Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Free-Wheeling Thoughts to Finish the Year

It has been so long since I wrote here. In the past few weeks, I've had fleeting shots of brilliance, inspiration for new posts that I promptly forgot as I slipped back into the conversation and game-playing that comprises an O'Driscoll family holiday.

At one point, we renamed the girls Chaos and Mayhem because they got into the habit of staying up until 2:00AM giggling in their shared room at Grandma and Grandpa's house. I wondered whether it was the magic of the holidays or if they would have the same fun if they shared a room at home.

There was much cousin-love - piles of teenagers like puppies on the couch, sharing headphones and listening to each others' music, playing games on their phones in competition and cooperation, both. At other times, the littlest cousins joined in, playing Candyland - the never-ending game of Candyland - and building gingerbread houses and Dance, Dance, Freeze! There was more delicious food than anyone could have imagined with decadent chocolate mousse and macadamia nut pie for dessert. Oh, that pie!

There was a photographer who came to do family pictures that we will all forget about until the proofs are emailed two weeks from now and the warm memories of that week flood our brains and bodies. It was a glorious time with rest and games, squeals of delight (none louder than my own Eve's when she opened the bag she has had her eye on for months), and then a return home to a bit of discombobulated priorities. We have one more week outside of our routine to figure out how to spend our time and I am vacillating between thoughts of organizing and purging, finding a quiet space to work for hours, nesting and cooking healthy hot meals, and feeling so overwhelmed I just want to lie on the couch and nap.

And then there is the world outside, with its flooding and tornadoes, refugees still pouring out of their home countries desperate to find some safety and security, and Tamir Rice's family. There is some part of me that wishes January 1 was truly a reset button - a way to clear the mistakes of the past the same way the dog's tail swipes the contents of the coffee table with one clean motion. I often wish we could start from scratch; instead of patching policies with "additional training" and "stopgap measures," couldn't we just scrap the whole tax code, the immigration rules that exist now, the biases and built-up fears of police officers from the last several decades? If we had a way to design humane, equitable, compassionate systems of care for those who are ill, to deal with finances, paradigms of authority, I might feel as though it were possible to change things more quickly.

But then I remember that the only way out is through, and that the best way to make a positive change in the world is to start with myself. And so I will continue to work on being compassionate, open-minded, leading with my heart, and listening, listening, listening. And instead of making grand, sweeping proclamations that an entire year will be "the best ever," I will focus on each step I take, each day as it comes, and set the intention that today will be a good day.

May you find happiness in many moments of today and every day.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Free Speech and All That

Twice this week I've heard stories of hateful verbal attacks in public. I am quite certain that there have been dozens and dozens and that these are only two that I have encountered in the news, but it  makes me think about how we ever came to the place where we believed in our inalienable right to share every trivial opinion loudly and vehemently.

The first incident was a woman (I confess, I can't recall whether she is Muslim or not) traveling on a bus who endured much hollering from a white man, telling her to "go back home" and "get out of our country." Of course, as it turns out, she was born in the US but, apparently because she is half-Iranian, this man assumed she was both a foreigner and a terrorist, and none of the other passengers on the bus intervened on her behalf. It was only when she could take no more and decided to yell back at him and defend herself that the bus driver finally kicked him off the bus. The second involved a woman in Southern California who was driving her two small children somewhere during the day as she wore a hijab. A man in a large truck sped up next to her car, flipped her off and began spewing curse words at her, intimidating her by swerving his truck next to her car and honking before he finally turned a corner and drove away. She made it clear that the things he was hollering were in regards to her hijab and not her driving skills.

As I think about these stories and consider the number of times I've been spoken to in a rude or hateful way by a total stranger, I am left wondering who ever told us that it was okay to talk to other people like that? I am a supporter of free speech, but to me, free means that we are open to expressing our ideas and beliefs in a way that encourages discourse, understanding, and education. Free doesn't mean unfiltered, unnecessary blathering. I frankly don't care if you, man-on-the-sidewalk, like my outfit today, or the way my ass moves in my skirt. It isn't important to me whether you think someone's Spandex shorts are "gross!" or that guy's purple mohawk is "faggy." I'm pretty sure nobody else cares, either. Even if you're going for a laugh, it isn't funny. It's just obnoxious.

What makes us think that our opinions are so important that everyone needs to hear them all the time? Even if you are a person who is nervous around those who practice the Muslim faith, I don't think it's important to share that on a bus, especially not in a way that feels threatening to others. I even feel like it is your prerogative to share your off-the-cuff thoughts (and true beliefs) in your social media feed - fine, go ahead. But directing your snotty or disparaging opinions or, worse, propositions or hate speech, at one particular person or group of people does nothing but make you a bully and a narcissist. Maybe you like Donald Trump enough to emulate him in public, but it is really unnecessary. The world doesn't need more of that.

Perhaps two simple guidelines can help here.


  1. You don't need to say every single thing you think. Honestly. If it isn't going to make the world a better place, if you haven't been asked for your opinion, if it isn't kind or supportive, maybe it ought to just stay inside. 
  2. Your thoughts are not facts. I know, sometimes that's hard to wrap your head around, but just because you think something doesn't make it right. There are many, many things we can't know about other people's lives and circumstances, and if you're at all unsure of whether or not you know for certain that there even IS a "right" and "wrong" in this particular case, maybe it ought to just stay inside. 



Monday, December 07, 2015

The Birthday Celebration to End all Birthday Celebrations

I have just had the most extraordinary experience, and despite the fact that I'm sitting in an artificially-lit room with rain showering down from charcoal-grey skies outside, I am absolutely glowing. 

My oldest turned 16 yesterday and, to celebrate, she and I spent three days in New York City touring around and indulging in all of her fantasies. We poked around Barney's and Bloomingdales, stood with the hordes outside Rockefeller Center and snapped photo after photo of the tree and the ice skaters. We wandered across the campus of Columbia University, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and stood underneath the Manhattan Bridge on a sunny, bright day. We perused the wares at holiday markets from Union Square to Bryant Park and walked through Times Square at night people-watching. Perhaps her favorite experience, though, was seeing Wayne Brady in a production of Kinky Boots. She was hardly able to sit still from excitement and when we stood outside the stage door afterward, shivering, she barely felt the chill in the air. The star himself came out to greet his fans and promptly wrapped her in his wool trench coat and offered her a warm "Happy Birthday!" as I took photos of them together. She floated back to the hotel and couldn't get to sleep, she was so thrilled. 

These moments together, whether they be tiny ones like sharing a delicious snack or huge ones like meeting Wayne Brady, lifted me up to a place I won't soon come down from. I know that I have only two more years before she is off to college and I see her much less often (especially if she chooses to go to school in New York, which she says she will), and while I feel as though I ought to be sad about that, I was really just very honored to be part of the joy that she had this last weekend. Watching her face light up in a grin as big as I've ever seen when she spied the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and hearing her exclamation of bliss at the first bite of New York cheesecake are some of the things I was so lucky to be witness to that I will never forget. 

There is a song in Kinky Boots called "Not My Father's Son" that reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years ago called The Fallacy of Belonging, where the two lead characters sing about feeling as though they disappointed their fathers because they couldn't "echo what he'd done." All of the singing was exquisite, but as I sat and listened to that particular song and turned to watch Eve, I knew in my heart that the best thing I can do for her is to let her travel her own path in life, wherever it leads her. No matter how many instances I can recall that point to our similarities, she is herself, and it is not my place to convince her of anything, to hold her back because I am afraid or don't understand. My gift to her is to lift her up, help her believe in herself and trust her own gut, and revel in the things that she enjoys and desires. I could no more imagine myself at 16 wanting to go to school in NYC than I could have imagined myself being abducted by aliens, but it doesn't matter. The simple fact that she and I can share these moments together, with her driving the agenda and feeling free to explore possibilities for her own life means more to me than anything. 

