I’ve been thinking a lot about Harriet Tubman. I’ve been thinking about how, in the midst of slavery, she declared, “My people are free.”*
Harriet Tubman wasn’t just courageous. She wasn’t just brilliant, and skilled, and purposeful, and determined, and compassionate.
Harriet Tubman was a visionary.
She could see beyond the circumstances she was born into, to a more beautiful, expansive future. She could imagine a world where Black people were no longer enslaved. But also: Harriet Tubman knew that her people were free even when they were enslaved.
It is this kind of freedom, the kind that can’t be granted, that I want to live into in this moment. This freedom lives in my heart and my imagination, no matter what is happening to my body, no matter what is in front of my eyes.
In Harriet’s vision, I am not separated from those ancestors who lived every moment of their lives on the African continent. I am in contact with people living seven generations in the future, watching them enjoy the shade of a tree my children planted.
In Harriet’s vision Tamir Rice is alive. It is the day of his birth, and his mother is cradling him in her arms.
In Harriet’s vision, Breonna Taylor has started her new job, and she’s loving it. She is a healer, mending folks’ bodies with her skills and their spirits with her smile.
In Harriet’s vision, George Floyd is napping peacefully on his sofa on this lazy Saturday afternoon. The living room window is open, letting in a warm breeze. He is surrounded by all of his ancestors and all of his descendants. They are breathing with him, for him, though him.
My people are free. My people are free. My people are free.
Yesterday, on Memorial Day, George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department. I won’t share the details because I can’t bear them. I am so sick with grief and horror and fear and rage that I can barely type this.
I don’t have anything profound to say. I don’t know what the hell to do. I can’t even bring myself to call for “justice,” because what the fuck does justice look like in a culture that does not recognize Black humanity?
I am here to bear witness. To remember that a human life was stolen. A living, breathing man was brutally murdered by a publicly funded gang—people whose salaries he helped to pay.
A man who got dressed in the morning expecting to get undressed in the evening. A man who loved and was loved. A man who was birthed and nursed and bathed and scolded and cheered for and held close. A man with gifts and talents and people who depended on him. A light in someone’s world.
Rest in power, George Floyd. I will not forget your name.
This morning I looked at my “calendar” for June. (So much for the Storm season.) Pretty much the only thing on there that’s actually going to happen is the mammogram I scheduled back in February.
I schedule mammograms months in advance because the imaging center has limited appointments with same-day results. I watched my mom die of breast cancer in 2007, so, I have a teensy bit of anxiety about mammograms.
I’m also still recovering from that time a few years ago when a front desk person from the imaging place called two days after my mammogram—on a Friday—to schedule me for “additional images,” with no explanation about why those images were needed. I spent that entire weekend in hell.
The point is, in the midst of this complete upending of “normal” life, in the midst of this horror that is consuming all of our attention, people are still getting diagnosed with cancer—and experiencing other disasters unrelated to coronavirus.
My friend C is is middle school teacher. One of her students—a 7th grade girl—was reported missing over the weekend. One of my other close girlfriends is separating from her partner.
People are still experiencing abuse. People are still (actually, more than ever) losing their jobs. People are still dying in car crashes and of illnesses other than COVID-19.
But recitals, and weddings, and graduations, and birthday parties, and religious services—those are canceled. No bus adventures. No dance rehearsals. No visits to Husky Deli or Colman Pool. No Sunday dinners. No sleepovers. No formal dances or music shows. No girls’ nights. No potlucks with the neighbors.
All of the gatherings that help us celebrate our milestones and accomplishments and relationships and connections (in other words, LIFE) are canceled completely or “virtual.” It feels like we are suspended in time, like we are not really living.
But there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re really dying.
My second child, known as “Baby” Busling on this blog, is nonbinary.*
They’ve been telling us in different ways throughout their 10 years on this planet, but they told me directly—or as directly as they had language for—at age seven. The words they used were “gender neutral,” and they explained those words to mean that they didn’t feel like a boy or a girl, or maybe they felt like both a boy and a girl, or maybe, they felt like something beyond all of it, something that English does not have a word for.
When they first told me, I said all the correct, affirming things that parents are supposed to say in these situations.
But inside, I was devastated. I didn’t want a ticket for this particular ride. Even as I searched for children’s books about gender and met with teachers to discuss my child’s identity, I secretly hoped this was a “phase” they would soon outgrow.
For one thing, I simply didn’t understand.** We had raised our children to question gender expectations and norms. We had told them that their gender did not limit who they could be in this world. I wondered: If my child can be a boy and still dress and act and be however they please, why do they need a different label for it? And if they grew up understanding that boys come in all different packages, how do they know—in their bones—that they aren’t a boy?
But much stronger than the confusion, which I could live with, was the fear. I was devastated, not because I believed that there was something wrong with my child, but because I knew there was a lot wrong with the world they lived in.
Raising a Black child in this sick, violent, white supremacist culture is terrifying. I have struggled with that truth since my daughter was born in 2007. But at least a Black child can find some refuge, encouragement, and safety in the Black community. Where can a Black transgender child find refuge, encouragement, and safety?
Every time I looked to my sweet Busling’s future, all I saw was rejection and violence. In those first months (really, years), I was ruled by fear. And if I’m honest, it wasn’t just for my kid; I knew that the rejection would extend to me. My parenting would be questioned. I would be forced to reckon with bigotry in what had previously felt like circles of safety.
In other words, I could no longer simply profess solidarity with transgender people. I could no longer limit my support to sharing my pronouns or participating in the occasional march. I would have to live in the world from the other side of the divide, to actually experience the contempt, the erasure, and yes, the danger.
But fear is one thing. And love—love—is another.
