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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Lori Jakiela’s “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe”

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2015 at 9:07 pm

Sundress Publications is featuring BELIEF IS ITS OWN KIND OF TRUTH MAYBE as its Best-Dressed book all this week. Excerpts will run in Sundress’s Wardrobe blog each day. So grateful to Sundress and editor Sarah Einstein for this. Here is the first excerpt from chapter 1, reprinted from the Sundress site.

The Sundress Blog

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Excerpt from Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one. The Catholic Charities counselor’s word for this other mother I want after decades to find is biological. Illegitimate is another word for people who end up like me. It’s what I feel now, unlawful, unauthorized, unwarranted here in this office that smells like antiseptic and rubber gloves, hot teeth drilled down to bone.
     The Catholic Charities counselor has questions.
     They’re my questions, too.
     What is the nature of your search? Why has it taken you so long?


This selection comes from Lori Jakiela’s book, Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe available now from Atticus Books. Purchase your copy here!

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press) and Miss New York…

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A Holiday Season in Flour

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2015 at 7:27 pm

 

I’m getting ready to do some holiday baking tomorrow. My kids and I will make pies and cookies and wrestle with a turkey I hope I won’t have to lob in the bathtub to defrost. (It happens.)

In the spirit of the holidays, here’s an oldie. This essay first ran seven years ago in The Washington Post and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s a moment and a memory I revisit every year around this time.

I’ll never stop missing my mother.

My daughter still can’t be trusted with an open bag of flour.

Given the chance, my now-teenage son will fling dough.

My mother, I think, would like that. Payback, she’d call it, for the messes I’ve made in my life.

A small price, she’d say, for something so sweet and so good.

***

The Flour of Our Youth

I’m in the kitchen. Phelan, my 4-year-old daughter, is in the dining room. I’m mixing dough. Phelan has opened a bag of flour the size of a ham. I don’t know this. I should.

I hear her yell, “Snow, snow, snow!”

I hear, “It’s winter!”

I hear, “Snowball!”

I’ve been looking out the kitchen window as the mixer whirs away.

Whenever I bake, I think about my mother. The day is sunny, snowflake-free. There’s a space between the time I hear something and the moment I figure out what it means.

“Slippy,” my daughter, fluent in Pittsburghese, says. “Cold.”

Flour is everywhere — in her hair, in the stereo, in her shoes. Later I’ll find flour in her underwear and flour in her socks. But right now, she smiles up at me, flour stuck like snowflakes in her eyelashes, smudged on her pink cheeks, caught in the blonde pigtails that stick out like antennae.

“Look at me,” she says. “I’m baking.”

Every year around the holidays, my husband, who hates chaos, flees, and the kids and I make a lovely mess. For my daughter, it’s flour. My son, Locklin, 7, has moved on to dough. Dough makes great quicksand for his toy soldiers. Dough makes a good mustache. Dough sticks to his sister’s butt.

The kids have their own rolling pins. They help measure sugar and cinnamon. Phelan gets distracted and gets a bowl, pours herself a nice cinnamon-sugar mix and eats it with a spoon.

When I was growing up, I didn’t get to bake with my mother much. It made her nervous. “I don’t like people in my kitchen,” she’d say as she anchored a childproof gate between the kitchen and dining room. She said the gate was “to keep the dog out.”

The dog — a sensitive poodle named Tina II — and I would sit outside the gate and watch my mother break eggs with one hand and toss the shells into the trash in one fluid motion, like a magic trick. She’d turn on the easy-listening station and hum and glide from refrigerator to counter and back. My sad mother the magician. My lonely mother the dancer. How had this happened? The dog and I sulked and waited until my mother passed a peace offering — batter-covered beaters, one for me, one for the dog — over the gate.

I know now that my mother loved the solitary time baking gave her. It offered an excuse to detach from the `world, from the dog and my father and me, and make something her own. It’s what I do when I write, when I close my office door and leave my children and husband on the other side. “A room of one’s own,” Virginia Woolf called it. Space to make something beautiful.

When I did get to bake with my mother, we made handprint sugar cookies. My job was to put my hands onto the rolled-out dough and hold still. Real baking — the breads, nut rolls, all the family traditions — my mother did alone. It wasn’t until after my son was born, a few years before she died, that my mother finally gave in and decided to teach me.

I’d like to say I was a natural, that all those years of watching paid off, but it’s not true. Our first lesson, bread, was a disaster.

