We are running through a field of tall grass at Meadowlark Farm, in Iowa, in summer. It is fun. I am happy. I am happy because it is summer and I am small and I am running across the field of my home, right where I should be: behind my big sister Hannah.
Hannah taught me everything. She helped me learn to read. We played imaginary games with stuffed toys and figurines for hours, days, years, crafting ideologies without realizing the intricacy in our methods, architecting whole galaxies together out on that farm that never had any animals except perfect dogs and cats. Maybe we were the animals: me and my two sisters. Maybe it was a farm where you grew three great kids, at least for a little while.
My sister Hannah is singular. She was always different from everyone else because (let’s face it) she was smarter than everyone else and cooler than everyone else. But she was different in another way that no one could identify, exactly, not even her, for awhile. I never had to identify Hannah as anything. I just loved her. I love her more than ever, partly because I haven’t followed her through a field in a long time. Nan, let’s go jogging soon. Like, now.
My sister gave a TED Talk recently about her experience as a person who is gender non-binary.
Ladies and gentlemen and everyone, everywhere: My sister, my family, Hannah Fons.
In Shipshewana this past week, I had classrooms full of students. Before the lecture or session would begin, I would chat up the ladies in the audience. It’s nice to get to know people and breaks the ice a little bit.
I would say “Hi!” and they would say, “Hi! I watch you every week!” and I would say, “Yes, and I watch you every week,” because it’s funny to tell people that I can see them from inside the television. Then I would say, “What’s new?” and they would say what’s new and then they would ask, “What’s new with you?” and I would tell them that I moved to New York City. Then they would say, “Wow! Cool!” and then, invariably, “How come?”
“For love!” I would declare brazenly. Now, even though most people light up when you say you’ve done something for love, they still want to know you haven’t lost your mind. So I usually say I moved mostly for love but also for work reasons, and then I add the fact my older sister has lived in the East Village for over fifteen years and that I know New York City pretty well. Everyone feels a little relieved that I have family here and that there are reasons other than young Russian love for me to uproot my life and move to a city perpetually threatened by natural disaster, contagion, and terrorism.
This post is about going to watch my sister Nan practice capoeira on Friday night.
Nan used to be an experienced Brazilian jiu-jitsu star, but now she’s a fledgling Brazilian capoeira star. Jiu-jitsu was starting to take its toll on her body and she was a little burnt out, honestly, though I’m not sure she’d say so. But she is a talented combat-sport athlete, so when she left the body-slamming sparring sessions of jiu-jitsu, she didn’t go eat bonbons. No, she alighted to the New York Capoeira Center on the Lower East Side and proceeded to fall in love with the sport/game/dance/meditation that is capoeira. Yuri and I went to watch her and her class and it was extraordinary.
Capoeira has a fascinating, if spotty, history in the world; spotty because the art of capoeira has been concealed out of necessity and therefore not a lot has been written down about it from decade to decade, century to century. The bones of the story are this: millions of African slaves were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese beginning in the 1500s. From the motherland (the exact regions of Africa are speculated about but non-verifiable) slaves brought music and dance that then mixed with the people already living there.
The practice is part dance, part aerobic exercise, and part game, with people kicking, sweeping legs, and moving arms and feet in a perpetual, languid motion while repetitive music is played (think gourds and tambourine.) But capoeira is also part martial art, and that’s the incredible part. Those African slaves in Brazil were steadily developing a rather deadly form of self-defense disguised as this dance/game, practicing those pretty leg sweeps and languid moving arms with a secret purpose: to kick serious a** when necessary. People who saw the slaves practicing capoeira called it “the zebra dance” (the capoeiristas who really know what they’re doing absolutely look like zebras, back-kicking and going up on two legs and fiercely prancing around, defying gravity) and onlookers thought it was really beautiful and weird-looking — until they were knocked out, literally, by a zebra kick to the solar plexus. I read one thing that said a village defended itself for centuries against attackers using capoeira and left the enemies dazed, confused, and extremely injured or dead.
