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Gunshot Confessions

In 1992, my mother really liked Denzel Washington.

Like, really really liked him.  She liked him enough that when a movie studio was recruiting for extras for a scene in The Pelican Brief, she signed herself right up.  To our great amusement, she was assigned to be in a crowd protesting gun control.

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I can’t quite tell, but I’m pretty sure that the lady in the lower right corner with the blue and yellow shirt is my Mom.  Denzel Washington ran through this crowd.  My Mom was only a few feet away, which absolutely made her month.

 

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This is not my Mom, despite our obvious hair   kinship.  You and me, Julia.  You and me.

 

The scene was funny, of course, because my Mom was absolutely for gun control, long before it was an acceptable thing to say out loud.  She was an Army veteran, raised in a county so rural that one of her chores was riding her bike to the farm next door to pick up milk bottles for her family.  She knew a little bit about guns and counted the time she had to throw a grenade in basic training as the absolutely most frightening moment of her life.  She certainly didn’t see a reason why just anyone should have access to weapons.

No doubt, her experiences as a special education teacher in inner city D.C. contributed to her feelings.  She specialized in teaching emotionally disturbed children.  These are the kids who had been kicked out of all of the other schools, but still needed an education.  Given their behavior problems, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that their home lives were not the greatest.  Many of the children had been abused.  All of them had parents trapped in poverty and plenty of her students had parents in jail.  Some of her students, by the age of twelve, thought of jail as a place where you could go to get three solid meals a day.  I can’t remember exactly how many funerals for her students that she went to during her years in the city, but it was far, far too many.  Guns were a big part of all of that.

It was also the nineties, when D.C. was commonly referred to as the murder capitol.  I remember joking about that with my friends, as though we were somehow tougher because we were living in such a dangerous environment. The summer of 1994 really sticks out in my memory, because it began with a Romeo-and-Juliet style suicide between two twelve-year-olds that were forbidden to see each other.  After that, it seemed as though there was a drive-by shooting at least once a week.  It was the first time we’d heard the phrase road rage, where people were so angry at being cut off in traffic that they were pulling out their guns and shooting people.  To this day, I still cringe whenever my Beloved loses his temper and shouts out the window at other drivers, because I presume that they will have a gun.  It was that frightening to live through.

Right before I left D.C. for New York, the tri-state area was brought to its knees by a 17 year old with a rifle.  Just reading through the Wikipedia article now, fourteen years later, leaves my heart pounding in my chest.  The list of shootings read like a geography of my childhood.  The first shot, through the window of a Michael’s store, is the store I used to walk to as a kid.  I spent hours there, looking at all the craft items that I wanted to try but could not afford.  Two of the victims were murdered on the streets where I grew up.  Another was shot only a block and a half from where I was attending college at the time in Virginia.  The management of the apartment complex that I lived in sent out a memo to the residents, urging extreme caution as we went about the neighborhood and recommending limiting our time outdoors.  I remember people volunteering to pump gas wearing bulletproof vests, because folks were that scared.  One morning I was over two hours late for work, because the police had stopped the eight-lane Beltway and were investigating every single car in their desperation to find the killer.  When we learned that it was a teenager pulling the trigger, it was simply impossible to process.  That is how a single gun ended sixteen lives and brought an entire city to its knees.

When another murderer walked into Pulse in Orlando last week, I was on a plane home from Ireland, where I’d just spent a week trying to answer the question of why Americans are so in love with their guns, because Irish people simply don’t understand it.  Irish law is very restrictive with guns, while still allowing some shotguns for hunting.  Most knives will get you in trouble, if you don’t have a really good explanation for having it, so the idea that we can walk in to a store and buy a gun that’s advertised to be able to shoot 13 bullets a second is simply incomprehensible to them.  (I have since learned that pragmatically your finger really couldn’t fire 13 times a second, so the real rate would be more like 3 bullets a second.  I remain in awe that this is what we’re talking about.)