On the flight home, I sat next to a woman whose daughter is a senior at Columbia University. She was on her way home from a visit and she confided to me that she never could have prepared herself for how hard it was to have her daughter go away to college (they live in Anchorage, Alaska - almost as far apart as you can get and still be in the same country). She confessed to having gone through a deep depression when her daughter was gone, and said that even now, she visits her 2-3 times a semester just to reconnect. For a moment, I panicked and started to wonder what it might be like for me to have Eve so far away, but then I made a decision to stay in the glow of this weekend. It will probably be very hard for me if she goes across the country to college, but all I have to do is conjure up the memory of how happy she was to be feeling grown up in the big city, exploring all it had to offer, and striking out with a confidence I never had at that age, and I think I can find it in myself to be happy for her. She is not me, and I am so honored to be given the opportunity to see her for who she is without placing my own filters on her. That would only limit her and goodness knows I don't want to do that.  Happy birthday, sweet girl. Thank you for being in my world. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

It's Time to Get Out of the Water


There is a saying that has been rattling around in my head for the past several days - ever since the terrorist attacks in Lebanon and France last week, to be honest. You can put a frog into boiling water and he will jump out. But you can put a frog into tepid water and raise the temperature slowly and it will stay in there and allow itself to be boiled to death. 

I believe that this is what is happening in the world right now. The acts of terror that have been recently committed are ones that are reminiscent of a pot of boiling water, to be certain. But the rhetoric of Republicans in the House of Congress and GOP governors and GOP presidential candidates who want to deny refugees and propose tracking programs or selection based on religion are a sign that the water is being heated to boiling around us and it's time we noticed and got the hell out of this pot. 

Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and John Kasich (and their cohorts Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) have been saturating the news with their ever-increasing intolerance of anyone who doesn’t look like them, think like them, talk like them. But if you look back at the things these individuals have said and done in the past, there is a recognizable trajectory of hatred and isolation. The problem is that because it has been ratcheted up over time, each individual statement doesn’t seem that much worse than the one before. But we are about to boil over.

Consciously or not, it is this phenomenon that leads many sexual predators to groom their victims. Many young children become convinced over time that someone in their life is safe because they don’t act in sudden, shocking ways toward them. Small incidents might seem a little odd, but often there is no real alarming behavior to point to – it is like climbing a staircase. Suddenly you’re at the top, and the perspective from up there is very different, but if you weren’t paying attention to how you got there, it is difficult to determine where you might have interrupted your path. Victims of sexual and physical abuse are often questioned as to why they didn’t say something or fight back or simply leave, but often the progression of events was subtle and continuous and it is confusing to think about when or why you might have noticed that something was wrong.

I believe that a great many people with good intentions end up following politicians like Trump and Carson because they simply didn’t understand how hot the water was getting. It is only when you’re on the outside looking in that you can see how shocking it has become. Many of the statements that have gone months before – from Carson saying that a Muslim shouldn’t be President of the United States to Trump demonizing immigrants – led up to a climate of “otherness” and intolerance that meant that Trump could stand up in public with his hands spread wide in a gesture of “isn’t it obvious?” and say that every Muslim person allowed into this country ought to be registered and monitored closely. He seemed shocked that anyone would disagree that this “management” idea was a breakthrough. Except that it was pretty much what Hitler did to Jewish citizens just before World War II.


It’s getting hot in here, folks, and if those of us who have voices don’t raise them up to point out what is going on and work to turn down the heat, we’re all in a fine kettle. We might think of all of this as the consequence of living in a country where we have freedom of speech, but when our elected officials and presidential candidates are actively talking about how they would plan to persecute people based on their religious background, it’s time to shut this shit down.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The State of Love

"Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It's an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." Fred Rogers

"Love is an action, never simply a feeling." bell hooks

As a kid, I thought love was a commodity. Something that I could acquire if I only had the right currency. And I often felt as though I had hit upon the right combination of things to do and say and be, but, as with all other things we pay for and think we own, once I had it, I was forever fearful of losing it. Because if love is a thing not freely given, it can be taken away. I never felt as though I had the power in this particular scenario, which meant that I was always hustling to stay one step ahead.

Perhaps the trickiest part of this view of love was that the cost of it was different for each person I encountered. Mom seemed to need very little to bestow her affection on me until life became more complicated and she was single and raising three kids. Unfortunately, I equated anger and disapproval with a lack of love, as I think most kids do.

As I got older, I experimented with giving and taking away love as a way to get some control over my own life. At least, I thought it was love I was giving and taking away, but it turns out that wasn't true. I recall attempting to punish my dad by ignoring him or being strictly businesslike in my conversations with him. I gave not-so-subtle signals by withholding physical affection and not making eye contact. But I never stopped loving him, and I never stopped wanting to know that he loved me. I just thought that we had taken love out of the equation when it turns out it was there in the background while we mucked around with each others' feelings in an attempt to gain power.

It wasn't until I had Eve that I became aware that love is not a thing in the sense of other things. It is not static or transferable. I cannot give someone else my love for them, I simply love them. Whether either of us chooses to recognize its existence at any given time is another issue. As for love, it is simply there. Available. Pulsing.

With Dad, the struggle came about when I chose to focus on what he owed me for my love. I resented the fact that I loved him so deeply and he wasn't fulfilling his part of the bargain. He wasn't wooing me with apologies and admissions and the honesty that I so desperately (thought) I wanted. I resented the fact that I (thought I) had to work so hard to obtain his love - get good grades, work hard at a sport and a job, be polite and ladylike - and that one small misstep put me back at the start like a game of Sorry. But when I had Eve, I realized that I had been wrong all along. There is nothing this child can do that would ever cause me to take away my love for her. It is not even possible. The fact is, I didn't choose to love this child, I simply do. There are certainly times when I choose to ignore that fact, push it aside and focus on something she has done or said that hurts me, but the truth is, I am only hurt because I love her.

I recall reading a parenting book at some point that cautioned that parents should remind their children often that they are loved unconditionally, and for a while I went about my life believing that my parents' biggest mistake was in not telling us that. I vowed to remedy the situation by telling both my children and my parents that I love them unconditionally. But these days I feel as though all love is unconditional. If I truly abandon myself to loving another being, I cannot place conditions on it. It is doing love a disservice to pretend that it is a commodity that can be earned or paid for. Perhaps the best part of all of this for me is the knowledge that love exists out there in the world in vast quantities. Regardless of my actions or accomplishments or physical appearance, I can access love at any time. That's a pretty cool thing to remember when things get tough.
 

Monday, November 09, 2015

Just One More Thing...(there's always one more)

The gifts just keep coming. I have read every book by Brene Brown at least once and I've compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, written down quotes, and had some of the most fascinating conversations thanks to her work. Her TED talks inspire me endlessly and often, when I go back and re-read parts of her books, I discover things I hadn't noticed before.  She is definitely on the short list of women whose work impact my life every day, who have changed how I parent and learn and make my way through the world. (It's a pretty awesome list, including the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou).

