Work-Wife: A Chance to Re-Write HERstory

This piece was originally penned in February 2021. Today, I am privileged to share it with this community. I do this as a reminder. A reminder to stop, look, and listen to what’s going on under all our bloated politics. If we did that, we’d understand what it truly means that throngs of people still experience how inequitably “essential” home-based work continues to be. We’ve ignored these individuals and their stories for far too long. It’s time we started listening.

I should start by saying that I’m one of the lucky ones. The ones whose husbands aren’t afraid of a little — okay, a lot of — work around the house. By this I mean not only fixing things that break, as is the customary reference, but also proactively taking up work that is so often, needlessly, and unceremoniously relegated to women. Or at least, relegated to the more domestically-included human in any housing-based partnership, and then mistakenly gendered along the way.

Phew.

If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. It’s also why I’ve chosen to frame this essay with a deeply personal story. In my experience, personal stories give much-needed context to broad-sweeping social narratives. And historically speaking, that kind of context helps support long-lasting change.

Change is why I got into this business, so I’ll just lay it all out right here.

I am a woman, and while I enjoy some aspects of keeping a home, I also enjoy having the freedom to pursue tasks that full-time home-making simply does not allow, whether or not one ultimately couples or raises children.

Luckily, I married a man who gets that on all levels.

He understands that each person’s worth is inherent to their personhood, and that this concept is completely separate and distinct from the monetary value of their earnings or the social value of their time — whether inside or outside the home.

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Of course, there are still chores to be done and bills to be paid. There is no out-valuing that reality. But it was for precisely this reason that, early on in our marriage, we developed a clear understanding of how our house should run.

It’s this simple.

Never will he assume or suggest that I complete a task on the basis of my sex or gender, and in return, never will I assume the same of him.

Sound like a fairytale?

Let us assure you that it’s not. But it’s also a far cry from more restrictive arrangements of the past — and in some instances, also of the present. As a matter of fact, we’ve found that our marriage functions in a substantively different way than most other couples around us.

For example, the breadwinner? Could be either or both of us. Okay, maybe that part’s not so radical. But dishes-doer? Bed-maker? Laundry-folder? Ironer? Meal-planner? Grocery-shopper? Yard-maintainer? Wall-fixer? I could go further. However, my sense is that you get the point. And besides, the answer to all of these questions is the same: either or both of us.

“How very egalitarian,” some of you are thinking.

“Thanks,” we offer in reply, “but don’t you dare romanticize it.”

See, despite our best efforts, the division of labor in our home is very rarely “equal.” And yes, we knew this would be the case, because no amount of understanding could be expected to undo millennia of antiquated social rules. Especially not during a pandemic and historic social uprising.

By the way, how are we all feeling about the absolutely relentless world-pummeling we’ve survived to-date? You know, the one that began late in 2019, lasted all the way through 2020, and will likely be with us for the foreseeable future?

The disaster that we’ve come to call COVID-19 — and I suspect, many other less dignified names — has been one hell of a wake-up call for American households. I’d like to assume that the vast, ruinous landscape we’re trudging through will continue to reform and refine us, but history will be the arbiter of that decision.

Reformed and refined by what, you ask? By our response (or lack thereof) to the many injustices that ravaged American society long before the pandemic, but which are certainly brought into sharper relief by it. And my lord, do opportunities for reform and refinement abound.

In particular, the United States of America must still face and complete its reckonings with racial injustice and related points of access like a living wage, fair housing, nutritious food, quality medical care, and dignity-affirming education.

In each of these arenas, it’s critical to note that when we speak about injustices, we are actually speaking about individuals who have been wronged, communities who have been transgressed, and not just about broad academic or political buzzwords.

What this means is that when we speak about gender inequality, whether at-home or in the workplace, we are actually speaking about the ways in which women and people who don’t identify as male are denied opportunities, restricted in their movement or growth within the limited opportunities they’re given, or are made to disproportionately suffer the consequences of decisions they did not — or perhaps were not allowed to — make.

Let’s remember, none of those struggles are exactly new. The list of offending behaviors women endure daily — and have for generations — is the topic of another essay. Still, given that we have been handed the uncomfortable microscope that is COVID-19, it would be irresponsible not to evaluate long-standing social struggles in light of our more recent crisis.

Historically speaking, women’s roles in American society have actually expanded around periods of national and international strain. For example, women won the right to vote in 1920 — just two short years after the 1918 flu pandemic. And within two decades, women weren’t only allowed to work outside the home, they were explicitly asked to.

History buffs might recognize “Rosie the Riveter” as the World War II era campaign I’m referencing here — and take similar issue with its hasty copy-pasting on everything from coffee mugs to “Health Care Heroes” campaigns in this century’s pandemic. Rosie’s so ubiquitous that I’m not sure we even appreciate what she stands for anymore. How very symbolic.

Since then, women’s presence in the paid workforce has been anything but short and limited. It took only one additional generation for women in padded-shouldered pantsuits to enter corporate America in droves. And thanks to those trailblazers, women in my generation think nothing of reaching for jobs at the highest levels their education, experience, and social standing can buy.

But wait!

This doesn’t excuse America from making further efforts to achieve greater parity or justice. To be clear, for as much progress as we’ve made, many American households still assume home-based work is “women’s work.” And as long as that’s true, the most immediate threat to equality isn’t the board room — it’s the ironing board (and a bunch of other places).

I’m no social scientist, but I’d be willing to bet that many readers have said, “Yep, old news,” several times in this essay. And I’m with them — I hear them, I stand with them, I am one of them. That’s not the issue. I’d argue that, perhaps with exception to COVID-19’s forced re-domiciling, the bigger problem is America’s quiet acceptance of this reality in the first place.

What happens when we assume that the home is exclusively — or even primarily — the woman’s domain? The exact opposite of what should: women are un- or under-paid, our work is devalued, and we become invisible despite our many efforts to distinguish ourselves. Ear-bleeding double-speak about how “invaluable” we are doesn’t help, either.

So where does that leave us?

Exhausted already, women take to the streets and the polls, as we have for generations, to protest our treatment and demand better. But we have limits. And those limits get reached a lot faster when we realize that maintaining jobs outside the home will not save us; that voting for progressive, feminist candidates will not save us; and that perhaps no one really wants things to change for us at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this uncomfortable truth more apparent. In a time when we’re collectively called to “stay at home,” women’s lives should be central to nearly, if not all, conversations America has, bending the arc of justice towards appropriately protecting, recognizing, and compensating us for our time, effort, and energies.

That hasn’t happened — at least, not until recently.

What did we experience instead?

Even when women have managed to secure employment outside our homes, our tasks within them haven’t faded, they’ve only grown more demanding. And unlike our male counterparts, we can’t simply demand crisis pay to help us swallow these “new” responsibilities — because we’ve never been paid for work we do in our homes at all.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that women report feeling exhausted. No one asked to fragment themselves in this way could be expected to feel otherwise. But here’s the deal: for all our exhaustion, women see what’s going on, and just like the generations of women who came before us, we refuse to be held down by it.

We know better than anyone that our plight is a result of society not having a reliable system by which to understand — much less, assess — us. And so, as we’ve always been capable of doing, we wholesale reject its definitions and expectations. What serves us matters, too. So get ready for the reckoning.

But first, we have some questions:

How is it that women are so “invaluable” that our assigned work breaks us apart? How is it that our male partners — both business and domestic — see this and do nothing to change it? How is it that so many people live in peace with the knowledge that women’s “invaluable” nature renders us broken and exhausted to the point of invisibility?

The answer is that there’s gross injustice at work.

That’s right, we have some answers, too.

But if the devil’s in the details, so too does evil hide within the criminally obvious. That means we have to talk about gender inequality in great depth, starting right now. Yes, today. Not tomorrow. Not next election cycle. Right now.

And that brings us back to our current context. We’re living through a global pandemic that, at least for women, has changed very little — except to bring into even sharper relief how maddeningly the same our lives actually are, whether relative to how they were two years ago, or relative to the many “onerous” changes our male counterparts bemoan by comparison.

Don’t you dare make the mistake of believing this injustice is just a past or present concern, either. Unless we do something to change it, women will continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 faster, closer, and longer than our male or male-identifying counterparts. This means that our rapidly evolving situation might also breed an unjust future.

Neither should this be a difficult concept to grasp, though let’s not render it ineffectual. It just means that women need as many people as possible, across as many channels as possible, to make our reality plainer than plain — for as long as we possibly can.

