Dear Emma

FEmmanist

Dear Emma,

Before you were you, back when you were just a tiny alien-mushy-human-squish. I wrote you letters. I called you “Niecephew” because we didn’t know you were you. I told you how I’d be there for you and what I’d teach you and how well I’d listen. I wrote about what I hoped for you and what you’d be to us and how much we’d love you. But I was wrong.

I was wrong because you far exceed what I imagined you to be. You are quite literally incredible. You lift my soul. I love your smiley face and your smooth forehead, your giggle, and those puffy little feet. Your Bam Bam ponytail and your wobbly practice walk. I love your laugh and the noises you make. I like watching you eat and your happy food dance. I like how you actually “eat your peas one at a time.” I love when you kick your little leggies in a swing or while Momma’s holding you. I can barely handle that you smile and giggle when I arrive to your house–like from a cardiac perspective, I can barely handle it.

Your presence and your splendor have markedly improved my life. I can’t stop visiting you. Your momma says it’s good to have me visit, but I can imagine it’s a lot. I feel drawn to you. Like I must make you laugh. I must make you smile. I need to hold you.

Everyday you’re growing muscles and using brain cells and being amazing. You play peak-a-boo behind the coffee table as you’re doing squats. When you grip the oven handle and dance, you’re working those triceps and forearms. As you roll over Momma and Joe or Dadda or some toy, you’re using those little baby abs.

You look at the world with eyes I envy. Everything is new, everything is interesting, everything matters. Watching you watch anything makes me believe in humanity. I know behind that amazing bouffant there’s a growing brain. You’re taking in knowledge and working it in with what you learned last week, yesterday, and seven minutes ago.

I just need you to know that I am grateful. I am grateful for everything you are. I’m grateful for your joy and innocence, your beauty, vigor, and amusement. I’m grateful to have you as my niece.

Love,

Aunt Amandy

It’s Okay to Keep Exhaling

A couple weeks ago, with Morgan, Beth, and Gabby, I attended a “Second Stoop” at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. We were on the twenty-something floor with an insane view of Baltimore. I was less than a week from an egg retrieval and feeling pretty dauntless. If I can swell my ovaries to several times their normal size and have eggs scooped from my body three times, what can’t I do? The show was called: No Limits: Stories about female leadership, creativity, and resilience.

If you do not know what Stoop Stories are, I am so sorry I haven’t gushed about them to you yet (also surprised). They are probably in my top five favorite Baltimore things. There’s one on Thursday at Creative Alliance: Off the Menu: Stories about memorable meals, colorful customers, and our lives in restaurants. You should totally come!

Stoop Storytelling is a movable event that always has a theme. Typically seven people tell seven minute stories (practiced and coached) on that theme and intermission is a chance to put your name in a hat and tell a story that you haven’t prepared or rehearsed. These are the audience stories. The hosts of Stoop Storytelling are two total badasses: Jessica Henkin and Laura Wexler. Unrelated: Laura and her husband have been to my yoga class a few times and this makes me few special.

Chas has told a Stoop before, Shar has, Erin Drew, and probably more people I am forgetting to honor. And I really think that my dad, Sean Gahagan, my omie Vince, Morgan, Tim and Phrank Cyphers, and lots of other people need to tell one. It’s so empowering, even to just watch someone tell one, especially if you really love that person.

So a couple weeks ago, with encouragement from my ladies and the assistance of one Duck Pin Pale Ale, I threw my name in a hat. The result is below. This is the first audio blog!

My Stoop Story

All speakers

Five Strangers Walk into a Bar (by Shar Hollingsworth)

Five strangers walked into a bar on last Friday night.

Actually, let me backup first. Jerry was, apparently, my neighbor. I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Mt. Vernon in Baltimore City. Jerry lived on the third floor, until he died in his apartment, inside our building on East Read Street.

Few of us knew him and according to his family, Jerry lived a pretty private life. It is actually more accurate to say none, or few, of us knew him until we began to smell his decomposing body. It was a mild smell at first, one that tenants on the third floor would most notice. Sinmi, my new friend thanks to the late, Jerry, states she made her first call to American Management on February 26th, requesting someone to come take a look, or a sniff. Mind you, she made the call on February 26th, meaning this smell had gotten to a point of concern. American Management said they would send someone out.

However, it wasn’t until March 5th that Jerry’s decomposed body was recovered from his apartment on the third floor. Seven days after Sinmi’s first request for action, an additional week that this man’s body was laying in his apartment decomposing beyond the time it could not be detected from the hallway by neighbors like Sinmi. At work, I’m required to respond to my emails within 48 hours, pretty typical protocol. One would hope that an apartment leasing company would have at least slightly similar requirements when a complaint about a foul, death-like smell was made? Maybe respond to that within 48 hours? In a place where people actually reside? Maybe?

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This is how I first found out.

We can still smell it in the elevator. And, unsurprisingly, by March 5th the smell had traveled to the fifth floor. In this article from The Baltimore Sun from March 7th, American Management claims that, “death happens.” They claim, “We checked it out, we didn’t find any smell. There was no cause for concern.”

So, Simni and Glen organized and mobilized. Nine people gathered together on a Friday evening at 7:30 for a candle lit vigil to pay respects to Jerry’s life. His family wasn’t able to attend, but they provided us with a handwritten note stating “God Bless you All! For caring!” and hung a couple pictures of Jerry. We lit candles and took some time to share what we knew about Jerry (very little). Then, five out of the nine of us decided to walk over to Spirits for a glass of wine and to get to know each other a little.

Five strangers walked into a bar. It is the beginning of a bad joke, and a night that would turn into something both awful and beautiful in its own very weird way.

Because it’s important to this story let me describe the racial makeup of this group. I am sorry, Derek, but I am going to categorize us as simply “white” or “black.” I know there is so much more to each of us, but… I’m doing it. Two white women (including me) two black men, and one black woman.

Glen (black man) walked up to the bar and ordered a glass of wine. The bartender poured it and then slid it down the bar four feet to the cash register, telling him he could pick it up when he paid. Sinmi (black woman) ordered a glass of wine, same thing. Glass of wine is poured and slid down to the cash register. “Okay,” I think, “Is this the method they use here?” trying to be optimistic. I went next.

Wine poured. The bartender extended her hand and my glass of wine, smiling as she passed it over to me.  

We all exchanged glances and communicated “what the f***?” with our eyes.

Derek (black man) went next. Glass of wine poured and yet again, slid down the bar to the cash register where he can “pick it up when he pays.” At this moment, Derek and I looked at each other and without saying a word communicated, “Oh yea, this is happening. This is what we think it is.”

Kristen (white woman) went next, glass of wine poured and handed directly to her.

Having met one other approximately thirty minutes prior, at a candlelit vigil for our neighbor whose body had been decomposing in our building for weeks, we were all assessing how to respond to and handle this situation.

