Saturday, November 22, 2014

New Dreams, New Medicines

 

Linda Hogan

“New Dreams, New Medicines”: CALL FOR DONATIONS OF ART, BOOKS, & OTHER TREASURES

Dear Friends of Linda Hogan:

As you have heard, Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer and environmental activist, is in South Dakota helping her granddaughter deal with the sudden, unexpected death of her 8-year-old daughter Jayla (Linda’s great-granddaughter).  Kim Shuck and Deborah Miranda are putting together a blog for donations to help Linda cover her expenses both in South Dakota and back home in Colorado.  Linda recently lost her job and has been taking writing students and literary reading/teaching gigs, but right now she’s unable to make or keep those kinds of commitments.

We realize that many people want to donate to Linda but are short of cash.  If you are an artist or writer and have something you would like to donate on the blog for others to receive in exchange for monetary donations - with ALL proceeds going DIRECTLY to Linda Hogan - here is our proposal:

1.     Take a clear photograph of the item.
2.     In an email, write a brief description of that item & suggested donation amount in dollars (no more than 50 words, please)
3.     In your email, state that you want to donate this item to benefit Linda Hogan
4.     send photo as email attachment to: NewMedicines4Linda@gmail.com
5.     Be prepared to mail that item anywhere in the U.S. (i.e., you donate postage).

Suggested donations: signed books, handmade jewelry, small paintings/collages, small carvings, baskets, CDs … keeping things to an easy-to-mail size is key for this to work.  These items don’t need to have been made by you; there are no restrictions; these are just ideas.

The blog, “New Dreams, New Medicines,” is under construction right now.  The name is taken from Linda’s novel Solar Storms: 

"We had to believe, true or not, that our belated victory was the end of something. That one fracture we had healed, one crack mended, one piece back in place ... we had thrown an anchor into the future and followed the rope to the end of it, to where we would dream new dreams, new medicines, and one day, once again, remember the sacredness of every living thing" (351).

We hope that this small project will put some cash in Linda’s pocket for expenses, bills, travel, animal care, and the innumerable things that come up in times of loss.  It would be wonderful to have a stock of items ready to post on the blog when it opens (probably Tuesday, November 25).

Nimasianexelpasaleki, Deborah Miranda, Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation

Wa-do, Kim Shuck (Tsalagi and Goral)


A temporary PayPal donation site is here!  We'll move this over to the new blog as soon as the blog is up.



Friday, November 21, 2014

Yarzeit

This morning I lit the yarzeit (memorial) candle.  My mother, Madgel E. Miranda, died on November 21, 2001.  She was only sixty-six years old by the calendar.  If we counted years by pain and hardship and grief, she was much much older.

Even though it has now been thirteen years since Mom passed on, I still find references to her in genealogy forums on the internet.  “New” messages, or new to me, as I retrace her research for my ancestors, still pop up, and it seems that everywhere I think of to search, Mom has already been there.  I kind of love that.  Love that our minds follow the same paths, that I am following behind her.  It makes her feel closer, as if she hasn’t really been gone more than a decade.


Things My Mother Taught Me


Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough;
baking soda polishes rings bright again.
Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

If hamburger’s sparse, cut with stale bread or a potato.
Take in strays.  Pay the vet.  Say amen.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.

Look the clerk in the eye over food stamps, as though
survival and revenge are close friends.
Four roads to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

Weed the garden when angry; kneel in each long row.
Zucchini’s one thing you don’t have to defend.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.

Drop everything and pick when the blackberries glow.
Write letters of protest.  Root for underdogs.  Like alone.
Four ways to payday: beans and rice, flour and Crisco.

Bring your mother home to die so your daughter knows
love is stronger than what cannot be forgiven.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.
Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.




