Coffessions of a Bad Blogger

It’s time for me to confess. I have been very very bad. Those of you who have subscribed to my blog are the sweetest, most wonderful readers that any writer could wish. And I have sorely neglected you for almost a year.

I do have an excuse. Do you want to hear it? It’s a good excuse, as excuses go.

Last fall I started the school year with an insane schedule, homeschooling kids, teaching 12 hours of classes, preparing classes, helping out one day a week at preschool, working on a video project, canning, bringing in the garden harvest, keeping up the urban homestead and all that. I had no time for anything, I was sure.

My preschool class learning about American Halloween and bobbing for apples, which I should have posted last November.

My preschool class learning about American Halloween and bobbing for apples, which I should have posted last November.

But the longing to write, really write, write something big had been building in me for years.

So, there was that one hour in the week when I had a bit of time, while I watched the kids at preschool during their nap time. I had my laptop with me but no internet connection, so I couldn’t do brainless, relaxing things like catch up with email and Facebook friends. I could have written blog entries like a good blogger… But instead I decided to start a novel.

I thought I would never get anywhere doing it one hour a week but that was all I had. And you start with what you have. This was a novel that had been festering inside of me for twenty years. For most of that time, I thought it was just a weird daydream, not a novel… well, as it turned out three novels. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, I started writing one hour a week. That lasted about a month and a half. It was grueling. I couldn’t remember what I had done from one week to the next and spent half my time rereading what I had already written. And the topic was pretty challenging.

Then, something shifted. The characters – particularly one of the minor characters who I didn’t even think was supposed to be a major part of the story – reached out of the computer, grabbed me by the front of my shirt and yanked me into the screen and into their world. I landed with a thud and when I looked up and got my bearings I was solidly in the alternative reality of my story.

I could kind of walk around in my real life and go through the motions of eating, sleeping, teaching classes, taking care of children and all that but I was pretty spacey. I was mostly in that other world. And the only way to get out of it was to write myself out. So, I started writing in earnest.

My family was patient, mostly. And my friends.

My family was patient, mostly. And my friends.

How did I find the time in between classes, children, housework and all my other responsibilities? There is this time called “night” when everyone else goes to sleep. I discovered that there is lots more time there than I thought. I also decided to try “unschooling” the bad way and let the kids mostly run wild. I cooked the same old dinners over and over again while thinking about my plot and my husband and children had to eat lots of lentils, borscht and lamb stew all winter long. I always had to pull myself out of my daze to teach and I did, but I eagerly dove back into writing as soon as I was done. I snatched every moment.

And three months later I had a series of three books. I won’t tell you all about them here because that isn’t the end of the story really. That was February. Why didn’t I write to you in February? Well, I was editing. Editing takes several months too. Then, I had to figure out how to publish the books and I discovered that the publishing industry is in turmoil due to the massive changes brought about by ebooks and traditional publishing of unknown authors is almost non-existent. I half-heartedly tried to find an agent but it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen, no matter how good my books are.

Today, self-publishing or indie publishing isn’t the pasty, pale desperate freak of the side show that it used to be, sitting right next to the slovenly oaf of the vanity press. Now self-publishing is mainstream and it is the way that new authors get a leg up, make a modest living and thus have time to write.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three months. I’ve been learning how to build websites, format ebooks, build “social media platform”, design book covers, negotiate with photographers and models and other such essential and mostly frighteningly technical skills of indie publishing. I don’t think I”ve had to learn so much in such a short time since my early days as a war correspondent in Macedonia.

So, do you forgive me yet?

Many of my readers here have been incredibly generous with your time, telling other people about my blog posts and helping people who like to read emotionally real writing find my blog.

I have gotten a lot of comments about how you miss my blogging on parenting, adoption, inner healing and social inclusion. I will work on that. Essentially, my books are about social inclusion versus exclusion and the potential of healing for outsiders. I use a world of contemporary alternative reality and harrowing adventure to do it. Many readers may simply think it is a distopian thriller with a fantasy twist meant to entertain. And it is that too. My copy editors have all said it grabs you by the back of the soul, trusts you into the story with real people as the characters and doesn’t let you go entirely even when you’re done reading. So, it’s a gripping story and it takes a swing at issues you care about.

Anyway, that’s my excuse. I have been writing about the same things I did before, just in a different way.

Here is where I’m going to publish it in the next few weeks: http://www.ariefarnam.com/new

Here's the "author picture" that Ember and Tomas worked for hours to get, in order to help me look "cool" to lots of readers. Thanks a million, you two.

Here’s the “author picture” that Ember and Tomas worked for hours to get, in order to help me look “cool” to lots of readers. Thanks a million, you two.

I have also started a few blogs on that site for specific topics. There is one about writing and books at: http://www.ariefarnam.com/books

And there is one about practical herb lore, including a delicious recipe for a healthy summer drink that can replace pop and kids will still love it: http://www.ariefarnam.com/herbs

There will be more soon.

I have scaled back many of my other activities and I’m now devoting a lot more time to writing. (The kids aren’t really scalable, so it still isn’t exactly full time.) And I hope I will be writing A LOT more in the future.

