. Yes, I know that there is snow out there. I sympathize. In fact, I drive in the same damn snow so I empathize. But will your widdew SUV really sustain such massive internal injuries as to render it requiring life support if a snowflake or two should hit the windshield at the same time as the foot is on the gas pedal? Last I checked, motorized vehicles were manufactured so as to operate under such frightening conditions. Put on your wipers, drive slower than normal, but DRIVE.

2. When people walk two or three shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalk and do not have the common sense or decency to interrupt their conversational flow for three seconds so as to allow another to pass. Those people should be ticketed and forced to take an Urban Living 101 seminar. I’ll teach! We’ll address a myriad of topics, including but not limited to: blasting one’s radio, honking at law-abiding bicyclists, wearing too much perfume, and all the dreaded grievances one commits with a cellular devise attached to the ear…

3. The lady at the herb store down the street who positively goes into cardiac arrest if my son should pick up a little package of this or that to look at, like he’s playing football with a precious family heirloom or a Tiffany lamp. Jeez! She seriously needs some valerian or chamomile or something. Check into it, lady: you run an herb store.

4. The awkwardness I created when I baked some cookies for my neighbors on a whim for Christmas. They seriously are avoiding all eye contact. Ooookay.

5. The scraping sound of the shovel on the sidewalk once concrete is hit. Even worse? Those who don’t shovel at all. They should be forced to listen to the sound of shovel on bare concrete for an hour straight.

6. When I bang into something with my foot. Seriously, John knows to avoid me after I hit my ankle or stub my toe as I am filled with the fury of ten thousand angry toddlers. I’m not sure why this is so, but it is.

7. Cold weather. Well, I certainly understand the futility in raising an angry fist against, like, the weather, especially when I live in a cold climate by choice, but after a while in the bracing cold and wind, I just feel like saying, “You know what, Weather? You’re cold. We get it. You don’t have to keep trying to prove it to us, okay? You can get damn cold. You win.”

8. Lukewarm iced tea with, like, two iced cubes. It is absolutely worthless. It does not work as an iced beverage. It does not work as a warm beverage. Good iced tea is the nectar of the gods to me, and a haphazardly prepared glass is the sludgy bastard child of its fullest potential. Blech. [Maybe this should be covered in my Urban Living 101 class?]

9. When people pull the (insert whiny voice here), “I tried to be vegan, but…” But what? Your hair fell out in giant clumps? I’ve heard that one. Your skin turned green? Heard that one, too. You lost too much weight? I yawn. Oh, you gained too much weight. Yep, I’ve heard that one, too. It took too much time? I’m sorry…was I drumming my fingers? How rude of me. You feel more connected to the earth when you consume its inhabitants? How cool that you and Ted Nugent have so much in common. Okay, I do understand that veganism is a more challenging road for some than others, but I do get annoyed when I feel like people are coming to me for some sort of forgiveness, for me to lovingly pat them on the hand and say, “It’s okay, my child. You tried.” I will not. But, being grumpy, I will say this in response: “I tried to be an omnivore but my conscience was killing me.” Or, “I tried to be an omnivore but I ultimately found consuming carrion, ovum and mammary secretions to be rather foul.” Harsh? Perhaps. Take that up on your own list of grievances.

10. When the grocery store only has neon green bananas and rock-hard avocadoes. Yes, I’m spoiled.

11. When you smile at a stranger to be nice and you get the big ol’ stink-eye in return. Yes, I was trying to mug/stalk/seduce you right there. You caught me! Like the ability to greet a smile with a frown somehow increases one’s urban edginess: I think not, my friend. That’s an error in judgment and it proves that you need to take my seminar and be banished to distant suburbia for the day where the other non-smilers gather.

12. That my mother refers to all Asian food as “chop suey.” I know that it may be endearing to someone who is not her child, but to me, well, it pretty much makes steam come out of my ears, Ridiculous, I know. But, still…Chop suey?!

13. When you slip on ice and the next thing you know, you’re lying on a cold sidewalk, gazing up at the sky and your keys have flown from your coat pocket into a nearby snow bank so you must spend nearly a half-hour in the ever-diminishing available sunlight searching frantically for them as a child whines by your side. Just as an example.

14. Casein, whey, bee’s wax and other silly ingredients that make otherwise vegan items non-vegan.

15. When big ol’ sweaty people don’t wipe off the exercise machine as they exit it at the gym. Gross. Towels, people!

16. Republicans.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you. What’s your grievance?

Shalom, everyone.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

So...this Facebook thing...

