Blackbird

More than 10 years ago I walked into a Club Monaco on the Upper East Side. Historically, I had avoided the neighborhood on principal, but after a resident in psychiatry at New York Presbyterian started seeing me several times a week it became familiar territory. Post session, I often needed to walk for a while before heading underground towards Brooklyn. My walks took me past Club Monaco and various other retail establishments I couldn’t afford. Often I would slip inside. I still wear half a dozen threadbare long sleeve waffle weaves I collected from an American Apparel during that time.

Therapy sucked. Dr. Petrini was asking a lot of hard questions. Good questions. Zeke still says Petrini saved my life. But I hated him. Both of them actually. I hated everyone. I hated the hard questions. I hated Petrini and had an extremely inappropriate crush on him simultaneously. An anger crush. I hated the crush. I seethed with hate. While Zeke and Petrini were prime targets, I bore the brunt of my hatred. I tried to walk off some of the rage. Or at least walk with some of the rage.

I would wander into stores that stocked clothing I could barely squeeze into. The monster dose of Zoloft I was on, higher than the recommended daily, caused me to balloon in size as it helped me gain control of my mind.

The sales racks were past the bank of registers in Club Monaco. The rear of the store, by the dressing rooms, was a fitting place for those of us who couldn’t pay full price, who actually couldn’t afford the sales price for the knock offs of knock offs either. A horrible military green was the color of the season. I filled my arms with drab extra larges and approached the sylph who manned the dressing rooms. She murmured encouragement as she unlocked a door for me. I struggled to heave the clothing, none of which I actually liked, over my girth.

It was a triumphant experience for me. It gave me permission to hate myself, and provided validation that I was a physically repulsive freak. I felt the eyes of the staff on me. Their pity and disgust was a hair shirt I was proud to endure. I loved feeling so worthless. I loved being right about myself.

Nothing fit. Another victory for self-hatred. I shuffled into my clothes and carefully restocked everything I tried on. Because damn it, no one would be able to say that the fat girl wasn’t conscientious.

As I made my way through the store and towards the street the piped in song suddenly chipped through my embarrassment and shame. Blackbird. I stopped. Swung into the raised section in the middle of the store filled with expensive winter coats and handbags. Aimlessly moved among them.

Yes, it was Blackbird, but an electronic cover. As a rule, I am not a fan of electronic music. As a rule, covers are not my thing. Seriously, who fucks with the Beatles? Who has the hutzpah to think they have something significant to say about Blackbird? Blackbird.

And yet. I felt the song in my bones. It traveled up my chest and neck until it burned the back of my throat at the same time tears burned in my eyes. My whole body was filled with this song. I felt real and right and comfortable because of the strange electronic version of a song I loved with my whole heart.

I spun around and headed towards the registers. There was a bored kid behind the counter, his eyeliner impeccable.

“Who is covering Blackbird?” I asked him.

He looked at me blankly. “What?”

“Blackbird” I pointed above to indicate the music, “Blackbird, who is covering it? What band?”

“Oh, the song?”

“Yeah, who is doing the cover?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know this song.”

It was my turn to look at him blankly. “It’s Blackbird. The Beatles? It is a Beatles song.”

We stared at each other. He obviously thought I was crazy, and he was correct about that. But I didn’t care. I looked at him and I felt….pity. This kid didn’t know The Beatles. “Can you find out who is singing it?”

He was annoyed, but turned to the stereo system. “Eros” he bit out, ready to be done with me.

For  years I have been trying to make the perfect mix. A handful of songs are on nearly each version: Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits, Temptation by New Order, Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, Punk Rock Girl by The Dead Milkmen. Blackbird by Eros has been on the list for more than a decade. A cover by a band that doesn’t seem to exist beyond this one song. But the song did what music is supposed to do. It reached me at a time when I was broken.

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Another awesome family portrait from Ellie Leonardsmith Photography.

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Beautiful C.

Green Band

“Do you want to hear the drama of the day?” Zeke asked me. I was ill and out of commission so he took the boys to the pool at our local YMCA. T had been begging to go for weeks. He was desperate to take the test to qualify for a green band so he could swim without parental supervision. He already earned a yellow band, a step up from the default red kids are required to wear, but he wanted to prove he’s a real swimmer.