On that note, I’d like to propose a slight “rebrand” of this conversation. The reason is two-fold: (1) we need to be on the same page before we aim to make change in our unique corners of the world, and (2) whether or not we succeed will depend in large part on how well we equip ourselves with language that the vast majority of people can understand.

So bear with me.

Rather than leaning exclusively on the language of injustice, I’m going to start calling gender inequality a problem. In my experience, that word has a higher success rate when it comes to driving action. That is probably because people are hard-wired to fix “problems” — and that is thanks to the perception that problems are quotidian in nature, and thus solvable by anyone, whereas “injustices” often seem so large that no one could possibly help. This is an important distinction.

With me so far?

Now, since we need every willing person to help us, I’m going to call gender inequality a problem — and hope it makes a difference.

Remember the beginning of this essay, where I told you that personal stories also have the capacity to make change? I’m going to attempt to weave the larger social and historical context we’ve been discussing back together with my own — and hope that makes a difference, too.

Even as a woman with a fully-committed husband, the pandemic has brought about one principal change for me — and it’s not one I’m happy about. Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve gone from being a wife who works, to a stay-at-home “work-wife.” I’ll explain what that means in a minute, though let me assure you that it’s neither sexy nor exciting.

First, you need to understand our family’s previous home context.

Even before the virus, my husband worked in a career that barely afforded him time to eat or sleep. Back then, he labored in days-long shifts at the office, surviving on nothing but adrenaline, cheap take-out, and willpower. Maybe there’s some caffeine in there too, but that’s beside the point. What matters — as he would also tell you — is that my husband was almost never home. And as we were — and still are — two people in this marriage, of course his reality affected me.

The first major impact? A forced, false singlehood. And the second? Learning very quickly to make good use of my free time. In the beginning, this freedom encompassed only a few short hours a week. But eventually, my spirited pursuits outside of work became my work, and at that point, I furnished myself with a home-based office.

This accomplishment will always make my “top five” list of favorite moments. I’d finally liberated myself from toxic notions of success and, in their wake, started the journey I’d been called to take since I was a little girl. Even then, I knew to cherish these moments because I’d never get them back. I just had no idea how right I’d be.

Fast-forward to March 2020.

When it became clear that COVID-19 would be staying stateside, my husband joined me in working from home. And we welcomed this adjustment with open arms. First because it greatly reduced our risk of viral exposure, and second because, for the first time in our marriage, we actually got to live with each other.

This is not an exaggeration.

It’s also a fact I proudly shared with our family, our friends, the neighbors, or really anyone who would listen. I was just that excited.

Another problem, though.

Excitement can be blinding. Blinding to the point where important clues get missed. And let me tell you, from the other side of this transition, I never saw our current reality coming.

Today, instead of my once-neat work schedule:

Wake at 8

Eat breakfast by 9

Workout by 10

Work until 1

Eat lunch and relax until 2

Work until 6

Eat dinner and relax until 8

Work until 10

Go to bed by 11 … okay, maybe midnight but who’s counting?

I have another work-worn human to take care of all the time, in addition to the home-based responsibilities he no longer has time for, given that his field understands “work from home” to mean “Great! you are now working 24/7/365 — and you better be immediately reachable, too.”

Enter my new role: “work-wife,” which includes a collection of duties just numerous enough to completely decimate my pre-pandemic career. And I’m exhausted. Completely and utterly exhausted.

I say all this from a position of clear privilege. That our biggest complaint involves unequal division of labor is absolutely a first-world problem. One that is softened even further by my husband’s commitment to being an equal partner who does his level best to correct the imbalance daily.

And to be clear, I know that our struggles could be so much worse. Either or both of us could be dead, either or both of us could be sick, either or both of us could be losing our home, out of work, lacking enough nutritious food, or have want of reliable access to medical care.

Thankfully, neither of us are these things. And in that context, it’s obtuse to assume that America should care about my new home-based duties, or even how they restrict the work I need to do in support of my chosen career.

But what if this problem wasn’t just about me?

What if my privileged complaint actually underscored the story of countless other people, partners, and parents who — whether through good will, coercion, or some terrible combination of them both — necessarily sloughed off or de-prioritized their own endeavors, citing medical, economic, or other family demands they’ve been asked shoulder simply because they are women?

What if these first-world problems were actually global problems of gargantuan weight and endless, tessellated variety, morphing and evolving as quickly as the virus itself? What if we were entirely unprepared for the decades- and possibly centuries-long ramifications of these changes? And I shudder, what if we didn’t want to admit that precisely because it was happening in the home, which is also the office — instead of the office, which was never meant to be at home?

“OH, CRAP,” some of you are thinking.

“She’s right,” others of you are saying.

“Can you stay a little longer, work-wife, and let me pick your brain?”

“Can you help us connect the dots, stop this collision course, and set the world right once again?”

It pains me, but no.

Unfortunately I can’t.

Why?

Because — as should be self-evident by now — I must get back to my other, non-paid (thankfully not thankless) job: making sure my family is fed, clean, and healthy in a time when we are literally just trying to survive.

Let’s be serious: someone has to do it. And at least for now, society values my husband’s profession much more than mine. Hence, my newly assigned role as “work-wife,” the advent of many supportive conversations, and eventually, this essay.

I’m a writer, by the way. When I’m not playing the role of “work-wife” to the best damn husband in the world, I can be found putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, and voice to air.

“Wow,” some of you are saying, “What have you written?” — as if my finished manuscript should somehow lessen the blows I’ve been dealt.

And others of you are joining them, pleading with me, “Why didn’t you say so?!” — as if somehow, you knowing this information any sooner might have changed things in any material way.

I roll my eyes, because my answers to these questions feel increasingly silly.

“Still,” my husband assures me, “someone has to answer them. And if not work-wife-previously-known-as-writer, then who?”

He’s got a point.

So, where is my work? At home. Both jobs.

What have I written? I’ve got a novel and a few blogs under my belt.

And why didn’t I say so earlier? Because I work on these things in stolen moments, which means I have even less time to explain the struggle to you. Because “work-wife” duties now come first. And because I worry that unless something seriously changes, this short-term arrangement might become much, much more permanent.

But again, this isn’t only about me.

This essay and my story are a warning, a call-to-FIGURATIVE-arms, a rally cry for every soul who gives a damn about women in America. If we’re smart, we’ll start re-writing HERstory today, right now, in this critical moment in time (read: they’re all critical moments).

The alternative?

If we’re not careful, society won’t remember the work that women lost or had to give up in this challenging season of life. And I don’t just mean their job titles upon furlough, firing, or resignation. I’m also speaking about their lost forward trajectories.

Just ask any woman who’s spent time away from the paid workforce and she’ll tell you what you need to know. For everyone else, it doesn’t take much to envision how COVID-19 makes life both inside and outside the home even harder for women.

For example, who is expected to revise their work schedules when childcare centers close down? Who is expected to complete home-based tasks between Zoom calls, spreadsheets, or class periods? Who gets to use “better” workspaces to begin with? The answers to these questions tell an interesting story. And that’s assuming that women have managed to keep their outside jobs in the first place.

Of course, for many women, this has not been the case. In addition to being forced back into their homes, they’ve also lost jobs — and with them, not only their physical paychecks, but also the freedom that comes with being compensated for their work, however well or badly. Absent this escape route, their only choice is to continue working at home and for free. And where that is true, we’re not talking about a “reduction in responsibilities” — we’re talking about a railroading.

This brings us to our second, scary alternative.

If we’re not careful, an entire generation of women will also be forgotten for the work they did when they “weren’t working,” for all the essential jobs they performed without pay, without breaks, without promise of promotion or recognition or anything else of male-assessed value. (That is, unless we count seeing big names with big platforms get paid to publicly lament “how terrible it was to watch this happen” — and then do nothing to change it).

So, where is change possible in this dire set of circumstances? Everywhere. And as a matter of fact, what happens next is entirely up to us. That said, I’d like to propose an alternate ending to the HERstory of COVID-19. This story can still end the way that women and other home-based workers truly deserve.

If you’re wondering what that looks like, then for starters we could:

(1) Stop silencing women’s voices;

(2) Start respecting women for the tireless work we’ve completed since the beginning of time and;

(3) Start compensating women as the essential workers we’ve always been, AND/OR accept our delegation of the duties we no longer have time for, starting right now.

In short, I’m proposing that we choose to abate the inequitable strain placed on women at every moment of our lives — and make the world a better, stronger, more livable place for everyone as a result.

Why?

