Writing

The View From Here

No one, including me, thought I’d be where I am right now, which is sitting in my own classroom surrounded by boxes on the last day of the school year.

Maybe it was that kid “lighting up” in my first class, the first day of school that had me screaming internally “Damn…Maybe I’m not cut out for this.”

Or maybe it was reading the explicit notes—addressed to me—that were posted to the pages of my photography books during a lesson. Or having my room broken into, twice. Or having my things stolen…or having a bottle thrown at me. Or sitting in the corner of my empty classroom alone, sobbing, as I texted my family during a campus lockdown while area police searched for an armed assailant at the edge of our campus.

Whatever the cause, the answer to the question of how long this gray-haired, middle-aged white woman from the ‘burbs would last as a first-year teacher in this deep East Oakland high school, was most assuredly “not long” in the minds of everyone, including me.

And yet, here I sit.

Here I sit typing at an empty table, cleared away of the shiny computers many of my students used for the first time ever. Here I sit staring at student work on the walls, the product of a year’s worth of struggle, creativity, and growth, both my students’ and my own.

I’m not gonna lie…this year nearly killed me. For a person who always does more than is required, working in a school can be a hazardous place. There is always a deeper need than can be filled. Always one more policy to read, one more project to grade, one more lesson to plan, one more student to help. The true challenge for me next year will be finding a balance that enables me to continue to grow in my teaching practice, support my students well, while also making sure I have something left to give my family and myself at the end of the day. Because, let me tell you, that struggle is REAL.

A high school friend, also a teacher, recently posted to Facebook on her last day of school that it was “the only day of the year when everyone wishes they were a teacher.” Everyone envies the long summer break but no one tells you that it will be filled with professional development you will feel obliged to do in order to move over a column on that low pay scale. No one tells you that you will show up at 7am and leave at 5pm and then settle in at 8pm for a three-hour grading session once the kids go to bed. Regularly.

Even though there were many things in those first difficult weeks to cause any rational person to “peace-out” and head for the hills, there also were many more moments that fed my soul and gave me a reason to stay. Authentic conversations with kids. Proof some learning was taking place by the amazing work students were creating. My classroom becoming a hangout during lunch…a place where students felt accepted and comfortable being themselves.

I’m reminded of that old Peace Corps commercial with the tagline, “the hardest job you’ll ever love,” because it perfectly sums up teaching. It is a hard job. Made harder still by the myriad obstacles you must climb over every day to get to the pinnacle of the profession: low pay, long hours, limited resources, unreasonable expectations, self-doubt…It’s an exhausting climb. For an old newcomer like me, every step was excruciating. But when I look back down into the valley behind me and see how far I’ve come, I have to admit, the destination was worth the journey. The view from up here really is pretty spectacular.

Still With Her

To say that November 2016 was difficult is the understatement of the year. Likening the election results to the death of a loved one is an apt comparison. Although still present in their flesh, I mourn the loss of many in my own family, the divide between us becoming too large, ugly, and unwieldy to ignore.

Even before the election, around the time of the leaked tape, on which an individual supported by the Russians to overtake our government was heard claiming liberty to grab women by the pussy, I started to feel long crusted-over wounds again become raw.

Like many others expressed around this time, I have countless stories of experiencing sexual assault and abuse of power by men. Too many to cover here, so I'll stick to three.

One incident in particular haunts me still. So vivid are the sounds, smells, sensations of parts of this incident that I find myself peering into my memory like I'm watching it through a window, wanting to bang my fists against the thick glass and cry out to my four-year-old self and implore her not to follow him, my supposed godfather, to the front of the house opposite ours, our two backyards facing across the narrow alleyway. To go back to the comfort of the picnic. But she can't hear me, so she walks on, her small hands clutching the too-thin paper plate, already collapsing under the weight of its hotdog and corn-on-the-cob.

As she settles onto the porch, little more than a square concrete platform with steps descending off either side, she can feel the roughness of the surface scratching the backs of her thighs. He takes a seat beside her. For a few minutes, the two sit there in silence, eating from the plates on their laps. She can hear the reverie behind her: her mother's laughter, the faint sounds of the stereo, a dog barking at the end of the block. Her own house is so close, and yet here, on the front porch of the house across the alleyway, it is quiet. No one else is around.

Just as she is noticing this, her godfather leans over, presses his mouth—which smells of beer— against her ear and says, "I could snap your neck right now and no one would ever know."

Recalling that moment now sends a chill through my spine. Again, as if merely hibernating, the panic bubbles to the surface. My heart still pounds, forty-one years later.

Suddenly, as if being sucked back into a worm hole, the field of view narrows and goes dark. I can no longer see the girl. I don't know what she did after that. Maybe she ran home to tell her parents.

She didn't. At least not right away.

It was many years later, when I was a young woman in college and my godfather was a pile of dust in the ground that I finally told someone what had happened.

I was home for the weekend and out at a local diner having lunch with my dad when the adult son of my godfather stopped by our table to say hello. I hadn't seen him since childhood and didn't know enough about him to form an opinion one way or another about the sort of man he had grown into. Despite this, I was repulsed by the sight of him. I remember fixing a fake smile on my face, nodding at his words, without really listening, exhaling deeply once he had gone.

While my father pretended to look for his wallet to pay the bill, I told him about the picnic and what my godfather had said to me.

"That never happened," he said, dismissively. When I insisted that it had, in fact, happened, he shrugged and said, "Well, it was a long time ago. And anyway, he's dead."

And that right there is why I'm telling this story...because I was never able to confront my godfather while he was alive. And because at twelve years old (the age my daughter is now) when I did confront the mother of my best friend the morning after a sleepover to tell her that I had awakened in the middle of the night to find her husband naked from the waist down, sitting on the edge of my bed with his hand between my thighs, I was told, "it couldn't have been him," despite me telling her I had seen his face illuminated clearly in the light streaming in the window as I kicked him square in the chest.