I have watched the public mourning of the Pulse attack with no small amount of sadness, but mostly I have watched it with a deep and intense anger.  Is it any surprise that we’ve had another shooting on this scale?  Is it any surprise that eventually it would target LGBT folks, given a political climate where anti-trans bathroom bills are not only voted on, but actually passed?  The mourning is proper. It is good.  This is a national tragedy.  It should be mourned loudly and publicly.  But what bothers me most is that in the last 72 hours, as I write this, 56 people have been killed by guns, per the Gun Violence Archive, which syndicates and counts reported incidents of gun violence in the media.  Over 6,000 people have died so far this year.  1,200 teenagers have been injured or killed, as have 262 children under the age of 11.  148 police officers have also lost their lives.

And it’s only June.

Where is the outrage?  Where is the mourning?

We are in the middle of a rise in gun violence across this country.  According to a recent DOJ study, homicide rates have jumped 17% in the nation’s 56 biggest cities.  In my home town, after a decade of falling crime rates that almost created a sense of normalcy, violent crime has increased every year since 2011.  That’s the just the crime rate.  It doesn’t count suicides or accidents.  Reported accidents accounted for nearly 2,000 incidents nationally last year. In April, one of those accidents injured two people right on the same floor of the same building as the pediatric office where I take Baba.  Because, apparently, responsible gun ownership means bringing your gun into the same building as a pediatrician’s office.  In talking to gun owners, I’ve heard a lot more stories about accidental discharges that weren’t reported.  Accidental, that is, if you get over the intentionality of having a gun in your hands in the first place.

Forgive me if that sounds bitter.  I am bitter.  I am bitter because I’ve been watching people shrug their shoulders at gun violence for my entire life, as if it is some kind of natural force that we can do nothing about.  It is not a hurricane or cancer, which, as it happens, are problems that we spend millions of dollars each year to address.  It is a problem entirely of our own making.

And the worst part, of course, is that our Congress has enacted legislation to prohibit gun violence from even being studied.  I laugh when I hear people talk about Hilary Clinton’s terrible complicity and corruption in giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, because that seems so trivial compared to such an outrageous law.  Why aren’t we marching in the street and screaming about the incredible pull the NRA has on our politicians? It is literally killing our kids.

I am not a gun owner, nor will I ever allow guns to come into my home.  You can undoubtedly tell me a million ways in which my understanding about guns is wrong.  I know this, because I’ve been talking to gun owners endlessly to try to come up with some sort of meaningful change that would actually work.  But without the ability to even study the problem, we are all making wild guesses at to what would actually help.  Ban assault rifles?  Sure.  It seems like a reasonable step.  Limit the number of bullets you can put in it at a time to ten?  Sure.  That would give the victims of mass shootings a greater opportunity to overpower their attacker.  It just doesn’t address the bigger problem, where over 31,000 Americans are shot in an average year.   A national database for background checks would have saved the eight lives in Charleston.  National gun laws, rather than the regional hodge-podge that makes the stricter laws completely useless would also be a great step.  D.C. has a handgun ban, after all, which means nothing when you can drive 10 miles in any direction and legally purchase one, then drive it right back over the border and into your home.

Even just instituting licensing and training, like we do with driving, would be a huge step in the right direction.  And that’s something that most of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to can get completely behind.  I know that I live in a democracy, and that compromise is the name of the game.  That has to come from both sides.  We seem to be stuck on the first step, which as any addict could tell you is recognizing that we even have a problem.  When you start looking at how we compare to other countries, I don’t see how you can possibly deny it.

And maybe, when we’ve actually managed to get fewer guns on our streets, NYPD recruitment posters won’t have to look like this one any more:

 

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I passed 19 guns on my commute this morning. The NYPD had the biggest ones…just in case that’s your thing.  (If you don’t recognize the location, that’s Grand Central Station that they’re posing in with their guns and their terribly fashionable pants.)

 

There’s just got to be a better way than this. Doesn’t there?

It seems that we may never know, as the Senate voted down four proposed reforms just last night.

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In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

InAnotherLifeWhat happens when love lingers long after death?  This is what Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life, which is a genre-bending tale set in the Languedoc region of southern France that explores the many varieties of love that we encounter during our lives.  Johnson combines a contemporary love story with a dramatic retelling of one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the 14th century Catholic Church launched the Albigensian Crusade to wipe out the Cathars.  Never heard of the Cathars?  Neither had I, which was a fascinating aspect of the novel.

