Losing and Finding My C’hai (Which is Not a Dala Horse): Everyday Magic, Day 915

At breakfast at the Swedish Country Inn in Lindsborg, Kansas, someone said she liked my tiny gold Dala horse necklace. It took me a moment to realize that the C’hai — the Jewish symbol for life, luck, the auspicious number 18, and also the Hebrew letter C’hai — looks just a little like the Swedish Dala horse, a symbol of Swedish hospitality. I explained the C’hai to her, then dug into some Swedish meatballs, pickled herring, and rye bread.

Ken and I having decided to spend some time in this charming town after a gig in  equally lovely Glasco, Kansas, where I got to see one of my favorite Dala horses in Lindsborg. Every few feet there seems to be another Dala horse painted in wild and artsy ways instead of in traditional red. As someone who loves language, even punctuation, talking on the phone, and the Dalai Lama, my Dala of choice is the Dala-Lama-Tele-Comma. I rode the mighty steed nowhere before we went for dinner.

A day later, back in Lawrence, I was taking off a scarf while driving and accidentally snapped my C’hai off its chain. I caught the C’hai, then had to decide where to put it until I got it home and could put it back on my necklace. I considered my pocket, but decided against it. Small objects that go there often end up in the laundry where they travel to a place beyond human contact, the island of self-liberated socks. So instead I put the C’hai in a plastic bottle cap on a flat surface in the car and drove on.

Once home, wouldn’t you know it? The C’hai (and bottle cap) were gone. I took apart the car, pulling out rugs, removing a great many cough drop wrappers and pencils from under seats, and searching in every nook and cranny I could find on the car floor, alternating which door I opened to see how far the C’hai had flown. With a video meeting for work looming, I eventually had to stop and go inside for an hour, but as soon as I was done, I went back to the car.

I was worried more than about losing the jewelry. My mom had given me this C’hai when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, and I’ve worn it almost all the time since then, a talisman remembering me to life in my mind. What would losing it mean? I told myself it was silly to think a vanished C’hai meant cancer would return, and perhaps I had arrived at the time when I no longer needed to wear the C’hai, but I also know my rationalization was as shaky as my magical thinking.

When I opened the passenger door, there, right on the floor and in plain sight, was the C’hai, having dropped out from a floor carpet I had shaken. A C’hai may not be a Dala horse, but it turns out to have its own legs.

Another visit, another time to sort tools

It started with gerunds, a grammatical term for verbs that end in “ing.” To write directly and precisely, writers are supposed to avoid gerunds, Uncle Ron read in a tiny newspaper article that he clipped and sent to me.  He wrote me that when next we met, we needed to get to the bottom of this gerund business.

That was well over 30 years ago, and get to the bottom we did, along with picking up what we found at the bottom and tossing it back and forth over decades. The first time we talked about this in about 1985, I told Ron that some feminist scholars purposely used a lot of gerunds to reclaim the language shaped into sharp directives by men.  He thought that made sense, but mostly he questioned why people were supposed to write in as few syllables as possible; after all, what’s wrong with a little extra i-n-g-ing as you go? That may have made particular sense to Ron because he loved words, and loved to immerse himself in many of them for hours on end, talking until the cows came home and went out again the next morning.

But he did a whole lot more than talk. A former engineer who became a minister, marrying his beloved Wilma early in the process, and having four daughters (all who ended up with the initials JJJ), Ron liked to do things and get things done. Two or more times each year, he and Wilma would come stay with Ken’s folks (Ken’s mom is Wilma’s sister) on the farm to help out for weeks. Each day, Ken’s dad Gene  would go out with Ron to fix fences, clean out the eternally-refilling basement or barn,organize tools, or haul leaves and stack wood. Ron could seemingly build or fix just about anything, and he brought a lot of cheer to any job as well as a problem-solving spirit only an engineer-minister could mix together in the right potion.

Hauling Forest Around Too

Because Ron and Wilma were here so much, they became more like a second set of parents to us. This was somewhat formalized when we told the nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — the day after our first son Daniel was born — that Ron and Wilma were my parents because otherwise, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the unit to calm us and the baby. Although Daniel was born at a nearby free-standing birthing center, because he inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out, he was slow to breathe on his own, and that week in NICU was treacherous for him and us. Having an extra set of very loving surrogate parents around reassured us, especially with both Ron and Wilma’s can-do, it’ll-all-work-out, have-faith-and-work-hard attitude.

Three years or so later, I was carrying another baby, Natalie, into my in-law’s house when Ron met me on the steps. I was frazzled and seriously doubting my ability to handle a toddler and newborn at once, and being sleep-deprived, broke, and in the middle of graduate school didn’t help. “What a fortunate baby!” Ron bellowed, going on to say how lucky our children were to have such smart and caring parents. Then he carried in the diaper bag and some groceries I had. He was like that — confident in a way that made me feel more confident, and seamlessly helping out however he could while joking around with Wilma, or co-narrating, in panoramic detail, one of their epic travel slide shows.

They made for a richer childhood for all our kids too. I remember when Daniel was about four years old how he paused making cherry pies with his grandma and Aunt Wilma — who were singing to him, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy…” — to run outside and ride in the wheel barrow Ron and his grandpa had ready for him. Rona nd Wilma juggled babies and dinners with us at many a meal at Furr’s Cafeteria or Perkins. Along with Ken’s parents, they were even waving to us from the porch of a friend’s house in Baldwin when we pulled up for a party that turned out to be a surprise baby shower for us. They were here, ready to lend a hand, share snapshots, and eat some hamburger soup with our growing family over many years.