These and many other incidents came flooding over me after hearing that the next leader of our country is a man who believes that it's okay to treat women like this. A man whose own son has said women who can't hack being harassed in the workplace have no business being there. Who was being investigated for reportedly raping a thirteen-year-old until she dropped her case, not because her case was without merit, but because she had received so many death threats from rabid, hate-filled supporters. I had hoped that, finally, this woman's case would bring the retribution that this narcissistic, misogynist deserves. Even though many years had passed, I needed to believe justice could be served.

Out of curiosity, I turned to Google to search the name of a former math tutor who, at the time, was also a teacher at the high school I attended. I had failed Geometry in 10th grade and needed to hire a tutor to help me retake exams so that I could bring up my grade and have any hope of getting into college. He had agreed to tutor me in the school library a few days a week over the summer.

In the beginning, our sessions were related to math. After several days, however, he began engaging me in conversations about my personal life, my musical interests, my aspirations—things that had nothing whatever to do with Geometry, the subject I was paying him $600 of my own money to help me pass.

Toward the end of the summer, after our last session, he suggested that he take me out to lunch. As a sort of "celebration" I guess. I didn't really feel like I could say no, especially since I needed him to submit the change of grade for my class. Especially since I didn't yet have confirmation that I had, in fact, passed. So, I agreed.

We rode in his car to a town about twenty minutes away, to a deli-type place where he ordered us sandwiches. He also picked up a bottle of wine. One of his students, a boy I didn't know, was working behind the counter. As the two exchanged greetings, I remember standing there, my cheeks burning with shame, wondering how this must look to the boy: a fifteen-year-old girl out to lunch with a teacher. A bottle of wine on the counter. But the boy didn't say anything, so neither did I.

We ate the sandwiches sitting in his car. He opened the wine and offered it to me. I can't say for certain whether I drank some, but it's likely I did. I wouldn't have wanted to offend him, after all, and it's not like I had any other recourse. He held my passing grade in his grasp.

I recall the cool feeling of the tan leather seats in the air-conditioned car. And just like the younger me on the porch across the alleyway, I remember feeling entirely powerless. Hidden, and yet so exposed and vulnerable. This was well before the age of cell phones, before I had a driver's license or a car of my own. I was in another town, a bridge away, on the side of the road in a grown-up's car, drinking wine with a man twice my age.

Thankfully from what I remember, he did not physically assault me. Nonetheless, his actions were inappropriate. Criminal, even. They are the hallmarks of someone "grooming" me for a future sexual assault. Luckily, I thought, now that our tutoring sessions were over, I would never have to see him again.

I was wrong.

Several months later, while working in the nursery of the evangelical church my family attended when I was in high school, I saw him again. He was with his wife and two young children. He didn't acknowledge me at all. He pretended not to know me, even with our many conversations about everything but math. And our lunch in his car on the side of the road. Perhaps he was afraid I'd tell his wife. I never did tell. And the possibility that my silence enabled him to do the same—or much worse—to other young girls over the years has haunted me.

So when I Googled his name a few weeks ago, I was expecting to read newspaper headlines with allegations of assault attached to his name. I was not expecting he would still be teaching at the same high school. No longer a young newish teacher, but now a beloved elder, firmly entrenched in the school and community at large. His face staring up from numerous articles offering effusive praise of his leadership in the community. I felt sick.

I thought of the countless numbers of young women who had sat in his classes over the years. Girls who may have dismissed inappropriate comments or intrusions of privacy, like me, because...who would have believed them anyway? Even now, I tremble at the thought of printing his name and am drowned out by the din of my own doubts: So what if he tried to get me drunk, he was just trying to be a "cool" teacher. He didn't sexually assault me, so is what he did so bad?

Yes. Yes, it is. We have to stop excusing men for their bad behavior. Staying silent when men abuse their positions of power over women is NOT okay. Putting someone in the White House who believes he's entitled to treat women with contempt and disrespect sends a message to our daughters that they need to keep silent, too, when misogyny wraps its hands around their throats, trying to choke out their voices.

Because she understands, I'm still with Her. And I'm with the four-year-old sitting on the stone-cold porch too small to fight back. And the twelve-year-old who did fight back, but whom no one believed. I'm with the fifteen-year-old who once felt powerless to speak up.

Well, I'm a grown-ass woman now, and I'm about to ROAR.

In Her Sixth Year (4AM Fiction)

Editor's Note: The following is very loosely based on autobiographical events. It's what happens when you wake up and can't go back to sleep. It's a writer's curse, I suppose. I guess I can thank My Muse. And just so we're clear, this is fiction inspired by actual events, not some coded message about my health. 

She awoke from the dream with a start. One breath before, The Mother had been standing at the edge of the garden, its ivy-covered stone walls curving inward on either side like cupped hands. In the dream, she and Eldest Daughter had been in deep conversation at the garden’s entrance (or its exit, depending on your perspective) when Littlest Daughter, who was standing beside her bed, crying, awakened her.

The Parents' Bed was reserved primarily for The Parents; however, whenever one of The Children had had an unfortunate dream or was otherwise unsettled, The Parents permitted whomever arrived first to settle into the space between them. The Mother glanced behind her to find that space now occupied by The Son, and recalled that earlier in the evening he had crawled up and over her, so lightly that she had barely even noticed.

"I'm afraid there's no room here, Sweetheart," said The Mother gently. “You can go sleep on The White Bed,” she said, pointing toward the doubled-up featherbed The Parents kept on the floor of their room for occasions such as these. For even though the bed was King-sized, there was only enough room for one "kidney-kicker" at a time, The Father had said.