“We found a lifeguard and T asked if he could swim the length of the pool using backstroke. And he did. He did it. And then he tread water for 30 seconds.”

I could barely speak around my huge grin. “No. Way. NO WAY! Oh man. Seriously? Oh MAN, I am so proud of him!”

“The lifeguard put a green band on T and you should have seen the look on T’s face. So about 20 minutes later another lifeguard motions us over, the head lifeguard. He told us you can’t pass the test with backstroke.”

My stomach sank. “Oh, Zeke.”

“But. The lifeguard let him take the test again doing freestyle.”

“Crap. And he couldn’t do it?”

“No, he did it. He swam the whole length of the pool. He really struggled the last 20 feet or so, but he made it.”

“What? I am shocked! I really didn’t think he could get all the way across doing freestyle! That is amazing!”

“But the lifeguard didn’t think he was a strong enough swimmer. So he cut the green band off of T’s arm.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Nope.”

“He did it. He did what he was supposed to do for the test. And he still didn’t get the green band?”

“Actually, if you think about it he swam two laps, not just the one. But basically correct.”

My eyes filled with tears. T is a careful kid when it comes to trying new things. He worries about looking foolish in front of others and it really holds him back. This test was a huge deal in his almost-7-year-old world. “How did he handle it?”

“He was pretty upset. But he held it together. We swam for a while longer and then left. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.”

“You know, I think we should say something to the swimming director. I mean, I do not want the lifeguard to give our kid the band at the expense of his safety. But they say the test is to swim the length of the pool and tread water for 30 seconds. So that is what the kids expect. If the test is to do that stuff and be evaluated on how strong they are while doing it fine. Great. But they should make their expectations clear. It isn’t fair to the kids!”

“I don’t think we should.”

“Zeke…”

“No, listen. I’ve been thinking about this all day. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes we do everything we are supposed to do and we still don’t get what we want. Sometimes life isn’t fair.”

I was ready to fight back, to protect my kid from the hurt. Except, sometimes life isn’t fair. My impulse is to shield him from that pain forever. Which is ridiculous. I want him to know how to navigate disappointment and be able to bounce back when life doesn’t go his way.

Zeke left to grab us take-out for dinner. T sidled up and leaned against me. “Mom, something terrible happened today.”

“Oh, baby. I know. Daddy told me. You know, I don’t think I have ever been as proud of you in your entire life as I am right now. You tried, you did your personal best. And sometimes we try as hard as we can and we don’t manage to do it. But baby, the most important part isn’t succeeding. The most important part is trying. I am so proud. I love you so so so much.”

“But, mom! I didn’t just try! I did it! I did the test! Twice! I did it! And I still didn’t get the green band!”

Thank god for Zeke. “You know what? You are right. And it stinks. But sometimes we do what we are told we need to do and we still don’t get what we want. Sometimes life is unfair. It hurst so bad, it is totally uncool, but it happens to everyone. Seriously, everyone. I am still the proudest of you that I’ve ever been, you know. And you are going to get that green band. You just need to practice some more.”

“But mom” he wailed, “It isn’t fair! IT ISN’T FAIR!”

I buried my face in his hair and breathed in the chlorine. “I know, baby. Sometimes it isn’t fair.”

 

last day of 1st grade

Last day of first grade. See the bracelet? It is the yellow band from the last swim lesson of the session at the beginning of June. He wanted to keep it on until he earned the green band. It fell off a few days before the Y trip, but he had it on for more than three weeks.

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Farewell picnic at his brother’s preschool. Yellow band in place. Fuzzy caterpillar on a stick.

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My three guys.

Preschool

There are two-way mirrors outside all the classrooms at C’s school. No matter what kind of hurry I’m in I stop at his mirror to watch him, really look at him for a moment, before heading out to the car. The stress of the morning rush doesn’t matter. If he was being a difficult jerk, if I was being a difficult jerk, it doesn’t matter. What matters is him, really seeing him. Loving him and knowing I will miss him during the day, even if we need a break from each other. It is one of the most reliable and best parts of my day.

He starts kindergarten in the fall. There are no two-way mirrors outside the classrooms. Parents aren’t even supposed to enter the building with their kids. Watching T or C play for a moment each morning has been a part of my life for five years. In that middle year, when they both were at preschool, I got the moment twice a day.