That hesitation did not last. We sat down and instantly jumped into a dialogue, completely forgoing small talk that might be expected of people who just met one other. We instantly called out the elephant in the room.

White people: Do me a favor and re-read that scenario. Take your ego out of it and tell me what just occurred.

After chatting over one glass of wine, we decided to leave. Sinmi, in all her beautiful, poised, bravery requested to have a private conversation with the owner. Sinmi described what was just experienced and the owner apologized, but in the same breath, and this is my summary of Simni’s recounting to us: “That wasn’t what was happening. I’ve known her for 12 years. I am a gay (white) woman and know what it is like to be discriminated against and would never put someone behind the bar that would act like that. Can you please take my word for it that, THAT wasn’t happening?”

Pause.

So this woman was basically saying, to another human, “Please trust me that your experiences and what you are feeling did not happen because I have known this woman for 12 years and I, myself, am a gay woman?”

I was acutely aware of the body language of THE bartender who stood watching Sinmi like a hawk. She was outwardly scoffing and rolling her eyes. Hate and anger was flowing off of her. I also observed the owner of the restaurant doing far too much talking, while Sinmi empathetically and patiently nodded her head.

My fellow white people: Shut up and listen. Listen first. Listen to truly listen and hear, not to respond.

We exited the bar, adrenaline pumping, and decided to go somewhere else.

We spent the first thirty minutes or so at The Elephant being charmed by an 18 year old magician, who had been practicing magic for ten years. Sinmi leaned over and whispered to me, “This kid is brave to be so into magic at his age.” Which is true; he was unapologetically loving every moment of his magic trick performance. Kristen, unimpressed, and needing scientific backing for all things, challenged him, prompting laughs from both him and the audience.

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(left to right) Me, Sinmi, and the magician.

The magic tricks had taken the edge off of the previous bar’s events and we all transitioned to a small side room with sofas and games to talk. Again, measly small talk that is often expected when people hang out for the first time was not even an option, as Glen asked thought-provoking question after question to us all, he reminded me to, “Keep it 100,” when asking about my biggest culture shock from coming from my rural, primarily white upbringing and to living in Baltimore City.  

Derek spoke about culture shock related to west and east coast living and the tendency we, as humans (and I, in this piece) have done to simply put people in boxes of “white” or “black” when the reality is that we are so much more, he is so much more. He spoke about how this discounts other parts of his identity. As he spoke I thought and challenged myself in my own mind, knowing that this is an error I can sometimes make. Throughout the night, we were all vulnerable and real in our conversations, which just encouraged deeper vulnerability.

We had known each other for about and hour and a half at this point.

Sinmi got up to request a food menu. She walked into the main area to find THE Bartender and THE Bartender’s friend. She walked by and this grown ass woman who, I am guessing is in her 40s, extended her leg and kicked Sinmi in the thigh. Yes, kicked her.

Sinmi came back to our room and described what had just happened, clearly upset, while also showing incredible grace in this situation. Honestly, this woman was pure grace in all of her interactions.

Fast forward about fifteen minutes and Bartender and Bartender’s friend are in our little room in our faces screaming acusatorials at Sinmi. “What is your end game!? What is your end game!?!?” Neither woman was able to elaborate exactly what she meant by this when asked by Glen. Sinmi tried to speak and Bartender looked at her like she was a child, or an animal, and with her finger in her face said, “Shut up. I will get to you.” I tried to say something and her friend turned to me saying, “You. Shut the f*** up.”

So, in my mind at this point I was battling with a couple thoughts. 1.) I’m white, these people are white–what can I do to connect with them and help them see how they are wrong? 2.) How can I be most helpful right now? How can I use my voice, while also not out speaking Sinmi. This black woman, does not need this white woman speaking for her, but, how can I speak with her?  How can I both face my own participation in whiteness while also challenging mind-sets and and people that prop up this whiteness? 3.) I found myself suddenly in the back and was standing idly behind Glen and Derek. I did not want to be passive in this. I aligned my body physically next to Sinmi, but also a step behind her. She has a voice and was using it, I didn’t need to speak over her, but I did want her to feel my physical support and let her know that bitches better believe I am ready to step in.

Bartender and Bartender’s friend were  not listening to anything anyone is saying. Apparently Bartender’s friend is married to a black man. Yes, she shared that.

White people: Save your, “I have a black friend” comments. Good for you. Good for me. Do not respond to someone challenging or questioning your actions when it comes to race or white privilege with a resume type response of all the charitable work you do (which Bartender went into an extensive rant about) and how many black men (or women) you have dated.  I’m watching these women do this and thinking “Good GOD, white people. What are we doing??”

Derek looked at us all and made a comment along the lines of, “These women must really hate themselves. Let’s take a moment and just feel for them.”

Drop the freaking mic.

My mind was taken to James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time,  and a line in his book that I’ve grappling with for a while, “White people…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

As these women were talking at us and not with us in any way, I was struck by how much hate and anger was coming off of them. That’s a miserable way to live.

We left. We chose to walk away without resolution, apology, or any sort of acknowledgment that Bartender and Bartender’s friend are blatantly wrong. We left because three out of five of us were black and think about it: There’s a crowd of people in the streets at midnight, profanities are flying, yelling, fingers waving in faces, (all of which primarily are coming from them) and if the cops showed up, who would be questioned first?

White people: What are you, we, me doing to learn how to accept and love ourselves and each other WHILE also acknowledging this whiteness that we are part of, that we participate in, and have benefited from?  Then, and this is the important part, what are we doing to remove our egos, remove our defenses and link that to how a very intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions allows this privilege to continue? You are fabulous, I am fabulous, and we have benefited from our whiteness. We continue to benefit from our whiteness. Let’s love ourselves and each other while also honestly unpacking that privilege.

What if I told you that Sinmi was a white woman and Bartender is a black woman? Would it have been handled differently? Would you think about this woman being kicked as she walks through the bar differently?  

The five of us: Derek, Sinmi, Kristen, Glen, and I walked the 0.1 miles home to our apartment building. We walked past the remnants of the small vigil for Jerry, whom we never really knew. Derek and I walked Sinmi, Kristen, and Glen to their doors on the third floor where we all hugged goodnight. Derek and I continued to the fifth floor where we, too, hug goodnight and retire to our apartments.

Five strangers walked into a bar, stir up some shit, acknowledge and address blatant racism, show incredible grace and love, ask questions and listen to each other, and then walk home as friends. Jerry, although we didn’t know you, your impact is still felt by the neighbors who rest their heads near where you rested yours one final time. Thank you, Jerry, for your patience, for these new friendships, for pushing us to face difficult conversations, and for one hell of a strange story. 

