Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hang in There, Baby, Change is Coming

I know a lot of folks who have been feeling what I call "churn." For me, that is the sensation of being in the middle of a giant wave as it curls, completely underwater and surrounded by movement and sound and sand rolling all around you.  So much turmoil - not all of it bad - and the only thing to do is wait it out, sit tight until the water and debris have crashed over the top of you and you can see clearly once again.  I have heard it attributed to Mercury in retrograde, and I know folks that subscribe to that belief. I honestly don't know what it is, but I do know that in the last year or so people I know and love have experienced a lot of big changes in their lives, felt huge emotional swings as they follow uprisings in other countries, outbreaks of illness, seeming epidemics of gun and sexual violence, and giant leaps forward for social justice like the swell of marriage equality laws and folks like Wendy Davis and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders standing up to speak their truth loudly.  I have watched loved ones experience big ups and downs in their personal lives and sometimes it feels as though this wave will never break on the shore, but I think it is imminent.  I have felt optimistic for a long time that all of this churn is heading toward something monumental, some sort of breakthrough for all of us that will eventually offer a clean slate of beachfront upon which we can begin to rebuild. I see strong, smart people working hard to create peace in ways big and small, parents having difficult conversations with their kids and kids stepping up to the challenge.  I see a genuine openness to have lively debates about personal freedoms and community values.  The pushback is fierce from those who are comfortable with the status quo, but that is to be expected and I think it's a good sign.

Last week when Gloria Steinem spoke to the group at Ghost Ranch, she put it in a way I had never considered before, but I quickly copied her words down in my notebook. They have been bouncing off the walls of my skull ever since like that little pixelated square in the video game of my childhood, Pong.

Gloria said that she thinks it is informative to look at our civilizations in the context of growing up, that if we are afraid to look back historically and have honest conversations about what happened to us in our 'childhood,' we are doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over again in the future. In my opinion, we are at a crucial time in our country's history where we are confronting those patterns and really talking about those things. We are speaking up about campus domestic violence, recognizing the toll that gun violence is taking on our families and communities, looking at the ways that we have marginalized and oppressed entire groups of people over the last hundred years. This churn is stirring up every grain of sand and holding it to the light for examination and the result is messy.  Perhaps the most powerful part of Gloria's observation concerns the research that shows that women who are victims of domestic violence are most likely to be killed or seriously injured just as they are escaping or just after they have escaped.  She likened this recent uprising of conversation and activism around domestic violence and women's rights in the United States to our culture readying itself to break free. We are sitting in a precarious spot, in the middle of this giant wave, and we have to remain very aware as we wait for it to break.  We cannot stop now, even though we may be afraid, because we are about to shift into a new place of liberation.  I hope you'll hang in there for the ride with me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Gloria Steinem is Still My Hero

It is not often that we get to spend time with our childhood heroes, if at all, but I was lucky enough to do that last week.  Thanks to folks at the Women's Funding Alliance, I had the opportunity to head to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and steep myself in the deep knowledge and energy of three iconic feminist leaders.

Gloria Steinem


Alice Walker

Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung


It was a 'conference' like no other I have ever attended for so many reasons, chief among them the fact that all three women stayed for three full days. They spoke individually and came together to discuss ideas and answer questions. They were available during free time for us to approach them for autographs and photos as well as conversation and it all felt very intimate, especially given that these three women have known each other for years, and worked together on important projects and ideas. Their collective Q&A sessions had an air of ease and camaraderie that extended to the audience.

Alice Walker kicked off the week by talking about fear and mindfulness and transitions. She has a fiery edge to her that raises passions, points out injustice and prejudice and stirs up deep emotions. She is a brilliant orator and it is clear that she is always thinking, answering spontaneous questions with a deliberate message. She read poetry and expressed strong opinions and stood on the stage looking slightly regal.  She was that fiery grandmother who is not about to keep quiet.

