Thursday, March 25, 2004
The Artist as a New Publisher
I miss my art. I was around a lot of visual art today and I wanted to pick that up again, any form of it, or my writing, where I just let go and strange things create themselves out of my hands, or mind, or the air, or out of who knows what. It’s a mystery, all some deep mystery where it’s really the spaces that matter, and the relationship between spaces. I recall talking to one writer who had finished his book several months previously, but had a problem with this one woman character who still wouldn’t go away, even after three or four months. She haunted him, followed him around, he said.
Along with the Jungians and the new physicists, I incline toward questioning the supposed differentiation between the “inner” and “outer” worlds. We never physically really see anything outside of ourselves, and our temporal lobes make up a lot of what we “see.” And nothing is really anything close to “solid.” That’s all scientific fact. Yet we go on living as though the physical world has its own separate reality, separate from our minds. Nyet, Nada, Nietzsche.
Most people seem to be frightened of these things if they ever even stop to think of them, but I don’t understand that. I seem to be partly backwards or something, but I’d be scared if the molecules WEREN’T dervishing about, if I had no soulful input into the world around me, if everything weren’t constantly changing.
I think you HAVE TO create art in that awareness; it’s like breathing. I’m not sure why. But I have no time now for such things, and it feels a little like loving someone who doesn’t love you back: it hurts.
Friday, March 19, 2004
Single Mothers by Choice: The Morality Issue
By Mikki Morrissette
“How can you purposely bring a child into the world knowing they won’t have a dad? That’s selfish. You’re thinking only of yourself, not the child!”
Those were the words of a friend several months before my daughter Sophie was conceived, when I told him of my interest in becoming a single mom. As our impassioned debate unfolded over dinner, he went on to say that adopting was morally better than purposely making a life, but even then I’d be putting the child into a disadvantaged situation.
Although that friend is now one of Sophie’s enthusiastic “uncles” who has never disparaged her existence in my life—and although I was relatively thick-skinned and determined to become a mom—I’ve never forgotten his words. Or the pointed comment from a family friend that “every child wants two parents.” Or the shock from a traditional couple that couldn’t believe I’d do something so crazy. Or the accusations of a fellow member of Toastmasters who belittled the single-mother-by-choice lifestyle as a dangerous trend that Hollywood celebrities (Rosie O’Donnell, Jodie Foster, Madonna, etc.) were ushering in “as if it was a good thing.” Or the fact that I started wearing a sapphire ring on my wedding finger in case strangers wanted to believe I was in a non-traditional marriage.
So yes, down deep I might care a little what other people think of my choices—and wonder if there are universal truths behind their beliefs. But every day that I spend with Sophie I am happily secure that my conservative but open-minded brother was right when he said in his thick Minnesota drawl, “The kid’s going to have an interesting life.”
Subconsciously I had known for years before Sophie was conceived that I was willing and able to become a single parent if I hadn’t met the right man to handle the alarm on my biological clock. As someone who amicably divorced in my early 30s, I knew I didn’t want to rush through a relationship or, worse, settle in a relationship simply to satisfy my interest in having a child. Some self-fulfillment experts could argue that I thus willed single parenthood into existence. But however it happened psychologically, just after my 37th birthday I gave birth to beautiful Sophie, with her father—a good friend—and my supportive parents along for the ride.
Like most parents concerned about saying the right thing, I practice in my head the conversations Sophie and I will soon have about being in an unconventional family. I have agonized over how confusing it might be for her to know her biological father as a family friend. I wonder if her fascination with boys at the playground has something to do with the rarity of that sex in our household (will this impact her relationships with men down the road?). But I’m also optimistic that together we’ll build a life that has more to do with what she has, rather than what she lacks.
I felt deep pangs when an acquaintance in her mid-30s died of cancer, leaving two daughters under the age of 8. I spent an ungodly amount of money creating a special videotape for Sophie in case something happened to me, and revised the guardianship papers in the paranoiac fever that hit after I witnessed the World Trade Center attacks 30 blocks from our home. When I had a recent biopsy for a mass on my right breast (thank goodness benign), I was reminded again of how much Sophie depends on me as family, and how much she will suffer if I am gone. It is a major moral concern that still haunts me, and has led me to more aggressively pursue a wider network of family—including the possibility of adding a sibling to her world.
After Sophie was born, amid the juggling of work and childcare and home, I started to reach out to other single parents and take note of their experiences. I was particularly interested in the morality issues and judgments they dealt with as they made their choices, and that they continued to cope with as single parents. I started researching what society has said about single mothers throughout history, and what contemporary psychotherapists and sociologists have said about the emotional impact of growing up in a single-parent household. I wondered whether the stigma of living with one parent in a society that values two-parent households can outpace love and security in the home itself.
The results of my explorations about the morality issue are being put into my own book for single mothers, but here are some observations I’ve been making in the process:
• Research is no substitute for real life. Major conservative studies warn about the dangers of single-parent households on a child’s emotional, social, and academic well-being. But tell that to the seven siblings I know who were abandoned young by their alcoholic father. The now-grown siblings include a doctor, two physicists, and a mechanical engineer. The siblings are unusually close, and gather together with their mother twice a year from far-flung states for lengthy family vacations. Though not a “traditional” SMC household, it is a strong reminder that no family automatically falls apart because there is only one parent in the home.