Shar Hollingsworth is a radiant being. She grew up in Garrett County, Maryland, earned a BS in Psychology from Towson University and an MS in counseling psychology from Frostburg State University. She has worked as a mental health counselor, addiction counselor, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer for 27 months in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), located in Southern Africa. She moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a short time after her service and then to Baltimore where she works as the Scholar Support Coordinator at Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School. She enjoys time with her family, laughing loudly, reading, yoga, athletics of all kinds, snuggling with her cat Raffi, travel, humanity, and learning. Should you wish to comment on her story, you may reach her via email at shar.hollingsworth@gmail.com, CC me (Amandy), I’m curious!

 

A Hard Thing We’re Not Supposed to Talk About

This story is purposefully not date-stamped because this piece is not about a sprint. This piece is about a marathon. And while I am exploding with the need to share this story, there’s a lot about it I cannot and do not want to discuss, including where we are with this and why we are in this at all.

I wrote, because I needed to, and because I’ve been writing it in my head and my heart for a long time. I also think this is a story that’s under-told and it’s important that the world (or at least my list of a few dozen readers) knows that things that are easy for some, sometimes even too easy, are not easy for others. There are a lot of women I did not know I shared this journey with until I opened up about it (do I sound a little like a contestant on The Bachelor?). What at first feels like the closest secret, gradually, as I shared with women I knew, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t talking about it before. So again, no wheres, no whys, and if you work in health insurance, just close the tab right now. This is not that interesting. Seriously, go away. 

 

It’s 6:36 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am pulling into a sparse parking lot. I see another woman about my age in a car a few rows away so I rush even more quickly to grab my waiting gear: lap top, water, and coffee. I head toward the glow, yank open the door, too rushed to hit the blue opener button, and power walk to the steps inside which I bound two and three at a time. I throw open the door on the third floor, and see that I am fifth in line.

The office doesn’t open until 7 o’clock and I am 24 minutes early, but I am fifth in line. I settle into my spot against the wall and begin attacking the day’s emails.  I’m here, sitting on a well-worn carpet next to a metal box for disposed needles. When the desk-nurse-person-lady arrives a few minutes later, she walks past our row of female desperation and says nothing. She unlocks the door without greeting us (she will say hi if it’s Friday) and lets us into the next waiting chamber, where we will sign our names and write our phone numbers, in order of arrival. Although it disgusts me, I also almost enjoy her lack of grace because it proves everything I feel about these types of situations when I’m feeling pessimistic. We are not unique. We are all just letters and numbers on a list. And they put on Today’s Lite (sic) 101.9 to drown out our yawns, sighs, and hushed conversations with our partners. When “Moves Like Jagger” comes on again, I consider taking the knock-off Bose and throwing it down the stairwell. Nevertheless, she persisted.

So we wait, with drawn faces, avoiding eye contact, because this is private, we suffer alone, our journey is our own, and IVF is not something you’re supposed to talk about or share. I think in this case, and other situations similar, silence begets silence and because no one talks about it, no one talks about. What I have found having been on this road for a good chunk of time, is kind of the other side of what the desk-nurse-person-lady makes me feel. Yes, I am not unique and my letters and numbers might be on that list, but I’m also not the only one. And while we don’t talk or really interact at all–I’ve done way more eavesdropping than I have actual conversing–the ladies in the hallway and in the waiting room, we all have one another. Our co-presence proves that we are not alone, that this has all been done before and it’s worked before and it’s been painful and exhausting and so draining and unpredictable, before. But there are also babies’ photos on the board in the back and notes I try to steal a moment to read from women whose feet occupied the same metal stirrups mine do now.

 

There are many reasons that women go through IVF. This is hardly a single story. 

But what we don’t have in common pales in comparison to what we do have in common. When I look around the waiting room and see couples and women alone, I know that each of the women, between 4 and 8 p.m. every night, is rubbing her belly with alcohol preps. She takes the G one out of the fridge and clicks the right dose because it’s a multi-use pen. Subcutaneously, in it goes. I prefer to do the M one first because it hurts more. With the M one, she has to uncap and then rub the tops with another prep. She uses the Q cap to open the vial, draw out the liquid and use the Q cap to put the liquid in with the powder. She draws the powder and liquid mixture back out into the syringe. Then, subcutaneously back into the fold she creates in her belly. When she first starts doing it, it’s hard not to bruise. (The very first week my belly looked like an unpeeled, unrolled plum skin.) When she’s farther along, she adds the C one. This one is the worst. There’s a syringe pre-loaded with liquid she has to use a needle straw to put the liquid into powder, mix that, suck it back up the needle straw, switch the needles out in the syringe and then finally, into the belly. 

If there’s a woman in the next phase in the waiting room, I know what she’s doing every night, too. She’s slapping estrogen patches on her sides every other day, ripping them off, leaving goo behind because it’s impossible not to, and then she’s adding more where she can’t see any goo. She’s creating a sort of gray graph paper all over her abdomen. The patches make her feel crazy, but she’s not sure if it’s just this whole thing making her feel crazy. Tears come at random and so does anger. She will keep adding patches until she’s 11 weeks pregnant. Then, maybe, she gets to be like the rest of humanity?

She and we are all navigating this world of shots and hormones, full bruisy or sticky bellies, confusing feelings, hope and not-hope.

 

I appreciate when they summon me by my first name. “Ms. Amanda” is also kind of sweet. I’ve waited my turn and it’s time to enter the caverns of the office. I confirm my name and date of birth for the 2230948th time in the past year. I’ve watched that “age” field rise. I undress from the waist down, cover myself in my paper sheet, and saddle up. There are several doctors who could walk in. I have my faves and I certainly have my least faves. Today’s doctor walks in (she’s fine, tiny, young, a little aggressive with the pressure), asks me how I am, and I remark that several of the doctors in this practice are pregnant, including her. We joke that she should share the wealth. It’s not actually funny, though.

I slide down the bed and she tells me that I will feel her hand and up goes the camera. We look at my eggs on the screen as she measures each of them with clicks and strokes as a nurse assistant records their sizes on a sticky note. I imagine a wall somewhere in the back with all of these sticky notes peppering the plaster like a science fiction fertility rainbow shrine. It’s clear my eggs need a couple more days even though I feel like I’m carrying a Tupperware full of jello in my belly. We finish and I head downstairs to the lab to get my blood drawn. Unfortunately, the lab just got an electronic check-in system. This means that most days I have to wait for 1-3 elderly people to figure out what a touch screen is. I have a favorite phlebotomist, she, like the doctors upstairs, is also pregnant. She listens to gospel in the mornings and always checks on me.

The office will call me later in the day with my blood results, which might as well be in Japanese, and to give me my injection instructions and when to return. I always let this go to voicemail out of fear that I will get nervous and forget the directions if I take the call live.

 

There are several things comprised in IVF in which I’d never thought I’d be skillful: giving myself shots, having my blood regularly drawn, surgeries, being completely out of control of my own body, forgoing exercise, anesthesia, and visiting into a medical office 2-3 times per week and being late for work on the days I have appointments. 

