Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Fallacy of Belonging


 For the nine months that my daughter grew in my womb, I was under the illusion that she was mine.  I don’t mean mine in the sense that she shared my genetic material. I mean I believed that she belonged to me.
be·long  [bih-lawng, -long]Verb phrase belong to,a. to be the property of: The book child belongs to her.
          My husband and I had knowingly, purposefully created this child.  She was housed in my belly. I was constantly reminded that everything I did impacted her tiny, developing self in a big way. Get enough sleep. No soft cheeses. No alcohol.         
         In the beginning, my fertilized egg was simply dividing, making copy upon copy of the DNA my husband and I provided.  By the time that miniscule ball of cells lodged itself in the side of my uterus, it had morphed into a core of embryonic cells with a protective shell.  A blastocyst. My daughter had formed her first layer of defense, a shield to insulate her from the outside world before that little pink plus sign even showed up on the plastic stick.  I was blissfully rubbing my belly, reading parenting books and feeling a sense of union with my child.  I was picking through the list of our traits like a bowl of cocktail nuts, gently pushing aside the too-common peanuts and the over large Brazil nuts, concocting the perfect little person in my mind.  Please let her teeth be naturally straight like her father’s. Please let her have eyesight like mine. Have his strategic mind and my compassionate heart, little one. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that her most important job from this moment forward would be to separate, differentiate, become an individual.
         My first inkling that this child might have ideas of her own came in the middle of the second trimester.  She shimmied and shook, danced and cavorted inside me, pushing against my flesh in a gymnastics routine of her own design. No matter that I was trying to sleep; she was making herself known. Within a few weeks, she began demanding fresh pineapple and German pancakes.   The burning in my gut was unlike anything I had ever known and I developed a pack-a-day Tums habit just to cope with her cravings.
         I went into labor with my little girl sitting posterior in my womb, her head pressed firmly up against my tailbone.  While I writhed in back labor, two doctors worked in tandem, kneading my belly like so much bread dough, pushing and pulling to turn her into a position where she could be safely delivered.  With each subsequent contraction, she calmly somersaulted herself right back where she had been before without regard for the work or pain she was creating.  Tenacious and precise, this little one was delivered after 40 hours of labor on her due date in the posterior position.
be·long  [bih-lawng, -long]Verb phrase belong to,b. to be a part or adjunct of: That lid child belongs to this jar her parents.
            When that miracle of flesh and blood and hair and breath and wonder slid out of my body and the cord was cut, it was hard to determine where I left off and my daughter began.  She looked exactly like I had on the day I was born – skinny and long with feathery black hair and olive skin. On the counter at home, our baby photos sat side-by-side, astonishing in their similarities.   It was easy to believe that she was a miniature copy of me. 
         And yet, this distinct, wholly formed creature had emerged from my skin firmly ensconced in her own.  She had driven the birth process just as much as my body had and the abrupt deflation of my taut belly mirrored the slump in my spirits. In the instant when she was free of the birth canal, I felt simultaneously exhilarated and bleak. I had lost the miracle of us-ness, but was thrilled to meet my child. The many months I had spent conjuring possibilities for this baby – boy or girl, small or large, somber or goofy – were now moot. She rested on my chest and our eyes met. Electricity resonated between us, the depths of which I could not possibly fathom. 
         From the instant my daughter was born she began to assert her independence in a multitude of ways.  She went from needing me to breathe and eat for her to --- whoosh --- breathing, sucking, pooping.  She ate when she was hungry, slept when she was tired, refused to conform to any schedule I attempted to impose.  
         For weeks after she was born, I felt phantom kicks in my belly.  I recalled my impatient anticipation of her birth in those last few weeks of pregnancy at the same time that I mourned the loss of our basic, elemental union. I began to realize that parenting is an exercise in opposites. The crashing together of the two most profound human emotions: love and fear, produces an energy like no other. The pure, golden light of mother-love was quickly tainted by the crushing realization of responsibility.  The sudden dawning that no class could prepare me for the weight of each and every decision made on behalf of this helpless human was accompanied by the solid weight of warmth wrapped in a flannel blanket in my arms.  I wanted to spend every second gazing down at my daughter, consumed by the sight and smell and heft of her. 
          My all-consuming adoration was tinged with pangs of absolute terror every single time I held her, touched her, looked at her ruddy cheeks or her tiny toes. That explosive burst of love existed side-by-side with the metallic ache of fear; the joy of having this thing I loved so much and the possibility of one day not having it.  
be·long  [bih-lawng, -long]Etymology, word originmid-14c., "to go along with, properly relate to," from be- intensive prefix, + longen "to go," from Old English langian "pertain to, to go along with," of unknown origin.
          More and more, my daughter began to assert herself as I simultaneously celebrated and lamented her fierce independence.  I struggled to put limits on her, as much out of fear for her physical safety as well as some fuzzy notion of what a parent was supposed to look like and yet, I proudly recognized myself in her.  Her sense of priorities, her stubborn determination to conquer any challenge she deemed worthy of her attention, those hit a familiar chord.  I identified with her and again, blurring that line between the two of us as surely as if I were reattaching the umbilical cord. 
         I watched her methodical attempts to walk, pulling herself to her feet, shimmying along the couch, practicing standing in the middle of the room to catch her balance. For days she seemed on the verge of walking, but she wouldn’t take a step until she was certain, standing and waving her arms one day, standing and clapping the next.  I do the same in yoga, starting eagle pose by entwining my arms and fixing my gaze before ever lifting my leg to wrap it around because I don’t want to fall.  Two weeks after she had begun perfecting her standing balance, Eve took off walking. She never fell.  I took credit for whatever part of her that had driven her to do it that way.  That was me.
          I had the solid notion that this child was a part of me, like one of the rays of a sea star, but she was never that. I was fooled by our similarities into believing that who I am determines the person she will be, the person she ought to be.  When Eve works hard at something, shows true generosity, laughs in a certain way, I see myself.  When she is hateful or selfish or ignorant, I take responsibility for that, too.  I worry that I have done something to create that, as if there is a dark spot on my DNA that wormed its way into every cell of her body.  I worry that I will be judged for her mistakes with the same fervor that I am praised for her accomplishments. In those moments, I believe that sharing my DNA means that she belongs to me in the most elemental way.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------        
         My father was a fierce disciplinarian. My siblings and I paid dearly for our mistakes and I often wondered why he treated us so harshly.  I know now that my father’s rage came from a place inside him where he confused my behavior with his own self-worth.  A Marine whose own childhood experiences taught him he could never be good enough, he was desperate to mold his children into something he could be proud of, something he could show off to others.  He longed to line us up like shiny gold cups embossed with his name, to somehow redeem himself for his own shortcomings. We did feel as though we belonged to him, that our behavior reflected on him and defined him to some extent.  We were his legacy. I spent too many years of my life trying not to disappoint Dad instead of forging my own path. And during the times after he and my mother divorced, when she would yell at me, “You’re just like your father!” I would cower in shame.  She hated him more than anyone. That must mean she hated some part of me that I could never be rid of. 

