Incomplete History

Dear Reader,

I know this blog is a bit later than the first Friday, but I was asked to write a guest post for HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) to mark LGBTQ History Month, and I wanted to let that post get published first there before I published a slightly different version of it here – so much has happened since I submitted the blog to them, and I kept thinking/writing.  Now that it’s up there, here it is.  You can also check it out on HoCoPoLitSo’s blog.

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October is LGBTQ History Month. When I think about LGBTQ history, I am of two minds and the poems included in the LGBTQ collection on Poets.org perfectly reflect that split. Some of the poems are so absolutely ordinary in their subjects, like the poem, “our happiness” by Eileen Miles, and on one hand, I think, that’s progress: the lives of LGBTQ people are written and expressed in the same way as other lives. That’s equality, right? Being a gay poet doesn’t mean that you have to write every poem about the experience of being gay. Not every aspect, every moment of my life is about that, but my experience is most definitely shaped by it and so is my view of history.

If we’re really talking about history, the conversation is incomplete unless we acknowledge that nothing is really the same. Some might say, hey, you won the right to get married, so what are you complaining about? That reminds me of the poem, “On Marriage” by Marilyn Hacker where the poet talks about the way in which LGBTQ people “must choose, and choose, and choose / momently, daily” to affirm their holding handscommitment to one another, “Call it anything we want” when society doesn’t quite know how to accept or handle this kind of “covenant.” We talk a lot about “White Privilege” in cultural discourse, but we don’t talk a lot about “Mainstream Heterosexual Cisgender Privilege.” It exists. MHCP allows folks to do very ordinary things like hold hands in public without having to do a quick check of their surroundings. MHCP allows you to use whatever bathroom you want without being harassed or shamed or threatened.  It allows you to feel “normal” out in the world. Put it this way: there are times when showing affection to my wife in public – just a peck on the cheek – feels like a dangerous political act.

It hasn’t always been this way for me.  In fact, I enjoyed MHCP for most of my life.  I went to a conservative Christian high school, and though there were probably gay people around me (I’m pretty sure a few of my teachers were/are), since none of them were out, I feel as though I didn’t meet a gay person until I went to college. Riding through my high school years and my twenties as an MHCP was easy.  Being white made it even easier. Realizing I was gay later in life when I care less what the world thinks has made the sting of discrimination sting a little less.  Still, it was surprising to realize that the world had changed. Is it weird to say that I want to have it both ways? As Uncle Walt says, “Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” I want everyone in the world to see LGBTQ people as just normal, and I want everyone to know that our experience is different.

If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that being an LGBTQ person is a unique and still unequal experience in this country. There are subtle and unsubtle ways that society is set up to exclude and marginalize us. And some of the poems I browsed on Poets.org do address that fact. I find myself drawn more powerfully to these poems because I do want to acknowledge the difference that exits. A great example of this is “A Woman Is Talking to Death” by Judy Grahn. The poem was written in 1940, and the lines that jump out to me are:

“this woman is a lesbian, be careful.

When I was arrested and being thrown out

of the military, the order went out: don’t anybody

speak to this woman, and for those three

long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when

I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they

were afraid, they knew the wind would blow

them over the rail, the cops would come,

the water would run into their lungs.

Everything I touched

was spoiled. They were my lovers, those

women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.

I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down

when I signed the confession of what we

had done               together.

No one will ever speak to me again.”

LGBTQ history is a history of fraught silence.  A friend of mine, Rob, hid the fact that he was gay the entire time he was in the Navy – it wasn’t just that he feared for his job, he also feared for his life, that other soldiers might threaten or harass him for being openly gay. He hid it until he completed his tour of duty, and then he came out to all of his friends. You might think that passing a law abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end this discrimination, but you would be wrong. This discrimination still exists in the military – though now the target has shifted from being gay or lesbian to being transgender. Grahn’s poem was written in 1940; it is 77 years later, and we are not there yet. And because we live in the age of vindictive executive orders, we are too afraid that the next step in the movement will be a step backward.