Because women hold society together. We help you process, keep you warm, keep you fed, keep you clothed, keep you schooled, keep you living and breathing and safe from harm — and when that is not possible (God help us), we keep you morally awake.

What’s more, we do this with grace and pride and minimal but thoroughly justified complaints. Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.

“Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.” — Ryan Vale McGonigle | “Work Wife” on North by North Carolinian

Instead, if you claim to value women, you can learn to actually value us. And no, despite your many protestations, you don’t. At least not yet.

How do I know that?

Because if America truly valued women — inherently and otherwise — we wouldn’t still be here.

If America truly valued women, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, we wouldn’t need to challenge gender norms on everything from the kitchen table to the White House and back, and we wouldn’t need to print Rosie the Riveter on everything imaginable, mindlessly proliferating World War II era propaganda that — remember — celebrated women for their sacrificial work in another period of national crisis.

In fact, women’s work would cease to be sacrificial at all.

We aren’t there yet. There’s still a lot of work to d–

Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that you’re saying? You know? Then good, we’re on the same page. Women won’t be working from home for free anymore. And as a matter of fact, we aren’t sure home-based work should be ours alone to begin with.

So go ahead.

Tell the others.

We’re waiting.

We Did It!

Friends of North by North Carolinian and/or me,

Guess what?

We did it!

After years of being too afraid of this dream — like, so afraid that I could not even attempt chasing it — in 2021 I finally put my work pants on. I submitted essays on a variety of topics to an assortment of publications … and at least one of them decided my work was fit to print.

If you’ve followed this journey in any serious capacity, you know how much this means. You should also know that your support along the journey played a huge role in making this possible. Please join me in celebrating. This is a moment for collective celebration!

And to the good folks at The Dead Mule, I could not be any prouder that a North Carolinian journal became my first publishing home. Near or far, you’ll always have my admiration and gratitude. Go make the rest of your 25th year the absolute best it can be!

Now, I still can’t believe I get to say this but …

I am pleased to provide the following link for all those interested in reading my first officially-published piece, “Double-Down Dutch:” https://deadmule.com/ryan-vale-mcgonigle-memoir-sept-2021/.

Someone pinch me.

Same Kind of Different: A Love No Line Could Divide

By Kindergarten, I knew I wasn’t like all the other little girls.

For starters, in preschool I’d chosen the name Joplin for my favorite stuffed animal. Yes, like Janis. Apparently because the individual who looked after me was a huge fan … and I was a fan of hers. Things only got more interesting from there. Around the same time, I also began to idolize Michael Jackson, in all his many manifestations, and Maria von Trapp, specifically as depicted by Julie Andrews in 1965’s film, The Sound of Music.

Ask my parents and they’ll tell you that I gave rousing performances as each persona, trying desperately to make sense of a world that allowed more room for one than the others along the spectrum of social acceptability.

Ask me now, as an adult, and I will tell you how much it saddens me that so much change is still needed. For too long, we’ve prioritized party politics and pop culture over actual people — their actual lives; their actual loves; their many successes, celebrations, and failures.

This is a social norm I hope we learn to explore with honest continuity — rather than, say, pretending to confront it every few years, before conveniently forgetting about it until someone else (and there will always be someone else!) demands that we don’t. How much stagnates between election cycles! How much we age! How little gets changed! This has always troubled me.

But back to the relative innocence of childhood.

As a young girl, I also loved playing with Barbies and other dolls. I imagined their date nights and home-making adventures with as much gusto as their many successful careers. This became even more fun as my sisters came along, although we often fought about who got to be which princess or occupy which room in the doll house we eventually acquired. You know, what siblings do. The difference is, we processed those behaviors beyond rules about sharing.

No eye-rolling, please. That detail is critically important.

After all, to be a child is to play, but to play is to prepare for life ahead. Most of us just aren’t trained to see it that way from the beginning. By some bizarre happenstance, we were. And in this, borrowing from the literary giant that is Flannery O’Connor, we were (and I was) “made odd” from the very beginning.

***

Come to think of it, playing with dolls was about the extent of my “normative” girlish childhood. Dolls weren’t really what got my heart pounding anyway. No, that took sets of other kinds — more specifically, trains and cars. Anything that evoked movement.

The idea that nothing had to stay the way it was, where its was, forever? That was what I wanted. And so my parents, to the best of their ability, learned to provide.

Thank God they did.

My parents’ decision to indulge these peculiarities probably saved my life in more ways than one. You see, whether or not they intended it, my childhood taught me a valuable lesson: not only is movement possible, but actually, with careful maneuvering, it can take place at great speed and to great effect.

As a result, any time I’ve needed to live through or make great changes, I’ve felt equipped — or more terrifyingly, destined — to handle them. Just don’t let the romance of that idea lull you into believing that my life’s been easy. Because it hasn’t, not even at the start.

You see, growing up down South, in a culture that prized stasis and tradition over almost everything else, I was made to feel like an outsider from the minute I consciously set foot in the systems that, ironically, were meant to help me grow. And that — there’s just no other way to say it — really sucked.

***

Let’s be clear: in any culture, one is only ever meant to take up as much space as they’ve been pre-allotted. Anything beyond that line is a threat to society — or, as some say, “the system” — and must therefore be snuffed out, hushed up, or otherwise encouraged to “fit in.”

This is not news to anyone watching the news, or who’s made even a beginner’s study of history or life in general. What might be less apparent is that these struggles are not uniquely Southern. As such, the solutions that we work towards must come from within and outside the South. Not a popular truth, but a truth nonetheless.

That said, I grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line, so that is where my story must be rooted. Mine is the story of an odd little girl who grew up in a culture that didn’t exactly welcome odd little girls.

“Ok,” you might be wondering, “then what, exactly, are odd little girls supposed to do?”

The answer is that they must grow up. And they grow up a lot faster than some of their peers. Why? Because they have no other choice. Society allows nothing else. To be quite frank, choosing to preserve their individuality comes at a steep price: “otherization,” or the process by which one is made an outsider.

That happens at such a young age?,” some of you are wondering. “How?

Simple. By bringing one’s odd brand of existence to one’s routine attention, usually in the hopes of “helping” one conform. And so it went that, sometimes by peers who didn’t know better, sometimes by peers who did, and worst of all, sometimes by adults who had absolutely no excuse for their transgressive behavior, this happened to me. Routinely.

I’m not in the business of holding grudges, so I’ve long forgiven each person. But I feel that readers should know: with each “helpful suggestion,” I was made to feel like some part of me wasn’t acceptable, couldn’t be allowed to continue, wasn’t something that anyone would want. I began to question every part of myself as I searched for a reason — any reason — to be enough, just as I was. And the longer that struggle went on, the harder those reasons became to find.

Which part of me, exactly, was unworthy? I honestly could not understand. Being a “Type A” extrovert in my natural state, not knowing quickly became more hurtful than the transgressions themselves. You can imagine the myriad ways this affected my life, but what ultimately matters is that in the end, my spirit won out over the closed-minded, elitist, suffocating culture that tried to tamp it down. And I’m proud to say that I’m largely the same person today that I was then. Just older and braver.

***

Thankfully, I’ve never had to do life alone. To this day I am surrounded by oddballs — some of whom I’m honored to call lifelong friends. In this way I have been profoundly blessed. But I’d be lying if I said that a pack of amazing friends was enough. It never would be. How could it? Especially because women are socialized to prepare for and pursue romantic relationships from sinfully young ages …

Now, I can already feel some folks wondering, but yes. When the appropriate age came, I went on to have crushes upon crushes upon crushes. All of them male, all of them hopelessly gorgeous, all of them absolutely not interested in me. It would be a long time before the opposite sex realized this oddball had something to offer. And so the understanding of my young girlhood proved correct.

In fairness, asking pubescent males to make a choice like me was asking a lot. Not because of me — at least not completely — but because that’s just how growing up works. I was exactly the opposite of everything they chased, for crying out loud. And you don’t even have to get to the part that includes Michael Jackson and Maria von Trapp to know that. It’s actually much, much simpler.

I had what I’d been told was a masculine name. I had a voice — and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I preferred running down garden paths and library halls to conspicuously chasing male attention. And I was definitely not interested in being owned, something I understood to be inherent in the entire business of coupling.

Exactly none of that screamed pick me. But this isn’t a sob story. It’s more of a slow-burning, coming-to-love piece. The kind where the heroine gets to save herself first. The kind where, no matter the love interest, the location, or the changes that get thrown her way, she makes herself whole. The kind where her whole humanity eventually recognizes the whole humanity of another, and together they form the most unique of couples: two wholly in love partners.