There is so much to say about capoeira. I can’t possibly give you a real history on it in a single blog post. But I can tell you that my sister Nan is so good at it and watching that room full of people dance, sweep, kick, go low, jump high, and sway, sway, sway to that tribal-sounding music (played live by a group of three people, one of them being the instructor) was beautiful. Yuri and I both were transfixed, sitting there on the bench, and we both had a profound New York moment: they do capoeira in a lot of places in the world, but the diverse group of people we were watching Friday night could only be zebra dancing together, here, like that, right then.
By the way: in 1889, Princess Isabel signed “The Golden Law,” that marked the official end of slavery in Brazil. We should be happy that there was a Princess Isabel, that her law was so gorgeously named “The Golden Law.” We should be horrified that that didn’t happen until 1889.
One day on Meadowlark Farm, my sister Nan and decided to get out into the timber for awhile. It was late enough into spring that stuff was thawing. There was a lot of mud out in the field between our farmhouse and the timber, and this was annoying. We were slightly feral, but we were also girls. Getting dirty was never the aim of our adventures; our adventures were the aim.
We put on our lighter snowsuit-overall-things, at Mom’s request. It was still cold and these would keep us warm, keep some mud off our clothes, and protect our little bodies from the burrs and pokey sticks out in the forest. We grudgingly put them on, followed by our galoshes. And we set out.
I’m sure we had fun, but I don’t remember what we did. I only remember that when we came back through the mud field to go home for lunch or dinner, something terrible happened.
Hannah (Nan) fell into a mud pit.
I’m telling you, that girl sank into a mud pit of Neverending Story proportions. She went down and she went deep, at least to her waist. Since we were small, the mud pit couldn’t have been that deep, but for a ten-year-old, a waist-high mud pit is a helluva mud pit.
“MARY!!!!” she screamed. I was 20 paces or so ahead of her when this happened. “MARY!!! HELP ME!!!”
I whirled around to see half my sister, flailing around in the mud. It’s so interesting to me to think what I must’ve said. I know what I’d say today, but at that age, I didn’t know those sorts of words.
“MARY!!!!” my sister kept screaming. “MARY! GET OVER HERE! HELP ME!!” and assessing the situation, I determined she really did need help. Her boots were totally, completely stuck and was she sinking further into the mud? Yeah, she was. Yikes.
I decided that this was definitely an emergency situation, but that I was definitely not going to help her myself. It wasn’t logical! I was smaller than she was! What was I gonna do? Pull my older sister out of a sucking mud pit with the power of my six-year-old will? I knew that if I gave my sister my hand, sloop! down I’d go into the mud, too, and at the time, I only came up to her waist, so I’d be totally drowned in mud. Hell, no. I wasn’t going down like that. I had cookys to eat.
“I gotta go home,” I said, a little scared at how my decision would land with my big sister.
There was a pause in the flailing. “WHAT??!!!”
“I gotta go home!” I yelled, and my eyes got real big as my sister understood that she was totally screwed. The expression on her face, even from 20 paces away, made it clear that if she was able to survive this mud pit problem, I was in serious trouble. As I ran away, I contemplated hiding places.
“MARY!” I heard her screaming, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU!”
“I gotta go home!” I yelled again, and what I meant was, “I gotta go home for help,” but this wasn’t being communicated properly, so Hannah just sent daggers shooting out of her eyes into my back and I ran as fast as my little feet could carry me, out of the mud field, onto the gravel road, into the yard, and up onto the porch of the house.
When I told her what had happened, my mother looked out the kitchen window and saw her eldest child flapping around in a pink coat, far, far out in the muddy field.
“Oh, Mary!” she cried, and we went out and retrieved Hannah. She was fine. A little muddy. Furious at me, of course, but my point was made. A smaller person cannot retrieve a bigger person from a sucking mud pit. Mom could help, I could not.