Pass the matches

In the deepest apex of Winter, and our whole family was caught in the bizarre misery of excess. Too much free time, too lethargic, too much snacking, we slug around our house, bloated, bleary, foggy, bored. It is such a profound privilege to suffer this kind of listless discomfort, to live out this yearly seasonal dichotomy, and yet we make no move to leave New England, where the winters are as intensely tenacious as they are beautiful. We cling to our winter rituals every year with our soft chubby white fingers, knowing that spring will soon be upon us and we'll have to emerge from the fog.

Being a true suburban mother, as I’m able, I seek out enriching activities for my kids to keep us from completely devolving. Activities that aren’t too expensive, aren’t too far away, suitable for a 4 year old and a 10 year old and not inspire us adults to undergo a full mental breakdown or instigate divorce. Essentially, I’ve got a nearly impossible set of guidelines for an outing in Western MA... But wait, MASS MOCA! Of course, MASS MOCA would be perfect. A breath of fresh mental air is within our grasp, the oxygen that is capable of carrying us towards spring! I made plans to go the very next day, and was practically giddy as I packed up a bag of snacks and reminded everyone to brush their teeth and put on wool socks on the morning of our trip.  

I suppose its proof that I’m not yet that old because I still look forward to winter every year, even though I’m fully aware that by the time February arrives, I’ll be sluggish and grim, and probably even murderous towards the very people I love most in the world. Even as I type this one of them is beating on my back with his pretend cat-claws and loudly meowing in time to the music that I played to drown out his nagging for a show on Netflix. 

The drive to North Adams is just over an hour, and if you take Route 2, the winding road up and down the mountain keeps the driver and the passengers relatively alert. Route 2 enjoys an extended flirtation with Deerfield river, and no matter the time of year, it is beautiful to behold. When we get in the car and the kids ask for devices and instead receive my unwelcome advice (read: demand);

“Look out the window! Think thoughts! Have feelings! Be bored! Dream things up!”

They know better than to fight, so off we go, screens tucked away. I fantasize about tossing the iPad in the Deerfield river, watching it bounce along the craggy rocks until it shatters and disappears, but I’m fully aware that its absence would essentially destroy any semblance of productivity and sanity that I desperately strive for on a daily basis. Plus, I know full well that on the dark drive home I will relent, passing the iPad into the backseat to bring on that glorious quiet that only comes about when kids are asleep or have a screen in front of their faces.

My husband and I ride without talking, listening to the news and the daily horrors and heartbreaks around the world. We are of course reminded about how insanely lucky we are to have the time and a bit of money to go see art. What a privilege to have a car to drive to another part of the state. What a gift to even have an iPad to ignore my children with, and even to consider tossing it down a ravine. It’s such a conundrum to be self-aware, grateful, and acutely cognizant of how hideously unequal things are between humans, down the street and across the globe, and yet feel generally powerless to enact any real change. I feel acute gripping terror and rage thinking of the thousands of immigrant children ripped from the familiar comfort and love of their caregiver’s arms at the US border, and while so many of us rage and weep, our efforts are impotent. We waste our mental breath shouting into the Facebook void, but  of course there’s a modicum of comfort in lamenting to a likeminded virtual circle. Collectively bearing witness to the current administration’s repugnant belief that profoundly traumatizing countless families is an effective deterrent for people who are desperate for a better life.

In feeling small and futile, I take my kids to see art, because through art we can reset, soften, maybe even access an opening of new possibilities. I take my kids to see art because it’s essential, period. I take my kids to see art so that they can be tender and open to the fullest range of human of human expression and emotion. I take my kids to see art so that they will hopefully be reasonable and kind humans.

We took our time in each of the buildings, the kids and I run down the long hallways, loving the echoes, arriving at the end and bending at the waist, puffing and huffing, all out of breath while simultaneously laughing. We lingered in the gift shop, wishing we could buy every single thing in there, which would finally make us stylish and well-read.

When we spill out into the largest exhibit, called Archaeology of Another Possible Future  by Liz Glynn. It’s a massive installation with a series of metal walkways, stacks of newspapers you can touch, heaps of plastic toys, and towering stacks of wooden pallets. Some of the structures practically touch the forty foot ceilings, or form vast gaping caverns, the insides draped with massively long ragged strips of thick grey felt, forming a dark, soft and somewhat creepy yet also simultaneously inviting tactile experience. My kids tentatively explore, thrilled to discover that after constantly being reminded not to touch, they can finally actually truly check out the art. They joyously plunge inside, almost immediately gone from my view, even their yips and shrieks are eaten by the mammoth wood and felt structure.

I settle on a bench right near the yawning mouth of the cave, allowing myself to fully appreciate a reprieve from playing the dubious role of a mother in public. Women are seemingly always up for grabs (ahem, so to speak), but we’re especially ripe for public commentary and critique when we dare to mother out in the world. Gestating? Lactating?! Children too loud, too quiet, too underdressed, too messy, too fast moving?
Blame. That. Bitch. Let her know your opinions!! Let her know if you disapprove!

So if I get the chance to just sit on a bench and take a backstage breather, I’m not too proud to admit that I’m totally thrilled. Make no mistake, I’m definitely doing it all wrong, as we all seem to be, as nearly every passer-by will let us know in a variety of ways.

