2020: A Work in Progress

By Jamie Rosler

When I signed up for this blog slot, it was a choice made entirely absent of the realization that this is the last Undiscovered Works blog post of 2020. One might expect the writer of an essay published on December 27 to wax poetic about the year past and the possibilities that lie ahead, to reflect sagely on where they’ve been and where they hope to go, or at the very least to recognize the responsibility inherent in an end-of-year reflection.

I have no waxing and no sage reflections, with just the weight of an unmet deadline on my shoulders. There are people whose job it is to recap past events, report on present circumstances, or predict future possibilities (though that last group rarely does us any favors with their forecasts), and I am not one of those people. Sometimes I turn those events into trivia questions but my editorial expectations regarding the public good are confined to the small spaces and networks of people that make up my individual world. My dog tends to agree unconditionally which is good for the ego but bad for perspective.

It’s hard to write about the last year (or the outgoing presidential administration) without using the word unprecedented. Can we all agree to shelve that word for the next four years? In fact, let us just scrap the entire concept of unprecedented actions, instead leaning into choices that have been tried by other societies and proven positive for years. Things like universal healthcare regardless of individual wealth, financial reparations to those that our government has directly harmed through generational enslavement, taxing the absurdly rich and seating more women in places of power.

Appearances and content aside, this essay wants to be light and funny. It wants to bring you a moment of delight to help counter the weight and the worry that you’ve carried with yourself since March, or since you came out, or were born Black in America. Does that make me David against Goliath, but my slingshot is broken and the sun’s in my eyes?

I don’t have the skills, or perhaps just the distance from our present moment, to offer viewpoint-changing revelations that provide answers to all (or probably any) of your questions. What I do have is sympathy for your worries, a shared sense of confusion about humanity’s expression of both its best and worst traits, and a wish that any harm this year caused you can and will be reversed in the months to come.

The problems of our world can feel insurmountable in even our most plentiful of times, let alone in our current state of widespread half-truths, authoritarian power grabs, and white supremacy teeming all around the nation. Yet, in this same year that saw the ultimate politicization of public health, we saw innumerable protests across the country and the world decrying the ongoing violence against our Black brethren at the hands of the state. We saw record numbers of queer people and people of color running for public office and winning. We saw neighbors helping neighbors eat, vote, and stay healthy. Teachers, healthcare workers, and stay-at-home parents may soon finally receive the credit, respect, and pay that they deserve for raising our children, caring for the unwell, and educating the next generation. If your eyes were previously closed to these inequities, it is not too late to stand up for a better future.

One thing I believe we can all take away from this past year is that nothing, literally nothing, is guaranteed. We can view that through a lens of nihilism, or we can see the beauty and promise of a world that has yet to be created, but for which the seeds already exist in all our hands. When enough of us understand that we truly are Stronger Together, we will then be ready to Make America Great.

Sister Talk

By Jessie Wayburn

The following is a jumble-story of my family. It isn’t cohesive or linear. If you follow along, you may get a taste of what it’s like for me to experience life. Maybe you will see your experience in mine. Maybe you will see a new side of reality. I share this in the hopes of addressing the hard topic of family at a time of year when a lot of us are choosing to stay away from family for the first time. I have either had to choose to stay away or had unwilling separation, and I’m here to tell you you can get through it.

If I could, I would tell my father right now: “I will never know how much I could miss you. Thanks for the good hair.”

Every so often, I have to remind myself of how many siblings I have. I am the oldest of four sisters, two of whom I did not grow up with, and one of whom I did. I’ll call her my homesister. I have met one of my two half sisters from my father, both with whom I’ve been friends on Facebook for several years – since his death three days after his birthday, three months after I met him on my 27th birthday. My newest sister and I threw our father’s ashes, which promptly blew back on us, off the Golden Gate Bridge. I haven’t met my other sister. I wonder if I ever will.

