Me and my Shadows

I keep thinking of those contra dances where you move down a line, circling, stomping and bowing first to one partner, then another. I am never not dancing and never dancing alone, though my changing partners are invisible.

As I move in and out of daily life, fraught as it is by complexities and discomforts, the unaccustomed discomforts of winter—wearing wet books, chipping ice away from the frozen garage door, sliding on slippery steps—in my peripheral vision always is the woman who weathers winter uninsulated by privilege, the women who must weigh heating oil against food, the woman whose car heater does not work, the one whose chapped hands run the cash register closest to the door which opens ruthlessly to the winter wind, the woman picking up a shrieking toddler at the daycare center after dark, opening cans from the food bank for dinner, shrinking at the sounds of drunken footsteps on the steps.

She comes to me at the border, where she is interrogated by guards for 45 minutes in the chill air, guards who ask why her work visa says she works at the Hyatt when she is working weekends at the Marriot as well, why she is going to Buffalo on this near-empty Greyhound, where her parents live and what their dates of birth are. She answers, talking too fast, explaining too much, wearing too much of an accent, until the bus leaves without her. She must wait for the next one and perhaps will miss her appointment, while I am wrapped in my U.S. passport, my rainbow-colored Canadian permanent residence card, my lawyer friend’s phone number written on my hand. She does not have a friend who is an immigration lawyer or the money to pay for one; she does not have a husband with a good job or a sister-in-law who will pick up her child if she is late.

She comes with me to the grocery store where she buys meat that will be palatable with enough pounding, no-name noodles, club-pack peanut butter. She looks at my basket with its lawn-green packages—organic pasta, organic rice, and with its indulgences: white cheddar, organic jam—and looks away. I meet her eyes at the checkout stand, where she rings up a week’s groceries that would take her a half a week to earn. She cannot know my reasons—my kid whose throat closes from food additives, my cancer risk as a downwinder, my ethical beliefs about pesticides, the environment, and the safety of farmworkers—and in any case she likely has reasons as well—a kid, a risk, beliefs that she cannot afford to indulge.

She is my conscience; she is the self I would have been without a university job and a university spouse, the person I once was. She is my own mother, washing diapers by hand in water carried from the well, hanging them on a line in winter where they freeze, stiff as plywood. She is my mother unable to afford hand cream, her cuticles cracking in winter, hanging wet snowsuits, socks, pants on lines strung around the house, heating one room at a time with butane, its blue flame purchased dear. Or she is driving to town in a jeep with blanket scraps stuffed in the cracks or driving home from work on snow-rutted roads in the dark, praying that the high whine of the four wheel drive will get her up and over the last slippery hill, singing to the child who is tired and restless.

She requires me to think about the damage a life without privilege causes, and to own, uncomfortably, the gifts that privilege brings.