If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of the story right now. What started with Alan Turing, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgenson, Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, the Stonewall riots, James Baldwin, and Harvey Milk has led us to the defeat of DOMA, the rejection of Proposition 8, the victory of Edith Windsor, the success of Tammy Baldwin. But this complicated history also continues with events like the shooting in the Pulse nightclub and pronouncements that threaten the rights of transgender soldiers and that reinterpret Civil Rights laws to exclude protections for

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Photo from Cleveland.com
LGBTQ employees. For all the poems that are out there, some things about the LGBTQ experience just defy expression.  Not everything is just about the right to get married or or what sports we can play or what bathroom we’re allowed to use – those things are important, but there are even heavier questions on our minds than whether you see us as equal – like whether you see us as human.  We’ve seen in the last week or so of our history that LGBTQ youth are not safe on college campuses around the country.  At Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio, flyers have appeared encouraging LGBTQ students to commit suicide, taunting them with the statistics that mock the loneliness and desperation that LGBTQ people feel with the disgusting tag “Fascist Solutions.”  There is no poem that expresses what I want to say to the monsters that distributed these flyers.  There is no poem that says want I want to say to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, the men who have given these monsters a voice in our society. This history is so raw, so painful, so new.  Current events are going to write these poems, and I want to read those poems too, not just the ones that try to normalize our experience.

One of the happiest days in my life was November 6th, 2012. That was the day that voters in my home state of Maryland affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, and I knew that I would marry my wife. Then, on June 26th, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that we should be seen as equal under the law. In a stunning closing paragraph, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” To read

Blog Photo
My wife and I at the Jan. 20 Women’s March – photo by Tara Hart
that, you’d think that we are living in a new era, but in reality, it isn’t quite true. We are living in a time that feels, in some ways, more dangerous than ever. In “Love Song for Love Songs,” Rafael Campo writes that it is “A golden age of love songs and we still / can’t get it right.” That’s what I think: If we’re going to talk about LGBTQ history and celebrate equality, we have to admit that, despite so much progress in the last few years, the last ten months have shown us that we still have so far to go. Sharpen your pencils.

 

 

© Ryna May 2017

 

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To Meat or Not To Meat

Dear Reader,

I am a carnivore.  I mean, I come from Tennessee with a grandmother who made pork chops, sausage, and bacon just about every day. And don’t get me started on barbecue. Ground beef was super-affordable, so I’m pretty sure it was in just about every dinner my mom made for us growing up.  And it’s tasty.  I consider a good meal one that has some kind of delicious protein in it seasoned just right, seared on the outside, and juicy on the inside.  But even I recognize that one should not eat the way my grandparents did, so I have made conscious efforts, at times, to eat healthier.  I even thought I was doing pretty good by eliminating most of the red meat from my life, sticking to chicken almost all the time and occasionally some turkey.

But every now and then, my wife will say, out of nowhere, “I think I want to be a vegetarian.”  It terrifies carnivore me.  She has good reasons for it.  For one, she is an avid animal lover – she can’t think of any animal with any less compassion than she feels for our beloved dogs.  And, to the detriment of animals, she thinks that Americans eat too much meat.  Americans annually eat over 55 pounds of beef alone.  In addition, the Pew Research Center reports that meat consumption is on the rise at a faster pace than any time in the last 40 years, and only about 3% of Americans follow a vegetarian diet. So, she’s right: we probably eat too much meat. That means that more animals are being raised just for slaughter, and that is tough to think about even if you adopt the posture that God put animals here for us to eat.

My wife also believes that consuming meat regularly may have consequences beyond cholesterol levels and fat in the bloodstream in the form of hormones – synthetic estrogens and synthetic testosterone for example.  There is some evidence that this hidden hormone consumption contributes to weight gain and even some types of cancer, though it is unclear just how much you’d have to consume to empirically prove this link. It is true that ranchers and farmers use hormones to create fatter, meatier animals. It is a common, accepted practice to inject hormones into young livestock so that they gain weight.  For the farmer, it’s a simple calculation: bigger animals produce more meat, and more meat is more money.  Hormones also help dairy cows produce more milk.  It’s hard to fault the farmer here if we are thinking of small family farmers – they have a tough go of it and I understand they need to do whatever they need to do to keep the farm going.  But we’re also talking about huge meat companies who aren’t exactly struggling given the overall rise in meat consumption.  They are really cashing in.

And this doesn’t even account for the environmental impact of our meat thirst. The meat machine in this country is a major energy and resource consumer.

meat impact

It’s a lot to think about.  It seems that there are real ethical, health, and environmental issues that go into the decision to meat or not to meat.  So this week, we embarked on a little experiment: A Week Without Meat.

 

The Experience 

First of all, it took some planning.  Not a lot, but it did take some planning.  I have been scarred by tofu and soy encounters gone wrong, and I was pretty nervous about whether or not things would taste good.  Dinners at our home usually revolve around some kind of meat.  Lunches usually involve lunchmeat of some kind.  Breakfast occasionally involves bacon or sausage.  So we did have to make a plan and shop a bit differently to execute it.  I am the cook around here, so I searched for some recipes that involved

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Our meat-free shopping cart

greens and grains and other options like beans and sweet potatoes.  We swapped lunchmeat for a vegetarian burger.  I ate out once during the week, but my kind friend accounted for this experiment and chose an organic market for our lunch date. We kept breakfast pretty simple, choosing cereal or oatmeal most days, but today I did allow myself a nice egg.  My biggest fear was that we wouldn’t feel full or satisfied all five days.