(Deborah Miranda, The Zen of La Llorona)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Epilepsy Awareness Month: My Turtle Girl


"Epigenetics, a relatively new field in science, could help define the causes of Autism and offer up new modes of treatment for the disorder, as well as other diseases like cancer, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression governed by the epigenome, the cellular material that sits on top of our genetic code. The epigenome does not change the genetic code inscribed in our DNA; rather, it activates or silences genes through the mobilization of molecules called methyl groups. These chemical changes are triggered by our environment. Toxins, pollutants, changes in diet, deficiencies in prenatal nutrition, and exposure to stressors alters the way our genes are expressed through the epigenome."  Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) 

I became a grandmother in March 2013, and it has changed me in all the ways that you might expect: I am now a drooling, grandbaby-picture-carrying, buy-that-cute-outfit-NOW fool.  Georgia is a real beauty, both in body and spirit, with her mom's beautiful eyes and skin and her daddy's sassy dark curls.  A glorious mix of North American and South American tribes (her father is Venezuelan), this is one awesome human being.

It took awhile for that glorious shine to dim enough for us to realize that somewhere around five months of age, Georgia was having some trouble with her vision; she also wasn't grasping objects, wasn't hitting the developmental milestones.  The pediatrician kept reassuring her parents that not all babies develop at the same pace, and to be patient.  But finally my daughter was able to catch an unusual pattern of movements on video, and take it to the pediatrician.  He had them at the Children's Hospital neurology department within an hour.  Georgia was having seizures.

To make a long story short (and it has been long, and working with doctors and the medical industry has been exhausting for my daughter, even in Washington State, which had health coverage well before the Affordable Care Act), Georgia was diagnosed with Infantile Spasms, a form of epilepsy. 

After trying several medications, which wasted precious time, one of them finally worked, and after that, a different one took care of a new kind of seizure (it's not uncommon for IS kids to have a variety).  "Whew, out of the woods," we thought.  She might have a longer path towards steady development, but at least the seizures were gone.

But Georgia's development continued to be slow, and my daughter kept pushing for more genetic testing (the first two tests had come back negative for any abnormalities); her Washington State insurance balked, as this is very expensive and there had been no results.  Finally, and blessedly, the genetic lab agreed to treat Georgia's test as research, thus freeing them up to do a really in-depth genetic search of both parents and the baby. 

They were looking for a recessive gene, something both Miranda and her husband might carry.  We thought, how could two people from completely different continents possibly have a rare recessive gene in common?!  But what else could explain Georgia's difficulties? 

ADSL.  Adenylosuccinate lyase deficiency.  It's a very rare condition - probably fewer than 100 people are known to have it right now - and it is, indeed, a recessive gene, carried by both of Georgia's parents. 

Hello, Creator?  Just what the heck are you up to??

Last night, I saw a cute photograph of a little girl Georgia's age on Facebook.  My sister-in-law, Nina, and I became grandmothers right around the same time, and it is a joy to share photos with each other.  But yesterday what I saw was a little girl standing up, playing peek-a-boo with an sweet little hat, looking into the camera and smiling. 

Sometimes it takes me by surprise.  I mean, my grief over my granddaughter's long struggle toward simple accomplishments like sitting.  Standing.  Holding objects.  Making eye contact.  Speaking.  I said something about it to Margo, my wife, who was sitting on the sofa with me.  She reached over and patted me gently.  She knew there was nothing to say.  One little tear slipped out of my left eye.  A deep, indigo sadness swept through me, quiet and unspeakable. 

Then I thought of how it must be to be Georgia's mother, and have to deal with all this rage and grief every minute of the day while still staying on top of multiple doctor's appointments, PT, OT, and eye specialist, medications, insurance, SSI, and a husband who can't work because he hasn't yet gotten a green card.  I thought about my daughter's reality, how much she loves Georgia, all of her determination that Georgia will be okay.  And I didn't let myself cry anymore.

Instead, I got out of FB and went back to work updating Turtle Girl Jewels.  This is a blog I made to tell Georgia's story, and to sell jewelry that I make as a way to supplement rent and utilities, developmentally-challenging toys and materials, for my Turtle Girl.  When I finished that, I pulled the bookshelf next to the sofa over to me, and out came the boxes of beads.

Making the jewelry is a meditation for me at the end of a day of teaching and talking and grading and prepping: I sit quietly on the sofa with my wife and we indulge in brain-candy TV, chat about our days, while I spread beads out and play.  Or pray.  Beading is a kind of prayer.  Other Native women I know are true beading artists: I am not even in their league.  But I love the feel of abalone beads, and the sound of glass and silver and wood and turquoise and jade clicking against each other.  And into each piece, I put a little bit of my love for my granddaughter.  A little of my hope.  A little of my determination.  And a little petition.