When they weren’t in Kansas, they rode the circuit of their family, even hoofing it in a RV for a while. Ron and his son-in-law Jim built Jim and Judy’s house in Washington state, and Ron and Wilma babysat in Ohio, took a granddaughter on an adventure in California, or simply showed up wherever a moving van for a family member needed loading or unloading. They were outrageously active in their church, making a community out of strangers, and a tightly-knit family out of extended relatives.

This summer, we made the smarter-than-we-knew-at-the-time decision to visit Uncle Ron and Aunt Wilma along with other beloved family in Seattle. During that visit, I interviewed them about how they fell in love. It turns out that Ron asked Wilma out after he discovered the girl he first had his eye on wasn’t available. Wilma, clearly in love with Ron just as he was with her from the get-go, said she only agreed because she felt sorry for him. It’s somewhat of an involved story, but as they told it, as when they told many stories, they laughed at and teased each other, recalling how their first discussion was about which state was better, Washington or Kansas. “Well, anyone with any sense would know it was Kansas,” Wilma said although she’s spent a good part of her life with Ron in his native Washington. They turned their home states into states of love where people like me and so many others could feel supported, welcomed, and start to believe things were going to be okay.

Ron, Wilma, Judy, Jennifer, Joyce, Mark, and Ken

A few days ago Ron died at the ripe old age of 93 after a rich and vigorous life. Amazingly enough, one of his daughters, who had a condition with a life expectancy that she outlived by decades, died a few hours beforehand, the family able to be with each of them. I have no doubt that Ron is helping her navigate wherever they go next, and he’s doing so with his usual humor, cheer, and love.

Which brings me back to gerunds. By making a verb into a gerund, we make it into something more ongoing. I could say I miss Ron, but it’s even more immediate to say I am missing him, right in the state of feeling what I feel. I am loving Ron too, feeling so blessed that he was such a presence in our family, and through his presence, showed me a lot more about what family being family can be.

“Me, too.”

I was 19, and I knew it was sexual harassment, but there was nothing I could do about it. He managed the movie theater where I worked concessions, and after I refused to meet him a little apartment he had on the side — one his wife knew nothing about — he drastically cut my hours. He knew I needed the job to pay rent and feed myself, so he kept pressing. I kept saying no. Soon I was down to one short shift a week, but at least I knew why.

But my biggest “me, too” experience was something that I’m only now just seeing. He was a writer and leader I admired, so I was already enamored with him when he hired me as an intern for a publication. At 20 years old, I moved to a strange city where I knew no one,  lived in a horrible sterile apartment, and only had a bike for transportation in an area dangerous for bike riding. Mostly, I was crazy-lonely, and I only had enough self-esteem to fill the truck bed of a Matchbox car. So when this man over twice my age hit on me, even though I said no at first, eventually I fell for it. In the decades since that summer, I looked upon what happened as my fault for not following my gut, which yelled loudly at me to move back to my college town, and pick up my old job at Diary Queen.  In the years since, I was ashamed of myself until this week when it occurred to me that was also a “me, too” experience.”

Reading what people are posting on Facebook and writing in various publications about “me, too,” something clicked. We live in a culture in which men with the accoutrements of power often have the option of harassing, assaulting, or otherwise entrapping those without such power, women as well as some men (e.g. young people hungry to get and keep work as well as people of color and those are otherwise marginalized). Like every woman I know,  plus a number of men, I tripped into a youthful error of judgment, and then, as goes the cultural narrative, blamed myself and didn’t speak about this except to close friends.

“Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing. I speak up to make certain that this is not the kind of misconduct that deserves a second chance. I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.” — Lupita Nyong’o

All week, I’ve been reading and hearing heartbreaking stories. One friend bravely shared how she was gang-raped back in the day before there were rape victim support services. Another friend, over lunch, told me of how a boyfriend raped her. Other friends share the sadness, rage, old shame, and fresh pain about lost jobs, terrified walks home, near-misses that weren’t complete misses, and shocking betrayals from men they trusted. A straight man I’ve known for decades wrote how he was sodomized with a knife to his throat. Several gay and trans friends tell of brutal attacks or constant shaming. One night I read Ken the names of all our Facebook friends who posted “me, too,” and after a few minutes, I couldn’t keep from crying for how pervasive this was and still is, a secret the majority of people I know have kept in pain sight.

I’m also reading many comments from people, particularly men, saying, “I believe you,” and “we have a lot of work to do.” I see men offering to work with other men on what they’ve absorbed about male power in our culture, and how to get more cognizant of how it may bleed through their words or deeds. My friend Callid Keefe-Perry, who wrote about the need to be vigilant about the micro-monster potential he and others have in them, gave me permission to reprint this from what he posted on Facebook: “The leering weight of male power is huge and the cumulative press of it rests on the necks and spirits of our sisters, daughters, mothers, and granddaughters. And us. Guys, this pulls on us.” Yes, this also soils the humanity of the men who abuse their power, and the men who benefit from being silent and complicit (see what Quentin Tarantino says about this).

No, this isn’t a witch hunt, Woody Allen and anyone else who thinks so. It’s a reckoning, and just about all of us have work to do: we can speak from courage and love, witness one another in that same courage and love, and learn about how power-over — the kind of currency that comes from wielding control over another — betrays our potential and can destroy others’ potential. This is a time when the doors are swung wide open for hard conversations, deep soul-searching, and expansive healing. For those of you hurting from what’s been brought out of the shadows this last week, me, too. Now let’s together make greater freedom and safety for each other, and the reckoning changes necessary so that our daughters, granddaughters, great-nieces and others in generations to come aren’t saying “me, too” decades from now.