Thoughts on the distances—literal and figurative—parents will go for their kids, and on the loss of a former colleague
A story from the time I worked at the now-defunct Denver newspaper the Rocky Mountain News:
When I started at the paper more than fifteen years ago, now—yikes!—two of my colleagues lived about 60 miles from our building. I was single, in my mid-twenties and, for the first time in quite a long time, living and working in a place not organized around a college campus built for walking. Because I have always hated driving, I chose to live in a downtown apartment a five-minute walk away from the newspaper. Living more than an hour away by car seemed like self-inflicted torture.
Why? I remember asking.
I didn’t want to make my kids change schools when I got the job.
That answer sat with me for a long time. It still does.
As a child, I moved and changed schools more times than I can remember. I graduated from the high school I started as a freshman only because it was a boarding school, which allowed me to beg for the chance to board so I could finish out my senior year when mom announced we were moving—again—at the end of 11th grade. My parents had the wherewithal to make it happen because of the very opportunities that had driven them to move me across cities and across borders so many times. At no point during any of those moves was my ability or willingness to adapt to a new school part of the decision to stay or go. Mom had to move for a job, so we moved.
Parents who would take on an arduous commute in exchange for stability for their kids seemed crazy to me. Why not just move, I thought to myself. (It seemed rude to share the thought out loud.) They’re kids. They’ll be fine. I was fine.
As a parent now, I sort of get it. Choices that seem pointless when it’s just you take on meaning when they are about your kids. I would go to great lengths to keep my kids happy, but I still believe kids can handle more than people often think they can. They are tougher and more resilient than their grown ups often give them credit for. Throughout 2020, I often thought that this pandemic was going to be tough on my daughters, but I also never doubted that they would get through it. That it could toughen them in important ways—not unlike the way leaving my family and my country behind toughened me up.
I say that, of course, understanding that my path was relatively easy and that choices are a privilege. My parents didn’t have to wake me in the middle of the night to flee a war zone, taking with us only the clothes on our backs. They didn’t ask me to walk miles on end toward an unknown—also largely unknowable—destination. They didn’t put me in a boat before they helped push it into the ocean, unsure of whether the shore on the other side would welcome us. But I know that just like the parents who have been forced into such circumstances, they did it all for me.
Having been a child immigrant, I can’t not think of immigrants and refugees without thinking of kids, the ones who walk toward the U.S. border with Mexico because there is nothing behind them except death, or the ones on the boats. I think of the ones here, among us, too, trying to be kids despite the trauma they have already lived through. Refugees and immigrants have been in the news a lot in the last few months. From the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, to the devastation in Haiti, to all the reasons that borders and inequity have forced parents to make desperate decisions and have dehumanized children from time immemorial.
Given the state of the world right now, perhaps it’s easier to push away thought of their suffering when so many other things make it hard to get through every day, but we shouldn’t. If we can understand why it’s hard on a child to change schools, we can understand why a parent would put their children on a boat to an unknown shore or on a road that leads to a wall—it’s because it’s even worse to stay.
We should know these stories. We need the stories. The stories are where the hope is.
And speaking of my time at the Rocky Mountain News:
In my short stint working in newspapers, I was lucky to have shared work space with some incredible journalists. Among them was Jim Sheeler, who passed away recently. Jim stood out because his specialty was writing obituaries. His best, The Final Salute, was about the man whose task it was to inform military families that their loved ones had passed away. He won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for the story, which served as the basis for a book of the same name, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. In the days following Jim’s death, I saw an outpouring of emotion on social media from old friends and colleagues of mine that led to a lot of reminiscing about those days. The experience of working together at the Rocky is more than 10 years away from us now, but it continues to bind us together, and it’s a time in my life I will always treasure.
Rest in power, Jim.
October Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond - The episodic structure makes this endearing work a perfect read-aloud book.
Of note: Paddington is an immigrant from “Darkest Peru.”