My mother told me to be at her house at 5 a.m. Mornings make me want to weep. I was late, 5:15, and I looked a mess. My mother wasn’t happy. Her gray hair was curled. She had on her favorite track suit, purple velour with gold piping at the cuffs, and was wearing tennis shoes. She looked like she’d been waiting for hours.

“What’s the matter with you?” she said. “You have to start bread early.”

I didn’t know what that meant. I also didn’t know what she meant when she said, “Bread is serious business. Bread is no joke.”

I laughed during my lesson, my forearms buried in a swamp of sticky dough. My mother whacked me on the arm with her wooden spoon.

“Look,” she said. “Do you want to learn or not?”

She picked up her bowl of dough and pulled it to her belly like a child. She dipped one arm in and lifted the dough up and over, whipping more than kneading, the muscles in her arm flexed and solid and nowhere near 70 years old.

“This is how you do it,” she said. “You have to work it. You have to mean it.”

My mother talked about yeast and bread as living things — things to conquer, things you could kill if you weren’t careful. She didn’t use measuring cups and spoons. “You just know,” she said, her hands measuring flour and sugar by weight, by how it moved through her fingers. “You can feel it.”

She’s been dead five years now. I still feel the weight of that.

“You need to learn how to do this,” she’d said. “Because when I die, then what?”

In the dining room, my daughter helps me spread more flour on the table. We laugh and smooth out the mounds until there’s just a dusting.

“Snow,” she says. “Snow snow snow snow snow.”

I separate the dough into bowls, one for each of us. My son rolls his into tiny balls. He launches them like cannonballs with his thumb.

“Pow,” he says. “Bang.”

“Snowball,” my daughter says.

My mother wouldn’t appreciate our approach, but within a few hours the house will fill with smells I remember from childhood, and I’ll lay the golden loaves onto racks to cool. When my husband comes home, we’ll have the flour under control. My daughter’s face will be scrubbed and I’ll have picked the dough out of my son’s hair.

“Look,” Phelan will say as she takes her father by the hand to show him what we’ve made. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

 

BELIEF IS ITS OWN KIND OF TRUTH, MAYBE, by Lori Jakiela

In Uncategorized on November 13, 2015 at 1:58 pm

Thank you to Heavy Feather Review and author Vivian Wagner for this review of Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe.

Heavy Feather Review

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Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, by Lori Jakiela. Madison, New Jersey: Atticus Books, August 2015. 290 pages. $14.95, paper.

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe tells the story, on one level, of Lori Jakiela’s search for her birth mother. She encounters more than she expects in this search, however, and the story ends up being as much a self-exploration as it is a search for someone outside of herself. It’s a complicated, fragmented, and endearing book built on layers of history and discovery.

Jakiela’s style in this memoir is spare and smart, leading us on a journey through family, memory, and identity. Her opening sentences set the book’s simultaneously factual and intimate tone:

When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one. The Catholic Charities counselor’s word for this other mother I want after decades to find is biological. Illegitimate is…

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There is No Dust in My House: On Writing About Myself and Other People

In Uncategorized on November 7, 2015 at 7:24 pm

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Lori Jakiela

Lori Jakiela Lori Jakiela

Years ago when I was a young journalist, my editor put me on The Love Story beat.  It’s easier to write about other people than yourself. Other people hold value. You know your own value is not much until you make it so. My job was to interview people about how they fell in love then churn out sentimental stories their friends and relatives could laminate and stick on their refrigerators.

“Happy crap,” my editor, a displaced New Yorker with owl glasses and a bowl cut, called it.

One pair of blind professional bowlers aside, most of the interviews I did were forgettable. Except one – a sweet old couple married over 50 years.

He was a World War II veteran. She stayed home, raised their kids and volunteered at the church bingo. These were Norman Rockwell’s people.

“Ad fodder,” my editor would say. “Schlocky…

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A Review of Lori Jakiela’s Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

In Uncategorized on September 10, 2015 at 2:13 am

Thank you to Brevity magazine and Ellee Prince for this beautiful essay/review of BELIEF IS ITS OWN KIND OF TRUTH, MAYBE.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

jakielaA guest review from Ellee Prince:

Bear with me. Grief is difficult to explain, difficult to experience.