My most recent revelation thanks to her latest book, Rising Strong, comes as a result of digging a little deeper into the layers of my life. In one part of the book she writes about people who identify themselves as 'helpers,' and notes that the trap of using that label to build yourself up is that it becomes hard to be the one who asks for help. I underlined that passage and made notes on a separate piece of paper because that message resonated so deeply with me. For most of my life, I found control and self-worth because I was able to help other people, lift them up and provide emotional and logistical support. Well, to be honest, I didn't often provide emotional support until I was a lot older. "Fixing" things was a great way for me to feel as though I was being useful and helpful and it kept me from having to feel the pain of others, to truly empathize.

I was in my thirties before I learned about the concept of holding space for others. It took a lot of practice and a willingness to sit with discomfort for me to not immediately leap to problem-solving and balm-offering when I saw loved ones suffering. I am still practicing acknowledging and sitting with a stranger's pain without rising to the challenge of making things better in some physical, tangible way. Dr. Brown is absolutely right when she says that tying my own self-worth to the fact that I'm a helper means that if I need help, my self-worth takes a big hit.

I will admit, however, to some amount of patting myself on the back when I absorbed that portion of the book. About ten years ago I slammed up against a wall of depression that stopped me in my tracks and if I was going to be able to move forward, literally continue to exist on the face of the planet, I had to start asking for help. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't easy, but I was lucky to have some pretty tremendous people in my life who were willing to support me. I swallowed my pride shame (I think they might be the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin) and accepted childcare, meals, help around the house. I learned to get better at saying no to helping others in every single situation where I was asked to help and, over time, I began to warm to the idea that I was not an island. So when I read her words about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask for help and accept it, I nodded my head and congratulated myself on having learned to do that.

I should have known better. (Remember the pride/shame thing?)

The universe has a way of smacking me upside the head when I'm feeling a little too smug.

Literally one day after I scratched my notes on yellow lined paper, I was tested. I was feeling good, preparing to get away with Bubba for a long weekend of fun, and I got a phone call that rocked me, that threw me right back into the space I had spent so many years cultivating. I was needed. My problem-solving skills, my particular calm-in-a-crisis, my physical presence was requested, nee, necessary. I spent several hours on the phone working out logistics, asking other people for help and trying to design an airtight plan so that I could keep my plans with Bubba. And while this is my space, my forte, my wheelhouse, I couldn't help but lose it once everything was in place and things were going to be okay.

What is this about? I wondered. I had averted disaster, well, helped to avert it. Well, asked for help to avert it. Wasn't this what I was feeling good about yesterday? My ability to ask for help so that I don't shoulder the burden alone? That's the goal, right? I had done it. Why was I feeling so awful?

Most of my personal revelations come about when I walk the dog. This one was no exception. It hit me so hard I'm surprised I didn't fall over. I am pretty sure I made some sort of whimpering noise when it hit me, but I did manage to stay on my feet and I don't think the dog even noticed.

I have gotten good at asking for logistical help. That much is true.
What I haven't yet learned how to do is to ask for or accept help holding my pain. I have no idea how to open up and let my pain out into the world so that I don't have to keep it all myself. I am good at writing about it (distance, anyone?) and sharing my story, but if I am in the room with someone and I am really hurting, I don't know how to accept empathy without feeling shame.

More work to do.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Deciding What is Really Important

I have learned that it is possible to change my attitude simply by remembering what my values are. And while that may sound ridiculously simple and obvious, it often isn't to me. In fact, it generally requires a focused effort and a pointed (internal) question. When I am in the throes of feeling annoyed or frustrated or distressed about something, I don't always remember to access the part of me that is curious about what I'm feeling. I am more likely to embark on an entire fantasy monologue with someone I believe can change the situation so that I will feel better, and that monologue is peppered liberally with sarcasm, in most cases.

Lola is on her school's volleyball team. The school is small and the students that play sports for the school are generally not the ones who have already specialized in one particular sport and play on "rec" or "club" teams year-round. The coaches are terrific, committed and fun, and the students' abilities vary widely, but we can mostly agree that everyone improves throughout the season. That said, there are still some athletes who have strong natural talents and others who struggle with some basic ideas of the game, and many in-between.

I love watching sports. I love the strategy, the physical ability, the way teams are able to work together and complement each other. I also grew up with some very competitive male role models and have chosen teams to root for that I am very passionate about. I have been accused by both Eve and Lola of being too loud at games when I come to watch them play, but I don't particularly care. I try to learn all of the girls' names and cheer for them in supportive ways. I would never yell at a referee or berate a player for missing a chance to score or making a mistake. I don't make fun of anyone, even on the other team, but my mother-bear does come out when the game is close and I thoroughly enjoy watching my girls' teams win.

There are a few girls on the volleyball team that have not mastered the overhead serve. There are a few that have never, ever gotten one over the net, and yesterday as I watched the series of three matches and one girl in particular got a chance to serve several times, I found myself getting annoyed. I recall thinking, Why has nobody told this girl that she should give up trying the overhead serve? Just have her serve underhand, for God's sake. She'll get it over the net. It's a guaranteed side-out every single time she tries an overhand serve. Even as I heard the sarcastic tone in my head, I justified it by looking at the scoreboard and seeing how close it was. I rolled my eyes and breathed deeply.

The next time this girl came up to serve, I watched her step uncertainly past the back line and try to steady herself. I could tell by her body language that she was going to try the overhand serve again and just as the mean thoughts began surfacing again, something else rose up to take their place.

What is your true value here? Is it winning the game at all costs? If it is, criticize away. 
 I brought myself up short. It isn't. Winning isn't the real, important, long-term value.

Courage. Courage is my value. What I want for all of these girls is to find courage. 
Yeah. I talk so much about hoping that my daughters can tap into their own beliefs and knowledge about themselves and express that with courage and honesty. And that is exactly what this girl is doing. She is trying. She continues to try. She steps up to that line every time, tosses the ball in the air, takes a deep breath, cocks her arm back, and smacks the volleyball, hoping that this time it will go over the net. And when it doesn't, she smiles an aw-shucks smile and the other five girls on the court high-five her for trying. They say things like, "It's okay. We'll get it back. Nice try." And they turn around and refocus and wait for the serve.

Whether they win or lose, they are playing as a team and reinforcing each others' right to continue to try. From the most talented athlete to the most awkward one, they rotate on and off the court, play together and encourage each other. The thing is, I remember being that girl - the one who couldn't get an overhand serve over the net. By my sophomore year in high school, I had given up and only served underhand because I knew I could get it over every time, and I knew that if I couldn't serve, I wouldn't play. I got the message that winning was the goal. And then I met Tara. She was a year older than me and stood an inch or two shorter than I did, which was hard to do in high school. She was a brilliant setter and was so tiny, I couldn't imagine how she could ever get an overhand serve over the net, either. I idolized her on the court and watched her every move. Tara had internalized the 'winning' value, too, but she never let go of her courage. She held the two side-by-side and created her own wild, wicked, side-arm overhead serve that baffled the opposing team every time. I never mastered that serve, either, and every time I stepped up to the line to serve my puny underhand serve, I felt ashamed despite the fact that it went over every time. I know now that I wasn't ashamed because of anything outside of myself - nobody on my team ever made fun of me for my serve. I was ashamed because I had let go of my courage and stopped trying.

Lola's team won two matches and lost one yesterday, I think. Honestly, what I remember the most about the game was the transformation that happened when I was reminded of what I truly value the most. The warm feeling of pride that came over me when I watched that player try again and again to get her serve over the net made me smile. May she never lose her courage. May I remember to honor it in people more often.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

What if We Stopped Judging Other Parents and Took a Wider View?

