Thursday, December 26, 2013

Peanut Butter Fudge

Last night, H asked everyone to share a funny Christmas story with the family. I thought desperately as we went around the table, trying to come up with a story that wasn't funny touched with sad because for me my Christmas youth was rather bittersweet. I can't honestly think of a bad Christmas but I can't think of any that didn't have some kind of sadness or anxiety or worry underlining them. I came up with a recent story, one where I surprised H really good with his gift, and even Umberto kept his cool with the secret. But it made me think about the Christmases of my past, and that's when I became a bit obsessed with making my Gram's Christmas fudge. I had plans to make fudge anyway as I always do this time of year but this time I wanted THE fudge. The one that when I bit into, I'd taste the crystal grains of sugar. I could taste what this fudge was supposed to taste like even thought I hadn't had it in years.

My Grams made fudge for every Christmas. She'd wrap the pieces in tissue paper and put them into Christmas cookie tins. Each family got one tin, and I looked forward to it every year. It rated right up there with presents. We usually opened this treat at the family Christmas Eve party, and about an hour in all the cousins including me would be jacked on sugar, running around like hamsters without wheels.  The noise level would escalate to proportions that would drive even the most patience adult into yelling for quiet. All that delicious sugar though was too much to resist, and we devoured the fudge in one night fighting among ourselves for that last piece. I now wonder if any of the adults even got a taste.

When I was in college, I'm pretty sure there was a period where Gram's stopped making the fudge. But then again it was also the period where I stopped going to the family parties. Christmas Eve was spent first with a boyfriend's family, and then at my job, or alone. Later when I started to attend the family functions, first with H and then with a wee Umberto, the fudge was no longer being made for sure. H can't remember having this wonderful sugar treat and he would remember if he had tried it.

Now my own children have only been to Maine once for Christmas. We're not able to get up often. It's expensive. And cold.  But last night, I knew that I had to recreate this bit of Christmas. This memory that I hold very close to my heart. It is a constant. An always beautiful thing, a taste, a sweetness of my Grams.

I could have asked my Gram's for the recipe, and I will, but I decide to make this fudge late. I was pretty sure she was sleeping. I hauled out my good heavy pan, the evaporated milk, sugar, mini-marshmallows (I think my grandmother uses Marshmallow creme), butter, peanut butter, and vanilla. I found my candy thermometer that I NEVER use. And I prayed because the chances of getting this fudge to set on my first try were not high. As I stirred the butter, milk, and sugar, waiting for the rolling boil, I remembered watching my grandmother stirring the ingredients. I loved watching my grams cook. She always told stories. She was a story teller, and she wove together my favorites: the way her horse, an old race horse, would race into the barn, forcing whoever was on his back to duck low so they didn't hit the door frame, stories about milking cows on her family's diary farm, stories about me when I was a baby. I loved them, and I'd stand on a chair watching her add ingredients while she talked.

The mixture came to a boil nicely, and I clipped on the candy thermometer while I put together the mini marshmallows and peanut butter in a bowl. I checked with something bordering on obsession waiting for the red line to hit 234. When it hit nine minutes later, I quickly took the pan off the stove, and stirred in everything else. I poured the mixture into a square baking pan, and prayed. H and I licked the spoon, and I closed my eyes as that first taste of sweet hit my system.

"If this fudge sets, it's going to be perfect." I told H.

And when I checked later, it was starting to get hard. None of us can resist it though, and we've been sneaking bits off. It's supposed to sit over night and I know if we can wait it will be perfect by morning.

It's always amazing to me these moments when I can reach into the past and pull out a memory this way. Usually the past comes with nasty attachments that end up making me sad or disappointed. Recreation rarely works. But tonight I have fudge that when I bite into it, I am back beside my grandmother, warm and happy, filled with the sweetness of fudge and her stories. Free to hear them as a child hears them. With all the magic.

I think this year was the year for such a perfect thing to happen. This Christmas I hit the balance between making Christmas joyful and fun without trying to compensate for my own past Christmas memories. This year it was about celebrating a year filled with love, a year with the people I love the most in the world. I realized I hadn't put much thought into how we were creating memories but more about how we were just living, having fun, making the most of the excitement. We played, we cooked, we crafted, and at some point I realized that we were doing things that would serve as markers for my children. Moments that they could look back on and touch. And in that space, I was able to recreate in all it's sugary delight, a perfect memory.

My Grams with my girls. 

Grams getting a kiss from R.

Merry Christmas from a group of wild beastie.

Monday, December 23, 2013

I Will Not Remain Silent

"and when we speak we are afraid/our words will not be heard/nor welcomed/but when we are silent/we are still afraid/So it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive."--Audre Lorde
"Just let it go."
"Are your really surprised he/she/they said that?"
"You're being too sensitive."
"You're mean."
"Why are you so angry?"
"It's just a T.V. show/ a song/ a satirical news site/a book/a celebrity/a make up."
"They just want attention so why don't you ignore it?"