There is one major factor in whether or not I’ll have time to write and that is how well I can do in indie publishing and the key to that is getting the word out, far and wide. Here are the ways you can help and thus insure that I don’t neglect you for so long again:

1. Go to my website at http://www.ariefarnam.com and SIGN UP for brief, monthly updates about my books by clicking on the big orange button. Then, tell all your friends, both online and off, to do the same. This is the single most important thing for independent writers. I won’t spam you or your friends. I will treat the email list with extreme care and I have it protected with powerful anti-spam programs. This is the only way to connect with people effectively in a world that is otherwise full of noise and plenty of things you don’t really want to read. This is how you find what you do love to read.

2. “Like” the Facebook page of my books: http://www.facebook.com/kyrennei

Thank you again for being wonderful and supportive readers.

Arie Farnam

Our life when we leave the house

Some days ago, I took the kids to Prague to see a small park featuring large models of dinosaurs. Shaye had been showing some interest in dinosaurs, not much but a little, and I am grateful for any interest beyond her continuing distress over differing skin colors. She has been acting out a lot more than usual, since she brought up the issue of her fear of “being black.” She rejects books with pictures of brown-skinned people. At night, she cries, “I have no eyes. I have no hair. I have no hands…” She insists that she is ugly and she can’t be “a princess” like her friends. She throws unexplained tantrums far too often. She talks a lot about hating anyone who is mean and wanting to hit people with her wooden sword.

So, dinosaurs are a wonderful interest. But getting to the dinosaur park requires the ordeal of packing, getting the kids out the door, walking to the train station and two full hours of public transportation one way. We had to get up early and Shaye was in a bad mood, as usual. She whined, complained and resisted at every step of the process of getting dressed and ready to go. I initially tried to give her the choice of not going, but it seemed clear that she would choose to resist and not go and then be inconsolable and intolerable to live with for the rest of the day as a result. So, I muscled my way through.

Once we finally got on the train, after a 20 minute walk through muddy fields, everything looked good. I sat back with a feeling of accomplishment. The kids were happily looking out the window. The worst was over… I hoped. Shaye did try to hold her leg out all the way across the aisle, so that Marik’s slightly swinging feet could be theoretically perceived as “kicking” her. She shrieked and carried on over that but such that really doesn’t even count as an incident by our reckoning.

Once we reached the city, we walked through the crowded railway station. I convinced the children to walk in a line with me in front, wielding my white cane, then Marik and Shaye bringing up the rear, as theoretically the more responsible of the two. I could hear people hissing in disapproval and drawing back from us as we moved. This had the advantage of clearing a path but I do wonder how long it will take Shaye to notice that I draw so much public scorn and be troubled by that as well.

The problem isn’t that I’m carrying a white cane in and of its self. People here are solicitous and make a point of trying to “help” blind people, although they shy away from any other category of disability. It appears that blind people are the fashionable ones to be seen helping. Rather the problem is that I have children. I have heard people hiss on a number of occasions, “How dare she have children?” or “Those poor children. What an irresponsible woman that is. How could she risk passing it on to them?” I have resisted the urge to confront them and point out that the children are adopted, partly because I don’t want the kids exposed to a scene and partly because that would seem somehow disloyal to all the blind women who do have biological children.

This time I couldn’t hear any words in the whispers, but I could hear a rolling wave of whispers as I moved and people do not generally whisper in crowded train stations. Still it was again only really a minor irritant. I do not need those people and, as far as I am concerned, they might as well not exist. We reached the escalator heading to the lower level and the subway stations. Neither of the kids can navigate getting on and off of escalators alone, so I have to do a tricky maneuver, grabbing one kid under each arm, while still keeping hold of my cane and backpack and skipping onto and then off of the escalator. As I executed the final part of this, I heard a loud whisper from up ahead, this time in a quite different tone: “Now, that’s a Mama!” My heart fairly skipped a beat. I do wish I heard more of that sort of comment.

We got onto one subway train and then off at a transfer station. We then had to navigate some super fast, long distance escalators to reach the other subway line. These escalators turned out to be too fast for me to hustle both kids on at once safely. I tried but Shaye panicked, seeing the speed of the escalator and as I was getting on, she squirmed out of my grasp and landed on the floor, as Marik and I were swept upwards. Shaye started to scream in terror. Given that these escalators are in fact dangerous, I had to do something fast. I detached Marik’s clinging hands from me and raced backward down the escalator as fast as I could, while he screamed above me. I grabbed up Shaye and then ran back up to comfort Marik. I was well winded after this and was glad I had reacted quickly. As fast as those escalators were, any delay would have made the feat impossible. Sometimes someone has helped me get both children onto these fast escalators but in this case our immediate area was deserted.

At the top of the escalator we approached the next train. There is usually a small gap between the platform and the subway, again just wide enough to make it difficult for the children to jump alone. I deal with this by holding them each by the hand on either side of me and holding my cane with only a spare finger, so that I can correctly judge the gap and tell the kids when to jump and make sure they don’t fall. Just as we were approaching the gap this time, I felt someone seize me from behind, by the same arm that I held both a child’s hand and my cane.

I glanced back just enough to catch the impression of a middle-aged woman. Then, she wrenched my arm upward as if to haul me bodily into the subway. At this violent movement both children lost their grip on my hands. Marik sprawled on the ground inches from the gap and the wheels of the train. Shaye staggered back a step. “Leave off!” I cried and shook myself free of the woman’s grip, grabbed Shaye’s hand and Marik by the seat of his pants, before he could be trampled by the crowd surging toward the open doors of the subway and barreled my way inside. To the woman’s credit, she did later alert me to our stop, when the subway’s speaker system failed, and I couldn’t tell where the stops were. She was well intentioned, though I still have a hard time understanding what would possess someone to ignore “help” the blind adult and ignore the presence of toddlers trying to get across a gap.

