Discover more from Donita Reason
I've been dropping out
I worked on my book manuscript through the end of July, which means I didn't have much of a summer. Or at least not one in which I can separate the feeling of sun on my face from the feeling of my ass sitting in a chair, trapped at my desk. The moment I sent the manuscript off to my editor, I felt ecstatic but also like I might immediately die. I promptly set about "relaxing," which, for the first two days, meant binge watching two seasons of Project Runway, but really just laying on the couch, my gooey brain grateful to not be working. What I soon realized was that, while I have no problem being lazy, I'm no longer good at relaxing. Even when my body is doing nothing, I am thinking about whether we need more olive oil, if there's a load of laundry to be done, if the electricity bill's been paid, what we should have for dinner. I am now, always, the co-manager of a household, someone's partner, and the caretaker of a small, relatively helpless person, even when (especially when) I'm desperately trying not to be.
I fumbled my way through August, napping as much as possible and sewing tote bags as a low-stakes way of engaging my brain in something that still felt productive. We crammed two camping trips and a long weekend at the beach with friends into the span of two weeks. Then, in September, I turned 40. Then, I got the hell out of town. To places I had never been before.
Early on the morning of my birthday, I flew to Charleston, South Carolina, for a trip that Will had quietly arranged for me while I had been not so quietly pulling my hair out and struggling to write my last chapters. He surreptitiously coordinated with our friends Ben and Avi (one of my best friends, whom I rarely see) in New York to have Avi meet me in Charleston while Ben watched their two young children for the weekend. He surprised me with the news over lunch one day while I was freaking out about my manuscript. My food was showered in a sudden burst of salty tears.
I had a full day to myself in Charleston before Avi arrived, which I passed at a county beach park, visiting a 400-year-old oak tree, walking through downtown, and taking myself out to an expensive dinner. At a small downtown museum called the Old Slave Mart, tucked away on a quiet street, I learned that between 40 to 60 percent of the people who came to North America via the Transatlantic slave trade came through the ports of Charleston, where they were then sold off to buyers throughout the South. (For centuries, slaves were auctioned and traded openly in the streets, but at the start of the 19th century and amid a growing abolitionist movement, slavers decided it would be best to move their business indoors.) There were 40 of these slave marts and auction houses in a four-block radius in downtown Charleston. But now this museum is the only place you can experience any of this history; the rest of the buildings are stores, parking lots, bars, and restaurants.
It struck me as absolutely wild that this information, this essential part of the city's--and our country's--history is hard to come by. The Charleston that people come to see and experience-- antebellum mansions, plantations, shrimp and grits, Carolina gold rice, cobblestone streets--was literally built by slaves and drawn from the work and culture of Gullah people. But it's not presented as such. It's presented as the culture of the classic (white) American South.
A few days after I got back from Charleston, Will and I boarded another plane. He had to go to a work conference in Berlin; I was tagging along. (We are lucky to be able to leave Noli with my parents, who live close by and are among her favorite people, which gives us the luxury of being able to take the occasional childless trip.) Up until this point in my life, I'd never been to Europe. I've been fortunate enough to travel to many places, but honestly Europe's never interested me that much. There are so many other places that feel more relevant to my life.
After checking into our hotel in Berlin, the first thing we did was go out for Turkish food. Berlin is a much more diverse, and much browner, city than I was expecting. It's home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey. The unofficial food of the city is the doner kebab, available on seemingly every street corner. We had terrific Israeli and Persian food, too, and I heard multiple languages on every train that I rode.
While Will worked, I had three days alone to do whatever I wanted. For the last three years, this has been my deepest, most indulgent fantasy, so the prospect of this was downright thrilling. And yet, as I rode the subway, visited museums, and walked miles throughout multiple neighborhoods, I was surprised at how much I found myself missing Noli and thinking about family. (It doesn't help that I am currently 20 weeks pregnant, which really puts a limit on one's ability to walk around a city all day without feeling a lot of aches and pains, not to mention sudden onsets of hunger, mood swings, and needing to find a bathroom almost every hour.) Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be families--dads, in particular, pushing strollers or with babies strapped to their chest--casually walking, having an afternoon beer at a sidewalk cafe. I realized later they were all using the 12+ months of paid parental leave they get from their government.