I lean back in the bench, feeling the brick wall behind me, hesitantly allowing myself to really drop my guard for a moment or two. My children are safe, I know where they are, this is fun, I am having fun. I repeat those forced mantras, even if they aren’t completely true. I imagine countless children in cages for the audacity of crossing a man-made border with their caregivers, seeking safety and hope. I sit in the horror of imagining what those caregivers felt as their babies were actually ripped from their hands. I dare to think the questions that none of us want to ask, but if our government can inflict such unbearable terror on countless families while the world watches, what is to stop it from taking my children, or yours? When acute suffering occurs on our watch, and the systems are too big and complicit to protect anything but a false sense of security from a fabricated threat, then are any of us truly safe?

A man saunters past me, and strikes up a conversation in the overly-confident way that only an older white American man is able. I’m not interested in exchanging so-called pleasantries with him, but I’m a well-trained white American woman, so I smile, and endure it while smiling. How much unlearning will it take for me to risk being unlikable? A question for another day, but it tugs at the edges of my mind as my teeth dry out, hanging exposed too long in my forced smile. He’s still chatting at me, while I wonder if women can ever escape the trap of being likeable, in every realm of society, from the workplace, to politics, to sitting quietly in a museum and recalibrating our thoughts for a minute. What will our world be like, when we stop being nice? A ripple of excitement passes through me, imagining possibilities of women everywhere simply running out of energy for bending our desires, needs, and very existences around being liked. I imagine the freedom and power of shaking off the shackles of being pretty and nice.

I must not have been that cute or nice enough, because my new monologuing friend never quite had the courage or audacity to share my bench with me, although he hovered nearby for way too long. He’s a lawyer. He owns multiple properties, and he will only drive Porsches; loves the way they handle and hug the curves. I surface from my own thoughts long enough to realize that he’s looking at my body as he says this, seemingly without any sense of how trite or cliché this entire exchange actually is. He reiterates that he’s well paid and well respected in a few other not-so-subtle ways. His money and boasting had gotten him thus far in life, so why not keep trying the same angles? I wonder if he could tell that I was barely paying attention to him, but it probably didn’t matter.

The muffled voice of one of my kids wafted out from the giant structure in front of us, checking to make sure I hadn’t ditched them, and I responded reassuringly. My old white man friend looked startled, like it hadn’t occurred to him that I wasn’t staying there just to listen to his engaging, insightful, and deeply stimulating tales of wonder and magic. I had clearly wronged him, I could see it in his eyes. The future he had envisioned for us, the one where he drives his Porsche and I sit in the passenger seat, quietly listening in awe, was suddenly muddled by the intrusion of my children. His eyes narrowed, as if I had misled him, and I transformed from possible whore to bitch faster than he would have preferred. Actually maybe whore/bitch is more accurate, given that I was clearly not a virgin if I had a kid or two in tow. His narrowed eyes landed on my gold wedding band, which he’d missed while spouting his rousing fables of saving corporations from lawsuits. My eyes narrowed too—he’d already taken up way to much of my time, and made the all too common mistake of confusing a woman’s deeply entrenched politeness with sexual interest.

My second child called out this time, and then an eruption of my sons’ divine little giggles emerged from the felt cave, reviving me with their sweetness. This was entirely too much for my gross old admirer, his fantasies now completely shattered, and it was clearly all the fault of my children. He turned and looked again at the looming structure with newly suspicious eyes, as if he now realized that all sorts of unimagined evils could be hiding within. Perhaps it was his very first taste of what many women feel when encountering an unfamiliar place; we are often very, very vulnerable, and if not us, then certainly our babies are. Often both at once. Sometimes the unsafe spaces aren’t so obvious, our vulnerabilities extend in infinite directions, perhaps at home with those who are supposed to love and protect us, maybe at any level or type of workplace, sometimes when seeking solace at a border, on a date, in a classroom… the possibilities never end.

Given what he said next, I had to wonder if maybe the surprise was painful him, or maybe he resented that his imagined toehold on maintaining my interest had evaporated, perhaps he drew perverse pleasure from strumming the taut threads that connect a mother to her child. Most mothers I know are always reading the air around us, always ready to spring if our babies are threatened.

He looked over the wooden pallets and felt flaps, and slowly turned his graying head back towards me again, “That’s very flammable, you know.” The warmth had dissolved from his voice, but he still had a playful twinkle in his eye, because he knew exactly what he was suggesting. This was yet another old white cis-gendered man who could toss his power around “in good fun”. When you’ve been raised your whole life to believe that you’re physically and intellectually superior and that you actually earned your place in society when in fact your privilege came about based on the systemic and intergenerational pain, suffering, and oppression of indigenous and people of color, then you would indeed believe that you’ll be having the last laugh. History had been on side for so long, he probably couldn’t imagine it any other way!

I could easily conjure up the sight of the stack of pallets being swallowed in flames, and knew I would run in without hesitation to grab my kids, I’d run in for any child, as any decent adult would. Just as easily, I envisioned a blur of images of the innumerable vile atrocities that have been committed against women and children, people of color, immigrants, indigenous people, transgender individuals, Gay, Lesbian, Queer, Bisexual people, our planet.  

In rage burst, I saw the new era that is currently rising, the nearing end of the old white fucks that have been on top for far too long.

I’d come to the end of my ability quietly and politely endure it any longer.

My voice surged, my anger ripped through me, strong enough to shatter racist walls along imagined borders. Powerful enough to snap handcuffs, bend bars. Mighty enough to remind wealthy white men with power and money that their time is officially up, they’re far more vulnerable than they could even fathom.

My voice was louder than I expected, ricocheting off the high ceilings and concrete floors, bouncing off the wooden pallets, and echoing down corridors, cracking windows. I didn’t even mean to say anything, let alone shout at a deafening volume;

            “YOU’RE FLAMMABLE”