I've seen this article, "Former Stanford Dean Explains Why Helicopter Parenting is Ruining a Generation of Children," highlighted several times this week by different folks and I have a few thoughts:

1. She notes that "incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper..." Could it be that this is part of the problem? That we expect kids, in order to get into college, to be absolutely perfect? When I was a kid, our hobbies were just that - things we did in our spare time because we enjoyed them. We played organized sports seasonally, not to get a college scholarship, and we didn't specialize in one sport starting at the age of eight. We played multiple sports, joined scouting, learned to dance or knit or cook because it was part of our culture or our friends were doing it, not because it would look good on a college application.

2. This former dean of Stanford writes, "I'm interested in humans thriving, and it turns out over parenting is getting in the way of that." Really? Or is 'over parenting' as she puts it simply trying to accommodate for the fact that our culture asks our kids to be busy and accomplished 24/7 which leaves little time for thriving, or finding joy and purpose, or learning life skills? Could it be that the 'Race to Nowhere' generation has bought into the cultural notion that their purpose lies somewhere outside themselves and the parents have jumped on board the competition train to help their kids get into college and succeed at all costs?

3. "She cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people." She doesn't connect any of that to 'over parenting' so how do we know that it isn't related to our hyper competitive culture that tells kids they have to know where they're going to college by the time they are freshmen in high school? When I was in high school in the 1980s, we took the SAT. Now, kids not only take the PSAT, but this year, my daughter's high school tried to get the sophomores to take a pre-PSAT to practice for the practice test so that they would all be good enough at it in their senior year to get into top schools and the high school could tout their scores as something they were responsible for. That's just one example of the pressure put on kids by high schools and colleges. Perhaps if they don't have enough bandwidth to learn how to cook their own meals, it's understandable.

4. I am definitely not in favor of judging anyone's parenting style (unless it results in physical or emotional harm to a child), and I find this whole college-level slam on 'helicopter parents' curious. As part of the "least parented generation," isn't it possible that the pendulum is simply swinging, and many of those parents are reacting to their own childhoods of latchkey kids and spending ten hours a day during the summer without any parental/adult supervision at all? No, my parents didn't swoop in and solve my problems. They didn't shield me from uncomfortable situations and try to 'coddle' me, but I could certainly have used a little bit of that. Instead, I grew up knowing that I was on my own and that if I asked for help I would either be told to 'suck it up and quit whining' or roundly ridiculed. I'm not sure that was much healthier. But I know that my parents were doing the best they could. Could it just be that parents everywhere are simply doing the best they can with the tools they have and the pressures they face right now?

5. Last but definitely not least, the notion that an entire generation of kids is "ruined" per the headline of the article is absurd. Even if an entire group of students doesn't currently know how to manage the details of their own lives, that doesn't presuppose that they won't be able to learn those lessons at some point. And many of these students have spent time in high school doing the kinds of work my generation never even considered - starting their own business ventures, volunteering with nonprofit organizations, inventing solutions for some incredibly challenging problems - so pronouncing them "ruined" based on their inability to navigate the social-emotional stresses of the first year in a tough, prestigious university seems a little short-sighted. Basing this sweeping conclusion on a subset of students who were admitted to an elite, Ivy League college ignores all of the other kids out there who are going to community college or joining Americorps or putting off their college education because they can't afford it right now.

To all you parents out there I say, go forth and love your children. Continue parenting them the best way you know how and listen to your own instincts. There will always be folks out there ready and willing to criticize your choices and catastrophize about what you might be doing to your kids (and their entire generation - no pressure). Time marches on. Kids grow up. The most important thing for any kid's parents to do is show them that they are loved and valued.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wrestling With Parenting Demons

From time to time, at least once a year, I find myself parenting with grinding teeth. Generally, it takes me a week or so to recognize it for what it is. I begin with irritability. Things that haven't bothered me for months or years suddenly piss me off at every turn and a cranky inner monologue starts up. The next step is passive-aggressive fantasies. I am not, by nature, someone who leaves 'signs' for other people. I am generally very straightforward and can ask for what I need or want, so when I start imagining scenarios where I follow the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle school of parenting, I know something is up.* I am really in trouble if I start acting on those fantasies. 

Fortunately, I am a ruminator. Or, unfortunately. Once I notice that something is out of whack, I do my best to inquire about it. It isn't often that those inquiries are friendly or compassionate (they generally go something like this, "Dude! What the f*#k is up? Why is this driving you so mad?"), but they do at least open the door to some sort of curiosity, which is a good thing. It usually takes a few days of observing myself and my emotional responses to get at the heart of what is bugging me and more often than not, it is some sort of judgment of my lack of good parenting skills that is throwing me off. Some generalized notion that I am doing this all wrong and screwing up my kids for life (!!!) that is pushing all of my buttons and leaving me feeling like a burn victim who bristles at every touch. Within 24 hours of that realization, I can relax enough to realize that I've been walking through my days with a clenched jaw and balled-up fists for a while and it's pretty uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as the recognition that I think I'm a pretty shitty parent, but unpleasant nonetheless. 

I had a conversation with Bubba last night about some of the things that are making me crazy this time and was struck by how little he internalizes these things. He admitted to being bugged by many of the same things that our girls do (or don't do, as it were), and then he said, "But I don't read anything bigger into it. I don't think of it as my fault or your fault or expect that it means that they'll grow up to be horrible/selfish/fragile people. It just pisses me off." 

I wish. And I wonder if it is a function of my own expectations of myself or a function of our cultural assignment of blame/credit to the mother of a child that I do internalize those things. That while sometimes I can go through my days feeling confident and peaceful about my parenting skills, at other times I am absolutely certain that if the world only knew, they would condemn my abilities as a parent at once. 

In any case, I am within sight of the daylight at the end of this tunnel. Now that I have identified the awful things I have been saying to myself behind the scenes, I can begin to turn them over, feel their edges, contain them in one place and see them for what they are. I can dissect them and try to understand where they come from and eventually set them aside and come back to myself. I try not to think about how many more of these hidden condemnations exist within me, although I know how to confront them, because I suspect I would feel overwhelmed if I knew. As a young parent, I wrestled with many of them and always assumed that there would come a day when I had tossed each and every one of them into the abyss. I never imagined how many would come back around with the same form, triggered by different things. While I embrace the knowledge that parenting is a forever-job, I am less enthusiastic about the aspects of myself it forces me to contend with over and over again. I do think I'm getting better at it, though. There's something to be said for practice...





*For those of you who haven't read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, I'll try to explain. She was the neighborhood child development expert/grandmother figure to whom all of the parents turned when their children wouldn't eat/clean their bedrooms/do their homework/go to sleep on time. Her solutions involved what a lot of folks would call 'natural consequences,' but are what I think of as very passive-aggressive tactics such as leaving a child's room to become so messy that they become trapped inside with all manner of stinky clothes and dirty dishes and eventually come to physical harm (albeit minor) after tripping on a toy they forgot was on the floor. They then magically see the wisdom of their parents' rules and start cleaning up after themselves.

Friday, October 02, 2015

I Will Speak His Name

It happened again. And there has been much acknowledgment that it keeps happening - we are killing each other at an unprecedented rate in this country and it is overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and I wish that we could find a different way to talk about it because, clearly, the way we have been approaching it isn't working.