If IVF were up to the man, I think it would be a public topic. I think men would speak out about their journeys and discuss their difficulties. I think they’d qualify their tears and explain away. Fox News would report about how hard it is for men to go through infertility treatments and that it hurts their penises and their egos. But the world will never know. Because fertility control and infertility treatments are all up to women. And we can do hard things and keep them to ourselves. Although, we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we can’t. Right?

But men do have a role, if they choose to accept it. And not everyone in this situation has a partner like I do. Chas comes to every appointment and brings our folder of paperwork, which started out the thickness of a quarter and is now more of a tree trunk. Sometimes the nurses make fun of him “doing his homework.” He writes down the questions we have, because I am usually too emotional or weird to even remember what it is we need to know. He asks them to repeat answers, he pushes for me to receive the best care. Sometimes when Chas says something to the doctor, I realize how much better equipped he is for the science aspects of this than I am and that in some ways, he’s better at caring for me than I am for myself. I’ve joked that he’s my manager. Whatever he is, he’s a good one.

Now that I am part of this world, I feel pride when I hear about well-known IVF-ers. Becoming by Michelle Obama is next on my nightstand but I already feel pride that she spoke about about her own IVF journey. This article makes the point I keep thinking about too. IVF is a luxury for those who have the insurance to cover it or, god knows how, the money to pay for it themselves. Because education and economic inequality are often closely tied, this, from the same article, struck me in particular: “The education gap is equally stark. While 56% of adults with a postgraduate degree say that they have either undergone infertility treatment or know someone who has, only 20% of those with a high school degree or less report experience or knowledge of infertility treatment.”

I know that I am fortunate that I am able to do this and on the days I feel like the fattest tub of lard and that this is never going to result in anything, I have to remember that I have an option and not everyone does. I have a support system who will listen to me and that same support system respects that Chas does not ever want to talk about it.

When I look back at this time in five years, a decade, a few decades, I hope I remember only that I was stronger than I thought I was, that I can do hard things, and that it was all totally worth it. 

 

Those Who Can Read, Should

“The person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who cannot read.”

Possibly written by Mark Twain, possibly not. The internet is a breeding ground for misattributed quotes. John Oliver covered this one week on his show Last Week Tonight and even created a website for “Definitely Real Quotes” which are just the opposite. 

Whoever said this first, and let’s be honest, it was probably written as “man” and not “person,” I could not agree more. The other night at the Y, I was on the elliptical machine losing track of time while reading. I use the elliptical machines without the moving arms so I can hold my book and move my legs and I can just plow through literature, and plow, I do.

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Just yesterday, I finished The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America by D. Watkins. It’s an essay collection by a drug-dealer-turned-teacher-and-writer. He’s from Baltimore, still lives in Baltimore, and he’s the truth. Watkins has made it his mission to help lift up impoverished communities in Baltimore and his method is equal parts simple and complex, crazy and the most sane: literacy.

In the chapter titled “My Neighborhood Revolution,” Watkins tells of NFL star, Dexter Manley, who made it through high school and college before he played for Washington, never having learned to read. Side note: I crawled down the Dexter Manley rabbit hole and it’s basically the Little Mermaid’s cave. This article from 1987 is such a stark contrast from this one written in 2015. But wow, is he an interesting guy! Watkins shares the story of a friend who asks him to read a letter his daughter wrote to him because although this man was a full-grown, fully employed adult, he couldn’t read his daughter’s words. Watkins returns several times to the sad statistic that only 7% of 8th grade boys in Baltimore City Public Schools are proficient in reading. Go back and read that sentence again. Watkins talks of his college students telling him that same old, tired old thing I hear so often, “Reading is boring.”

Battling the chorus of “Reading is boring” is demoralizing. What I want to say is, “You sound like an idiot.” But usually I am talking to children when I hear it and we’re not allowed to say idiot, so my go-to defenses include, “Then you’re doing it wrong,” or, “Well you just haven’t found the right book yet.” Sometimes I throw in, “Reading is all things, so if you don’t like reading, you don’t like anything.”

Obviously I am preaching to the choir here because you are reading this so as you know, reading is gaining perspectives. It’s travel, self improvement, communication, learning, brain-expansion, creativity. Reading is meditation, it is peace, it’s a brain-and-heart-quieter.

Sometimes after reading, I just need some quiet time. After a few of the D. Watkins chapters, I just needed to sit in silence as my brain turned and flipped and readjusted what I had just read with what already exists in there. I can feel myself learning and sharpening and my mind opening. It’s just so damn satisfying.

With that, I give you a very incomplete list of reading recommendations. This is not a list of my favorite books necessary, just a list of some I’ve loved that span different genres. I owe this list to the existence of Goodreads because without it, I wouldn’t remember 10% of this. (Stars* indicate book club books from the past. My book club is in two words: the best.)

  • The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. A memoir about growing up in rural Alabama by the most painterly wordsmith I’ve ever encountered. Bragg is my writing role model.
  • Wonder* by R.J. Palacio. A young adult book about a boy with facial deformity, this book makes you want to be a better person and you can read it in about 2 hours.
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. A dystopian novel about a change in the tilt of the earth and all of the effects of it.
  • Americanah* by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love this author! I saw her speak at Baltimore Book Festival and she has as much presence, poise, and splendor in person as she does on paper. This was such an enthralling tale that proves that the story of Africans in America is anything but singular. Also, this book has a few scenes set in Baltimore–bonus.
  • The Gay Talese Reader by Gay Talese. Widely regarded as one of the best creative nonfiction writers ever, this collection begins with his most famous work, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” From that first piece which earns its clout, this set of articles never stops being entertaining.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The (now famous) story of Henrietta Lacks’ ancestors and Henrietta’s cells which have been used to cure, heal, research, and more since her death from cancer in 1951. Her family continues to live in poverty and no one had ever given consent for the use of Henrietta’s cells. If you aren’t obsessed with Deborah by the end of this book, then you have no heart.
  • Every Day by David Levithan. The main character in this book wakes up in a different body every single day. This was one of the most unique fictional situations I’ve ever read about.
  • The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Somewhat autobiographical story of growing up in the south. Among my favorites I’ve ever read.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Hands down one of the funniest books I have ever read. Bryson and a pal make their way through parts of the Appalachian Trail in this true story. Somehow it manages to be laugh out loud funny.
  • The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. A collection of essays and short stories by a Yale grad who died before this was published when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel three days after their college graduation. An incredible tragedy for obvious reasons but also because she’s a really great writer. I loved both the fiction and the nonfiction.
  • House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. This book is tragic, know that going in. But what an onion-peeling it is! Tears and all. The intertwined stories challenge you to see two completely conflicting perspectives as almost equally valid.
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey. I’ve actually read this twice. She’s hilarious and just the realist.
  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Did you have to read this in school? I did. But I didn’t appreciate it until I taught it myself. This book rotates perspectives among the Civil War generals in both armies throughout the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. While Shaara has to rely on what exists historically about these men, he does an incredible job filling in the blanks.
  • The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir* by D. Watkins. Watkins’ story of transforming from a drug dealer into a university professor.
  • She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. This is a hunker but it moves quickly. The story of a girl perpetually angry at her own body. A really incredibly told coming of age.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a young adult book told from the perspective of a 9th grader deep in depression. And I know that doesn’t sound like a positive but the empathetic power of this book is so real.
  • Brain on Fire* by Susannah Cahalan. A nonfiction book about a New York Post writer whose life completely unfurls due to a rare and absolutely sudden condition. Her unraveling is scary, shocking, and really entertaining.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A letter from father to son. Truly gorgeous but also extremely though-provoking and emotional. Baltimore-born and raised!
  • The Husband’s Secret* by Lianne Moriarty. I will read her books until she stops writing them. She has this crazy way of tackling really heavy subjects with just a touch of humor. Always a twist, always page turners. This is my second favorite of hers, after Big Little Lies which you should read, before watching…too late?
  • The Nightingale* by Kristin Hannah. We went through a few months during which my book club did a lot of World War II. This was in that spike. A Holocaust novel that will remain with you forever. (I have lots of other Holocaust recommendations too.)
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham. This became a movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and more luminaries of cinema. While the move is excellent, the book is better. The stories woven into this inter-connected tale include that of a writer dying of AIDS, writer Virginia Wolf, and a few others. A fast read that spans generations.
  • Educated* by Tara Westover. My favorite recent read. Tara is the last of seven children raised by Mormon parents who are conspiracy theorists and extremists. Tara does not know her birthday, does not enter a classroom until she’s 17, and spends most of her childhood working in her dad’s scrap yard. She ends up at Harvard. The book tells that journey.