The first time I saw death was in the porcelain face of a 3-year-old boy, on the day I turned twelve. He lay in his small casket at the head of a stuffy room filled with moanings and whisperings—his own high-pitched laughter so clearly absent. My body couldn’t experience this new sensation all at once; it came in jolts.

His face was less round, his lips unnaturally red, the tender skin of his eyelids a dangerous blue. Who is that boy? my mind asked. He was unrecognizable as my friend, the little boy I loved.

~

With grief comes unspoken rules, we alter the way we communicate. Often, memories are shared in an offbeat staccato. The grieved look off, unfocused on the present with its unprocessable pain, attempting to make sense of these…

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On hearing the sad news about Jimmy Carter’s cancer

In Uncategorized on August 21, 2015 at 12:14 am

You can tell a lot about people from the way they behave on airplanes.

Back when I was a flight attendant, Jimmy Carter was on a flight I was working. It was a shuttle flight, D.C. to New York, maybe. No First Class, no fuss.

**FILE**Former President Jimmy Carter takes a question during a conference at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, June 7, 2005. An independent panel Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005 reversed a Pentagon recommendation that the New London submarine base in Connecticut, base be closed. One of the panel members even said a letter from Carter _ the only president to ever serve as a submariner _ pleading the panel to keep the base open was one of the reasons he voted against closure. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)

Jimmy Carter boarded with the other passengers. He stored his bag, then made his way through the cabin. He stopped at every row to shake hands. He said “hey there” and “good to see you,” like everyone was a friend. He asked “how are you?” and waited for an answer. He wasn’t going to stop until he’d greeted everyone on that plane.

When it was time for pushback, when we couldn’t wait any more, the Captain came on the PA and said, “We need everyone seated. Even you, Mr. President.”

Jimmy Carter blushed and waved. He apologized — to the people he didn’t get to, to the captain, to the other flight attendants and me. He said he was sorry to hold us up. He said he didn’t want to be any trouble.

You can tell a lot about people from the way they behave on airplanes.

Jimmy Carter is a good man.

Stuff I Write: Intern vs. Scorpion — An Unpaid Life Experience

In Uncategorized on May 2, 2015 at 11:13 pm

In celebration of May Day and workers everywhere, here’s a piece about that sad American tradition — the unpaid internship. It’s also about scorpions, bad-but-paid jobs, and the crazy things some of us do when we’re trying to get by. It originally ran in Pittsburgh City Paper. Thanks, Pittsburgh City Paper!

The scorpion’s name is Cupcake, and Cupcake looks pissed.

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“Oh come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped at his waist says. “I mean, how scary can it be with a name like that?”

He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other.

It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop up Cupcake like a gerbil. From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure this is her first time.

I want to say, “honey what are you crazy don’t do that,” but I call my 10-year-old son over to watch instead.

How I became this person, I don’t know.

Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator. We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.

How I justify watching: I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.

I convince myself that Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.

I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.

poptart“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.

Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave.

club kidsBut out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one nasty oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, the kind of thing Barbie would store her shoes in.

“Look, sweetie, she’s going to pick up that scorpion,” I say, and point, like I’ve just said something wise, like I’m the muscle-guy back at the aquarium who flexed, pointed and said, in a low voice, “What we have right here are fish” while his pretty girlfriend clung to a bicep and cooed.

My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because he still feels things.

“Why would she do that?” he says.

The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage, or maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.

“Because she’s an expert?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.

I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships, but none of them involved handling a scorpion.

The closest I’ve come was the time I worked as a flight attendant and a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off. There was a mechanical problem – the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent. But the pilot had a date that night – one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.

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The pilot didn’t want a delay.

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He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”

He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”

He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.

When people talk about survival, there are different degrees.

I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my weight against the handle and held on and smiled at passengers who looked at me like I knew what I was doing.

It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, though.

“You don’t know what work is,” my steelworker father would say, meaning what I do now, pushing words around a page. Meaning: it’s not work if it can’t kill you.

“I mean, seriously. Cupcake,” the zoo official is saying, a punch-line he’s sharing again and again.

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He’s probably a nice guy otherwise. The Pittsburgh Zoo is a wonderful place. It teaches people a lot about animals.

Scorpions are sensitive to vibration and touch. Some bats and centipedes hunt scorpions for food. Cupcake is normally kept in the dark fruit-bat part of the reptile house. Her neighbor one cage over is a giant millipede.