I popped in to my book club for an hour last night and, even though the topic was the book of historical fiction that we had all read, it quickly bled into discussing the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Someone noted that one positive aspect of all of these things - wars and terrorist attacks and mass shootings - is that it rallies communities, that we all notice each others' humanity and come together to support each other.  But I couldn't quite agree.  The other common aspect of all of those things that ostensibly bring communities together is that they are united against a common enemy. In war it is the other country, after 9/11 it was "terrorists," after yesterday, it is either mentally ill people or mentally ill people with guns or, in some people's minds, simply people with guns.  So while this may feel like solidarity, it is false, because while we may truly be recognizing the humanity of those who are suffering the same way we are, we are setting up a false dichotomy and altogether failing to recognize the humanity of the "other," whomever we have decided they are.

The fact is, we are all in this together. How much must a person be suffering to pick up a weapon and shoot scores of people? How much pain must someone be in to want to inflict that much pain on others?

I have seen many posts on social media today from people and organizations vowing not to mention the name of the person responsible for yesterday's shooting, and I can't help but feel that that is part of the problem. His act was horrific and deplorable, to be certain, but we cannot deny his humanity. Pretending that there is an "Us" and a "Them" is simply perpetuating the problem. The fact is, Chris Mercer was one of us, but he didn't know it and I doubt he felt that way. So often, we hear the stories of shooters in these incidents described as "loners," "quirky," "angry," and "isolated." In other words, not part of a community.

I absolutely believe that stricter gun laws are a vital necessity in this country. I have said that time and time again. But I also think that until we recognize the equal human rights of every person, to dignity and health care (including mental health care) and education, we are destined to see this repeat again and again. Uniting in the wake of tragedies like this, or against a common enemy is not a positive reaction, it is a reaction rooted in fear and scarcity. Coming together to fight AGAINST something drives us into a corner and forces us to erect walls. It is only a matter of time before those boundaries are breached, and being united in fear is a tenuous thing. It is high time we started uniting in purpose, finding a reason to include each and every person in our community and work toward a positive future for us ALL. Refusing to speak the name of someone who is hurting so intensely that they could plan and execute a horrific act like a mass shooting is just another way of burying our heads in the sand. We need to acknowledge the humanity of us all, recognize that we are all entitled to be part of the community of people who deserve happiness and liberty and that so long as we ignore and marginalize individuals out of fear, we are setting ourselves up for more acts of pain like this one.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

When Your Kids Couldn't Be More Different

Sometimes it's hard to imagine that Eve and Lola came from the same stuff. They are so different in the way they approach the world. As a parent it is exciting and amusing to watch them and often, exhausting, because there are no shortcuts. Just because I went through one stage with Eve doesn't mean I know how to handle it with Lola, but it has given me a new way to look at the world. I am reminded that the choices we make are rooted in one of two things: our values or fear. I am reminded that it is this that makes all the difference and that if, as a spectator, I choose to remove judgment, I can learn a lot about what makes someone tick.

My girls each learned to walk in very different ways. While there are some things that parents and caregivers can do to help a child begin walking, ultimately it is something they must do for themselves. And while Eve and Lola both had the exact same goal - learning to walk independently - their methods were distinct and reflected exactly who they each were.

Eve took it step by step. She practiced shuffling along the couch as she held on with both hands. She worked on pulling herself to a standing position in the middle of the room without any props. She spent days standing and clapping, standing and holding objects, standing and babbling loudly. It took her nearly two weeks to take her first steps. Her overriding values were safety and mastery. She was doing everything possible to ensure that she could walk without falling or, if she fell, that she could get herself back up without help. Two weeks of methodical preparation, exploring as many possible combinations and permutations as she could think of, led to her walking without ever falling. She never had that drunken-toddler gait that so many new walkers do and she was supremely confident.

Lola just wanted to walk. Her overriding value was speed. She wanted to get from Point A to Point B as fast as she possibly could and so her method was to use the wall or the furniture or a toy or her big sister for support. She toppled over constantly. She was covered in bruises for weeks, but she never cried about it. She kept her eye on the prize and just did it. She jumped in with both feet and once she figured out walking, she moved immediately to running. She careened into walls, tripped over toys, leapt before she looked, and never gave up. She was driven by the need to keep up with the older kids, to just get somewhere. She didn't care about safety or looking goofy or falling over. She was just thrilled to be moving fast.

As I look at my girls now I see that they do, indeed, still share many of the same goals, but their everyday lives are vastly different because of the values they live by as they head in that direction. Instead of comparing them to one another, I can choose to step back and see each of them in light of what their journey is telling me about who they are as individuals. Once I know the driving force behind their decisions, I can figure out how to support them along the way and perhaps steer them away from being motivated by fear when it shows up.  I am reminded that, once again, remaining curious about the girls is a much more interesting and nurturing way to parent.

Eve took Driver's Ed this summer and I watched as she pulled out all of her cautious, process-oriented tricks once again. She is a very conscientious driver and is living true to her values of safety and precision. I can only hope that Lola approaches driving differently than she did walking, because in this case, speed is not something I can support. Fortunately, I have two years to work that out with her.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Going Down This Road Again

In light of the most recent Congressional vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood, I would like my response to reflect the same approach I've had to this issue for most of my life. Some folks know that about ten years ago I embarked on a project called The Faces of Choice where I endeavored to provide a forum for women to tell their stories regarding difficult or unwanted pregnancies. I wanted to elevate the conversation to include women that chose termination as well as those who didn't, but nonetheless struggled with the decision (because it is NEVER an easy one). I had hoped to publish these stories as a book and that didn't work out. I then moved on to creating a website where a community could be established for women who wanted to share their stories and support each other. For a whole host of reasons, that didn't take off, either. But the website still exists and I write here about why I was so passionate about the work. I know I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but if anyone is on the fence about whether or not it is important to fund the work that organizations like Planned Parenthood does and to stay the hell out of a woman's private medical decisions, I encourage you to go read it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ear Worm Analysis (as opposed to dream analysis)

I have begun a new writing project. I'm not sure whether it is simply something I will do every morning as sort of a free-writing exercise to "get the juices flowing" so to speak, or if it will turn into something. At this point, I've given up trying to predict what will bear fruit and what won't. I have proven myself to be woefully inaccurate at that. So often, I send out something for publication that I think is really damn good and it gets roundly rejected over and over again and then I will write something here on the blog that gets a tiny readership and folks respond by saying it ought to be spread all over the place for more people to see. (By the way, anytime you feel that way about anything I write, you are hereby given permission to share, share, share. Just sayin'...)

Anyway, this new project was spurred by the fact that I wake up each and every morning with a snippet of a song in my head - like an ear worm that I inflict upon myself. The song is generally different every day, and it often takes me half an hour or so to even notice that it's been playing in the background for a while. It is my brain's elevator music, but stuck on one phrase so that it plays the same lines over and over again.  I am pretty sure I was in my 30s before I realized that this is something not everyone does - wakes up with music playing in their head.  

I don't remember my dreams except for maybe a few times a year, but the other day it occurred to me that perhaps there is just as much good information in the songs in my head. After all, they must be a function of my subconscious, right? Last week, I decided to start writing them all down along with a little journal entry and see if I can find a pattern. Of course, the first thing I worried about was that I might somehow subconsciously influence myself simply by paying attention, so I do my best to write about it and forget it during the day. 

I'm six days in and so far, I have no clue. The songs have run the gamut from annoying pop songs (although, interestingly, not ones that the girls tend to listen to a lot - they are more into independent singer/songwriter stuff or, in Lola's case, Panic at the Disco) to, yesterday morning, the theme song from James Bond - I shit you not. Try writing that one down. There are no lyrics. It's just "dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun...DUN-DUN." 