One thing I miss about a Maine winter is the silence that comes with a heavy snowfall. I'd often wake up right before dawn on those mornings, and just lie there surrounded by the quietness that always seemed to follow a heavy snow. Even the clanking and grinding of a snow plow's blade against the cement would be muffled, coming to me through layers of a cold barrier. It was insulating to be wrapped in my warm blankets while outside the world froze. It was the signal that the day would be spent with coffee and books and chocolate. I'd not have to get dressed or go anywhere. I'd be safe inside the bubble of my own warm world free from the noise that normally infiltrated even my quietest places.

Looking back, I realize this was not a world I wanted to be stuck in all the time. Rather it was a retreat, a safe time to process, to kick back, to just let go of things. Even when I was within this world, the outside penetrated in small ways. Worries about those who didn't have electricity (a deadly thing in a Maine winter), worries about those who had to travel (like my father who drives a trailer truck), worries about the homeless. Because I couldn't forget that while I warm and insulated there were others who were not.

Our peace always comes with a price, perhaps.

For a long time, I remained silent. I ranted to H of course. I convinced myself that my words were not going to do much anyway. I wrapped myself in the cloak of academic indifference and let my opinions only reflect a carefully cultivated objectiveness. In school, I created the same kind of world I had on snow days. The ivory tower of the academy became a little room in which I muffled all the knockings of the outside world. I filtered my indignation through study, and was able to damper my "emotional" response to things. I no longer shouted during class meetings. My passion was a more reserved response if you can call what I did a response. Or passion.

And then one day, a ten year old boy told H to "go home." People started to tell me that my oldest daughter "needed help." That there was "something wrong with her." My son started having seizures. My other daughter began to have panic attacks. States around me started passing laws that would make it legal for the police to stop my husband and demand proof of residency because he was brown. Gay people were being denied the legal rights of marriage. Lawmakers were increasingly infringing upon a women's rights to control her body. And then I found out my fetus had Down syndrome. And the world explode into sound. The muffling had crumbled in the face of such an onslaught and all the voices crashed upon me.

For a few months, I was pretty immobile, over-whelmed by the injustice. I did not know what to do. How to fight. I heard the voices telling me that I shouldn't get involved. I should observe. But without my academic credentials what good did observation do? I no longer could pretend that my academic work was somehow going to change the world. When I started to tentatively write about these things on my blog, I was told I was angry, and often asked if I really thought I was doing any good. When I confronted people, I was "mean" and a "bully." When I challenged things like the Onion or a make up company, people mocked the "pettiness" of these concerns. Why not focus on things like real writers in real papers? Who cares that a make up company uses a term like "Celebrtard"?

But something had been stirring in me. Something that had come from those cold winters. An activism I had laid to rest too early. I remember especially as I began to wake up the words of Audre Lorde.

I do not speak for you. I speak to you. I speak because to not speak would be unethical and injustice. I can not make you hear me or take my words for a stroll but that does not mean I must remain silent. What I experienced before was like a death. Now I am alive and awake. I am not insulated against the pain of the world or the unjustness of this time. I am awake, and while I am afraid, I am not silent. My silence did not protect me. It will not protect me. It will not protect my children. Or my husband. It will not protect the poor, the wretched, the abused.

I speak not because I have grand plans to change the world with my single voice. I speak so that maybe just one person will hear. I speak because not to speak is to lay down arms, and I will not lay down arms.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Red Dress

I started knitting about five years ago. It didn't begin as a serious love affair. Just a quick fling to procrastinate on my Master's thesis. Supposedly this was going to reduce my stress, calm my anxiety by giving me something to do with my hands. On paper, this was a fabulous idea. I've always been fidgety, chewing first on my hair as a child, then moving onto clothes when my mother cut my hair. Eventually my frayed sleeves and necklines, the gnawed strings from sweat shirts were replaced with the tops of pens, and when I was even older with cigarettes. Knitting at the time was simply another list in those things that helped me keep a bit of stillness in a body and mind that was constantly moving. Spinning.

In the beginning, I was a horrible knitter. I made squares that were lopsided and sloppy with holes from missed stitches. The imperfection of these things bothered me. I'd throw them out only to find them covering a multitude of tiny stuffed animals and plastic dinosaurs. Sometimes when the squares weren't too crocked, I'd sew them together to make little animals for Piper. But mostly it was an exercise in frustration. I sucked at knitting and it was hard for me to suck at something. My drive for perfection, my vision of the lovely knitted things I saw, took out any relaxation that was supposed to come from the exercise, from the doing.

