Articles By This Author
The Passion of Relisha Rudd
The first ominous sign that the Relisha Rudd case was slipping from the local Washington, D.C. imagination was when the police alert signs posted on the roads into the city had their messages changed, or were removed entirely.
For weeks after the news that the little eight-year-old girl was missing broke on March 19, the digital display boards had broadcast the Amber alert in their amber lettering, its grim message truncated in a style all too appropriate for the digital age: “BLK Female, 8 YRS, 4’0”, 70-80 LBS,” along with a contact number to report sightings. Radio stations had urged citizens repeatedly to be on the lookout.
Because I tend to leave WTOP news radio on a little too often when the children are around, my ten-year-old son grew preoccupied with the case, and because he cannot admit to himself that tragedy is ever actually happening, came to me and said, earnest with his watery blue eyes, “Mom, you know they found that girl.”
My Brother John: A Eulogy for the Living
For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.
I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.
But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.
“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”
So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.
The Bible as Icon
With six children in a Southern Baptist family in the 1970s, we could easily have had a dozen Bibles in the house. There was the giant, gray Family Bible with the embossed cover that resided on the bottom shelf of the living room, which nobody ever read. And there was a scattering of those palm-sized New Testament and Psalms around the place, like silverfish in a drawer — always white or pale green, with ersatz gold leafing that would flake off under the prodding of a fingernail.
There was a Novum Testamentum from when my oldest sister took Latin in college, sandwiched on a shelf. I also always liked the ones from the Gideons (do the Gideons even still exist?) that had translations of John 3:16 in the back. My favorite: Sinhalese.
The vast majority, though, were what could be termed “presentation Bibles.” Invariably from Broadman Press (headquartered in Nashville, the Baptist Vatican), either slick shoe-polish black or steak-slab red “bonded leather” (Ooh, baby!), these had been awarded as part of Sunday school or Scripture memorization schemes, and always had about them the whiff of bribery, with the name of the person to whom the Bible was “dedicated” written in ostentatious cursive in the front. “The Words of Christ Are in Red,” it was noted, and in the back was a sheaf of biblical maps, the topography of the Exodus, and Paul’s missionary journeys rendered in Sweet Tart pink and blue.
On Leaning In
Well, somebody had to do it: Somebody had to go buy the incessantly hyped volume Lean In by the stratospherically successful Facebook COO (and mother of two) Sheryl Sandberg, and figure out what’s behind the seemingly endless radio talk shows and online profiles — they have been following me, they have, filling up my car like clouds of incense and dinging on my phone with the book’s mantra-like subtitle, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
I bought this part-memoir, part self-help book on a gorgeous spring weekday when, because I work part-time, I was supposed to be home anyway. Because the pollen was getting to me and I had woken up groggy, my husband generously offered to take the children to school on his way in to work, something that Sandberg would applaud: husbands who will assume major leadership at home are a major key in enabling mothers to succeed.
I stumbled around the house in my nightgown for a while, then finally got dressed and picked up Lean In at the Target in suburban Largo, Md., which at 10 on a weekday morning, was as silent as a tomb.
I drove half an hour to have lunch with a homeschooling friend, folded laundry and cleaned some grout, picked up my children from school and finally settled down to read the book on the bench at my son’s baseball practice, as the evening sun sank over the trees.
I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed it: Sandberg, who’s about my age and who shares some of my generational preoccupations, comes across as warm and intimate, gently self-deprecating in describing her own “monkey bar” career path (it’s not a ladder, she says, because you can move sideways too), as well as some of her mistakes.
The Anniversary of My Father’s Death
“After the first exile, there is no other.”
—Rosellen Brown, The Autobiography of My Mother, 1976
The great wheel of the year has turned once more, and I find myself back at the beginning again. Not at the start of a brand new year, but rather, at the anniversary of my father’s death.
I was eight years old when he died, on January 8, 1977, after six long months of decline from lung cancer. In the family’s last-minute midnight scramble to the King’s Daughters Hospital to offer a final farewell, I was adjudged too young and too asleep to wake up for the ride.
I found out that he had died when I crawled from bed at dawn the next morning, yawning and jonesing for cartoons, only to find a bath robed neighbor stoking the fireplace, and my father disappeared into ether.
That singular fact has been the still point of my turning world in the decades since.
The Eclipse of the Airport Chapel
The San Francisco International Airport has a yoga room, but no chapel. At least that’s what it looked like, when I was there a couple of weeks ago at six o’clock in the morning: The Yoga Room was obviously a point of pride, with extensive signage along the concourse, but there was no indication that there might be other kinds of religious — excuse me, spiritual — spaces.
It turns out that SFO does, in fact, have a chapel, though it is tucked away in the International Terminal, and is known as “The Berman Reflection Room,” which, as an entry on IFly.com cites, “provides a center for quite self-reflection and meditation.”