          But I am not my father any more than my daughter is me.  From the moment Eve was created in a heady mix of genetic material twined together in a way that could produce only her, our daughter embarked on a journey of actualization. She is not simply a combination of flour and water and chocolate and eggs; some cake that turns out the same way every time. She is something more.  That fact both frees me and frightens me.  I am tasked with building and minding the levees of her childhood, much like a womb in the world until she is ready to break free, but how she swims in those waters is hers to determine.  The truth is, she never belonged to anyone but herself. I am simply given the gift of watching her navigate her own journey. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Mindful Parenting as Taught by My Tween

It has been a busy time. Bubba was in Australia on business for a week (yeah, I know) and I'm getting  the word out about The SELF Project and attending high school musical productions and basketball games and feeding kids and doing my best to make my way through the state health exchange and all its software glitches that leave them asking me to verify my 12-year old's monthly income (seriously) or telling me that Bubba's social security number has fouled things up and it might be a few days before they can fix it....

In the last week I also made the final edits in the chapter I wrote for a new book called "Mothers and Food" for Demeter Press and prepared for a town-hall style meeting with the Surgeon General here in Seattle that took place on Tuesday. I spent yesterday writing a lengthy description of the meeting after it went oh-so-disappointingly (politics ruled the day, to put it mildly). My girls are in the rut they get into every so often that pits them against each other in all ways big and small and leaves the grit of discontent fouling every surface in the house, and this lack of Winter we had here in the Pacific Northwest has sent my seasonal allergies into a tailspin three months early.

So all of that could have made me a little on edge. Perhaps. Maybe just a little bit overwhelmed and irritable. And I'm definitely mindful of that, noticing the extra bit of tension I hold in my chest and stomach and jaw and trying to be curious instead of reactive. Measuring my responses the best I can.

