Making Boys Cry

Arlington, Virginia

1995

I remember with clarity my excitement to begin Kindergarten. For years I had walked down the hill alongside my mother and my two older sisters and my dog. By the time I was five I was used to the morning commotion in the McDermott’s driveway. The same mothers, the same children. Belly’s growing and shrinking, including my own mother’s. The sound of the bus coming around the corner, the lineup of the children, and the air of importance carried by Bus Patrols, who were in Fifth Grade and wore a bright orange belt. It was a big deal.

I began Kindergarten without trepidation. It would be a half day, in the mornings. My sister Anna was in fifth grade and she was a patrol, and so I don’t remember ever being in a state of confusion in the mornings, not on the first day or any day after that. People asked if I was a boy or a girl, and I told them happily, “I’m a girl! My name is Emily.” Happy days were ahead of me. I could feel it. I was finally riding the bus.

I did look like a boy, too. It was my Father’s rule that we, all four daughters, have bowl cuts until we reached an age where we could keep our hair tidy, or until our begging for long hair subdued his iron will. He could not tolerate unkempt hair, and my little sister Alice’s perpetual rat’s nest was a constant point of agony for him. Usually, it was around first or second grade, for all of us girls, that we were allowed to grow our hair out. So in kindergarten, I definitely looked like a boy.

In fact, as little girls, my Father treated us as if we had no gender. We did yard work and wore boys clothing and boys shoes and had short hair and he encouraged the sciences and insisted we be tough outside, in sports, and when we played with our friends. Had he been able to say to us something like, “Don’t cry, crying is for girls,” I am sure he would have. He showed open dislike for our dolls and all of the frivolities associated with girlhood. I remember when I was a young girl I watched him snatch a pair high heels from my oldest sister, Eva, who was becoming very beautiful. He walked out the front door, and threw them on the roof. Eva chased him into the street, screaming to no avail. And I took note.

Our father was not the type of father to tell us we were pretty, and we didn’t wonder if we were. None of us were then, or ever have been what people call Daddy’s Girls. We were not his little girls. We were his children, and until, one by one, the four of us grew out hair, we actually looked like his sons.

In some ways it probably could have been easier. My little sister Alice and I used to put leggings on our head to pretend we had long hair. We would arrive at the dinner table and our older sisters, Anna and Eva, would mock us. The elastic waistband from the leggings would leave an imprint across our foreheads, just above our eyebrows. It was so easy for Anna and Eva to mock us, being older–they were allowed to grow out their hair.

But ultimately, as I will illustrate in the story below, I appreciate my Father’s unwillingness to treat his four daughters as if they were defenseless little girls in need of his protection. Our vulnerability was not a topic of discussion, ever, as much as I can remember. We were protected, indeed, but not because we were girls, because we were children. Without brothers I assumed this was just how it was with every father and his children, which is probably why, when I started kindergarten, I assumed I was completely equal to boys in all aspects. And it was on the bus that I learned I had made a grave mistake. Boys were wicked. And in turn, I would need to become more wicked.

The bus to kindergarten every day was uneventful, as was kindergarten itself. But at lunchtime I got on the bus to go home because back then in Arlington, kindergarten was a half day. Before writing this, I imagined there were about twelve kindergarteners on the bus ride home every day, but now that I think logically, it must have been around eight. Either way, I was the only girl on an almost empty bus, my older sister was not there to watch over me, and I was bullied.

One of the boys was a best friend from preschool, Chris. Some afternoons he defended me, quite heroically, in fact, sometimes even standing between me and the aggressors, physically protecting me with his body. Other afternoons he joined in with the other boys and taunted me. Whatever he decided to do seemed arbitrary, and I learned quickly not to count on him. He was useless to me.

It started off with them teasing me and calling me names and me ignoring them. My sisters had done worse. Then two boys decided to sit near the front and put their backpacks across the aisle. They held them tight so I couldn’t pass. I insulted them and stepped on their backpacks and walked off the bus. The days went on and they rarely left me alone. They would insult me and I would insult them back, sometimes worse I think, judging by the faces of the remaining boys that told me I had won the exchange. Ignoring them got harder, and I started to talk back more and more. They would throw something at me and I would spit at them and then hide behind the tall seat of the school bus. They became increasingly violent and I responded with threats on their lives. Once I got a bloody lip. My mother saw. She called the school. Nothing. I responded to their violence with my own violence and I only ever remember being afraid of getting in trouble. I knew that I was stronger than each of those boys and faster, but outnumbered. One day I bit one of them, and attacked another in his seat like a wild animal. I punched back, sometimes landing. I climbed over, and even under the school bus seats to get away. I hid from them, and then I would pop my head up when they drew near and spit in their face. It was chaos.

