Sunday, February 8, 2009

Shades of My Dinner with Andre

Last night I had one of those “My-Dinner-with-Andre” evenings. My college friend Julia was in San Francisco on business. I have not seen her in about 5 years. She lives in Vermont. I drove two hours to my friend Jessica’s house in Vallejo and she kept me company on the trek into San Francisco on BART to meet Julia for dinner. I have known Jessica for more than 15 years and we have watched our children grow up together, seeing each other three or four times a year. After Jessica and I figured out how to get across Market St. in the moments before the Chinese New Year Parade (not an easy task, yay Jessica for sorting that out), we found Julia waiting for us at her hotel and the three of us walked a dozen blocks to Whole Foods where we ate salads and commandeered a table for nearly four hours. Julia is a Latina (Dominican) writer and college English teacher. Jessica is African American, also a college English teacher. And then there’s me. All three of us have a master’s degree in English and complicated sprawling blended families. We could have talked all night, if we could have stayed awake.

Our siblings. What they do. How they do. What it means to us. Our parents. My mother is gone and so is Jessica’s father. Julia’s parents both have Alzheimer’s and she and her sisters take turns caring for them in their home in the Dominican Republic. They have become helpless children, only aware of daily essentials. But Julia’s mother is so delighted to hear Julia’s voice on the phone, so excited to see her when she visits, that she is touched by her mother’s open loving excitement. Jessica’s mother lives with her and is a big part of her life. She feels fortunate to have such a close relationship with her mother. My father, who will be 80 in April, is a globetrotter, a livewire. I know that last night he wore his Jewish tartan kilt to the Robbie Burns Dinner where he and his Scottish Country Dance Group danced. At one point during our conversation, Julia shared with us her analysis of her relationship with her mother, which has taken her a lifetime to understand. Tears welled in Jessica’s eyes as she realized that Julia had just given her the key to a large dimension of her relationship with her own mother. An epiphany.

Children and grandchildren. Jessica and Julia are besotted with their granddaughters! I don’t have any yet (only step step children, whom I rarely see, in distant St. Louis). So then we all take out the photographs. Admire those sweet faces. How we love our grown children and try to continue to care for them without interfering in their lives. The things that change in our relationships with our children and the things that never do. Our fears for them, our hopes that the world will improve and offer them a future. How we are willing to hope again with Obama in the White House.

I tell Julia about our inaugural ball. Jessica talks about the once-in-a-lifetime moment of standing with the multitudes on the mall in DC. She had to be there so she went. Jessica says that if we lost Obama tomorrow, he will still have won because he has inspired Americans to be the best that we can be. He has already done this. It can’t be taken away. It is the future. Julia describes watching the inauguration on a tiny TV in an outpost in the Dominican Republic with her husband and Dominican friends and acquaintances. They stood and sang the American national anthem together. She thought in that moment that we have not simply elected a president for America, but a leader of the world. It is as if he is everyone’s president, in every country. All three of us, entrenched Lefties for decades, Julia now deep in the politics of fair trade coffee, Jessica inspiring her students to think about things from a new perspective, and me. My days on the front lines. Getting arrested for blockading a nuclear weapons facility. Harboring illegal immigrants from El Salvador, victims of torture, victims of our own government’s disastrous foreign policy. Well, we finally see the possibility that in our lifetimes, yes in our lifetimes…. We talk about how 9/11 could have been the moment for an evolutionary shift. But our government failed to see it, failed to recognize it. Now, we have seized such a moment. The shift is occurring.

Talking about our work. Jessica and Julia talking about teaching. Julia was one of the first “minority” teachers hired at Middlebury. How things have changed. Julia tells us about an African American gospel singer now working with students at Middlebury. Jessica took a sabbatical last semester to do a research study of women in academia, with special attention to women of color. She shared some of her findings, disheartening. She teaches at City College. I don’t teach. I continue to struggle with first getting enough grant writing work, then doing all of it, and finally dealing with my depression when I have no time for my creative writing. Suggestions from Julia about publishing. Then a conversation about the complexities of the publishing business. Where it is going. How it is broken. How talent is lost or found in the system. How people are heard. Recognized. Supported in sustaining a writing career.

Films. Books. What we are reading. What authors resonate with us. Children’s books. I joked that we would need a bibliography for our conversation! So many of our references as we talked, analyzed, and explained our lives were literary references. Junot Diaz, Lorraine Hansberry, the Old Testament, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” and recent Newberry winner Neil Gaiman’s book about children growing up in a graveyard. So many books, so little time. I have half a dozen from last night’s conversation now on order through our local library computer system.

Our dreams. How we hang on. What feeds us. Julia and I have loving husbands, relationships that work. We joke about the ways they work. Our fears. Financial worries. Julia’s husband and mine both grew up in extreme poverty and I think people who grew up poor worry less about money. I tell Julia that Ron figures if we lose everything we won’t be any worse off than where he started and he was surrounded with family and friends, enjoyed life, despite the challenges of poverty. He seems to have the attitude, “what’s the worst that can happen?” Julia laughs out loud. “That’s what Bill says all the time,” she tells me. Jessica is worried about paying her mortgage. I am worried about putting my children through college. Julia is worried about having the means to care for her senile aging parents to the bitter end. Yet we are wealthy, wealthy beyond measure. For here we are, three women, who travel in different circles in our individual lives, and we have had the opportunity to come together for this one evening to share the contents of our hearts with each other. What’s the worst that can happen? I am already wealthy with riches that cannot be robbed.

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