~ Anna ~
This is the beginning of what I think will become a book. I’m writing this book with my mother, Karen. This book is the story of her life. I am part of her story.
My name is Anna.
Anna Darvin Hirsch. I’m 38. I was born in North Carolina. I’m white. I’m a woman. I use she and they pronouns. I’m polyamorous. I have three life partners, two men and a woman. I’m queer. I have herpes and a thyroid imbalance. I take Wellbutrin. I’m surviving the loss of a best friend who died from suicide. I’m nondisabled. I have a lot of debt. I don’t have children. I’m a psychotherapist. I’m a writer and an artist. I hate plastic. And I love carbonated water. All of these parts of me have beginnings that lead to longer stories. And all of these stories together are how I am me from moment to moment.
When I was a baby I was baptized. Some time before I turned double digits I had a mikveh and was converted to Judaism and then had a bat mitzvah on the late side around the age of fourteen. As I remember it, there were endless painful sessions with a teacher trying to teach me to sing my haftorah in Hebrew for the occasion.
I am a bad singer. We can start here.
Really. It’s objectively true. Like, really bad. Really, really bad.
And I knew it when I was fourteen. For one thing, I knew that I couldn’t for the life of me reproduce the notes that the teacher my parents had hired was committed to making me hear and learn. It literally made no sense to me. I think I went home crying after one of those lessons. Finally, I was transferred to work directly with the Rabbi. To my surprise, he didn’t seem to care at all how off my tone was. He just wanted me to memorize the words. He gave me cassette tapes of the reading sung in Hebrew by other Rabbis to take home and practice at home in the privacy of my bedroom with noone to criticize me. I listened over and over to those cassette tapes trying desperately to memorize a language that I didn’t speak. And when the big day came and I still only had half of my haftorah reading memorized, our Rabbi sang the second half for me, reassuring me that it was a rather long portion compared to most.
I’m thirty-eight. It took me nearly a quarter of a century to understand that “Anna the bad singer with a bad memory” is probably not the whole story here. But I think I finally did figure that out. When I look back now I can see more of what was going on. I was growing up Jewish in the nineties in rural Missouri and the closest synagogue to our home was almost two hours away. My earlier and brief Hebrew studies had mostly ended at age nine when we moved to Missouri and weekday after school Hebrew classes were not available. At the same time, there were no other kids around in this new life in Missouri (except for my sister, which came with its own challenges) who I could easily and regularly talk to about being Jewish or about trying to learn Hebrew. In choir class at our rural public school it felt like we spent most of the fall singing Christmas songs. And while at the time when I got the feeling that my choir teacher was glad that I didn’t know the words by heart and sometimes just mouthed along without making sounds, I just thought I was bad at singing. I can see now that what I was feeling might also have had something to do with shame for not being part of the right cultural background to fit in. Yes, I was also a bad singer even in elementary school and I probably felt some shame about that too. It’s just all true. And had I lived somewhere else with more Jews, some version of this would still have happened to me.
In fact, many years later it did. On meeting an orthodox Jew in graduate school in Louisiana and coming to her house for seder one Friday evening, midway through a conversation about Judaism she blurted, “Oh, so you’re Jewish in the wrong way!” You see I learned how to see all of this, to include all of my story, from my mother — a woman who was raised Lutheran. And where does Judaism come from? Your mom. But that is exactly where my Judaism did come from — my mom. She chose to raise her children Jewish along with my Jewish father in part because she knew that being Jewish would give us access to an identity experience that might be critical for our ability to develop a sense of justice and empathy for experiences of oppression. And had I been able then to respond to that dinner party comment in any other way than laugh nervously, I would have liked to have said that I’m a bad singer who likes to sing Christmas songs and bits of Jewish prayers and really loves being a Jew raised by a Lutheran.
If that’s the wrong way, bring on the wrong. My mother is a fucking badass, and I am incredibly fortunate to be her kid.
My story, my history, are in a way my mother’s story and history. I start somewhere with her, and the creative process of my life was first created literally inside her and also through her love. When I create my story by telling it, I am telling a story that she also had a hand in creating, and this magical space of creation across generations is part of our shared history. That’s why my mother’s story and the way she gives it to me freely and openly continue to feed my creative life and the ways I choose to see and express who I am in the wider context of society.
My mother’s names have been Karen Magnhild Nygaard, Karen Nygaard Hirsch, and Karen Hagrup. She is seventy-six. She was born in Norway. She’s white. She’s a woman and uses she pronouns. She’s a twin. She is one of four sisters. She is partnered to a woman, after a long marriage with a man. She says now that she must be bisexual. She got polio when she was three, has now grappled with years of post polio syndrome, and today she is navigating wet macular degeneration in both of her eyes. She has herpes and a thyroid imbalance. She has been taking Wellbutrin for fifteen years. She is retired and lives frugally on what she has. She has been a teacher, a professor, an executive director, and a founder. She is a writer and an artist. She hates violence in movies. And she loves color and lights. All of these parts of her have beginnings that lead to longer stories.
And all of these parts of her have been the perfect mishmash all together to feel like she has not just been marginal to society, but that she comes from somewhere beyond the margin — somewhere completely other.
My mother crossed an ocean, got married, raised two children, and had a prolific career after many critical years as a young person receiving messages that her life belonged to her parents and to god. My mother has a doctorate, and often feels unaccomplished. In the eighties and nineties, my mother was one of the first people to tell the world that disability is a cultural experience, not just a medical one, and today she often feels that her voice and contribution has already been forgotten in the wider disability culture. My mother is a female disabled immigrant whose writing hasn’t been published nearly enough, or nearly as often as my father’s.
My mother speaks two languages fluently, and sometimes when she opens her mouth she feels like she can’t say anything anyone will understand.