Gloria's presence was anchoring. When Alice sent us up into the sky with her talk of war and politics and race, Gloria grounded us all back in our own skin. She was calm and clear, offered concrete examples, and urged us all to decide what was important to us in our own communities. At the age of 80, she continues to travel the world listening to people, reading books and essays, constantly deepening her understanding of the patterns and connections that are both healing and harmful. She possesses a historical and global knowledge of gender violence and was careful to bring it full circle, reminding us that taking the 20,000 foot view is paralyzing, that we must all strive to find the thing we can do that is right next to us.  She urged us to be aware and active, to use the power we have right now (our dollars, our votes, our openness to connecting with others), and to really listen to others.  She was funny and irreverent and consistent in her message.

And just when we were all feeling quietly inspired to go and be change agents in our own communities, Dr. Chung came up and offered us joy. I had never heard of her before this week, but the first time I saw her I couldn't help but break into a grin. This woman absolutely radiates love and warmth. Her smile is luminous and crackles with energy and she seems entirely undaunted by anger or doubt despite the hard work she does every day to liberate women and create peace. She talked about compassion and empathy, about connecting with others on the most basic levels in order to crate a sense of shared humanity, and she offered astonishing examples of how this has played out in her own life. She laughed and danced and brought us all along on her wave of optimism, cracking jokes about orgasms and kicking butt.

With the addition of a large group of folks from the Women's Funding Alliance, the week was perfect. We hiked and talked, turning the ideas over and over again. We sat and drank wine in the evenings, discussing ways to implement the most salient pieces in our own part of the world. We felt inspired every morning as we awoke to the prospect of another fascinating exchange. I came home floating, my brain absolutely overflowing with plans, quotes from these three powerful women bubbling up here and there.  I know that I haven't yet fully integrated all of the wisdom I received last week and I expect I will continue to turn it all over in my brain for weeks to come, but I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from the week.

"Hope to be imperfect in all of the ways that keep you growing." Alice Walker

"Where love exists, it is hard for jealousy to sprout." Alice Walker

"Mothering is an art AND a practice." Alice Walker

"Religion is politics in the sky." Gloria Steinem

"As long as God looks like the ruling class, we are all in deep shit."  Gloria Steinem

"Our children only know they have something to say if someone is listening to them." Gloria Steinem

"If you want 'x' at the end (ie. joy, laughter), you have to have it along the way." Gloria Steinem

"Who wants the Golden Rule administered by a masochist?" Gloria Steinem

"Hope is a form of planning." Gloria Steinem

"If you connect, there is peace. Disconnection leads to violence." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"All the things we do not want to confront within ourselves, we project those onto others and we call them terrorists." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"There are two ways of being broken - being broken apart so you lose your soul or you are broken open, wider, bigger, fuller. So you become a container for suffering, an alchemist who can change your suffering into joy. Don't be afraid of being broken. Surrender into brokenness but don't be broken apart." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"I am a theologian because I have to save God from patriarchy." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Around and Around We Go

I've got something stuck in my craw. And ironically, the song that has been going around and around in my head for the past two days is "Pompeii" by Bastille. Specifically, the following lyrics:

  • But if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    Nothing changed at all?
    And if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    You've been here before?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
Yeah, I've been here before. And, yeah, I'm asking myself how I'm going to be positive and forward-thinking about all of it.  Bubba is on board, as are several other folks. We all agree the situation is untenable and something has to change, but the wheels are moving very slowly and if history is any indication, they will stop the vehicle well short of a solution.  Several times in the past week I have noticed my jaw set, my breathing shallow, my thoughts rotating in the same old pattern, wearing a path in my brain.  While we were making dinner together on Sunday night, I told Bubba, "I'm trying really hard not to get emotionally tied to a specific outcome."

"Why not?" he stopped what he was doing and turned to me. "I think you SHOULD be."