The Verdict

I am happy to say that we really enjoyed the food this week.  There was even something kind of easy about not fussing with cooking meat every night.  This was the first week back to classes for me, normally a bit more stressful than usual, and simple vegetarian meals were not really that daunting to prepare.  We haven’t had anything that we didn’t completely savor.  Peanut butter and jelly is a great

A Week Without Meat

sandwich.  Grilled cheese feels like an event.  Grains are friends.  Salad is salad, but salad is so versatile that it never has to be boring.  Beans and rice are shape-shifters – I really tasted tacos when I ate them.  In all, it was kind of a revelation.  I thought I might feel more energetic, but I have also had a head cold this week, so that is not really possible to say.

My overall takeaway is that we probably won’t be full-time vegetarians. But you never say never, right?  If my wife ever gets to the point where she wants to “go veg” full-time and for real, I will take that plunge.  For now, I do think that we will be much more vegetarian than we have been.  Our wonderful friends have contributed all sorts of recipe ideas, so we have lots of things to try.  I sort of like to think of our new approach to food as mindful eating – being thoughtful about how much meat we eat and making conscious choices to try more meat alternatives.  There is the feeling that one or two people can’t change the world, and that is probably true. I once had a student say in class (while we were talking about climate change) that climate change has been going on for so long and will continue long after we’re gone, and that since we are here for such a short time, it doesn’t do any good for us to try to do anything about it.  Imagine if we all thought that way about the world.  True, if the May family eats less meat, it might not save many of the animals or save much energy.  But given our love of animals and the environment, my wife and I feel good about making choices that we feel are ethical and finding a way to live our values.  I am also happy to be able to say to anyone else that might be considering cutting back or cutting out meat from their diet that it is a total myth that there is nothing good to eat when you’re a vegetarian. Everything we ate this week was flavorful and satisfying – and hormone-free.

I’m still a carnivore.  But I’m a conscious carnivore, evolving herbivore now.  That might not change the world, but it still feels like progress.

 

© Ryna May 2017

 

For Your Grandma

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

Dear Reader,

Have you ever come to a fork in the road?  Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?

Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.”  It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester.  It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother.  The two daughters are as different as they can be.  One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life.  But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college.  She has become her own person.

So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story.  No one really likes Dee.  They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to.  They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother.  They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with.  These are all true observations.  Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her.  They’d rather be Dee.

This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family.  I moved out on my own after high school.  I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have.  I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee.  I put myself through college.  I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life.  Not a better life, but a different life.

There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times.  There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe.  After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt.  The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not.  I think about this a lot lately.  The fork looms – what will make the difference?  This is the difficult choice so often in life.  Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?

I have always wondered about this.  It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be.  I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next.  In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore.  Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral.  It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family.  Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish.  It may be true that you can never go home again.  Or maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.  Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them  – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food. 

“For Your Grandma”

 

On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories

Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,

Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.

Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,

Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,

The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.

I watched her sometimes while she cooked.

Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,

And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs

That were thrown onto the biscuit pan

And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.

In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless

Dough into perfect submission.

If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.

They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.

They must rise, golden and perfect.

They better not be made with Bisquick.

Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.

In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,

Good as money, the bread of life.

The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,

A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.

I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and

I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember

How to make biscuits the way she did.

I do remember her hands.

Wherever she is now,

I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:

We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.

 

And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best.  The key is the lard:

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

1 tspn salt

1/3 tspn baking soda

5 tbspns of lard

2 tspns of baking powder

1 cup of buttermilk

1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter

  1. Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
  2. Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
  3. Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
  4. For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
  5. Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
  6. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter.  Enjoy the awesome.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Losing Saint Ricky

This week – from the archives: a story about my father.  This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death.  Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death.  They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand.  This is how I remember it.

Ricky
Ricky Odum, @ 1971, entering the Air Force
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.

There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.

My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.

I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.

 

But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.

That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then.   The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear.   The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.

A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.

A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.

The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.

There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.

I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.

There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.