The Languedoc region was the home of the Cathar faith, a medieval gnostic Christian sect that incorporated reincarnation into Christian doctrine.  Johnson centers the medieval events of the novel on the assassination of of the Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau, a 13th century ecclesiastic whose death launched the crusade.  But those are just the facts that we’re handed down from history.  Johnson guides us through the last years of the Cather resistance by introducing us to Lia Carrer, a modern day graduate student who is writing her doctoral thesis on the Cathar faith.

Newly widowed, Lia Carrier returns to the Languedoc, where her closest friend, Rose, has settled as the wife of a successful wine maker.  Wounded and still grieving the seemingly accidental death of her husband Gabriel, Lia moves into Rose’s guest house and returns to work on her doctoral thesis.

On her first night in France, Lia is startled by the sight of a man at her window, who disappears by the next flash of lightning.  He’s quickly replaced by a Bonelli’s eagle, a bird so rare as to be facing extinction.  It happens so fast that Lia isn’t entirely certain what she’s seen.

She backed away from the glass with a curse of surprise but stopped as something white flashed just beyond the window. In the space between heartbeats, she saw the face of a man. Moonlight revealed fierce dark eyes and the etched planes of cheekbones. A seeping black streak marred the left side of his face, running from his temple down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. The palm of a hand came into view, reaching toward her. Her own hands flew up and smacked the glass as adrenaline, warm and electric, seared the weariness from her bones.

It should not — and does not — surprise the reader when Lia recognizes that face at her window as Rose’s new neighbor Raoul d’Aran, who has quite a few secrets of his own.  Woven into the events unfolding in the 21st century are scenes from the 13th, where we learn of Raoul’s history as a winemaker, husband, father and leader of the last Cathar rebellion.  As the plot quickly moves forward, Lia begins to see, impossibly, how the deaths of her husband and of the 13th century Archdeacon might just be intertwined.

Although the intrigues of medieval Church history might seem like a hard sell for a modern audience, Johnson brings enough of the personal into the 13th century events to make them relevant and alive.  It is, above all, love that moves the story forward and a shared grief that draws Lia to Raoul.

A gust of cold air pulled at her hair like the fingers of a ghost, tossing it across her face. Lia tucked the loose strands into her coat collar. “Your wife’s name was Paloma,” she said. Raoul winced, as though the sound of her name caused him physical pain. “What were your children’s names?”
“Bertran was my son,” he replied. “Aicelina was my daughter.”
His simple declaration broke her heart. There is no other way to say your loved ones are gone but was and were. “Those are old Occitan names.”
“My wife was from Languedoc, like your family.”
“Do you have family in Languedoc still?”
“No. There’s no one left.” His answer was a door clicking shut. Quiet, but final.

One of the best qualities of the novel is Johnson’s love of France, which comes through in the vividly depicted setting.  Drawing on her background as a wine buyer and frequent traveller, Johnson fills the novel with delightful sensory details that take the reader away.  Why not indulge in some of the delights of French wine country?

Lia walked into the covered pavilion of the marché. Fish caught before dawn released aromas of the sea that mingled with the scent of vanilla-sweet crepe batter on a hot griddle and the sultry whiff of cumin and cardamom as spice merchants opened their bags. A tiny patisserie stood tucked between the long, refrigerated cases of a cheese-monger and a vendor of cured meats. The shop specialized in the pastries of Catalunya, the territory just across the Spanish border that shared so much of Languedoc’s history and culture, and Lia made her last purchases there.

Delicious.  Don’t you want to go to France?  Isn’t this why we read?

Johnson’s writing is rich and the story line interesting and adventurous, filled with just enough of the mysticism between past and present to keep the pages turning.  Lia’s love and appreciation of the finer things in life are a delightful escape from the humdrum, but the real reward of the novel is discovering how the Cathar story really ends.  In Another Life brings a relatively unknown period of history to life by filling it with memorable characters and a love of the Languedoc region that will make you want to book a flight immediately.

  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • Publish Date: February 2, 2016
  • Paperback: 368 pages

 


Genre: contemporary, fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction
Subjects: christianity, france, grief, love, medieval, religion
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A Home Away From Home

home sweet homeSelling your house is a strange business.  We’ve had our house on the market for the better part of a month now.  Another way of phrasing that is that we’ve had our home on the Internet, where strangers get to casually thumb through pictures and judge our furnishings taste.  Nearly every day, people that I don’t know have walked into my bedroom, taking a look at some of the most personal details of my life.  For the first two weeks, before we saw any offers, I have to admit that this idea of judgement was laying heavily on me.  I am not generally a very self-conscious person, but day after day of knowing that my house was not good enough for the many people that walked through it left me feeling strangely vulnerable.