• Clichéd but true: Support networks are crucial. As someone who allowed myself to become isolated over time, working on my own creative projects as a self-employed writer and editor, with all my love going into my daughter’s life, I heard the lessons imparted from those who were raised by single mothers. A television reporter who was raised by a free-spirited woman in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, told me how important it was that his mother surrounded herself – and him – with interesting, curious, involved individuals. Small as it might seem, he also commended her for getting a dog so that he would have someone else to love at home, thereby relieving some of the “pressure” of the one-on-one household. So, after 18 years in New York City, I’ve recently relocated to my home state of Minnesota so that I have the time, energy, and family network to surround myself with the people Sophie and I need.
• Morality is not absolute. Think about Amina, the woman in Nigeria recently sentenced to be stoned because she had a child out of wedlock: does her country’s morality make more sense than ours? I have a distant relative who was hanged in the Boston Commons for the same offense three hundred years ago. Cotton Mather said Elizabeth Emerson had “consorted with the devil” when she had sex outside of marriage. Today, with the distance of time, we can look back at this moral judgment as somewhat quaint, and certainly tragic. Elizabeth lived in the wrong time; Amina in the wrong place. Doesn’t it remind us how ridiculous it is to let society pass judgment on our private lives? Rules change because they aren’t based on absolutes. The only morality we should have to concern ourselves with is our own personal value system.
• What’s love got to do with it? Everything. From the experiences I’ve learned about, the love and energy and passion of a single-mother-by-choice outweighs the weight of a marriage of convenience, and certainly of a traumatizing divorce. The trick is to maintain an honest passion and energy outside of motherhood – to be able to inhale as a woman in order to successfully exhale as a mother. It is vital to exist creatively for the sake of both mother and child. Maybe that involves exciting relationships, work projects, artistic expression, continuing education, spiritual community. Two married parents is not the key to a happy childhood—love of life is.
There is much more to learn and discuss, but it seems certain that single-motherhood-by-choice is not innately immoral, no matter who around us thinks otherwise. If in our hearts we have the strength and love to be a mother, it is a choice we are entitled to make for ourselves. We are not selfish. We are not consorting with the devil. We are, simply and honestly, being the person we need to be in order to help another life grow in an environment of openness and choice and unbounded love.
Note: Minneapolis-based writer Mikki Morrissette is happy to include your stories of the moral issues and choices you have dealt with in your SMC journey in the book she is writing. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Monday, March 08, 2004
Mike on the Streets: Peace, Love and Zen
Note from Gail: Yesterday, I ran into Mike by the side of a road. He carried an old bag, a sign, and a homemade, decorated drum. I approached him to talk with me for this week’s “Letter From the Editor,” he agreed, and we stepped into a coffee shop. While we got warm and drank our drinks, I asked him to tell me about his life. What follows derives from notes taken as he spoke, which he looked at and approved.
I’ve always got a lot to say but no one wants to hear it. I go back and forth with that. I don’t usually say much of anything. I’ll sit back and observe for a while until I maybe cautiously approach people. My mother always talked without saying anything of substance, so I decided I didn’t want to be like that. I just determined that I wouldn’t talk unless it was important. It didn’t really last very long. It’s hard to do. You have to talk to people sometime. But I took that on years ago, for about six years when I was camping at Cedar Lake. Sometimes when I want to go to sleep my thoughts keep going so then I have to write, you know, get it all out of me, and then I can sleep.
I have a hard time with friends. I choose the wrong people. I need to understand that I need to do other things with people who are more together with their lives.
I practiced Buddhist meditation through the entire ‘90s, up in Grand Forks. I’ve always thought you could spend a whole lifetime with spiritual matters and still not know much. To pursue your interests is everything. You can start from almost nothing. It’s just getting started, and then putting action into the thoughts and ideas you have. It’s hard to put anything together. Creativity is important. Learning and creativity go hand in hand; you can’t separate them.
I’ve always lived here in Minnesota, and I’ve camped out most of my life. I’m just conditioned to it. I’ve got a ’69 VW Bus now that I live in. I was caught up in the whole end of the Vietnam War as I was growing up. The draft was just ending.
[At this point Mike showed me his colorful sign that said “Peace” and “Love, and asked me if I could see the hidden word attached to “Love.”]
See, the L turns into a Z, the O can be seen as an E, and look what the V turns into: ZEN. I refrain from the usual homeless signs. I’d rather find my own language to express a message. I do think about freedom of speech. There are all these people with signs and advertising signs. But with this, I have a chance to make something that reflects me.
