On election day, amid heated rhetoric, I take comfort in the blessings of the Hampton Inn.
I’m thinking especially of the Hampton Inn in Middletown, Delaware.
The Hampton has been my home away from home for the last six years while my daughters have been in boarding school nearby. Either Sunshine or Rochelle is likely to greet me – warmly – and check me in.
Middletown is semi-rural, small town America, with local businesses on Main Street but also a large Amazon distribution center not far from the center of town. Middletown recently acquired its second Starbucks but still has only one motel. Everyone coming through town stays at the Hampton.
I’ve watched people coming and going. They bring in their clothes in plastic bags or standard issue black rollerbags or Louis Vuitton. They are people traveling for work and members of wedding parties, they are boarding school parents, older couples and families with children, people of color and not of color. I’ve seen some people who look like they’re living pretty close to the edge. There’s a conference room sometimes used for a birthday party on Saturday night or church service on Sunday morning. I suspect that every political persuasion is represented at the Hampton Inn. Every style of little kid bathing suit is certainly represented, since there’s a small indoor pool. We’re all enjoying that delicious complimentary breakfast in the morning! We’re in the elevators together. The halls. We’re sharing the same tiny laundry room, the same tiny exercise room. Well, some people are sharing the exercise room. I’ve only ever looked at it.
There is respect and civility at the Hampton Inn. Decency.
Beyond that, I have seen kindness. Laughter. A sense of commonality and community. We’re all in it together, Sunshine and Rochelle and the others and me.
These are the blessings of the Hampton Inn. Our community life is often better than our civic life has been lately.
I know that the Hampton Inn in Middletown, Delaware, is not all of America. But I believe we should take comfort where we can – and share hope with each other – and pray that what we share is also some comfort to those who suffer, grieve and worry among us.
My friend and regular Bacon contributor Mary Raymond has turned to reading to find hope and comfort. Like many of my friends, she has felt a lot of distress since the 2016 election. You’ll want to know about her latest find…
These days I prefer quiet. Really that’s always been true, but more than ever I crave cozy evenings curled up with a good book and Mavis. I think maybe we all feel this – the aching weight of our American divide which seems to have blazed to a crescendo last week. There’s too much hatred, anger, and noise. I like the quiet.
The day after the 2016 election I woke up with a nagging anxiety that the things I most valued about America had been pushed aside for values I did not understand. I spoke with loved ones who voted differently and heard that that they had felt the same way – eight years earlier. I am fortunate to be able to get these different perspectives without the conversations devolving into chaos. But I’m not sure we’re learning much from each other these days. And, if I’m honest, those exchanges often leave me feeling emotionally drained. So maybe it’s no surprise that now more than ever I’ve chosen to expand my world from the safety of my living room couch – not with heated political debates, but with books about unexplored topics. That, as much as anything else, is what led me to Laurie Frankel’s novel, This Is How It Always Is.
Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams, an emergency room physician and writer, live in Madison, Wisconsin with their five sons. We meet Rosie and Penn when she is in her first year of medical residency, and he woos her with fairy tales and steadfast loyalty. They build a life together with sons named (I kid you not): Roo, Ben, Orion, Rigel, and Claude.
Almost as soon as he can express himself, their youngest son Claude lets it be known that he prefers wearing dresses to pants. Rosie and Penn consider themselves to be modern enough parents and embrace their son’s sartorial choices inside the confines of their home. This begins the first of many decisions they will make to balance their son’s happiness against their worries that anything that sets him apart as different will make his life unnecessarily challenging. Eventually they are forced to make a leap of faith when Claude’s teachers share artwork which depicts what he is not able to verbalize: hiding his true identity makes him feel entirely erased. Choosing between two unappealing options, Penn and Rosie decide to let Claude wear dresses wherever he goes.
I don’t have children. I don’t have any friends who have navigated this situation with a child of their own. Even so, I felt like I was there at the kitchen table with them as Penn and Rosie tried to figure out the best way forward for their child. Rosie worries that if this were the right thing to do it wouldn’t feel so terrifying. Penn points out that, in parenting, “This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.”
Penn and Rosie aren’t alone in their analysis of what is best for Claude. Their oldest sons, Roo and Ben, stage an intervention to beg their parents not to let Claude wear a dress to school. At twelve and thirteen, Roo and Ben know that the last thing an elementary school student needs to do is embrace his or her individuality if doing so threatens cultural norms. Dressing like a “normal” boy, even if it’s uncomfortable for Claude, is the only safe choice. Penn points out the delicious truth that readers up to this point have already learned: there is nothing normal about this family. “You’re all freaky,” he points out to his two oldest boys. “You’re all weird. We’re a weird family. Roo, how many kids in your class besides you play football and flute? Ben, how many kids in your class skipped a grade because they started making their own homework at age four? Claude’s weird, but he’s not just weird, he’s also remarkable. It’s pretty amazing that he knows what he’s supposed to wear and wants to wear something else anyway, that he knows who he’s supposed to be but recognizes that he’s something else instead.”
At first, Claude blossoms after he begins wearing dresses to school. His fellow kindergarteners accept him, and Penn and Rosie breathe a sigh of relief that they have cleared this latest hurdle. Then one night a transgender patient who has been beaten, shot, and left for dead arrives in Rosie’s ER, and she becomes convinced that Madison is not safe for her son who is still figuring out his own gender identity. The family decides to move to Seattle, and in a lie of omission, they let their new neighbors believe that their son Claude is their daughter, Poppy.
It’s a secret the whole family realizes they must keep. At first it seems worth it – to the family and to the reader – because we experience the joy of Poppy feeling – finally – comfortable in her own skin. Penn, Rosie, Poppy, and her brothers become experts at keeping up the charade, and the longer the secret is kept the higher the stakes become. A secret so consequential for so many lives can’t stay hidden forever, and the psychic toll of shame and dishonesty weighs heavily on all members of Poppy’s family.
I don’t have any context for understanding what it must feel like to believe you were born the wrong gender and then to live your life fearful of what you’ll lose if you’re found out: Your job? Your friends? Your life? Before reading this book I would have preferred not to discuss the topic at all – aren’t some truths better kept private? Isn’t bringing them to the fore just one more wedge issue that will drive us still deeper into our tribal corners? After spending time with this delightful family I began to understand the soul-crushing weight of trying to establish your identity in a culture which only imagines two gender boxes – and you know you don’t fit in either. When what is culturally accepted, and legally codified, reinforces your own sense that there is something wrong with you, it takes unimaginable courage to ask that world to accept you as you are.
One of my favorite Ben Folds Five songs is called Narcolepsy. I love it because it’s hilarious and sweet and achingly true. It’s a confession to a new friend or lover, shot through with worry that once the secret is out, the narcoleptic sharing his truth with the world will be rendered unlovable. I love it because we all have that thing – that secret which we worry is too heavy for the people around us to bear. And maybe we only really come alive when – like Poppy – the pain of hiding it becomes greater than the fear of sharing it with the world. I read this book from my living room couch, but the distance I traveled in doing so made it impossible for me ever again to consider gender identity outside the larger context of our universal human need to be seen for who we really are – and deeply loved anyway.