Category Archives: Identity

I’m Liberal, I’m Religious, I’m Here.

I got a subscription to The Atlantic in the wake of the 2016 election to support high-quality independent journalism and all that, and though I love reading things in print, the magazines have been sitting under my coffee table until the last week or so when I decided to play catch-up. And, as inevitably happens lately when I start consuming media, the newly religious part of me heaved a long, exasperated sigh at yet another mischaracterization. And, not for the first time, I decided to reach out and write something. Is this going to be a thing forever? I think this is going to be a thing forever.

I just read Peter Beinhart’s “Breaking Faith” article in the April 2017 issue, and I wanted to comment. Beinhart seems preoccupied with voter “discontent,” so much so that he seems to ignore where the presidential candidates stood on the basic political spectrum. Republicans presented a far-right candidate in 2016, one whose rhetoric did happen to clash against the messages of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that are preached weekly from many pulpits in the U.S. Hillary Clinton was just left enough of center to get Millennial liberals like me begrudgingly on board, but Bernie Sanders’ politics represented the changes that we really wanted to see – the changes that the Democratic party has been too afraid to put forward, and that the party didn’t have to risk putting forward in 2016 when the opposition was so far to the right. We didn’t necessarily agree with his Sanders’ populist rhetoric, but we wanted his policies.

And so did liberal faith communities, like the Catholic church I recently joined. You don’t hear much about these faith communities – and certainly, positing the appeal of organized religion to “the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition” only marginalize these voices further – but they exist, and their social teachings align more with Sanders’ vision of America than with any other vision that was presented by candidates in 2016. For many in my faith community, our discontent doesn’t stem from personal economic loss, or from anxiety over the erosion of some construct of tradition. Instead, our discontent comes from the presence of income disparity, poverty, homophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, lack of access to health services, and other injustices that continue to exist in this country, injustices that are in direct contrast with our most important value: love. Sanders seemed the most committed of all the candidates to the eradication of injustice and thus to the spread of love.

Sanders is a revolutionary voice, but he’s not the only one. Pope Francis is another controversial, outspoken leader working towards equality. You’d probably find a correlation between Catholics who strongly support Pope Francis and those who strongly support Sanders. And didn’t that Jesus guy hold some pretty radical beliefs about equality, too?

I want people to know that I exist, that “liberal” and “religious” are not diametrically opposed, and in my opinion shouldn’t be opposed. That my journey to faith made me more liberal. That my faith is completely intertwined with every aspect of my life, like my work, my economic decisions, even my politics. Especially my politics.

The religious right does not have a monopoly on religion, but the use of the term “religious right” in liberal-leaning circles has essentially made “religious” a synonym for “right.” Or for “textual literalist,” or “traditionalist,” or “anti-abortion,” or “anti-gay marriage,” or a number of other things that do not describe me or my views, or the views of many of those in my faith community.

My community includes health professionals who are happy about the availability of reliable birth control in high-poverty countries, and parents who are fighting for their LGBT sons and daughters to be not only acknowledged, but expressly welcomed by church hierarchy. My priest openly speaks about how the Church needs to start including women and gave an impassioned homily about it on Mother’s Day. My husband, who has been reading Dorothy Day and getting interested in the radical-sounding Catholic Worker movement, has recently started identifying himself as a “Catholic leftist” because the term “liberal Catholic” isn’t left-leaning enough for him. This is the left, and it is the religious left. We exist.

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Coming Out Catholic

“My Soul Longs for You, O God” is the title of the first chapter in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, a copy of which I received when I went to meet with my parish’s priest last February, after declaring I wanted to officially join the Catholic church. It was a fitting beginning to the book, and also a fitting beginning to my journey over the past year. It will culminate in my official initiation into the Roman Catholic faith, just over a month from now during the Easter Vigil.

My decision to become Catholic has been a decade in the making, really, from the time I left the homogeneity of rural Pennsylvania. Had I stayed there, and had I not stayed with my semi-Catholic boyfriend who became my fully-Catholic husband, I might have eventually become Lutheran, and if I’d moved somewhere else I just as easily could have become Unitarian. It could still happen, sometime in the future. Around my mid-twenties, I concluded that Christianity was probably the best fit for me, and that every denomination within Christianity has its positives and its drawbacks. But it would be impossible to explore every single aspect of every single denomination, and every individual community within that denomination, and anyway, none of those were going to be completely perfect. My job wasn’t to find the perfect denomination or the perfect community, but to find one that was a good fit. It happened that I found a good fit in a liberal Catholic parish in New Haven.

As I hope I’ve accurately painted in my posts so far, I’ve been a skeptic for most of my life – or maybe an empiricist is a better word. I like proof. I like evidence. I see evidence of God in the existence of the universe, but not evidence of a personal God with whom one can communicate and have a relationship, as they spoke about in Sunday school. The History Channel documentaries on Jesus Christ offer no evidence of his divinity, and neither does the Bible, which, though possibly divinely inspired, is a creation of man and not a creation of the divine and does not stand in for fact. When I feel pulled toward God, which has happened on occasion, or an urge to go to church or to pray, I tend to look for a psychological or biological reason instead of a divine reason. Genuine faith is a struggle for me, and when all around me growing up were Protestant churches who put faith in Christ above all else, it’s no wonder I didn’t see a place for myself among them.

A couple years ago when my husband was living abroad, and I was working two jobs and not attending any worship services, and I generally felt like my life was on hold, I had a conversation with my mom about spirituality and religion. She had been going through her own spiritual awakening and had lots of new ideas. I realized in talking to her that my convictions – the few I’d had – had atrophied. I’d been curious about faith at one point, and had had good discussions with my faithful friends, but as I tried articulating my beliefs at that moment, I realized I had fewer beliefs than ever. My conception of the afterlife had never been static, and I had none then – we just died, and that was that. I didn’t entertain the notion that God listened to, or cared about, human problems. Our lives probably had no meaning and no judgment aside from what we grafted onto it. Nihilism, existentialism, near-atheism, whatever this was, it was far from the vibrant and lively spiritual world I’d once glimpsed and reached for. It was boring. It was lame, as Einstein said. And it was not what I wanted to believe in.

The really great thing about these types of non-belief, though, is that in the absence of a caring God, the individual bears the immense, ultimate, and urgent responsibility of justice, of shaping the world and enacting good. Of being the change. That’s how I saw myself, trying through my jobs at public libraries and in my daily interactions with others to ease their suffering, bring them a smile, sometimes even make their day. My insignificant life would end, as everyone’s insignificant life would end, but they are significant to us while we’re here, and if I could make somebody else’s life a little better, then I would have been a successful human being with a meaning to my life. I would have liked to have the weekly reminder of Mass to push me into those good intentions throughout the week, and to start getting some spirituality back, but I wasn’t in the right place to get dressed on my single day off, to drive to New Haven and look for parking, to sit alone, or to put the effort into looking for conversations and friendships at the post-Mass coffee hour. I couldn’t even get myself to social meetups that I found online, and I frequently cracked dark jokes at work about how I could barely take care of myself. So I let myself do my public service job, and I let it be good enough for the moment. There’s only so much that we’re capable of doing.