Littlest Daughter walked away and the mother allowed her eyes to close once more, still wrapped up in the misty haze of the dream where she had been standing cradled in the palm of the garden with Eldest Daughter only seconds before. The pair had just said goodbye for what would be the last time in the physical world, clutched together in a tight embrace, neither one willing to be the first to let go. The Mother allowed herself to float downward back into the dream.

Just then Littlest Daughter appeared at bottom of The Parents' Bed, having used the upholstered trunk at the foot as a stool. The Mother felt her movements inching closer to The Son's feet. Her eyes flew open.

"There's no room, Sweetie," The Mother said again. But Littlest Daughter ignored her and kept advancing. The Mother sighed deeply and threw back the covers. She then walked around to the foot of the bed and stood in front of Littlest Daughter.

"I told you, Sweetie, there's no room. Let's go to The White Bed," said The Mother, again pointing to the soft, cloud-like mound on the floor.

Littlest Daughter began to cry, loudly. The Mother began to panic. She did not want The Father to wake up. Although The Father was a warm, kind person, and a gentle father, he valued sleep and became grouchy when awakened in the night, by anyone, for any reason.

"Just pick her up!" The Father said, sharply from beneath a cluster of blankets.

The Mother’s eyes widened. "Of course, " she said.

The Mother reached out to Littlest Daughter, scooped her up and carried her over to The White Bed placing her on the soft fluff. Littlest Daughter immediately crawled out onto the carpet, crying again, loudly.

"Climb in, Sweetie" The Mother said, now sitting on the floor beside her.  "And I'll cover you up."  Littlest Daughter continued to cry.

The Mother sighed, then scooped up Littlest Daughter and placed her in the hollow of her lap. With her left arm The Mother cradled Littlest Daughter’s head. With her right arm, she draped Littlest Daughter’s legs across her thigh. Littlest Daughter's tiny bobbed head nestled beneath The Mother’s chin.

The Mother began to rock back and forth, rubbing Littlest Daughter's back, all the while making a soft, "Shhhh" sound, interspersed with light kisses to the top of Littlest Daughter’s head.

The Mother thought back to the dream from which she had awakened only moments before. The dream had been about The Leaving. The Mother had held court inside the house and said The Goodbyes to everyone. Faceless individuals for whom she felt a deep attachment and love surrounded her. The Mother was hugging, crying, and posing for photographs with The Family, when suddenly The Time had arrived.

Eldest Daughter, as the eldest, had been tasked with making The Arrangements and, in the dream, The Mother had felt very sad. Although She knew it was best to go peacefully—after all everyone had A Time, this was simply Her Time— and yet, The Life had felt unfinished to her. She did not want to go. In the dream, she clasped hands with Eldest Daughter and together they walked toward the garden’s edge until they could see the path just beyond its walls. It was at this point The Mother had first heard Littlest Daughter crying.

On the floor of her room now, cradling Littlest Daughter in her lap, The Mother herself began to cry. At first only silent tears, dampening Littlest Daughter's hair as they rocked. Soon the silent tears became sobs and The Mother could not hold back her sorrow. She squeezed Littlest Daughter tighter.

"Why are you so very sad?" Littlest Daughter asked.

"Because you are," The Mother replied.

The Mother then kissed Littlest Daughter’s head, gave her one last squeeze and placed her gently on The White Bed, pulling the comforter to her chin.

"Goodnight," The Mother said, planting a last kiss upon Littlest Daughter’s forehead.

"Huggy?" asked Littlest Daughter, spreading her arms wide.

The Mother leaned into the embrace. She thought of the dream. She thought of the garden. Of The Leaving. Of The Time. Before it had become The Leaving, it was The Knowing, the first soft whispers of The Plan.

She recalled when she had first heard The Knowing. It was long ago, soon after The Wife had become The Mother. She had been traveling in the deep underground metro system of The City, when The Knowing washed over her. In her sixth year, was all it whispered. The Mother, being a new mother, was panic-stricken, as all new mothers are when the threat of danger comes out of the shadows to grasp at their Children. The Knowing washed over The Mother like waves against the shore, in and then out again, retreating momentarily and then descending, again, with a roar.

Over time, The Mother began to dwell on the notion of The Knowing less and less, until it was merely a smokey swirl just out of reach from time to time. When The Child had reached four years old, she became The Sister. Then The Mother's thoughts were consumed with The Son and The Daughter, and she allowed herself to forget about The Knowing.

It wasn't until The Mother had her third Child, Littlest Daughter, that The Mother's fears about The Knowing began to creep back in. You see, once Eldest Daughter had aged beyond her sixth year—at the time, she was simply known as The Daughter and also The Sister—The Mother began to doubt the inevitability of The Knowing. Perhaps she had misunderstood? What if in whispering in her sixth year, The Knowing had not foretold The Daughter's Leaving, but her own?

And indeed as each year stretched into the next, as each successive wave of The Knowing hugged and then retreated from the shore, The Mother had come to understand that The Knowing was for her ears alone. She believed The Knowing was a signal to her that The Time (Her Time) would come in Littlest Daughter’s sixth year—which was now less than three years away. The Mother wasn't ready. She felt unsettled. Whether two years or twenty, The Mother doubted she would be ready even by then. She simply couldn't bear to leave them.

Littlest Daughter then gave The Mother’s back a soft pat, as if to say, “It’s okay. Don’t worry." The Mother smiled. Despite being fiercely stubborn sometimes, Littlest Daughter had a tender heart.

The Mother stood up and walked to the bathroom. Her nose was stuffy because of the crying and she needed a tissue. As she sat there in the dark, on the closed toilet blowing her nose, she replayed the scene in her mind, pausing on Littlest Daughter’s question.