Well, I was all set to be super-duper productive on (plant-based) steroids this Chrismukkah while my wee one was galloping through the house, high on Rice Nog and assorted crunchy tooth decay facilitators, but then my very good friend from college lassoed me like a plugged-in Annie Oakley and now I find myself whiling away my minutes on Facebook. A minute here or there turns into whole big pockets of wasted time, as we know, but how else will I know if someone I haven't seen in fifteen years - and my B-12-deprived brain scarcely remembers to begin with, thinking, 'Was she the one in my printmaking class? Why would she get in touch? She hated me. I never really understood that. Oh, well, I was kind of obnoxious. Or is she the one who dated that pothead I vaguely remember? Or were they the same person?') has successfully potty-trained her toddler. Or if that guy who is friends with my old friends has figured out how to work his new digital camera yet. I used twenty seconds of my precious time - twenty seconds I could use productively and purposefully, or, at the very least, I could have swept the kitchen floor in twenty seconds - uploading this information about toddler poop and camera frustrations into my malnourished brain. My brain desperately needs to be filled with with dense, enriching material like a new language or Remembrance of Things Past, but it hungers for this other stuff, these quick, empty calories.

At the same time, it hasn't all been empty calories. I have reconnected with people I thought would be hopelessly lost to me forever, people who were once very important in my life. A girl I was best friends with, who helped me through the darkest days of Junior High. There are three of my closest friends from college, who helped to shape me in the deepest way I could imagine, practically on a cellular level, now in my life again, commenting on my strange little status reports, me commenting on theirs. We have the same style of interacting as we did twenty years ago, the same jokey personalities coming through, and all that time that has elapsed just seems to have melted away with a click of the return key. It's really amazing. And I get to stay current with my wonderful friends of today, though my inner-devil's advocate wonders how much I really need to stay updated: do I need to know about the latest latte? Will Facebook became a vehicle through which I can further disengage from the ones I love, giving me the illusion of companionship when our communications are really always just skimming the surface? The jury is out on that one. I say all this because I am genuinely trying to figure this stuff out. Of course, I am very glad to be in touch with my friends.

So my hope is that I figure out a way to live with Facebook in my life. Right now, I am getting more from it than it is taking away from me, so I will use that as an indication that I should keep up with it. In the meantime, I'll try to shave my skimming of status reports regarding toddler poop and the like down to a few seconds.

That's all for now.

Shalom, everyone.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Reverend James Bevel...

This was written in a hurry, pouring out of me before we ended 2008. I have not edited it beyond a cursory look or two. Please accept as is...

I met the Reverend James Bevel in a nondescript, drafty room owned by a vegan restaurant on the south side of Chicago, a large space used for catering events. Reverend Bevel was a slight, slim man, with a graying beard, yarmulke-like cap and black Nehru-style jacket and slacks. This, I would come to know, was his standard uniform. He had an elegant, almost regal bearing, and as he greeted me that day, I had a hard time meeting his eyes, which were steely and intense. He did not smile as we met: this was serious business to him, the meeting of people.

It’s a little complicated how we came to know one another, but the purpose was simple and very ambitious: we aimed to build a vegan movement based on the same principles of Gandhian non-violent resistance as was at the foundation of the civil rights movement. Reverend Bevel had a group of activists he worked with on the south side of Chicago, all African American, nearly all women, and the idea was to bring his group together with my group of mostly Caucasian vegan activists. That day at the restaurant, many of us met for the first time: I met his daughter, who must have been around four at the time, his peaceful, gentle and much younger wife, Erica, a fiery and articulate associate named Valencia, another attractive young woman who was deeply dedicated to Reverend Bevel, among others. One common denominator of all “his” people – and we never did figure out a name for this group, so my husband and I referred to them as Bevel’s flock or group or acolytes – in addition to their race, was that they were all deeply religious people.

I was familiar with Reverend Bevel for some time before we met. I had read David Halbertstam’s excellent book, The Children, an exhaustive history of the civil rights movement, and James Bevel was stitched throughout, from the beginning until the end. By all accounts, he was a frustrating, difficult man to work with: headstrong beyond reason, he would remain steadfast in his views and behavior, no matter how emphatically or frequently he was asked to change. Despite his refusal to “play nice with others” his brilliance as a strategist was undeniable and he was respected as a, if not the, chief architect of the movement. His name is not better known for a few reasons, part of which is due to his divisive nature, which turned people away, and the politics of personality. Dr. King had a much more agreeable demeanor.