Though spiritually and emotionally I wasn’t in the best place, I was doing well materially and physically. We traded in the beat-up, oil-guzzling used Corolla for a much nicer, more reliable used Prius. Our apartment was small, but we could afford it, as well as some nicer furnishings. I worked six days a week, but they were good jobs, and I had good health insurance for the first time since I was an undergrad. I was making headway on my student loans. My fears of having to leave Connecticut to move in with my mom in Pennsylvania while my husband lived abroad did not come to fruition, and I could support myself in his absence. I could afford a gym membership. I had the physical ability to use the gym membership. I felt blessed. “Lucky” wasn’t the most accurate word, “blessed” was, and sometimes I would offer up a whispered “thank you” as I drove to work.

When my husband returned and I got a full-time job that allowed me to have two days off a week, I resolved to dedicate one of those mornings to weekly Mass attendance. It was the Christmas season, the time of anticipation and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and raising candles in my grandmother’s darkened church while singing the low, droning harmony to “Silent Night.” I attended that Christmas Eve service, which I’d attended more years than not over the last decade, but I didn’t feel that connection I’d felt in the past. After dropping my grandmother at her home, my husband and I drove in the midnight cold to the Catholic church in town, searching unsuccessfully under the orange sodium lights for a posting of the Christmas morning schedule. Next year, we told ourselves, we’d attend the Catholic service. When we took a trip to the city in January, we attended Mass at a little church in Harlem, where my husband’s former priest from Chicago was now located. And when my husband went abroad for a couple weeks and I didn’t go to Mass, I genuinely missed it. He came back, and I’ve attended services nearly every week since then, volunteering my time to service projects here and there and joining RCIA in September, my husband acting as my sponsor.

My choice of denomination has puzzled and maybe even dismayed some of my relatives. After all, in my part of rural Pennsylvania, the Catholic church is the one with all the rituals, the one with strict nuns and hours-long Latin masses, with cover-ups of child molesting priests, anxiety-inducing confessions, hundreds of years of corruption, and regressive perspectives on sexuality and gender, where the church serves the church itself and not the community. I agree with half these criticisms. And I’ve spent the last few years trying to dispel the other half of criticisms by educating others on the reforms of Vatican II, the massive diversity within the umbrella of the church, and my own positive experiences with the church, its members, and the meaning I find in the rituals.

My church is not perfect. Roman Catholic institutions, leaders, and laypeople have traumatized and abused children, shackled adults in unhappy marriages, and facilitated gay conversion programs. They dig in their heels on issues that should no longer be issues in 2017, sometimes simply because they want to differentiate themselves from Protestants. It’s a 2000 year old institution, and it’s had plenty of time to screw up. But it also has a long history of doing social good, running some of the biggest charities in the world, feeding and sheltering those without basic needs, advocating for those without a voice, spreading the message of love and compassion, and offering a spiritual balm to millions. Pope Francis embodies and exemplifies the love that is central to the faith in a way that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented among popes, and he receives heavy criticism from the most conservative elements in the church. My own parish runs a weekly soup kitchen, sponsors a refugee family from Syria, and runs service trips to needy communities in Nicaragua and France. To echo my religion professor over a decade ago, this is the flawed, imperfect, beautiful story of all of Christianity, of men and women striving in their own flawed, imperfect, beautiful way to make this world better, to reach for a perfection we may never grasp.

Roman Catholicism, in particular, is how I choose to strive. It challenges me in ways that I didn’t feel challenged within Protestant churches. The feel-good homilies back in Pennsylvania didn’t shake me up, didn’t call upon me to step outside my comfort zones and act daily the way my priest’s homilies call me to act. I know somebody who attends Catholic services who was at one point, and possibly still is, an atheist, but who sees, as I do, the power of the church’s call to action, and the power of belonging to a community of others who are working towards the same goals. This particular faith calls upon me to think as well, to look at the Bible within a historical and literary context instead of taking passages at face value, to use my English major critical reading skills to interpret and to identify allegory and to get to the deeper truth. It calls upon me to do, and it has shown me the immense agency I have as an individual, both within the church and out in broader society. It has shown me how I can work towards justice, love, compassion, all those things I value as a human being even without affirmation from a religious doctrine, but more powerfully with the support of that doctrine. And my doctrine isn’t for everyone, for sure. There are many ways to be a good, loving, kind, compassionate, and just human being. The Roman Catholic faith is simply my own path, the one that shows me how to realize my own potential for goodness.

I’m taking shuffling, timid steps toward faith, too, and reconciling my compulsive need for proof with my desire to truly believe. My need for proof, at its core, is fear of being wrong. Falling back on proof, on what my senses can observe and measure, is safe, and it requires minimal risk. It’s not going to damage my Freudian ego. It’s what I, a first-generation college graduate, a professional, a nerd, have used as a basis for most of my decisions. It’s insurance against being wrong. Faith, on the other hand, is risky. It’s illogical. It’s difficult. It could be wrong, and it could make one look like a fool. Faith acknowledges, “this guy sounds crazy, and there’s no way at all to prove this is for real.” But faith then takes a deep breath and says, “I’m giving myself over to it anyway,” and steps forward into uncertainty. I want to believe that God hears the prayers that I am offering more and more easily as each day goes by. I want to fully believe that the thing I sometimes feel rising within me is the Holy Spirit, to not become preoccupied with the biochemical mechanism behind that feeling, and to instead allow the simple fact that I have been designed with the ability to feel those biochemical mechanisms be proof enough of the divine working in me. I want to be okay with not knowing all the answers, with Christ being both man and God, with His presence in the Eucharist. I want the image of the woman on the tilma I saw in Mexico City to be a miracle. I want there to be truth in the old book. I want to be like the blind men I read about in the book of Matthew, who answer “Yes, Lord” when Christ asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?” and are healed according to their faith. I want to be humbled before God’s grace, and have my good actions directed, disciple-like, by my devotion to Christ. I want to let my light shine.

Rural Religion 2: The Desert

There’s an old joke that those who decide to major in psychology in college are looking to fix their own psychological problems. Similarly, I took up a religion minor because I was looking for religion.

Looking at my undergraduate transcripts, I took courses in Buddhism and religions of the Far East, Islam and Judaism, religion in contemporary literature, and philosophical approaches to God, in addition to the community college’s intro to philosophy and the comparative religion class. It’s almost as if I had a phobia of Christianity, the religion with which I grew up, and the very basis for the university I was attending. Instead, I wrote papers on the role of Satan in Islam and Judaism, and became familiar with the story of Job and the very few times the adversary is mentioned in the Qur’an. I visited a reformed synagogue and a mosque in the suburban-looking parts of Philadelphia. I remember taking my shoes off and listening to the white-bearded soft-spoken imam, who had an English last name and said he was from Pittsburgh, talk about his faith to the class. He said we could have some Hershey kisses on our way out, and when my professor asked if there was any significance to the chocolate, the imam looked surprised and exclaimed simply, “Everybody loves chocolate!” After we left, I thought about returning to the mosque on my own time. But I never did.

Nor did I return to the Lutheran church where I’d sung in the choir and played in the orchestra. I was in choir and jazz band at college, so with my musical niche filled, I no longer had a reason to attend. Some of the rituals there had resonated with me, but not the constant references to Christ, the human-god whose divinity could not be proven, or to a God that can intercede in our daily human lives and to which we can pray and will be heard. To me, God was the unseen, incomprehensible force that somehow created the universe, gravity, life, and made sure we all didn’t collapse in on ourselves. I never really doubted that. But since I was old enough to do so, I doubted that God really cared about us humans. Our cosmic insignificance, after all, was staggering. I saw no reason for such imperfect, destructive beings as humans to deserve any attention from such a powerful being. So I slept in Sunday mornings when I was home, and when I went back to campus I had dinner ready for my roommates when they returned from Mass.