Over time it helped me come to terms with letting the boys go a little. Before they started at school they were mine, all day and every day. Of course they were never really mine. Raising a child is learning to slowly let go. Knowing that in my head doesn’t mean my heart understands. But watching the boys from a distance, seeing friendships develop, even watching on days when they made bad choices and the teachers gently intervened, reinforced day after day that they were growing up and away just like they were supposed to do.

Today is C’s last day of preschool, my last day at the two-way mirror. I watched as C played at the water table with two pals. He sucked up red water with a toy pipette and shot it into the big tub, mixing colors and creating new ones. My throat burned, I wasn’t able to swallow the tears. I watched him and loved him and cried. I did not want to walk away.

He is so excited about kindergarten that he doesn’t have room to be sad about leaving his school. I’m excited about his next adventure as well. I’m also sad enough for both of us.

It would be worse if I wasn’t sad. Moving on from the school is heartbreaking because it was such an extraordinary experience for our family. Who the boys have become is due, in large part, to the love and guidance they have received from the teachers at their school. Our family is better for our time there. I am lucky to be this sad.

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T’s first day in the Red Room, fall 2012
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C’s first day in the Blue Room, T’s first day in the Green Room. Fall 2013

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T’s last day of preschool. Spring 2014

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C’s first day in the Green Room. Fall 2014

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C’s last day of preschool. Today.

 

Friends. Hello.

The windows don’t rattle in their frames anymore. They were replaced with energy efficient models last November. But our house is an old lady, and she shook as the wind whooshed and hissed through the leafy trees. The harshness of winter wind, branches clacking together without leaves to dampen the noise, is behind us.

When I opened the back door to toss recycling into the bin, a gust bit my nose and the smell of wood smoke was in the air. It wasn’t June in the yard; it was October. I breathed in the chilly air and was filled with hope and excitement and joy.

In that breath I remembered the autumns of childhood. Summer stretched too long and hot. The welcome coolness of fall mixed with the smell of paper, erasers, and the sticky plastic of Trapper Keepers. School new enough to be exciting. The keen anticipation of Halloween, Thanksgiving, my birthday, and then Christmas stretched out in front of me.

Before the memories became weighted down with melancholy, the boys’ futures replaced my past. Hope and excitement and joy stayed with me. C starting kindergarten, T a second grader, planning their costumes for the Zoo Boo, their cousins and grandparents spending Thanksgiving with us, our trip to North Carolina the day after Christmas.

The cold snap will be over tomorrow, June will be back. But tonight it is October.

———————

Friends.

Hello.

How about that weather? Really chilly tonight, right?

Um. Is anyone actually still here?

If so, hi. I’m sorry. I am sorry. Fading away without a so long was rude as hell. I don’t even know what happened. Writers block? I was boring myself and pretty sure I was boring you? Mental illness and motherhood are pretty damn repetitive. The longer I didn’t write, the harder writing seemed? I was too busy living, the good: the boys flourish, I’m a PTO mom, hey, I actually did a marathon! The bad: my crazy…..has not been under control, I was overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts, paralyzed with fear, and that marathon? I accidently got lost (of course I did) and ended up doing an extra mile plus.

Good year. Hard year. How was yours?

Bottom line, I’m sorry if I left you hanging. And hey, I’ve discovered something pretty big this year. Happiness! It isn’t a constant state of being. Yup, I actually thought that. It was why I thought I couldn’t have it. You have probably figured all this out already, I am really slow. Happiness is simply a moment. Sometimes you get lots of moments in a day. Sometimes you don’t. But you don’t have to always be happy to be happy. Crazy people can have it, too! You can have it! I can have it! There is room for it, even during the bleakest days! 2015! The year I was suicidal AND happy! I know, I know, not funny. Totally tasteless. And I promise, I’m doing much better.

Maybe I’ll post in another year if I learn something cool in 2016.

PS. Hey, if you read here and you emailed me this year? I am sorry. I am a grade A dickweed. I was too ashamed to respond, I didn’t have an answer for why I wasn’t posting. I was being a coward. The emails were a kindness that touched me deeply, and they deserved a response. Again, I am sorry.