We reached the final subway stop and headed for yet another escalator, where an older man did actually ask if he could help one of the children on and, after receiving permission, he did so quite competently. We emerged from the subway maze into the open air again, feeling disoriented. I wished I had printed out an actual map rather than relying on memory, but a mother with two young boys cheerfully helped me figure out which direction to start in, which is always the greatest chore. Still, we had to wander around for a few blocks, as the streets did not seem to match my recollection of the online map. Finally, Shaye shouted that she could see a dinosaur, which turned out to be a giant plastic dinosaur head helpfully mounted on the front of the park. I can’t wait until she can read street signs.

After our two-hour train trek, the children were exhausted and a chill, late winter wind was blowing across the park. They only lasted about a half an hour at the dinopark. We then sought out the warm kitchen of a Facebook friend in the area. I will say that for “social media”.

A few days, later I was on the subway again, this time alone and I saw a man, clearly totally blind, being hauled along rudely by another middle-aged woman. I had been aware of his presence walking near me in the crowd for some time from the tell-tale rhythmic scrape of his cane and then I could make out the scene clearly as the crowd thinned while getting on the subway. I felt my blood begin to boil and I turned to the man, hoping to do something helpful. “Do you want an …?” My language skills failed me and I could not remember the word for “elbow”. The man, misunderstanding my intention, pulled furiously away. “Just leave me alone!” he cried. “I’m a mobility instructor for Christ’s sake!”

The woman on his other side managed to keep a hold of him, despite his protests. I was so frustrated that I spoke before I could stop myself, “Don’t grab people like that, woman!” She instantly turned him loose and he struggled toward the door on his own, stonily avoiding me. The woman who had grabbed him ended up standing next to me in the subway, so I explained it to her, including the dangerous incident with my children, and how you actually do guide a blind person, if you ever have to. She thanked me graciously and truly appeared interested in understanding.

But I was left feeling ashamed and utterly confused. I was ashamed because I had caused even more of a scene for the poor man, who clearly has to deal with this sort of thing every time he goes out, just as I do, and who was trying to just ignore the woman gripping him and get it over with. As I sat in a tram later that day, I watched as three people raced toward the tram from the back, hoping to catch the tram before it left. They were all close together, not a group but running in a line, briefcases flailing. Two of them hopped aboard and the third had his hand on the door, when it slammed shut. On the trams the doors are controlled manually by the drivers, who are required to watch for passengers near the doors in their mirrors. This was clearly on purpose. I craned to get a better look at the man and as the tram pulled away, I caught a glimpse of his face, not enough to tell his expression but enough to see the slightly tanned color of it… tanned in the late winter when no one should have a tan. I knew that was what I would see but it still made my insides curdle.

I had to blink back tears. I could see clearly in my mind an incident that had happened more than ten years before. I was on a tram, just like this one, when I was still new to this country and I couldn’t speak Czech well. I saw two dark-skinned, probably Romani, children get on the tram with colorful school satchels, clean jackets and smiling faces. A drunk man with straggly gray hair had grabbed both of them by the collar and the driver had held the door for him, while he threw them out onto the platform. Then, the driver had slammed the doors and sped away.

At the time, I had been so upset I could not speak for a moment. The drunk then careened up and down the aisle, cursing the Roma, while the other passengers sat in their seats, ignoring the entire incident. I finally gained the strength to stand and told him to get off the tram. I stumbled over my words, as I couldn’t speak the language well yet, so I garbled my threat to call the police on him on my cell phone and when I went to do it, I realized that I didn’t know how to call the police in this country and I knew with certainty that they would simply laugh at me. The drunk new it too. He laughed at me, spitting his fetid saliva all over me, while the other passengers continued to ignore everything. It was bad enough at the time but the memory now is doubly painful. The idea that something like that might happen to my children with their beautiful, slightly tanned faces is paralyzing.

Now, a few days later, Shaye has come to me and told me that it was not merely her bruised finger that made her terrified of being “black.” She says that her friend, a little girl named Kaja, at preschool told her she is “black and ugly.” After she told me, Shaye was so depressed that she could only sit on my lap and cry most of the evening and continued to be clingy and sad in the morning. I have tried everything I can think of in terms of comforting words, explaining, supporting, exploring her emotions, reassuring… None of my words appear to make any difference to Shaye. And why should they? Whether she consciously knows it or not, some part of Shaye senses what kind of society we live in.

And yet, I know this one thing. I know that it is possible to stand against the storm. If you have a strong family and even a very few friends. The social world may be a horrid, ugly place. But there is comfort and joy and hope around a family table and by a warm hearth. There is goodness in a garden and shared games. Why should it matter so much? I know it did matter to me, when I was a child. It mattered a great deal and it hurt a great deal. I wish it did not have to hurt my children as well. I wish I could somehow armor them against it, make them understand from an early age how fickle and ignorant people can be. Even in situations much less extreme than our own, you really can only depend on yourself and that small circle of trust that you have built with those you love.

(I apologize for the rough and unedited nature of the last few blogs. All this is quite exhausting qnd it is all I can do to get it down int he first place. Read at your own risk.)