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Sometimes the whole world seems cruel.

The girl is shaking so much. When her hand goes for the clasp on Cupcake’s case, it’s like she’s about to stick a fork in a live toaster. Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.

The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case. She nudges it under Cupcake and brings the creature out, a heavy dark heart in her palm.

“O.k.,” she says to the zoo official, who’s proud, beaming. “Now what?”

Writer Chains, The Planet Formerly Known as Pluto, Murderous Tetras, Natural Born Children, Bad Boss People, and The Writing Process Blog Tour

In Uncategorized on August 12, 2014 at 4:43 am

“It’s kind of like a nerdy writer internet chain letter,” my friend William Boyle said when he explained the Writing Process Blog Tour and asked me to join in. So of course I said yes.  (Read Bill’s responses to the Blog Tour interview at his blog here.)

I like to think about all the other writers in this chain  — beautiful, nerdy, linking arms and building a chain long enough to lasso Pluto and pull it down and make scientists call it a planet again because really, what was that all about?

 

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William Boyle is a badass writer.

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I do not know if William Boyle has any feelings for or against Pluto.

I do know Bill’s the author of a beautiful planet  of a book – Gravesend.

 

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It’s an unforgettable and devastating noir set in Brooklyn – where spaghetti sauce is gravy and every person on the street, criminal and victim and broken-down beloved and bystander, will break your heart and love it back to life and break it again and go on.  Get it in a New York minute here or better, at a good independent bookstore near you.

So, right. The Blog Tour. Here goes. After my answers, I’ll pass this on to two more wonderful writers. And they’ll pass to two more. And they’ll pass to two more.

And so on and so on and so on.

One big beautiful chain.

**************

What are you working on?

I spent this summer finishing my new memoir.  It’s called Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. It’s coming out from Atticus Books in 2015.

I’m adopted, so it’s an adoption memoir, but it’s more about family in a bigger sense. It’s about the things people do and don’t do to each other in the name of family. And it’s about families, plural — the ones we’re born with and the ones we make ourselves.

A palm reader I met once in New York gave me that line. She said the lines on our left hands are the maps of what we’re born with. The lines on our right hands are the maps we’ve made ourselves. If you compare the lines on both hands, they’re supposed to show how your choices change your destiny, nurture over nature, vice versa.

I like that idea a lot.  It was worth the fifty bucks.

The palm reader took cash, Visa, Mastercard, but not Discover. I thought this was funny.  “Get it?” I said. “You don’t take Discover!”

 

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She didn’t get it.

This made me question everything.

 

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I think life is funny and heartbreaking all at once. I think truth is important and complicated and I try to honor that. I try not to be afraid of things – getting naked on the page, for instance. I want to write with heart, even though in some circles the heart is as fashionable as a fanny pack and culottes. But all of my favorite writers – Hemingway, Sedaris, Harry Crews, Lorrie Moore, Bukowski, Didion and on and on – have written like that. I hope my work is similar to, not different from, the work of writers I love.

That’s probably a wrong answer.

 

Why do you write what you do?

I wrote my forthcoming book because I spent the first year of my life in a foundling home. I was adopted by two great but unconventional parents. My father liked to say things like “I could wipe my ass with what you know about love.” My mother liked to dress me as her twin and kick my ass at “Jeopardy.” The three of us loved each other very much.

My extended adopted family didn’t consider me my parents’ real child. The word they used was “natural.” They said my mother couldn’t have a natural-born child. She couldn’t have her own child so she ended up with me.

I grew up thinking, as many adopted people do, that I was not natural. I didn’t think much about what the word natural means.

And now I’m a mother.

I didn’t look for my birth family until my parents were dead and I had children, a family. I wanted a medical history. I didn’t get one. Instead my birth mother wished me dead. It’s complicated, I guess. Maybe not.

Writing helps, but the whole experience still feels confusing, like a 10,000-piece puzzle that is 70 percent sky. It seems impossible to piece all that blue together, to match up pieces of clouds, to sort sunlight.  But it feels important to try.

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My life – like lots of people’s lives, whether adopted or otherwise – felt, feels, fragmented. I write to make something whole out of that.

When I’m not writing about family, I write about place and work, which is about family and home, too, so there’s that. I write about work because I come from work, was raised on work. My father was a steelworker. My mother was a nurse. I’m from Pittsburgh, which to me isn’t about the latest charcuterie or $30 cheese plate or the next artisanal whiskey bar that got play in the New York Times. Pittsburgh to me is still the people who built it.