I was surprised. He is usually the guy who knows exactly what his boundaries are and how to engage with things he can control and disengage from things he can't. He is always cautioning me that I'll make myself crazy if I get too connected to one particular scenario in my mind.  His reaction this time only served as a reminder of how long this has gone on without any resolution, that he is just as frustrated as I am that we have acted in all the ways we know how with mindfulness and honesty and concern to no avail.

And yet, I am making myself crazy. His passion and the passion of other folks who have heretofore been quiet and complacent is only serving to reignite my commitment to sparking change. While it feels good to know that I'm not alone, that something is really wrong here, ultimately I have no say in whether things change, and I'm not willing to quit being part of the institution that so desperately needs to change. The person who has the power is a dear friend of mine and I can't understand why he won't do what needs to be done, but I can't force him to do it. I have my suspicions that he is acting (or not acting) out of fear, and my intuition about these things is generally pretty clear. I know what a powerful motivator fear is and I truly understand why he would feel that way. I also have to acknowledge that, despite assurances that the wheels are turning, my faith is quickly eroding.

This lack of power to effect important change in someone else's life is definitely a theme in my world right now. I had to laugh this morning as it occurred to me that perhaps this is a training ground for dealing with my girls and the life choices they will make without (or despite) input from me or Bubba. Right now, my boundaries are nearly nonexistent and I'm struggling to imagine what they might look like. I am certainly in need of some sort of buffer as I figure out how to be involved with the parts of this organization that are doing amazing work without feeding the part that is toxic and destructive. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the realm of love and acceptance but the cloud of frustration that is hanging over my head is pretty vast right now.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chalk One Up For Positivity

Frankly, I would rather be neither of those things. I'm not interested in being the guy who flattens others, and I certainly don't want to be smushed face-first against a windshield.  I know there are days when my kids feel as though those are the only two options, though, and you can't blame them with all of the social dynamics they are navigating in high school and middle school.  But, as the Chief Positivity Officer in our household (well, Bubba's pretty good at that, too, but frankly, I'm willing to be more in-your-face about it), I'm always looking for ways to re-frame their experience.  When you're surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight.

Enter my new invention: The Appreciation Board.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not crazy enough to have actually called it that. Nor am I naive enough to have presented it in some sort of formal way. I simply commandeered the chalkboard in the kitchen and altered it a bit.  This is what it looks like now

 I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve's name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, "Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend." Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person (or at least that is the story she tells herself), so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn't suppress the twitches at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn't expect an instant sea-change.  I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling "Dad" and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up.  This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast.  She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, chuckling to herself.

On Saturday night, Bubba and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don't want their parents in earshot for.  When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board.  It read, "Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general)." What was so staggering is that it was in Eve's handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal.  Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family.  Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they're already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn't often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling.  Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What Would You Do if You Knew You Would Not Fail?

Patience is a virtue, but so far, it isn't one I possess. Unfortunately for me, I just happen to be hard-wired to make decisions only after I sleep on them for a while. I have learned, on some occasions quite painfully, that when I make quick decisions about big things, I often regret my choice. There are people (my husband and Eve, for example) who can check in with their gut and know almost instantaneously what they ought to do. I am not one of those people.

For a few months now I have been trying to define my next steps. The girls are getting increasingly independent and I am getting restless, looking for something more substantial to do besides freelance writing here and there.  I put the word out to some trusted allies this summer and have begun scouring the internet for volunteer and job opportunities that might fit my passions. On several occasions, I have been tempted to apply for positions with organizations I admire, despite the fact that the position itself is not quite right. Either the hours are wrong or I know I would be bored in a few months, or the organization does great work but it doesn't light a fire in my belly.  Thus far, I have resisted, hoping (but not really knowing deep down) that the right thing will present itself.