Once, though, I was feeling a little off, like some part of me was missing. It wouldn’t be the first time I experienced this feeling. And it felt like going to Mass was the right thing to do. So I went to Mass, to the red-carpeted chapel in the basement of the building where business classes were held. I saw students, usually confident and popular during the day, rising from their wooden chairs with bowed heads, reciting “I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” I saw them gather together at the altar, reverentially, looking for some sort of healing. And though I couldn’t go up to the altar and partake, just being there and observing made me feel as if whatever turbulence was in me had been temporarily calmed.

I started asking questions of my religious friends, who obliged my inquiries about faith versus good works, papal infallibility, and transubstantiation. I noticed that a particularly devout friend, was quick to point out alternative, sympathetic explanations for other friends’ seemingly selfish behaviors. I heard of how the students loved the chaplain, the Christian Brothers who taught Spanish after living in rural Latin America, the priest who taught philosophy.

But it didn’t come to anything. When we graduated and moved to Chicago, I enjoyed Sunday mornings when my husband went to Mass and I had the apartment to myself at an hour where I wanted nothing more than time alone, and quiet. Sometimes, on the occasions when he asked me if I wanted to go with him and I inevitably said no, he gave me a look, a little half-smile trying to cover up sadness as he simply said “okay” and put on his coat. He started staying at church longer, and I started having more time in the mornings for myself. Then when the night before Easter came near, I agreed to go to Mass and watch him initiated officially into the church. I remember walking alone up to the church, in newer, smaller clothing to fit a newer, smaller body that I still hadn’t quite accepted as my own, unsure if my skirt was too short, or if I belonged there among the brown and black faces, if I was intruding on a ritual meant only for them. But the man next to me shook my hand and said “Peace be with you” just as everyone had done at the Lutheran church in rural Pennsylvania and at the Mass at college, and the priest joked with my husband when he called him up in front of the church to be baptized and receive the Eucharist. Though I had to work on Easter, I made a fancy salad and chilled soup for two before I went in to my afternoon shift, and I filled the rice cooker and salad spinner with fake grass, Cadbury eggs, pineapple rings, painted eggs, Peeps, and socks.

We got engaged shortly after that, and when we moved to New Haven we started attending Mass semi-regularly at the chapel around the corner from us. My fiance/husband wanted a church wedding, and I liked the priest that guided us through the pre-wedding counseling, even though I felt that some parts of the process weren’t needed for a couple that had been together for eight years, three of which were spent living under the same roof. I agreed to raise any children in the Catholic faith, happy to give them the same opportunity I’d had: knowledge of religion, open conversation, and the completely freedom to accept or reject. Thinking of how I connected to the rituals at the church, and how I felt welcome at the coffee hours after the services, I made the comment I might eventually become Catholic anyway. I arranged to have off on Sundays at my retail job, partially due to the hassle of the reduced bus schedule, but it also allowed me to go to Mass.

However, when the library job required me to work every Saturday, I had to give my Sundays back to retail. I started spending Mass checking the time on my phone for the moment when I could duck out, as quietly as possible, and catch the bus. It was not ideal, to say the least, and it didn’t last long before I gave up on trying to catch half the service and spent my Sunday mornings getting ready for work.

The wedding came and went, as did the honeymoon, as did Christmas, where the three days I could get off from my two jobs went by way too quickly for me to see enough of my family in Pennsylvania. I quit doing the ESL volunteer work I had done in the fall, since I could no longer fit it into my schedule, and ultimately, because I couldn’t overcome the nagging feeling that I was an utterly poor teacher. I extended my loan deferments. I edited the desperation out of my cover letters as best as I could. I counted calories and ran in the dark. I researched the ACA tax penalties for not having health insurance, and sent terse emails of neglected maintenance issues to the property management company. I lugged groceries down the sidewalk alone after work, once having a paper bag fall apart while crossing a four-lane road to get to the bus shelter, scurrying to the sidewalk and watching helplessly as cars swerved to avoid my leaking half-gallon of soymilk. On nights when work was particularly stressful, I made a few cocktails.

And something was creeping in, some emptiness that I didn’t want to quite call “depression” – it didn’t have that sagging feeling of my teenage years – but for which I had no other name. I felt like I had lost something, but I didn’t even know what it was. Sometimes, I would buy a potted plant at the grocery store that made me smile on rough days, though I felt guilty for spending the $4 on little roses and daffodils that would eventually die. And moreover, that little flower wouldn’t fill up that hole in myself that I tried to ignore. Eventually, my facade fell in a frightening, self-destructive private moment where I had to acknowledge that something was wrong with me. And that I didn’t know how to fix it.

The feeling stayed with me, usually a little thing barely visible in the corners, sometimes completely silent, and sometimes causing me to just suddenly throw up my hands and say “it’s all fucked anyway” and do something self-destructive for the next few hours, or the rest of the day. It followed me when I changed apartments, changed jobs, got a car, got a better car, hit all those success markers for which I’d strived and thought would make it go away. It stayed with me when my husband was living abroad for nearly a year and I came home every night to an empty apartment in the dead of winter. It stayed with me on Sunday mornings, the only morning I had when I usually didn’t have to get ready to work at one of my two jobs, or when my husband who worked from home would go to church and I would have some precious alone time at my most productive hours of the day. It was there when I took a solo trip to Pennsylvania and ran a few miles along a route on the Appalachian Trail I’d always wanted to follow and never did when I lived there, my mind on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her transformative hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s still there today, usually quiet, sometimes not.

Rural Religion

I took a speech class at community college when I was nineteen, and during one class around this time of year, I noticed the teacher had a huge black smudge right on her face. I spent the class wriggling uncomfortably, debating if I should raise my hand and call attention to it, or just let it go. Nobody else was saying anything, but they had to have seen it. All I could think of during class was the smudge. All I could see was the smudge. She didn’t seem to have any clue it was there. And as class wrapped up, I mentioned it to a classmate, incredulous that we all just let her continue with an hourlong class without a single word.

And that’s how I learned about Ash Wednesday.

Growing up, most churches were mainline Protestant denominations: Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, an occasional Baptist or Presbyterian church. I went to Girl Scout meetings in their basements. Genealogy books that list my ancestors mention Reformed churches and Union congregations with German names. My Sunday school was UCC, and I have early memories of being picked up by my parents in the old brown trailer that predated the construction of a new wing of the church. For years, my grandmother coaxed me into uncomfortable nylons and dresses, and I went to the trailer and started the morning singing songs about Zacchaeus, about where the foolish man and the wise man built their houses, about Jesus loving the little children of the world, and begrudgingly repeating “This Little Light of Mine,” hating the melody and the fact that the little kids loved it so much. When I learned to read music, I would sometimes get permission to take the Wee Sing Bible Songs book home and attempt to play them on whatever instrument was at hand.