Yeah, I guess you could say that I’ve always been homeless. I’m used to camping out or living in an abandoned building for 2-3 years at a time. I was the eldest of four children, and I moved out when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I grew up with a street mentality. I sometimes had what I called second homes, the homes of friends who’d take me in for a little while, but from 14-16 I mainly lived in a park. I was always allowed back in. I could always go back home if I needed to, but I guess my parents were under the impression that they just couldn’t do much. I don’t know that I got a lot of encouragement from them. My grandfather had a still and was always drunk. My whole family was alcoholic. My father drank whiskey. I just drink beer now because when I drink the harder stuff, I turn into my father. It’s a peculiar thing, I’ll say that. It always scares the hell out of me. Now my mother, she made homebrewed chokecherry wine. I was the only one who’d drink it with her. Now I like to look for it in the baskets in stores. Not the sweet kind, not the strong ones.
When I was 18, my father died in a car crash and I saw it. For two weeks I couldn’t eat, kept throwing up and was suicidal, then tried to kill myself through drinking. We had a real love-hate relationship and I still had a lot of ground to cover with him. I lost my best friend. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that.
I was the first grandchild of my mother’s mother, the first of 13 grandchildren. Now that’s an interesting piece of history. So much history has been forgotten, not the kind that goes into the books. The American Indians’ practices and ceremonies, medicines, are just beauty. A lot has been lost, just keeps getting buried somehow but they’re working at getting it back. They have so much history but they aren’t given much credit. I have to respect their ways because I’m on their land. Religion and culture go together. They’re actually all pretty close together even though they look divided. I’m tolerant of other people’s religions and cultures because these belief systems developed over thousands of years. India has a lot, too, a lot of different things. You can feel it in their music.
As for my future, I can’t say too much about that, but I have a 1957 Chevy. I rebuilt the engine myself, and I’d like to make a taxi out of it, to get established. This would be something for me to do and help me to socialize, because I don’t get to talk to people. It’s not easy to talk to people like we are now. I was in recovery before for a couple years, but I’ve really been in recovery my whole life, trying to find myself spiritually, someplace to feel a part of, something that speaks to me. It’s something in myself that says, What am I doing? Why? I have to have an audience, to reach out to people, but I’m an observer.
Tuesday, March 02, 2004
No More Radio For Me
It was only for about five minutes that I allowed myself to listen to MPR's interview with our state's staunchly conservative and disasterous Commissioner of Education. Luckily, I was almost home and could race to the phone. I was extremely pissed but must've managed to make some sense because the call-in interviewer put me next. When the Commissioner began to respond to me, I started interrupting her nonsense, then realized I was no longer online and she couldn't hear me. I was SSSOOOO peeved that I had to write a letter. I didn't have a good excuse to do that with so much press work to do, so I decided it would double as the weekly letter here, too. I really can't even listen to the radio. At least The Daily Show is safe.
Open Letter to Department of Education Commissioner Yecke:
(An aside note: Most teachers refer to her as "Yucky.")
As a former teacher, I listened to you today on MPR’s Midday with increasingly graver concerns about the state of education in Minnesota. When you insinuated you were being brave to bring up the racial test score disparities, I called to suggest we get even braver and talk about the reasons for that gap.
I brought up the studies that show a very strong correlation between teacher expectation and student performance, and mentioned that we even have blatantly racist teachers in the educational system. Your disingenuous but skilled political response revealed a callousness about even trying to understand and rectify some of these issues. As your voice grew profoundly shocked and disbelieving, you insisted that our hard working teachers were not racist at all. Thank-you, but I’ve had enough education to know that your response is called a false dichotomy in logic: you turned it into a presumption that either all teachers are racist or none are. For the sake of the students, can we get real here? I know we have overtly racist teachers from personal experience, and you and I both know—it’s fairly simple logic—that every profession has racists in it, including the teaching profession.
After indignantly denying that any racism exists in Minnesota’s educational system, you then admitted to “what we call a soft bias,” presumably a kinder and gentler racism. You proceeded to speak with disgust about an attitude of Oh-You-Poor-Racially-Challenged-Student, which does lower expectations for students. I strongly concur with you about that one, but can you explain to me how that is not just another form of racism embedded within the Euro-American culture of our educational system?
What we’re really talking about is culture rather than race as a determining factor. How do you think the majority of Euro students would fare if they were given intelligence and achievement tests in Ebonics? Euro students are much more likely than others to enter into a learning environment that is familiar to them. There are many students who need to not only learn the curriculum, but a new culture, and sometimes a new language, at the same time. Does this matter? How can it not?
I would also like to take strong exception to your spin-implication that forging genuine empathy with students is automatically thrown into that same category of a “softer” liberal racism; that a true educational focus would limit itself to the tests and teaching to those tests. It just does not work that way for a large number of students, including students isolated culturally within the mainstream. It often only takes one person genuinely caring enough to make a simple personal connection to make all the difference for a student’s success. I am not just referring here to test-success or to students with non-mainstream cultures, but to all those students who simply don’t fit into the homogenous factory line for one reason or another.
Do you really want to improve education in Minnesota? We need smaller classrooms for more individualized attention and--to close the racial-cultural test gaps--more in-school programs supportive of students outside the mainstream, and more teachers of color. I would also strongly suggest steering clear of the legislative halls and microphones more. Spend more time talking to the students and teachers in the classrooms, talking to them as if they might just possibly know some things that you don’t.
As for all you warriors out there, remember to . . .