Currently on my night stand
Still Sorrowland by Solomon Rivers - I should have known fall is too busy a time to have picked up a novel this dense.
What the kids are reading these days
The Feelings Book: The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions by Lynda Madison - I bought this one for my nearly 10-year-old as part of a series created by American Girl to help guide girls through a healthy adolescence. She has enjoyed reading it in so far as she continued to do so after my initial prompting. (Recommendations by me she doesn’t like go to the bottom of her nightstand pile and stay there.) It’s a thoughtful, empathetic look and how and why you feel things to help you navigate growing up.
Recently Ordered from the Library
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles - I can’t tell whether I’ll get into this or not: Like Towles’ gem A Gentleman in Moscow, it’s historical fiction but unlike that slow burn, decades-long story, this one takes place over the course of ten days.
Books about refugees and immigrants, with a few nods to Hispanic Heritage Month, which appropriately straddles two months like our cultures straddle borders.
Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen - This marvelous novel tells the story of a mother and her two children from the time of their arrival in New Orleans from Vietnam at the end of that conflict through the catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Katrina upon the city. Nguyen captures the experience of being forced to continually seek refuge from war, from family, from ourselves—and what it means to finally find it.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - My review from 2017:
A heartbreaking story of two people who fall in love as their country deteriorates into a war zone and must endure the long, global journey of survival together, this book mixes harsh realism with elements of fantasy that do little to blunt its darkest moments but still offer a measure of hope that the protagonists draw on to get through them. The thoughtful, elegant prose paints a bleak picture not only of the current plight of refugees, but also of a future in which the world settles into an uneasy (perhaps unearned) peace. As a reflection on all the ways in which migration can change us physically and emotionally, the book constantly reminds its readers that migration is part of who we are as humans. It's in our souls. And despite how far it takes us and the many different homes we manage to create, we can hang on to enough of who we are to survive and we can return to where we started.
Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher - My review from 2020
This book takes places in an imagined, not-so-distant (2032) future in America in which racism and xenophobia have turned it into a police state targeting immigrants. It’s a horrific, dystopian story about a girl and her little brother trying to get to safety, made all the more scary by how eerily true to life some of it feels. This was a slow read for me because it is very dark offering little in the way of hope beyond the characters’ own will to survive. It’s tough to recommend because it’s bleak, but it feels like an important kind of warning that everyone should consider.
Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia - My review from earlier this year:
This work—about women, mothers and daughters living in a world set on breaking them—is successful thanks to its sharp prose. The writing is detailed but not overwrought, emotional but not maudlin, and most importantly, it looks at the truth of immigration and the loss of home in the face. (If you have read books in which Cuban exiles romanticize the island and life there after they left, this book will feel like a welcome palate cleanser.)
My only quibble is that this is a novel only in the loosest sense. More so, it’s a collection of stories about lives that are connected but that beat through their individual existences so powerfully that they pull the fragile narrative in too many directions. Maybe it’s a function of having read too many books in a row that bounce around perspectives and time, but in my mind, it’s a formula that has to be earned. However affecting the stories and characters are here, the nonlinear approach didn’t add anything for me. Garcia brings it together at the end, but it still feels like a collection of parts rather than a whole. (And to be clear, I don't mean that as a knock. It absolutely works as written.)
My reaction to the structure of this particular piece aside, Garcia is an excellent writer, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from her.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz - My review from 2020:
So far as Latin-American immigrant novels go, this one doesn’t tread much new ground. If anything, it stands out for dwelling in the mundane both in the Dominican Republic and the new world of Washington Heights in New York, without the aura of magical realism that these kind of stories like to dabble in. In the moments that you think it’s going to, you are reminded that this is a fifteen year old’s mind and imagination and the lingering magic is that of childhood, not the old country. It’s well told and well paced but doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere until the final quarter. It got me sobbing at several points near the end, maybe only because I am a mother and an immigrant, but the emotions were honestly earned even if it takes a while to dig into them.