All the preschool and elementary classes were held in the trailer, tables separated by thin curtains with the youngest kids at the back of the trailer. As I moved closer to the door through the years, learning Bible stories and stories about being nice to others photocopied from workbooks, I could see a poster with a graphic of the earth from space, and part of John 3:16 trailing off: “For God so loved the world…” Sometimes I would stay for the church service, sitting next to my grandmother in the second-last row, making origami animals or drawing crude comics featuring one of the childless younger adults who sat in the last row, especially the one who looked like the long-haired redhead character in the Doonesbury comics. I would put the dollar my grandmother gave me into the collection plate and sing from the hymnal tucked into the wooden holder in front of me. I’d come up for the occasional children’s sermon, where a friend’s grandmother would tell a story with colorful felt people and animals, smoothing the felt pieces down as she placed them on the felt board, or the pastor would tell a story and then line us up to place his warm hands on our heads for a blessing. Once or twice, around Easter, the children’s sermon featured a lamb that we got to stroke. Sometimes, I would sit still while trays of crouton-sized cubes of bread and little red glasses of wine and grape juice were passed, then trays to collect the emptied glasses. I remember once watching my grandmother prepare for communion on a late Saturday afternoon, pouring out the bread cubes from their plastic bags, and the sweet, Niagara grape smell of the wine when she decanted some for the pastor to use.

When I was six or seven years old, I was recruited to play the virgin Mary in a Christmas play, which required wearing an oversized blue robe over my head and body and holding a baby doll while kneeling next to a boy in a brown robe. I was a shy kid at that age, and I dipped my head down so low, my grandmother exclaimed afterwards that nobody could see my face. I would later play a mother going to cut down a Christmas tree with her family, intentionally matching a green turtleneck to brown corduroy pants for the performance, and I had a line or two in an Easter play.

When I was 10 or so, my grandmother took my brother and me on a bus trip to see the story of Noah at Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster. Before pulling out of the church parking lot, I answered a trivia question of some sort and won a Good News Bible, and, voracious reader that I was, I cracked it open immediately. Over the next few days I would read familiar stories, creation and the fall of Adam and Eve, and the flood, and the dove that came after the flood. Then I reached the story of Noah, post-flood, drunk and naked in his tent, and how his son Ham saw him and his other two sons covered his nakedness, and Noah awoke to curse Ham’s son and all his progeny. With many questions in my mind, I set down the Bible. I didn’t reach for it again for nearly 20 years.

I’d had doubts before, for sure. As a little kid I could take in that Abraham had lived hundreds of years, but it seemed unlikely as I got older. The Earth couldn’t have been created in six days, either, and it didn’t coincide with what I learned in science class. I prodded my teachers with questions about whether things in the Bible had really happened. I asked for explanations for the post-flood story of Noah, and I couldn’t get an answer. I asked why there was evil in the world. I asked how, if we were really made in God’s image, we humans could do such horrible things to one another. I thought about how the pastor, the religious leader of the church, had told racist jokes at holiday dinners. My parents’ reply to my stream of questions, and the holes I found: that’s why they didn’t go to church. I knew they didn’t pray, because I had suggested it to them when they’d separated for a few months and they told me it wouldn’t do anything. When I said I didn’t think I believed in a literal hell, my father said that hell was what we were living here on earth. My mom taught me the word “agnostic.” I liked it.

I had two friends, siblings, whose grandparents were friends with my grandparents and who went to another school district. We would swim together in my grandmother’s pool in the summer, play with my brother’s Tonka trucks in the mountain of sand placed next to the volleyball court in the picnic grove, and eat turkey barbecue – simple shredded meat in juices held warm in crockpots – unadorned on hamburger rolls. The girl and I traded complaints about being made to go to Sunday school, our doubts over what we were being taught, and about the other kids in our class with whom we didn’t get along. We both went to an information session one summer on the confirmation process, learning about choosing a mentor and what the process meant. My friend wasn’t given a choice in whether to go forward, but I was. I decided not to continue on with confirmation. When marching band came along in the fall, the late-night bus trips back from competitions prevented me from staying over at my grandmother’s house and going to Sunday school the next morning to see my friend. It meant the end of my religious education.

In school, I knew of two Jewish kids and a handful of practicing Catholics, who you could identify by their pale skin and freckles. In the World War II units in school, we learned that Catholics and Gypsies were among those killed by Germans in addition to Jews. Judaism and Catholicism were both different religions compared to mine, both an other. I, like many people I see on Facebook and the comments section of YouTube, learned to confuse the term “Christian” with “Protestant,” so in the semantics that followed, it was easy to fall into the assumption that Catholics were not Christians.

There was a discussion once, when I was young, and I asked which religion I could be when I grew up. I ran through the ones I knew. Baptist, I asked? Yes. Jehovah’s Witness, like the older ladies that came to our door and my mom invited in for tea when she had time? Yes. Amish? Yes. Jewish? Yes. Muslim, I asked, thinking of the Quran my mom had bought and started reading? Eh… sure. As long as I didn’t become Catholic. When I asked why not, my father mumbled something about them gambling in their church basements. (Later that summer I put tickets in a raffle at a church picnic and played basket bingo with my grandmother.)

Around the time that child sexual abuse by clergy was in the news, I overheard that Catholic priests wouldn’t make housecalls or leave their churches to visit the sick, not even to deliver rites to the dying. Or that they would charge lots of money for it, and any other services. Friends attested that nuns teaching in Catholic school were strict, like in the movies. Family members told stories of being excommunicated for marriages, or shown records of their monetary contributions to the church in the past year when they requested services. In my community college history class, I learned about Martin Luther’s theses, the indulgences, and the Great Schism. In a comparative religion class I took as an elective, I learned about transubstantiation. I went to Rome with yet another class and visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and wondering at the arches and the marble floors and the Pieta and Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment, I remember somebody remarking how much money it would have cost to construct it… and how many mouths could have been fed with that money.

This was all in contrast to Protestant expressions of Christianity, such as the Lutheran church of my maternal grandparents. After my parents divorced, my mom took us to their Christmas Eve services once or twice, and with encouragement from my maternal grandmother, I joined their orchestra and later their weekly adult choir as a musical outlet during my time at community college. I’d always liked the music at church services, and I had given performances at local churches with the vocal ensemble in high school. There was something in the Lutheran services that I liked, too. I liked the reverence for the bread and wine, and how everyone stood up and went in line to receive it in the front of the church, instead of staying seated. I liked that the Nicene Creed was recited every time, even if I didn’t believe all of it. And I loved the late-night Christmas eve service, where they would turn off the lights and we would light candles and sing “Silent Night.”

But the faith just wasn’t there. And there were so many choices, too. I had no doubts that there was a god, a force of some sort that had created the universe and kept it all from falling apart. Comparative religion class had introduced me to new ideas, too, like that the force, the divine, was in all of us. There were concepts in Judaism and Islam that I liked, and the idea of nonattachment in Buddhism stuck with me. Deism came up too, the Enlightenment-era idea that God exists but is not involved in human lives. That sounded most in line with what I could empirically observe about the world.

I was struck, though, by how our instructor, a very knowledgeable adjunct, a Jewish lady with frizzy hair and a warm personality, described the Bible. She had started the semester by writing the word “ineffable” on the whiteboard and talking about its definition, and we kept coming back to the idea of the ineffable. When we discussed the Bible in the Christianity section of the class, she described it as a book written by man, an earnest attempt to capture the truth, to give words to the ineffable. It wasn’t perfect, but the effort, and its very imperfection was, in her words, “beautiful.”

I had to agree.

‘Kill all Americans.’

My husband just played a old popular song from Afghanistan, “Sabza Ba Naz,”which had been redone by newer artists in 2010 and played everywhere in Tajikistan when my husband visited there for a few weeks to work on his spoken Persian. It’s one of four languages he speaks (or so he claims, though I’ve heard him say a few words in Arabic and Turkish this week in addition to the English, Russian, Spanish that he’s fluent in and the Persian that he’s working on). And I remembered something very telling about where I fit in – or rather, how I didn’t – while growing up.