This week, one of the folks who knows I'm looking forwarded a job posting to me, noting that it was full time (which I don't really want because I still want to attend the girls' sporting events and be flexible for their school days off), but that it was a local non-profit we both know and love and I would be very qualified for the position.  I read through the job announcement a few times, getting excited because it is a job I know I could do.  And yet.  There was something. If I'm being totally honest (and a little bit woo woo), I have to say that all of that excitement was lighting up the left side of my brain. I actually felt as though my head was listing to the left - no kidding. I put off applying for the job and emailed Bubba to see what he thought about it.  Before I received a response from him, I headed to a gathering of women who are going to a leadership retreat together in October and pretty quickly, I found myself talking to two of the women there about this job. They both know the organization and the folks who work there and, more importantly, they know me, so I asked what they thought.  Within moments, I realized that I had spent most of the day trying to talk myself out of applying.  Another moment passed and we were talking about a project I've been quietly working on all month that is scaring the crap out of me because it's such a big leap. And even as we spoke, I realized I had a fire in my belly. That despite the fact that I'm scared and my left brain doesn't believe I have the credibility or the qualifications to pull off this secret project, my right brain is all twinkly Christmas lights when I think about it.  Needless to say, my body language convinced both of these amazing women that I know what I really need to do.

I won't be applying for the job that was forwarded to me.  Bubba got a 'gut hit' off of it that, while it's a terrific position and I would do a great job at it, it's not right for me. And twice in the last two days, I have heard the phrase "what would you do if you knew you would not fail?" - not directed at me, but in the context of other things I've read or seen.  Both times, I stopped and asked myself this question and sat twisting my fingers in my lap as I answered, "the secret project that scares me." I can't say where it will go, but I will say that I'm a little closer to leaping. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Borrowing Trouble

It occurred to me this morning that I've spent much of the last three weeks borrowing trouble. I am feeling a little frantic, fairly depleted, and terrifically confused and I have brought it all on myself.

I have been relying on my tendency to be a 'fixer' instead of sitting back and owning what is mine to own. To borrow a phrase, I have been "leaning in" far too much.  As a parent, it is difficult for me to separate what is mine from what belongs to my daughters, but every time I get entangled in their stuff, I learn the same painful lesson - namely, that nobody is getting what they need when I jump in and try to make things better.

Over the last three weeks, I've been fooling myself that I wasn't really getting involved. Instead of telling my girls what to do, I simply went and did a ton of research and offered up the Cliff Notes versions as potential solutions. I have done a great deal of listening, given many hugs and words of encouragement and left them with strategically-placed notes that I fervently hoped they would take to heart.  And then I have left the room and entered my own head. I have spent hours debating strategies, ordering and reading books that I thought might give me important insight, reached out to other mothers for ideas, and basically ignored all of my own stuff in an effort to help my girls.

I understand that it is important for my kids to experience pain and disappointment and come out the other side.  It is horrible to watch, but as a parent, I know it is more harmful to try and shield them from the slings and arrows of life than it is to let them feel the sting and discover that they will survive despite it.  That much I am clear on.  What I realized this morning is that because it is uncomfortable for me to see them suffer, my agenda involves them acknowledging their suffering and moving on quickly. I want them to take the fast lane to enlightenment, drawing on my experience and knowledge instead of taking the time to form their own, and have an "a-ha" moment in record time. I want their wounds to heal completely within days or hours and leave a scar that will help them incorporate this wisdom into their lives forever. Voila!

Ridiculous.

The other night when I pushed my way into Eve's room to offer all of the information I had gathered while she was at school, she got angry with me.  She tolerated my 20-minute download, but just barely, and then asked me to leave. My feelings were hurt. I felt unappreciated and instantly angry that she didn't see how I had sacrificed hours of my day to ruminate, investigate, and collate on her behalf.

Within minutes, I got a text message from her that made me sit down hard.

"I'm sorry I was rude. But I didn't ask you to do all of that. I have a plan. I am figuring out how to deal with this and you have to give me a chance to do it my way."