Assorted photographs from Flickr, if they can be trusted, depict the space as not much different than an airport gate, with carpet, lines of chairs and window-walls of glass, plus what appears to be a vestigial Chuppah-type structure, and some potted plants. (The website for a group called the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, incidentally, laments that it was asked to raise funds for the Berman Reflection Room, but not allowed to conduct any “programming” there.)
If the cliché that all trends move eastward from California stands, then the idea of airport chapels and other incidental religious spaces would appear to be in eclipse.
Which would be too bad, for I’ve always loved sighting the airport-chapel logo out of the corner of my eye, skidding my beat-up suitcase across the concourse, and entering a hushed space of—well, exactly what?
DIY Sacramental Tedium
Last Tuesday, after it became clear that Superstorm Sandy was going to bypass Washington, D.C., in favor of New York, I decided to stain the discolored grout in the bathroom.
It appeared that we had a few more hours to stay inside with our batteries and massive food stores—the rains were still torrential, the children were snuggled up under blankets watching a movie, my husband was practicing guitar—so I pulled out the blue painter’s tape and the bottle of Grout Refresh (No. 14: Biscuit/Bizcocho) I’d gotten at Lowe’s and kneeled down on the hard tile.
Painstakingly, and I am not one who usually takes pains—where do you think my son got his ADHD?—I cut strips of tape to edge either side of the lines of grout, a suggestion offered by a commenter on a home improvement forum. Otherwise, my gut would have been to trowel it on, freestyle, and hope for the best.
Once I managed to tape perhaps a three-foot-square section of the floor—I was too eager to invest the time for the whole space—I spread an old Snoopy toothbrush with the thick ecru paste, and dragged it slowly, evenly, down the lines, holding my breath.
I exhaled when I was done, and waited with expectation. Two hours later, after misting my handiwork with water and waiting another interval, I pulled up the strips of tape to see perfectly neat, unstained, biscuit-colored grout, like you might see in a new bathroom, in a new house somewhere.
Raising Sons and Raising Men
This past Saturday, on a brilliant fall morning, my eight-year-old son came bounding downstairs for breakfast. I reached into the refrigerator, grabbed a cold Diet Mountain Dew from in between glass-bottled organic milk and tomato juice, and served it to him with farm-fresh eggs, feeling the part of a drug dealer.
We had a long day ahead, and I wanted to see what happened.
I smiled to myself, imagining some upcoming event, the mothers’ conversation all about peanut-free this and local that, when I’d pipe above the crowd to say, Hey sweetheart, how about your Mountain Dew?
The arrival of Diet Mountain Dew in my house is only the first in a cascade of little experiments we are now undertaking as a result of neuropsychological testing in August indicating that my son has a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Our house has never lacked order or discipline, and yet now we are thinking about how to structure everything more explicitly.
Diet Mountain Dew, with its massive amounts of caffeine, is our initial effort in our goal of avoiding, for now, giving him any stimulant medications: Did you know that caffeine actually calms down a hyperactive person, allowing them to focus? Maybe that’s why I’ve drunk eight cups of coffee every day since around 1985.
I tried the coffee with my son first, hoping I could cultivate a new bond with him over a shared habit. He detested the stuff. You could always give him Red Bull, one of my brothers said. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, hence the Diet Mountain Dew.
The Final Chapter in a Promising Young Life
I was driving when it occurred to me that it has been 20 years since my old friend Geoff Sanders was murdered.
I was headed home from work, public radio blasting even though I really wasn’t listening, the rosy beginnings of sunset blooming over the abandoned warehouses of gritty New York Avenue, the route I take every day.
Then a piece came on the radio — I’ve tried in vain to find it since. How my memory fails me — about a mentoring program for young inner-city men set in the context of a wave of gang violence that spread across Chicago this summer.
Even if you can’t save everybody, the director was saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, it’s worth it if you just save one.
Depression, Gift, and Legacy
Across five states and 20 years, on the couch at the psychoanalyst’s, wadded Kleenex in my hands, and kneeling on the marble floor of the confessional, incense curling through my hair, I sorted through the jagged prisms of experience that, as a child, I did not understand: What it means to be in the constant presence of someone who does not look you in the eye, who lives beyond the bar of constant preoccupation.
I didn’t understand then the tiresome vigilance I’d develop as a result—the almost unconscious, constant mental sorting to see if, at that moment, I was OK, or if others were about to abandon me forever—a reaction I’ve heard is common among children of alcoholics, and which I’ve seen myself in the needy inner-city children I have taught.
Along the way, I discovered that the seed of my mother’s sadness had been there all along, from my earliest memory, well before my father died. And by the time I was a toddler, the seed had germinated in me, too.
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