Resurrection

Two white-skinned hands wrapped in red prayer beads and a black rosary.

How can we be really sure of anything?

My youngest daughter Anastasia asks me where Jesus came in the line of human evolution―was he before or after Cro-Magnon Man?

I beg the question for a moment, try not to burst out laughing while I ponder the irony―some people don’t believe that there was a Cro-Magnon Man. But rather than delve into evolution versus creation, I simply answer, “After. Definitely after.”

Other questions are not so easily answered. I overhear her discussing with Simone the issue of whether Jesus had blond hair. One cannot take the queries of childhood too lightly, so I politely intervene and begin a discussion of how Jesus probably looked―long, dark hair, a beard, olive or tan skin.

“But no one really knows what Jesus looked like,” I conclude.

“I know what he looked like,” she says. Of course she does―she went through six years of catechism, has holy cards in her dresser drawer, wore the white Communion dress and veil. How could she not know? But the journalist in me perseveres.

“Well, there are really no pictures of Jesus,” I say.

Now, to get her response just right, you have to practice your most withering, scathing pre-teen tone of voice. Try saying, “You’re a f**cking moron,” over and over. That’s how Ana replies.

“There are pictures of Jesus―I’ve seen them.”

I bite back a laugh and tell her that the camera had yet to be invented for, oh, close to 2,000 years after Jesus departed the planet, and that any pictures she’s seen have been artists’ renderings. She is not convinced. Her mother is a f**cking idiot. She leaves the room in a huff.

I am grateful that there haven’t been harder questions put to me―like trying to explain the existence of God, or why there is hate and hurt in the world. Because inevitably such questions would bring up my own issues of faith, my own faltering belief system, and I would have to say, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

How to explain why I still have the rosary beads hanging from my rearview mirror but no longer use them for prayer, or how we used to say grace at meals but now find it difficult to even get to the same table in the same house at the same time? Why we still light the Advent wreath at Christmas, how we bless ourselves when we get onto the freeway, but rarely darken the doorway of any house of worship?

How can I explain so many things that I don’t know the answer to?  Like how to account for the marriage-shaped hole in my heart that took away the greater portion of my faith when it left? I don’t know.

close up photo of sliced orange fruits
Photo by Couleur on Pexels.com

When their father and I were still married, we lived in a house with an orange tree in the backyard. Whenever the weather was nice, we could sit on a blanket in the yard, and my little girls chased butterflies and picked dandelions while I planted flowers, weeded and hung out clothes to dry. We’d play for a while in the sunshine, then pick oranges from the tree and peel and eat them right away. We’d wash away the sticky juice from our fingers with the garden hose.

In those days I was sure of everything―my house, my family, my future, my faith. But how can we be really sure of anything?

The things we thought were set in stone have vanished, and we are flung out into the world on our own.

It is difficult to tell my young daughters that everything will be as they plan, that everything will work out exactly right, when I am no longer convinced, when I can no longer choke out pleasantries about religion, or the family we used to be.

But too much of that kind of pondering makes one rigid with fear.

So I go to my garden, where everything returns again in spring. I plant bulbs like dead lumps in the ground in the fall, and they make an appearance―thin spears of green piercing through the loam, then opening with a bounty of color.

pink petaled flowers closeup photo
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Is there anything more perfect than a daffodil in spring? Than a single white iris? The first rosebud to open, or new leaves on a birch tree unfurling like tiny green flags? Is there a lovelier sight than an apricot tree in full bloom, or the first tiny violets making their sweet way through the dead leaves of winter?

When I can’t explain anything to my daughters about the world, the heavens and life now or if there is one to come, I go to the garden and sink my fingers into the dirt, where everything is simple and real.

The dry bulbs go into the ground, they come up in the spring, they die and are reborn. It is the simplest resurrection. It is the smallest inkling of faith.

close up photography of yellow flowers
Photo by Maria Tyutina on Pexels.com

Behind Closed Doors

2015-05-18 10.13.18October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pit Bull Awareness Month, National Pharmacy Month, Pastor Appreciation Month, and Halloween, among other national observances. You can see how easy it is to forget or to overlook something that is, in fact, an epidemic right under our noses.

But before your eyes roll back in your head or slip away to another blog post, let me take it from the general, the theoretical, to the personal. Domestic violence – when someone in the household hurts or harms another – ranges from a parent hurting a child, an adult abusing an elderly family member, a sibling bullying another; the means could be belts or fists, words or secrets, threats or punishment. It’s so repellent that we instinctively turn away. And our turning away, pretending not to see or hear, allows the abuse to continue.

When I was a new editor back in 2001, the newspaper where I worked published the police reports every week (as it still does). One week we ran a report about domestic violence – the incident and general location, as we did with all incidents. There had been an arrest, and we included it in our weekly summation of crime on the island. Unfortunately, the abuser saw the event in the newspaper and when he got out of jail, he went right back and abused his family member again for “telling.” That was the last time domestic violence reports appeared in general listings of police reports in that paper.