If you read my last post, you know that Lola, my youngest and generally affectionate and engaged child, has recently discovered the joy of hanging out in her room alone, either texting her friends or playing guitar or watching goofy YouTube videos. When Bubba was gone last week and Eve was constantly either in rehearsal or performing in the musical, I felt her absence keenly. And while I got a lot of writing done and read two books, I was sad that she doesn't seem to want to hang out or go for walks with me anymore right now.  I remember this stage with Eve and I know that it isn't about me. I also know it won't last forever, but it still sucks.

Last night we were all four in the house at the same time for the first time in over a week and I enticed the girls down to watch Modern Family. Eve took the recliner and Lola sat in the kitchen having a snack while Bubba and I sat together on the couch. Pretty soon, I realized that we were the only two laughing at the show and I looked over to see Eve texting someone and caught Lola doing the same thing from the table behind us. I may have forgotten to be mindful of my feelings at that point. I may have succumbed to the sadness and frustration and made some sarcastic comment about how nice it was to have us all do something together.  It may have gone over like a turd on a dinner plate. Yup.

This morning as I drove Lola to school, I did it again. "Hey, you did a nice job straightening up your bedroom last night, dude......." I paused a beat, "Even if you were totally ignoring us afterwards while we were trying to have some family time."

"Geez, Mom. I get it. You said it four times last night and it pissed us off then. Did you think saying it again this morning was going to be any better?" (This was all said in a very calm, very kind tone of voice, lest you think Lola is the most insolent, rude child on the planet. You should also know that on more than one occasion, I have praised this child for calling me on my BS - if I try to shame them or guilt them into something, if I tell them about the dangers of using superlatives and then turn right around and use one myself, etc. So I have only myself to blame if she continues to point out my inconsistencies.)

I took a deep breath. Or four. I thought about what it was like to be a teenage girl and how my bedroom and my friends seemed like the only safe haven. I thought about how much I hate it when people are passive-aggressive with me instead of just saying how they feel.  And then I spoke, "You're right. I'm sorry. I will try to do better. That was a pretty back-handed way to give you a compliment. You did do a nice job on your room and I appreciate it. And I miss hanging out with you even if I know it's perfectly normal for you to be doing what you're doing and it will pass."

She looked at me, nodded her head, smiled, and flipped on the radio.

"Thanks, Mom."


Monday, February 23, 2015

When A Shortcut Isn't Worth It

The human brain loves a shortcut. Maybe not as much as my Dad did, driving through the rural back-roads of Oregon, but pretty close, I think.  The look of pure satisfaction on his face as he turned in the opposite direction that we expected him to, the glee when he discovered a different route that would shave minutes or seconds off of our trip, it was a thing to behold.  Cheating the system, cutting a corner, figuring out a pattern and exploiting it - that was the stuff of legend in our household and always good for a cheap thrill.  I took notes as a kid, and my brain followed suit, laying down a nice flat steamrolled bed of gravel and pouring some asphalt over the top of it. Streamlining the process for the next time and feeling smug that I had discovered a better way, a faster way, a more efficient way to deal with all sorts of things, not just how to get from Point A to Point B.

After a few times of traveling that new road my brain laid down, it increased the speed limit for me. How nice, I thought, I barely even need to think about this anymore. It has become reflex to react in this particular way to this particular set of events. And, often, it was nice. It was time-saving. But when I got to the point where I could navigate those paths blindfolded and in my sleep, I forgot that they were crafted by a child.

When I was a kid, my brain laid down a path to being okay with people leaving. Forged over the span of a few years as some pretty critical folks peeled off and left, it gave me a way to shortcut the hurt whenever I suspected someone else was about to go. I used that road for a long time, and I got really good at it. The signage on that road went a little something like this:

GO AHEAD. I'M FINE.

and

I'M DONE WITH YOU, ANYWAY.

Long-time readers may recall that about ten years ago, Bubba was really sick with some mystery illness. He was in and out of the hospital every few months for days at a time and it took many doctors over three years to figure out what was wrong. But in those three years or so, he did his level best to keep on keeping on in-between episodes, continuing to travel internationally for work and provide for the four of us. This meant that on a few occasions, he would fall seriously ill in a foreign country and I would get a phone call in the middle of the night - from Prague or China or somewhere that felt really, really far away.  That path went from a foot-worn deer path in my brain and heart to a full on superhighway.