Is reading the answer to all social ills? Certainly not directly. But indirectly, I would argue that yea, it could be. And for people who’ve got life generally figured out: job, life, family, friends, maybe reading doesn’t seem like it’s largely essential, like it won’t solve the smaller problems we have. I’d argue though, that it might. And that from reading, we can all grow. We can all learn to see other perspectives, to open our brains up, to just sit and think, to paint pictures in our heads, to exercise our most important muscle. Because you can. Read.

The Emergency Room

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.
– “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

What a trope is an emergency room! Television depictions which remain in the ER maybe for the entire length of the show, short cameos in films, and in our minds, emergency rooms loom large. They mean tragedy, possible death. All we need is one image of a those blues and whites, a few beeps, a little bit of rushing around, and our brains know it’s bad.

For many, though, the emergency room serves as primary healthcare. Without health insurance, seeing a PCP can be difficult or impossible. I, however, am blessed to have health insurance and I have almost no understanding of the health insurance or the healthcare industry. I did find this to be an interesting perspective from a doctor and contributor. I am lucky to be able to be ignorant on these fronts, I suppose.

Earlier this week, Chas and I spent the day in an emergency room in San Jose, California. Chas had/has an infection on the inside of his nose and increasingly resembled Nicole Kidman’s depiction of Virginia Wolf in The HoursWe left Oakland and on the way to points south, I called and was able to book an appointment with an ENT in San Jose, obviously, a benefit of being insured. We had four hours to kill before the appointment so Nicole and I headed to Stanford and gave ourselves a tour while I looked to buy postage stamps. At 12:30, we arrived for the 1 o’clock appointment at the San Jose Regional Medical Center. The ENT saw Chas, gave some tips, asked some questions, and sent him across the parking lot to the ER so that he could “as quickly as possible” get a CT scan. Because of the short notice, the fastest way to get a CT scan and see if the infection was spreading (possibly to his brain) and would require surgery, would be to wait in the ER for a CT scanning room.

Immediately upon entering the ER waiting room, I had two realizations. 1. I am so fortunate (knock on wood) to have really never entered an ER waiting room before and 2. This is what it looks like to use the ER for primary care.

Chas was instantly swooped up by a male nurse checker-inner-man who somehow maintained positivity throughout the day. I watched him swish in and out of doors, speak to non-English speakers, incur rudeness, collect the angry friends of a man who’d been hit by a car, attempt alternative pronunciations of several names, and just continue smiling. I settled into a plastic seat to finish my book, reminding myself over and over again: do not touch anything.

It’s a little bit like a low energy, high anxiety video game. Breathe to the left because the woman to my right frightens me. Dodge the trajectory of that sneeze. And those coughs. Change positions in the plastic seat as a foot falls asleep. Eavesdrop on the man breathing into a plastic bag without getting too close. Listen to each name intently, waiting to hear “Chas Ebb-ee.” Oogle at the baby with the pink cheeks, guess what language I hear, look out the window, and repeat, repeat and repeat.

It was pretty apparent to me that for most of the people in the ER waiting room, this meant going to the doctor. This meant, I’m sick and I’d like antibiotics and so I’ll wait here for five miserable hours to see a professional. From the elderly in wheelchairs, to the infants being clutched by doe-eyed young moms, this was the only option. If I were legitimately sick and had to wait in that room, I think I’d lose it, maybe storm to the back, fake someone else’s name, anything to get out of that perilous purgatory. Because I’ve been lucky and I have the choice.

When a shirtless 20-something man with blood covering the lower half of his face rolled in in a wheelchair holding his side, I had to try hard to not stare. Easier thought, than done. His friends did not want security to call the police.

When we finally left with the news that Chas did not need surgery and we could leave San Jose and San Jose Regional Medical Center forever, it was after 5 p.m. We’d put in a day’s work, knew we’d be covered, and only had to sacrifice a copay the cost of a Wow Air flight. And we got to drive away, knowing that when we need medical care, we can pretty easily get it.

…and the mome raths outgrabe.

“With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams…”

Like plastic and cockroaches, at the end of the world, there will be the pain that humans have incurred. Because what we do to one another is never the end. Like a contagious virus, hurt spreads. It multiplies. And expands and splashes and pings off and lands elsewhere, and sometimes it explodes.

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This piece isn’t about me (other disclaimer: it contains way too many competing metaphors). I’ve been so incredibly fortunate with my family, my husband, my friends, my people. I’ve pretty much always been equipped to handle the hurt that’s handed to me, by my kids, strangers, whomever and if it ever felt too hard to receive the secondary trauma of my job, I’ve had yoga, therapy, acupuncture, writing. I repeat–I am so fortunate. But not everyone is.

If you’re interested in crime and social justice and Sarah Koenig’s voice (like I am) Serial Season 3 did not hardly get enough buzz and it deserves your ears. In it, Sarah and her team–all of whom seem to have equally difficult-to-spell last names–go to East Cleveland and cover court proceedings for weeks. Why don’t I know who any of the waiflike musical acts on SNL are? Because who has time for pop culture when there are enthralling crime podcasts to listen to?