We never plan for catastrophe; no, not even those of us who have been through it already.  We never think it will happen to us.  Until it does.  And then we think, why me?  Why my child?  Why?

Some days I wonder, which ancestor did this gene come from?  My research turned up this interesting fact:  Recent data on the number of Native American patients seen for epilepsy per 1,000 persons indicate a high prevalence, more than double that for the United States as a whole.  Is that how this gene found its way to my daughter, and my granddaughter?  Did it come through me?  I have always thought of my ancestors, even (sometimes especially) those 'bad Indians' who broke laws and committed crimes (sometimes, against each other), to be my source of strength. They have guided me, spoken to me, taught me.  Taken me through some of my darkest moments by their own examples of strength.  

But did one of them carry this gene, too? Part of me wonders, is this genetic material the result of long-term physical, mental, spiritual trauma from disease, starvation, violence? (For an educational look at contemporary health care and Native epilepsy, read Closing the Distance: Native Americans and Epilepsy.)  I know that for California Indians, the introduction of a European strain of syphilis caused not just sterilization, but stillborns and genetic mutations; my great-great-great grandmother, Severiana, was born with only three fingers on each hand (and she was the only infant out of her mother's twenty children to survive infancy).  

In her article "Epigenetics: Scientific Proof of Historical Trauma," Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa, as well as pro-bono tribal attorney and a science professor) writes,  
Epigenetics may provide hard scientific evidence of intergenerational trauma among American Indians and link it directly to diseases that currently afflict us, like cancer and diabetes. The term "intergenerational trauma" has been used to describe the cumulative effects of trauma experienced by a group or individual that radiates across generations. For natives, intergenerational trauma has presented itself in the form of genocide, disease, poverty, forced assimilation via removal of children from their families to boarding schools, the seizure and environmental destruction of homelands, and other routes of European colonization.
Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/11/26/epigenetics-scientific-evidence-intergenerational-trauma
Hopkins, whose son has a form of autism, goes on to add that 
We can use epigenetic inheritance to restore the action of our genetic code from one generation to the next. Once environmental stressors are removed and behavior is corrected, our DNA will revert to its original programming. We could cure diabetes through behavioral changes that allow our epigenome to operate correctly. The elimination of toxins and pollutants could greatly reduce the incidence of cancer and birth defects. Such modification of environmental exposures and behaviors will restore and even improve the overall health and capacity of our genetic line. As for my son, further research in epigenetics may soon decipher the specific mixture of genetics and environmental exposures that lead to Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Epigenetics.  Who knew.  When I read this article, I felt nauseous.  Sickened by the depth of what colonization can still do to us.  If our ancestors did carry this epigenetic scarring, I know it was beyond their ability to control - like so much of colonization.

I hope the Ancestors are watching over Georgia.  Despite her diagnosis, this kid is feisty, happy, and dear.  Sassy is her middle name.  (No, really: it is!)  Her personality shines even though she doesn't make eye contact.  She emits joy from every pore of her body.  She is usually a happy, smiley little girl.  Perhaps when she laughs, its because some ancestor is clowning it up for her.  Perhaps it is simply who she is: all love.



I don't know.  I wish I had answers for my daughter.  I wish I could be there every single day.  I wish I could make this all better.  That's what moms and grandmas are supposed to do, right?

Instead, I go to work every day.  I help my daughter with rent, utilities.  I bead at night.  I carry Georgia and her mom in my body with me.  I look at photographs of my mother and grandmother, both passed, and ask for their help. 

I understand, now, more about being human than ever before.  How much of life simply does not come with words.  How some things are a mystery, inexplicable, beyond us.  I'm beginning to understand that we can't understand everything, we can't make sense of everything.  We can't fix everything. 

This goes against all that I've ever learned about being human in the last fifty-three years. As a child of trauma, as someone who worked her way out of poverty, abuse, this - helplessness? - is a demon I'm not sure I will ever lay to rest.  I'm not sure I can simply sit back and love.  I am not a 'let go and let God' kind of girl.  I do.  I fix.