I don’t know who’s been keeping track, but those kinds of love stories rarely begin with, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who had as many suitors as she ever wanted or needed, and probably a few more after that …”

Long story short, in the time I spent waiting for someone to love me for who I was, I learned that I could be that person for myself. And from that place, I grew into my power. I loved my non-traditional beauty. I loved my wild spirit. I loved my freedom. And eventually, whether or not others loved it, I loved myself enough for ten lifetimes’ worth of lovers. It just broke my heart to do it.

***

Getting to that place was really important, because it’s where my story — or at least, the part that’s worth telling — really begins. See, the interesting thing about being an outsider is that once you learn to accept yourself, all of a sudden you have this immense capacity to spot and address other forms of outsiderhood. Eventually, what bothers the hearts and minds of these souls — however different they may be — begins to really bother you. And from that place, with the right set of social supports, together you can do amazing things.

I’ve yet to do something truly noteworthy, but I also firmly believe in encouraging others to own their journeys towards whatever greatness they achieve, and that’s what this essay is about.

Have there been struggles on my journey, both independently and on the path to love? Yes. But have there also been beautiful moments of change and growth? Absolutely. These moments are just complicated by a certain push-pull towards acceptance that only outsiders fully understand.

The issue with being a recovering outsider (always oddball) is that for every inch of inclusion you earn for yourself, you are less likely to want to compromise your place. Think about it.

To this day, my deepest desire is for community, connection, and inclusion. It is my most selfish collection of wants. But balancing these out? An irrepressible, unceasing call to make the world more inclusive for others.

As both an oddball and a human, it’s my responsibility to extend my hand back out to those still struggling to reach the step I’m on, the place I’m in, so that together we might do more than climb every *BLEEPING* day of our lives.

Lofty? Yes. Necessary? You bet.

This isn’t to say I will succeed, or that my attempts have been anywhere near sufficient, but simply that I cannot survive without trying. Even though I frequently tire from my efforts to balance what can feel like two opposing identities, I know that deep down, I am here to move through this struggle, and that this struggle is my purpose.

I also can’t go any further without owning that I didn’t have the words to accurately name my calling until very recently. I had only a dreadful, increasingly generalized feeling of fear. Fear of myself. Fear of having to answer my call alone. Fear of others. Fear of the world into which we are born and by which we are handed a frightening imperative: live.

That kind of fear.

Still, in the face of that fear, I began setting the stage for what would ultimately become my raison d’être: supporting norm-shattering, movement-based progress, starting with accepting my odd little self, and hoping that someone, someday would have the strength to join me in laboring forward together.

But wait! That’s just love! And isn’t love what we all want?

You’re right. In wanting love, I was exactly like all the other little girls, and like every human who enters this mess of earthbound activity we call life. Because no matter our identities or preferences, with the critical distinction that they are non-violent, is love not what it means to live?

Little me could have told us that. I’d venture to guess that most little others could, too. The trouble is, somewhere after playing dress up, we’re taught to forget. It happens in loads of insidious ways. Noticing these ways is what’s made me odd. And while for the longest time I didn’t think my “brand of odd” had a match, as luck would have it, it did.

***

Rewind to childhood.

While I was busy playing my way through some of society’s harshest divisions, the man who would become my husband was roughly 600 miles away taking verbal blows in the schoolyard for being precisely the kind of person I was afraid didn’t exist.

Like me, his early childhood years were largely happy ones, though getting older taught him many hard lessons about individuality and standing up for what is right and good. Already, he was preparing himself to be set apart, to live in a future that many of our peers weren’t ready to see or accept: that only the different become truly great.

When I hear him recount stories from his youth, I am reminded how very similar we’ve been from the start. Refined by the process of refusing to unquestioningly assimilate into a culture that isn’t always accepting, we’ve been individually toughened and collectively softened to the needs of those around us. This shared set of experiences and worldview is a large part of what makes our relationship successful, more than a decade later.

Of course, we’re also very different. I am an extrovert of a native Southerner, thanks to parents who made the auspicious choice to relocate there in the years before my birth. And he, an introverted, native New Yorker, has more generational, geographic, and philosophical ties to the surrounding area than I ever thought possible.

I generally dislike reductivist takes, but suffice it to say that most people are genuinely shocked that we work. Hell, some days we’re pretty shocked, too. After all, ours is a story of making it despite the odds (and, let’s be serious, also ourselves). Curious about what that means? Keep reading.

Deep in the aughts, a college mixer brought us together. But what kept us together? Being of shared, singular mind. Which is to say, by the time we’d arrived at college, we both knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were there for one reason and one reason only: to prepare for law school.

Everything we did was in service of that goal. The rest — including our relationship — was lovely, semi-permanent filler. Why? Because folks with ambitions like ours simply can’t afford to get distracted by anything or anyone. Not even someone with the same un-distractable plans.

And boy, did we have plans …

After graduation, he would enroll in whatever Ivy League school accepted him, before beginning his career in New York. And I would probably land somewhere like the University of Virginia before doing what all Good Southern Girls do … get married and pretend to have a career until I got pregnant (Kidding! Of course I would keep working after babies!). The world’s opportunities would only open up from there.

As far as we were concerned, that all would’ve been more than deserved.

It’s just that life had been making plans, too …

Those who know us know that our lives didn’t turn out that way. At the end of the day, it was me who gained acceptance to an Ivy League program — though it was for a degree in education rather than law, and though I ultimately chose to go elsewhere. And while my husband did eventually become a Manhattan attorney, this was only after attending law school in my hometown, discovering his passion for pursuing justice in financial markets, and becoming the quiet hero he is today.

That’s right, neither of us ended up where we thought we would — up to and including ending up together. Still, this spring — a writer and a lawyer, a New Yorker and a North Carolinian — we celebrated six blissful years of marriage. All because we met, sure … but perhaps more pointedly, because we finally realized the key to our shared happiness.

We’re the same kind of different.

And you don’t just go throwing that kind of love away.

Even if it spoils all your plans.

Even if you stop making plans at all.

That actually sounds pretty good to me.

To the next six(ty), love.

Wishes Upon Joining The Ranks Of Trigenarians

This fall, I entered the vaunted thirties. In case you didn’t know, they’re the new everything. They’re when your life begins. By this time, you will have achieved some sense of normalcy and happiness. You’ll be a fully-fledged, largely secure adult. And even though you’ll be drowning in student loan debt and the rent will always be too damned high, at least you’ll be on your own. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s where it starts to fall apart for me too.

The trouble with being on your own is that you’re also on your own. As in, look out for number one because no one else will. As in, watch your back to avoid an affront. You get it. That is what we’re working towards? So that when we get “there,” to that imaginary definition of success, all we can do is wonder what it was all about? So that we can climb ladders to nowhere, just as alone and afraid as we were at the bottom? Apparently so, since many of us run — not walk — toward it for the duration of our teenage and young adult years. Just like we were taught to do, just like our parents were taught to do, just like their parents and their parents and their parents were taught to do.

I’m no different. I’ve been consciously looking forward to my thirties since the day I turned 21. In those nine years, I mostly thought about life as a series of finish lines to cross. I needed to graduate from college and get a master’s degree (check, check). I needed to explore careers and find a purpose (check, yes!). I needed to settle down with someone I couldn’t imagine life without (check, ❤ Hubs). I needed to be an equal partner in putting down long-term roots (check-ish). I needed to do a lot of things, and while I accomplished many of them, I only recently remembered that life isn’t a checklist. Those are not the standards by which I want to measure my life. At least not any longer.

A journeyer, that’s what I am. I realize this makes me counter-cultural — sometimes even unpopular. I’m okay with that, because I’ve worked really hard to own that identity, and I don’t need validation from others to affirm its worth any longer. I no longer need to engage in the chase, to get caught up in the dizzying work of pursuing what society wants for (read: expects of) me. Because, to be perfectly clear, these demands are more about keeping order than ensuring anyone’s happiness, health, or genuine ties to community — all things I care about deeply. There are simply too many opportunities for creating a meaningful life outside that prescriptive lifestyle. The “highly suggested” route to “the good life” no longer computes for me. Seeing that, I’ve decided to forge my own. Something tells me life is about to get a helluva lot more full.

I should note that privilege is inherent in my position. I am a middle-class white American female. While much has been expected of me, much has also been given. And while I’ve certainly worked really, really hard in this life, before that effort could be expended, my status afforded me opportunities I’d never have to dream of earning. This includes opportunities to reject definitions of success set by the very culture into which I was born and by which I was afforded extra opportunity in the first place.