My mother is really good at laughing at herself at times like these, and her own nervous, resilient laughter, teetering between despair and joy, has certainly saved her and her nervous system from collapse for decades.
My mother knows things about being outside the in crowd. She knows what it’s like to work incredibly hard to get people to pay attention to you and often have the attention she can get turn into pity or scorn or revulsion.
She knows how incredibly challenging it is just to make it into the margins of society. She knows that despite all the talk of centering her experience, it may actually be impossible for her to get to the center. The center was not built for her. Frankly, it’s no longer where she wants to be anyway.
My mother has lived most of her life in the margins. And while she has fantasized that the magic must be happening in the center, my mother’s own vitality is scribbled all over the edge of the pages of her long life, arguing with the center, armed with the liveliness of the margin’s own dialect, sensibility, and magic. And my mother, after all of these years, is still open to inviting people in here to meet her.
In 2005 my mother was asked to submit an essay proposal about her life as a disabled person to possibly be included in an anthology of disability experiences. She wrote me that year and asked me to help her with the writing. I look back on the edits I gave her while I was in graduate school for a creative writing degree, and today multiple thoughts race through my head: Why was I being sort of mean? Why was I picking on individual words? Why didn’t I know how to say more about the flow and overall mood and joy of what she was working on?
I understand now, that I was still integrating the lessons she had gifted me by raising me, and particularly by choosing to raise me as a Jew. I was still healing my own wounds in my own marginalized places, and one way that came out was in needing to sound important, to sound like an authority. Her essay was not accepted to that anthology and was never published, and more than a decade later when she reminded me of this, I had no memory of it. She told me then that she felt the writing was not good enough. I could feel myself racing to mount a defense for her inside my own thoughts. I hate this place where she feels unseen. I see you! I see us! We’re amazing! Why are we both still so unsettled about our place in life?!
I cannot stand this doubt any longer, for either of us. We are out of time. This uncertainty is bullshit. She is a great writer, and so am I, and no internal or external authority can dictate that any longer. I’m putting my foot down.
I’m putting my foot down, and I’m opening the page. You, reader, are the lucky one.
Come. Meet me in the margin with my mother.
There is so much magic here.
~ Karen ~
Ok, so my name is Karen.
I also love carbonated water.
Ok, but yeah, you got a lot of that right, Anna. I love what you write. Our stories are connected, and I see how telling my story to you and to the world can be part of what I need to do and part of your creative life all at the same time.
And it’s important for me to speak to you directly here, Anna. I know that you are speaking to the reader in your introduction. But I am speaking to you.
In the one Oral History Review essay that you published with your grad school friend, Claire, you said that your intention in bringing oral history and creative writing together in your studies was — let me get this exactly — to “explore possible overlaps so that we might benefit from a place of new understanding not yet imagined.” Yes. That’s what you and I are doing. We are trying to understand something new together that can only be understood through our coming together.
We are overlapping our minds, exploring this space between us together, here where you have largely taken the role of creative pioneer — or at least the person making all the Google docs. You have started all of our writing drafts, made outlines, put interview notes with me into the different sections of our writing project, helped shape the telling of my life story, and planned a way to share our co-written story to a wider audience. You are looking into the dimensions between us and creatively interpreting what you see, so that others can see too.
I am taking another role — finally telling my story, my whole story. In the one Oral History Review essay that I published, I challenged oral history researchers and readers to include oral histories by people with disabilities, because I thought that to form a full picture of social history we needed to include disabled people.
I don’t think of my story as the best story to do this — well, I didn’t until you and I started talking about writing my story down. You helped me see that I do want people to read my story and think about how I am a disabled person who needs to be part of world history.
But when I try to think about a more granular impact that I want to have by telling my story, I struggle to think about the legacy I want to leave. You know, I find myself wondering What did I contribute just from having been on earth? I doubt my impact. I still often feel that I grew up in a very small, narrow setting. The church and my parents’ religious and cultural convictions were my boundaries with the world. And all I did was run away from that. I worry that I wasn’t very brave.
But I know I did do something. I have a poem somewhere, Anna. I need to find that. It’s in English. It’s about how my father’s house had a closed door, and I had to use my free will to decide to go out that door. And once I got outside, the world did not look the way it had looked through his windows. I say it very well in that poem. I need to find that somewhere.
So, yes, I see now that part of what I want people to understand is how I struggled as a disabled woman to leave my parents’ world behind in order to see the world the way it really was. And that’s a challenge for every person to grow up. Everyone becomes an adult in part through finding their own way, their own place in the world. I got big support for that when I found the disability rights movement, where I found what I considered to be the right side of history.
But I do not feel that I stand out too much. I am part of a big movement. And that’s all I think I need or want. And the history of that movement is what I would like to help people see in my story. My history with all its different parts and intersections is that bigger movement history.
So yes, Anna, we are both writers here where we overlap, and we are both historians. We are both storytellers and we are connected as family. But I am telling the story of a long life, and you are coming into that story. And I am bringing my oral history forward, and I am bringing it forward with you because your creative energy and understanding of me is also a part of my story.
I was thinking again about when I wrote about how the margin is bigger than me, something outside of and surrounding me that I live in as a marginalized person. But more about that will come later. It’s just that it occurred to me in that moment that every individual is a copy of the universe. So we also all have edges and margins ourselves. And I believe that what you and I are doing now, telling our stories to each other, writing down my oral history with your creative help — what we’re doing is overlapping our margins. We can invite more people, the readers, to come and overlap their margin with our margins. To me, it’s a different way of thinking about margins and this whole project. It comes to me as a new framework where people are never all inside or all outside the margin, but both places, many places all at once. Being part of the margin is inhabiting many places.