GO AHEAD. WE'LL BE FINE.

When he was home, I was guarded but loving. Affectionate and caring but ready to pull away just in case.  As if that shortcut would circumvent the deep wellspring of despair I would have plunged into had anything happened to him. As if I could distance myself enough emotionally to be able to just carry on if he were gone for good.

And yet. That shortcut beckoned. My brain saw that path as the well-lit one studded with diners and rest stops along the way and it was so well-traveled that I could barely discern the other road off to the side.

These days, I'm working on creating a new path. As Bubba readies himself for another long trip and Eve pulls away more and more in search of a new kind of independence and Lola hits the stage where her bedroom is the best room in the house (as long as she's in there alone or with a girlfriend), I am discovering that that old highway is no longer useful. It never really got me where I needed to go, anyway. There's no getting around the hurt when someone leaves. So instead of pulling away preemptively, I'm going to hang on a little tighter. I'm going to squeeze every last drop of affection out of the time I do get with these amazing people and hopefully the signs on my new road will read

I LOVE YOU AND I MISS YOU.
GLAD WE HAD THIS TIME TOGETHER.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Listening to Stakeholders

It is often hard to remember that listening is the best first step to creating solutions, especially when the solutions are not for us, personally. The older I get, the more I understand that listening is truly the best first step in nearly every situation, though, whether it's meeting someone new, planning a project, walking with a friend.

If we don't listen, it's easy to forget that someone else's perspective might be incredibly valuable.  Last October, Gloria Steinem told this story to a room full of people I was lucky enough to be in.

She had traveled to Africa to attend a summit on sex trafficking with many, many organizations and governmental representatives all gathered together to come up with ways to combat this rising challenge.  During a break in the meetings, she was approached by a woman who asked her to travel with her to a small village where several women had recently been lost to this trade. Gloria was flattered and shocked, unsure of what she could do to help this small village, much less how she would manage to communicate with the villagers, but she went.

She described a scene where a feast was prepared and blankets spread out on the grass, with all of the women in a circle ready to address her.  Translating their concerns was difficult, but they found a way to get their request across - the women of the village wanted elephant fences.  Gloria was confused. What do elephant fences have to do with sex trafficking? The women explained:

The livelihood of this village was largely dependent on growing maize.  Over time, though, as elephant habitats become smaller and smaller, the elephants discovered the fields of maize and came  to the village to feed on them.  This left the village in dire straits - they had not enough maize to feed their own families, much less to sell to others.  It is because of this that three young women traveled to the nearest large city to find work to send home money to support their families. When they arrived in the city, they were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.  The rest of the villagers reasoned that if they raised the equivalent of a few thousand dollars to erect fences that would prevent the elephants from eating their maize, they could keep their young women from having to leave the village to find work.

Gloria was stunned by this simple solution - one that nobody at her enormous conference would have come up with. She traveled back to the city and worked for several days to raise money to build the fences.   More than that, she demonstrated the power of listening. By traveling to the village to hear the ideas of the people most affected, she was enabling them to empower themselves and helping them find a way to prevent their girls from being sex-trafficked.  It is not a solution for the many, to be sure, but for this village it was monumental. And it cost mere pennies compared to the proposals being raised at this multinational conference, most of which were not preventative solutions, but punitive ones for the traffickers themselves.

I am so often struck remembering this story as I read stories in the news about government agencies or non-profit organizations who are puzzling over potential solutions to poverty, hunger, major health issues, and violence in particular countries or communities. The first question I ask myself these days is whether the folks with the leverage and money to provide help have asked the communities in question for their stories, their ideas, their solutions. Bringing American-style answers to questions that exist in non-western countries may turn out to be wasteful or overkill and it may well be that if one or two people listen to the individuals living with the struggles and ask for their perspective, they can come up with simpler, more comprehensive solutions.

It seems obvious, but it is so easy to get caught up in our own viewpoint and the belief that wanting to help is enough. I do the same thing with my kids all the time, swooping in to offer advice or put into place some new system that I think will fix a pervasive problem in our household without asking them what they think. And, especially when it comes to kids, I think adults do that a lot. I watched my daughters' middle school revamp their dress code four times in four years, having discussions with staff and administration, parents and board members, but it wasn't until they listened to the students that they came up with a solution that everyone feels good about. It was a student that got so frustrated she crafted a PowerPoint Presentation to illustrate the issues and potential solutions, and it took a month of student council meetings to come up with a new set of guidelines that has everyone breathing a sigh of relief. Four years (at least). Four years of meetings, research, discussion, fiddling with different ideas, and nobody was happy.