I also recognize that part of my responsibility in having that privilege is to speak truth on it. I don’t just mean how it affects my life. I mean the ways in which it is organized, systematized, and allowed to continue so that those who control it are also its primary beneficiaries. To clarify, that’s white America, and white America, we can do better, regardless of political party or any other identity marker. We can. We just have to invest our privilege in more than ourselves.

Just so we’re all clear, this is meant to be a positive force. It is not a hall pass to advance division. Division, hatred, and dismantling of systems for the sake of these things alone solves nothing. I hear an awful lot of people on both sides of the aisle encouraging “resistance” as a response to the times. Fewer verbalize what they are resisting, the ways in which they are resisting, and why. That’s scary. I’m also not convinced this is what our ultimate goal should be. Resistance as a tool tends to rest on the foundation of defining ourselves by what we aren’t, and that’s a half-definition at best. What about what we are?

America, we need the other half of that equation in order to move forward, as individuals and as a nation. I’d like to see us all invest more time and energy into a much-needed introspective moment before we do irreparable harm to ourselves. This moment isn’t a good look for us, no matter how we identify. And the world is watching. Closely.

Granted, we all start somewhere and part of doing this work is respecting the journey at every stage it exists, allowing time and space for growth and change. What we can’t wait for is for someone else to start the healing work on our behalf. That someone else is YOU. And you’re needed right now.

This is not to say the work will be quick and easy. No, please don’t mistake urgency for these things. In actual fact, the work is complex and will take a long time. But it’s worthwhile. It’s about protecting our democracy for all citizens, and while this means more than those with white skin or male gender markers, it also must include them. No one is exempt, but no one is left out, either. Quite simply, we must decide if we are 50 states’-worth of people united — or not. I pray it’s the former, and I hope that you can identify and enact at least one way to support it in your corner of the world.

On one level, nothing would make me happier than to see our constitutional system support that effort, to create long-term, positive change for our nation. While it isn’t a perfect system, it is a living system, which means it does its best work when we let it work. It does, however, require periodic maintenance to serve us all, and to serve us well. It can and must grow with us, but before we criticize it too heavily, or assign full blame to documents dating back hundreds of years, I wonder if we might take a moment to think on how many of us actually use our constitutional rights to their full advantage. I’m betting many don’t, and that’s something we can start to change any day we like. Today is as good as any.

On another level, I fear most people will hear that message and think only of elections. This work mustn’t be confined; we can and should invest our energies here, but regardless of whether or not it’s election season, we all have a responsibility to live our values forward every single day. It can’t begin and end every other November. Our votes are not our only opportunities to make our voices heard or our values seen.

The work our country needs must be done daily and with intention. Indeed, it already is, but perhaps we are not aware of the moments when this happens, or how much power individual moments have. Every choice we make is a reflection of our values, of our beliefs, of our greatest hopes and our deepest fears. I ask you, as I often ask myself, what do your choices say about you? Hopefully what you want them to say — and hopefully something that doesn’t imperil your fellow humans.

Here’s the good news. Even if you weren’t happy with your answer to that question, it is never too late to readjust, reaffirm, realign. I have learned that lesson many times in my short life. It’s been one of my favorites — and one I try to keep front-and-center. I use it to examine my past, my present, and my future. Most of the time, it’s helpful. Especially at what feels like large crossroads such as this.

As I look ahead, I hope my thirties are marked by more actions I feel represent my honest, true self. Moments of grace and love, of solidarity and inclusion, of hope and hard work. Sure, I will mess up, I will fall down, and I will make mistakes. But I’ve got to try. More than anything else, arriving at my thirties has given me the confidence — no, the strength of character — to finally do itwhich is a good thing, because I was losing patience with myself for awhile there.

Admittedly, this would not be possible without the support of my world-class family and friends, whose love is so freely and routinely shared. That love makes all things possible. Not just in my life, but in general, for the world. Love transcends movements, it outlasts lifetimes, it alone stands infinite and incorruptible. It is the standard by which I measure everything. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Already, love has formed me into a better self. I have no doubts that it will mould me further still. But before that happens, I’ve got to acknowledge its gifts. They are innumerable, but my best guess is that I’ve received four principal gifts thus far, for which I feel at least halfway undeserving. But maybe that’s the point of it all — maybe we’re all called to grow into the gifts we receive. And, if that’s the case, I pray that we may all come to receive them in whatever form and time they arrive. As for me:

(1) Love lets me know who I am. After 30 years in this body, it’d be a damned shame if I didn’t know myself by now. I’ve still got a laundry list of things to learn, I’m sure, but at this point I’m confident I understand who I am and what I’m here to do. Praise be. The struggle has not been in vain.

(2) Love lets me know what I stand for. At this point, the things I care about most seem to have arranged themselves in a compact but meaningful list. It looks a lot different than most of what I see around me, but you know what? I’m totally fine with that — in fact, I relish it. Do you know how liberating it is to finally step into yourself, stand up for yourself, and have the strength to stand up with others? I pray that you do or otherwise that you will soon.

(3) Love lets me fight for these things, no holds barred. Now that I know who I am and what I stand for, I am no longer capable of exclusively observing the world. I must contribute something of substance. It’s not just a calling, it’s a commandment, one which I finally feel strong enough to answer. Even though I am a nobody. Even though I’m imperfect. Even though I will most certainly fail — repeatedly. There are no more excuses. It’s time.

(4) Love lets me pursue health and happiness along the way. Taking care of the world is a worthwhile enterprise, but if past seasons of my life have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t fight for the big stuff until you take proper care of yourself. I’ve been doing a better job of this, but I have to admit that, until recently, I viewed it mostly as a chore. Now I see it’s a joy. It is a gift to be cherished, and with that knowledge, I will cherish it.

If this is my starting point for the next thirty years (God willing), then life is shaping up pretty well. I’ll continue down the road and see where it takes me. But for now, please permit me to share a brief birthday wish — or perhaps more accurately, a prayer. May we all have what we need to fight the good fight. May we encounter each other more often, learn from each other more often, and support each other more often. May the journeys we start alone find ways to converge, so that together we can proclaim the power of love, a love that knows neither beginning nor end, a love that is boundless, timeless, and ever-present. Amen.

Holiday Preview

Every year, on or about July 1st, my youngest sister texts to let me know that it’s begun. Christmas music has entered her life via every streaming device in her possession — and sometimes, simply within her reach. Gloating immediately follows. She has beaten me to the chase in welcoming the holiday season yet again.

Yes, our season lasts six months. Yes, we are both fully grown adults. We believe that if you can’t have a little fun in life, you’re missing the point. Part of that fun is extending the holiday season. You may therefore be surprised to hear that we’re both late to the party this year. Aside from noting that Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas starts during my birthday week (huzzah!), we’ve failed to advance much further. I count this among our greatest missed opportunities for 2018.

Meanwhile, the holiday season as observed by our saner compatriots draws closer by the day. In Manhattan, preparations have already begun — or so says Husband, who keeps tabs on these things for me now that my base of operations is Long Island. It feels strange that this season I won’t watch the windows come alive daily. In that sense, it’s like I’m in college again, when we’d wait until finals week to go see the city lit up with holiday cheer.

But waiting has always been my problem. I have a forward drive that cannot be stopped. Why, only last week I was struck with full holiday season readiness. By this I mean a strong appetite for cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and the infamous, once-a-year Johnny Appleseed grace we kids grew accustomed to back home. By December, this will give way to an insatiable desire for three more things: a dusting of snow, an overabundance of brightly colored lights, and the scrawniest fir tree you can possibly find.

Alas, here we are. It’s the end of October and none of these things are to be found. Pounds of candy and what feels like a million door-bell-startled dog barks stand between me and the most wonderful time of the year. What gets me through? First, hiding or giving away ALL the candy that questionably-dressed children don’t gorge themselves on by Halloween. Then I’ll run, full tilt, toward all things resembling my preferred holidays. The trick is to give this behavior creative names so it seems like I’m well-mannered and definitely not an impatient winter shrew.

P.S. did we just find my Halloween costume? I think we did. Dibs!

The “holiday preview” meal that inspired this post is absolutely one of those immediately gratifying acts. I’m mentally skipping ahead one month. Who said we have to be bound by the calendar of socially acceptable celebration? Not me! Granted, we can’t go around doing whatever we want all the time, but I have noticed that creating opportunities for happiness, however small, goes a long way in life. That’s why, last week, Husband and I did the unthinkable. We prepared a seasonally inappropriate meal. Just one dish. Just one night. Just for the two of us. Just because. (And yeah, also because my holiday season has been here for quite awhile…).