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The guys on a walk in early spring. Z made that guitar! And I know, the boys are so big!

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“I have a booboo on my face, so I have to do this.”  He did not have a booboo.

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We are trying a hat to keep the hair out of his big kid face.

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Z and I went on a date in February! It was really awesome!

 

Rules

(Did I mention that I’m taking the first creative writing class of my life? It is a memoir class at the Downtown Writers Center, which is part of our YMCA. This is one of my submissions. Not new in terms of theme, hell, I’ve blogged about some of the specifics before. But a little more stand alone than most of my posting here.)

“How is it that you always look so calm and relaxed?” my friend asks as she hustles her kids across the parking lot.

“Ha!” I call back flustered. “Um…Lots of psychotropics?”

I buckle myself into the seat and let the giddiness wash over me. I am strong. I am powerful. I have proof that when people look at me they see someone who is completely normal. No, forget normal. Calm. Relaxed even. I win. I motherfucking win.

A few minutes earlier my pulse quickened as the parking lot came into view. Tom’s drop off at school had been later than I liked and I tore over to South Campus. Was there still a spot relatively close to the door on the right hand side? Was a car from the other direction going to get to the lot ahead of me and take the spot I needed? What would happen if I couldn’t find a space on the right anywhere?

My shoulders floated down from my ears and my heart rate slowed. A space was open. Charlie and I held hands as we walked towards his school. My left foot took the step up the curb and onto the sidewalk. At the gate I pushed the lock with my left hand and ushered him under my arm. I hoisted him up to press the bell and grabbed the door handle with my left hand when the click sounded. Left foot carefully cleared the threshold and into the vestibule. Left hand on the next door. Left foot over the next threshold.

After the hug and kiss goodbye, both repeated until they felt exactly right, I wished the green room kids a great day as I rounded the corner towards the two-way mirror. I watched Charlie, waiting until it was safe to tear my eyes away from him.

There are rules. If he is touching an orange toy I must wait until he has played with something else. If he is unhappy I must wait until he calms. Many mornings the moment happens almost instantly and I head back to the car. Left hand on the door handle, left foot over the threshold and repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Each movement I make, each choice is an opportunity to fail. My left arm tingles. It knows it needs to be the first to touch something. If I take an improper step I can feel the burn along the bottom of my foot. The panic radiates up my leg and I must repeat the mistake with my other foot to even out the fear until it begins to dissipate. The rules change all the time. A shirt, a pair of socks can become good or bad. A fight with Zeke or a bad afternoon with the kids, and I realize the fault lies with a sartorial choice I made that morning. The unpleasantness could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so damned stupid.

Remembering the rules takes an embarrassing amount of energy. Energy that should be spent on the kids or cleaning the neglected house. Your fault, your fault, your fault runs in a loop through my mind. If I get sloppy the whole world will fall apart. My fault.

Living the rules is suffocating. But I welcome how they consume me. If I’m being a good girl, if I follow them closely I don’t have the bandwidth to face what my mind hisses at me. Most humans can get through the day without having to take drugs for their brains, Karen. Most moms can parent without a pill, Karen. It was selfish and cruel to have kids knowing they could be like you, Karen. Any person who thinks they are powerful enough to stop bad things from happening based on which hand touches a door first is pathetic and a narcissist, Karen. You are worthless, Karen. You are an albatross around the neck of your family, Karen. You are disgusting. People only look at your with pity, Karen.

The rules are a small price to pay if they drown out the thoughts in my brain. They focus my fear so it doesn’t swallow me whole until I cannot leave the house. They are my guidebook to venturing out in the world. Most of the time I can handle school drop off and the grocery store and social niceties. I just have to follow the rules. Pay attention. Accept it is my fault if a mistake is made or the rules change and I don’t anticipate it. Know that I can’t fix a mistake right away if I screw up. I must live with the shame and fear and consequences of my actions.

The rules save me. The rules trap me. I cannot bear looking weak to others. I act perfectly normal until I can’t act anymore and then I hide. I smile and chitchat and agree to show up at your house for dinner. I do not show up to your house for dinner. I am sorry.