If nothing else, it is a reason to plant my butt in a chair and write first thing in the morning, and that I appreciate. Because my brain is so suggestible when it comes to music, if I don't record the song before I see or talk to anyone else in the morning, it could easily be replaced by another one that the girls are listening to as they get ready in the morning. Or, if Bubba is home, he delights in planting obnoxious songs in my head just to see if he can - his favorite ones are Guns 'n Roses songs because I can't stand them. 

I'll keep paying attention for the time being to see if I can discover any trends or valuable insights, but in the absence of that, at least I've got something to write about every day. 

Monday, September 07, 2015

Morality Without Religion

There are so many examples in my life lately of the power of simple. The more I witness disagreements on social media, the more I retreat inside to my own quiet authority. Everything from the Kentucky court clerk who refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses to arguments about immigration reform and how we treat US immigrants; refugees desperately fleeing their homeland only to be shunned in other countries when they reach the shore and the Pope offering absolution for Catholic women who chose abortion tempt me to enter the fray. And when I sit and think about why and how, I realize that countering arguments is batting at paper tigers. 

I am increasingly horrified at the use of religious writing to prop up acts of selfishness (often couched as "good policy") or terror. I am ever more disillusioned with statistics and studies and numbers that justify treating human beings as problems to be solved. 

I continue to know in the deepest core of my own being that there is no external authority - religious text, political or spiritual leader, or otherwise - that will ever lead me to act in the way that expresses my best, highest, most human self. If a leader or book encourages me to get very quiet and still, to look at the photos of the human beings drowning and starving and fleeing their homes to save their children and really see, that is something. If I am prompted to read about people who are suffering and struggling no matter the circumstances or the choices they've made, and to open my heart to them, that is something. Because when I do that, when I acknowledge the humanity of each and every person on this planet without judgment, without moving from my heart to my brain that wants to categorize and problem-solve and blame, I am closer than ever to doing what is right. When I am driven by a shared humanity as opposed to data or someone else's interpretation, I am certain. There are no conflicts, no pros and cons, no licking my fingertip and flipping back and forth between pages that contain charts or someone else's words. The day that I can look upon another being who is suffering and only see "the bigger picture" is the day that I will have lost myself, my own internal sense of what is right. 

This doesn't mean that I don't disagree with others, it only means that I wish others could do the same. If Donald Trump and Jeb Bush and Kim Davis can see before them someone who needs their help and deny it based on some external notion of what is right and just and moral, I can't change that. If soldiers in another part of the world are convinced that raping and torturing women and children is justified by their religious beliefs, I can't change that. I can attempt to speak in the language of scripture, find citations and passages that call for mercy or implore us to act out of love. I could consult data and past precedent to counter a politician's words, but it is easy to twist words and numbers. It quickly becomes a question of whose authority or perception is "more real," and, ultimately, if I am going to act from a place of certainty and clarity, the source isn't a book or a data set. I can only hope that in some quiet moment somewhere, each of us is able to look within and find a connection, any small spark, that reminds us that words and prophets are not our true authorities, that at the end of the day, all we have is our own internal sense of what is real and right and human, and that to not reach out and help goes against everything that we are.


Time and time again, we hear stories of people who have had incredible moments of insight - generally when they thought they were about to die. The majority of them talk about suddenly realizing what is important, eschewing external motivators and measurements of success and happiness. Instead they strive for human connection, more time with family and friends, and a deeper understanding of themselves. We are all born with a need to be connected to others on a very basic level and as we move toward independence, we lose something. I love Dr. Dan Siegel's idea that instead of raising our children to be independent, we raise them to be interdependent, that is, to never forget that we are all connected and rely on each other. That is the world I want to live in. The world where everyone sees the pictures of the small boy drowning as he flees for his life and feels an enormous tug on their heartstrings. A world where that pull of love, of connection, leads us to talk and think about how to reach out, where we lead with our hearts instead of our heads, where instead of distancing ourselves from the pain by closing our eyes or explaining why that could never happen to us, we open further. A world where we are not driven by numbers and statistics and policies, but where those things become merely tools as we work to alleviate suffering and create support instead of walls we build to keep us from listening, from seeing, from feeling. It is in feeling where I find certainty. I don't always know where to go from there, but for me it is always the best place to start.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

One (Ex-) Catholic's Opinion

I had an entirely different post in mind for today, but I can't let this one go.

Pope Allows Priests to Forgive Abortion if Women are 'Contrite'

Being a long-lapsed Catholic, I am not really worried about this for myself. And I admit to having watched this Pope with a significant degree of awe because I feel like he really is being true to his Jesuit roots with regard to many of the decisions he makes and the things he says. I admire his commitment to being a voice for those in poverty and his courage when speaking about climate change. But this, well, perhaps there is something lost in translation, but this makes my blood begin to boil.

"I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal."
I call bullshit.

With all due respect, you don't know. You have no idea what a woman who is trying to make a decision like this goes through. And you have no right to assume that you know, especially as the head of the organization that puts many of the roadblocks in her way in the first place (what's your church's official position on birth control, again?)

I think that the Pope is trying to do the right thing here, and I can appreciate the sentiment. But the notion that a woman, any woman, needs a man to absolve her for making a private medical decision makes me sick to my stomach. Some folks have commented that priests have no business 'forgiving' anyone, that that is God's job. Others have praised the Pope for his liberal stance on this issue. In the context of the Catholic Church, a horrifyingly patriarchal system in and of itself, I suppose this seemed like a noble thing to offer.  Indeed, devout Catholics can be forgiven for a whole host of sins if they just ask with contrition, regardless of whether they are male or female, but to ask a woman to be contrite for a choice she made that is entirely private is utterly ridiculous. What's next, you can have birth control if every time you go to pick up your prescription you go straight to confessional afterward and ask for forgiveness?

Asking a woman to be 'contrite' is whitewashing the entire set of cultural pressures that Catholic women live under daily. The Pope's slight nod to the church's anti-birth control stance (if that is what it was) doesn't erase the reality for many women around the globe that basically tells them their highest purpose is to get married and procreate and be subservient to their husbands. It ignores the reality that women are the main caregivers of these children and yet are powerless to determine how many of them they are willing to risk their health and life having and give up their careers to raise. It ignores the reality that the only alternative to birth control or abortion is to refuse their husbands, often at their own peril. It ignores the reality that women often have very little control over whether or not they will engage in sex, especially in areas of the world where sexual assault is used as a weapon of war, but that these women are the ones left behind to deal with the consequences of that violation. Are these women to feel 'contrite?' Are they to come to the church and beg a powerful male figure for forgiveness because they made a decision that that powerful man who has taken a vow of celibacy could not possibly understand or have the right to judge?

I call bullshit.

Nice try, but it's time to move along. Perpetuating the idea that a woman's sexuality either belongs to the church or to her husband is so last-Pope. Don't even get me started on the fact that abortion isn't mentioned in the Bible even once.... The bible is a religious text, not a medical one. It has no authority to tell a woman how to make a medical choice, nor to forgive her for making it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Gratitude Isn't

I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don't "need" it, it doesn't happen every day.

It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I'm feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it's been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, "at least I'm not...." If I am comparing my life to someone else's, as in, "at least I'm not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group" or thinking about all the ways my current situation could be worse, such as, "neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I'm not homeless," I'm not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I'm just dodging a bullet.

If I am also making a mental note of the number of "good" things in my life as they compare to the number of "bad" ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn't make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.