I’m glad I fought back, and just as they never got in trouble for what they did, I never got in trouble for fighting back, which for me, was perfect. I didn’t want my parents involved because they couldn’t do anything for me on the bus, and looking back I’m sure those little boys didn’t want their fathers involved either. My father would have been proud of me fighting those boys, day after day. And even though I dreaded getting on that bus, I was never scared. I knew they were all fools, and I have no memory of wanting their approval; I wanted to be left alone, and when we fought, I wanted to win. I also rested in the fact that each of those boys, alone, wouldn’t have dared to come near me, and that I had instilled a sort of fear in them that was only diminished by the presence of the other boys.

The boys to me, all looked the same. Even Chris, who was once my friend, blended in with the other boys now. They were an amalgamate of wannabe Power Rangers and I hated all of them indiscriminately. Sometimes I leaned my head against the window and listened to their disgusting voices in the background, insulting me, and I held back tears and watch the fog from my breath on the window grow and shrink, grow and shrink. Ignore them, I told myself. I closed my eyes, trying to make my thoughts louder than their voices. Then I would feel something hit my head. A paper ball perhaps. Maybe a marble. It hurt. I turned around, and they had me surrounded on all sides. And I turned wild.

I made one of the boys cry. I will never forget it. I was terrified I would be in trouble, that he would run home and tell his mother. I don’t remember if it was my words or my hands, but I myself had never cried on the bus, even when my lip was made bloody and once my nose, too. I saw his tears as a betrayal of the war they had forced me to be part of. A couple of the boys started to tell me I was going to be in trouble, and all of a sudden some of the boys jumped to my defense, saying, “He started it! He got what he deserved!” I felt I had gone too far, that I should have tried harder to ignore them. Remorseful, I wasn’t. Scared of being punished, definitely.

But after that day the bullying stopped, and I never got in trouble. It turns out the boys were ashamed of telling their parents that a girl had made them cry. In the next days, one by one, the boys approached me to form some sort of alliance, perhaps to be my friend, perhaps as a treaty, perhaps a sign of respect. I don’t remember much of that–only that it stopped and getting on the bus every day became less painful, and that by the end of the year they were all my friends. I considered kindergarten to be a huge success, and I was very much excited for summer, and after that, starting first grade, and maybe, just maybe, growing my hair out long.

The End

Emilija Blum

Edits.

I have been through the gambit, and there is part of that that’s painful because I’m still so young. And I read and I read and I read, longing and looking for that female character to come along who I can’t understand. A woman whose experience stumps me. I’m searching for a glimmer of untouched feeling in myself that resembles naivety. Sometimes I fake it and I fool myself, and that moment feels wonderful because I can look at the pain and call it poetry. He left a bruise on my face. And he, and he, and he, and it’s poetry. He, whatever–it’s poetry. It’s prose, it’s politics, it’s something I can put my name on. The stamp you put on my cheek. When do I get to call it mine? Women own nothing in this world–even their own pain.

And I’ve come round a corner, and I’ve reached a point where the poetry is gone. It’s not worth writing about, and there isn’t profundity in a word that I write. That bruise. That pain in my jaw. No one cares.

No one cares.

What is profound about women hitting men? Nothing. Except that no one gives a damn.

That’s what I want to write about. You. You fifth business bystander audience member news watching your life go by experiencing nothing and helping no one.

You are utterly profound and mysterious.

 

//Emilija Blum

Mother’s Guilt

Aivars,

Today William abruptly asked if we were ever going to see you again. I told him no.

Never.

Then he asked me, “Mommy, was Aivars part of our family?” It came out like: famwee.

I felt guilt and shame and I tried to hold back tears, and I realized they were the same ones I cried when we watched him take his first steps, together.

The same tears I cried when you told me you loved me and my son.

I walked away from you so William wouldn’t grow up thinking that I’m weak. Every boy needs a strong mother.

I didn’t answer William’s question. Instead I said: “You and I will always have each other, no matter what.”

I worry still that he thinks it’s normal how often you made me cry and I pray he forgets. I pray to God he forgets seeing me cry.

Over you, a man who wasn’t even his father. So yes, I feel weak. And I feel guilty.

Blumite

The Thief

First you stole a kiss.
Then, my heart.
Soon, my time and energy.
Hope, dignity, and pride.
I had to give those to you as a ransom
for your affection.
But you never kept your end.
“Don’t negotiate with terrorists,”
my mother told me.
Then went trust.
I went to the doctor for neck pain and
she told me to stop looking over my shoulder.
Confidence, optimism, faith.
What did I need those for anyway?
I can’t forget the looting
and vandalism.
The List:
my upper arm,
my waist,
my left cheek,
my jaw,
and a bit of my ear.
Second, you decided
my neck
also belonged to you.
(My tippy toes on the floor,
but not like a little girl dancing.)
This is how tyrants
crush the resistance.