For whatever reason, I recently googled the name of the father of my homesister. As a half-sister, she looks nothing like me, and we are complete opposites. Shitty confession: I think I genuinely hated her when I was young, though the adults around me assured me I would grow to love her. She was born when I was 5 and a half. I did say to my mom that we should put her in the garbage can because I was made to put her copious diaper trash out in the hirby kirby, and I legit thought it would be more efficient-slash-I really-hated-the-change-in-my-home. 

The real reason I wanted to throw out my baby homesister was that I felt abandoned. Again. I realize now that I was abandoned at least twice in my early life: first, passively/actively, by my father, and then actively/repeatedly by my mother. I deeply love my homesister now. The adults were right. I was a typical, shitty, only child. I probably considered myself an only child most of my life, mostly because we were treated so very differently. Honestly, I haven’t really processed that yet, one trauma drama at a time, please.

Because I corrected my mother when she texted me, “Happy anniversary yyyyyy [sic]! Hope it was a good one! Love you!” on the first anniversary of my wedding after I had told her I was getting a divorce, she didn’t text me again for four months. She hates being corrected so much she won’t check on her offspring going through a trauma. She’s gonna hate this post. Hi, mom. I do love you. You are hard to love, but I appreciate the thought. I hope you find happiness. I hate text messages. Since then, we’ve spoken a couple times, but it’s tersely cordial, and we don’t joke. We are both funny as hell, can you imagine being so hurt by someone, you hide your funny?

My conception story is problematic. Most people I tell this to don’t know their own conception stories (if you can, ask about your own, but prepare yourself). According to my mom, she was raped when she was 30. She told me that when I was 12, which was almost 25 years ago, so let’s just say I am able to put myself in her shoes more specifically now (if, like me, you can’t do math, I’m writing this at 36 and a half). According to my father, and my mother’s story she told her family, they “got drunk and screwed.” I think both stories are true. A yes that turned into a no, maybe during intercourse, maybe post-event. I definitely believe my mom did not want to become impregnated, she let me and my homesister know that repeatedly, actively, that she would, in fact, send us to a children’s home if we didn’t behave, that she never wanted kids in the first place, but she doesn’t believe in abortion. (Who even knew how to behave when the rules/reality changed unpredictably?) So, my foundational understanding of my existence is that I am essentially unwanted, foisted upon a mentally ill mother who was generous enough to let me, the daily reminder of a rape, live under her roof. See? Problematic. I have a very good, patient therapist.

My father’s other two daughters grew up in a lovely, middle-class, nuclear family. He got clean and became a beacon of light in his community, as evidenced by the 400+ people at his memorial.  It’s hard not to compare , and of course, their lives weren’t perfect, but it sounds like they did their best, which seemed to be good enough most of the time. My younger homesister and I continue to be emotionally bludgeoned by the generational trauma. I know my mom did her best, but in a lot of instances, that wasn’t good enough. It’s hard to sit with that reality with compassion. I do feel anger. I do feel grief. I do feel resentment. I struggle to trust the feelings of love from others. But I don’t judge. 

So how do I get through this half-forced orphanhood? I mentioned my therapist. Quarantine necessitated a dog, who is now my kid. I also find family in my friendships. I have dearly beloved extended family, and of course, my homesister. It’s all given me tools to survive this wild world.

So, as I wrap this up, I wish that your unwilling distance from your family gives you something you didn’t know you needed, and that you notice you can survive.

Jews Love Christmas Too

By Rossi

As a Jew, I always felt left out on Christmas. Sure we had Chanukah! Chanukah, Shmanukah! 

Mom would remind us every year, “The Goyem (non Jews) only have one day to celebrate. We have 8!” 

Every night we would gather around the dinette table in the kitchen as Mom lit the candles and then, hearts in our throats, we would wait for her to dole out our gifts. One by one they would come; lead balloons plunging our hearts right into the toilet. A hair brush, a bottle of shampoo, hand lotion, these were, you know, things Mom’s are supposed to give you, but NOT on Chanukah! 