And I write, even when the words I need have not yet been invented.

It's Epilepsy Awareness Month.  Believe me.  I'm aware.














Saturday, November 1, 2014

Letter from a Confederate General's Great-Great-Granddaughter

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November 1, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

I write to recommend that the faculty of Washington and Lee University vote to suspend classes for Martin Luther King Day. 

I tell you this based on my experiences as a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay Area in California; but I also recommend suspension of classes in my other, less-visible identity as a direct descendent (on my mother’s side) of Confederate General RichardMontgomery Gano, a slave-owner.  Gano is my Great-Great Grandfather.


My Confederate inheritance is neither as visible as my Native American identity, nor is it something that I have given much thought to – until coming to W&L ten years ago. 

I want to try to tell you what it is like to negotiate these two identities as part of my argument for suspending classes for MLK Day.

Last week, I attended a lecture by hip-hop scholar James Braxton Patterson.  During the Q&A, a question from a W&L student asked (and I'm paraphrasing), "Why does hip-hop work to exclude me?" 

I was embarrassed that one of our students had asked something revealing so much ignorance and privilege.  The student was a young white male, articulate and well-educated, and yet he had no idea of the depth of either his privilege or his ignorance.  It was a painful moment for me, as an educator and as a Native woman.

In fact, it was the kind of micro-aggression that I, and other people of color (as well as those not obviously 'marked' as 'different' - Jews, glbtq, white women) face on a daily basis in the larger world, and often on an hourly basis at Washington and Lee, where privilege often prevents students from realizing their full intellectual abilities.  James Patterson, to his credit, gave the student a fully informed response about the work of artists in the world, who they are and are not responsible to, and only at the end gave the most obvious reply:  welcome to my world.  How does it feel to be excluded?

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I sat in a back row and punched my fist into the air.  It felt so good to have somebody say that.  Out loud.  In public.

Let me add here that I could give you dozens of other scenarios and personal experiences over my last ten years as a professor here: the time that I was stopped by a staff member from entering a Dean's luncheon because "this is only for professors," or the time one of my creative writing students submitted a story about Confederates marching through a field full of enslaved Africans, who cheered the return of "their" men; or the several students over the years who have asked me to explain how they might prove "some Indian blood" and get scholarships for grad school.

None of these incidents came out of intentional mean-spiritedness; but they were all part of a pervasive, uninformed cultural world view that is deeply exhausting for those of us whose lives are directly affected.  Now in my eleventh year at W&L, I find myself worn down by such incidents, large and small.

Last week’s hip hop lecture, the debate over MLK Day, reminded me that somehow, I have lived fifty-three years without making the connection between having a Confederate General for a Great-Great Grandfather, and wondering whether or not this ancestor owned human beings.  Ignorance – it’s so easy to ignore, isn’t it? General Gano crossed my mind like a great big gray elephant in the sky, and for the first time, it hit me: he was from a wealthy Southern family.  The Ganos must have been slave owners.  Why had I never thought to look? 

Within five minutes of entering the search terms “General Gano Confederate slaves” into Google, I uncovered mention of my Great-Great Grandfather in The Federal Writers’ Project archive. His name came up in the interview of Hattie Mason, a Black woman who was born a slave.  Hattie and three of her siblings were “given” to Richard M. Gano’s wife Martha as a wedding gift; Hattie and her siblings traveled with the Ganos from Kentucky to Texas as slaves in that household.

In 1936, the year after my mother was born, Hattie Mason told a woman from The Federal Writers’ Project,


           
 Let me tell you, I am ashamed of the relief I feel at reading this brief narrative, which seems to put my Great-Great-Grandfather into the position of a “good master.”  (Wait.  Did I just write that?)  Of course, earlier in the narrative, Hattie also tells the interviewer that when her brother married the slave of a neighboring farmer, that brother was sold to the neighbor.  Hattie may not have seen slaves “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of having family members sold away like livestock.

Look, I just did it: the classic “passive voice” that creates historical ignorance with one hand and historical trauma with the other. 

Revision:  Hattie may not have seen slaves “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of seeing my great-great-grandfather sell away a member of her family like livestock.