Littlest Daughter—only three years old—hadn’t asked the obvious question "Why are you crying?" (Obvious because it reflected an understanding only of what could be seen: The Mother’s tears.) Littlest Daughter had instead asked, “Why are you so very sad,” which The Mother now realized reflected Littlest Daughter’s ability to see beyond her tears, into the fears that provoked them. In addition to her tender heart, Littlest Daughter possessed a wise mind.

Once more, The Mother smiled.

Then she walked back to The Parents’ Bed, climbed in and pulled up the covers. Closing her eyes, she settled back into sleep.

Spoiled By Springsteen

My husband and I both grew up at the Jersey Shore, both on barrier islands. I in Ocean City (Exit 25) and he in Chadwick Beach (Exit 82). It's not much of a surprise, then, that we ended up living in Alameda, an Island City off the coast of Oakland. The need to be surrounded by water is just in our DNA.

A strong desire to live near the beach isn't the only genetic imprinting that happens when one grows up at The Jersey Shore. There are other predispositions: abiding love for soft pretzels, boardwalks, and soft serve; memories of horseshoe crabs (in decline now due to pollution), jellyfish, and sand crabs; and perhaps the most deeply rooted of all, an almost reverent devotion to the music of Bruce Springsteen.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I didn't become a complete devotee until I was in my 20s. It was 1995 and my then-boyfriend and I packed up our yellow Ryder truck and set out from the dead-end street near his parents' home on our move to San Francisco. Fittingly, Thunder Road played as our wheels took us slowly away from the place we'd known all our lives. Following The Boss's command: We were getting out while we were young.

Every song of every Springsteen album served as the soundtrack to our first road trip together. Despite my growing allegiance to our Patron Saint, it occurred to me that I still had never seen Bruce Springsteen in concert. I hadn't been permitted to go to concerts as a teen. It was only after I was well into my college experience and miles away from the disapproving eyes of my religious parents, that I finally understood the power of live music. Even then, I had only been to a handful of shows ( The Cure, Natalie Merchant, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and The Lemonheads).

So when my then-boyfriend got us tickets to see Springsteen on the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour, I was a little nervous. Would this be a relationship-breaker, I wondered? What if I wasn't as committed as my boyfriend, a guy who owned every album ever produced—as well as numerous bootlegs—and had never * passed up a chance to see Springsteen live?

We saw him at the Berkeley Community Theatre. It was an intimate acoustic show. Appropriately enough, the assembled followers packed into the cozy venue with reverence.  Nothing like the high-energy, full band, three-hour extravaganza one had come to expect from a Springsteen show. At least, from what I'd been told to expect anyway.

Once the house lights dimmed and he began to play, I just sat there in stunned silence. Bruce's musicianship is unparalleled, and his way of weaving stories in and around his songs is mesmerizing. I was hooked. The conversion was complete.

Since then, we've seen him more times than I can count. My husband even saw him in France once (I didn't go because I was in my seventh month of pregnancy). He just happened to have to go to a conference in Germany a few days before the show. Coincidental? More like strategic.

Over the years, the music of The Boss has continued to be the soundtrack of our lives. I rocked our first child, a daughter, while singing, Living Proof.

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room

Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light

Crying like [she] swallowed the fiery moon

In [her] mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take

Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make

In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused

Searching for a little bit of God's mercy

I found living proof


By the time that same girl was three, she knew all of the words to Johnny Bye Bye (kind of adorable. It's worth a listen).

Before we had kids, my husband and I went camping a lot. Once our daughter was a toddler, we revived that part of our lives.  And every time we would be on the road, headed to a campsite, my husband would reach over and put his hand on my stomach while singing, "reach my hands across your belly and feel another one kicking inside..." whenever Long Time Comin' would play. In the months, then years, when we were trying to have another baby, it always made me smile. And then after our son was born, the lyrics "Well there's just a spark of a campfire left burnin' two kids in a sleeping bag beside" made me feel contented whenever I heard that song because it had been a long time coming...our family. Now that we've got our hands full with three (11, 7, and 3), whenever we hear "another one kicking inside" we just look at each other with wide, terrified eyes.

The last time I saw Springsteen was three years ago, two months after the birth of our last child. It was November 30th 2012; our oldest was then 8 years old. When we told her we were going to see Bruce Springsteen she asked if she could go, too. At first, my husband and I weren't sure it was such a good idea. I mean, we don't ever actually have seats when we see Springsteen. We buy GA (General Admission) only; we stand in line for hours the morning of the show in the hope of earning a coveted spot in "the pit". We stand up—and love every freaking minute of it—for the entire length of a Springsteen show, which easily comes in at double that of most other acts touring these days. And it was a school night.

But...it was Springsteen!  Didn't she sing "...and the runway rushed up at him, as he felt the wheels touch down" (from Shut Out the Light) every single time she'd flown on an airplane until she was five? School night be damned. After all, for a kid whose parents were born in New Jersey, going to a Springsteen show was kind of her birthright.

That first show was pretty magical. We went along with two of our other friends, equally devoted followers. A few hours before the show, we got our wristbands. We had made it into the pit! While it's impossible to give a rundown of every moment of the show, I can say that for this to have been our daughter's first concert experience....she could not have been more spoiled. First, we were in a great position on the floor at the back part of the pit by the catwalk. Bruce comes out on the catwalk a lot. Each time, my husband would lift up our daughter, trying to get her close enough to make a connection.

Finally on Raise Your Hand, he came by us and just stopped, bowed his head and held his arm over the crowd, like he was praying over us. My husband was holding our daughter up right below him and she just reached up her hand and gave him a high-five!

By the time we got home, it was very late. We were all tired, emotionally spent, but also euphoric. The show had been epic. Great beyond every other great Springsteen show we'd been to. And it had been our daughter's first concert ever. No smoke-filled, sticky floored, college dive bar for her. We tried to tell her it would all be downhill from here. I mean, she had been to the very top of the mountain.