//emilija blum

Evacuation

I had abandoned myself. Which was difficult. It’s not natural for us selfish humans. When I left I wrote a note to my body that said, “I’m here, don’t worry.” As if it didn’t know.

I left abruptly and became a ghost of myself.

I remember I could see the bones of my chest and my knees were knobby and you told me it wasn’t attractive and I hung my head in shame of what I had become–not who but what I had become so that you could love me.

Do you remember the blast? Do you remember the evacuation? Do you see gas masks in your dreams? I often wonder if my son’s figurines are still on the brink of battle on the coffee table in our little cement flat, covered in dust. If the cabbage is still in the pot on the stove. If you were going to actually show up that evening to have dinner with us.

Secrets and lies and magic and ghosts and potions of poison; that was the way you demanded love. I don’t wonder about that. And then, through a loudspeaker the entire city could hear, urgent echoes bounced off the gray blocks we all called home. I don’t know why, but I began to pray that the loudspeaker would not separate mothers and children.

Abandon everything!
Pack your things!
Just the important things!
No not that.
Wait outside of your apartment block and
your assigned bus will take you to a safe place.

It was an immediate emergent evacuation. We wait for the bus. Some say there is nuclear poison in the air, but we are doing as we are told. My son is clinging on to me and I think about telling him to urinate on a piece of cloth and hold it to his nose and mouth in case the rumours are true. We wait for the bus. Oh my God, I whisper and look up at the poisonous sky. A tear spills down my cheek.

I don’t know why it surprised me, but that bus never came.

The mothers scattered and violently forced themselves and their children on the other buses and the men in gas masks did not try and stop us because we were acting like caged animals that had just broken free. We were instinctual and wild, thirsting for the power to protect ourselves.

I remember it so vividly, because that was the day I returned to my body.

It has been thirty years. Sometimes I find myself wondering what would have happened, had it not been for Chernobyl. Mainly, were you going to come to dinner that night?

democracy, children, and broccoli.

Tolerance is nothing to be proud of in a democratic nation. People who are merely tolerant remind me of a small child chewing his broccoli slowly and dramatically while plugging his nose and making horrid facial expressions until he has swallowed it, at which point he gasps for air to show everyone that against all odds, he has survived the ordeal. He expects a robust applause, but in reaction to this I do what any good mother would do:

roll my eyes.

Any government with force behind it can institutionalize toleration so that peace exists between groups that are antagonistic towards one another, such as children and vegetables. It goes like this: “William, if you do not eat your broccoli I will take all of your rarest Pokemon cards and give them away to random children at the playground and you will help me do it.” But it isn’t only children. For example, I do wish I could whack some Trump supports over the head, but I restrain myself. Because it’s illegal to deliberately whack someone on the head. This is why I always have a giggle when people talk about democracy and tolerance as if they were married and in bed together. Because I happen to know that when the sun sets tolerance sneaks off with authoritarianism as if democracy ceased to exist.

People can be forced to get along, and democracy does not have a sole right to claim that it is the only society in which various associations and groups can exist. Recently, a petty oligarch from Russia told me that Singapore was the freest place in the world.

I actually just stared at hime for a few moments because I didn’t understand if he was serious or if he was joking. I never responded. I just sat in silence with my brows furrowed, trying to maintain a sense of decorum. Did this oligarch know something about Singapore I didn’t?

“Singapore has the greatest economic freedom in the world!” His fist came crashing down on the table.

Indeed, I wouldn’t classify Singapore as the purest of democracies. I do have to admit that any government with a military can protect the rights and liberties of individuals in the most negative sense, but not by first restricting other rights and liberties. For example, in order for Trump supporters to feel safe bringing their experiences and opinions into the public sphere I do not have the right to whack them on the back of the head. I do have to live in this nation with them, and they have to live in this nation with me. And we are going to yell at each other and we are going to disagree, because that is what people do in the public sphere.

I will go a step further. When they yell, I will listen to them. Because I am trying to understand where they are coming from. What is the pain in them that they believe Trump is going to heal? I am bearing down, but not to sing Kumbaya and hold hands. God no! But I am going to listen. Then, I am going to respond. I may respond very directly, and I may reject what they believe. I may tell them: Well, I think what you are saying is morally abhorrent and anti-democratic, and you should love democracy because it worked in your favour! But I want to listen a lot, because perhaps this is a group of people that just wants to be heard. I understand what that feels like to want to be heard–we all do. Immigrants want to be heard. Black people want to be heard. Women want to be heard. Children, for heavens sake, are never heard. However, that is the freedom of speech. Once you speak, and once I listen, I get to respond. I get to disagree. I get to sever our friendship if need be. Simple toleration is Kindergarten curriculum, and quite frankly I do believe I have matured beyond that stage. I certainly hope so. Oh my. It is going to be a long four years.