That’s emotion for you.  We’ve been going to open houses, so I know well how the psychology of a buyer goes.  We have yet to see  a house that has really excited us, for some pretty arbitrary reasons, so it’s hardly surprising that other people would feel the same about ours, is it?

We are in a buyer’s market, as well, so I know that my strange little house, with its unique architecture and zoning, isn’t going to be for everyone.  We’re in a semi-detatched, which means that we’re one side of a duplex.  It’s like a townhouse, but not when it comes to appraisals.  And that’s going to make the next week or so really interesting.

We’ve had a decent offer.  It should give us just enough money from the sale to find a house with most of the things that we’re looking for.  There are no guarantees, of course.  An offer is not a sale.  Our realtor is currently negotiating with the buyer to see if we can’t inch up the purchase price.  They could walk away.  Since there are no comparable sales, the appraisal could come back with a weird enough number that the buyer’s mortgage falls through.  Still, we’ve gotten hopeful enough that we’ve started the motions towards a new mortgage.  I’ve been looking at houses for sale for so long that I actually got bored of it, but now I’m trying to convince myself to start doing my research again.

Long Island is insanely expensive, so we’ll undoubtedly have to make  compromises.  We’re not afraid of renovations, but I have to admit that there’s a part of me that is mourning the idea of leaving my renovated and finished house and starting all over with another fixer-upper.  Our home, at this point, is perfectly customized for us.  Who wants to start that over?

I keep coming back to this image that I had as a girl of what my life would look like when I had it all figured out.  It’s just flashes — a house with a waterfront view, where waves break against a rocky cliff.  My legs, in grey leggings, underneath an oversized blue sweater.  A desk facing the window, where I would spend my days quietly writing.

In none of those images were there other people or houses.  I longed for space in the way that only a lifetime apartment dweller can.  To have a home where you don’t hear the arguments of your neighbors, imposing on your solitude?

What bliss.

Now the real estate market is down, which will help us in buying, but certainly isn’t going to net us the hundreds of thousands in profit that people enjoyed during the real estate bubble.  And, even though it is a buyer’s market, I see house after house where it’s clear that the sellers still are thinking in terms of housing bubble prices.  We’re trying to be more realistic in the hopes of selling reasonably quickly, which does seem to be working.  Still, it’s depressing to look at the top of our rather generous price range and see 70s fabulous houses on tiny lots, with neighboring houses clustered all around.  That mirrored wall in the bathroom is retro, right?  Who doesn’t want to watch themselves…well…

Obviously I will not get that wood-floored ocean-facing desk of my dreams.  I certainly won’t get that isolated house on a cliff, where I can ignore the world around me, while watching the most peaceful part of nature.  And why should I?  Wouldn’t it be selfish to hog such a view?  But I can’t help but dream of a room of my own, a space where my desk will look at something more beautiful than a basement wall.  We have to be in the New York area for now, because our careers need it.  But it won’t always be this way.  There will be a time when I can step away and find a little town where I can have my house on a hill, where I can replace my crowded train commute with a walk to the garden.

In the meantime, we’ve just booked a quick trip to Ireland to celebrate a family wedding.  Although I really wanted to go, I initially found the idea overwhelming, because there were things to plan and sort and figure out.  Then I found an apartment in Malahide, which is a quiet suburb of Dublin that’s right on the coast.  We’ve rented it, because it is near friends that we have not spent enough time near in years.  Today I found that I could think of anything but getting to it and listening to the quiet inside it.  Our house will come and go as it will, but one thing that I can count on is that I’ll be walking along the shore in Ireland in just three weeks time.  I can’t wait.

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Human Moments, No. 8

The moment is right.  The days of slow percolation are over,  as the months of procrastination disguised as thinking have finally come to a close.  The notebook with the rapidly jotted notes is taken from the commuter bag and consulted, with a final nod of satisfaction at the contents.