Last month (March 13, 2016) we got another chance to see Bruce live. I couldn't imagine not going, but because of my schoolwork (I was in graduate school at the time) I couldn't imagine a way to go and still get my work done. So we asked our son (then 7 years old) if he'd like to go in my place. We figured it was only fair since our daughter had already had the Springsteen Experience.

Let's just say...his unenthusiastic answer didn't express, what we felt, was an appropriate level of 1) gratitude and, 2) excitement. We could imagine nothing worse than for my husband to be there for only 15 minutes before our son began complaining about being hot/cold/tired/hungry. To see Springsteen live requires a level of dedication that allows one to ignore petty discomforts like needing to pee or having to sit down. We promised to take him to a Warriors game instead.

So...at just eleven years old, our girl was going to her second Springsteen show!

We prepared her ahead of time. "Now, don't get your hopes up," we said. "We might not even get in the pit," my husband warned. We felt it was important to calibrate her expectations toward reason. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice, after all.

KABOOM!

During Sherry Darling, our daughter (then tall enough to make her way unaided) wove her way through the crowd to get closer to the stage. Bruce made his way toward her. And this time, she didn't need to reach up and steal a high-five. This time, Bruce looked her right in the eye, reached out for her hand, and held onto it while they both sung a verse. Unfortunately, there's no YouTube footage or photographic evidence this time...and you know what, it doesn't even matter. He's left his imprint on our daughter (and most of our family—sorry, Son) for life.

Though there is one huge downside to our daughter having such epic experiences at her first two concerts: Every other experience is bound to suffer by comparison.

And that's what happens when you've been spoiled by Springsteen.

*He only passed up a chance once. We were in Italy for our fifth anniversary and we had planned to stay in Positano for only three days. Springsteen was playing in the college town of Bologna and we were planning to drive there, pray for divine intervention in getting tickets, and then head home after a few days tooling around the countryside. Regrettably, we were seduced by the Amalfian charms and decided to skip the drive. We were just too uncertain about our chances of getting tickets. We ended up going for the bird in hand, as they say. We have great memories of our time in Positano. I mean, what's not to love? But we've always had regrets about not going for it.  We've avoided videos of that show because it would just be crushing to see how amazing it was and to know that we could have been there. If only we hadn't heard the Siren's call and turned soft.  I'm guessing this experience was motivation for my husband to fly from Germany to France to see Springsteen even though he didn't have a place to stay, a ticket, or speak a word of French.

We'll Always Have Paris

My family and I are scheduled to fly to Paris in a week. It's a trip we've been looking forward to for months. Imagining ourselves strolling down the narrow cobblestone streets, pausing to enjoy a croissant and cafe at one of Paris' ubiquitous and adorable bistros; walking along the banks of the Seine, visiting the Louvre; wandering the stalls in the expansive flea markets in search of antique treasures...has been an all-consuming pastime since we decided to go.

And then the events of last Friday night unfolded. I was in a meeting when I received an email from my brother-in-law that simply read, "Tragic news coming out of Paris right now...". He didn't go into details, and I couldn't respond in the middle of my meeting, so it was hours before I understood fully what had happened.

Readers who don't know me well (and even some who do) might be surprised to learn that I secretly call myself Worst-Case Scenario Girl. Why? Because if there is even a whiff of danger afoot, my mind immediately goes to the, you guessed it, worst-case scenario. It seems my new pastime was imagining all the terrible things that could—and in my mind definitely would—go wrong in Paris.

Let me back up for a moment and explain how my brain works. We're going camping in Yosemite? Ok, I will definitely get mauled by a bear. Headed to a crowded place with our kids in tow? Getting separated from them for 30 seconds has me channeling Liam Neeson in no time.

Forgotten where I've parked the car? It most definitely has been stolen!

It's not something I'm proud to admit, but my mind just always goes to the worst place. Part of me likes to believe that it's because of my freakish need to always be prepared. Maybe somewhere in the deep recesses of my subconscious I feel like if I've at least imagined the worst could happen then I might be able to formulate a suitable plan that increases the likelihood of survival in the event that it actually does.

So I'm sure you can imagine, a person prone to such internal histrionics as myself would be exploding with worry over the prospect of traveling to Paris with three kids (aged 11, 7, and 3) two weeks after a major terrorist attack there. And perhaps it was the purpose of our travel (my husband's involvement with the Cop21 Climate Summit) and our planned participation in numerous public, crowded protest demonstrations that ratcheted up the fear factor. I mean, given the situation, it wasn't entirely outside the realm of possibility that the worst-case scenario wouldn't happen. After all, for many people in Paris it just had.

For a brief interlude of time, we reconsidered our plans. My husband suggested the kids and I stay behind. In true WCSG fashion, I imagined him being in Paris without us. Caught up in unforeseen events and unreachable for days and the worry that thought provoked was just...too...much. If we're going down, I told myself, at least we'll be going down as a family. Together.

Looking back on the trip now, three months later, it was the best decision we ever made. Yes, we were seduced by all of the expected Parisian attractions (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, walking along the banks of the Seine, etc. ), but we also had some singular experiences that we won't soon forget.  The increased presence in Paris because of the climate talks enabled us to experience some amazing things that I know will stay with us for a lifetime: Taking part in the creation of an iconic protest image (shown above), watching a glacial art installation melt—literally and symbolically—in the Place du Panthéon, seeing the wonder in our eleven-year-old's eyes at getting to meet Jane Goodall (!), traipsing across Paris with beloved long-time friends; drinking wine atop the Eiffel Tower with Aldis Hafteinsdottir the Mayor of Hveragerdi (a city in Iceland); seeing my kids featured on the home page of the NYTimes.

Whenever I go out for a walk, even now, I still ask myself, "Have I walked far enough to get to the Louvre from our Airbnb on Rue Malar?"

