Spring Chick


Amy blogs for the website momlogic.com. Here is one of her entries:

by amy brenneman


This time of year stabs me in the heart.

Here in Southern Calif. our seasons are subtle. In New England (where I was raised), the seasons announce themselves with garish glee. THE WINTER is undeniable — fresh in December and gruesome in March. But then THE SPRING cracks open its egg with crocuses and pussy willows. THE SUMMER luxuriates with heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Then, THE AUTUMN. Autumn is a mixed bag. Leaves and crisp apples, yes, and new clothes for a school that I generally liked. But autumn held the promise of death. The plants turned grey and crumbly. The animals and insects went away. We held our breath ’til Christmas.

Los Angeles seems like Endless Summer, but it’s not, not really. The eye and the skin have to be trained to recognize the seasons, which are more like cycles because there is no frost. Magnolias do bloom in February, but then they sleep again for a few more months. The days do get shorter; the temperature does drop. We build fires and crowd around them — the temperature outside may be 50 and not 20, but it’s our winter nonetheless.

But the beginning of March stabs me in the heart. It took me by surprise this year, but then I remembered: Yes. When the light shifts, when the puffy wind warms up, when the daffodils come poking through — this is the season when my heart cracked open. Nine years ago this March my daughter was born, and life has never been the same.

It’s hard to describe, to those who haven’t experienced it, how life gets broken open with the birth of a first child. My friend Paul’s wife is due at the end of April. I saw him yesterday, excited and amped. “I know the change is coming,” he said. “People say life will never be the same, and I know they’re right. But what will it look like?” I shook my head with understanding and compassion. That’s the big question, brother.

My daughter roared into life and claimed her space. My sexist brain thought a girl-child would be docile and pink (don’t know why I thought that; I’m certainly not docile and pink). My first image of Charlotte was her coming out of my body, arms stretched wide like a pterodactyl, bellowing and piercing me with her gaze. Game on. And amidst the excitement and the noise and the aching, pushed-out body, I had the following thought: “Oh! It’s you! I didn’t know it would be you! Okay, this time around, I’ll be the mom.”

I don’t generally go looking for past-life relationships. But three times in my life, they have come. The thought arose so spontaneously, I knew that it must be true. Charlotte and I did have unfinished business to attend to, and during the past nine years, we have done so. This child loves me, challenges me and pushes me to examine all my unexamined crap. She is not the ideal child, nor am I the ideal mother. We have been on a long and winding road, and I imagine we always will be. No disrespect to my son, but Charlotte is my greatest teacher. And I’m a rebellious student.

So all hail Spring 2001, when my body, life and soul got cracked open to a bigger way to live. Hail to the miracle of Charlotte, who pried my fingers away from narcissism and fear and is teaching me how to really, really, REALLY love. Forgive me for getting it wrong, my girl, as I do many times a day. Remember: Your old mother is a work in progress.

Happy birthday.

Race: Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

Amy blogs for the website momlogic.com. Here is one of her entries:
by amy brenneman

When I tried to have a discussion about race, the idea completely flew over my kids’ heads.
My 8-year-old, Charlotte, had an assignment to do a book report on a President of her choice. She chose Barack Obama. She loves Barack Obama, gets excited every time she sees his picture or a news story, got REALLY excited when her dad and I were lucky enough to go to the inauguration a year ago. It doesn’t hurt that we love Barack Obama, too. We are a loyalist family.

I told Brad to go to the bookstore to get a simple biography of Obama. The one he found was still relatively sophisticated, but even so Charlotte and I dove in one night and read it. Typically, I chose the wrong time. She was elbow-deep in imaginative play with trains, princesses and castles, but said she was open to talking about it, so I started plugging away.I swear, the first chapter lost her. The biography began with his birth in Hawaii, and how he had a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. It talked about how unusual this was in 1961, and how the departure of his father left Barack with no role model for how a black man was to behave. It talked about his schooling in Hawaii, and the confusion over his racial identity that hounded him into college.Charlotte listened to the story as Pocahontas boarded a Thomas train bound for the castle. I put down the book.”Do you know what they mean when they say ‘black’ and ‘white?'” I asked.