Anyway, my hope is that the intense emotions in our current political climate lead us neither into violence or apathy. I hope it brings all of us into the public sphere ready for deliberation. When Trump was elected, the liberal elite were shocked. I was floored. Who are these people!? I thought to myself. I don’t know any of them! And THAT was the problem. The election was simply the outcome of something that was already agreed upon: Trump. And I had no idea. It was like everyone was in on this big joke except the liberal elite. And I failed as a citizen, because I should have known. I should have already heard them. Not heard Trump, heard them. Listened to them, tried to understand them. Tolerance is merely putting up with something which you hate–like broccoli. Somewhere between making disgusting faces and loving broccoli (I have come to accept my child will never love broccoli), is an understanding that you will finish what is on your plate whether you like it or not. And can we please do without the dramatic chewing and gasping for air and nose plugging? Thank you.

Despite my visceral reaction to the current political climate, I am taking the high road. Not by being at all okay with this administration because I am NOT, but anyone who tells me they voted for Trump needs to get ready to help me understand why. Talk to me! I will listen as long as I have to. It can get personal and it can get tough, and I want them to be honest. If enough of us act this way, it is my hope that in the future the Democratic Party can understand who these people are, what they want, and what they need, and how we can seek to ameliorate their pain and their fear and their anger. Because in short, I think the Democratic Party is the party that should represent them! The liberal elite has four years to educate themselves on who actually lives in this nation, and how to convince them they should call the Democratic Party home. And it won’t be by simply “tolerating” them. No. We need a full fledged deliberative democracy. And fast. Even if it means eating our broccoli.

The Intruder

Some of you may already be aware (or even involved!) in the horrid events that took place in my apartment two nights ago. There was an intruder of the most disgusting and detestable kind. At about 11:30 PM, long after I had gone to sleep, Kirsten (our longtime babysitter turned family member who is staying with us at the moment), shook me awake with one of the most urgent and terrified faces I have ever seen. Kirsten is a level-headed and calm sort of person, so I immediately knew something terrible was happening.

And there was.

“Emily! Emily, wake up. There is a bat flying around your apartment.” Kirsten hisses the word bat like someone would whisper the word unicorn, if they ever got the chance to see one. But she is sort of smirking, which is very confusing to me given what she is saying.

The first thing I do is check my surroundings. I have to make sure I haven’t woken up in the countryside of Northern Ontario where my family has spent summers for decades and bats were a threat every evening. Up there, any time we opened the doors of our summer home after dusk, we had to operate under something called “Bat Protocol.” This meant that before coming inside, all of the lights had to be turned off and we had to open the door just enough to slip inside as quickly as we could.

As I lay there with Kirsten looking at me expectedly, childhood memories of bats come flooding back.

Like me as a child pleading for my mother, Jane, to open her bedroom door as one or more bats flew around our summer home. The most help Jane ever was was informing me, ten years old, where the tennis rackets were located. Or the time my Aunt Eva forced me to help her catch a bat in the middle of the night (Jane, had once again locked herself in a room upstairs), and once we got the bat outside, she LOCKED ME OUT OF THE HOUSE TO FACE THE CANADIAN WILDERNESS BY MYSELF. The bat was flopping around on the wooden deck by my feet and I jumped on the picnic table screaming and begging her to let me back in. Aunt Eva was laughing at me so hard she was doing the potty dance. Then there was the time I was watching a Disney move upstairs when I suddenly heard the scream of someone who had found a dead body. But no, Jane had just found a dead bat. I run downstairs only to find Jane shaking. She found a dead bat in the dryer while she was doing laundry. She ran past me and up the stairs to her bedroom shrieking as I stared at the gruesome scene. I heard her bedroom door slam and I left to go outside for a paddleboat on the pond. I left the scene for one of my three sisters to find. The bat situation for me growing up, was truly a Tragedy of the Commons.

I shake the memories out of my head and truly wake up to the reality in front of me. There is a bat in my apartment, here in Blacksburg, right now. Then, into protection mode, I say swiftly to Kirsten:

“Go make sure William’s door is shut.” It is. Then I hiss, “Then shut my fucking bedroom door.” Once Kirsten had done what I ask she climbs into bed and I open up Facebook on my phone to post an SOS on my timeline:

SO, There is a BAT flying around in my apartment. This is a formal SOS. William is safe in his room, and I’m safe in mine. So, if you have two tennis rackets (or one I honestly don’t care about the operations because I don’t plan to open my door) PLEASE, come save me and my family in Terrace View. This is NOT a joke or a drill. I am very scared and upset.

Within moments, my heart nearly bursts with happiness because I receive a notification from one brave William Chung. Kirsten and I fervently open the notification, hoping that William is our knight in shining armour. Alas, we are disheartened by what we see next: “HAHAHAHAH I CANT STOP LAUGHING”

We ask William if he is still in town, and if he is, if he would PLEASE COME AND HELP US. He posts a picture of a furry chihuahua on roller skates with the caption, “On my way!”