In episode three of this season of Serial, there’s one bit of dialogue I couldn’t, and still can’t, get out of my head. It’s spoken by a civil rights attorney, Paul Cristallo, who previously represented the Cleveland Police Department. Sarah and team cover a small core of men who are in the grips of the criminal justice system. “In the grips” honestly feels like the best way of describing it because CPD won’t let them go and none of it feels fair or positive or just or even clear. It’s so damn messy.

In the exchange below, Erimius is the man in the grips and this is the 137 shots case in which Cristallo represented one of the families. What resonates with me in the exchange below is the stickiness of the hate that’s been thrown. Cristallo articulates something I think often–that hurt and hate and injustice don’t just absorb into the earth after they’re flung. And the evils we allow to perpetuate, will do just that.

The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. 

Sarah Koenig

“Erimius’s case is an order of magnitude smaller than the 137 shots case or the Tamir Rice case. No one’s going to shout his name during a protest. Paul told me, the smaller cases, they matter because they ricochet.

He’s watched a lot of people go through incidents like this. He says, this beating will knock around inside Erimius’s head, and then it will rebound off of him out into the city.

Paul Cristallo

You know, as much as you want to talk about how we need to come together as a society. And Black Lives Matters, and All Life Matters. And the police have a hard job. And you got to listen to what the police tell you to do. And you got to obey the law, and don’t be a criminal.

I mean, the reality is now, you’ve just created somebody who is, I mean, he’s this walking perpetuation of don’t trust the police. He now knows that that happened, and all he had on him was a blunt in his own apartment complex. In his own apartment complex—not late at night. No drugs, no alcohol, no gun, no criminal activity, but the blunt. And that’s what happened to him.

This will mess with him. If you stick with this story, and we follow him, you’ll see. I mean, it’ll fuck with him. He has family. He has friends. They’re all going to know what happened. They’re all going to see the pictures.

And so for him, now, this becomes part of his life script. This has become something that is going to be retold and retold. And photos are going to be shared and re-shared, you know, on, and on, and on, and on. And this is just one guy. This is just one incident in Euclid, Ohio.”

 

When a person is hurt by some other person, known or not, some circumstance, some situation he or she is born into, that hurt remains.

Hearing about the shooting at Frederick Douglass High School a week ago, obviously I was saddened and angry and hurting for this city. But I also felt what I always feel when something horrendous happens in Baltimore, I feel the past and the future. I feel that ricochet. Because that single incident, is hardly a single incident. It’s the hurt of the student, his family member, maybe the employee who’s “going to live.” How hurt must you already be to go into a school and shoot an educator? How broken? How confused and pained and angry? That shooter was not born that way. Will he die that way?

An English teacher from Douglass wrote an op-ed about the larger picture here and I agree with him. Look at what we are asking our children to tolerate, and then thrive anyway? What?

From what I’ve read, the shooter at Douglass seems pretty terrible, which comes as no surprise. But this story is like root vegetables before they’re picked. What we see are the leaves, the foliage. What’s beneath is utterly different. And it matters even more than the leaves. The potato, the carrot, the turnip. They’re made of the stuff that happened first, to that once tiny seed as it fought to get bigger. Maybe it was inadequate housing, maybe it was abuse, maybe even the trash on the streets bothered him. How can you think you deserve more when you haven’t been shown that? How can you even know what to reach for?

And like the hurt before February 8, 2019, there’ll be more hurt after as a result of the shooting. It’s like a rock thrown in a pond sending ripples and then another rock into those ripples. Circles of ripples are crashing against one another. It’s enough to drive you mad.

Baggage is hard to carry but it’s even harder to drop off. I don’t have the answer, aside from “be born with a good support system and into a great and stable family” or as Wilbur Wright put it in 1910, “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

That’s not easy advice to follow.

What I do have though is more unsolicited advice, one of my favorite things to give out right before I put my foot in my mouth. My advice is to put out the good stuff, to get rid of hate and hurt some other way aside from putting it on someone else. My advice is to remember that the ghastly things that happen in long-maligned neighborhoods are incredibly complex and that some people were never given a real shot at something different and to pretend otherwise is what I now think of as “The Ben Carson Effect.”  That it doesn’t mean those neighborhoods and people aren’t capable of more or don’t deserve better, it’s just really fucking hard to obtain it.

So put out the good. Fill others’ buckets instead of emptying them. This might be in complete contradiction of last week’s blog, but why waste breath on something negative? (Thank you to both Erins–Drew and Cyphers-Greenhalgh–for sending me such sentiments.) There’s enough nastiness and ugliness and hurt swirling around, throw the opposite out into the universe.

From my favorite poem “The Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann,

“With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”

…And know that not everyone has been given the same chances, the same hope, or the same treatment. So at the end of the world, there will be plastic and there will be cockroaches, but do not let there be hate.

 

The Weight of What I Could Have Said

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There are plenty of famous and even ubiquitous episodes of Seinfeld. See also this blog. One of the most famous is in the George Costanza collection, an episode called “The Comeback,” though a more ubiquitous name may be “Jerk Store.”

In this episode George, who works for the Yankees organization, is in a business meeting. George, unabashedly eating shrimp, is met with “Hey George the Ocean called, they are running outta shrimp” by a character named Reilly–nondescript white-man-business-type. The whole boardroom erupts in laughter and George, mouth full of shrimp, looks bewildered. On his drive home, George explodes with what he thinks is the ultimate comeback for Reilly: “The jerk store called. They’re running outta you!” He tries out the line on his friends who are unimpressed. Though George is undeterred.

Later, George finds out that Reilly has moved to Akron, Ohio to work for Firestone Tires. George books a flight to Akron under false pretenses of handing out free snow tires at the Yankees games. George, in the Firestone version of the Yankees’ boardroom, shovels shrimp into his mouth once again, recalling the earlier scene. Reilly uses, “The ocean called,” again and receives the same reaction as he had before. And George happily launches into “Oh yea? Well, the jerk store called. They’re running outta you!” to which Reilly replies that it doesn’t matter because George is their all time best seller. Again, the crowd loves it. George replies, “Oh yea? Well I slept with your wife,” and the crowd is silent. Another man says quietly to George, “His wife is in a coma.”

In this fictional story, George’s desire to go back and use his line sends him on a flight to northeastern Ohio where he’s again torn apart. Of course, for most of us, when we think of a great line or speech later on, we do not book a flight in order to say our piece. Maybe we mumble it to ourselves, write in a journal, call our moms, but largely, the thing we wish we could have said, goes unsaid. And in this case, I feel George. Because the weight of what I didn’t say is sometimes mentally monstrous to carry around. The burden of the perfect retort or lesson I could’ve taught that person is often a lot to hold.