Letting my fear of uncontrolled events prevent me and my family from experiencing Paris and cementing memories we'll share forever—now really would be a worst-case scenario. One I'm so thankful I'll never need to plan for.

Ahh. You can take the girl away from Paris, but you'll never get the (love of) Paris out of this girl!

What My Daughter Wants (and Deserves) for Her Birthday: a Toxic-Free Future

Tomorrow, August 11th, is my daughter Olivia’s birthday. My almost second-grader, who just finished reading Harry Potter, is turning seven. It’s hard to believe. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate this milestone in the presence of family, give her gifts, and enjoy the Brune birthday staple: ice cream cake.

But today, while the rest of our family frolics in the sand at the Jersey shore, my daughter and I will travel two-and-a-half hours by train to New York City to join other mothers and children in celebrating another important event: the National Stroller Brigade Day of Action in support of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. The New York event is one of several taking place across the country, to either thank senators for being — or encourage them to become — a co-sponsor of this important chemical reform legislation. In New York, we will be thanking both Senators Gillibrand and Schumer for their early formal support for these common sense reforms. Senator Gillibrand, as another concerned mom, has been increasingly active around the need to better protect our children and has played a leading role in this effort.

As kids, my two sisters and I were exposed to pesticides that were sprayed to control mosquitoes in our town. If I close my eyes, I can still conjure the acrid smell of the showers that rained down on us as we chased the truck around the streets in our neighborhood. At the time, we had no idea what we were doing could harm our health. Fast-forward thirty years and those innocent romps behind the “bug truck” have indeed left their mark: multiple miscarriages for me, one sister with fibroids and a hysterectomy at thirty-three, and another unable to conceive. Turns out that what we don’t know about toxic chemicals can indeed hurt us.

That’s why we need serious chemical policy reform. The burden to prove a chemical causes cancer or disease should not be placed on the individual. Why wait decades, after a chemical has polluted our air, poisoned our water, and infiltrated our food supply, before we stop using it? Chemical companies should be required to ensure that their products are safe before they are allowed to be used in commerce. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, do you?

Some reading this might wonder why I’ve whisked my daughter away from the sandcastle-building and shell-collecting freedom of her beach vacation to the thick city air and busy subways of Manhattan. That’s a fair question. Truth be told, I questioned the reasoning myself.

When it comes down to it, we’re doing it because I want her to see what she created. Without her, I wouldn’t be a mother. Without her, I would never have learned six and a half years ago that toxins in our environment were making their way into our bodies and into mothers’ milk. I might never have developed the keen sense of outrage I feel when I hear about mercury in our air, perchlorate in our water, lead in our toys, and phthalates in our shampoo. I might never have known how strong a mother’s drive to protect her family can be, nor how powerful mothers’ voices are when raised in unison to demand change.

At seven, Olivia already understands why eating organic food is the right choice, and willingly surrenders holiday presents for lead testing without complaint. She glares with disapproval at the black smoke billowing out of factory smokestacks. Like any parent who hopes that their children will grow up to share their ideals, I admit I feel some swell of pride in my heart on such occasions. But I also feel regret. When I was Olivia’s age, I was cruising around town on my bike without a care in the world; I wish her the same carefree existence. Kids shouldn’t have to wonder if their toys are tainted with lead. They should just get to play. Parents shouldn’t have to worry whether their kids’ bubble bath has cancer-causing chemicals; they should just enjoy splashing with them in the tub and living in the moment.

On the eve of my little girl’s birthday, I want to give her this gift above all others: a childhood untainted by toxic toys; teenage years unblemished by concerns over which cosmetics are safe (because they all will be); a path to motherhood that doesn’t involve the heartbreak of infertility or pregnancy loss; a future free of preventable diseases linked to toxic chemical exposures.

That’s why we’re heading to New York today to join other moms there, and across the country in realizing this vision for our children’s future. And let me tell you, when moms get together, we get the job done. Senators, please take note and add your voice to the growing chorus of support for the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011.

Stop The Toxic Insults : They Aren’t Helping

Reading Michael Tortorello’s recent piece published March 14th in the New York Times (“Is It Safe to Play Yet? Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins”), evoked in me the same reaction the writer insinuates that reports of environmental toxins evoke in many mothers: crazed anger.

Or rather, productive anger. Tortorello’s portrayal of intelligent, informed women trying to do the best they can to protect their families from toxic chemicals in the face of government’s failure to do so as “anxious,” “obsessed” and “neurotic” is just another attempt by a man without a womb (there have been so many recently) to find fault with a woman’s choices about how to do what’s best for her and her family.

In “Is it Safe to Play Yet?” Mr. Tortorello concedes that lead, mercury, asbestos, and cigarette smoke are all proven health hazards and worthy of concern. (I’m glad we can agree on that.) But he questions the wisdom of parents trying to unearth and eliminate every toxic product in their homes. His article quotes Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who says, “…you could do that, but there isn’t really the science to back it up.”

Well that all depends on whose science you believe. Do you believe in the chemical industry that says low-dose exposures to BPA are safe because they are so small, or do you believe in the flood of recent studies that say low doses pose an even greater risk to health because they mimic our own bodies’ hormones? I guess that depends on whether you are obsessed or neurotic enough to remember lead in gasoline, or if you watched the tobacco executives testify before Congress that cigarettes were safe.

As a mother with similar experiences to those featured in Mr. Tortorello’s article I am particularly offended by the dismissiveness with which he addresses the mothers’ concerns about the toxins in their lives and their efforts to eradicate them. His snarkiness really shines through when he poses such questions as, “Could Wi Fi actually harm the baby? Who knows. Let the worrying begin.” And my personal favorite, “… before you diagnose nose cancer in your toddler based on exposure to bubble bath, you can call an expert … Or you can stick with your own neurotic Internet research.”