The writer has an hour, a simple hour before her train pulls into the terminal, before she has to turn into someone else for an entire work day.  She competes for a seat by the window, in a carriage with few people in it, in the hopes that no one will talk to her.  The train whishes-whishes-whishes as it speeds along the miles, and she focuses, thinking about the plots and the scenes and the characters that she’s imagined for weeks prior to this final moment.

At last, she begins.  She opens her computer and clicks open the program that she’ll spend the next year working with, gnashing her teeth at, sweating blood on.  It pops up a dialogue box.

“File name?” it asks.

“Crap,” she mutters.  The entire process grinds to a halt, while precious minutes tick by.

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Her Name Is Rose by Christine Breen

HerNameIsRose Iris Bowen has just been sacked.

It’s not her fault, as the author of a weekly gardening column in a regional newspaper, that the publishing industry has been in decline and budgets are being slashed everywhere.  Her work is good.  A lifelong gardener and natural writer, she has been performing well, despite having lost her husband to cancer only two years prior.  But the world is changing.  Perhaps, her editor suggests, she could guest write a blog for free for a while?  If it becomes popular…well, what writer doesn’t know the thrill of writing for exposure?

Quiet and undemanding, Iris tries to focus on her job options, but her bigger problem that day is her mammogram.  In her forties, it is time for Iris to go for her screening, which has taken on a particular terror after the quick death of her husband.

The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked.  The chill in the air made her shiver.  She clutched her breasts.  Nobody had touched them since Luke.  She held her breath and counted.  exhaled long.  Breathed again.  One, two, three–

When the results from the mammogram reveal that there’s an distortion in her left breast that will require further testing to rule out cancer, Iris’s world is turned upside down.  She fears for herself, but she’s more frightened because she is the adoptive mother of a 19 year old daughter named Rose and she is terrified of leaving her orphaned at such a young age.

Rose, a musical protégé, is in London studying to be a classical violinist at the Royal Academy.  Like Iris, she is still wrapped in her grief for Luke, and filled with questions about her future.  When her final master class goes badly wrong, she makes a grand gesture that throws her entire future into question and amps up the tension of the novel.

Back in Ireland and facing her own mortality, Iris recalls the promise that Luke extracted from her before he died — that she would track down Rose’s birth mother, who had been a young American graduate student at Trinity College.  Iris goes to the Adoption Board in Dublin and discovers only a decades-old address in Boston.  Ignoring her follow-up appointment and telling no one where she is going, Iris impulsively books a plane ticket and sets herself to follow the footsteps of her daughter’s birth mother.  She has planned her trip so impulsively that she even forgets to pack a nightgown.

Looking at herself in the mirror now as she was ready to go downstairs, she felt acutely like an imposter.  (What does one wear when meeting the woman who birthed your child?)  She sat down on the edge of the bed and took off the sandals and put on the heels.  She wanted to look smart meeting Hilary Barrett.  She wanted to look like she’d measured up to the mother Hilary had probably hoped for when she gave her baby over to the adoption agency all those years ago.  She tried to think about what she was wearing tjat day, but she couldn’t remember.

In Boston, a deeply emotional Iris finds herself at an eccentric B&B, run by a good-hearted but lonely widow who talks entirely too much for Iris’s taste.  The other residents also forcefully intrude on Iris’s solitude, forcing her to unburden her fears onto strangers as she figures out how to face them. She meets Hector Sherr, a celebrated jazz pianist who is instantly drawn to the red-headed Irish widow, and who refuses to let her go on her journey alone.  When Iris feels her own attraction to him, she must face the fact that Luke is dead, but she is still very alive.  In Ireland, Rose faces a parallel journey to her mother, as she is courted a the custom violin that is proclaiming to have fallen in love with her at first sight.

As Iris looks for Hilary, the members of Hilary’s world also find their ways into the narrative, and the novel’s theme of unlikely connections between strangers emerges.  They are being drawn together by Rose, who is ironically unaware of her own importance to the story.  The novel takes place only over the span of a few short weeks, but as the lives of the characters turn, the setting of time and place begins to feel magical.

Her Name is Rose is foremost a novel about love and loneliness, where sadness often serves to unite strangers and make unlikely friendships.  Although there’s nothing surprising in the denouement, all of the characters are so sympathetic that it remains a compelling and heart-warming read to the end.  Iris’s identity as a gardener and Rose’s role as a musician also fill the book with beauty.  When their talents merge in the final emotional scene of the novel, it just feels right and true.