Give the recipe a read — maybe it’s something to try when we’re all properly yule logging, caroling, and eggnogging the night away in a few short weeks!

The Eats Deets:

Recipe: Spiced Wine-Braised Short Ribs (slightly edited) from Midwest Living. I added a few more carrots than the recipe called for and threw in a pack of mushrooms for good measure.

Yield: Eight short ribs + the fixings.

Time: Half hour prep / three hour cook time.

Materials: Dutch oven, good knife, tongs. Also, if you can count it here, patience.

Pros: Your house will smell like the holidays, eliminating the need for potpourri. Also, it’s a one-pot meal that gets better the next day. And there’s wine. Need I say more?

Cons: This is not a dish for those short on time. I’d advise saving it for a weekend! Please also note that your neighbors may spontaneously show up when the scent of your A+ homemaking wafts down the street. This means your house should be clean before you start cooking. And yeah, go ahead and set out a couple more plates while you’re at it.

Would you make it again? Yes. I might wait until it’s a bit colder, but it’s a definite yes from us. We enjoyed this meal so much that silence descended upon our house from the time I plated dishes until the time Husband lovingly cleared the table. We are never silent during supper. It was just that good.

The Eats Story:

Sorry folks, I cheated and told the story first this time. But you get it. I look forward to the holidays. I sometimes eat seasonally inappropriate foods. I find joy in little things like sharing a meal with people I love. It’s not rocket science. But it matters.

And it matters for you, too. If not this recipe, this month, or this act of self care, then I hope you come to find and practice whatever makes you happy and whole, in the presence of others who support you. Get out there and find whatever makes your hearts and bellies full. I’d call that a win in any season.

The Eats Results:

As I await news from my sister that I’ve lost yet another holiday text competition, please enjoy these photos of our dinner — which could be your next meal in approximately 3.5 hours!

Heritage Farm & Garden

In 2016, my heart broke. The only place on Long Island where I could go to clear my head, feel at home, and know that I was ok, closed. There was no more Martin Viette and I would never be the same. When I later found out that the 42-acre sprawl was scheduled for mixed-use redevelopment, I wanted to throw up, so instead I cried, and vowed never to go back to Muttontown. I simply couldn’t stomach seeing the place I loved turned into something so wrong. If you’ve ever been to this part of Long Island, you’ll know why. If you haven’t, then I encourage you to go, so you can discover that for yourself.

Four months later, my heart broke a little differently. While the commercial plans halted (thank you, Peconic Land Trust), the memory of Martin Viette would not last long either, because another garden center opened almost immediately on this hallowed ground. Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to see the land used in the way it was intended, but I was also worried that the new place would bastardize what made its predecessor so special, that it would be commercial in other ways.

For that reason, I refused to visit Heritage Farm & Garden for almost a year. Despite my own curiosity. Despite what I knew to be beautiful land. Despite my support for local business. Despite Husband’s best efforts to convince me otherwise. I know, I am stubborn. Especially when I am hurting. But, like any other rational being, eventually I can open my mind to other ways of thinking or doing things. And I did. That’s how I found myself at Heritage nearly a year after I swore I’d never go back. That was last fall.

Truthfully, I wasn’t confident I’d made the right choice. My throat closed up and my heart pounded as we pulled up the long drive. I was looking for something, anything, that remained from what once was. I didn’t have to look far. There was the big green lawn where we’d run wild with our dog in seasons past. There was the pen for small farm animals. There was the iconic grey barn, the old truck, and the gravel parking lot across the way. It was all still there. It had different branding. It had changed. But it was there. I let a big breath out and relaxed the tension I’d been carrying around for the past year. My “home visit” was done, it would be ok, and the world would keep turning.

Another year later, elsewhere in Nassau County, I felt that old familiar ache. The air grew crisp and the leaves blazed their first gold and crimson, heralding the start of fall. This season always makes me melancholy. There are loads of emotions and memories — most of them happy, but all of which make me want to go home. Since that’s not possible of late, I longed to be near the closest thing, out in the rolling hills of Muttontown. The longing came on intensely, and as suddenly as the seasons changed, so too did my heart. I knew it was time to go back to Heritage. Not just to visit, but to be there fully, to allow myself joy in our annual pilgrimage. It meant something again.

A brief aside, if you’ll permit: names have meaning. As defined by Merriam-Webster, heritage literally means “something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor.” That can be something literal, as in land or a dwelling or an object. It can also be something bigger and harder to contain, like a legacy. A heritage is something of importance. It is both rooted and carried forward. It is a living, breathing thing. It is not stagnant. It does not disappear, even if it changes. It is borne of us all the time.

This is the case with Heritage Farm & Garden. The history of this place — and I don’t just mean the tax parcel on which its 42 acres sit — must be preserved and respected. But it must also be allowed a new life and legacy, new memories. And actually, allowed isn’t the right word. A heritage is something to be celebrated. That’s exactly what Husband and I intended to do as we hopped in the car, dog in tow, on this sunny Saturday afternoon. We celebrated.

I’m so glad we went. This time, heart fully open, I felt joy as we drove up its gravel path. I wasn’t alone in that feeling. On our approach, Dog shot up from her back seat snooze. She knew exactly where she was. When we opened the door to let her out a few moments later, it was clearly much too late for her liking. She pulled with such force in the direction of all things good that she missed at least one critical opportunity for admiration by children who, hands and bellies full of pumpkins and cider, could only cry out “puppy!” as she jettisoned her way up the parking lot.

She never misses chances like this. That’s just the level of excitement our family embraced this afternoon. We knew, instinctively, that there would be more doting children, and parents, and employees, through the gates. We remembered, though it had been quite some time, the popcorn-dropped paths, the field-spotted farm animals, the large pots and furniture practically made for peering around, the colorful plantings and garden decor freshly curated for the season.

After endless rounds of admiration for Dog, and one small garden flag for Husband and me, we made our way to the cashier, so that we could take this little piece of home, home with us. But, too bad (wink wink), it was there where we discovered our first true surprise from Heritage Farm & Garden. We’ll let you in on the secret. Lean in … listen real good … ready?

The treats have been moved to the outdoor check-out area. Do with this information what you will, but we’re warning you now that it means your seasonal food and beverage favorites are even closer than they were before. It also means that we ultimately walked away with a flag, a decorative pumpkin, a bag of cider donuts, a half gallon of apple cider, and three very full hearts this afternoon. What can you do? Self-restraint isn’t a thing when fall favorites are around.

And I’m glad.

I’m glad there’s still a place where I can go to be at home on Long Island.

And I’m glad that place is Heritage Farm & Garden.

To many, many happy years, family.

We’ll see you soon.

***

P.S. Want to find out more about Heritage? Try their website! You’ll find all sorts of information about their shop and seasonal offerings, like Fall Festival, which runs now ’til October 28th. Or perhaps you’re searching for garden advice? They’ve got that too — head over to their blog.

For an outside perspective, the Syosset Jericho Tribune did a lovely write-up about Heritage’s continued history. Adding to this narrative, with a bit more information about the family who owns it, is an article from the Long Island Press.

Like what you see so far? Give them some love on Facebook (@heritagefng), Instagram (@heritagefarmgarden), or better yet, go visit. The staff are super friendly, and they welcome kids and pets. Yes, they actually like when you bring your dog.

Cue your grammable moment in 3…2…1….

Heritage Farm & Garden

6050 Northern Boulevard

Muttontown, NY 11732

TIME’s “Special Issue on the American South”

“[…] I grew up, as we all did, on tragedy and promise, past and present, myth and music.”

Edward Felsenthal

Editor-In-Chief, TIME

From the Editor,  August 8 / August 13, 2018 Special Issue on the American South

This weekend I sat outside on our not-quite-level, not-quite-presentable, not-quite-sittable porch. Plastic patio furniture and a small outdoor rug made this possible, covering its loose paving stones and the holes between them in a setup that functions less as a disguise and more as a bandage until we can fully address the brokenness.

That the porch is falling apart isn’t a reason for us not to be there. We love it and we know it will take time to shore up its foundation. Even as we’re cursing the coffee that doesn’t sit, the chairs that can’t help but rock, the ankles that won’t do anything but roll, we find joy in this part of our home. It’s broken, but it’s ours. And that means something.