Little roots torn from the soil

Marik came down with a mysterious fever yesterday and cried himself to sleep on the couch. Shaye and I snuggled up with him and read stories, including her book of pictures and comments from when she was little. It didn’t take long for the tough issues to come up again. It started with a line that most white trans-racial adoptive parents have heard, “Mama, I want to be white.”

I managed to handle it fairly well, asking why rather than reacting with shock and dismay. I mentioned that I have sometimes wanted to have dark skin because I think it is so pretty and I have always wanted to have clean non-freckled skin like Shaye’s. We did a little fantasy about what it would be like if we could change our skin colors. But I also told her that she is incredibly beautiful. And finally, as it didn’t seem like any of this was “working”, I asked again if someone had said it was bad to have dark skin. Her response sent an ice cycle into my gut.

“You did… when I was a baby.”

I did? Well… I never said it was “bad” to have dark skin but when she was a baby, before we thought she was following conversations, we did talk more openly about the hardships of being Romani in this country. And if a baby can’t exactly follow the conversation, what is to stop her from misinterpreting “hard” for “bad”? And why wouldn’t a kid wish for an easier life? Let it be a warning to other parents in our situation. I think I’ll put that up as my first major mistake. Don’t talk about the hard stuff in front of pre-verbal babies.

So, I explained that I don’t think it is bad and I never would have said that it is bad to have dark skin. But I have said that it is very hard to have dark skin in this country. It is hard to be Romani because some people are mixed up in their heads about it and they say mean things about Roma. I wanted to say more, to explain that this isn’t right and that it isn’t fair when Roma can’t get education or jobs, but she started yelling nonsense and acting up. I asked her if that meant that she would like Mama to be quiet and let it be for awhile. She said, “Yes, be quiet.” So, I was.

But in the evening before bed it came up again. She started crying because we read a Winnie the Pooh book about how Tigger decides he wants to get rid of his stripes but then is convinced by all his friends that stripes are good and part of what makes Tigger special. Shaye was sad because she doesn’t have stripes. So, I tried listing the special things she does have.

Me: “You have beautiful long curly hair.”

Shaye: “I don’t have any hair.”

Me: “You have clear blue gray eyes.”

Shaye: “I don’t have any eyes.”

Okay, wrong tact.

Shaye: “What do you have?”

Me: “I have long hair that is a bit gray.”

Shaye: “I want your hair.”

Me: “I have little dots on my arms.”

Shaye: “I want dots.”

Me: “And Marik has big brown eyes.”

Shaye: “I want Marik’s eyes.”

Well, at least she doesn’t know all the stereotypes by heart yet.

Marik’s fever broke in the evening, so they went off to preschool again today. Preschool is the only place where they really get to see other kids regularly. Preschool is also where one of the teachers figured out at least Shaye’s Romani background based on her quick April tan and my admission that she was adopted here in the Czech Republic. Then, that teacher, who has been nothing but kindness and help to us, told the other teachers. I don’t begrudge that but it is a fact. And not all of the other teachers are as understanding. Two of them recently told my niece Ember their racist views in great detail until they drove her to tears. And they found out that Marik is Romani too, which is going to become obvious in another month when the sun reappears in any case.

What do you choose complete isolation from other children or a school where the teachers may view Shaye’s feisty temperament as a genetic ethnically based flaw and where casual comments could have devastating effects?

I know the American answer to that. I’ve read all the major books on trans-racial adoption. They say A. move away and B. find Romani friends. So, here is my explanation of our predicament, for the record.

I am legally blind. I can’t drive and it is very difficult for people with disabilities and particularly those who can’t drive to get a job in the US. Dusan’s English language abilities are very sketchy and due to dislexia he has little hope of improving them by much. If we moved out of the country, we would very likely be living in absolute poverty with Dusan working a minimum wage job and me lucky if I could find a minimum wage job that I could get to. That isn’t to say that poverty isn’t sometimes preferable but we aren’t quite there yet. We have not faced the full force of the racist society yet, because our children are still small. There may come a time when we have to leave but the risks of doing so are significant.

As for finding Romani friends, I am seriously perplexed. So far, I have tried reconnecting with Roma I knew as a journalist. I have tried hiring a Romani babysitter/language teacher. And I have tried getting connected to Romani organizations. I have done everything short of stopping the rare (read around once a year) Romani families I happen to pass on the street and begging them to be friends with us. Part of the problem here is that the Roma are a 3 percent minority here, at most. It is a very odd situation, given that in most places with significant interethnic tension, the minority is large enough to matter economically. Here the Roma are blamed for every difficulty of the country, as if they comprised a third of the population but they are in truth rarely seen.

In any event, I have failed at every turn. Whether this is my fault or something to do with the very protectionist Romani culture, I don’t know. Of the few Roma I knew well when I worked in Romani communities as a journalist most have simply disappeared. I went in person to find the homes of some of my Romani friends on the other side of the country, only to find the homes destroyed and the people gone. My closest Romani friend disappeared into an underworld of drugs and fear about a year ago and I have not heard from him since. One family, who remains stable and successful, has stopped speaking to me over what I assume must have been a cultural gaff on my part and even they live an eight-hour train ride away.

I tried hiring a Romani babysitter. I found one woman who was kind and good to the children and willing to come. I paid her better than a regular babysitter because I wanted her to work on speaking Romani language to the children as actively as possible. She did her best and for three short months we had her for one morning every week. But as time passed her health deteriorated until she rarely came and she had no energy to engage with the children at all when she did come. I finally went looking for another babysitter but I have not been able to find anyone and now Zdena, the woman who used to come, does not answer her phone or Facebook messages anymore. I have very few contacts among Roma in Prague, so mostly I asked around among Romani organizations.