Charlie is safe at school. I grab the door with my left hand, left foot over the threshold. The dad in front of me holds open the outer door. No rules broken, not if I don’t have to touch the door at all. Left foot over the threshold. Behind the dad and through the gate. Left foot steps down the curb onto the asphalt.

“How is it that you always look so calm and relaxed?” my friend asks as she hustles her kids across the parking lot.

“Ha!” I call back flustered. “Um…Lots of psychotropics?”

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Sometimes you wake up to find your kid quietly playing legos next to you.

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Hey! Ho! Let’s go!

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Finishers in the half mile fun run yesterday!

Syracusens

Since the New Year our life has been charged with excitement and worry. Z has been in the long process of interviewing for a tenure track position at SU. Long story short: he got the job. The tenure process takes six years. We feel pretty committed to Syracuse now. We want this city to be our long term home.

My anxiety has spiked once again. Dealing with the stress and unknown is not something I do with grace. In the back of my mind I also knew Z’s Japan trip was looming. He is teaching a class there for four weeks this spring. He leaves on Sunday. The anticipatory nature of my anxiety disorder has been rearing her ugly head.

In the last few weeks I have ballooned into a round and swollen version of myself. At least that is what I see every time I glance in a mirror. I’ve pretty much stopped looking. The voice is back that tells me I am disgusting and worthless and an object of pity. I’m scared of getting through the next month. I’m scared I am not a good enough mom to be alone with the boys for so long.

My parents are coming for the first week. They spoil my whole family rotten. My friends have assured me they will be here for support. Still, I am turning in on myself and pulling away.

Crazy folks need a crazy friend. Someone who gets living with chronic mental illness. Someone who understands in their bones when you share that you are struggling. My crazy friend moved at the end of last year. I miss him so much that I haven’t let myself process his absence.

The four women who are my closest friends are a lifeline to me. But none of them have been chronically mentally ill. Last week I put on my big girl pants and emailed them to tell them I’m having a hard time. When we are all together and I say that I’m ok….well, I’m really not ok. Just sending the note removed a weight from my chest. These women have my back.

Z is in New York until tomorrow afternoon for an end of the school year event. Our gang tends to do a potluck dinner on Wednesday nights. I hosted this week. We sat in my backyard and my friend told me they all wanted to get me a Mother’s Day present. I got red in the face and apprehensive. We are all moms. Why would they get me something?

My friend explained that she knew I was anxious about the state of my house with my parents coming. We are slobs, Z and I. Terrible terrible slobs. On Saturday my friends want to arrange a cleaning service to get the house in order. I worked really hard not to cry. It was too much. I didn’t want to impose, didn’t want to accept such a huge gift. A few minutes passed and the conversation moved on. Eventually I turned back to her. “I would love to have the house cleaned.” It was hard to say and I was choking on the guilt. But I accepted their kindness.

The anxiety is never going to go away. But it is not preventing me from being loved and cared for. It isn’t preventing me from loving others back.

Syracuse is our home. We are happy. Now. Today.

I have never trusted happiness. It can be snatched away for a million reasons. Acknowledging it means tempting fate. Yes, tragedy and sorrow can hit our life at anytime. I’ve suddenly realized that isn’t a reason to shy away from happiness, rather it is a compelling reason to enjoy the happiness while it is here.

Am I scared shitless about Z’s Japan trip? Yup. Is my anxiety worse than it has been in a long time? Yessir. Do I despise myself right now? I do.

All of that did not stop me from enjoying the triple date we went on last Friday. Six of us piled into our friends’ minivan. We were a cliche of “Parents’ Big Night Out!” and I loved every second. The bad stuff didn’t stop me from enjoying Z’s birthday part on Sunday night. We had more than 30 people over for the first backyard barbecue of the season.

Good shit is happening here. Z and I are happy. The boys are happy. We have friends that we would do anything for. And it turns out they would do anything for us as well.

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Taking a bunch of boys to the zoo.

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Z’s early 42nd birthday present by awesome local artist Cayetano.

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Singing Happy Birthday to Z. When I lit the candles I accidentally blew them out along with the match the first time.

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Painting banners for the annual Carnival at T’s school.