There’s a comedy bit I heard on Pandora once (cannot remember who the comedian was) with a real life example of “what could have been said” that goes the way we typically expect. The comedian is on a plane, using his phone when it becomes time to seal the cabin and take off. The woman in the seat next to him, whom he does not know, says, “You need to turn off your phone.” He knows that you don’t have to do that anymore and says that to her. She repeats, “You need to turn off your phone.” Again the comedian says to her, “You don’t have to do that anymore.” The woman says her piece a third time and the comedian complies and turns off his phone, to not create a scene.

He ends the bit with, “And now I think about her every day.”

I get it. This is me. If I don’t say what I needed to, or like the comedian, I do, but I am not understood or really heard, I will quite literally think about it forever.

One of my favorite pastimes is to say in my head, what I wished I had said out loud. See also this post. Do we all do this? Live an experience and then later plan the perfect response, a killer speech, or the best comeback. It’s amazing what a little space and time to think can sound like aloud…in my head.

A few weeks ago I taught a “candlelit” yoga class. I taught the “candlelit” at a different studio for a few months and was familiar with the setting of the dimmed lights and the battery-operated candles. I set everything up in the studio and went back to the desk to check people in. I always left the front dimmers on for the first 40 minutes of class–I liked the ambiance and it allowed people to see their own balancing in postures.

But when I returned to the room, the lights were off. I turned them back on and began to teach. About 30 seconds into Sun A, a male yogi whisper-yelled to me, “The lights are supposed to be off! This is a candlelit class!”

Stunned, I ignored him and continued teaching the class. About a minute later, the same man followed me across the room and said it again as I adjusted someone else’s spine in downward facing dog. Again, I ignored him and continued to cue the class. Like a child throwing a hissy fit, he marched over and turned the lights off himself. I spent the subsequent 56 minutes considering whether or not to turn the dimmers back on and planning what to say to him after class.

I was a little trippy over my words that class because I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy’s gall and because I was in my head thinking about how to address him on his way out. He had undermined my method, interrupted our flow, and weirdly approached me as I had my hands on someone else’s hips.

Class ended. The man headed to shower, came out, snidely thanked me for the lavender towel, and then left. It may have just been me but he had the smuggest look on his stupid face. And I did not say anything. So much like that nameless comedian, and like George before him, I cannot stop thinking about it.

It’s like I’ve got my own little court of justice in my head and my mind will not rest until what’s deserved is delivered. I spend a lot of energy with my girls encouraging self-advocacy and reminding them to ask for what they need. And sometimes, I just don’t do it myself.

I think what’s worse than the perpetrator, Reilly, the woman on the plane, the guy in the yoga class, getting away with something–quite honestly something he/she might never think of again–what’s worse is the weight of what I could have said.

I am not advocating for going around throwing insults at people, saying “Yes you do look fat in those jeans,” or openly telling people their way is the wrong way. But when someone else steps into my territory and disrupts my peace, I think it’s best to speak. We spend a lot of time tip-toeing, apologizing for standing in the way, mumbling “sorry” when what we really mean is “excuse me.” In this era of lies and misleading statements and alternative truths, I think it’s best to live unburdened, to unload the weight of what we could have said. And just say it.

Seacrets in January (in February)

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Once upon a January Friday night, back in 2009 when we all had less bags under our eyes and less baggage in our emotional closets, I sat scheming with Lauren and Chas in the living room of the apartment we lovingly called “Four Reasons.” Lauren and I had many a raucous event in that disproportionately large living room in Mt. Vernon, Baltimore but on this particular weekend, we were bogged down by January-ness. We needed to do something, something irrational, something adventurous. And in that scheming session, “Seacrets in January” was born.

A week later we gathered some of our most irrational, yet lovely friends and hit the road for Ocean City, Maryland with the goal of spending a January Saturday at Seacrets. Also known as Jamaica, USA, Seacrets is a bar that spans several blocks, spreads likely numerous easily contractable diseases in the heat of the July sun, serves a few palatable alcoholic slushies, and attracts a crowd of summertime twenty-somethings, looking to sin. Seacrets’ Tagline: “Find us and get lost.” We figured the pits of January would be less contagious, less offensive, but just as much fun. Maybe we’d find the spirit of summer.

At the time, the Ebys had a beach house (they don’t anymore) and my dad had a Honda Odyssey (he still does). We snagged the key with directions on how to turn on the water and the heat. Without any expectations, we had a few liquids at the house and then cabbed to Seacrets.

We were greeted by a live band, not good, not awful, but live and entertaining enough for some early-twenties wanderers from chilly Baltimore with an agenda that contained only “fun.” There was confetti and there were balloons and there was perspiration. And a tradition ensued.

On February 9th, we will make this trek for the 11th time. We were scheduled for last weekend but Seacrets is mysteriously “closed” which we can only guess means that they are doing their annual cleanse–scraping chlamydia off of the toilet seats. Seacrets in January has, in the past few years, become “Seacrets in January in February,” which is fine. We will adapt. However, this last minute reschedule has cost us some loyal soldiers–Tim and Maddy, who are both valued core attendees.

Over the decade of Seacrets in January (in February), we have gained and we have lost. We have gone from the Ebys’ house on West Way to the Sea Bay’s finest accommodations on 61st to the Best Western in the 50s.

We have had drinks and we have brought a pregnant (read: the pregnant put up with us). We have danced and we have stood awkwardly to the side of the bar. We have eaten late night pizza and we have wrestled strangers in the hallway. We have remembered and we’ve certainly forgotten. Some have fallen asleep at the bar and others kicked out. We have stood on a “bouncing” dance floor and allowed confetti to tumble into our drinks. We’ve welcomed balloon drops at midnight and stayed until the very last one was popped ceremoniously. And we have always eaten breakfast at Layton’s on 92nd, where they have that good ice.

People have come and gone, the tradition has been adjusted, revised, and adapted. Each year, we wonder, will this still be fun? Are we too old for this yet? Valid questions, but fortunately, Chris Eby, our archivist, has kept track of attendees. Although, 2019’s was created for the January 26th date and is subject to additions and subtractions.

Because Chris keeps this note on his phone, pay careful attention to the alternative ways of writing Chris L’s name (my own spelling: Lochdawg) and do not pay attention to the capital letters, or lack thereof. Blog continues below the list.