Most of the Romani organizations I have approached were either geographically distant and thus unable to hep with local connections or simply not interested or in a couple of cases openly hostile. One man who came highly recommended by some of the better contacts in other cities, picked up the phone and said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about you,” with a sarcastic tone and then refused to say if he would pass on my offer of a babysitting job to others. I have not heard or read that Roma are as suspicious of interethnic adoption as some African American groups are, but it seems logical that they might have some of the same concerns. Perhaps this is the problem.

In any event, I hope that those who cry that trans-racial adoption stamps out the culture of the children might think a moment on this. I know for a fact that there are many adoptive families who either purposefully or through lack of awareness rob their trans-racially adopted children of their identity and culture. But how hard do birth communities make it for those of us who want the connection! Given that the Romani community does not want its children stolen away by children’s homes or adoption, there should be at least passive acceptance of those who try to make their way back, if not active support. I know it is easier said than done. The Romani community here in the Czech Republic has been beaten into the dust so many times that every effort at organizing comes from a massive gathering of strength and courage.

I do have plans, not great plans but little plans made out of match sticks and straw. There are a couple of big Romani music and dance festivals coming up. We will go and do it up well. But festivals will not result in relationships. The only thing I can think of for that is that as the children get older, I will volunteer to do English or art classes at Romani children’s summer camps run by charities or at some of the inner-city after-school clubs run by other organizations. At least then we would come into real contact with Romani kids. Generally the kids attending such programs will be eight or nine at the youngest. Until our children are close to that age, we will be pretty much on our own.

As I held my children on either side of me, one burning with fever and the other wracked by the self doubt brought on by a racist society, I noted how similar the two ailments seem to be. Both are painful reactions to an invasion of something that poses danger. Both children needed to be held and comforted.. And yet the fever passes and the identity struggle is only beginning.

A tale of four cousins

Literally, as I was trying to send the last post a fresh onslaught of tension erupted. We are spending the weekend at the Dusan’s parents farm in South Bohemia. The farm is fairly bleak, a muddy yard. There is an ancient Communist era playground nearby that consists of a few iron sticks in the ground, one merry-go-round and one half-way broken slide. There landscape around is agricultural and the forest is too far to be a convenient walk. There is not much to attract children. One of our main reasons for coming is the hope of seeing Dusan’s brother’s kids, our children’s only cousins this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

For years, this has been a point of tension. Dusan’s brother Martin is not the type to respect our lifestyle or values. He is a wheeling-dealing businessman type. He is a significant citizen of a nearby town, in with the political elites. He spends much of his time at various networking events and has expensive hobbies. His wife Eva enjoys being the wife of a prestigeous man and is very conscious of what is in style and who is in or out of social favor. Needless to say, we’ve never been exactly close. Eva rarely misses an opportunity to comment on my lack of up-to-date wardrobe and lack of make-up or hair dye to cover my “embarrassing” gray hairs.

I have had moments of sympathy with her, such as when she told me the story of how Martin proposed to her and accidently called her by the name of his former girlfriend. As in “Won’t you marry me, Alena… er… I mean, Eva?” But those few moments of female solidarity have been buried in years of tension.

Martin has often felt closer to us. Dusan loves him deeply as his younger brother and they often feel an understanding between them. And yet, I have always felt a strange disconnect under the surface with him. I have generally dismissed my misgivings and tried to take Martin at face value but today that backfired.

Ever since their older daughter Evicka, who is nine, could talk, she has been oddly attracted to me. I have always loved small children and certainly, before we had kids, she was the closest child that I could put my love for children into. I did play games with her and bring her art supplies to play with together. I never gave her candy or bribed her in any classic way, but I was activelhy an aunt. From the time she was about four, Evicka has responded with enthusiastic love and adoration.

Whenever we met at the grandparent’s place she would immediately leave her mother’s side and remain glued to me for the duration of the visit. And this bothered Eva. Whether it had to do with my lack of social acceptability, I don’t know, but she was consternated and jealous. By the time, Evicka’s younger sister Bara and then Shaye came along, Eva had responded by trying to keep her children away from me.

In the beginning, I would always call Eva to try to coordinate visits to the grandparent’s farm, so that we might all end up there at the same time. But it quickly became apparent to both Dusan and me that our efforts had the opposite effect. If we let them know when we were coming, they would initially promise to come and then end up with “other plans.” It was soon only major holidays that grandma coordinated and times when we came unexpectedly that ever allowed us to see our neices.

Both Shaye and Evicka have been very disappointed as a result. Bara has not had much of a relationship with us because she was so young that it was easier for her mother to keep her away from us, even during visits, and Marik has scarcely seen them four times in his life and has little sense of who they are.

But now Evicka is nine. She was given an emergency cell phone last year and at first her parents refused to give her or me the number to it, but eventually she discovered the number and gave it to me, asking me to tell her when we were planning to come, so that she could get her parents to let her visit.

Trying to be make the best of a difficult situation, I did let her know with a text message a day before we were to come this week, after she had messaged me several times during the week. As a result she had a big argument with her parents because she wanted to come to the farm this weekend to see us and they claimed that there were other plans. The grandmother told us that Evicka and Bara are here almost every weekend otherwise.