When Horacio gifted me two beautiful skeins of wool, I reached my end. They were so lovely, so soft, the colors a miracle, I couldn't do anything with them. I was too scared to knit them because nothing I could knit would match the loveliness of the yarn. I put the knitting away, and focused on the thesis.

The thesis was done when we decided to try for another baby. As soon as I saw the two lines, I dug out my needles and yarn. The lovely skeins were now only one. I can't even remember what happened to the lovely red one. I still wasn't ready for the remaining wool which held the colors of the ocean, the swirls of blue and green. But I wanted to knit something for my new baby. This after all was what knitting seemed suited for. The babies. I overshot and picked out a lacy baby blanket pattern. After weeks of work, I held it up to see that it was a lopsided mess. This time I was able to laugh a bit at how spectacularly bad it was. I decided on a simpler thing, a blueberry hat since we called the then unknown Rowena, the blueberry.  I knitted that hat through the end of my pregnancy filled with the dreams of this new baby. I knit it while the weeks of prodromal labor left me tired and frustrated. All my hopes, desires, and plans for this new life went into each stitch. And in the end it was a flawed hat but it was a hat that could be worn.

When I had Jude, I was a better knitter. The ocean yarn had long since become a cowl for my sister-in-law, and I had new yarns that I was no longer afraid to knit into pretty things. For Jude, I had grand plans. But because of the place my head was in during my pregnancy I had a hard time making those things flow from my hands onto the needles. As the end neared, I snapped into action. This baby was going to be the recipient of my skill, a skill that had not come "naturally" but one that involved work and practice. My needles flashed in the sun from the big living room window, as I stitched together blankets, and hats. As I blended pink and purple and gray into a circle of warm beauty, I dreamed of Jude. I put into each loop the love, the fear, the joy that filled me at the thought of her. Every piece I knit even those that ended up as gifts for other new babies was saturated with the intensity of my emotions for this new baby. The completion of our family. I knit frantically knowing with a quiet certainty that I would never again knit these tiny things for my own family. And I knit because I had to show Jude that no matter what I had felt at the beginning that now she was welcomed, loved, and desired not feared or unwanted. Each hat, each blanket, each piece that came from my hands, my arms, the repetitive movement of my body, was a statement of her value which was immeasurable really.

After Jude was prodded and examined, I made H pull out the blanket I had knit her, and I wrapped her in my love.

I decided at Jude's six month mark that I was going to knit her a dress for her first birthday. This decision was made with trepidation because I had never knit anything someone could wear. My one and only foray into a baby sweater resulted in something that looked cute but couldn't be worn. But I decided that I was going to make this for Jude. I was going to create something that looked spun by fairies. Something of beauty. A gift and a thanks for this baby who completed our family in ways we had not quite anticipated. For Jude, there was going to be something that spoke of all the feelings she arose in me. It would be something, I decided, that she could pull out and look at when she was older. She would be able to touch this thing and know how valuable and important she was to me, to her family. It was a lot to ask of a dress, I know.

The next two months were spent in finding a perfect dress. None of the free patterns came close to what I was envisioning. Finally I found one that was perfect. A heart on the front, and leaves at the hem. I bought the pattern terrified at the coming project. The value I had instilled in this article of clothing made it vital that I not mess it up. Now that I had a pattern, I had to pick the yarn. The dress was done in a fingerling weight which made me quiver even more. Fingerling weight yarn is so fragile, so light, and for me, so hard to work with. But it seemed right that this dress would be made from something so light and airy. I looked at several variated colors and wavere  between an orange and a red. The red won out as Jude is a fiery spirit, full of light and flame.

And then I knitted. I knitted while Jude played on the floor next to me. I knitted in the van listening to her coo and laugh at Umberto. I knitted while she played with Rowena and Piper in the bedroom. I knitted while Camille entertained her with silly faces. I knitted while her father held her close and tight to his chest. When she was a little sick, I knit while she nursed all day, her tiny, pudgy baby hands wrapping themselves in the red variations of the yarn. And it flowed from the needles. Quickly I could see the bones of the dress, the shape and the form. The lace pattern over the chest looked like a heart, and I felt heartened that maybe I could create this thing of love. And at first, I knit with the consciousness of putting so much love into this item. I imagined it as a thing of magic that I could infuse with the love I held for not just Jude but all my children. Of their love of her. Our love, this bond that held us together in a way that left me breathless and sometimes feeling so unworthy. But as the project went on, I forgot to do this in a way that was intentional. Instead, one day I realized I was out of yarn, and I was almost done. I had to put the dress away to wait for a new skein to arrive in the mail. I knitted while I waited of course. Gifts for friends, projects, pumpkin hats (oh so many pumpkin hats).

When the yarn came, I took out the dress, and realized it was nearly done. It was beautiful. Not perfect no but lovely. I finished as I sat in the center of the joyful storm that is the beastie Christmas season. I didn't need to knit with the intent of love. It was always there. In every purl, every knit over. Every leave was a leaf filled with life and joy and beauty.