Somehow or another, and for the life of me I can’t remember how it started, I got really into stuff from India. It might have started with an errant music download, or I might have sought out the music from the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where bejeweled women in saris are dancing at the maharajah’s palace, or it might have appeared in a different movie. Or it was a proto-hipster urge to be doing something different when everyone was watching subtitled Japanese anime. However it began, I got my hands on the Rough Guide to Bhangra sometime in high school. I remember playing it in a relative’s car on the way to the mall with my brother, and while I was rocking out to the extraordinarily catchy “Bhabiye ni Bhabiye,” singing along to what words and vowel sounds I could catch, looking forward to the Malkit Singh song coming later, my relative was visibly uncomfortable. I pressed my relative, who eventually blurted out, “How do you know they’re not singing ‘kill all Americans’?”

Even as a high schooler, I knew this was completely, and utterly, and unbelievably ridiculous. First, the music was from India, not from any of the countries that had been in the news over the previous couple years. Second, the music publisher was based in the UK, and they wouldn’t have put anything like that on CD. But most importantly, no country could possibly base its entire culture upon hating another country. That’s simply not enough to sustain a culture, especially when there are so many better things to sing about. Love. Loss of love. Looking for love. Looking for a lost dog. Anything. Anything is better fodder for a song, unless you’re a counterculture punk band and doing it tongue-in-cheek like the Dead Kennedys singing “Kill the Poor.” It made me angry that my relative would flatten other people’s lives, that it would even cross their mind that somebody – presumably just because they looked different and spoke another language – would even consider putting the effort into making nice-sounding music about a country they hate.

And that’s something that set me apart from rural Pennsylvania, and why I was destined to leave. My world was bigger, and it always was bigger. Even if I didn’t know what it looked like, I knew there was something beyond my little corner. Even though going to Philadelphia was a big deal, and going to New York an even bigger deal. But even that became a little less monolithic when I went for a weekend with the National Honors Society. Instead of busing in for the afternoon to marvel at Times Square and see a Broadway musical, I remember getting frappuccinos at the first Starbucks I had ever stepped in, visiting the Statue of Liberty, taking a bus tour with a lady who claimed to have never left the city, and roaming around a mall on the waterfront.

My mom’s side of the family is responsible for my bigger focus, I think. (That’s not the side of my family that my uncomfortable relative was from.) My grandparents were always traveling somewhere, it seemed. When I was 10 or so, they took a trip to Iceland, bringing back coins for the dozen grandkids and photos of themselves in parkas, smiling in front of a flat tundra landscape. They went with my older cousins to England and Scotland, and they took a cruise in Alaska. Their fridge was covered in magnets from Cancun, and Hell in the Cayman Islands. They hosted luaus and Halloween parties, and brought back navel oranges and honey sticks and Everglades Heat seasoning when they visited friends in Florida. Other relatives moved as far away as Georgia and Indiana, or spent a winter working in Antarctica and then traveling in New Zealand, or took trips to Turkey and eastern Europe. My mom regretted that she couldn’t afford to take my brother and me abroad, or even up to Prince Edward Island as she had done in her childhood, but we managed to camp with family outside of Binghamton, New York, and on Assateague Island in Maryland. We took a bus to Baltimore to visit the aquarium with them once, too, for the day.

With my paternal grandparents, travel was a bigger undertaking, at least when it revolved around cities. Hotels were booked for multiple nights during trips to Philadelphia, and Baltimore too when we went with them. We spent a week outside of Seattle to visit my grandmother’s sister, going to their camper (which was the first time I learned that there were campsites other than state parks and accommodations more permanent than my other grandparents’ RV), visiting Fort Casey and Mt. Rainier and Leavenworth, and seeing the anticlimatic space needle during a day trip into the city. Visits to Hard Rock Cafe were a fixture, and when they traveled to Las Vegas and other cities in the U.S., my brother and I – their only grandchildren – inevitably received Hard Rock t-shirts or plushies or both, in addition to souvenirs from other gift shops they found along the way. They went on a cruise once, but I don’t think they ever left the country.

Trips to the country were more common with them, and I believe they were more in their element there. Every few years, my grandmother would take a bus trip to Missouri to see the Longaberger basket factory. Day trips to Lancaster were a thing, going to Amish country or seeing a Bible-based show at the Sight and Sound Theatre. And almost every Independence Day weekend was spent driving four hours to remote Potter County, the fifth-least populated county in the state, where my grandfather’s cousin had a cottage where he would spend hunting season. My brother and I loved it up there, from the wholesome black-and-white portrait of a World War II-era nurse in the cramped, powder blue bathroom with a porcelain sink and exposed pipes, to the black and white checked linoleum in the kitchen, to the blankets that looked like they were from the 1960s, to the enclosed porch where I could do 1000-piece puzzles with my grandfather’s aunt, to the stairs that pulled out from the ceiling and led upstairs to a few cots, to the mallards and deer heads and turkey feathers and gigantic rattlesnake skin on the walls.

For many Pennsylvania Dutch families, whose ancestors had also lived in the same area since moving from Germany, I think this was par for the course. I don’t know how or why my maternal grandparents differed from everyone else around them, why they were curious about the world outside of German Pennsylvania, but it rubbed off on my mom, and in turn on me. I knew there was a larger world out there, full of people that didn’t share my experiences or identity, but who had fully-formed lives. I wasn’t rural-centric, culturally myopic. But many people there were, and didn’t see a world in which their own lives weren’t the focus. When I overheard people speaking Spanish, I assumed they were talking about the same inane things that comprised my conversations, just in the language they were most comfortable using with their conversation partners. Whether or not they liked the shoes in the store window. Gossiping about their friends. But many people from my area would immediately become suspicious that those conversations were about them personally, and would care intensely that people were using their power of bilingualism. Or think that music in another language was somehow about them, too.

It must be exhausting, to be constantly afraid of the rest of the world. To fear the unknown. But for some people, maybe it’s easier to do that, to fear from a distance instead of trying to understand. Instead of looking up the lyrics. Instead of learning new languages and taking trips. Instead of smiling at a stranger and saying “hello” instead of averting your eyes or casting a suspicious glance. Instead of putting aside what is shown on the nightly news, and interacting truly with the person in front of you, as an individual, instead of as a representative of that inevitably false idea you’ve formed about all people who look like them.

I’m not a huge-huge fan of TED Talks, but I love Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on the danger of a single story, of projecting indirect knowledge or experience of an individual upon an entire group of people. I bring it up in conversations when they veer political, especially when I’m talking about where I come from. I’m reminded of it when I tell people about my husband’s Middle Eastern history program, when they ask me to pronounce his country of study several times because I say “ih-RAHN” instead of a drawn-out “eye-RAN.” When I see them working out a sideways question about my husband’s ethnicity because my answer will significantly alter the direction of the conversation. I think of the danger of the single narrative if I see worry wash over their face and I feel the need to assure them I have no fear about his travel to Iran, and that I want to go myself, that the world of travel isn’t limited to just Western Europe and North America. My hometown is full of single stories. It’s no wonder that they voted for a man who reinforced those single stories with hateful, fearmongering rhetoric, and then acted not by extending understanding and compassion, but by banning individuals who have come to represent a vague, imaginary threat against the vague, imaginary uniformity of the American way of life.