She was right. In running around searching for answers and spending time and energy fixating on how to help my girls deal with the disappointments they experience, I am serving my own need to be useful, to solve a problem, to fix something.  There is a fine line between giving thoughtful advice when it is asked for and projecting my own stuff onto someone else. In my experience, it is always easier to see how to solve someone else's problems than it is to work on my own.  When I hover over my kids and offer solutions, even if I'm not advocating for one over another, the message I'm sending is that I don't trust them to figure it out on their own (at least not as quickly as I would like). I am also not giving them the chance to truly integrate the lessons of these challenges into their lives. They can't remember pain from the scars I carry and as much as I might talk to them about my personal mistakes, in order to learn, they have to make their own.

All of this isn't to say that I can't love my girls fiercely and worry about them and offer my two cents. I will also not hesitate to jump in if I think there is a situation they absolutely are not equipped to handle yet, but getting emotionally tied up to the point where I set aside my own life in order to spend hours thinking about how to help my kids is a waste of energy. This morning I found myself exploring several scenarios in an effort to help Lola with something she hasn't asked for help with and it stopped me short. I have a lot to do today and Lola's got this. If she doesn't, she'll let me know one way or the other, but indulging my desire to have things tied up neatly and see my kids happy is only going to make us all crazy.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Mothering Moments I Dread


I’m going to tell you something you already know: it’s easier to be angry than it is to feel sad. It is harder still to acknowledge the fear that lies behind both the sadness and the anger without becoming entangled in it and letting it take over.  And the most challenging scenario I’ve yet encountered is when the fear and anger and sadness spring from incidents that involve my children.  There is a certain intensity to the feeling, the difference between a freshly-honed butcher knife and the paring knife you’ve used for everything from slicing apples to cutting bread to peeling cucumbers. That sharp edge makes all the difference and it gleams in the light.

Even though fear underlies both sadness and anger, the anger comes with a drive to act, a sense that I can do something to mitigate or repair or eradicate. It feels like a positive force, propelling me forward. The sadness feels like a pit, a low spot in the landscape where I have to just sit and see my limited view of the horizon for a while. That feels hopeless and helpless, especially when it comes on behalf of someone else, someone who will benefit more from quiet compassion and understanding than any action I could possibly take.  I am much more comfortable being the Mama Bear, putting out a forearm to block incoming trouble and uttering a frightening roar because it feels proactive and empowering. Sitting in that ditch with my kid while she sobs is not so satisfying.

If I were a caveperson, I would understand. Sitting in that sad pit will get you eaten. Injury to the soul is of little consequence when you aren’t sure whether or not you will find a meal or be the meal. And so I suppose it is a consequence of our relatively luxurious life that I can feel so acutely the emotional pain of my children and long for a solution that will instantly make things different, or at least one that will give me the illusion of control.  But the backdrop of luxury doesn’t make my heart hurt any less. And reminding my kids that they’re not the only one this has ever happened to doesn’t make their hearts hurt any less. It is nice to know you’re not alone, but it sucks to know that you still have to make your way through the hurt in your own way, in your own time, no matter how many people have been there before and how many others are sitting cross-legged in that damn pit with you.

And as a mother, it is far more difficult to watch my children make their way through, in fits and starts, with frustration and doubt and, sometimes, utter desolation, and know there isn’t a damn thing I can do but love them and love them and love them until my heart feels like it will burst with a single touch. As I walked the dog this morning I wished for anger, for someone or something to project my fears onto because holding this emotion is exhausting and anger is exhilarating in its power, even if it is often destructive.  Anger feels galvanizing, strengthening, and when I go all Mama Bear, I am certain my kids know I’ve got their backs and it feels good to express it publicly. Telling them quietly that I acknowledge their pain and sadness and letting them see my sadness feels supportive but falls flat because it doesn’t have all the attendant bells and whistles of action. It isn't necessarily in my nature to choose the easy way out but, man, do I really want to sometimes. 
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