Genre: chick lit, fiction, women's fiction
Subjects: adoption, cancer, death, family, grief, healing, ireland, love, nature
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Spring Tidings: Where Will We Land?

I keep trying to write to you.  I do.  I’ve started and discarded no fewer than four posts, on various topics that are filling my mind these days.  But now it is spring — and allergy season — and Facebook has just reminded me that I haven’t posted anything in twenty days.  Twenty days!

That is a lifetime in the Internet world, is it not?

We are so busy here at the moment.  We are very close to putting our house on the market, so every spare second over the last few weeks has been spent in a wild effort to paint all of the things and finish all of the projects.  Last week, I came home every night to work on our entry way, which is now much prettier than it ever was.  We hired cleaners to come in and give the house a scrubbing of its lifetime.  My Beloved installed new stone steps and finished a million other little projects around the house.  Our back yard has become a summer oasis, blooming with begonias and fresh paint and tidy trimmings.  Everything is now so spot on that the thought of selling the house and starting it all over somewhere else rather makes me want to cry.

I have problems with change.  It’s true.  I am trying to see past it, although the thought of moving has opened up all kinds of possibilities that have made me feel rather lost.  When I moved here, my only thought was having a back yard near the beach with a mortgage that I could afford.  Having a child has complicated things.  Now I worry about things like local schools, population diversity, the political environment.   I grew up outside of Washington D.C., in one of the two most diverse counties in America.  I had friends from all over the world.  Through friendships and school projects, I visited the homes of Muslims, Protestants, Catholics and Buddhists as a matter of course.  I knew that when  you went to Korean or Russian homes, you had to take off your shoes at the door.  I learned soccer basics from a woman who had played on the national team in Honduras.  I recently found a mix tape that friend made me in middle school, with tracks on it that her Vietnamese parents grew up on. I learned to jump double dutch and braid hair from all the Black children at the summer day camps I went to while my mom was at work.  When I think about the kind of education that I want Baba to have, growing up in a culturally diverse school district is a big part of it.

Here in Long Island, things are more segregated.  I imagine it is much that way across most of the country, but it seems an odd way to grow up.  The town that we live in is particularly severe this way — the local elementary school is 95% White, even though the surrounding neighborhoods are more integrated.  That concerns me, even more so because of the racist sentiments I see openly expressed on the town’s Facebook parenting group, which I like to tell myself are only possible because these people choose to be socially isolated.  How can you believe in stereotypes once you’ve made friends with people from that group?  And yet, while I try not to condemn them, the thought of Baba going into their homes, as she makes friends with other children, gives me the willies.  These are not the adults that I want in her community.  I certainly don’t want her to grow up seeing children of other ethnicities as foreign or different or wrong.

I’ve found myself researching nearby neighborhoods strictly on their demographics and trying to find an acceptable intersection of diversity, similar incomes and safety.  Long Island, like much of the country, is seeing a huge surge in the heroin trade.  As the dealers have moved in, they’ve brought their guns and their gangs.  Our new District Attorney is doing a great job of cracking down on them and so we see arrests in the local papers of all of the towns around us…but never in our town.  In our town, the biggest crimes being reported are all the forty-something women stealing from Kohl’s.

This makes the decision of whether to stay or whether to go so much harder.  I grew up in a poor section of town, in clustered apartment complexes where the kids were often unsupervised while their parents worked multiple jobs.  There were pot dealers in my middle school and more than one student was expelled for bringing in a gun.  I learned, by the age of twelve or so, that walking down the street without a male friend would inevitably mean harassment from men much older than myself.  By the time I was fourteen, I carried mace, just in case the creep that hung outside of the high school where I was taking a summer class decided to try anything worse than just following me and talking to me.

To this day, I am still wary of men, though I have long passed the age where I draw the kind of attention that I did as a teenager.  That’s precisely the kind of world that I want to protect Baba from.  I know well how blessed we are, because we’re in a position to be able to do so.  And yet, I feel guilty at the thought.  To be able to buy safety for her with such relative ease, to get her into a well-reputed school district with ample financial resources, feels like such a betrayal of where I come from.  And selfishly, I worry that I will have a hard time making friends with people who look on childhoods like mine with pity.  When I walk among such people, as I did in high school when my high level of academics put me among the privileged, I feel like an imposter.

