February 2017. I am peering through the fog of fascism rising as I look around, soak in the news, and try to discern how to respond. Radio shows, Facebook posts, and newscasts bleat out decisions and actions so vile they seem immaterial, specters of themselves. Travel ban, oppressive appointees, promises to dismantle the very things that insure wellness for so many.
A friend picks me up and we head to the Portland International Airport to join the crowd of protesters, using our bodies and voices as vehicles of dissent. I go because I need to be with other people who are recoiling and raging. Folks are protesting the travel ban, expressing solidarity with Trump’s targets. White nationalists are there, heckling protesters, hurling insults from their smug faces. Later, I buy a t-shirt that says Will trade racists for refugees, and feel just a bit better whenever I wear it.
In this era of Trump, I sit with people all day, under fluorescent lights, patching together ways to stop chasing dope, to drink less of that half-gallon of vodka, to avoid the Narcan this time, the hospital, the jail cell. I pull deep breaths into my belly and look into people’s eyes, see so much of myself reflected back.
More than ever before, it is clear that we are the throwaways, the acceptable liabilities of a system pulling back the heavy drapes and waving hatred around in the light. People of color, poor folks, queers, and addicts. We’re the ones scrapping to get by, our scraps short on the currency that’s being minted with dizzying speed, the currency of white men in suits on fancy places making secret alliances and devastating decisions.
With each new proclamation from on fabricated high, my rage wedges deeper into my body. It’s trapped there, knocking around, sparking. I push myself along through my days with a heaviness that presses into my quadriceps, slows my motion, dampens my fire. There are days when I swear the air has taken on viscosity and weight, that the air itself is wrought with difficulty. On those days, I feel my muscles pull against my bones, connection points straining, long bones bowing and creaking with the effort of mobility. I just want to lie down. Lie down somewhere soft. Soft and warm. Soft and warm and dry and quiet.
On those days, I know that I just don’t have it. Too much, too much. I’m done. I can’t. I have nothing left. I’m done. I can’t. I have nothing left.
But there’s nowhere that stays soft and warm and dry and quiet. It’s raining and the laundry is piled up and the cat needs food and my daughter is constantly acting out her very own tween musical. I need to go grocery shopping and to cook and to clean. I need to drag my body around as it whines and protests and finally screams. It goes like this: I am cheerful and engaged and attentive. We talk (well, she sings) about the Lego sets she wants, what she’ll do with them, which characters will have short hair and which will have long, how much it will all cost, how she knows I won’t buy the things she wants and how awful that is. We sink into our soft purple couch and she drapes her long legs over my short ones. We watch teenaged bioengineered superheroes save the world to their inane theme song. I sing Princess Mermaid songs and detangle and braid her hair. We tap dance and giggle and toss balls of foil for Sir Francis Buttercup. She kneads my upper arm under her fingers, tells me that it feels like jelly, that she loves it so much.
Then, at some point, I lose it. Sometimes it’s a month in between, sometimes it happens twice in a weekend. Sometimes she’s throwing things, screaming, and slamming doors. Other times it’s a minute flick of her head. My vision blurs and my heart pounds big and loud in my ears and it’s all too much. I’m done. I can’t. I have nothing left. This time, my rage is too big for the transgressions of trashing the back seat of the car, of sassing, of rolling her eyes and snarling. A switch has flipped and all of my coiled anxiety and agitation spills out of me, rushing, faster than I can swallow it back. She is challenging me, flippant, unrepentant, and I cannot take it. I cannot take it. Cannot. Take. It.
Even with the blood pounding and me floating, hanging halfway out of my own head, I try a low and very serious voice. I mean business. “It is not okay to talk to me that way.” My breath is ricocheting between my chest and the back of my throat—too hard, too fast, not enough air. She dismisses me with a wave of her hands, makes her voice tight and biting: “Jeez, whatever.” I stop the car too fast, it lurches. I’m yelling, closest thing to mean I’ve ever said: ”Shut your mouth! Just stop talking.” Turn around, side of the road, get my face as close to hers as I can, yell so loud it hurts my throat. I want to scare her quiet. I want her to stop pushing. She laughs. The top of my head flaps open, my chest squeezes, and I whip back around in my seat, take off fast. Flight, exhilaration, less than five seconds, but freedom. ”Mama!” she yells, her voice small again, and I snap back into my body, into the horror of feeling so out of control. The horror of being scary. The horror of my rage. ”It’s okay, baby, we’re safe. I promise.” I slow the car to a stop, pull over again. Get out, gulp breaths of cool air, feel the rain on my skin.