 

© Ryna May 2016

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Dear Reader,

Hey!  Is it the First Friday already?? Okay, so off the top of my head, this is what I’m thinking about.  Today, I saw a movie called Krampus.  It’s a Christmas-themed light horror movie in the spirit of Gremlins that also invokes the familial horror of a film like Christmas Vacation.  The movie opens with the dulcet tones of Andy Williams singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” while a dumbshow plays of people trampling each other for Black Friday sales: a terrified store employee falls helplessly to the ground, shoppers slug each other in their efforts to obtain a starbucks reddiscounted toaster, and store security guards taser a couple of middle aged yuppies with a look of wild excitement in their eyes. This is what signals the start of the holidays now: frenzy.  And yet, that’s not how it has always been.  I don’t think there’s a “War on Christmas” or anything, and I have no problem with plain red cups at Starbucks, but I do feel a shift in the way Christmas feels.

Christmas has become a bit of a paradox.  On one hand, I get excited about the season – I look forward to the idea of it.  On the other hand, I get inexplicably vexed by seeing Christmas trees and decorations in stores before I have even handed out my Halloween candy. Perhaps the presence of all these decorations so early in the year just reminds me how different the experience of Adult Christmas is from Kid Christmas.

Kid Christmas was awesome.  I can’t remember anything bad about it.  I know that’s just how memory works – we amplify the things that are good and diminish the things that are not – but I really did always think of Christmas as being kind of magical.  It wasn’t just because of Santa – I mean, that’s part of it, sure, but it was also the time that our families all were together.  On Christmas Eve, we went to my mom’s parents’ house.  My grandfather played Santa and passed out gifts to everyone.  We all waited while the gifts were opened and we “Ooohed and Aaahed” over everything that everybody got.  Then we went to our aunt and uncle’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and there were more presents, but mostly it was the chance to see each other all at once and love on each other in a way that we never really did any other day of the year.

Christmas Day was even better.  We went to my dad’s parents’ house, and Grandma Odum made amazing food for us: biscuits, gravy, ham, potatoes, cookies, and pies.  We spent hours eating and laughing.  We got to see

Ryna and Grandma
“Kid Christmas” with Grandma Odum

cousins that we hardly ever saw.  The house was so warm and happy on those Christmas mornings, and my aunts got us the most awesomely bad gifts, but I loved it.  The worst: a purple sweatshirt with a hand-knitted orange cat on it.  One of the best gifts though: the year my grandparents bought all of us, even cousins, bicycles.  My uncle Frank taught me to ride it in the street that day. That was the real gift – not really the bike but that time with my uncle, even the part where I crashed in the ditch.

Adult Christmas just doesn’t reach the same emotional highs.  It’s not bad or anything, but there are so many things that escaped my notice as a kid.  My wife and I were stringing the lights on the Christmas tree the other day and talking about how much real work goes into creating that ethereal magic.  When we were kids, we just showed up and ate the food and appreciated the lights – we never really thought about the fact that someone (mostly grandmothers) put a lot of effort into creating that experience for the whole family. And dealing with family can be trying – there was nothing more exciting about Kid Christmas than the people we shared it with.  But Adult Christmas comes with a lot of strained relationships that the best adults are able to smooth over. Tongues are bitten and cheeks get turned for the greater peace of the holiday.

Something that you also don’t realize as a kid is that Adult Christmas comes with a certain amount of financial anxiety – big feasts cost money and so do presents and gift wrap and lights and things.  A whole lot of investment that goes into creating the experience of a single day.  There is a payoff, but not on the level of what used to be. It’s stressful to find the perfect gifts for everyone every year. And most disappointing of all, the feeling of the holiday fades really fast.

I am haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in the way that nostalgia messes with all of us and makes us hope that Christmas will be more than it really is: a day.  It’s a day that, if I am lucky, I will get to spend with some people that I really love.  It’s not really a great movie, but the point of Krampus is that if we don’t cherish the things like family and tradition that are the real treasures of Christmas, then it can become little more than a horror that we have to endure.  Krampus is the shadow of Christmas that looms over us, threatening to destroy any real joy we have for the season.  But the better we can remember and embrace the Kid Christmas mindset, the better chance we have to love the season and all that goes with it. So that is what I want to be more mindful of this year.

I wish you all a Merry Kid Christmas.  See you in the new year!

 

© Ryna May 2015

 

Music and Memory

“No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—”

– from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

The other day I was working on my laptop while a popular singing competition played in the background when I heard the first few plaintive piano notes of the song “Walking in Memphis”  and I suddenly started seeing a memory play in the movie theater of my mind of a time I was stranded with a bunch of my friends in a Myrtle Beach hotel twenty years ago, January of 1995.  We had gone to Myrtle Beach for a business conference, and the morning we were set to leave, we got the news that I-95 was shut down through most of northern Virginia by a massive snowstorm.  There was nothing to do but stay a few more days and wait it out.  There was an entire floor of the beachfront hotel, the “Captain’s Quarters,” that was given over to entertainment: a bowling alley, a pool table, several arcade games, and a jukebox.  I remember playing that song on the jukebox several times while we were there.  I know I have not thought of this in at least a decade, but now here it is, just as if it happened yesterday.  It’s strange how we can be pulled so immediately into the past by music.

