in praise of soft targets

Turning schools into “hardened targets”: We heard about that this week. We talked about that this week. Someone prone to all-caps pronouncements, no need to say who, suggested putting guns in the hands of teachers, no need to say why. This debate consumes us all.

But as I cleaned the house on Saturday,  sweeping and scrubbing and repairing various mantelpiece items knocked to the floor by my cats, I started thinking about life as a pileup of damaged tchotchkes. (Doesn’t everybody? At least, everybody with cats?) I started thinking about brokenness. And vulnerability. And the phenomenon, the joy, the absolute necessity, of strolling through its bumpy contours as a soft target. I don’t care how much weaponry you strap to your thighs; if you think you can make it through without risking injury, you’re missing the point.

The point of living isn’t to harden yourself. The point isn’t to fortify the stronghold against some invasion. The point is the opposite. The point is to let people in. To put yourself at risk. To be welcoming and loving and curious and open. To be soft. This is the gist of living, the essence of courage that gets us out of bed and out the door and into the terrifying everyday. We face the world with fear suppressed by gumption, knowing it can knock us sideways but braving its elements anyway.

I was thinking about all this, and yes, it’s true, I think too much; that’s been established. I had started to think about Peter Capaldi’s departure from “Doctor Who” instead when there, amid all the cat-generated debris on my living room floor, I found this grinning snapshot of me ‘n  Mama Jeanne from sometime in the late 1970s. Judging from the dazzling mouthful of orthodontia, I was 14 or 15. My mother was 54 or 55 — around my age now. In those days she was busy teaching music, playing the violin, fixing every damn thing that broke in that blessed house, shepherding me and my sister through the horrors of adolescence and, through it all, caring for my father — who had no short-term memory whatsoever, probably due to his nine-day coma following a suicide attempt in ’74. She managed all this with wisdom, humor, fortitude, and pluck.

Mama was no wimp. You didn’t want to tick her off under any circumstances. But she was the ultimate soft target: putting herself out there with no restrictive armor, living and loving however she felt called to live and love, doing what had to be done. She needed to work; she worked. She needed to spend the last 18 years of her husband’s life tending to him while repeating everything she said over and over and over; she did. She surrendered herself to the many and uncatalogable hazards of loving, no matter what that commitment entailed. She didn’t harden herself. She opened herself, and in the process she became the strongest human being I’ve ever known.

Because softness is strength. Softness is mettle. Softness is the willingness to face danger and live in spite of it.

We’re born as soft targets. Cry at our mother’s breasts as soft targets. Climb on the bus as soft targets. Risk rejection as soft targets. Apply to college and try for jobs as soft targets. Fall in love as soft targets, knowing we might lose. Let our lovers inside us as soft targets, knowing they might leave.

We get pregnant as soft targets. Give birth as soft targets. Raise children as soft targets, knowing that every time they fall and weep and burn in fear, we will, too. Keep the faith as soft targets, whether the mystery we worship is humanity or God. Brave illness as soft targets. Bury our dear ones as soft targets. Laugh in the aftermath as soft targets, knowing that any moment we might collapse in tears.Wake to the next day as soft targets, and the next day, and the next.

Life is hard. Softness is the answer. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

spittin’ for the truth

“SPIT TO HERE,” it said, and so I did. I spat. I spat again. I spat in pursuit of a dream. I spat to know myself. I spat in the hopes of learning more about Me and My Ancestors and Where They Came From and What It All Means and Who The Heck Am I, Anyway? I spat because there’s only so much self-discovery you can glean  through extensive navel-gazing and online genealogy surfing,  although I have learned a few things, among them the cavernous depths of my navel and and likely traces of my paternal great-grandfather in Argentina.

No, he wasn’t Argentinian. He arrived there from Uruguay, but he wasn’t Uruguayan, either. He was Southern Italian. His wife, who remained in Uruguay and later left for the States with the kids, hailed from Italy, too. It’s a long story, ridiculously complicated — even without all the facts. But isn’t that true of every family tree? Isn’t everybody’s a tangled hodgepodge of the known and the unknown, the spoken and unspoken, the surmised, the passed down,  the gossiped about, the hinted at, the whispered, the feared?

Why did they leave Italy? There are theories. Why did he leave Uruguay? There are tales.

Mysteries and complexities abound. Truths untold turn into stories, then bend into myth over time. A dying matriarch might whisper a truth in her last breaths, or not. I know something about my heritage; I know that my father was Neapolitan, my mother EnglishScottishGermanFrench. But were they something else or more than that? Am I something else or more? Perhaps it’s a function of being older and sensing a limit to both my time on this planet and my understanding of things that are knowable. So few are. So many burning questions can’t be answered, not by anyone still living, that I desperately want to puzzle out and solve the handful that are.

I want to know.

And so, for Christmas, I asked my kids to get me a DNA kit from I delayed doing anything with it for the next month, not out of conflicted ancestral dread but from a lifelong tendency to misplace things in the process of trying to safeguard them (OH I DON’T WANT TO LOSE THIS SO I’LL JUST TUCK IT UP HERE ON THE DRESSER BEHIND THE CLOCK RADIO AND PRAYER BOOK AND COIN JAR AND X-FILES MUG AND RANDOM PILES OF PAPER AND SHIT). After stumbling across it I cracked it open and did all the required spitting, which took longer than anticipated, then sealed up the tube, packed it off in the enclosed box and walked it two blocks to the neighborhood mailbox, being careful not to dispatch it at the nearby trash bin where I once absentmindedly dropped off a month’s worth of bills.

It could take two months, maybe more, before I hear back on the results. And when they arrive, they could contain no new information. They could do nothing but confirm that I am what I always thought I was, plain ol’ ItalianEnglishScottishGermanFrench.

Or they may tell me something more or else. Something that clarifies my heritage while flipping the family’s history on its head. Either way, at least I’ll know.

Stay tuned.