When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life - there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn't done something - if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be 'fixed' or that don't meet my expectations. This is not always a negative thing - often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.

I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I'm in the zone, it really isn't. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things.  When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Can We Please Stop Telling Girls and Women to be Polite?

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer's book on campus rape, "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" at a snail's pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,
"I didn't want to come across as too offensive or rude....I didn't want to cause conflict,"
 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,
“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”
And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn't really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I'm uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don't want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the "Right" thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I'm certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother's face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother's face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told - would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn't going to tell - it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn't weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can't ever take back those moments where they didn't stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for "talking back," but I'll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don't want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I'm okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, "F*ck rude - I said NO!" It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Damaging Nature of Expectations

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately and how often we see them as concrete scenarios that drive our actions and emotions.

It started with watching my girls this summer, observing times when they would hatch plans with friends over text, going so far as to figure out movie times and counting their cash on hand and solidify the details only to be foiled by me when I reminded them that I'm not available to drive or they were already obligated to a babysitting job or day of camp. Oh, the disappointment and frustration that ensued! Often, I was the target of anger for simply pointing out that they hadn't thought through the whole thing or asked the right people for input.

Then last week, Bernie Sanders came to Seattle for a few events and I watched the rage unfold on social media as he was preempted by two activists addressing the crowd about the Black Lives Matter  movement. Despite your personal feelings about the tactics or the movement or Sanders' presidential bid, I am curious about how much of the anger and frustration was as a result of the expectation of the crowd that they would hear Sanders speak. I suspect that, had the two women been on the program, people would have received them warmly and openly, but since they had stood outside in the hot (for Seattle) sun waiting for hours to hear Sanders and then were disappointed, many of them reacted poorly to the fact that he left without speaking more than to the message of the activists.

I think that, generally, there are three kinds of expectations we have, positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive expectations represent our hopes - calculating the hours on our paycheck in order to know whether we'll have the money to purchase the thing we really want, killing it on a job interview, giving birth to a healthy baby. They can be big or small, but these are the ones that really slay us when they don't come true. Negative expectations represent our fears, and instead of disappointing us when they don't come true, I think they often keep us from taking the kind of leaps that will help us grow or push boundaries that maybe need to be pushed. On more than one occasion, I have had to talk myself into approaching someone and asking for something that I think I deserve because my expectation is that I will be laughed at or turned down simply because I am not male.

Neutral expectations are those that are typically placed on us from the outside, either our family or friend groups or culture and, often, they aren't expressed specifically but we internalize them all the same. It can be a strong feeling that our parents expect us to do well in school and get into college, that as young women or men (because of our gender identity) we will act and speak and dress a certain way, but it can also be our way of placing expectations on other people - that because someone looks a certain way, they will act in accordance with our expectations.

As I was puzzling through this train of thought, I saw this headline:
JURY SELECTED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE PREP SCHOOL RAPE TRIAL
When I clicked through and read the very short article, I experienced such a toxic stew of feelings - sadness, anger, disappointment, fear - and I wondered about the accused and whether the culture "in which boys about to graduate attempt to 'score' with younger female students" (specifically, that they 'take the virginity of a freshman girl,' sets up an expectation that this behavior is normal - even desirable. In no way does this excuse or justify his behavior (this aspiring DIVINITY student), but could it be one more example of ways in which we human beings trick ourselves into believing that expectations almost always equal reality? That they somehow ought to come to fruition or that there is nothing we can do about it? 

It is terrifically hard to walk through a day without having any sort of expectations. But I wonder what would happen if I practiced noticing them and challenging them a little? What if, the next time I assume something positive is going to happen, I take a minute and acknowledge that things could go horribly awry and pledge to be flexible if they do? Or what if the next time there is a negative expectation, I ask myself where that comes from and what might happen if I dismantle that notion? I'm getting to the place where I think that all of those external expectations ought to be challenged and dissected so that I can decide whether they limit me or raise me up. 



Monday, August 03, 2015

Work-Life "Balance" for the Stay-at-Home Parent

First of all, I think that the way we generally talk about the entire concept of "work-life balance" misses the mark. All too often, I hear it spoken of as though it is a fixed point, something to achieve and then rest in. As I creep ever-closer to middle age, I am cognizant of the fact that assessing the time and energy I put forward into different areas of my life is an ongoing process. Before I was married, there were certain goals and values that drove how I spent my time. After marriage, they shifted. When Bubba and I bought our first house, they shifted again. Having kids threw a huge wrench into how I saw the minutes of every day, and now that they are older and more independent, I am re-evaluating again. There is no such thing as a fixed target to shoot for.

When I left my paying job to stay at home with my kids, there was this assumption that I had no "work," and to be completely honest, I bought into that idea for way too long. The fact is, because of my inability to compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, what really happened was that my work became my life. That is, everything mothering and household-running was so important and so pressing that I did it 99% of the time, but because I didn't consider it my job, I didn't fully acknowledge that I had ceased doing so many of the things I enjoyed doing before that I considered my "life." I had allowed everything to bleed together and become one which meant that I had very little that was just mine.  Because very few others recognized what I was spending the majority of my time doing as "work," it was hard to justify my frustrations with this dynamic, which made me all the more unhappy.

Prior to having children, I had lots of ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do, things I might find meaningful and worth spending 40+ hours a week doing. I wanted to enjoy my work, but I also wanted to be able to fully enjoy those other parts of my life like working in the yard and hiking with Bubba and having dinner with friends. As soon as I quit to stay home and the hours of "work" were not  clearly delineated, the shift was monumental. When I was at my office, I couldn't empty the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry or fix the bathroom toilet because I wasn't physically at home to do it. Now, suddenly, at home, it felt as though I were cheating if I chose to sit on the couch and read instead of doing any of those things because my home and my children had become my work and it was staring me in the face all the time.

Over the past fifteen years, my level of freedom from parenting and household work has ebbed and flowed, and I have had the opportunity to make choices over and over again about what other kind of meaningful work I can do - paid or not. I have obviously chosen writing as one of those things, but I have also found volunteer positions with organizations I want to support. I have come to understand that the most important question I can ask when I consider doing any kind of work is not "do I have time for this?" but "how will this feed me?" If I choose to spend my time engaged in activities that align with my passions and interests, even if they are intense and challenging, I know from experience that I will ultimately end up feeling energized and sated. There will be times when that work means I won't cook dinner from scratch for the family or the dog won't get his customary three to four walks a day or the laundry will pile up, and that's okay. The freedom to schedule my own time, to float between different types of work is something for which I am immensely grateful. Being the primary parent to my kids means that my work is often a reaction to something else - hunger, dirt, transportation needs - and it is generally satisfying, if only until the next meal or pile of laundry or basketball game. Having the ability to engage in other work that is proactive and creative is something that feeds me in a different way, and that is just as important. My work and my life are very closely intertwined and it is often hard to see where one leaves off and the other begins, but I'm not sure that it is important to discern those boundaries.  Knowing that there are some tasks I will engage in that I really don't enjoy is okay as long as they are part of the bigger picture and the larger goals I have. For me, the trick is to make sure that I am mindful of the tasks that ignite a fire in my belly and I find a way to do them with regularity. Often, emptying the dishwasher again can feel like a slog, but if I'm doing it because I know I will be able to sit down and write or read or go to a meeting without wishing I'd done it, I have more mental freedom to fully engage with what I'm doing.

