So today, we had a big talk at the Div School on race. It was what you’d expect it to be. It’s always hard to have these kinds of conversations. People said things. People responded. Some folks interjected other ways in which they feel excluded. Some students said very, very personal things. There was pain shared. There were suggestions made. One wanted us to do more storytelling about exclusion. One didn’t. It was hard and necessary and a start and will never be enough. I was fascinated by how very, very hard it was for students to situate themselves with those that have power, instead of those that do not. (The conversation was supposed to be specifically about race, class and ethnicity, and not the gender, orientation and ability topics, which I assume might be a different conversation.)
I listened to it all, aware that I listen with two sets of ears. One set is my middle class, white Protestant self. The other set is Selam’s mom. Tears sprang to my eyes, for example, when I heard a student describe being left out of a conversation. It wasn’t that painful of a story until I pictured it being Selam’s voice.
Later this afternoon, I had a conversation with one of the students who spoke at the meeting. We were watching Selam play with another little girl in the common room. We talked about my attempts at learning hair. We talked about Selam’s interpretations of race in the grad school community. He shared some experiences. I told him how tricky it was to watch people react to her, and then see their reactions change when they figure out my relationship to her–not better, not worse, just different. I spoke to him about the pang I have at knowing that eventually I know that there will be experiences she will have that I will not be able to prevent, or fight against, and that I know that I will never really know what it’s like to be in her skin, not that anyone really knows what it’s like to be someone else. I told him that Selam says our family is brown and white, just like the cat is black and white. We watched the girls for a while and talked about the sermon he was preparing, and the James Cone he was reading.
And then we were going home and we had to stop at McDonald’s because she was just so hungry. And the line was long and we sat in the car in the dark, and she told me about her day. One boy was naughty again, the one who is good in his heart. And M had a brownie in her lunch and S said her lunch looked good. And there was the library and she got a new book and dance class was a disappointment because they weren’t being good listeners. And what’s tomorrow–is it a school day or a home day and do you think we can watch Strawberry Shortcake tonight and did you know that she’s always saying berry instead of very? And do you know that jelly fish can get to be bigger than a person? But the really big ones are too far away to hurt you unless you go out in a boat.
At home, we share a vanilla milkshake and she made a mustache and giggled until she shook with silent joy. It was just one of those moments, you know, where you’re in your home, at the table purchased 18 years ago, the table the antique dealer said would be good for a family dinner table, and you realize that this is it, this is the family that you dreamed of when you bought that table back in Pennsylvania. And the light from my parents’ old lamp is yellow-gold and hazy. The cat meows and the little girl laughs and there is such exquisite joy that I just want to squeeze it. I blurt out “sometimes I just love you so much it hurts.” She keeps giggling at her mustache, at the day, at nothing but being five. I love her so much then, the exquisite pleasure bubbling up in spite of the intensity of the day.
“I know you do.” she says.
“You know I do what?” I say.
“Love me until it hurts.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Sometimes it just hurts to love me because it makes the skin in your heart stretch a little bit.”
I sit silent.
“And I love you, too, silly willy Mommy.”
She licks the ice cream off her lip.
“Because you are my own mommy.”
The ice cream drops from her lip to the placemat.
“Theo,” she calls.
The cat jumps up and licks the placemat clean while we both watch. Selam is giggling, and I’m feeling for the skin near my heart.