There is hope for us. This is around the time that Kirsten is telling me that she needs to go to the bathroom, and around the same time I’m telling her that she is under no circumstances allowed to go to the bathroom. After all, it would mean opening my bedroom door.

We inquire to William Chung about the furry chihuahua on roller skates–is he really coming to our rescue? “HAHA I’m back home in New Jersey.” Awesome.

Several more cadets join the thread forming under my “formal SOS” status on Facebook, making jokes about calling in the 82nd, and other various regiments of the U.S. Military. Realizing that most are not understanding the seriousness of my predicament, I post:

“CADETS. This is not a JOKE THERE IS A BAT IN MY APARTMENT WHO JOKES ABOUT THAT.”

At this time one of Kirsten’s friends informs us via text that he would totally come and help us, but he’s drunk at Big Al’s. Things are really looking grim at this point, and I start to think about other options, like allowing Kirsten go to the bathroom, then throwing William’s lacrosse stick down the hallway, and locking her outside of my bedroom. I become very selfish in desperate situations such as this.

Kirsten, against my advice, goes to the bathroom. I am laying in my bed under the covers. (By the way, if you are imagining me at any point in this story, I have not moved from my bed once. I am under the covers this entire time with my computer on my lap). Anyway, all I hear outside my bedroom door is screaming and shrieking from Kirsten on her bathroom expedition. My eyes widen and I consider the lacrosse stick plan once more. But first, I update the Facebook thread: “OMG Kirsten went to go the bathroom and she is just screaming.”

Then, another notification pops up on my phone.

Right before the Machiavellian turn in the plot, a message arrives from Neal, my Mormon friend who works at the library. Seriously, the more Mormons I meet, the more jealous I am that I’m not Mormon. They are literally the most helpful people in the world. I heard once that Mormons have to lock their doors and pretend not be home because their Mormon friends are always randomly showing up with baked goods. Or in my case, to catch disgusting airborne rodents.

I send Neal a personal message on Facebook, and within minutes he informs me that he and his wife, Jolene, are on their way to my apartment to catch the bat. In his short trip to my apartment, people start posting real advice to me on Facebook about how to catch a bat. One friend tells me, “Don’t grab it by the wings.” Literally, I am sitting there just thinking to myself: Oh, don’t worry.  I have no intention of grabbing the bat it’s wings, or touching it at all. Another tells me to wait until it lands and cover it with a cloth, and pick it up and toss it outside. I simply respond, “No.” Then, things take a really dramatic and stressful turn with the simple and straight to the point comment: “Ew. Bats have rabies.”

Kirsten returns from her dangerous potty break and is safely back in my bedroom. It was at this point that I say to Kirsten in the most distressed of tones, “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?” My hands are on my cheeks as I look at her with my eyebrows raised.

Neal calls. He is at my front door. I tell him, “Oh, come on in!” As if I am going to go open the door for him all the way at the other side of my apartment! Just, no. To be polite I do make a point to pop my head out of my bedroom door and ask if it’s okay if I remain in my bedroom while he catches the bat. “Thank you SO much for coming. Jolene, it’s so nice to meet you, I’m so sorry about the mess.”

The plan is to open the doors to let the bat out. Neal tells me to come and get Fancy the cat, and right at this moment I am actually able to venture out of my bedroom because miraculously, the bat lands. I hurry out and grab Fancy and as I am crossing the living room to go back to my bedroom, the bat takes flight. I am not going to dance around what happens next.

I scream, shriek and begin to run. Fancy flips around in my arms and claws THE SHIT out of my face. I whimper sheepishly about that too but I don’t stop for a moment. I don’t wait for Kirsten this time. In a mere moment I am back in my bedroom with the door shut. And locked. I put down Fancy who is most upset that I have stolen her moment to finally be a cat in shining armour. She was literally huffing and puffing. In fact, two days later she is giving me the cold shoulder.

I stand near my bedroom door listening to the commotion.

“You get it!”

“I got it!”

“Oh, honey, it flew over there.”

Screaming

Shrieking

(I am vaguely wondering about Kirsten’s well being in all of this)

“GOT IT”

“Okay get–put it outside. Honey is he hurt?”

“No, he’s fine.”

Silence.

“Okay, it’s gone. He’s out.”

I open up my door and see Neal and Jolene high five. I thank them profusely, as if they have saved my life, which at the time it really felt like they did. Fancy bounds out my room, ready to be Fancy Ninja Cat, only to be disappointed that she missed her chance. The drama had finally ended.

Kirsten and I climb back into bed, inform everyone on Facebook that Neal arrived with Jolene, saved us from the bat, and left. It took us a while to go back to sleep, but we finally did.