I have a photo of an elephant fence tucked inside my nightstand as a powerful reminder that listening is one of the most effective, efficient things I can do every day. Even if I see my strengths as collaboration and a strong desire to help, it turns out that the best way to do that is by asking the stakeholders what they think, no matter who they are.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Perspective Achieved

Last week I got to spend three days with Lola and her 7th grade class (26 12- and 13-year old girls) on part of the trail that Lewis & Clark trekked. We slept in yurts, explored Shipwreck Beach, hiked to the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment, visited Fort Clatsop to learn about the living conditions, and listened to folks tell stories of their discoveries. It was a lot of driving (I had four girls in my car), and I can honestly say that I don't recall when I have laughed that much.

There were two other moms who came along as chaperones and four dads that joined the teachers on this trip, and it was really great to see how different adults interact with the students. One dad talked (in front of everyone) about how much he appreciated getting to spend this time with his daughter before she truly launches into the more fully independent teenage years which got quite the sweet response from us all.  Some parents watched the kids pretty closely while others gave them a wide circle of trust, but we all ultimately had everyone's back.

There were moments of tension, and some tears along the way, but for the most part, the girls enjoyed exploring, talking about what it might have been like to be Sacajawea (the only woman, the only teenager, and the only Native American on an all-white-male expedition), and having a little bit of freedom.

As for me, it was just exactly what I needed.  The previous week had been one of angst and turmoil for me. After launching The SELF Project and officially putting the word out, I spent a week making a few connections with folks I thought might be interested and another week waiting and wondering. While I engaged in many of the normal activities of my life - blogging, editing a piece for publication, cooking and shopping and running the girls to school and their various activities - I was constantly taunted by thoughts that I ought to be doing something else. That if I were a "real" entrepreneur, I would know the right steps to take to get clients and start some projects. That I was somehow not good enough or smart enough to make this endeavor work.

The three days with these girls showed me that those voices are wrong. I had several conversations with teachers and parents on the trip about the social-emotional health of the girls, discussing my insights and understanding and making suggestions for future trips. I was able to see patterns in some instances that others hadn't seen and it reinforced my belief that engaging in mindfulness with these kids is terrifically important in so many ways.

I came home exhausted and rejuvenated, my belly sore from laughing at their antics, and feeling a renewed sense of wonder about this beautiful place where we live. More than that, though, I came home knowing more about how I work best and that actually immersing myself in the work is where my talents shine through.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

How Do You See The World?

When I look at this image, the first thing I see is an old woman and it's hard to see anything else.  But as soon as someone points out the young lady facing away from me in the same lines on the page, it is nearly impossible to see the old woman again. I am stuck with the view of the young lady.


In order to switch back and forth, I am forced to focus on certain parts of the image instead of looking at the whole. If I want to go back to the view of the old woman, I seek out the line of her mouth and raise my eyes up to her beak-like nose.

If I then want to see the young lady again, I look out to where her eyelash and nose are to shift perspective.  And as I do so, I am reminded that I possess the same power of perspective in my daily life.

Perception is reality, right? So if we're in a challenging situation, or a pattern in our lives where our default perspective is glass-half-empty, it's up to us to change the way we look at it. The trick is not to fill up the glass, but to see that it is half full instead.  We have to focus on certain parts of the whole that help us to see things in a different way, and it is important to teach our kids how to do this for themselves. As they hit adolescence and emotions become king, it can be really difficult to perceive things in a positive way, and once the negative patterns have been set, it takes work to change them.

If you have a teen who sees things in a decidedly unhappy way (I hate school, nobody likes me, I suck at math/history/lit), there's no use challenging their perception. You will get nowhere by disputing their sense of reality or belittling their emotional responses, but you can help them turn the tide slowly by helping them see things in a different way. One powerful way to do this is to begin a gratitude practice (although you may not want to call it that).

When Eve started high school there were a lot of challenges and it didn't take long for her to feel like a square peg in a round hole. After weeks of angst and hand-wringing (on my part), lots of conversations designed to build her up, and a few frustrated arguments, I decided to lead by example. Every night before turning my bedside lamp off, I texted Eve a list of three things I was grateful for and asked her if she had three to tell me about. I wanted the last thing in her mind before sleep to be happy.  She started out slowly, often able to come up with one or two things, but sometimes getting stuck. It took a week or so before she was texting me first and asking for my reply, and her list of things has deepened from "my soft pillow" to items like "teachers I can trust" and her own strengths. Her perspective is shifting right before my eyes and I would be remiss if I didn't say that it has made a difference in her willingness to get up and tackle each new day as it comes, challenges and all.