She shook her head slightly. Bodhi, from across the room (where he was building an airport to rival O’Hare), looked up, too.

“They’re talking about different races. How people have different color skin, and that makes it hard for them sometimes.”

My children looked at me with no response. I stumbled for more.

“Like Samantha?” I volunteered. Samantha is a dear friend of Charlotte’s from church who is a dark-skinned African-American. “She’s ‘black.’ And you guys would be ‘white.'” Bodhi and Charlotte stared at me, waiting for the point. What was the point that I was trying to make?

I thought about all their friends. I thought about Charlotte’s friend Jamie (who is Filipina), and Samantha, and Tommy (who is Thai) and Cole (who is in a wheelchair). I thought about my nephew, Granger, who is half Filipino and a quarter Jewish and a quarter vague WASP/Irish/Swiss combo (the polyglot being the Brenneman side of things). I thought about growing up in suburban Connecticut, in a town which put the lily in “lily white” — so much so that in high school the “Project Concern” bus would roll in from urban Hartford to deposit 30 bewildered African-American students on our doorstep — whom no one spoke to, and who spoke to no one. “Here are some kids who are totally different from you,” the System said, “but we’re not giving out any tools to help with the bridge-building. Good luck to you!”

I thought about the recent polls about gay marriage, which showed that most people under the age of 30 consider it an utter nonissue; we will look back at this moment of discrimination with shock, the way we do at the pre-civil rights and pre-suffrage eras. I thought about the wonderful polyglot of Los Angeles, where my children are being raised, where they have friends of every stripe and are at ease with differences in a way that I, as an adult, had to learn to be.

But still, those questioning eyes waited on me.

“Anyway,” I murmured. “In the olden days, being half black and half white was hard. It’s easier now, I guess.”

They returned to the trains and planes. I wondered if what I’d said was true. But what I saw clearly was this: Bodhi and Charlotte are not at all interested in the color of someone’s skin.

Why would I ever want to change that?

Half My Sky, Too


Amy Brenneman

Amy blogs for the website momlogic.com. Here is one of her entries:
by amy brenneman

An event I went to recently made me realize how truly lucky I am to be a woman.

I attended an event last week called “Half the Sky Live.” It was to celebrate International Women’s Day, March 4. The program was sponsored by CARE and featured Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, co-authors of “Half the Sky,” a book that is changing my life and the lives of so many others.

In this blog I haven’t endorsed many things. I find I’m using the blog more as a space to explore internal processes and the significance (or not!) of the small things in my life — moments with children, moments in traffic, moments plucking my chin hairs — in an effort to seek meaning that maybe resonates with others. But “Half the Sky” …. Wow. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t? Run, don’t walk.

Kristoff and WuDunn’s subtitle says it all: “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Their thesis — and the basis of this new “movement,” as they call it (I don’t disagree) — is that the solution to the world’s poverty and warring is in the elevation and inclusion of women in all parts of society. Scourges like maternal mortality, exclusion from education, violence towards women and sex trafficking must be eradicated in order for cultures to have sustainable economies, social equality and lasting peace.

I used to think that these issues were noble, but a bit sentimental and certainly secondary to the “real” issues (such as military interventions and market economies). Not anymore. Women’s well-being is now understood to be at the center of solving these issues — and a predictor of the stability of a society. In addition to looking at military maneuvers, army generals now routinely look at the number of girls who attend school as a predictor of the stability of a region. The percentage of women in government is used to predict the stability of a nation. And economists have determined that, without a doubt, the best way to eradicate poverty — dollar for dollar — is to invest in a young girl’s education.

I myself have become obsessed with micro-loans. I can’t get enough of these stories, and “Half the Sky” is full of them. The woman in Burundi who, at 35, had never handled money or worked outside of the home — and who watched her husband drink the family’s meager living away in the local bar? This woman joined a local women’s collective and received a $2 loan to grow a larger field of crops. She grew a bumper crop that year, made $7, paid the loan back (with interest) and took out another. Then she started a banana-beer business, which is making an ongoing profit.