THE END

 

1/9/2015

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
                        Robert Frost, 1922

William loves this poem, and he can finish every line for me as I read it. This is also my father’s birthday poem, as he was born on the darkest evening of the year, December 22. When I read this poem, I fall into one of Frost’s famous trances in the movement of the stanzas, and an enormous sense of peace falls over me. Especially because in Blacksburg the cold weather has fallen over the mountains with a severe wind, clear skies, and sunsets that radiate the Glory of God. I am reminded of that intense, dry cold of Northern Ontario, where the sun is piercingly bright and the azure of the sky overcomes the individual and the snowy landscape. Except for the snow, Blacksburg has been very similar to Northern Canada. Only there the nights of winter are long and dark, and the sun comes out with a vengeance despite the -30 degree weather.

In high school at night I would fall asleep in the attic and hear the northern wind whistling along the roof and rattling the windows, and most nights I could see the moon right from my pillow. It always looked and sounded cold outside. And it was. There is no brighter sun than the January sun of North Bay, Ontario though. The sun blinds you, and the cold air suffocates your nose and throat. You leave the front porch and gasp for air, and the hairs of your nose freeze.

I only have one semester left at Virginia Tech. I am almost done. So I would sit here and write down all of my resolutions (they are all going splendidly, by the way!) but I love how the winter is the perfect metaphor for that slow treck towards warmth, towards spring and then summer–towards graduation. Graduating makes all my other resolutions seem so small.  I can feel that the days are getting longer, and the sun is high up in the sky and full of promise. I am almost there. And sometimes I stop, because my bed is warm and there are moments where it’s too cold to imagine giving this day everything I’ve got. There are times where I just wish I could fast forward to that day that William and I walk across the stage and become Virginia Tech alumni. But I can’t. And I wouldn’t even if I could. Because…

 …I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. 

Politics at Thanksgiving

After the election of Trump, emotions were running high everywhere one turned. I am part of the liberal elite who cried when the election was over. I thought about my six-year-old son spending the next formative years of his life looking up to this man as a leader. I immediately began looking for job opportunities in Canada (I am a citizen, and as it turns out, a loyalist). The dinner table was tense over those next days, my father being a fiscal conservative and cold warrior and William Buckley lover. His girlfriend is a New England democrat and I often wonder if she gets on her knees and prays to the Kennedy’s at night instead of Jesus. She used to have a house in Nantucket. We all know our stuff. And we discussed it openly and heatedly for days, and my son William sat on the rug looking at his Pokemon cards, but he was surely listening.

At one point I began crying, and William came up to me and yelled “Why are you crying about Donald Trump!? He is a just a stupid, little, mermaid!” It came out of nowhere, and we all laughed. But our discussions over the holidays must have been formative on him. His teacher said there was tension in the kindergarten classroom the day after the election. But countries go through these things, and politics are emotional. The entire nation is involved, and we are bringing our bodies and voices into the political sphere in a way I haven’t seen since 2008, and never before then. That night William called Donald Trump a mermaid, I remembered reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I had to research the history of Ireland and Home Rule and Anthony Parnell in order to understand one particular (horrifying and violent) scene at the Christmas dinner table. And Stephen Daedalus is a very young boy–eight years old. It is the first time in the novel that we have no only window in his consciousness–we only sit there at the dinner table as he does, watching the heated political discussion unfold. I suggested we all read the book again, and particularly this seen, as to understand the political turmoil at Thanksgiving dinners all across America. In the interest of Brevity, I have written a summary and analysis of the scene for you already:

For God, or Country, or Man

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, the reader spends several pages in the uninterrupted consciousness of young Stephen Daedalus while he attends boarding school, vigilantly counting down the days until he returns to his family for the Christmas holiday. It is Stephen’s first Christmas dinner, and as his consciousness becomes second to the conversation among adults, the reader too becomes and observer. Ironically, the holiday to which Stephen was so looking forward turns into a politically, religiously, and emotionally charged discussion. In order to discover how this scene may affect Stephen throughout the rest of the novel, the reader must first learn the historical and cultural relevance of Irish nationalism, Charles Stewart Parnell, and the Catholic Church. After learning more about Irish politics in 1891, I removed the handicap of my historical displacement and began to sympathize with the main characters of the argument.

Mr. Daedalus and Mr. Casey bring up the discussion of politics by sympathetically quoting a man who insulted a local Catholic priest for “turning the house of God into a polling-booth.” Dante, the Daedalus family governess, immediately suggests that one cannot be a good Catholic and denounce their priests at the same time. Mr. Daedalus states that priests should “confine their attention to religion,” and Mr. Casey agrees (Joyce 25).