I write to connect with those people and their people. The world to me feels very disconnected. Everything feels upside down. Some of the best people I know can’t find good jobs. Other people, terrible people, the worst kind of people, the ones who love $30 cheese plates, are in charge of a system designed to keep things that way.

I grew up with a union worker, a father who taught me to jack the boss man. Now there are no unions and too many boss men and women to jack.

There’s a lot of bullshit and cruelty out there. I’m not saying I’m not capable of bullshit and cruelty, but I try to write against that.

 

How does your writing process work?

O.k., so my daughter wanted these fish. She can’t have a dog or a cat – allergies – and so we got her fish. A couple tetras, a catfish named Gus, some snails. There were three tetras, but I came home one day and there were two. No body floating. No fish head, even. I think these fish eat each other whole. I think these fish believe in $30 cheese plates. They want lavender-infused martinis. They want hot towels.

Fuck these fish. They’re evil. Just look.

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So my daughter got her fish and doesn’t like her fish and now every couple weeks I have to clean the fish tank. So when I’m up to my elbows in fish-piss, when I’m gagging over the stink and slime, I think about writing. I think about writing over impossible bills and dishes. I think about writing when I’m picking up my son’s socks, which I find everywhere, one sock at a time. Once I found one in the crisper drawer in the fridge. Explain that.

My husband’s a writer, too, and so together we think about writing a lot. We think about writing while we balance the demands of our lives. There are a lot of demands. We think about writing  until we find a tear in the rabbit-proof fence and push our way through out of panic or desperation or fear of death, all of the above.

Usually these days we write together, computers touching, at our dining room table. This is how I’m writing this now.

Our table is an old green farm table. It embarrasses our son because it’s old and ratty and our writer friends have carved their names and initials into it, the way writers have done for a century on that poet tree in Galway. I think it’s beautiful. It warms me to see the names of people I love who’ve spent time here.

So my process is my husband and I sit at our table and write for a couple hours, then we talk and listen to music and drink beer and eat and play Jenga with our kids.

It’s not perfect. There’s no writers studio, no retreat, no treehouse or backwoods cabin ala Thoreau.

In our house, there’s me and my husband, our kids circling us, all this family chaos.

And it feels all right.

Better than that.

 

Next up:

Double-badass writing couple Ally Malinenko and John Grochalski. Check their blogs on Monday, August 19 for their answers to The Writing Process Blog Tour interview.

For now, get yourselves acquainted:

John Grochalski is the author of The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch Out (Six Gallery Press 2008), Glass City (Low Ghost Press, 2010), In The Year of Everything Dying (Camel Saloon, 2012), Starting with the Last Name Grochalski (Coleridge Street Books, 2014), and the novel, The Librarian (Six Gallery Press 2013). Grochalski also lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he constantly worries about the high cost of everything.

Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry book The Wanting Bone (Six Gallery Press), the children’s book Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb (Antenna Books), and most recently This is Sarah (Bookfish Books). She lives in the part of Brooklyn voted to have the best halal truck.

 

Stuff I Write: The Truth Comes Out When The Spirit Comes In — On Being American, On Being Irish

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Here’s an essay I wrote about being an American and being Irish. It first ran a few St. Patty’s Days back in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thanks, Post-Gazette!

***

For one year, when I was a broke and itinerant flight attendant, I lived in a house with six Irish accountants. The house was in Forest Hills, Queens, a few subway stops from Manhattan. Having six housemates meant we could almost afford the rent. Having housemates who were accountants meant that everything from the cost of toilet paper to the heating bill was divvied up.

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My housemates called the heating bill the “oil delivery fee.” They used words like gorgeous and brilliant when describing a plate of overcooked spaghetti. They believed, really believed, Guinness is good for you.

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These housemates – five men and one woman – were Irish citizens. They found work and housing through an underground network that specialized in exporting Irish accountants. Before this, I’d thought Ireland’s chief exports were beer, The Pogues, blood sausage, and jokes about priests and donkeys. My housemates liked jokes, but hated blood sausage. They had many Irish friends in the city – all of them accountants, all of them living with other Irish accountants, all of them able to do long division and recite Yeats drunk.