Turned Urban: Raised Rural 5

(If you haven’t read Raised Rural one, two, three, and four, I recommend reading those first. Also consider checking out Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat about how my social life changed along with my politics at this time, and The Music Dies about my college dreams.)

To recap: in college in Philadelphia, I identified myself politically as an Independent, leaning libertarian, embracing social freedoms but concerned mostly with fiscal responsibility, economic freedom, and a watchful foreign policy. I supported moderate Republicans. Then, when I lived in Chicago – outside of the bubble of campus housing that I’d lived in while in Philly – I started seeing the cracks in the social systems that I’d thought were fair and just. This is how I came up close to those cracks, learned a vocabulary to describe them, and if I’m a good enough writer, how it changed me.

 

“Community” is not a word I understood until very recently in my life. Of course, I knew the dictionary definition, but I’d never been shown its actual meaning of community – in fact, I was raised by parents who were at times hostile to the surrounding community, and from a young age I knew the meaning of words like “nonconformist,” “small-minded,” “hypocrite,” and “ignorant.” So naturally, I didn’t invest in community. Not the public school, where I struggled to fit in and felt isolated. Not the church, where my grandmother took me to Sunday school and I prodded the teachers with questions they couldn’t answer to my satisfaction. Not among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose heritage I shared but racial attitudes and small-town perspective I found abhorrent, and whose stagnation I found stifling. Not at community college, where I knew I would leave after two years, and not at La Salle where I didn’t fit in among the middle-class suburban kids who had attended private religious schools. It sadly wasn’t until 2013, when everyone was excited about the men’s basketball team and there were touching stories about the team members’ families and friendships, that I realized how awesome La Salle’s community was and allowed myself to root for the team and feel like I was part of it.

In Chicago, though, I took trips by myself downtown, for errands and for fun. After work, I walked my dog around the neighborhood and let her run around with puggles and Australian shepherd mutts. We walked her along the lakeshore, and we would pick her up to laugh at the sight of her eating mulberries right off the tree in Washington Park. I borrowed graphic novels and art museum passes from the local library branch. I read classic novels and Augusten Burroughs while riding the Green Line out to my graduate courses in the River Forest suburb, watched my breath come out in frosty puffs while walking and listening to Rilo Kiley and Wolf Parade, sat on a bench with crochet hooks and yarn in the lobby of the botanical garden until my classes in their library started, and wrestled with oversize WPA blueprints in the narrow archive of the African American History museum. A few months before I left, I bought a White Sox hat and wore it to represent the South Side. I could have lived there, happily, for much longer than two years. However, as in so many other places, I knew my time in Chicago had an expiration date. I was a temporary visitor, and my opinions wouldn’t mean much. And as a white 22-year-old student living in largely Black and then mixed neighborhoods, who couldn’t find Chicago on a map until after the lease was signed, I didn’t think it was truly my space to claim.

But I went to New Haven knowing I would be here at least six years, the minimum amount of time it would take my husband to get his doctorate in history from Yale, and with the possibility that he would need an extra year, or that we would land good jobs that would keep us in the area. I had a reason to care more about my community here.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead. Thinking about community and involvement in these terms was something I had to learn. And I learned it from my job.

When we moved to New Haven in August 2011, I had hoped I would get a job in archives or special collections, or maybe a museum. I had the MLIS that qualified me for professional work as a librarian. We hoped that Yale might take an extra look at my resume, if I dropped in my cover letter that I lived in town because my fiancee was getting a Ph.D. from them. I applied to every position in the university’s library system that I could (not the ones that required fluent Japanese or an advanced degree in GIS), and I got a pile of rejection emails, and an interview for a job at the second-lowest tier of library clerk work, which amounted to nothing. I luckily found a temporary part-time job at a corporation in Stamford after a few months, and when it was extended from 3 months to 6 months, we finally set a date for our wedding and knew we could pay for it. For work, I was limited by what I could reach by the local bus system and Metro North, and when several part-time positions opened up in the city library a month after the temporary job ended, I had no choice but to go for it and keep applying for full-time jobs that would allow me to afford a car. That’s how, after a year in New Haven, I came to public libraries.

My life up until this point had included little contact with the public library world. My mom got my brother and I library cards when I was eight or so, and we used them to check out old stories from the libraries near Allentown while my mother gathered sources for a community college paper. Sometimes in junior high school, I would spend my Wednesday afternoon in my hometown library, asking one of the two librarians for help finding Stephen King novels, or reading books on ghosts and the supernatural until a parent picked me up on the way home from work. I didn’t return until my senior year of college when I needed to use a scanner to complete a graduate school application for an academic program, several months before I considered turning my work-study archives job into a career path. This library was still a single room with a small staff, but I had been happy to see they had a number of modern computers and a group of boys playing games on them. A couple years later, I would run into the librarian at a summer fair in town, and her husband would step into the conversation and complain about the boys’ preference for Spanish, stating, “This is America. Speak English or get out!” with a violent thumbjerk. I had been too stunned to ask why he thought it was any of his business. In hindsight, I might have formed my response in Spanish.

I knew the issues facing city libraries from what I learned in library school out in Chicago, and from visiting my neighborhood branches and the big downtown Harold Washington Library for a weekly class. New Haven was an education unto itself. I got to know the regular patrons – disabled women who borrowed hundreds of books a year and ran a library out of their apartment for their neighbors, men who harmlessly flirted with the women workers and called my hijab-wearing coworker “sister,” elementary school girls in uniforms from the nearby private school whose appetites for books challenged my readers’ advisory skills, orthodox Jewish families with mothers who often seemed tired, exhausted elderly wives acting as constant caregivers to their husbands who were deteriorating from Alzheimer’s, young autistic adults who lived down the street and sometimes couldn’t control their emotions, single mothers who borrowed DVDs, retired Yale professors, men who used the computers every day to search for jobs, smiling middle-aged women who called me “honey,” high-functioning alcoholics, people who talked to themselves or who chronically spoke too loudly, quiet kids who weren’t in school and who hung out at the library all day until their parents returned home after work, and refugee families who barely knew English.

I was a very rule-oriented person for most of my life, an extension of my father’s parenting and his black-and-white worldview. It carried over into my work for years, and the public library challenged that. Adherence to the rules meant collecting sometimes exorbitant fines from people who I knew were receiving assistance or were unemployed. It meant stopping a child or homebound adult from borrowing a pile of books because of the limit on materials borrowed. It meant not getting interlibrary loans to curious adults because the limit was too low for their information needs. It took me years, and the wonderful example of my boss (who was also trying to balance internal problems in the workplace), as well as bosses and coworkers in other library systems, to learn the best way to deliver library services. You override the book limit. You waive the overdue fines, even if the person on the phone or in front of you might be lying about their extended hospital stay. You waive half the fees and let them borrow the book in their hand, even though their balance is technically still too high to allow borrowing. You let the wife take the newspaper out to her husband waiting in the car, even though the newspaper isn’t supposed to leave the library. When the city hasn’t plowed the street and your tiny parking spot is the only place where parents at the nearby preschool can put their cars, you talk to the head of the preschool instead of shouting at the parents. You let the person whose phone has run out of minutes make a call from your branch’s phone. You tell people you just want the books back that have been overdue for the past year, and you heap them with gratitude  when they return them while you waive their bill. The kid who is hanging out in front of your library in below freezing temperatures an hour before you open, you start a conversation with him and call his parents to feel out his situation. You order the rap CD or the Sister Souljah book even though you know it’s going to be stolen. You let the person you’ve never seen before pay you back next time for their printouts. You let the ESL learner, who takes classes in the basement meeting room with the literacy volunteers, renew the English-Arabic dictionary over and over and over.