The typical way that we talk about work-life balance sets up a dynamic where the two are pitted against each other in some surreal tug-of-war where one necessarily ends up losing and the other winning, at least for a while. But the fact is, if we are actively choosing to spend time not working for pay (at least not full-time) and staying home with our children, the most important thing is not to parse out bits of time for "work" and "life" but to recognize that within this setup, we can actively choose to engage in things that we find fulfilling and interesting. When we do that, we are enhancing our lives and, by extension, our children's lives because what they end up with is a happy, energized parent. This notion of some elusive "balance" between the energy we put into working and the energy we get from living is wholly false. If we are lucky, the two overlap in a Venn Diagram that allows us to find compensation and purpose and a sense of enjoyment without guilt. And as our children grow up and become more independent, we will have given ourselves the gift of meaningful work that we can continue to engage in more and more.

Bubba and I have recently begun having conversations about what our life will look like in five years when Eve and Lola are both gone to college. At that point, it will be important for both of us to have some shared purpose and some individual interests. If we apply this particular way of looking at "balance," and are able to identify the things that we enjoy doing together and apart, and fully support the others' need to engage in both, perhaps the shift to this new lifestyle will be smoother. (Not that I won't cry a big, ugly cry when my last one moves out, but, hey, it's a start...)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not For the Faint of Heart (Parenting Teens)

There are times these days when my gray hairs appear in clusters - both on my head and in my soul. The times when something comes up that, for a split second, I think I cannot possibly endure or deal with gracefully or with any sort of competence. Times when the temptation to curl up beneath the covers with a cat at the foot of the bed is overwhelming and comes in waves.

Fortunately, I have learned from experience that there is always a way through. That someone will grab me by the hand, the wrist, the back of the neck, and march me onward, matching my steps with their own, one at a time until we have made it. Or that the notion of not moving forward is a bigger horror than stopping in place - generally because at the other end stands a loved one - a child or a parent or a partner who needs me to keep going for one reason or another.

Fortunately, I have also learned from experience that there will be imaginings of worst-case scenario outcomes that are more akin to Alice in Wonderland stories than real life. I have been reminded over and over again that humans live life in the middle almost always, either because something major shifts like a giant boulder landing in the stream of our lives around which we forge a new path and keep going or because our worries are so magnified by adrenaline that they don't resemble what could really happen. As long as I hold on to the remembrance of the times when I forecast doom and nothing even remotely close to doom cast its shadow over me, I can take the  next step. And when I feel the warm grip of a friend and hold on, it helps me to find my center and remember my most closely-held values and act on them. And generally, even if there are dark, messy stretches of time when I feel unsure or panicky, I come out the other end wiping my brow, exclaiming, "Whew!"

"You get an A+ in parenting this weekend," Bubba said to me last night, and it meant a lot. That despite the fear and anxiety of the last couple of days, staying rooted in love, acknowledging my fears all while doing my best not to act on them was the best way to go. Despite the new gray hairs I am sure sprouted overnight, we have found the middle again and added some mortar to the bricks that form our family. We have reaffirmed that our most important value is love and dodged another bullet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Culture of Bullying in Reproductive Rights Issues

Another day, another abortion ban struck down. I am happy to see it happen, but frustrated at the vast sums of money and energy and time that are spent in the effort to keep women from having reproductive freedom in this country. I know it's been said before, but it is so absurd to me that these resources aren't directed toward things that would educate and support women and girls instead of punishing them.

I heard a story yesterday about a clinic in Montana that was so severely vandalized a year ago that it had to be shut down. And since the woman who has run the clinic for over thirty years can't really afford to revive it, women in the Flathead region of that state are forced to drive 120 miles each way to receive care. Not just abortions, but any kind of reproductive health care, because the clinic provided a huge range of services to women in that rural area, like most clinics that are targeted by anti-choice lawmakers and protestors alike.

Toward the end of the story, the reporter noted that the man who destroyed the clinic was sentenced to 20 years in prison - fifteen of them deferred - and forced to pay restitution.  I won't get into the sentence that was handed down for a variety of reasons, but the notion of restitution was what piqued my interest. So many questions flitted through my head:


  • like squeezing blood from a turnip. I wonder how much money he has, anyway, to pay restitution. Do you suppose it will ever be fully repaid? 
  • restitution to whom? To the clinic owner? To the staff that lost their jobs? To the scores of women whose lives are affected by his act? Does he have to give them gas money to get to Missoula? Does he have to pay child support for all of the babies that were born to mothers who now have no option but to raise them?
  • how do you calculate the proper amount of restitution to compensate for the trauma someone suffers when their life's work is brutally destroyed? 
As a teenager, I worked in a small-town clinic that provided abortions two days a week. The rest of the time, we provided routine family practice services like treating infections and offering vaccines as well as contraceptives and vasectomies and OB care. Two days a week, the sidewalk was lined with protesters - many of them bused in from the big city 30 miles away. They laid spike strips across the entrance to the driveway, shoved their signs in patients' faces, yelled and chanted, sang and cried and occasionally threatened both the staff and the patients. One day, as I left work, one of them started to follow me home and I drove around for an hour and finally parked outside the police station until he gave up and drove away.  Twice, the clinic was stink-bombed after hours and once there was a small fire set in the back of the building. The doctor and nurse practitioner wore bulletproof vests to work. My boyfriend begged me to quit. 

Decades later, I continue to be shocked at how blasé people are about these kinds of tactics. I am horrified that an organization could get away with putting together an "expose" on Planned Parenthood, alleging that they sell fetal tissue for profit, be exposed themselves for blatantly lying and creatively editing the footage to show things that never actually happened, and suffer no consequences. There is a vast difference between protected free speech and lying, bullying, in-your-face terror tactics. Make no mistake, these are terror tactics. It is terrifying to go to work and have to cross a line of angry protestors. It was surely terrifying to come to work and see your clinic burning, get death threats in the middle of the night on the phone, watch the protestors laughing and chatting in the quiet moments as they ate their lunches together as if this was just another day at the office.  

The continued legislative attacks on women's reproductive rights - abortion bans at 20 weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, restrictions on contraceptions, the latest bill that would allow employers to fire single women who get pregnant - these things add fuel to the fire of the protestors and the organizations that are adamant that women not be able to control their own bodies. They set up a climate in which it feels normal to tell women how to live their lives. It presents the view that a woman's health is something to be parsed out by those in power. We will let you have fertility treatments, but not oral contraceptives. We will allow your employer's insurance to pay for your hospital stay when you have a baby, but not if you have it at home with a midwife. We will pay for your mammogram but not your D&C.  

I have come to the conclusion that there is a culture of bullying that encompasses both right-wing legislators and protestors and everyone in-between who is determined to restrict a woman's right to control her own body. The same groups of lawmakers continue to craft new bills restricting clinics and imposing time limits on abortion services. Even though the majority of them are ultimately overturned, the time and money that is spent by the target of this abuse is debilitating - a fact I'm sure the perpetrators of this brand of abuse are well aware of. Perhaps if the lawmakers had to pay restitution when their restrictions are deemed unconstitutional,  it would slow them down. What if we acknowledged these repeated efforts to curb reproductive freedom as frivolous and saw them for the bullying tactics that they were and forced those who push them to pay the legal fees for both sides when they lose? At this point, other than the punishments handed down by judges and juries to individuals who are caught vandalizing clinics or harming abortion providers, there is no real consequence for the organizations and politicians who continue to push women of childbearing age around. This is bullying, plain and simple, and until we figure out a way to make it hard for these kinds of laws to be written, we will continue to waste our time and money on taking them to higher courts.  
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