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A confession: I’d always thought of myself as Irish. And so I was happy to pay $600 a month to sleep on a futon on the floor and be among my own people. I’d been adopted by my Italian/Polish parents when I was a year old, and I knew a little about my ancestry. I clung to the Irish side of my lost past. I wore green on St. Patty’s day. I wore a Claddagh ring. I was proud of my Irish eyes. They curled into commas when I laughed. I read Yeats and Joyce and knew all the words to “Danny Boy.” Being Irish made me feel special, particularly during my teenage years. My parents didn’t understand me. How could they?

And now, all these years later, in Queens, with authentic Irish folk, I thought I would learn who I really was.

“My birth name’s Phelan,” I told my housemate Sinead. Sinead was lovely – blue-green eyes, dark hair, a laugh that could crack plates. We became good friends right away, which meant we told each other the truth.

“You’re not really Irish, you know,” Sinead said and patted my hand. “Americans put on green t-shirts and tennis shoes and say they’re Irish and it’s just not true. Irish people are Irish. Americans are American.”

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“She’s right,” Brian, one of the other housemates, said. He’d overheard us from the kitchen, where he’d been frying ground meat. My housemates had dinner together at 7 p.m. every night. They took turns cooking. I never saw any of them make anything other than Spaghetti Bolognese. The recipe didn’t vary, no matter the chef — three jars of Prego, two pounds of ground meat, two pounds of spaghetti, one loaf of Wonder bread. When I wasn’t flying and it was my turn to cook, I’d try to mix things up – Chicken Romano, tacos, fajitas. But mostly, when I cooked, my housemates would nibble politely, and the next night we’d be back to Bolognese.

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“Americans always want to be something they’re not,” Brian said. He poked his head out of the kitchen and pointed a wooden spoon our way. “That’s how you get shamrock knickers. You get ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish.’ You get, lord help us, green beer. It’s desecration, I tell you. Who does that to perfectly fine beer? It’s not right. To be Irish is to be Irish, and that’s the end of it.”

Brian was from Dublin. Sinead was from Galway. All but one of the housemates was from the south of Ireland, which meant they shared the same politics and generalized about Americans the way I generalized about the Irish.

One night, after Sinead had downed a few pints and had a fight with Paul the bartender at Yer Man’s pub, I was driving her home. I don’t know why, but Sinead decided to flip off a group of kids on Metropolitan Avenue. She rolled down her window, yelled “Ho there,” and stuck her middle finger out. The kids yelled back. One of them turned around, dropped his pants and mooned us.

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Sinead was shocked.

“A finger,” she said, “does not equal an ass. A finger equals a finger. I will never understand you people. Never.”

And there was so much I didn’t understand back.

Take our housemate, Tony, for instance.  Tony was from Belfast. This was a problem, since the housemates carried the troubles from their homeland with them. Sinead’s fight with Paul the bartender was over something political I didn’t grasp. Whatever it was made Sinead, a usually soft-spoken woman, shout. Sinead’s grandfather, I knew, had been a driver for Michael Collins, the founder of the I.R.A. Sinead’s family was deeply Catholic. I had no idea where Paul the bartender was from, exactly, or what his religious beliefs were. It would never have occurred to me to ask. Paul had an Irish accent. He worked at an Irish pub. Drunk women took off their bras and donated them to the collection that dangled like tongues over Paul’s head.

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Paul often gave me wooden nickels to use for free drinks. He was kind and funny and called me “Love.”

Back at the house, I’d seen the fury Sinead had directed at Paul. It bubbled up whenever Tony was in the room. Tony was built like an eraser – stubby, with a square head and buzz-cut hair. His room was in the basement, next to the washer and dryer. The basement was concrete. Tony’s bed was a worn-down couch. Tony didn’t talk much. At dinner, he sat at the end of the table, head down. He ate fast, and usually got stuck with the dishes.

One day, because I wanted to understand, I asked a question. I’m not sure exactly how I phrased it, but I wanted to know the state of things between Ireland’s north and south. I knew the little I’d learned from history books and Brad Pitt movies, but I wanted to know the more personal side of things. How it affected people. My housemates, for instance.

What happened next  – Tony lowered his head even more. The other housemates said some things. Brian said, “Isn’t that right, Tony? Isn’t it?” And Tony didn’t say anything. Until he did. I don’t remember what he said because it seemed like nothing, really. Maybe he agreed with Brian. Maybe he said he was finished. What was happening at that table was beyond me, though I’d set it off. Sinead said “That’s enough,” and Tony went trudging off to the basement. I wouldn’t see him for days.