And while mothers don’t corner the market on worrying about their kids’ safety, Mr. Tortortello’s article is written as if this is the case. Especially since the only male parent quoted (and identified as such) in the article, Adam Zeiger, doctoral candidate and father to a 6-month-old, is portrayed as the only rational thinker among the lot. Zeiger is apparently someone who “did his homework” and found himself “unconvinced” about the threat of toxic chemicals.

The implication here is that we mothers haven’t done our homework, and that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support our concerns.

Unless you personally have a uterus or have, within that delicate environment, knit together a human being and then birthed that individual into the world (whether literally or through adoption), you have no right whatsoever to characterize women doing what they can to protect those tiny beings from toxic chemicals (while in their wombs or in the world) as obsessive or hysterical.

To be fair, Mr. Tortorello does offer some even-handed facts in his article. For example he gets it right when he says that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) doesn’t work and that we are paying the price for that failure to the tune of $76.6 billion a year. I don’t have a problem with that. With those facts, Mr. Tortorello, is spot on. What set my blood boiling is his smug dismissal of mothers’ concerns and his mockery of the lengths we would go to protect our children. He questions how long a working mother could “go on making her own deodorant.” I say, he’s asking the wrong question. It’s not how long she could; it’s why she must do so in the first place.

Trust me, if Mr. Tortorello thinks I (or any other sleep-deprived mother) would rather spend my precious free time making cleaning products from scratch or reading about chemical hazards instead of trying to catch up on 8 years of too-little sleep (just because I’m crazy and obsessed), he’s woefully mistaken. I and women like me (and yes, many fathers too) do these things because we must. No one else is minding the store. And until we get the serious chemical policy reform we need in this country to ensure that chemicals put in commerce don’t end up in our bodies, affect our fertility, cause cancer, or birth defects, I and probably thousands of others like me are going to keep doing what we’re doing. We don’t have a choice. As Abby Wolfson, one of the women featured in Tortorello’s article, so perfectly put it herself, “I’ve had my eyes opened to a lot of things that I’d never paid attention to. But now that I’m aware of them, I’m not planning on going back.”

Our chemical regulatory system is broken and its failure is costing us billions each year. Parents are panicked because they want to protect their kids and are doing so the best way they know how: by educating themselves about the dangers and doing what they can do avoid them. And as the article’s title suggests, we all would be better off at the playground making mud pies and riding the swings.

So, Mr. Tortortello, until or unless Congress stands up to the chemical industry lobby and does the right thing by reforming TSCA, parents everywhere will continue to read books about the issues, educate themselves about safer alternatives and take action. That’s not hysterical. That’s heroic.

The link to the original article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-brune/stop-the-toxic-insults-th_b_1354504.html

Summoning The Muse

"But I can only write what the muse allows me to write.

I cannot choose, I can only do what I am given, and I feel pleased

when I feel close to concrete poetry - still."

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006)Scottish poet, writer, artist, and gardener


When I was in high school I was, what you might call, a prolific writer. Words flowed like water. The muse would often visit while I was lounging in a hot bathtub (I'll tell you about one such visit later), or just sitting still. Complete poems, song verses, or story plots would come into my mind as if injected there during some kind of creativity-transplant operation. The quote above pretty much sums up my writing "process" during that period of my life. If I didn't feel inspired to write, I didn't. Except for school assignments, I never took pen to paper just to see what would happen. I usually ran in frantic search of a pen to capture the smokey wisp of literary perfection before it spiraled upward out of my reach, forgotten.

Many years ago while living in San Francisco, I went to see author Anne Lamott speak. I had previously read several of her fiction books and she had recently released a nonfiction book about writing titled, Bird by Bird. I was eager to hear how this quirky, honest, often emotionally raw writer, had to say about how she approached her craft. When asked by the moderator about her writing process she claimed her secret to success had been to always carry around a pen and notebook wherever she went. Lamott joked that if an idea came to her and she wasn't able to capture it, well...God would just give it away to somebody else. To prevent that from happening she had to be prepared. At. All. Times. Thus, the pen and notebook.

I was hearing this revelation whilst in my twenties, during a period when I had gotten out of the habit of writing regularly. Lamott's words shook me. I remembered how the muse had come to me in high school, rushing in without warning. I can still remember being fifteen years old, running from the bathtub, down the hall, dripping wet to write down these words:

A Sure Sign

A couple to be wedded

To each other, they were betrothed,

Out for a day of courting,

Set off in carriage down the road.

They stopped just near a path,

Beside a wooded grove,

To rest a while in the shade,

For they had grown weary as they drove.


The first tree they came upon

could be no shade for them,

for all its fruit had fallen down;

every apple, every stem.

They looked down at their feet

the fruit was all around them,

The woman picked an apple up,

that was lying on the ground then.


She looked sweetly at the apple,

and at the man for whom she was smitten,

then offered him the fruit to eat, BUT

it had already been bitten.

The apple had a hole clean through

and was occupied by not one worm—but two!

The man suggested they leave the grove

but the woman stood her ground.

She examined every apple,

and in every one, a worm was found.

She hung her head in shame, and said

"This cannot be again.

For every single worm I've found

I've found a rotten man.

So, you see, my love of late,

I cannot marry thee,

for every man I've loved thus far,

I've found a worm in he."

And they came out more or less like that. Fully formed. No need to think on the perfect word; I merely transcribed what the muse gave me. Over three decades later, I still have no idea how those words got into my head. Why would a 15-year-old in a bathtub in New Jersey feel compelled to write about a turn-of-the-century couple courting in a carriage?