I Don’t Know How to Talk to My Kindergartener About Race

T included a classmate in a drawing at school. He wrote the child’s name and put a label beside the picture. Black. Another student informed the teacher who took T aside and explained they do not use terms like white and black at school because those words can hurt feelings. His teacher assured me he was using the word as a descriptor and not out of meanness.

I get it. And I don’t get it. And I get it.

We live in a city. T goes to our local public school. It is very diverse, both economically and racially. Every child in the school receives free breakfast and lunch. Since the beginning of the year he has had a lot of questions about his classmates. Only occasionally are they about race, but those are the ones that I remember. What does black mean? What color am I? What does white mean? Do we have any black people in our family? Why not?

In our school there is a correlation between race and privilege. It is uncomfortable and impossible to ignore. There are extracurricular events arranged by the PTO; STEM night, mini academies, the neighborhood 5K, marching in a local parade. The same kids and parents are always involved. Of course the segregation is not 100%, but again, impossible to ignore.

Forget my kid, I don’t know how to talk about race period. I notice a gap between the experience of T and some of his peers. I notice the gap only widens by the higher grades. Does it help to talk about it? Do I dare talk about it as a white woman who is incredibly privileged? Can I do something to help? Is trying to do something to help an example of privilege trying to solve problems it doesn’t understand?

How do I explain race issues in America to a five year old when I can’t wrap my brain around them myself?

If the rule is we don’t use color as a descriptor at school that is fine. It is easy to tell him that the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with who that person is. It is harder to explain why addressing race is a minefield in America.

“We need to talk about something serious, T. I need you to focus.”

“Ok. But can we stop at Target after swim lessons to get one of those squishy Transformer things? From the dollar section?”

“You are not listening. And no, no toys. You need to focus.”

“Aww…….Ok.”

“You know how we have talked about women being treated like less than men?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“So 100 years ago women couldn’t vote. Women used to belong to their husbands. They couldn’t own property. You know how Daddy and I own our house together? A long time ago I wouldn’t be able to own a house.”

“Yeah.”

“It used to be like that for black people. Actually the white people came to this part of the world and they took the land from Native Americans. And then they brought people here from Africa and made the those people slaves. You remember what slave means?”

“Yeah. Um…uhhh. To take somebody away and never let them go back?”

“Yes, to own a person. Which is terrible thing. So white people were in charge and they made really bad choices about how to treat people who looked different from them.”

“If white people were in charge were white women in charge, too?”

“Nope. Not for a long time. If you were a white woman or a person who had darker skin you were not treated equally. And the problem is that even though now there are laws to make people treat women and darker skinned people equal it doesn’t happen all the time.”

“If I went back in time I would be really nice to women and people with different colored skin.”

“I really hope that you would be.”

“And I would be mean to white men to teach them a lesson.”

“Oh baby. No. I don’t want you to be mean to anyone. I wouldn’t want you to go back and be mean to white men. Maybe if you went back in time you could try to change their minds about the way they treat anyone who is different.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, there are good white men and bad white men and good women and bad women and good black people and bad black people. Because we are all human and we are all born equal to each other. And there are good people and bad people in this world, but that has to do with who we are on the inside, not what we look like on the outside. Just because white men made bad choices a long time ago doesn’t mean that all white men are bad. Is that daddy bad? Is granddad? Is grandpa? Are you?”

“No.”

“Dude, this is so complicated. It is so complicated that using colors to talk about people’s skin can be hurtful and we need to be extra careful at school not to do it because those are the rules. But it is ok to think about how people look different. It is ok to talk about it. You need to be aware that people with darker skin are still treated unfairly too often and we need to speak up when we see that happen. You need to understand that you will be given extra opportunities as a white man that have nothing to do with how hard you work. And that is not fair. It also isn’t your fault, but you need to be aware of it.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

“Okaaay!”

“OK.”

“Stop it Mom!”

“Ok.”

“Ugh!”

Is this enough? Is what I said appropriate? I have no idea. How do you explain institutional racism to a 5 year old? The amount of discomfort I feel about it tells me we need to be talking about it. Even if I screw it up. We need to keep talking until we get it right. I don’t want him to carry the guilt of the choices his ancestors made. At the same time he must understand he occupies a place of privilege in this world that he did not earn, but that he was born into.

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This kid is trying to figure stuff out.