What do I do with this information?  How does it change how I think about myself as a woman of color?  Should I be ashamed of my Gano ancestry, which comes to me through my beloved grandmother?  Should I hide it, never speak of it, emphasize instead the Native Ancestors from whom I have always drawn such strength?  Even my “bad Indian” Ancestors  -- thieves, alcoholics, murderers -- have been examples of resistance and survival to me.  But what do I do with a slave-owning Confederate General?!

This week, I have realized that this new information allows me to feel compassion for the ways that American culture and education have failed us all. 

This week, I had to imagine another kind of life for myself, a life in which my father’s Native American legacy was absent or did not become part of my identity – a life in which my Great-Great Grandfather’s role as a Confederate General and as slave-owner might have been held up to me by my family and my culture as a model of courage, loyalty and empowerment.  If General Richard Montgomery Gano had not moved from Texas to Illinois, and if his son Daniel, my Great-grandfather, had not moved to Nebraska, and if Doris Gano, my grandmother, had not moved to California, where my mother was born and where she met my Native American father, I might very well have been a child raised in ignorance, unaware (and not needing to become aware) of inequality, injustice, and the ugly foundations of this country.

Instead, history happened.  History put me in a body that could not pass as white, and the mysterious thing we call identity resonated with genocide rather than Confederate generals.  It’s really scary when you start to think of genocide as a lucky thing to inherit.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  But my position as a minority woman really does give me insights and experiences that most mainstream, straight white people do not have – at least, about race.  And for that bloody gift, I am grateful.

In California, fourth graders still make cute little mission dioramas with “Mission Indians” adoring the Padres and working the fields, while “restored” Missions play a huge part in Southern California’s tourism economy; this, despite the fact that we know the Missionization of California Indians killed 90% of the pre-contact population and laid the groundwork for ongoing poverty, suicides, sexual violence and illiteracy that plague California Indians today.  Students in California are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that California’s history and wealth is built on the backs of dead Indians.

Sound familiar?  In Lexington, we are still arguing over the legacies of slavery, using euphemisms like “antebellum” and “state’s rights” while encouraging tourism that perpetuates a mythology much like that of my home state.  Children here are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that Virginia’s history and wealth is built on the backs of slaves, and that historical trauma is perpetuated by a multitude of intentional and unintentional forms of racism.

So for me, honoring MLK Day with the cancellation of classes as we do for many other honorable causes is a no-brainer.  Sometimes it's as simple as being able to say: my university honors the struggle for civil rights and equality for people of color the same way it honors its white heroes.  Would that help when I struggle to attract students to literature classes featuring predominantly non-white authors?  or when I enter a faculty meeting and scan the room for another person of color?  or when I counsel a glbtq student being teased because of "dressing like a boy"?

Actually, yes.  Yes it would.  It wouldn't bring about world peace or cure cancer, but it would sure make it easier for me to walk around a little less burdened by the history of this place; it would make it easier for me to recruit job candidates and answer their questions about the atmosphere and culture of Lexington and W&L; it would feel like my colleagues care about my well-being and the well-being of a university entering the twenty-first century with an agenda for reality.

It would make it more possible for me and other non-mainstream scholars to come, to stay, to educate, to recruit, and to continue making W&L an outstanding institution.

But it would also do something important that we often overlook in these discussions:  it would allow us to educate our students, all of our students, with clarity of intent and purpose, about the realities of life in this country for all people.  It would help create better citizens, stronger scholars, and more aware human beings by removing ugliness from hidden corners and from beneath invisibility cloaks.  A legal, officially recognized holiday for a Black man who fought against the legacies of slavery is a way of accepting the responsibilities which being a citizen of the United States requires, and of teaching those responsibilities to our mostly privileged students.

Putting MLK Day on W&L’s calendar puts our struggle against inequality on the map, on the academic agenda. It acknowledges our awareness, officially recognizes our efforts, in the same way that other historic efforts are recognized. 

Put aside discussion of the logistics for now.  We juggle logistics every day; it’s what we get paid to do.  We’ve got a university full of smart people who can find a way, make a way.

What matters is this:  What is the right thing to do?