It is a practice, and, like the effort it takes to focus my eyes on one set of lines or another in that drawing when I want to see a certain perspective, it is continual. The best part about it, though, for me, is the reminder that I am ultimately in charge of which lenses I see the world through - hope or fear, scarcity or abundance, gratitude or anger - and I hope that my girls are learning that, too.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mourning Cosby

There is an autographed, glossy, 8x10 photo of Bill Cosby on my mantle. It has been there for years, although in the last several months it has been face down so I don’t have to see it every time I sit down to watch TV with my kids.

Many of the most cherished moments of my childhood involved Bill Cosby.  Much of my childhood was tumultuous, peppered with divorces and multiple moves and brothers and sisters split up into different households.  My parents hated each other, but in the years before their divorce, at least once a week my siblings and I would lie belly-down on the shag carpet in anticipation while Dad packed his pipe with sweet-smelling cherry tobacco, pushed the 8-track in, and settled in his favorite chair. We spent hours listening to tales of Fat Albert, rolling around in hysterics and trying desperately to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t miss the next hilarious line about the dentist or Buck-Buck Number 5. Those evenings were magical. There were few things that we could all agree on – vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup and Cosby’s routines being the only two I can recall now – and we listened to those tapes until we could recite them verbatim. I used to delight in spontaneously rattling off a line in the middle of a boring road trip or somber meal just to see everyone crack up.

After an ugly divorce from my mother, Dad and I had issues. He was a complicated man who didn’t always do the right thing. He cheated on my mom. He cheated on his second wife. He had a terrible temper and ruled with shame and fear. He was also committed to teaching us to be better people, coaching my brothers’ soccer team and letting me help him wash and wax the cars and change the oil. He was serious and meticulous and didn’t laugh easily, but when he did it was like Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. I was simultaneously terrified of him and desperate to make him proud of me. For much of my life there was no more powerful force in my world than Dad.

 Mom had a lot of really terrible things to say about him and nearly a decade after their split when his second marriage began crumbling, my stepmother added to the accusations. I was a senior in high school and a budding feminist. I was disgusted by the tales of my father’s cheating and indignant in my defense of my mom and stepmother. I began to distance myself from Dad, which was fairly easy since I was soon to be off to college, anyway. I never confronted him, certain that he would deny their allegations, and kept all of our interactions purely superficial.  I didn’t trust him and wasn’t about to put myself in a vulnerable position.

When I was 29 and expecting my first child, things changed. I had been too afraid to formally disengage from Dad’s life since that would have required having an honest conversation about why I was choosing that route. Instead, I held him at arm’s length, determined to protect myself. But as my belly grew, I began daydreaming about the life I wanted to give to my child. I recalled my own family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; torn tissue and ribbons and smiles all around. I remembered that allies don’t always come in the form we expect them to and, regardless of how fiercely I hoped to be the one my child came to when she needed help, it dawned on me that I may not be the one she chose. I decided that I wanted to give my baby the biggest, most loving family in the history of the world. I wanted her to know her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. I wanted her to hear their stories and see their hilarious antics. I wanted her to stand in the center of a room full of her people and feel loved and protected and cherished, and I realized that that group included Dad. My heart melted as I recalled some of my favorite moments with him  – playing Heart and Soul together on the piano, hiking in the mountains on a sunny summer day, lying around cracking up to Bill Cosby routines. I had forgotten how safe I had felt with him as a kid.

But I was unsure how to go about it. I would have to steel myself for this conversation, this decision to let him into my life for real. I figured I would have to confront him with all of the accusations Mom and his second wife had made and ask him to answer for them. I lay in the darkness, one hand on my belly, my anxiety ratcheting up as I imagined the awful fight we would have. The baby started kicking furiously, turning somersaults and flipping around.

Gradually it began to dawn on me: was there anything he could say that would appease me? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would say, “I cheated on your mom because of ‘x’” and it would be okay with me? Could I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he made as a parent? Anything that would make me nod my head and say, “Oh, I get it. I totally would have done the same thing.”