I had a late flight that night, a Vegas red-eye. When I came home, Tony’s face was bruised. One eye was leaky and swollen shut.

When I asked what happened, he said, “I don’t know what you mean.” Then he stumbled back down to the basement.

Later Sinead would say the boys had a fight. They’d been drinking. They’d locked Tony in the basement. There was no bathroom down there, so after several hours, Tony used the washer. Later, when they unlocked the door and found what Tony had done, they beat him.

“That’s the beginning and end of it,” Sinead said. “Let it be.”

It had been my fault. I felt terrible. I’d like to say something here about privilege, and ignorance, what it does to people, but what it comes down to is my privilege, my ignorance, what it did to Tony and what it didn’t do to me.

Years later, I’d visit Sinead in Ireland. We’d travel around the country and Sinead would give me a gift, a drink coaster with the Phelan family crest on it.

“Phelan means little wolf in Gaelic,” she’d say and pat my hand.

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The coaster was made out of cork. The crest had a deer head on top, a diamond pattern on the shield. I thought I should feel something profound, holding this link to my past, but I didn’t.

Once, back in New York, Sinead and I had our palms read by a woman in the EastVillage. The palm reader’s studio was all done up in red velvet. She wore bangles and gauze. She told Sinead, “You long for home.” She told me, “There are lines we’re born with, and lines we make for ourselves.” The first line, the one I was born with, was so faint I had to scrunch my palm to see it. Then she charged me $50, cash.

I stayed in Ireland for two weeks.  Everywhere we’d go, we’d play a game Sinead invented called “Spot the American.” Sometimes it was easy – green t-shirt, tennis shoes, bag full of postcards. One thing I noticed — Americans take up a lot of space. We sprawl. We come from a big country, where we’re not used to holding anything, even our arms and legs, in. Our body language is open, as if we can absorb the whole world.

By the time we got to Belfast, that sad and troubled place, I’d order our drinks and food because Sinead was worried about her accent. Our game was trickier. We played until finally, in one pub, the only American to spot was me.

 

Stuff I Think About Stuff I Write: Family Legacies, Green Glitter, Shamrock G-Strings, and Ways to Be An American on St. Patty’s Day

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Well, it’s St. Patty’s Day.

St. Patrick seemed like an all right guy. I mean, the whole snakes-get-out-of-Ireland-and-don’t-come-back thing.

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Not that there was probably any truth to that, but still.  Now if he could just do something about stink bugs.

Anyway, on this day, people say everyone’s Irish.

I don’t know about that, either.

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“I’m Irish,” my daughter said this morning when she insisted on me dressing her in three layers of green. I had to get her up 15 minutes early to be sure her nails were glittered and painted green and her hair was done up in a green-bedazzled do.

Today, especially, my daughter talks about her other family, the one overseas. It’s a romantic notion and my daughter is beautiful and kind and if ever there were smiling Irish eyes worthy of song, she has them.

Still.

“You’re American,” my husband and I say.

We want her to understand that, to feel the pride of that.

“Poopers,” she says.

She’s probably right, as usual.

The things is, the Irish part of my daughter, the one she likes to cling to, is complicated, and in many ways as much an illusion as that thing with St. Pat and the snakes. I was adopted, which means my sense of my own personal history lasts about as long as a gumball. My husband’s father’s parents came from Ireland, sure, but neither I nor my daughter ever knew them.

Maybe it’s because I was adopted. Maybe it’s because my idea of family and loyalty and personal history can be loaded into a very small and precious box. But the truth is, I want my children to love the identities they were born into, which means I want them to hold on to who they really are, not an idea of roots that have no real hold in their lives.

I know. My daughter’s right. I’m ruining the party. And today is all about the party — the green beer, shamrock G-strings, the green face paint that will cling to eyebrows for weeks, the cars parked crooked for miles at the AOH, all those broken bottles strewn on streets everywhere.

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“Teach me some Irish,” my daughter said this morning.

I know a couple words — not from family, but from friends and from working for the airlines and flying in and out of Shannon for years.

I teach her “craic.”

Fun.

I teach her “slainte.”

Health.

I teach her “firinne.”

Truth.

I say the words like they’re that universal language — wishes.

Which of  course they are.