Our second day in Germany happened to be its election day. In between some of his meetings, Will and I met up and walked along the East Gallery of the Berlin Wall, a long remnant of the wall covered in murals by artists celebrating its fall. I laughed out loud when I saw graffiti reading "Fuck Donald Trump. Mexiko is the shit," and snapped a picture. It felt good to know other people around the world got it. But back in our hotel room that evening, I watched BBC News (it was the only channel I could watch, everything else was dubbed over in German). The top news story was that something like 6,000,000 Germans had voted the neofascist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrantion party into parliament. "We will take back our country and our people," a party spokesman said in his victory speech. The second biggest story was out of America, where Donald Trump was calling black NFL players peacefully protesting the national anthem "sons of bitches."
The same ugly shit, I realized, is inescapable, wherever you are.
There's a bleak history that is impossible not to reckon with in Berlin. Here are some of the museums and sights you can see: the Topography of Terror, the Silent Heroes Memorial Center, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. (Personally, I recommend the Jewish Museum, which goes deep into Jewish culture, focusing and honoring people as much more than victims. It's a physically and mentally challenging space to move through--there are no rectangular rooms in the entire museum--which is the main way they invoke the Holocaust.) Just outside the train station that I walked to everyday is a large sign that reads: "Places of Terror That We Should Never Forget: Auschwitz, Stutthof, Maidanek, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, Bergen-Belsen, Trostenez, Flossenbürg." The list of concentration camps is right there, between a currywurst stand and a fancy department store, for the hundreds of people who scurry by every hour to see.
The Holocaust Memorial takes up an entire square block in the heart of the city is made of 2711 concrete blocks of varying height. Just like at the Jewish museum, the ground beneath you is uneven. The gray blocks tower over you and, as you walk through it, the effect is disorienting and disturbing. At any given time there are hundreds of people there, but it's possible to feel entirely alone and, when you do encounter others, to find yourself more startled than relieved.
The awful history there is so recent but Germans seem to have made a point to at least make it unavoidable. Like, we know we fucked up and we're just going to put it out there so we can maybe try and avoid doing it again. It was hard not to contrast this to what I saw--or, rather, did not see--in Charleston.
What if, in the United States, we built a monument the size of an entire city block, and dropped it into the government and financial center of a capitol city? And what if, instead of honoring one man (it's always a man) or one event, we used it to acknowledge what is arguably our nation's most egregious and horrible (but not even its orginal) sin? If we built a monument that shows who, as a country, we really are?
I'm not saying it would solve anything, but there it would be: A truth made plain, something we'd all be forced to acknowledge. It would insist, constantly, on some level of accountability and implication.
On a train ride from Berlin to Prague, I listened to a Longform interview with a writer I admire, Rachel Kaadzi Ghanash. She was discussing her recent profile of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist and mass murderer responsible for killing nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
"What happens to black pain is really the question in America. It's like, where do we contain all this suffering? And how do people deal with the emotionality and strength of what has happened to black people in America?," Ghanash asked. "I think one way they deal with it is by dismissing it. How do you say sorry for continuous wrongs to a people? People don't know what to do with that."
Will's current job is leading a campaign to organize and unionize workers at an auto factory. In Berlin, he was escorting and supporting a worker from the plant as he told his story--about health and safety problems, low wages, and lack of workers' rights--to a congregation of European capitalists interested in making more responsible and socially conscious investments. In the middle of an interview that the auto worker was doing with a German reporter, the reporter stopped him, because he was having such a hard time understanding the lack of basic rights workers in America have. In a German auto manufacturer, he explained, workers sit on the board of directors and have a vote. Every worker has a contract and cannot be threatened with termination. The reporter kept shaking his head in disbelief.
While in Berlin, we had dinner with one of Will's colleagues, a German guy who has lived in the U.S. for the last two decades. He explained the challenge of reaching their audience like this: "Europeans have a hard time even hearing this stuff, like how to reconcile it all with the idea of the country that is the great shining example of the West."
This is the shit we came back to: Another mass shooting. Lawmakers who refuse to to regulate guns but insist on regulating women's bodies. The President of the United States mocking brown American citizens, in the midst of tragedy and a public health crisis, as lazy and underserving of help. The expiration of health care for children. Oh, and much closer to home, a $1,200 medical bill for routine prenatal testing (and yes, we have insurance).
The shining example is an illusion that is falling apart at the seams. It's hard after a week like this not to want to drop out of it entirely. But my girl turns three next week, and tomorrow friends will come over to eat the brown cake and bash the red piñata that, at her request, her father and I are making to celebrate.
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