The baby stopped moving and I went cold. It was in that moment that I realized I had been vilifying my father for decades and he was simply a human being. He hadn’t had a set of rules or guidelines for being the perfect parent any more than I would.

Yeah, but did he do his best? the devil voice on my shoulder sneered.

The answer surprised us both. Yeah. I think he did.

When faced with this question I was forced to admit that I didn’t honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me or my siblings or even my mother. I don’t think he was ever trying to hurt any of us. Not that his actions were excused or excusable, but it wasn’t my job to make my father pay for his mistakes, especially those he made with his wives.

And so Dad and I started over. From that moment, as adults, we began again, without mention of or atonement for past mistakes, with an acknowledgment that we were both human and fallible. Our relationship as adults was based on mutual love and respect and while I still wanted him to be proud of me, I no longer needed his approval. Most importantly, I stopped judging him.

We had eight fabulous years as father and daughter. We spoke on the phone a couple of times a month about anything and everything and he never hung up without saying, “I love you, Kari.” Watching him get down on the floor with my girls and play Polly Pockets and build Lego houses and sing goofy songs, I often thought my heart would bust wide open. He was funny and irreverent and would have done anything for his granddaughters. He was amazed at how smart they were and wanted them to have every opportunity in life. More than once, I saw threads of him woven into the fabric of my children – their tenacity and determination came straight from him through me, I’m sure. Because of my children, I was able to recapture the good memories of Dad. Before that, I only saw the cheating and lying.

My father died in my arms after a brutal battle with lung cancer six years ago. I spontaneously offered to write and deliver the eulogy at his memorial service and for a few terrifying hours I sat on the guest bed at my in-laws’ house searching for inspiration. What came to me was Bill Cosby. As a kid, Dad was stern and serious except for those nights when he lit his pipe and put his feet up and laughed at Cosby’s routines until tears rolled down his cheeks, and that is what I told the room full of people that came to pay tribute to my father. I chose Dad’s favorite routine – the one where God is trying to convince Noah to build the ark – and wove the humor and persistence of that bit into my acknowledgment of Dad’s gifts.

Today, I mourn for the tainted memories. I am relieved that my daughters never took to my attempts to hang out and listen to Bill Cosby CDs as a family because now I don’t have to dismantle that family tradition for them. They are too young to have watched The Cosby Show or have seen any Jell-o adds featuring Cosby, so all they know about that autographed 8x10 on the mantle is that it belonged to Papa. I will throw away the CDs I’ve had tucked away in my car for long road trips, naively thinking that the girls would stop listening to their own iPods long enough to hear the “snakey lick” routine that still makes me giggle, but I’m torn about how to handle the photo. Do I burn it and repurpose the frame? Do I throw the whole thing out? And what do I do with the memories? How do I reconcile the bonding that occurred over his comedy routines with the possibility that, during that time, he was drugging and sexually assaulting young women? 

Oddly enough, I’m very clear on how to handle such things with my children. They are very aware of which music I refuse to buy because the musician is not someone I wish to support.  The misogynist characters who build their reputations on objectifying and, at times blatantly threatening women and girls are not welcome to be heard in my car. One day as we drove to school, a PitBull song came on the radio and my youngest quickly reached for the dial to change the station.

“You know, it’s sad, Mom. He is a horrible human being, but he is a really good rapper.”

In our current era of social media and citizen journalism, I suspect we know far more about today’s celebrities than we ever have before.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that many of the artists I listened to as a teenager did awful things but were lucky enough not to get caught by the general public, and it makes me wonder whether I would rush to get rid of all of their music now in response. If I discovered that Robert Plant or Jimmy Page had committed terrible acts against women or gay people or Latinos, I would be devastated. Would I never again listen to “Stairway to Heaven?” I don’t know.

Can I separate the individual acts from the performance? In the case of entertainers like PitBull and Eminem, it is clear from their music that they espouse certain beliefs and claim particular entitlements. It has been claimed that there were indications in Cosby’s routines as far back as 1969 that he wanted to drug women. I remember the Spanish Fly bit and, honestly, I don’t remember thinking anything of it at the time, mostly because the whole notion of Spanish Fly seemed confusing and “adult” to me.

I am a firm believer in consequences and if it turns out Bill Cosby did the things he is alleged to do, he deserves to pay harsh penalties and he has a lot to atone for. But the organizer in me wants to know which file to put those memories in, or whether I ought to just bag them up and throw them out with the dog poo. 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...