As it turned out, this evening Martin showed up alone to talk to his parents and brother, without the children. In the past, it seemed that he was at least making a small effort to bring the children and so I stopped him on the veranda and asked him if he could try to get the girls to be able to come here to see Shaye and Marik this weekend. His response shook me to the core.

“We thought we were going to the mountains today but we didn’t go. The girls are at home. They’ve been upset because you sent the message and they want to come here. And they aren’t coming. I don’t know. We might go to the mountains tomorrow or we might stay home but we’re not coming here.”

By the norms of this society of emotional prudes, I should have simply turned away, swallowed the pain and the grief of losing my children’s cousins and my neices to this animocity. But it is not in my nature. I am not Czech. I am emotional, even by American standards, and so I did not take it quietly. I agrued reasonably at first, to which Martin responded by repeating nonsense words whenever I tried to speak. Then, I “lost it” and called him a Czech word that is apparently very impolite. I did know it was impolite, if not it’s exact meaning. And things went down hill from there.

No one has ever mentioned whether or not Shaye and Marik’s Romani background is a factor in this tense relationship. Dusan and I have discussed it but have never been able to tell entirely, and yet in this country where the issue is so extreme, it is difficult to imagine that it plays no role. I have heard Martin’s virilently racist views on the Roma. When we were in the process of adopting children, he once told me in the snowy darkness outside a family party when he was mildly drunk that he had “the political influence” to see that we would not be able to adopt Romani children. “But I won’t do it,” he told me magnanismously, lord to peasant. At the time, I clung to the hope that he would keep his word. When we ran into “Knife Sharpener Lady” and she seemingly out-of-nowhere tried to block us from adopting a second Romani child, I did wonder. I always wondered but out of loyalty to my husbands love for his brother I never let it go beyond a vague anxiety. Now, I wonder again. How much is this about Eva’s jealousy of my relationship with her daughter and how much is this about race relations?

I am left shaking and tearful. As usual, when adults can’t get along, all the children suffer for it. Shaye pleads again and again to see her cousins. Evicka fights futily with her parents. Evicka has been diagnosed with significant learning disabilities and ADHD. She struggles in school and her family is not particularly supportive. She is often sarcastically called, “Our little Einstein.” I tried to tell her before that this hurtful name can be turned back on itself. Einstein was learning disabled after all. I have tried to tell her that learning disabilities don’t mean one is stupid. But my encouragement seems to be far too little. Her self esteme is very low. I have never known a more caring and considerate child and yet she seems to have no defenses against the hardships life has dealt her.

So, tonight I pray that all of our children may somehow be given the strength they need to live and love well despite the blows they have to endure. And I pray that my own anger and hatred may somehow be magically turned into healing energy. Whether it is called god, goddess, spirit or ancestor, I hope that there is some spiritual power beyond my small abilities, because this is magic that I cannot work alone.

Mama, I’m not black!

I thought that eventually I would gently introduce my children to the issue of racial and ethnic prejudice, which we live with here in the Czech Republic. I had this plan to introduce the story of Ruby Bridges to them with a picture book, sometime next summer or next year (mainly sometime later… not now. 🙂 ).

But the Gods and children never do what you want. Over the past month, Shaye has become increasingly concerned about the color black and particularly people with dark skin. She started to get angry every time Dusan or I read one of our many children’s books with diversely colored people in them. Then, one day she came out with it and shouted, “I’m not black! I don’t want to be black!”

I felt near to panic. How could this happen? Our children have been as sheltered as it is possible to be in a country that is wracked with interethnic animosity. They only go to preschool two days a week and the preschool director has shown through her actions to be particularly kind and open-minded. Where could she have heard something negative about dark skin color? Where could she have heard any reference to her being black? My American neice Ember pointed out that the comment that started it all may have actually come from Romani kids at our monthly meetings with foster and adoptive families. It might not have been a negative comment, simply a question, “Are you black too?”

I can see it. Romani kids growing up in this country often refer to themselves as “Gypsies” or “blacks” because they have never been given any other vocabulary for their identity. They might easily ask that question because Shaye is definitely tan enough to not fit into the very pale Czech norm. So, it would be a natural and innocent question from a Romani child.

Two days later, Shaye was in the bathtub and a very dark purple… well, black bruise that had been on her fingernail for nearly two months, ever since she slammed her finger in the door finally broke and drained. She was elated. “Mama, look! I’m not black!” Oh, so was it an ethnic comment or was she just afraid, in that way of children that the strangely persistant bruise would stay there forever or even grow to cover more of her. She is very vain about her fingernails and was very said that one of them had this unsightly bruise on it.

For awhile, I thought that was all it was, but her protests over books with children of different colors continued. Shaye has particularly serious taste in childrens books. She would rather here about real kids than Dr. Seuss much of the time. We were reading a story about a little girl in South Africa. The story went something like this: “This little girl goes to the Number 6 primary school. Here are her friends. They are very happy to go to their school. A few years ago, there was a rule that said that they couldn’t go to the same school. All the white children had to go to one school and the black children had to go to a different school and the Indian children had to go to yet another school. It was a silly rule because the color of someone’s skin is not that important. The children are very happy now that they can all go to the same school and be friends.”

Shaye stopped me, “Ï don’t want her to go to my school.”

Me: “Why not?”

Shaye: “I don’t like black people.”