Seacrets in January Attendance List

I (2009): 8 total
chas
amanda
lauren
kyle
girl kris
pj
chris
eric

II (2010): 9 total
chas
amanda
lauren
kyle
girl kris
pj
chris
mike g
jamie antonious


III (2011): 13 total
chas
amanda
lockdogg
eric
sam k
pj
mike g
brittanie stuber/g
kyle
katie
lauren
caitlin schultz
mike (caitlin's bf)

IV (2012): 19 total
chas
amanda
lockdiggidy dogg
aubrey
kyle
katie
chris
amanda b
lauren
sean
brady
sam d
jimmy
dustin
girl w dustin 
jon manger
brendan
alex o
aiello

V (2013): 18 total
chas
amanda
chris
amanda b
lockdeezy
aubrey
lauren
jesse
jimmy
brady
sam d
brendan
alex o
tc
phrank
aiello
robbie
kelly


VI (2014): 21 total
chas
amanda
chris
lockdog
aubrey
mike g
brendan
kyle
katie
jimmy
matt tozzi (jimmy's friend)
brady
sam d
robbie
kelly
tc
phrank
maddie
beth
eric
sam k


VII (2015): 20 total
chas
amanda
chris
gabby
lock
aubrey
jesse
lauren
robbie
kelly
brady
tc
maddie
phrank
beth
hanley
jimmy
laura
aiello
sara


VIII (2016): 23 total
chas
amanda
chris
gabby
lock
aubrey
lauren
jesse
tc
maddie
phrank
beth
hanley
aiello
sara
brady
karen
mike
kayla
alice
tri
matt
stacey

IX (2017): 17 total
chas
amanda
chris
gabby
lock
aubrey
lauren
jesse
tc
maddie
hanley
aiello
sara
eric
sam k
alex keller
pj

X (2018): 15 total
chas
amanda
chris
gabby
lock
aubrey
lauren
charlie
tc
maddie
phrank
beth
sierra
jimmy
hanley

XI (2019): 16 total
chas
amanda
chris
lauren
charlie
tc
maddie
phrank
beth
miguel
kathleen
brendan
sam d
jesse
jasmine
anna

On this trip, Chas first told me, “I love you” (SIJ ’09). A participant smashed his face on a curb and had to spend the early morning at Atlantic General (SIJ ’16). Another participant decided cops were after him, ran from them, went to the wrong hotel where he, for reasons we do not know, left his wallet, and lost his car keys in a construction site on Coastal Highway (SIJ ’15). It was his 27th birthday.

We’ve seen burst blood vessels in eye sockets (SIJ ’17), enjoyed many early morning prank phone calls (SIJ all years), and watched as someone booped a security guard and charged the stage (SIJ all years).

We’ve tracked the growth and orthodontia of The Benderz. We’ve heard one participant sing Greek pop music to an audience of extremely ungrateful ears (SIJ ’18). We have encouraged a pregnant to tolerate us (SIJ ’18), permanently banned consumption of Double Dog IPAs (SIJ still standing), and watched a new couple form (SIJ ’14)–they’re getting married this June.

Seacrets in January is not normal. It’s magical, it’s lovely, it’s bananas, it’s absurd, it’s irreverent, and it’s so much more. And in the morning, we eat at Layton’s on 92nd. Consider joining this year, find summer in the middle of January in February, and make your mark on the list, and on history.

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SIJ ’18. Hanley  snuck out even before the prank phone calls in the morning so we superimposed him in (with hooves).

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Note: these are no longer permitted.

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Note: somehow this is still permitted.

 

 

Ms. Renee Means Peace

This is hardly a summative piece about Ms. Renee Buettner who is worthy of a volume of books, it’s just my own take on an incredible woman. Here is her obituary. And there have been and will be many more tributes to Ms. Renee. 

When I think of Ms. Renee (pronounced REE-nee with two long e sounds), I think of eye-squinting laughter. I think of “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I think of El Salvador with liberal nuns and sneakers labeled “New” and a ponytail adorned with a ribbon. I think of “rosaries coming out of our ears” and all things Jerry, Mary, Katy, Molly, and Christine. I think of Oscar Romero. And the Super Selectos, a grocery store by the side of a San Salvador road–how she didn’t want to go but the group’s American desires won out. I think of raisin bran and fasting on Mondays. I think of the rabbit on the back of the toilet. I think of the story she loved to tell about seeing an old nun who exclaimed, “You MARRIED JERRY BUETTNER?!” But most of all, when I think of Ms. Renee I think about peace.

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El Salvie 2008.

At the start of the new year, I chose a one-word intention of sorts. Peace. I am working to find peace in my thoughts, my words, and in my actions. Of course, on January 25th, its lost its sting a bit. Many of us could probably use a reminder of the resolutions or intentions we set to be better versions of ourselves. Maybe for some of us, it was to be more Renee-like. Celebrating Ms. Renee this weekend is a great reminder of the intention of peace. Because in a word, Ms. Renee was peace, rather, Ms. Renee is peace.

I met Ms. Renee probably many times before I really met her. Aubrey and I were not “cool” at Swan Lake Swim Club, in that we had no friends there aside from one another. Mary Colleen and the Buettners did have friends at Swan Lake. I’m certain over the summers we splashed and tanned along that craggy concrete path, I stared longingly at the large family, including Ms. Renee, that grew even larger with friends.

But when I really met Ms. Renee, I was on the way to my first high school dance. I wore a glittery black dress and a gold necklace that my boyfriend had gotten me from Disney World–it read “Amanda” next to a Mickey Mouse head. I was with that excellent gift-giver boyfriend and my mom must have been with us too. Mary, by some stroke of luck, had been named my high school “big sister” and I was terrified of her. To spend an evening with someone so popular and loud and celebrity-like, I was probably shaking in my shiny shoes.

Then, when we all got to Mary’s house to “take pictures” (like you did), there was Ms. Renee. She immediately calmed me by being silly, and sweet, and by being peace. And it was like my mom had found a counterpart. Another Baltimore social justice worker who was her height (ish) and radiated so much love like she does. If I had to guess, they were both wearing hand-me-downs from one of their daughters. The way Mary was my “big sister” and I was her “little sister” at Mercy, Ms. Renee started calling herself my mom’s “big mom.”

After I got over my fear of her, my friendship with Mary grew into more of an actual sisterhood and Ms. Renee, who mothered everyone but in the gentlest way, welcomed us in too.

I remember running with Ms. Renee around Lake Montebello talking about my then-boyfriend who also happened to be a closeted drug addict. I remember charades in the family room and Katy’s frustration that no one could guess her clue, “My breasts are the size of Europe!” Ms. Renee would just laugh and laugh, so used to her ridiculous daughters who used language she never would. I remember handing out rosaries and “Mouth Under Contruction” shirts to tiny El Salvadoran women and their same-size children. Swimming in the Pacific and practicing yoga outside the kitchen in our temporary home. Sleeping 14 in a room in Central America in July–I’m sure Ms. Renee and my mom were the only ones who wouldn’t have complained.

Ms. Renee might be sainted someday. She may already be an angel. She is and was a friend, a mother, a Gee, an advocate, a voice for those who didn’t have one, a home, a sister–biologically and Catholically, and on and on her ripples continue circling outward.

Now that she is not physically here in her body that betrayed her, her presence almost looms larger as her family and friends gather memories and photos. We remember a woman who couldn’t speak a bad word about anyone, who allowed her actions to talk, who lived by loving, a woman who gave peace to so many. We remember Ms. Renee.