As a strategist, though, Reverend Bevel was unparalleled. It was his idea, over Dr. King’s reservations, to put children in the frontlines, specifically using this to dramatic effect in Birmingham, Alabama, where he organized children to march to city hall, bringing attention to segregation in a much more resonant way than it would have been with adults in their place. The public saw the excessive use of force used against the peaceful children – attack dogs and spraying hoses – and many who were sitting on the fence couldn’t help but be moved. This was one of the first examples of using the relatively new television medium to sway public opinion on a social justice issue, and he did so brilliantly. He also organized the march from Selma to Montgomery after a young civil rights activist was killed by Alabama state troopers, and the violence that was unleashed against the marchers ultimately helped to turn the tide: then-President Lyndon Johnson insisted that the Voting Rights Act be passed by Congress and it was. Reverend Bevel worked alongside Dr. King as his equal, and he was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education. Despite the reputation that preceded him – as a sex addict (he is rumored to have fathered between sixteen to nineteen children), as a loose canon – given what I knew about Reverend Bevel from The Children, I couldn’t wait to meet the man.

That first day at the vegan restaurant, he gave a presentation to our group, hinting at his skills as an incendiary orator, and he laid out his philosophy about what he felt had led the world astray: he drew a box on a sheet of paper with the letter F on each corner, arrows, leading from one to the next. To him, the root of every human-created problem on earth was what he called the “Four F’s”: Fornicating, Flesh-eating, Fighting and Fantasy-telling. To Reverend Bevel, if you engaged in one of these F’s, you set an inevitable chain-reaction in motion, leading to self-debasement, disengagement and violence. Fornication (which, by his definition, meant sexual relations for reasons other than procreation) led to flesh-eating and on and on, an endless cycle of depraved behaviors, a creating of hell on earth. As he described the “Four F’s”, I had a most bizarre cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, I was entirely unconvinced of his point-of-view and frightened by his fundamentalist convictions; on the other hand, I couldn’t stop listening. I was enthralled. Afterwards, as people were packing up to leave, he walked over to me and asked me point-blank about my faith. I blinked a few times. My faith? Yes, he said impatiently, what is your religion? Well, I was raised as a Jew, I told him, but now I’m more of a pagan. A what? He looked at me disapprovingly, those dark eyes appraising me. A pagan, I repeated. He nodded his head slowly and walked away. Later, John explained to me that to a fundamentalist, paganism means something very different than to a nature-loving feminist. I felt very na├»ve to not have anticipated this.

Despite this gaffe, we agreed to start meeting to try to get our vegan movement off the ground, my group of assorted, atheistic activists, and his group of very devout community organizers. We met every Friday night for a year at a gym near Greektown, discussing movement and the history of democracy and what it means to be a citizen in the mirrored aerobics room, plates of food on the long table in front of us.

Reverend Bevel and his flock would appear with giant rectangular pans bursting with food, freshly prepared: seitan made from scratch, casseroles, layer cakes. There was always an abundance of food. Early on, I said something to Erica, Reverend Bevel’s wife, staggered by the sheer amount of preparation that must have gone into their offering, just one meal of the week. Well, she said with a subtle smile, we do like to eat. (This left a lasting impression on me: Ever since this year of meeting with Reverend Bevel and the others, I always prepare way more food than I figure that we’ll need at a potluck. Social gatherings around food with meager offerings, bowls barely filled, always are a little depressing: let the platters runneth over.)