Me, trying not to sound TOO distressed: “Oh, why don’t you?”

Shaye: “They look like monsters.”

Me, grasping for straws: “Well, I think she’s pretty. She can go to my school.”

Shaye: “I’m not black.”

Me: “No, you’re not black. You’re kind of cinnamon colored. Look, what color is my hand and what color is your hand?”

Shaye: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, look at the picture. Does the little girl look really black? Her shirt is black but her face isn’t really black. It is brown.”

Shaye, noncommitally, “Hmmmm…”

Me: “And look, the paper is white. Is my hand the same color as the paper?”

Shaye: “Yes.”

Me: “Well, people call me white, just like they call that girl black but i’m not really white. I’m more like bread-colored (if you are talking about our whole grain bread) and that girl is more like chocolate colored.”

Shaye: “I’m white.”

Oh, for crying out loud, what do I say now? They did not teach you this kind of stuff in token multiculturalism classes at my university. Do I ägree and let her sayu she’s white because she is close enough to white that, at least in the winter, no one in America would argue with her? Would that not cheapen her Romani identity and teach her that I agree that white is preferable? Do I argue with her and try to persuade her that she is Romani and that Roma are supposed to have darker skin, even though some are much lighter-skinned than her and I have known completely culturally competent Roma who were as pale as me? Judge the response I chose if you will, but nothing is simple about this.

Me: “Well, you’re colored like bread with cinnamon in it.”

Shaye: “Hmmmm…”

Me: “Do you think we are really very different from that little girl who has dark skin?”

Shaye silent.

Me: “Let’s see. You know how some apples are red and some are green on the outside?”

Shaye: “Hmmm…””

Me: “Well, when you open them up they are all just apples on the inside and they are all sweet. People are like that. On the outside people are different colors and speak different languages but we’re all pretty much the same on the inside. Just like I’m American and Papa is Czech and you and Marik are Roma. But we’re all pretty much the same and we make our family with lots of good food and music and people from three different cultures.”

Shaye: “Mama, they have to let you go to school even if you are American.”

Me, trying to keep up: “Well, yes, I can go to school too. But do you know what? When I was a little girl, there were some people who didn’t want me to go to the school in our town, just like that little girl in the book couldn’t go to school with the kids who are different colors from her.”

Shaye: “Why?”

Me, carefully keeping my voice light and without emotion: “You know how my eyes are different from other people’s and I can’t see ver good? Well, when I was a little girl, some teachers and other people didn’t want me to go to school just because of that. That is just as silly as saying someone can’t go to school because their skin is a different color.”

Shaye, vehemently angry: “Those are mean, yucky teachers! I’m going to get my sword and hit them until they’re dead!”

Me, trying not to show that I am shocked by the intensity of her outburst: “Honey, that kind of thing really makes you angry and it makes me angry too but we can’t hurt people, even when we’re angry.”

Ï’ve known since the beginning that there would come a day where I would have to say something like, “Honey, you know, most Romani children in this country are not allowed to go to good schools either, just because they are Roma. That is really wrong. It is a terrible thing and it hurts Romani kids in our country. There are lots of people who think that Roma are bad. They don’t understand and they are mixed up in their heads. They need to learn that Roma are the same as Czechs inside.” Was this the day? It seems far too soon for that. She’s only just turned four. How can a child that young possibly cope with such terrible things so close to home and not be hurt by it? And yet, she’d better hear the facts from me first with my interpretation, rather than the way she’ll hear them out there or even in preschool. Even well meaning Czechs will put it in ways that are unacceptable by my standards, such as “Roma just don’t know how to behave right, so they have to get speciaql education, but we feel sorry for them and we’ll help them. And you’re not like them. You’re a special good Romani girl.” Grrrr….

So, I opened my mouth to say it. To try, to strike a blow against the beast of racism with my puny little fists, to fight the battle… I said the first three words, and then…

Shaye: “Mama, I want a book about fairies.”

Me, finally checking my watch, “Oh my! it is suddenly an hour passed your bedtime! How time flies.”

I’m still not sure if I did well or not. I’m sure I messed something up in there. But hopefully, she’ll take the good average of my comments over the years, rather than the screw ups.

On the positive side, in the morning in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, Shaye declared, “I’m the same and Mama is the same and Marik is the same and Papa is the same even though they are boys and Eliska is not the same because she is a cat.”

Back in the Czech Republic

We’ve had three months in the US with somewhat limited computer and internet access and very little time to write. Now, we’re back and more will follow.

This is how we described Czech spa wafers to the American cousins

You know when you’re back in the Czech Republic when….

– A store clerk tells you they don’t want to sell you anything.
– A cell-phone service provider agent tells you he knows the advertising lists false prices and he is glad that you won’t be using his company because you would obviously be a difficult customer.
– The president says children are better off in orphanages than in foster families and other countries simply have not caught up to this “modern” way of thinking.
– Six people have been killed in racial hate-crime attacks in the past six months and that is several times worse than the record of Bulgaria AND there has been little or no mention these incidents on the local news, so no one beyond the victims families and international human rights groups is aware of it.
– A clerk returns change worth $10 in small coins and then shouts at the customer to immediately leave the window before she has time to pick up her change.
– When office A sends you to office B to get a certain paper and office B insists that the paper is at office A and you go around and around and around three times.
– People stare when you smile.
– At a workshop for parents of adopted children on how to deal with bullying the primary advice from a prominent psychologist employed by a humanitarian organization is, “Help your children blend in. Be sure to have them watch TV and get a Facebook account. Make sure they have reasonably fashionable clothes and accessories. If they are overly smart, not smart enough, disabled, fat or the wrong color, you’re just out of luck.”
– A North Vietnamese shop keeper is so relieved to see fellow foreigners that he gives American children free lollipops.
– You wake up in the morning and discover that you have been transformed into a beetle.