Respectfully,

Deborah Miranda

Dr. Deborah A. Miranda, John Lucian Smith Professor of English
204 W. Washington St.
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Birth - Day

 



October 22, 2014


Dear Mom,


It’s my birthday.  I’m fifty-three years old today.  (You would be seventy-nine if you were still around.)  We would have celebrated this: the way I beat the odds, and continue to do so.  We would have celebrated because I was never supposed to be born.  I was never supposed to survive.  And I was never supposed to be who and what I am now: a functional and mostly happy human being.

Fifty-three years ago today, you are tucked into a bed at UCLA Hospital wondering what the hell is holding me up.  Your water had broken the night before, and there had been a mad scramble in the apartment to get my older half-siblings to babysitters or grandparents, a hot pan of sizzling fried chicken shoved into the refrigerator (my dad’s favorite story about still being freaked out at the birth of his fifth child), and get you safely delivered to the hospital.  It all worked out, as those things do, and then without warning, the womb and I simply stop our little dance and go back to sleep.  The nurses tell you, “Just use this chance to get a good night’s sleep,” and maybe you do, or maybe you are too uncomfortable, or maybe, because UCLA is a teaching hospital and you are one of their prize guinea pigs, you spend the night tossing and turning in between a variety of tests and monitoring nurses.

A year before this, you’d gone to a Catholic hospital to ask about some spotting, and gotten two unexpected diagnoses:  first, you were pregnant, and second, you had uterine cancer.  Without telling you, doctors gave you an abortion; when you came out of the recovery room, they wanted to discuss treatment for the cancer.  You protested; they asserted you could never have carried the baby to term, and now that you would probably never be able to conceive again anyway, their recommendation was that you have a hysterectomy.

You walked out.  I’ll never know exactly what was going through your head at that moment, but I do know that it was an extremely stubborn head.  So it’s no surprise to me that within a few months you were, again, pregnant and had agreed to be part of a study at UCLA Hospital in exchange for free prenatal care and delivery.  It is a bit of a surprise that despite cancer, smoking, drinking, caring for two older children and working full-time, you still managed to carry me a full nine months, but then, we come from a long long line of tenacious survivors.

At any rate, it is now the morning of October 22nd, 1961, and you wake up to a world going to hell in a hand basket while you are trying to kick-start your fourth child’s birth.  There is the “Berlin Crisis” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which starts today over something trivial and, by my first birthday, turns into the Cuban Missile Crisis.  There is the Haiti “election” in which Duvalier is elected unanimously by having his name and only his name printed on the ballot.  There is Chubby Checker, performing his hit “The Twist” on the Ed Sullivan Show and shooting his song back up to #1 for an unprecedented second time.  Craziness everywhere.  Did you know today is also the birthday of Franz Listz?  Of Timothy Leary?  Annette Funicello?  Curly?  And if you did, did you care?  Being a Hollywood kid, you might know about Annette Funicello.  Pretty sure Curly isn’t on your radar.  You and I share the same sense of humor, and it does not include slapstick.

So you wait all day.  My father is in and out of the hospital waiting room, using this opportunity to skip work and visit a few bars, engage in pre-celebration drinks.  I imagine it’s a long day for you, full of examinations by interns and nurses, questions and interrupted naps.  Eventually, everyone gives up hoping that labor will begin again on its own, and you are given the drugs to induce contractions. 

Somewhere around 5 p.m., I make my appearance, entering a room full of students, nurses, physicians, lights, cameras, action. 

“I could feel your body coming out,” you told me once, “I could feel your shoulders, your little ribs, as you passed through.”  I’ve always remembered that.  I like knowing you were conscious, aware, there for me despite all the technology and students. 

I am average weight for babies of that day and age – about six and a half pounds – and I seem perfectly healthy, despite your health issues.  And yes, I have dimples, but not much hair.  “Another girl!” my father groans, when he sees me.

You're happy, though.  You’d lost an eighteen-month old daughter a few years earlier, brown-eyed and dark-haired.  A love child.  Maybe you think I am Jenny come back to you. 