I lean into the car, all of me aching. Aching in my head, in my chest, in my throat, at the points of entry and exit for the intensity just ignited and charred and smoldering. ”I am so sorry,” I say softly. ”I do not ever want to yell at you like that.” I’m leaning in through the open back of the car, seats holding up my body, slumped there. ”Hmrph,” she grunts. ”You scared me,” she says. ”I thought you’d plow into those people.” She giggles. ”But it was also kinda fun to go that fast.” Tears are pushing at the backs of my eyes, hot and thick. I press my lids closed, hold them in. This is about her now, not about me. ”I just got very mad,” I say. ”So mad that I made bad choices. And I don’t think my mad was all your sassing or the garbage, sweetie. I am so sorry.” Her eyes flash at me. ”Yeah, you told me to stop talking but I was going to stop. And I think maybe you’re feeling nervous about work and other stuff and you took it all out on me.”
Yes, my sweet baby, it’s true. I did take it all out on you. My beloved sweet pea, you deserve a mama who can hold challenge and difficulty and respond with grace and strength. You deserve a mama who sees your spirit as resiliency and possibility. You deserve a mama who joins with you, amplifies your voice, and finds ways to guide you with gentleness. I cracked into too many pieces, all at once. Too many pieces to gather up and piece back together before I spilled them out all over you. My grief, my anxiety, my fear: At being a throwaway. At my inability to center myself when you challenge me. At living in a place where white superiority reigns. And my fear that maybe you are too brash, too mouthy, too sassy. You, in your braids and brown skin—if you’re impervious to my admonishment now, will you be in danger later? In this world that is gruesome in its legitimated hatred, how much will you suffer as a person of color who knows how to own their voice?
I explained as best I could how I was a pot boiling over but that I didn’t want to be. I remembered that my daughter knows words like amygdala and I described how my brain was going too fast and I let my amygdala drive the bus. Yes, my rage, my outrage, my double-down fight and my get-the-fuck-out flight—they flipped my lid. As a child who struggles with emotional regulation, my daughter has worked with the idea of a too-fast-brain since she could conceptualize it in toddlerhood. I understand that co-regulation is one of my most valuable parenting skills—inviting my daughter to use me as her frontal lobe, offering the chance for her to learn strategies while her nervous system calibrates to my calm.
But I don’t always have it: too much, I can’t, I’m done, I have nothing left. Where do I get what I need when I have nothing left? When there’s increasing doom around every corner? When it’s more important now than ever that I show up?
This weekend, my daughter exploded over a Lego that disappeared. She yelled, screamed, flung her body in and out of the room, slammed doors and beat her feet into the floor. Her face creased with anguish. She punched herself in the forehead and the sound of her fist smacking into her flesh pounded into my stomach, making bile rise in my throat. She gripped a newly built intricate structure above her head and smashed it on the table. With that crumbling crash, the gravity of her explosion moved through her brow, spreading regret like water over dry sand. Her face changed from the rigidity of rage into the slippery melt of remorse. Her eyes filled up with tears as she whispered to me that she couldn’t help herself, couldn’t stop, couldn’t slow it down. Her desperation rose off her skin in waves, bouncing off the walls, between us. I held it, held her. With blood pounding in my ears again, but this time filling up with the heart of her, of me, of rage born out of need for change, for control, for power over our own lives.
We scream, we cry, we rage into pieces. We integrate, we repair, we start again. Together. Mama and child, throwaway to throwaway. Until we build that soft and warm and dry and quiet place, burrow there for a while, resting our hearts and soothing our bodies. Until we rise again.
Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.