My 21st Century, American perspective tells me that there is a tension between secular politics and the Catholic Church, but this isn’t the case. Charles Stewart Parnell, Ireland’s leading politician at the time, had actually gained the political support of the Catholic clergy by promising to use his power to establish a Catholic University. Parnell knew the influence of the Catholic Church, and “used the local Catholic clergy to spread the Home Rule organization, particularly into rural areas, and often to chair its meetings” (Cronin 23). Home Rule was a political movement that sought to establish limited self-government for Ireland and establish a parliament in Dublin. Parnell, as the leader, was pragmatic in garnering popular support for this effort (Cronin 19).

Mr. Daedalus and Mr. Casey are both Irish Nationalists and presumably would have both been supporters of the Home Rule Party and Anthony Parnell. Even though the Catholic clergy originally supported the Home Rule Party, both men speak denounce the priests for their involvement in Irish politics. Mr. Casey claims he attends church “to pray to [his] Maker and not to hear election addresses” (Joyce 25). From my own secular predisposition, Dante seems to be the religious fanatic and emotional responder to a group of rational, secular, democratic men. However, knowledge of the historical context reveals the contrary: Dante is listening to Catholic clergy as she always has. Mr. Daedalus and Mr. Casey were once content with the alliance between their priests and Parnell and Home Rule, and have suddenly changed their minds. Therefore, their secular attitude is not based upon principle or reason, but on emotion. Where does the emotional condemnation of political priests originate in Mr. Daedalus and Mr. Casey? My attention returns to an earlier moment in the novel when Stephen’s consciousness addresses the recent death of Anthony Parnell:

A wail of sorrow went up from the people.

-Parnell! Parnell! He is dead!

They fell upon their knees, moaning in sorrow.

And he saw Dante…walking proudly and silently past the people who knelt by the water’s edge (Joyce 21-22).

Parnell, a national hero, died October 1891, just before the Christmas holiday (Cronin 19). Dante, disgusted with Parnell’s longtime affair with the married Kitty O’Shea (Cronin 24), tells the men that Parnell “was no longer worthy to lead. He was a public sinner” (Joyce 26). Here, the dinner discussion departs from a general conflict between Nationalism and Catholicism or secular versus religious politics, and moves onto particular and recent events.

Mr. Casey, Mr. Daedalus and Dante are all Irish Catholic, and the text reveals that all had been supporters Home Rule and Parnell. Dante says that Parnell is no longer fit to lead, implying that she once supported him. Dante even “hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God Save the Queen” because she was disgusted that an Irishman would show allegiance to England (Joyce 32). The polarization between the characters in this dinner scene is vast, which is puzzling since they all seem to have originally been in agreement! Context is incredibly important because the Mr. Casey and Mr. Daedalus see Dante as part of a betrayal, and Dante sees the men as being complicit in political idolatry. At first this discussion seems political but it isn’t—it’s personal.

This conversation becomes extremely emotional and personal for Mr. Casey as he defends his Catholic beliefs. He states passionately to Dante: “I am a catholic as my father was and his father before him and his father before him again when we gave up our lives rather than sell our faith” (Joyce 29). This statement insinuates that the clergy’s support for Parnell was immoral and selfish; remember the Irish clergy were willing to give support to Parnell and Home Rule in return for a Catholic university. Their later condemnation of Parnell was not merely a shift in politics, but a betrayal. After the clergy removed their support of Parnell, Mr. Casey and Mr. Daedalus’ were no longer able reconcile their Catholicism with their support of Parnell, and were faced with a decision. There love of Parnell won and created their secular principles, which Dante detests. In her opinion, choosing to support Nationalism over the Catholic church is a sin. This is where I begin to understand the characters and their stance, and I see Dante as the more rational actor (even if she is the one who ends up throwing furniture!)

Parnell’s death created an “immediate legacy of romantic legend and bitter political discord. An aura of tragic romance soon came to surround his memory. He was portrayed by his supporters and by those disillusioned by political infighting as a hero betrayed” (Cronin 25). This is evident at the Christmas dinner, and Joyce did not make one mistake–every word has an intention. Furthermore, historians believe that the bereavement of Parnell as an embodiment of Irish nationalism led to a “simplification of the complex realities of the time” (Cronin 25). Simply, we read it now it difficult for us to understand because we weren’t living in Ireland during this political moment. This isn’t left versus right, or nationalist versus loyalist, or religious versus secular. It is much more complex and it is difficult to separate the emotional from the rational.

After Parnell’s affair with Kitty O’Shea became public knowledge, one Archbishop wrote to another that the Home Rule Party made “small or no account of Bishops and priests as independent agents, and only value them as money gatherers and useful auxiliaries in the agitation…without us, they would simply be nowhere and nobodies” (Cronin 25). The political alliance between Parnell’s party and the Catholic clergy was purely pragmatic, and involved little trust on both sides. When I reflect on the popularity and support that Home Rule gained under Parnell’s leadership (Cronin 23), it isn’t surprising that Dante defends the Catholic priests so piously. She has discovered after the fall of Parnell that the Catholic Church was merely a political tool used to reach the masses, and a principled connection between them did not exist, leaving her to realize that her original support of Parnell was disillusioned.