Actually, the more I think about it, it is not strange at all.  Music and memory are powerfully related. I used to give my creative writing students an assignment that starts with the line “The first time I heard [insert song title here], I was…”  They were always great stories because the memories were so clear – students could recount things with startling detail and emotion.

I associate certain days with certain songs.  I remember being in the living room of our house in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee on a pile of blankets with my brother and sister and hearing the spooky song “In the Air Tonight” on the radio.  I was eight, and it was the night my father died.  There are so many things about that day that have faded from memory, but not this thing. Even now, when I hear the song, it’s as if I slide down a rabbit hole right into the middle of that room.

I also remember in the months after my father’s death lying on the floor of our new house back in my mom’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee and playing the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey over and over again.  I would crawl out of my bed journeyat night when I was sad or scared and could not sleep and go huddle right in front of my mom’s living room stereo.  The first night I did it, I just pushed play on the tape deck and the sound came out at me like a warm blanket, wrapped me up, and hushed me to sleep.  After that first night, whenever I found myself too traumatized to sleep, I crawled to the stereo in search of that peaceful lullaby. Play.  Rewind. Play. Rewind. Until sleep came over me. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a friend who was learning to play it, and I could not get enough of listening to her play those first few measures. Even today the song elicits a physical reaction – a deep breath and warm tingle that runs up the spine.

Music has been shown to help elderly people with memory recall.  This is important to on a personal level because my grandmother suffered from alzheimer’s and dementia, a disease with a genetic predisposition.  Perhaps I will face that too someday, but even if I am lucky enough to avoid it, I know that it is a fact of getting older that our memories become less distinct over time, and there are some things that I definitely want to remember, good and bad.  I want to remember working on a paper once about Virginia Woolf sitting in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland with my little portable CD player and finding that for some reason, I felt most inspired when listening to “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams.  I want to remember my sister, when we lived on Andrews Air Force Base, sitting in the backyard with her junior high friends dangling their painted toes in a baby pool while George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” blared through the speakers of her pink boom box as they sang along in the worst possible tableau you could imagine for preteen girls.

I have so many memories of my brother that are connected to music, such as the songs by Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister that he used to play in his room, the Tesla tape that he used to play every morning as we drove to high school in our red Nissan Sentra (we were beyond cool), and the black Metallica t-shirt he was buried in.  It was his favorite. But there are two that are the most powerful.  One is from when we were kids living in Florida.  He was probably around thirteen years old, and I walked into his room unannounced – something you should never, ever do to a teenaged boy by the way – and he was jumping around on his bed wearing shorts and these white tube socks singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” by James Taylor.  It was funny then, and he was kind of embarrassed, but now it feels different.  Those white socks, for some reason, get me every time.  The way they were flopping off the ends of his feet, too big for him.  It kind of breaks my heart.

But the one that really breaks my heart is from the day after he died.  I just had to get out of the house for a little while, get away from all of the sadness, but that really wasn’t possible to do.  So I drove to the restaurant where he used to work and I just sat there in my car.  This song “One” by U2 came on.  Then the tears really came.

When I am old I still want to remember the things that have broken my heart along with the moments that have filled it.  I want to always remember “Lovely Tonight” by Joshua Radin but as performed by my friend Will at my wedding.  We stood at the top of the stairs and I gave my soon-to-be wife’s hand a squeeze before I walked down the aisle with this song drawing us to the altar, drawing us into happily ever after in front of all of our family and friends.

We are so lucky to live in this time where our life’s playlist is so easy to access, catalogue, and replay.  Our music tells our history in a way that words cannot quite reach, and for that I am grateful.  Sweet as any madeleine shortbread, these songs comfort and fortify me and summon up the remembrance of things past. As long as I can hear these songs, I am always in touch with who I am, who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

© 2015 Ryna May

Phantom Balls

This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother.  Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others.  That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.

“Awrgh – my balls!”

I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.

This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”

Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.

A tomboy from the start

Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.

Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.

If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.

ryna and bryan
Ryna and Bryan – Thick as Thieves

At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.

There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.

I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.

What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.

The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.

Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.

© 2015 Ryna May