The year we met Reverend Bevel, which John and I came to call Our Year Of Potlucks (in addition to this group, which we came to call The Roots of Peace, we had a monthly EarthSave Chicago vegan potluck), was something that had my closest friends scratching their heads. How could I, an avowed feminist, a rejecter of fundamentalist values, willingly choose to spend time with people who looked to the Old Testament for moral guidance? I couldn’t explain it then and I am no closer to understanding it now. At times, I worried that I was being drawn into a cult; Reverend Bevel told us matter-of-factly that he wanted us to adopt their way of living (in other words, embrace the “Four F’s”). As he said quite solemnly to John, he had never had a white brother and he very much wanted one. This didn’t happen – we could never, ever make the sort of leap of faith he required – but we enjoyed the group for what it was: an opportunity to learn from someone who was a master at building movement, who understood how dynamic and fascinating it is to dig complex networks of democratic channels into communities, to be an engaged citizen. As the year progressed, our group whittled down to a core of five or six of us: many of the activist friends I brought along, though initially fascinated, eventually found Reverend Bevel’s dogmatic proselytizing to be an insurmountable obstacle to accept, and they understandably jumped ship. Once it became clear that John and I were not going to adopt his principles and become acolytes, Reverend Bevel lost interest in pursuing us. We parted amicably: he had other uses of his time, others to reach, more embracing of his views, and we were ready to move on as well. We saw Reverend Bevel and his group a few more times before they moved from Chicago to a farming community in the south, and it was always warm and friendly. The last time I saw Reverend Bevel, fittingly, it was at a crowded, boisterous potluck. He walked up to me and told me, with almost a childlike vulnerability and shyness, that he loved me. I told him that I loved him back.

I saw flickers of his famous temper, coupled with his vulnerability, throughout our time together. One time in particular, he became incensed at being interrupted by someone and jumped to the conclusion that the person was saying something that he was not. No matter. Once he was ignited, he just couldn’t undo it, and the string of expletives that issued from his mouth – almost like a Satanic possession had occurred for two terrifying minutes straight – shocked me, even as someone who is hardly traumatized by a curse word or two. But it was something that he did when he finally calmed down – the women in his group remained unfazed, reassuring the rest of us in soothing tones that this was merely Reverend Bevel speaking his truth – that made an impression on me: he looked at me with an expression full of shame and embarrassment, his head lowered, eyes fearful, almost like a child afraid of being punished. I had seen that look before, and I recognized it. It was the same way my father would look after one of his drunken tirades, after yet another violent transgression against me, against my family. Reverend Bevel, in his own way, was like my father. He and my father both had demons they struggled with their whole lives. Both aspired to overcome these demons, and both were rendered powerless to do so. I cannot know why someone like Reverend Bevel – someone who was so charismatic and brilliant – was unable to beat his demons.

Reverend Bevel passed away on December 19, 2008 of pancreatic cancer. I got a simple message from Erica that he has passed, that he was now, as she put it, an ancestor. In the two or more years leading up to his death, he was being criminally pursued by one of his daughters for sexually abusing her: the statute of limitations had not worn out. According to this daughter, there were other daughters with similar stories, and she was mainly pursuing this because she was concerned for James and Erica’s young daughter, now entering the age where he had begun his incestuous behavior with her, which he considered to be part of her “religious education.” He was convicted of incest and was granted an appeal bond; he died shortly after.

On hearing that Reverend Bevel was up on criminal charges for incest, I have to say that I was not shocked. Without going too much into it, I should just say that he reminded me of my father for a reason. Because I can well imagine the shattering horror that is incest, and because I am at my core a feminist, it makes it very hard for me to not write Reverend Bevel off as a depraved, manipulative, cruel monster. It’s very tempting and it’s understandable why someone would do this. That aspect of him is part of the picture, an essential part of the picture, but it’s not the whole one. Even sexual predators have three dimensions.

The memories of Reverend Bevel I will cherish are many: knowing him enriched me, made me a more committed, thoughtful person, and I think that I gave him back this gift. I will remember singing with him and our group after Friday night meetings, as it was Reverend Bevel’s conviction that all movements needed song, so John brought his guitar and sheet music. He had a beautiful, resonant singing voice, and he clearly relished creating music. I will remember his smile, his easy laughter, once he let his guard down. I will remember his depth as he spoke, his sense of humor, his wisdom. I will remember how dynamic it felt for a time when we were all together, rolling up our sleeves to dig into what we saw as our work: the work of compassion, using the model of Gandhi and King. We were invigorated by the work and each other.

So despite his deep flaws and misdeeds, I will continue to love Reverend Bevel. Sometimes you can’t explain why you love someone, and I wrote this whole piece trying to explore that very question, coming to the conclusion that sometimes you just do. In loving him, I have forgiven him. In forgiving him, I have forgiven my father. In forgiving my father, I am expanding myself. In expanding myself, I am a better person.

I am grateful to Reverend Bevel for making me a better person. I hope that he has found peace, and I hope this for his children as well.

Shalom, everyone.