We’re aware of this all the time. But this weekend, as I sat there with my magazine, TIME’s Special Issue on the American South, I was even more tuned in to the irony of my porch enjoyment. The physical experience of sitting on our busted porch is about the closest analogy I can draw to what existing as a native Southerner up North feels like. It’s really hard. And also full of holes that subject people to destabilization, consternation, and occasionally, grief.

Go ahead, chuckle, that was intended. However, the after-effects of my busted porch and Southernness (that I’m a Southerner with a love for porches is not lost on me) can be unsettling, and it would be gauche to laugh at that reality. What reality am I speaking of? It’s complicated, but here’s the short answer.

Best case? People offer unsolicited advice about ways I can improve it (the porch, me), hide it (the porch, me), and maybe — if I’m really, really lucky — manage to convince the powers that be that it (the porch, me) never actually existed in its current state. Worst case? When I am silent, I am complicit. When I speak up, I must be complaining, ungrateful, or — my personal favorite — just not adjusted yet.

Sure, some of my views are unpopular. This is, I believe, largely because they’re uncomfortable. But Heavens to Betsy, if they are uncomfortable, that’s because they are intended to be. As uncomfortable as my opinions may seem to others who seek to silence them, I promise, it is much more uncomfortable to live the experiences that spur their development.

I wish more people would open their eyes to this reality, not so that I am pitied (please, spare us all from that), or that I’m cast aside (one person’s discomfort does not make another’s experiences less valid), but so that we can continue to dialogue and grow in our capacity for solidarity and love. Together. This is important work on the larger scale, but it cannot begin until eyes, hearts, and minds are open to doing it, even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular, even when “likes” and “followers” and “retweets” are on the line.

I acknowledge that this is difficult in our post-modern, teched-up, brand-obsessed, lightening-speed world, a world where you’re only as good as your last win or your competitor’s last loss. I fully see that. I too live in that world. Which is why I know it’s so hard. But I implore us, dear readers, to push past the pressures we put on ourselves, in order to do the work we’re capable of doing once we opt to actually do it. That’s part of why this blog exists, to lean in to those challenges, and to address them from a place of love. Because in the long run, love wins. Every time. Every. Damn. Time. Sometimes, it just takes awhile longer.

What keeps me going? Knowing I am not alone, however alone I sometimes feel. Friends. Family. Neighbors. Occasionally, strangers. Many of whom will go unnamed or unrecognized by the larger world, because these people are here to do the work, rather than get recognized for something that cheapens or exists by proxy of it.

You know proxy work when you see it. It’s what’s done when the right light is shining, at the right time of day, in the correct month of the opportune year, when it’s sexy and exciting and, like, so on-trend. You also know when actual work is being done, which is basically any time the former isn’t. You probably won’t read about it or hear about it. But if you look around, you’ll see it in your everyday lives. Small acts of resistance. Small acts of courage. Small acts of love.

Where can you find them? Get off the internet, first of all. Get out into the world. Form and keep loving, supportive relationships with people and places that you are willing to love and support in return. That, my friends, is one of the greatest privileges any of us will have in our short lives.

Never underestimate the power this brings you. Not just the power of social capital, but the kind of power that exists when you have real humans in your real life who really love you, through whatever ups, downs, successes, failures, opportunities, or challenges come your way. In this may you be blessed — and, of equal importance, may you also realize your blessings.

And then honestly? Sometimes you don’t find blessings, they find you. In this case, TIME’s Special Issue found me, by way of a loving and supportive husband, who knew what I needed in this season of my life. The magazine — by all accounts a national (read: Northeastern) authority, provided a surprise blessing this weekend. I was surprised to get it, sure, but the contents were just as arresting. Boasting inclusions by Jesmyn Ward, and about Stacey Abrams and 31 other incredible humans, all of whom are Southern, it rocked me to my core.

Why? This South wasn’t a South of people who traveled to it or through it, looking only for reasons to react to it for one brief moment in time, on a short assignment or for periodic gain. No, it was a South of Southerners, in all their complexities, however beautiful, turbulent, or painful. Even more importantly, it was a South of Southerners in their own words. Edited, I’m sure. But in their voices just the same.

Please, stop and contemplate the magnitude of that reality. Someone in New York City, the cultural capital of the Northeast (or, as many New Yorkers will tell you, of the world), decided that this was something worth pursuing. Which means that someone in New York City thought that New York City wasn’t the only place with opinions worth hearing, stories worth telling, histories worth teaching.

I assure you, this is radical. It’s also just. Which is exactly why, through most of my Saturday afternoon spent reading on that old, busted porch, I cried. I cried tears of relief and exhaustion. Tears of acceptance and renewal. Tears of knowing that, for one brief shining moment, someone in New York City suggested that, perhaps, the South deserves another read, and for reasons that may surprise its readers.

This is an important moment in our cultural history, America. And, contrary to what we’re taught in school, our history is not over. In fact, it is constantly unfolding, and we are the actors. We are the ones who will decide what our children and their children and their children learn. What do we want them to remember? Why? With whom? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. Many already do, and it shows in their work, whether or not the rest of us are aware of it yet.

Meanwhile, we can do more to help this work come into focus, and garner the attention and support it deserves, in all its forms and places. That’s the other part of why this blog exists. I sincerely wish that more people knew about the forward motion already in progress — and, to clarify, this work is far from new. No single person has “the answer” to any of our most intractable problems, just as no single person can take credit for our most glorious successes. It is our responsibility to recognize good work around us, and to give credit where it’s appropriately due, especially when that work is not our own.

I’m talking about the work incredible humans have done over decades, over centuries, to elevate our understanding, further our conversations, and improve our treatment of each other. Oftentimes, this work comes from places that “mainstream” America might not have guessed. Politicians and academics, sure, but also chefs, nonprofit founders, novelists, struggling neighbors working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you name it. And again, to be perfectly clear, it’s not always White, Middle-Class Men in these roles. The people changing history are not always those in positions of power.

If you’re wondering whattttt?, then I encourage you to dig a bit deeper in whatever learning or research you may have already started. Once you do, you’ll find that the examples are too numerous to count. To reduce them to a list here would be to miss the point almost entirely.

First, I’m not in the business of ranking people. Second, I’m not in the business of prescribing explicit instructions for anyone’s journey through life. I am in the business of asking questions that could inspire journeying in the first place. Especially knowing how transformative journeying together can be.

To that end, I hope this space is not your destination, but your beginning, or perhaps your renewal. We are all here to learn, to listen, and to love greater than we did the day before. If this space takes us even one small step forward, then I will have succeeded. This is  — and I am — a work in progress.

And I know I cannot do this alone. So, I would like to issue a commendation, share a thank you, and offer a prayer that this good work continues. Not just with TIME, but with other people who find the courage to present stories that are complex (be wary of the term “real”). It must continue, but the work must also grow, it must welcome new voices, it must act in fact how it purports to believe and do elsewhere.

Make no mistake. This is difficult work. It comes with as many scuffs and bruises as it does medals and successes. But that is where the magic happens. In that uncomfortable, unruly, unpresentable growth. Not just when it’s timely, not just when it’s relevant, not just when it looks good. But now, because it’s critical, and because it always has been.

Before we go, I wish for you: a profound, abiding love for your roots, wherever and however deep they grow. May you also know love for the roots of others. May you recognize that love takes work, but may you also possess the courage it takes to practice it daily. Because that alone is a blessing worth examining, worth protecting. No matter where you call home. God Speed.

***

P.S. To find this Special Issue, visit TIME’s website here.

To discover why TIME created this issue, read Edward Felsenthal’s From the Editor here. You might recognize the opening quote from this piece if you read his.

And, if you don’t know much about Mr. Felsenthal, here’s some more information from TIME’s Media Kit. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a Southerner.

Wright’s “Last Ride to Graceland”

“I’m proud to be a southerner, which isn’t always a fashionable thing to say.”

Cory Beth Ainsworth, p. 91

Last Ride to Graceland

I’ve been living in New York for awhile. Long enough to build a life, long enough to feel at home, long enough for a lot of good things to happen. But also long enough to forget. That’s right. I’ve been living here so long that, occasionally, I forget what it’s like to be home.

I forget what Fourth and Trade are like on Friday nights in the summer. I forget what cicadas sound like in the backyard. I forget that bluegrass isn’t just a trope, that BBQ isn’t just food we heat on the grill, and that not all the best stories are short. I’ve lived here long enough to forget what the South is like, who I am, and the places I am from. It scares the crap out of me every time.