After every 4th or 5th horrible gift Mom would let loose with a real one. A Barbie doll for my sister, a Tonka Truck for my brother. I was the queen of the tomboys and wanted the GI Joe Action figure or The Big Jim action figure. Mom finally relented after years of watching me use the Barbie dolls as road kill for my brother’s Tonka trucks and gave me Big Jim the first night of Chanukah and GI Joe on the last. 

The problem was that Mom never bought anything that was not on sale. Paying for full price for something was completely un-Kosher! This wouldn’t have bothered me much if it weren’t for the fact that on sale, often meant, “damaged goods.” The best thing about the “Big Jim” doll was that this muscular boy was supposed to Karate chop through wood, through all sorts of things. You would push the button on his back and  “Wham” karate chop. When you pushed the back of my damaged Jim, all he did was twitch. So instead of getting a super hero I got a neurotic. Perfect! What could be more Jewish than neurosis? MY GI Joe came sans his army uniform. I got a naked GI Joe. I wrapped him in a handkerchief. In his makeshift rope, he looked more like Jesus than Joe. 

By the time the 8 days of shampoo and body lotion was over, the whole town was lit up for Christmas. So beautiful lights and Christmas trees in every window! Nobody seemed to be grumpy! Every one smiled, every one said Merry Christmas. My friends talked about sipping hot cider as they watched Christmas specials on TV on Christmas Eve and then opening their gifts in the morning. Beautiful brand new gifts in brand new wrapping paper (not the old newspaper mom used) were waiting for them under the twinkling Christmas tree! 

“Can’t we have Christmas too? “I begged my mother. 

“That’s GOYISH!” mom screamed in horror, “Next thing you’ll be asking to eat ham. Why not stick another knife in your mother’s heart?!” 

After I grew up, I contented myself to do what Jews do on Christmas. We go to Chinese restaurants, (the only thing open). We go to the movies. We stay home and watch “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” We cry. And then I started to do something better. Celebrate Christmas. Most of my friends were Christian. Why not join them? Glorious Christmas Eve suppers at Anne Marie’s house sipping spiked apple cider around the fire, watching “It’s a wonderful life” and eating apple pie with my BF Trey.  It was all mine! I felt like I’d been given the VIP ticket to the party I’d been missing my whole life! 

Then, 10 years ago I hit the holy grail of Christmas. I started going out with an Italian Catholic, born and raised in Brooklyn. “My family is your family,” Lydia explained as we drove to her sister V’s house for Christmas. I’ve had Christmas dinners before, but this was my first Italian Christmas dinner. It’s like Uber Christmas. There was her sister, her other sister, their husbands, kids, grand kids, cousins, grand parents, aunts, uncles. There must have been 35 people there! My family’s idea of a huge dinner was when we invited Bob the handyman to join us for day-old goulash. With Bob we were six.  

Everyone brought something; manicotti, meatballs, escarole, three kinds of pasta, two kinds of sauce, chicken cutlets for Pete who doesn’t eat red meat, a huge prime rib, all sorts of anti-pasto and for me, for just me, a special bowl of gluten free pasta. “Lyd told me you can’t eat gluten. I hope this is okay.” V said and I nearly cried with joy.  

There were 35 hugs and kisses hello and 35 hugs and kisses good-bye and every one of them genuine. After eating enough food to feed Pittsburgh I collapsed onto the easy chair and Lyd’s 4-year- old twin nieces climbed onto my lap. “Tell us another story!” they squealed. “Do you want to hear the one about the alligator who almost bit my tushy off?” “YESSSS!” they squealed in delight. 

Mom I love you, (wherever you are), but you got it wrong. You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas. Okay yes, there is the Jesus stuff, but you know, besides that, it’s a time to celebrate peace, love and joy. This Jew is loving me some Christmas joy! And.. um.. Penne in red sauce. YUM!  

** A little side-note here. Sadly, like for many of us, the big extended family extravaganza is postponed this year due to the Pandemic. But next year! Dreidels and Egg nog here I come.