Last spring before we left for the States I had a bad dream, almost a nightmare but really just one of those fleeting images that comes into your head and you just know the background. It was primarily just an image of me rushing my children out the back door of our house at night with backpacks on their backs and the lights out. In the dream, I knew that my husband was upstairs pretending to sleep and a police car was parked in the road in front of the house. In my head I was planning how we would stealthily climb up the hill behind our house and slip down the railroad tracks to the next town. Beyond that I didn’t know.

The reason for it all was that the Czech Republic had declared all Romani children must live in children’s home institutions, regardless of their family situation, and we had been summoned to give up our children the next day. My husband was upstairs because he was planning to stay and pretend he knew nothing about the plans of his crazy foreign wife, so that he could buy time to sell our house and move our assets abroad.

It seemed awfully melodramatic, even for one of my dreams. But it comes to mind now as news events converge. The president, Vaclav Klaus, vetoed a reform bill meant to strengthen the foster care system and declared that children are better off in orphanages. And anti-Roma violence and harassment has spiked, so alarmingly that even my cynical predictions pale in comparison to reality. And yet, the preschool teacher, who incidentally has figured out my children’s background, came forward on her own and offered to make a special trip to drive Shaye to preschool because I am visually impaired and can’t drive.

When the night is darkest, the stars shine all the brighter.

A suspicious tan

The Czechs have a phrase they say when the good ol’ sheetrock hits the fan that I wish we had in English, “Uz je to tady!” (Blandly and completely inadequately translated as “It’s here already.”) It means that although the usage is closer to “the time has come” and the connotation is usually ominous.

On Tuesday morning, the preschool teacher who has taken to giving three-year-old Shaye a ride to school, came to the door and in the midst of morning pleasantries blurted out, “Where are your children from… er… I mean I know they are adopted but are they from an orphanage?” I said that they were. She stammered, “From here, from the Czech Republic?” I said yes again. “Really?” she asked incredulously. Neither of my children have typical Romani features, so people don’t always realize their background unless they know they are adopted and in the winter, sometimes not even then. This preschool has only known my children since February. Hence the fact that Shaye already has a darker tan than any Czech will have in August is a news flash.

I can always think of bright comments for things like this LATER, when I’m not on the spot, but at a moment like this I tend to freeze up. I just nodded and let it pass. The fact is that it is guaranteed that this woman knows the score. By “really?” she means, “So, you’re telling me they’re Roma, right?” but she won’t say it because she doesn’t want to poke the sleeping elephant in the living room of the country into wakefulness in her preschool classroom. Given that she almost certainly is convinced that my children are Roma, there seems little point in my pretending that she doesn’t. And yet, I have no more desire to see the elephant stomp around in the preschool either.

Shaye returned from preschool happy and bubbly. In the evening, I settled down to read her a bedtime story. But when I pulled out a story that had a preschool scene in it, she didn’t want a story anymore and wanted to go to bed without a story. This isn’t typical, so I asked her gently what was wrong and asked detailed questions, such as, “Do you like school?” She has always answered yes to this, even on days when she was so terrified to go with a new class and a new teacher that she was quivering and crying. This time she said “No.” Then, I was worried.

I tried probing for what had happened but she wouldn’t say, until I asked, “Did someone say something mean?” And immediately she nodded. “They” said she is “brown”, she said. More than a bit uneasy I asked if the teacher had said this and she said no. The kids? Yes.

So, she’s three and the only child of any ethnic minority in the preschool, one of only four in the whole town, and one of those is her little brother, one is in high school and the other looks even whiter than she does. I cuddled her and told her that her skin is beautiful and her nose is beautiful and her eyes are beautiful and so forth. I showed her my arm and pointed out the moles on it. I giggled and said I have a pock-a-dotted arm and Shaye has a pure tan arm. I said she is a little more brown than me and that’s okay. Pock-a-dots are okay and brown is okay. She lost interest. It is a puny response to such a huge problem. And yet, she is only three and what else do you do. I don’t know how mean or not the comments were. It is altogether possible that the children simply pointed out the difference. It is also altogether possible that a slightly older child said something with negative connotations but I can’t really respond unless Shaye can tell me more.

I called the preschool teacher and asked if she had overheard anything. She said she had no idea and seemed mostly concerned that I might be upset, not concerned about the children’s intereactions. But she is generally very kind and now she is alerted to the potential for issues and to the fact that I will be watching and listening very closely.

Shaye has been fine since. She went to preschool without complaint on Thursday, though she was perhaps not joyful in the morning. The only difference is that, while in the past she has never requested the same book over and over again as some children do, for the past two dys she has been requesting an unremarkable little book called Chrysanthemum, about a little mouse named Chrysanthemum who is teased at school because of her long, odd name. In the end, a wildly popular music teacher with an equally long and flowery name (Delphinium) magically appears to save the day and all the kids want to have long flower names after that. Well, okay, it isn’t exactly realistic but I’m counting my blessings that that is what Shaye wants to read over and over again.

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