I have had to face the fact that we are in a position to give my daughter a whole lot more, in a material sense, than I grew up with.   Money absolutely buys access to a better education and a safer neighborhood.  I hear my own privilege in this post.  I do.  It bothers me deeply.  Americans aren’t supposed to be class or race conscious, but of course we all are.  I remind myself that this is the world that I want for everyone — a world of prosperity and safety, where we can have authentic and honest relationships with people very different from ourselves.  I remember well how old I was when my school divided into cliques that were formed on the lines of skin color.  In the 90s, we all became color aware when we were twelve.  I remember it as a time of deep hurt for me, when many of my friends drifted away to new friendships, formed with people that looked more like they did.  Could it be different for my daughter’s generation?  Every time someone takes my pale skin as an invitation to air their prejudices, I have to wonder.

The political primaries this year have made it very apparent that these race and class issues are boiling across my country.  Today, Donald Trump — an actual contender for the Presidency! — denounced the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill.  Who could argue with Harriet Tubman?  Every time I pass a Trump banner in someone’s yard, I want to run as far from here as we can, even as I know that there are plenty more people that think like we do.  I hope.

In any case, we’ve pinpointed a few areas that I hope can give Baba the sort of childhood that I want her to have.  I have no doubt that our research will keep on for the next few months, as neither of us know the area well.  This will be our forever home, as hard as it is for me to admit to committing to New York, and we want to do a good job of picking it. We will land somewhere or other, at the end of this temporary and uncomfortable time of uncertainty.

Baba and I have the next week off, as her day care is closed for the week of Passover, and the weather is finally shifting into a gentle and warm spring.  The house is finished and photographed for sale, so  — at last — all we need to do is entertain ourselves and relax, as best we can.

 

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The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper

gates-to-womens-country

 

As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if the governments of the world were female dominated.  Would we still live in a world dominated by men with guns?  Would we work more collaboratively and more empathetically?  Or would we make the same mistakes as the men who have given us this world?  Would we, perhaps, create worse monsters?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of speculative fiction for me is its ability to ask these questions and then play them out.  Sherri Tepper’s had a long career of novels that take a hard look at gender and environment; The Gate to Women’s Country is certainly one of them.  Tepper’s setup in The Gate to Women’s Country was so interesting that I stayed up late night after night to see how the social experiment would work out.

Written in 1988, the novel is quite contemporary to the politics of the late 80s, when the Cold War was still very much a part of the national conversation.  The setting of The Gate to Women’s Country is post-apocalyptic, after nuclear war has destroyed the landscape and decimated the human population.  Some technology survives, but the ability to use it is challenged by the knowledge of the surviving population and the wide radioactive minefields that surround the towns.

The story opens in Marthaville, one of a series of sister towns that is run by a powerful set of all-female Councils.  The Councils set the ordinances that govern Marthaville life, which create separations between the men and women by dictating that all boys must be trained as warriors and separated from their families at the age of five.  When they are fifteen, the boys are given a chance to return to Women’s Country if they desire it, though the warrior culture shames and abuses any boy who chooses to leave and become one of the servitors that work with the women.

We meet Stavia, the youngest member of the Council, who is on her way to see her fifteen year old son Dawid.  Dawid has summoned her in order to inform her that he has decided to stay with the warriors, which Stavia knows, but goes to the garrison in order to act out the ritual.

How could she have forgotten he was fifteen? Well, she hadn’t. She was thirty-seven, so he was fifteen. She had been twenty-two when… when everything. All this pretense that the summons was unexpected was really so much playacting, a futile attempt to convince herself that something unforeseen might happen despite her knowing very well what the plot required. Despite Dawid’s ritual visits on holidays, his twice-yearly homecomings—during which the initial shyness of the original separation had turned to fondness, then to shyness again, finally becoming the expected, though no less wounding, alienation—despite all that, she had chosen to go on thinking of him as she had when he was five and had gone into the hands of the warriors.
So, now, she must guard against speaking to that child, for this was no child confronting her in his polished breastplate and high helmet, with pouted lips outthrust. No child anymore.