So there I am, the baby who was never supposed to be born.  Your last baby before the hysterectomy, squeaking into this world by the skin of my teeth.  As for my father’s side of the family, nearly genocided out of existence, my birth was also kind of miraculous.  Sixty-one years before my birth, California Indians were at the bottom of a population crash that was almost our ending.  My grandfather and father were part of a resurgence that had no name, no direction, no manifesto.  All they knew was that they wanted to live.  They chased after life with desperate abandon.  They would each leave some of that story for me to trace back.

I came into this world with five sisters already there, and a brother.  Yet I was the only child you and my father ever had together.  My birth order is a paradox: youngest of six half-siblings for ten years (until a younger half-brother came along), and yet, an only child.  I’ve never really been sure where I belong in this family of halves and steps.

That Sunday in October 1961, neither you nor I could see what was ahead.   I’m sure you were just glad that we’d both made it through labor and delivery.  Maybe you're worried about affording diapers and food and rent.  Maybe you are concerned about fitting into your pre-baby clothes (you’d hung onto that amazing figure through the previous three babies).  Maybe you are angry at my father for getting drunk.

Surely, you don’t have a clue that in three more years your family will be separated, broken up, by violence and grief, prison and fear, your own bad decisions, your husband’s cruelty.  No, we never see what’s coming, especially when what’s coming is the unthinkable.

I’m glad that you don’t know any of that, on October 22, 1961.  I imagine you receiving visitors, flowers, filling out the birth certificate, bargaining with my father that naming me after the movie starlet Debra Paget was acceptable only if “we spell it right.”  (I wish I could ask you now, where did you get my middle name, Ann?  Didn’t you have a best friend downstairs in the apartments named Ann?  Why did I never hear anything about her ever again?)  I imagine you having a quiet moment after everyone finally leaves you alone; you bring me to your breast to nurse.  It is a rare moment of just us.  Thank you for that. 

And thank you for stubbornly, crazily deciding you wanted me to be born.  Thank you for carrying me in your body for nine months.  I know now that mothering is the kind of job no one can prepare for, no one is ready for, and no one can do perfectly.  I know that not everyone is capable of handling the intensity that comes with raising another human being, that some of us aren’t even done raising ourselves yet.  I know that childhood is a ferocious crucible that even “perfect” mothers can’t protect their children from, and I know that there is no such thing as a perfect mother, and I know that mothering was a role you took an entire adult lifetime to grow into.

Just when you got it down, cancer came back and took you.  I was forty years old.  I’m writing to you now across thirteen years of absence, across three thousand miles, across the birth of my first grandchild.  I want to tell you, I know.  I understand. 

I want to tell you that when I speak the word mother, I mean the doorway through which I entered this world, a doorway you chose to hold open long enough for me to scrape through.  I want to tell you that when I say birth, there is a gratitude for which I have no language, no word, no metaphor.

I want to tell you that October 22nd will always be our day, the day you brought me into the light, the risk, the possibility, of all that is amazing. 

It’s my birthday today.  I’m fifty-three years old.  I was never supposed to be born.  Every day, every year, is our victory, Mom.

Love,
Deby

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September

 
Sidewalks strewn with the shiny new lives of acorns.  Students and faculty and administrators and staff, dogs and deer and rabbits and squirrels wade through the fall tide.  We smash or kick or chew or gather; the worst of us pass by without noticing more than an uneven surface that forces a more mindful step.  Little time-machines, sweet reassurance against starvation in the hardest of times, I can’t stop myself.  My body kneels of its own accord in the damp grass outside the red brick university buildings, kneels at the feet of oaks, and my hand – my wide palm with its short brown fingers – reaches out, scoops up as many as it can hold.  I sink them deep into my pocket, already a little embarrassed.  I can’t pass them by.  Can’t bear this waste.  I’m glad they feed the deer, the rabbits, the squirrels.  But I think of the people whose land this is, the awful discovery of gathering, cracking, leaching, washing, cooking.  Starvation food.  I think of my own relatives, raised on another ocean, but coming back to these small dense hearts every Fall because once, they saved us.  Once our bones were built with the rich proteins and hardy fat of this harvest.  That must be why my body opens up every morning as I walk under these branches heavy with knowledge snug in hard shells.  The must be why my body opens up like a hand, like the hands of a nation, traveling through time and rock and prairie and mountain to remind me, remind me: find a way.


- Deborah A. Miranda

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