A child I knew once showed up at our house with marks on his arm, and when I asked him, he said it was from roughhousing at school, that his friend had given him a wrist-twist and caused the marks. About a year later, after CPS had become involved, I found out those were cigarette burns that the child’s own mother had inflicted on her child.

An acquaintance of mine, a mother I knew from Girl Scouts, came to a meeting with a bruise on her cheekbone and told me she had opened the cabinet and all the pots and pans fell out and hit her face. Later, she had a burn on her arm and said one of her children had pushed her into the stove by accident. After the divorce, she told me her ex-husband had inflicted those and other wounds on her, and she had lied to cover up.2014-01-18 09.09.41

When I was a teenager, the 12-year-old boy living next door came over early in the morning to ask for help. His father had shot his mother and then himself, and the boy didn’t know what to do. His little sister was still asleep and he didn’t know how to get her out without her seeing the bloody living room. An argument had gone terribly wrong, and suddenly two children were orphans.

When I was separating from my ex-husband, who had never laid a hand on me, there was a very bad week when we were both angry and said things that were vicious, and he slammed me in the front door, leaving a huge bruise from shoulder to collarbone; he followed up by calling the police and claiming I was threatening him. It was a he said-she said situation and, without making it worse in front of the kids, all I could do was leave. The bruises did not show up for a few hours, and I was too scared and weary to make a fuss by then.

So there’s a litany for you of events that have occurred right here in the East Bay, in this town, or another local city, where domestic violence had devastating or traumatic, if not deadly, consequences. People wonder why victims stay in the situation, why they don’t just walk away – but physical abuse is more than skin deep. It breaks the spirit, too. The little boy who had cigarette burns never stopped bragging about his mother’s excellent cooking. It always sounded strange to me – but abusers are often very charming, and the honeymoon phase between incidents often brings out the best in an abuser – until it happens again.

Keep your eyes open for the child who walks on eggshells, who defends or brags vigorously about a parent who gives you a funny feeling. Pay attention to elders with bruises or who seem nervous, or penniless when they should be more financially secure. Listen to raised voices or thumps against the walls of your apartment or condo. And be there with your divorcing friends, who are in the most dangerous period as they try to escape. Don’t assume all is well if the divorce gets ugly. It could be your male friends as well as your female friends, straight or gay. Abuse knows no gender, color, religion.

If you need help, call 911. Visit this website (National Network to End Domestic Violence). Be safe and be smart. Make a plan and tell a friend. Don’t be too afraid to reach out. People care and will help you.

And for the rest of us? Be aware that domestic violence is all around us. It’s the least we can do.

*This commentary appears in the Oct. 29, 2015, issue of the Alameda Sun newspaper. Copyright Julia Park Tracey 2015

Because I Haven’t Known What to Say

Because the events of the past week — the horrific shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church by a young white racist, and the — maybe — final straw that will bring down the Confederate battle flag, and bring the longed-for change, I am trying to say —

Because when we were children, in the extremely white liberal suburbs of Marin County in the late 1960s, we used to say, “Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe,” called Brazil nuts “nigger toes,” and when someone asked, “Where’d you get that?,” the response was, “Stole it off a dead nigger.”

Because the one African-American girl in Scan0029my elementary was so beautiful, but so different from me, and the time she invited me to sleep over, I felt so strange at being the only white person in the house that I never slept over again.

Because when I was in junior high, we watched “Roots” on TV and saw the story of slavery in America, and then named our black cat Kunta Kinte and my sister’s sheep Kizzy.

Because the most strikingly odd groups at my white high school were the exchange students from Germany and Norway, or the handful of punk rockers dyeing their hair blue or green in 1979.

Because I never talked to the one African-American boy in our class, and to this day I still don’t know his name.

Because my father still says things like “black as the ace of spades.”

Because as a young adult, although I was beginning to meet people of color, of all colors, I still used to say that Richmond (CA) was where all the black people lived and was careful never to go there.

Because I married into a Nicaraguan family, I got to hear skin-toned racism as my then-husband swore at African-Americans and Afro-Hispanics.

Because I learned from them that being “pure Spanish” (white and cultured) was better than being “puro jincho” (a peasant, a country hick).

Because when I was suddenly a single mother in 1986 and went down to the welfare office to see about getting help, and was one of few white women there, in shame, I never returned.

Because when I married again, into a Portuguese family, I found myself sitting in a relative’s trailer home watching the Super Bowl in 1991, when Whitney Houston sang the most beautiful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and listening to a spew of racist slurs from the man of the house. He said he’d rather kill himself than ever hear the song sung by a black person, and I did not speak up. (But I told my then-husband I’d never go back, which was something.)

In between then and now, I grew, I learned, I opened up and am continuing to ruthlessly self-examine my words and my actions as a citizen of the human race. I don’t always succeed.

Because as I now examine my family’s American history, I find slaveholders among them, as well as casual racism in every generation (the vintage Valentine above is from my grandmother’s childhood scrapbook, circa 1910).

Because it took so long for consciousness to dawn, and for me to understand and own my own racism, I offer this apology to my African-American brothers and sisters for not speaking up before, and my pledge to be an ally going forward.