When this happens, I cry. Usually big, ugly tears. And then I text or call Husband, who is as familiar with this travesty as my retelling of it. He is a good listener — a rare breed among New Yorkers — so he dutifully listens to me spew, careful not to interrupt or mansplain, and only once I’m all cried and storied out, he helps me remember why I can’t let myself forget.

Then I dig real deep, gather my courage, and go hunting. What for? My Southern voice, my Southern ear, my Southern roots, my Southern self. Where do I find it? Usually at bookstores, filed under “regional interest” or tossed in the discount bin.

Yeah, don’t get me started on those politics. We’d be here all day! But I do sometimes wonder, do New Yorkers feel this way in Southern stores? Not just with books, but with everything else they miss, things that aren’t as commonplace in their adoptive homes and road trip pit stops? Do they find the essence of their beings being as deeply discounted as mine? And if they do, is it also on the regular?

This stuff isn’t talked about in my circles, but I’d venture to guess that we are more alike than different, sisters and brothers from north of the line. I bet somewhere out there, a New Yorker is just as afraid of forgetting, just as aware of her/his unique way of being in the world. And that sort of thing is something we need to pay attention to. Maybe we all have a responsibility to help our neighbors. Scratch that. Not maybe. We definitely do.

Anyway, this week was one of those weeks for me. A week of lonely forgetting. A week of discounting. A week of searching everywhere for a clue that maybe, just maybe, being me was OK on this island. A clue more than people saying they were inclusive. A clue that people actually are.

These clues are hard to find, but thankfully I am resourceful and determined. I fight for the things I care about. Because of that, I found something. This week’s clue? Kim Wright’s Last Ride to Graceland. I won’t give away any spoilers, but she had me from page one. Rare. After that, I took the book home and read voraciously. I read like there wasn’t going to be another clue, another book, another home to be had. And you know what? It was the best homecoming I’ve had in awhile.

The only issue? Now I wish I really was home. If that were the case, I could tell Kim Wright how grateful I am, how necessary she is, and how much I wish other people knew this too. But for now I find joy in remembering. For one more day, I don’t forget. For one more day, the South is alive and well. For one more day, I can visit Carolina In My Mind.

And it’s glorious.

***

For more information about Elvis and Graceland, check this resource out.

For Kim Wright’s reflections on her trip, and its connection to the book, familiarize yourself with this post over at South Writ Large.

For more information about the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, which Last Ride to Graceland was the 2016 recipient of, do some reading over here.

For a review of this book from the Charlotte Observer (Wright is a Charlotte resident), mozy on over to this link.

And for some other female, Carolina-based authors you might consider adding to your bookshelf, check out Authors out of Carolina over here.

P.S. Why is it that larger (read: national) newspapers don’t cover Southern literature until it’s as “well known” as The Help? Maybe someday, someone will change that.

Food for thought.

The Surprising Power of Pinterest

Pinterest is my favorite (anti)social media platform. I love to vision, to collect, to create. And I love to revision, recollect, and recreate. Pinning allows me to do what I do best: be in progress. And with that approach, the applications are truly endless.

These days, I use it mostly for home inspiration and visioning our lives forward. Those of you who’ve followed me on this or previous journeys know that Husband and I live partly between two worlds. We dream of living fully in both of them. A predicament. We aren’t there yet, and may not be for awhile, but until then, Pinterest allows us to move closer in spirit. And I don’t just mean toward our goals.

Husband and I are first-time homeowners. A couple years back, we bought a beautiful “fixer” in a place many people would love to live. The neighborhood is super-established and actually, I’m still shocked they let us buy here, because it’s one of those places where families spend generations in the same home.

When we closed, we knew we had years — maybe even decades — of work ahead of us. It was a challenge we took on fully and with love. In the relatively short time since, it’s already seen some massive changes. The house breathes again and with each project, it grows stronger. That brings our hearts such joy. But the process hasn’t always been easy.

For as much as Husband and I are well-suited, we are also very, very different. I’m the extrovert to his introvert. I’m the free spirit to his rule seeker. I’m the explorer to his homebody. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, building a home together — especially when you approach it as restorative like we do — can be challenging.

We have all the difficult time, budget and style discussions most couples do. But we have them twice over, once for our lives in his home and once for our lives in mine. Finding balance is really hard, and as we’ve discovered, so is moving from the theoretical to the concrete. They don’t teach you about home renovation or how to build the perfect bi-state lifestyle in school or in pre-cana.

Lucky for us, Pinterest helps fill the gap. It allows us to daydream, search, and ultimately plan for the lives we want to construct, in a process that’s as healthy and iterative as our actual lives. The importance of that gift cannot be overstated. Sure, we have these big, sometimes impossible-feeling dreams, but with a little help from crowdsourcing and my love for organization, we’re beginning to find that some of those dreams are (dare I say it?) becoming a reality. In celebration of that milestone, I offer this ode to Pinterest and the joy-filled life it helps us build together. Here we go. Pinterest, thanks for giving us the push we needed to:

(1) Replace pining with pinning. For the longest time, I had zero faith that we could afford to build a life in New York. Then we found our neighborhood and our house found us. Part of that was our stellar realtor, and part of that was my by-then obsessive pinning. Before we knew what we were looking for, Pinterest helped us narrow our list of “must haves” and “nice ifs” down to something manageable. The result was really close to the place we call home.

Recently, we outgrew unflattering pining of another variety. As we started to feel that familiar itch, it was reassuring to know that we could replace the pine with a pin … or two … or, I believe, 55. But who’s counting? In all seriousness, no matter where this road takes us, with any luck we’ll end up just as happy, in a completely different way, in the not-too-distant future.

(2) Build on tradition for the modern age. Our home was built a hundred years ago — really. That was part of what drew us to the house. Two other families, and three generations, called it home before us, and in some ways it showed. Lime green paint from the ’70s? Check. All over the house? Check. Early 1900s tile adhered directly to plaster walls in the bathroom, with no hope for removal except by professionals? Check.

Needless to say, we have some work to do. But we don’t want to lose the character and charm of our home in the process. So, keep the picture railing and vaulted ceilings? You bet. Pick neutrals that are both easy on the eye and get the historical stamp of approval? Of course.

We aren’t rolling in dough, so we won’t be hiring an interior designer, but we absolutely can pin away to our hearts’ content. Things like paint colors, period pieces, and old blueprints for similarly-styled Dutch colonials? They’re all there, alongside plans for the renovated kitchen, bathrooms, and garage we hope to one day have. Part of the joy in owning an older home is adding your page to its long history of style. But in our case, first we needed to ….

(3) Arrive at a common style. I tend to be more casual and minimalist. Husband tends to favor things more formal and traditional. When we first got married, we lived in this insanely small apartment in the city and there wasn’t much to argue about, because not much would fit in the space.  When we bought our house, that changed.

Suddenly, as we started to fill rooms, it became clear that we weren’t on the same page. Trips to the store or online shopping weren’t fun, they were torturous for both of us. Part of that was the struggle to imagine individual pieces in rooms with barely anything else in them. And part of that was that we didn’t want to admit we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.

When we’d had enough of that charade, Pinterest was there for us yet again. I pinned things I thought I’d like, things I thought he’d like, and led weekly reviews each Sunday. Over brunch and every single show on the Food Network, we kept what worked and culled what didn’t. And guess what? A style emerged. I think designers call it “contemporary coastal.” We call it a miracle.

I recognize that Pinterest didn’t do this for us. However, it made our process of home-making a lot easier than it would’ve been otherwise. Checking to see if something  meshes with the vibe? Yep, we did that. Searching for an image of something your loving partner can’t quite visualize in the space? Yep, we did that. Wishing we had done so before rushing out to buy something that ultimately didn’t work? Yep, we did that too.

While all this was going on — and yes, it was a lot — Husband and I didn’t even realize that something else, something far more important was happening. Sure, we respectfully refreshed the house, but we also refreshed our relationship. Our marriage was strong beforehand, but this process taught us how much more learning and growing we could do together. Frankly? That’s what marriage is about. Did we need that reminder? Hell yes.

Now, nearly two years, hundreds of pins, and what feels like endless home improvement projects later, we sit in our living room and enjoy each other’s company, taking in the progress we’ve made. And while one of us occasionally asks how we’ve managed to do it all, by the time Sunday rolls around, we both remember. The secret to making home is right beside us, and has been all along. It’s us, with a little help from Pinterest.

Swyler’s “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

***

P.S. Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.