On the contrary, Mr. Casey and Mr. Daedalus feel that the Catholic clergy betrayed their political and national hero, and so Mr. Casey asks Dante: “Are we not to follow the man that was born to lead us?” Dante responds by pouring salt on their wound, calling Parnell “a traitor to his country…The priests were right to abandon him. The priests were always the true friends of Ireland” (Joyce 33).

While the fall of Parnell after his affair and his ousting are certainly central to the politically charged nature of the conversation, it is Parnell’s death that causes everyone to spiral out of control. Everyone at the dinner party is disillusioned, angry and emotional. Mr. Casey and Mr. Daedalus are condescending and continuously belittle Dante’s convictions (Joyce 27-32). Finally, fists come smashing down on tables, the church is denounced (Joyce 33), cheeks are shaking, chairs are shoved, and doors are slammed (Joyce 34). Dante leaves violently, and Mr. Casey begins to sob and with his head in his hands cries, “Poor Parnell! My dead king!” Stephen, “raising his terror stricken face,” looks at his father, Mr. Daedalus, and sees that “his eyes are full of tears” (Joyce 34).

Had Parnell been alive at Christmas, Mr. Casey’s response may have been more moderate. Now, though, I imagine he is defending Parnell’s legacy and memory. It seems that Mr. Casey and Mr. Daedalus idolize Parnell, which is a sin against God. After all, from Dante’s perspective, Jesus was the man born to lead all humanity, which would clearly transcend Parnell being born to lead Ireland.

For these characters, what comes first? God or Ireland? Does Parnell symbolize the loss of a nation? Can was assign mortality to a nation? For people who love God, and love their country, and love a politician, these questions and their implications evoke an emotional, angry, and even violent response in their supporters.

Stephen’s voice is silent in this scene and his consciousness is very quiet as well. What we do see of his thoughts are that he is slightly confused, thinks about his affection and respect for all of the elders at the table, yet takes note on how they are fundamentally disagreeing. Wondering why Dante is “severe” against Parnell, Stephen remembers that Dante did not want him to play with a little girl named Eileen because she was a protestant (Joyce 30). Parnell is a protestant (Cronin 21). Logically, Dante has taught Stephen to dislike Parnell for being a protestant. (We also know by now that Stephen is gifted intellectually, and it I have been given permission by Joyce to assume that Stephen will make these connections at his age). Stephen also wonders if Dante is right simply because Mr. Casey is against the Catholic priests. Then when he recalls his father belittling Dante, he loses some esteem for Dante in his own thoughts. He then asks himself, “Who was right then” (Joyce 30)?

When I connect all of this back to Donald Trump, it is clear to me why the kindergarteners had tension between them the day after the election. I was so open about my distaste and disgust for Trump around my child, that it would impossible for him not to question the character of a child who’s parents voted for Trump. Perhaps he thought, “Your parents voted for a stupid, little, mermaid!” Perhaps he said it out loud. I do hope not. Similarly, did the children who’s parents voted for Trump feel confused as the world told them Trump was evil, racist, misogynist, and fascist. Did they question their parents? The kindergarteners of Washington DC were after the election, indeed, little citizens!

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen’s neutral consciousness is, at his young age, a sure sign of his intelligence and discernment. Stylistically, the placement of the scene is randomly inserted into Stephen’s consciousness—a truly modern twist. At first the placement seems odd, but since Christmas dinner is a bold fragment in the early part of the novel and in Stephen’s life, the stylistic turn startled me into close reading. If this is Joyce’s intent with the style, then the reader can be sure that this Christmas is integral to Stephen Daedalus’ development as a character. Although Stephen forms no explicit opinions during the event that the reader can see, it will remain in his memory, and he may form opinions towards it has matures and develops as a character. To discover that, you’ll have to pick up the book and finish it yourself!

 

Works Cited

Cronin, Maura. “Politics and Administration, 1870-1914.” Ireland, 1870-1914: Coercion and Conciliation. Eds. Donnchadh Corrain and Tomas O’Riordan. Dublin: Four Courts, 2011. 17-25. Print.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Wickford: North, 1998. Print.

Can I smoke here? 

I sat down at a bar today and asked the bartender, “Can I smoke?”

He smirked and said, “What, cigars?”

I kept a straight face. “Actually, yes.”

He smiled and said, “Oh I see, you’re a guy’s girl.”

I looked up from my phone, made hard eye contact, and said seriously, “No, I’m a girl’s girl.”

We stared at each other. I broke the silence.

“So, can I smoke here?”

He nodded his head. I put the Marlboro 100 between my lips and leaned over the bar, gesturing for him to offer a light.