The early part of the novel is filled with the sorrow of mothers and sisters, as they sacrifice their children to the garrison.  We learn, too, that with the majority of the men sequestered that family life has also dramatically shifted.  Marriage is an archaic concept — one that Stavia reads about in books, while shaking her head at the foolishness of it.   Instead, biannual carnivals are held in the sister towns, when soldiers and women have trysts in carefully monitored assignment houses.  All pregnancies are planned, so that the scarce resources available to Marthatown can supply the town and so that venereal diseases remain a historical problem.  Instead of a nuclear family, Stavia and her sister are raised by their mother Morgot and their servitor Joshua and given all the educational opportunities available to women in this new world.

The plot thickens when young Stavia meets the young warrior Cheron, who is being used by the older warriors to infiltrate Stavia’s home in the hopes that Morgot may have shared Council secrets with her youngest daughter.  Cheron, who is often a pathetic and vulnerable figure, asks Stavia for books, as the ordinances prohibit education to the warriors so that no town’s garrison develops a technical advantage over any other town’s garrison.  Stavia takes pity on Chernon and begins breaking the ordinances to supply them to him.  Before long, she begins to feel a sense of pity and obligation to him that I think most women can empathize with, even as she begins to distrust him.

The Council is a hereditary oligarchy that is dedicated, on the surface, to preserving a meaningful way of life.  And yet, the decisions that they make cause wide-scale pain and segregate the society, isolating the warriors into a competitive and brutal culture. This segregation pits them against the women who control their lives, begging a question of nature versus nurture.

 He was not tricking Stavia out of the city entirely for his own purposes; she had been going anyhow. He was not risking her life or health for his own gratification; he had no diseases, and had no intention of acquiring any. Michael had promised that when the time came that the warriors took over Marthatown, Stavia would belong to Chernon, if he still wanted her. Chernon supposed that he would still want her, and this assumption made his conscience clear. He was doing nothing, planning nothing which would not continue in the future time. In the end, she would be glad of it. Michael had assured him of that.

Tepper zings with these passages that seem to comment on the folly of all societies that allocate power based on gender.  There’s a sadness that permeates The Gate to Women’s Country, which often feels like a sorrow about unnecessary pain.  We feel Stavia’s true mourning at the loss of her son, even as she provides the context and meaning behind why she feels that it is necessary.  And it is perhaps this contrast that makes the novel so haunting.

Although Women’s Country is contrasted with a neighboring society where women have few rights at all, it is clear that there are significant costs to the freedoms that Stavia and the other women of Marthatown enjoy.  When Stavia ventures into Holyland, a town to the south of Marthaville, it’s an relentess horror of the subjugation of women.  We begin to understand that Women’s Countries garrisons are both to protect the town from outsiders and from the warriors themselves.  Freedom from an oppressive patriarchy is worth significant sacrifice.

Baby had no name. If he lived to be a year old, Papa would give him a name. If he lived to be six, he would go over to Papa’s house every day and attend school. Boys had to be able to read and write so they could discuss the Scriptures. They had to be able to calculate some, as well, in order to be efficient shepherds for All Father, who wouldn’t tolerate lack of discipline or diligence. Until the first year was over, however, babies were only “Baby.” “Sweet’ums,” sometimes. “Honey child.” Not when Papa could hear, of course. Baby names and displays of affection were trivial things, unworthy of All Father. Anytime during the first year, a baby could disappear, just up and vanish, with nobody knowing a thing about it. That’s what had happened to the two girl babies between Faith and Baby. Most always, it happened to girls. Hardly ever to boys unless there was something wrong with them. Though, sometimes, an Elder might sell a boy baby to some other Elder desperate for sons. Not that anybody would ever let on.

There are some appalling choices that are made by the Council of Marthastown, dreadful choices that are made in the hope of creating a better way of living. As is to be expected of good speculative fiction, there are several powerful questions in the novel that have lingered with me since I put it down.Although The Gate to Women’s Country was written nearly twenty years ago, it felt modern and pertinent to current politics.

While The Gate to Women’s Country felt a little sparse on the characterization from time to time, the world that Tepper kept me deeply involved with the novel from the very first page to the last.  It’s definitely a good read for anyone that’s as fascinated with societal structure and gender relationships as I am.

 


Genre: fantasy, speculative fiction
Subjects: coming of age, dystopia, fantasy, politics, war
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