Jude wore her dress on her first birthday. A year has gone by since I held that tiny life in my arms. A year since she was laid on my chest and she looked at me with a knowing. There have been 365 days of wonderfulness, of love, of life, of joy. Not every day has been easy but every day has been full. Jude completed us not because she has Down syndrome but because she was the closing of our circle. I didn't become a better person because of Jude. I became a better person because I had to examine myself because Jude needed someone who saw the simple humanness of her.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Kick That Door Down

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme is "Break Barriers, Open Doors: For an Inclusive Society and Development for All." It's a great theme, an important theme. And it's also a theme that I feel pretty pissed off about even having to write. It should frankly be obvious that my daughter and others with disabilities of all kinds deserve to be included. Just like I think it's pretty obvious that people of color, poor people, gay people, all people should be living in a society that includes them in all levels. What's hard to get here, people? Jude is a human being, and as such is worthy of being a full part of the rich fabric of existence. But here I am, with my glass of wine, and my sweet babe on my lap, typing out yet another post about why my daughter deserves to be included in life.

Perhaps part of the problem is that when we hear the world inclusion we get stuck at the school idea of inclusion. Inclusion is a word that has become linked to education (and sadly not even college education). But what happens after school? Is work in a workshop really inclusion? Adult day cares? When our children grow up, inclusion ceases to be the buzz word that it is when they were younger. In fact, it seems like the word drops off the radar just like our kids drop off the radar. But they don't just cease to exist when they hit eight-teen. They continue to live and what a life:

People with disabilities are poorer than their non disabled counterparts.
They are more likely to be sexually and/or physically assaulted.
They are more likely to be un/under employed.
They often have to fight for rights we assume are given (such as choosing where they wish to live).

 I could go on but I suspect when I post these statistics most people gloss over. I urge my readers to click the link above and read through the date. It is grim. And it's the kind of grim that I think rears it's head for so many people in our world, not just those with disabilities. We live in a world, I fear, that excels at exclusion not inclusion. I see it all over, in areas of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and disability. And yes it is vital to look at the other areas because when I think of inclusion I think of the encompassing of all humanity. Every human regardless of their color, their ethnicity, their class, their gender (or genders), their ability, their sexuality, deserves, simply by the virtue of their humanity, to have access to adequate health care, living conditions, food, shelter, and peace. It's a big order folks but I'm tired of hand outs, of tokenism.

When I envision a world that fully includes Jude, it's pretty simple in many ways. I imagine a world that does not engage in eugenics and thus the question of choice is mote. In my imaginary world, people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities are not seen with terror or sadness. The news that your fetus has Down syndrome is accepted as a variation of normal. I imagine a world in which Jude goes to school (or not as is the case in my household) like every other kid, and receives an education that meets her individual needs just as it meets the individual needs of all the other students. She is not sent to a closed room because there is no closed room. When Jude turns 18 in this world, she could choose college or not. She might choose a bohemian life, or a technical school. As she gets older, she'll fall in love, have sex, maybe get married. She would work a job that provided her with a decent income and that was meaningful. If she was sick or need medical care, she wouldn't have to worry that she would be given sub par care simply based on her intellectual disability. She would live the life that so many of us simply take for granted.

The element that I want to emphasize is that of her choice, of her options. Real inclusion means Jude gets to be a participant in decisions that effect her and her life. It means that she has the same menu that the rest of us are ordering from. Real inclusion is not a one time shot at a sport games, it's not about a few hours in a "real" classroom, it's not about working for Goodwill for .10 an hour, it's not about a pretend wedding to make up for the fact that the state she lives in might not let her marry. Inclusion means a world in which Jude gets to have a human life. Where she gets to be a child and then an adult. Where she is no one's angel (except for mine because all my beasties are pretty damn special to me), no one's inspiration simply because she exists and they feel bad for her for that existence.

What the UN proposes are working models of changes. Policies that would dramatically make life better, more inclusive for people with disabilities all over the world. The US does not hold the gold standard on how we include those with disabilities into the everyday life we live. We have a long way to go as well. By joining with our brothers and sisters (and those in between) all over the world, we have the power to effect policy, to demand radical inclusion for all people. It's time to stop pretending that the tokenism we often take for real inclusion is the real thing.

I've been told too often lately that I need to play nice. That I don't have a right to demand these things for Jude. But the thing is begging for a place at the table does us no good. We don't have to beg. We shouldn't have to beg. A place should already be set for all of us. I've never been a polite well-behaved woman, and I have no intentions of starting now. I will NOT raise any of my children, including Jude, to think that they need to ask on their knees for the rights given to the few. Instead, we will be practicing kicking down doors, and breaking those barriers. Not just for ourselves but for everyone.