It became clear to me that, contrary to what I’d believed before, we were not all on an equal playing field. I met people, primarily working-class African Americans from the area around the library, who searched for jobs for months and even years unsuccessfully, though I saw them in the library every day, and their friendliness never wavered. I saw cover letters rife with so many grammatical errors and so simple in tone compared to my own letters, that I didn’t feel like it was worth commenting, especially when my workday didn’t allow me the time I would have needed to help them. I once helped a young man try to navigate the online system to expunge a drug conviction from his record, and I heard over and over again from men in their 40s and 50s about how they had made mistakes in their past that prevented them from getting good jobs, or any jobs. I helped – or tried to help – a woman get on the waitlist for section 8 housing, a needlessly labyrinthine process that involved a hunt through the local newspapers to find the announcement that listed the website that would be open for a week, and the specific times she needed to be online to apply, times that didn’t coordinate with our open hours.

And my institution was playing a part in keeping that playing field uneven. The kids with unstable home environments, who walked to the library by themselves and who couldn’t give a permanent home address, were kids who might take materials out and never return them, but they were also the kids who needed the library the most. Those who couldn’t afford a home computer and internet connection, let alone a printer, had to pay high printing fees for paper applications for food or housing assistance. Many libraries don’t put much of their budget into hip-hop albums or urban fiction or blockbuster films due to the high rate of theft, even though they often reflect the interests of many patrons more accurately than National Book Award winners and foreign films. Computers filled up fast at the main branch, so people would take the bus to our branch – but the time limits on the computers were too low for those who were looking for jobs, and there were still too few computers for us to always extend their sessions. And I noticed that patrons who didn’t share my skin color – the color of most library workers, cops, aldermen, teachers, politicians, and other authorities – were more likely to acquiesce to the rules instead of ask for an exception. I could see in kids’ eyes how they calculated the answer they thought I wanted to hear, or the simplest answer they could give, even if it wasn’t the most truthful answer. I realized that the Dewey Decimal system includes at least 73 numbers for topics in Christianity, but only one – 297 – for Islam, that most books on racial discrimination usually get filed under current events instead of under history, that it gives preferential treatment to Western European languages and even ancient languages over those from Asia, and that it shows its limits as the product of a 19th century British Christian male.

I fucked up, plenty of times, and perpetuated the injustices that I was only beginning to understand. I waived the fines for the patrons who challenged them and let meeker patrons pay them. When I had to reiterate library policies to unfamiliar patrons, I sometimes lapsed into a casual tone with who looked like me and stayed formal with those who didn’t. The well-behaved kid who wasn’t in school and obviously had a chaotic home life, once when he hit his daily computer limit and he jumped on somebody else’s computer session after she stepped away for a moment, I canceled the session from the admin computer and without a word he got up and wandered the stacks, when I should have just let him use the computer to play games and been happy he had a warm place to be, or better yet, I should have asked him if there were books or movies I could get him and show him I was a safe adult. I let one of the autistic young adults have a meltdown because I told her she needed to wait her turn when the desk was busy. I didn’t always give my full attention to reference questions from patrons whose minds jumped from one subject to another before my first search was over. When I heard two boys calling another boy stupid, I should have stepped in and told them that treating people well was much more important than intelligence. Sometimes, I myself struggled to kill with kindness.

But I know I made a difference in lives, too. I would talk to one of the regular ladies about movies, and when I found her a certain film one day, she was so happy she gave me a hug. One of the curious adults spent a long time in the local hospital, and he gave us medallions with the Serenity Prayer from the hospital shop when he came back. I gave directions to GameStop to a refugee family’s father who wanted to buy one of his children the handheld game system they had seen their friends playing. I made friends with another refugee family’s daughter, a six-year-old with moxie to spare who asked me to help her with her math homework. I looked up services that were available to full-time caregivers and printed them out for the exhausted wife. I found a food pantry for a patron who had lost his housing and who couldn’t get some necessary medication, and he appeared several months later looking much healthier and holding down a steady job.

Throughout this whole time, I had become deeply curious about issues of race, and I started seeking explanations for the realities that I’d only started seeing at 20 years old when I moved to cities. Freakonomics had included a chapter by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, and I finally got my hands on his book Gang Leader for a Day, where he talked about the economic system of gangs in one of the decrepit housing projects not far from where I’d lived in Chicago. I learned in Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. that being able to code-switch between street language and school language hinted at a linguistic prowess that I, as somebody who speaks in one mode, do not possess – and I also learned that when I’d said Obama was articulate, it came with an unspoken asterisk: “for a Black man.” At one of my library jobs I was lucky enough to maintain that current events nonfiction section, and I pulled together a display on racial discrimination in our country after Michael Brown was shot, and I earnestly scouted new titles to add to the collection. I read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and learned how she received messages of her sub-worthiness as a Black girl, and listened to audiobook versions of Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore and Alex Haley’s gigantic Roots: The Saga of an American Family. I watched documentaries and read Wikipedia articles on Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, the more violent parts of the civil rights movement which had never, ever been discussed in my high school, ever, and which had been spoken of with negative, dismissive, or hostile tones when the terms were used in rural Pennsylvania. I came to understand the necessity of those radical strains within the fight for civil rights. I learned the phrase “making a way out of no way” and how it related to the perseverance of African Americans. I learned how nuclear families were intentionally separated in public housing projects, shedding understanding on the statistic I’d heard that African-American women have a high rate of single parenthood. I learned that the non-charter public high schools in New Haven graduate less than 70% of their students, and that it was a significant improvement from five years before.

In 2008 I started embracing my formerly secret love of hip-hop, and with burned CDs from my husband’s brother (who people had called some stupid racist words in high school for his love of Black rappers) and my husband’s admission of his own love of rap, I began understanding how it worked: some rappers spoke to a reality they’d faced, some used the language and imagery of samurai films to express violence in their neighborhoods, some sold fantasies of endless money the same way rock bands sold fantasies of endless sex, some were fascinated with gang life the way the rest of our culture was fascinated with the Italian mob. I channeled Jay-Z’s swagger before going into interviews, felt trapped with Tupac when I thought I’d never escape working shitty jobs and living in shitty apartments, got angry with Nas, and blew off steam with ridiculous Ludacris songs. Parts of Black culture became my culture.

 

After two years working part-time in the city library, and living in the city myself, I could no longer ignore the realities of my patrons and my neighbors. I could no longer believe in equality. And that’s why I could no longer subscribe to libertarianism, or vote only for fiscal issues while ignoring the social.

 

Addition on February 20 when I realized I completely forgot to talk about the neighborhoods in New Haven:

During this time, I saved money by mostly walking the mile and a half from my downtown apartment to my workplace, instead of constantly taking the bus. My path down the major street took me past multiple Dunkin Donuts, hair braiding salons, chain pharmacies, soul food and fried chicken stands, liquor stores, bank branches, quiet rowhomes, and a Jamaican place that pulled a gigantic smoker out onto the sidewalk on the weekends for jerk chicken and made the block smell heavenly. The neighborhood visibly changed when I got close to my branch, to brunch places, art galleries, salons with European models on their signage, the section of the large park that held a weekly farmer’s market, an optometrist, yarn-bombed bicycle racks, and pubs beloved by longtime residents. On my lunch breaks, I would take walks around the neighborhood, passing cute single homes with cats lazing on porches, Tudor woodwork, magnolia trees, and bougainvillea spilling from planters.