As we all are, I am a work in progress. May my movement be forward, never backward. It’s not about guilt. It’s about being accountable and owning our history.

May I be as brave, some day, as Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole in Charleston and pulled down the Confederate flag, in seeking to change the world.

Guest Post from EJ Hanagan

When I was in my twenties, I remember older women telling me “just wait until you hit 30, that metabolism will slow down so much that you won’t be able to eat a saltine without gaining five pounds.” I feared that statement so much because I valued my body like every other 25 year old IMG_5795-Edit-2-3does. I didn’t want to give up my youthful appearance and those delicious low-rise jeans that were so unbelievably uncomfortable and grotesquely revealing. I didn’t want to be out of shape and not be able to keep up with my future children. I love fitness-I love exercising and eating healthy, but I was so scared that once I hit 30, my body would spiral out of control and leave me lazy and hungry ALL THE TIME. I listened to these women and let their own stories affect who I was.

It wasn’t until I reached about 32 that I realized that I had to stop focusing on other people’s results and start putting the effort into my own personal results. So, I continued with my fitness obsession and because I learned what I am capable of physically, it made me yearn to discover what I was capable of on other levels. Which is why I set out to complete the first novel that I had started. Once I sent my novel out to the world and realized that I could write and possibly make a career out of it, I felt as if I conquered yet another thing that people had been telling me wasn’t possible.

In my twenties, I never gave myself the option of shouting to the world “I AM UNIQUE. I AM ME.” Instead, I hid from being unique and I altered my opinions and likes/dislikes so they were in line with those around me. One thing that is unique about me is that I love exercise-I love it so much that I feel all out of sorts if I don’t get my heart rate up every day. I used to get defensive when these older women would tell me that I’m destined to be sloppy and out of shape, simply because of age-now I smile and walk away.

Being in my 30s has taught me that I may not always be right, but I know who I am and I know what I’m capable of. It has taken me a long time to realize that I need to compete with myself, not with everyone around me. I no longer let anyone tell me how to feel or think-I make those decisions confidently on my own. So bring on the low-rise jeans and pizza in moderation, because I know what I’m capable of.

EJ Hanagan writes women’s fiction with a focus on strong female characters. Her second novel, Underwater Secrets, was recently released.  Alternating between generations and intertwining the stories of Claire and her mother, Underwater Secrets teaches that sometimes the key to loving ourselves involves loving the people around us, quirks and all. Set on a lake in New Hampshire in the sixties, Underwater Secrets, provides a glimpse into the past.

Follow EJ Hanagan on Facebook.

Buy Underwater Secrets on Amazon!

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Twice as Nice: On Reading Books Again

photo 4I like to re-read my books. I mean, a lot. Once a year, some of them.

This week I re-read an old favorite: 84 Charing Cross Road, along with its sequel (in the same book!), The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. This is a wonderfully funny and sweet true story, told in correspondence between a New York playwright-freelance writer, and a bookshop employee in London. 84 Charing Cross was the address of the bookstore, Marks & Co. They began their correspondence in 1949 and it ends after 20 years — I won’t tell you how. But it was made into a wonderful movie with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Bancroft. See it, some day, if you haven’t. It’s sweet and bookish and nerdy and just as fun every time. The second book is when Helene Hanff, the NY writer, finally goes to London to visit and meet all the friends she only knew through letters. She hopes to find the “England of literature,” and she does!

My eldest daughter, Mia, took a semester to live and work in London so I went to visit her there. We saw a show one night — can’t remember which one, but it was in Covent Garden, and right nearby is Charing Cross Road. I forced her to walk with me to the corner at 84 Charing Cross. And I was so disappointed to find a Pizza Hut instead of a bookstore. My photo card burned out on me so I did not get the last set of photos I wanted. But here’s what it looks like now.84 Charing Cross

I had many years of yearning for England like a salmon yearns for its stream of origin. It took until my mid-thirties to get there, but I had a lovely adventure. I’ve been there three times, and each time I go, I find someone or something from England’s literary past to enjoy in person.

We once spent an afternoon in a taxi, chatting away at the driver as he drove us around. We stopped at Abbey Road for the zebra crossing (pictures gone!) and drove around St. John’s Wood, Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park (and no photos!). Do you know Primrose Hill? It’s where the dalmations in Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations went for the Twilight Barking. I had to see it! And see it I did. (I still curse the technology fail of my last batch of photos; the Cloud had not quite come into its own in 2006, and neither had Instagram/Facebook). It was a good visit to London, and I hope I have more ahead of me.

I re-read 84 Charing Cross Road in an afternoon on the sofa, feeling comforted by the visit with an old friend. I closed my eyes and dreamed myself back with a cup of tea and a Tube ticket and a jar of Branston Pickle on the table. Marmalade and lush gardens and blue plaques on the buildings to say which famous person had lived there. Rain, rain, and sometimes sun.

I re-read my books to renew my friendship. To slide into the arms of memory. To make room in a story for myself, and what I need right then: familiarity, warmth, a rose garden with no thorns.
More on this topic soon.