I can’t make the world safe for my child. Full stop. But I can make my heart and my home safe for them. I can walk beside them with pride. I can stare down bigotry whenever (and in whomever) it arises and insist that everyone in my child’s life honor their full humanity.
I don’t understand what gender is. But the one thing I know for sure is that my child is beautiful.
They have always seen the world from a particular vantage point. For as long as they’ve been able to talk, they’ve astounded me with their astute, insightful observations. I’m constantly asking myself how it is that it took me over 40 years to unlearn nonsense that this oracle of a human sees through right away.
Busling is a gifted visual artist, writer, and dancer. They enjoy origami, welding, basketball, baking, and nurturing almost anything living. They hate bathing and practically live in torn, stained t-shirts and jeans, but they also love dressing up in fancy, sparkly outfits and gathering dropped camellia flowers to pin in their hair.
They will play any game (outside or in), with anyone, anytime. If I walk by someone on the street in need of help and neglect to stop, they always remind me. “Mom, didn’t you see? That person needs a few dollars for food.”
If this is what it means for my perfectly made, second-born child to be who they are, why would I want them to change? Why would I want them to “fit in”? I can’t take the particular beauty of this particular human and leave their gender. It’s one package.
Watching the person I had the honor to bring into this world understand, name, and embrace who they are has shown me who I am. And I don’t like what I see in that mirror.
I am a rule follower, someone who regularly chooses acceptance and approval over truth and freedom. I have spent my life tiptoeing and contorting, hoping to be liked, to be picked, to be “good.” As a child, I was such a pleaser that I rarely even knew what I wanted; I just automatically did what was expected of me. Because I didn’t know how to be true to myself, pain and confusion leaked out in other ways. It’s been a long road back to me, and to be honest, I’m still on it.
Thank god for beautiful Busling, my teacher. I watch the way they look inside for guidance, the way they walk in the world with courage, and I am convicted.
I am honored to walk beside them on this journey.
*If you don’t know what this means, the Gender Reveal podcast has a really great Gender 101 episode.
**I’ll admit that I still don’t—at least not fully. But my child’s identity is not for me to understand. It’s for me to support and accept.
Even before COVID-19, I didn’t fly much. Like my decision not to drive, it started as an attempt to limit the resources I—only one human out of billions—consume. But it soon became a way of life that suited me: staying grounded, finding adventure and newness and discovery close to home. We take the family to Detroit once a year to visit my in-laws, and occasionally, my spouse travels for work. But mostly, we stay put or find alternatives to flying.
The biggest thing I miss about traveling is, interestingly, the same thing I miss about driving: visiting people I love. So many girlfriends I live far from have asked and asked (and asked) to schedule a girls’ trip, and I always find a reason to put it off.
But in late January, my friend of many years, C, lost her mother, and staying put was not an option. C requested that, in lieu of traveling to New Jersey for the funeral, our friend T and I visit her in the DMV after it was over, during the quiet, lonely time after the chaos.
T and I made the trip in the last days of February. It was a perfect visit, spent mostly catching up: hours of sharing, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, and (bonus!) riding the Metro.
Because I had never been, we visited THE museum, and it was every bit as profound and beautiful as I had imagined. I felt all the feelings. We stayed all day.
In the evenings, after C, T, and I had talked ourselves out, I would lie on my hotel bed and flip through the pages, staring at the photographs of her handwritten notes, feeling equal parts voyeur (Should her private papers really be available to strangers?) and loyal daughter learning sacred traditions.
In the middle of our trip, T received a text from a friend back home. There’d been a death from COVID-19 near Seattle.
Before that text, coronavirus was in our consciousness but not top of mind. We’d heard about the fast spread in China and about the first known U.S. case being identified in our state. Weeks before we left on our trip, elected officials and public health experts had begun encouraging us to wash our hands thoroughly and frequently. News of the death was alarming, but coronavirus didn’t feel like a direct threat.
I made it home on the evening of March 1, full from my girl time, ready to rejoin my family and return to my routines: library trips, neighbor visits, walks to dance class, and of course, bus rides.
When school was canceled, I knew we had crossed into unknown territory.
On the first morning of everyone home, I woke up early. I felt a need to serve my family, to do something grounding and comforting that would bring us together at the beginning of a scary and uncertain time.
I opened that little book I had bought in DC a few weeks (and an entire lifetime) earlier and turned to the page with the photograph of Ancestor Rosa’s famous (in her family) “featherlite” pancake recipe, written in her own lovely handwriting on the back of an envelope.
As I read my shero’s notes and gathered the ingredients, I felt a deep connection to her. She was with me as I measured and mixed, as I heated the skillet just so.
Rosa Parks’ life was so unjust and difficult. As a young girl, when the Klan terrorized her town, she had to stay awake all night, the windows of her grandparents’ home boarded up and her grandfather sitting in the rocker with a gun across his lap, prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect his family. As a young woman, she spent her non-working hours investigating sexual assaults against Black women for the NAACP.
During the boycott, she endured near-constant death threats and lost her livelihood. (She and her husband dealt with financial insecurity for many years after the boycott ended, even after they moved to Detroit.) She suffered stress-related health problems, including painful, persistent ulcers. Despite being introverted and extremely private, she spoke at large events across the country and submitted to countless interviews.
And yet, on some mornings, in the midst of the trauma and uncertainty and physical suffering, she rose early and mixed batter, stood patiently at the stove until it began to bubble, served stacks of fluffy featherlites to loved ones—with butter and syrup, or powdered sugar and jam—perhaps with a side of bacon or grits or scrambled eggs.
I was comforted by this thought then, and I am again now, as I set my alarm to wake early tomorrow morning and cook Sister Rosa’s famous featherlites for my family.
“Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds, will continue in others.” – Rosa Parks