It had been years (dare I say, decades, plural?) since I'd had an experience like that one. Lately I've been wondering why that might be. Churning out blog posts hasn't been without struggle. Finishing my screenplays hasn't been without struggle. Oh wait, that's right, 'cause I haven't finished them yet. Still, I've been thinking a lot about writing lately. Even when I'm not actively working on one of my projects, I'm always thinking about my characters, stitching together pieces of their lives in my mind, stashing away bits I can call upon later when I am, in fact, in a position to use them. And maybe that's what summons the muse: writing. Or, at least, being in a writing state of mind.

Because after all these years, she finally paid me a visit last week, at 1:15AM. I was asleep at 1:15 AM. One could argue I don't have the world's most convenient muse. One could; I won't, though, because when she came she whispered this:

Mrs. Hubbard advanced toward Amelia in a
stealthy, almost feline manner.
From the neck down, her body expressed little emotion.
Her eyes, however, grew wide with a predatory glee and her head teetered from the left and then to the right,
sizing up her captive as the distance between them dissolved.
Indeed, if Mrs Hubbard had had a tail, it would be
gesticulating wildly in anticipation.

As for Amelia, her body expressed the emotion
opposite that of the advancing maid's.
With each of Mrs. Hubbard's steps forward, Amelia retreated two.
Until—at last—her hands, which had been clenched behind her back, felt the smooth cool comfort of the kitchen wall.
As they flattened against the surface, the silver spoon in her grip betrayed her by releasing itself and clanging to the floor at her feet.
Amelia dared not tear her eyes from Mrs. Hubbard's, nor to move even a fiber in order to conceal it.
Fear immobilized her.

As the maid quickened her pace, Amelia knew she was cornered.
Having no where else to go, she cowered, raising her shoulders up to her ears
in what looked like an attempt to swallow herself whole.
She had been caught red-handed.

And now she was a tasty morsel discovered in the corner, waiting to be licked into oblivion by the sandpaper tongue of a hungry cat.

Again, no idea where this came from. It's not related to anything I'm writing. And it's only one little vignette. It would take years (at my pace, anyhow) to flesh this out to something usable. And yet, my muse woke me up in the middle of the night to give it to me. Maybe she's trying to send me a message of some kind. Like "Write more, watch a little less PBS Masterpiece." Beats me.

In any case, I'll file it away for future use. After all, I wouldn't want to offend her. Lord knows what I'll be doing the next time she comes calling.

Take it Personally

On my way into work last Friday, I heard a story on NPR about a UCSF study that had found dozens of toxic chemicals in the bodies of pregnant women. I’ve written before about the vulnerable environment of the womb, and while I’m not surprised by the findings of this latest report, its release struck a nerve nonetheless.

You see, until the previous day, I had been a pregnant woman. In the first trimester with what would have been my third child.

Miscarriages occur far too frequently and impact far too many women. The worst part, perhaps, is not having an answer as to why they happen. When I found out I was pregnant, I immediately took all the advised precautions: cut out alcohol, coffee; I ate well, exercised, and took my prenatal vitamins. As far as monitoring what went into my body, I did everything right. What I couldn’t control, however, was the likely presence of toxic chemicals already inside my body. Chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, BPAall of which are known to have negative affects on reproduction. Chemicals that could have interfered with my pregnancy.

While I can’t say for sure that there was a causal relationship between my own chemical exposures and the loss of this pregnancy, I also can’t be sure that there wasn’t. The truth is I’ll never know. But I’ll always wonder, and I shouldn’t have to.

I’m sharing this very personal story because pregnancy loss—and its potential causes— is a subject that people don’t talk about enough. It’s easy to explain away these early losses as simple bad luck, when we need, instead to be highlighting the connections between environmental exposures and negative reproductive outcomes.

It’s quite an emotional ride to go from a positive pregnancy test to a bloody bathroom stall. I would guess that even the most cautious of women, the ones who wait to share news of their pregnancies until the most risky period is over, nevertheless find themselves daydreaming about this new life they carry. I certainly did. I imagined future camping trips, visits with the grandparents, building sandcastles on the beach. And in the space of a few minutes, all of those feelings of anticipation, hope, and happiness were replaced with feelings of devastation, emptiness, and anger.

A few days have passed since the incident. In that time, the sharp edges of the loss have become blunted. That’s not to say that this loss will be easily wiped away and forgotten. It won’t. I will carry it with me forever. It has become one more thread in the fabric of who I am. The next time I’m sitting in a doctor’s office filling out forms and I’m asked for an accounting of my reproductive history, I will now write 3 in the box for miscarriage. This loss, this period of grief, has become a dot on the timeline of my life.

I don’t want to linger too long, however, on thoughts of what might have been. The mother in me wants to shift my focus to the other stat on the form. Number of live births: 2. My creative, kind, funny, generous, crazy-smart daughter; my tender and tough little boy, full of laughter and surprising passion. The sum of them both causes my cup of maternal blessings to overflow. As unlucky as I am to be among the one in six women who experiences pregnancy loss, I am blessed a thousand times over to have to have two* children who are healthy, happy, and who give my life a sense of purpose.

It’s also the mother in me that tells the activist in me that it’s time to get back to work. The UCSF report shines a blazing light on the need for real chemical policy reform in this country. Toxic chemicals have no business being in our wombs.

Efforts to reform the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) have stalled in Congress, and there are indications that a new bill, one written by the chemical industry, will rear its head sometime this session. We expect the true origins of the bill to be well-hidden, under the guise of having “grassroots support”.

Don’t be fooled. For the real details on the bill, look to trusted sources like The Center for Environmental Health (CEH), and the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition.

Let’s be proactive. Contact your member of Congress, tell them you want real chemical policy reform, right now. It’s time for all of us to take this issue personally.

[*Author's Note: The number of live births on that form would now read 3. My second daughter was born in 2012.]

Out of the Mouths of Babes

motheringnov07.pdf
Originally Published in Mothering Magazine, November 2007