Sometimes coworkers or Yale students I knew mentioned locking their car doors at night when driving through other neighborhoods at night, or avoiding them entirely. They were neighborhoods whose mostly African-American demographics were similar to the neighborhood I passed through on my commute, where I had never felt in any danger. Passing those supposedly dangerous neighborhoods during the day, I felt bad for the people who had to live next to decrepit abandoned houses, without a trash can or a bus route or a well-stocked grocery store in sight. One night in my early days of running, I ended up taking a wrong turn and passed right through a street that people avoided. My big takeaway from my journey – aside from noticing the crumbling sidewalks that characterized every block in New Haven that wasn’t part of Yale – was that there were a lot of churches. Another day, when I stopped for groceries on my way home from work, I saw a memorial for a teenage boy who had been killed by gunfire from a rival gang outside the store a few days before. I put some money into a collection at checkout for funeral costs, knowing it wouldn’t lift the grief from his family and classmates – and not once having the thought cross my mind that my store was unsafe.

When conversations drifted to the high rate of violent crime in New Haven and eyebrows shot up in disbelief at where I walked, I brushed off my conversation partners’ concerns by reminding them that I’d lived in south side Chicago and north Philadelphia. And I remembered an orientation at La Salle, when an older student pointed out that the neighborhood around the university was working-class regular people and the threat of looming danger was blown out of proportion. There was crime against students, for sure, but most of the incident reports related muggings late at night against kids who were almost definitely coming back from parties. I wasn’t wandering around backstreets drunk out of my mind at two in the morning, and potential muggers would have been disappointed to find only a few dollars in my wallet anyway.

 

The Music Dies: How My Dreams of Music School Were Crushed

In the course of chatting with a friend just now, I remembered that I once planned on going to music school. In elementary school I discovered my grandmother’s chord organ and would play songs using fingering charts in the ancient music books that were sitting around. When I found a toy Casio keyboard in her closet, I spent an evening learning how to play along with the four pre-programmed songs. They played in a specific order, and I couldn’t wait until the first two songs were over and I could play “Swanee River.”

I wanted to play an instrument in school, and since string instruments weren’t an option and the alto saxophone was too expensive for my parents to pay the monthly rental, I picked the comparatively affordable trombone, which had the bonus of looking like an easy instrument due to the single slide instead of a bunch of moving buttons. I liked playing but barely practiced, and I remember crying through a frustrating practice at home, tears streaming down my face in the dimly lit living room as I couldn’t reach the note on the page. At one point my father said we were returning the instrument, and when I returned it to the elementary school music teacher, he called my parents and convinced them to let me keep it, citing that for how little I practiced I was quite good. So the trombone stayed.

Over the years, other instruments appeared. I got a bigger Casio keyboard for Christmas one year and started writing my own simple songs on it. My father had a bass guitar and an electric guitar that he’d played before the trombone arrived, and my brother and I got frustrated on the frequent occasions when he took one of the guitars out, ostensibly to teach us, and it turned into a solo jam session. The solution was a beat-up electric guitar that lived in a thin battered case, nothing like the gorgeous cream-colored Stratocaster or P-Bass that lived in plush comfort when my father wasn’t playing them. I painted an  angel on the case to make it pretty. I spent afternoons trying to make something harmonious come out of the guitar, but it took me years and years to be able to stretch and bend my fingers in the right way to make a progression of the four most basic chords sound like music. A couple Christmases later, a lipstick red bass appeared under the tree with my name on the tag.

By the time I got to high school I was in marching band, concert band, concert choir, vocal ensemble (small choir), high school jazz band, and pit orchestra and chorus line for the musicals. We had purchased the Conn student trombone I had started renting in fourth grade, and I used it all through high school. Two kids in marching band had purchased new instruments, but everyone else in marching band and concert band used the student rentals they’d purchased. I was in percussion ensemble, where I’d hoped to play marimba but was moved to bass guitar when they found out I could play. I was recruited to play bass for the middle school jazz band and once at a choir concert. I took music theory through high school and rented a clarinet and then a violin just for fun. I auditioned unsuccessfully for leads in the musicals, solos in concert choir, and state choir, but I did get into county band and county choir, whose participants were decided by each school’s band and choir directors. I was one of the last chairs in band for the two or three years I participated, and it wasn’t difficult to see that the higher chairs were occupied with students from wealthier school districts, with nicer instruments, who played much better than me. They had probably gotten private lessons after school instead of being dismissed from science occasionally to practice with the band director for 30 minutes. I had four or five private lessons in preparation for state band auditions, which required learning a song called “Morceau Symphonique.” It was difficult to track down the sheet music, and it was even more difficult to learn the piece. I don’t think I was ever able to play it in its entirety, and I don’t even recall if I went to the audition.

In my senior year I had started collecting literature on Berklee College of Music, West Chester University where my band director went, Temple University, and Ithaca College in New York. I looked at the books in the guidance counselor’s office at what an average musician would make. As a dedicated music school where Aimee Mann had studied and dropped out and still managed to have a huge career, I didn’t think I had a chance at Berklee even if I could afford it, so we dropped it. I toured Temple and Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a backup, but I really fell in love with Ithaca’s campus and their music program. My parents had separated and divorced in the previous year, and I remember a phone conversation with my father where he said I couldn’t afford Ithaca and wouldn’t get in. My mom was supportive, though, and she didn’t complain as she set up a second road trip to the Finger Lakes in the dead of winter. For my part, I gathered up a few of the vocal and piano compositions I had notated with a free trial version of some notation software. I practiced them on the upright piano that I had finally acquired after years and years of begging. It was a freebie my mom had found online, a big heavy wooden thing painted over in semi-gloss white, and she gave a couple family friends a case of beer as compensation for help with the move.

On the day of the audition in Ithaca, I was surprised to see so many nice instruments. In fact, everyone but me had beautiful instruments, gentle golds and roses instead of the pockmarked yellow of my trombone. They were also dressed as if they were performing for a concert, black velvet dresses and hair half-up. I was wearing my usual: black tee from Old Navy, baggy jeans frayed on the bottom, men’s Vans, and a beaten-up leather duster. It was not a good sign.

I don’t remember the trombone portion of my audition, but I remember sightreading vocal scales and intervals in a basement room, the auditioner singing resting tones to me. I was more interested in my composition audition more than the instrument audition. I was brought into a room with two or three other prospective students interested in composition, and the boy next to me seemed more prepared than me and the other kids to talk about our composition styles and goals. We were asked if we wrote music or lyrics first, which I thought was an odd question. Wouldn’t the music be more important? It certainly was for me in my listening at home. I had no idea what they were saying in most of my favorite songs, since I was attracted to the music instead. When a separate auditioner looked over my written score for a four-part harmony, he sang the notes as if he were a magician conjuring them out of thin air. He asked me about lyrics, too, and why I didn’t have them. I explained that it didn’t necessarily have to be vocal voices. They were asking questions that seemed advanced for a high school student not in a college-level music program.

A month or so later, I got a letter from Ithaca regretting that I was accepted into neither the composition program nor the general music program. I think I knew it from the moment I stepped into the building that day and saw how out of place I looked.

And that’s how my teenage dreams of being an experimental composer, musician, all-around artist died, as well as the near future I’d laid out for myself of going to a small artsy college and doing small arsty college things. Instead, I submitted my transcripts to the local community college and tried to reshape my vision of the future.