Now, I come from a long line of addicts and alcoholics. Not a great legacy, mind you, but mixed into that is a lot of recovery, too. Anyone who knows alcoholic (or other dysfunctional) family dynamics knows that sometimes it takes just one person changing — one person getting healthier and stepping outside of the cycle of dysfunction — to change the entire family system. I think of that often while reading these micro-loan stories. The reverberations of these women’s actions are profound: Their husbands have newfound respect for them, so if there has been domestic violence, it often stops. The family now has money to send its daughters to school. Those daughters in turn have fewer children. Because there are fewer births, there is less of a chance of maternal mortality. And on and on and on.

Buddhist tradition talks about lucky births. As a woman born into a family with enough money and an abundance of love, I have been luckier than most. These women were not so lucky. And yet they were born into an era when “Half the Sky” stories are capturing the world’s attention and people like me are moved to act. These stories contain so much suffering — but in equal measure, so much hope. Check them out. You just might recognize yourself in their stories, from half a world away. For more information go to HalfTheSkyMovement.org or CARE.org.

Lessons from My Hospital Stay

Amy blogs for the website momlogic.com. Here is one of her entries:
by amy brenneman

So I had that surgery on January 26. I told you that there were many lessons and stories, and here’s a few more …

I tried to stumble through work the week before my surgery, as was the original plan. And when that original plan was made, there was no reason to think otherwise. I am a strong person. I am a healthy person, at least until this illness hit me. And most importantly, I am a stubborn and willful person and if I say to my body that we’re going to power through something, we damn well will power through it. I danced onstage when stricken with Bell’s palsy. I triumphed as Joan of Arc with strep throat. I worked up until two weeks before Charlotte was born, and was back at work three weeks later with most of my weight lost. Yeah, it was like that.

Amy performs performing in "Mouth Wide Open", Bernard White plays Ms. Brenneman's doctor. Photo by Ralph Stewart

So it was shocking and humbling to watch my will be outgunned by my illness. My kind producer Ann watched me with concern as I acted my heart out in my required scenes, then collapsed in my trailer in between. She asked me if I could finish the week. I said of course (as my eyes were fluttering with fatigue.) Out of denial? Willfulness? Show-must-go-on training? I could not say “No. I’m done. I need to go home.”

So she said it for me. She literally said, “You are unable to make this decision right now, so I’m going to make it for you. Go home. Get well.” I wept with relief, from receiving some loving parenting I hadn’t even realized I needed.

I went home and waited the five days before surgery. I was exhausted, anemic, uncomfortable, essentially bed-ridden, waiting for the relief that the hospital stay would eventually bring me, and did.

The TV was on constantly (not my normal behavior) and out of the corner of my hazy sleepy eye, I saw it. Haiti.

The earthquake had happened the week before. Image after devastating image passed before me, and with each a call to action. My friends were going there to help. People were organizing bake sales. There was aid to be given and money to be raised. My natural instinct to get busy, make it right, save the world was stymied by the fact that I couldn’t lift my head off the goddamn pillow.

Yet in that state I gained an empathy that health could not have given me. I understood the pain and fear and dehydration that I saw in the Haitians’ eyes. My heart was cracked open to feeling broken and unwell. I identified now with suffering, which had always been a foreign land before.

But. But. But I was going to be okay. Haitians were being given Tylenol for pain before surgery. They had no water or shelter or future. My suffering was temporary and soon I’d have a clean hospital and attentive nursing and a morphine drip to see me through. There was no way I was not going to be okay. There was very little chance that many of the earthquake survivors would ever be okay again.

However, empathy is an opening, a start, a bridge. It’s all well and good for me to want to save the world and help “those poor people” but without empathy, I remain in an “us and them” world, which is a lie. We are all humans, with frail (and strong) bodies and strong (and frail) spirits. Suffering, it is the great equalizer.

I never knew that before.

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