Monday, January 15, 2018

An epiphany in No Man's Land


I finally saw "Wonder Woman."

I'm not, generally, like a super hero movie sort of person. Except for Batman, cuz, Batman. Though, I'm not particularly obsessive about keeping up with the Batman either. I'll happily watch and rewatch Michael Keaton Batman or Christian Bale Batman and am fine with skipping the rest. Michael Keaton Batman might have been my first celebrity crush. Which, considering that "Batman" came out when I was just 8 years old, is maybe a little weird. Nonetheless, I'm suddenly having flashbacks of playing MASH with my friends and including Michael Keaton as one of the people I was going to marry (others potential suitors included Robin Williams and Patrick Swayze. I had eclectic taste).

Where we were? Oh yes, "Wonder Woman."

Gosh. I mean, that woman. Where has she been all my life?

A badass lady warrior who stands by her convictions even as nearly everyone around her thinks she's idealistic and naive and gets some shit done? That is how you empower some women.

You know what, I take it back. She has been here my whole life. This woman. She's my mother, my sisters, my aunts and my friends. I know so many women who are Wonder Woman. You know, they're tireless and fierce and passionate. That's just who we are as people. That's the fire in our bellies. We grow life. We nurture it. We fight for it.

So yeah, Wonder Woman has always been around.

But, I have to say, it was really ... moving ... in an unanticipated way... to see her on screen. It's a super hero movie, so it wasn't without its cliches and kind of cheesy moments. It was predictable and over the top and all that. 

But when Diana, Princess of Themyscira, lets her hair down, throws off her cloak and climbs that ladder into No Man's Land. Damn. My throat immediately clenched. My eyes immediately filled with tears. I was caught off guard. It was as if there was some deeply rooted, unacknowledged part of my being that finally felt validated. Finally felt seen.

See, because right before that moment, Diana is overwhelmed by the amount of pain and horror she's witnessing. She's compelled to help. Help the men get their horses across the creek. Help the crying babies and the desperate women. Help the wounded soldiers. And every time she says she wants to help, she's told that she can't. 

No. No. No. Over and over. 

“This is No Man's Land, Diana. It means no man can cross it, alright,” Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) tells her. “This is not something you can cross. This is not possible.”

But she does it anyway. 

Like women do every day. 

That image of her crouching in the wasteland, taking all the fire so that the soldiers around her could advance. That. THAT.

That is what it is to be a woman. 

To be doubted. To persist. To deflect and protect. To be patted on the head. To be placated and ignored. To absorb all the bullets and bombs the world hurls at us. To hold steadfast to the notion that this way of living and dying is not the life we want for our children. To inch forward to that vision, despite all the destruction and calamity surrounding us.

That is what it means. 

In the climax, as Wonder Woman is battling Ares, the God of War, he tells Diana that humans don't deserve her protection.

"It's not about deserve, it's about what you believe. And I believe in love."

I won't speak for all woman. But I will speak for the woman I know like myself, this is our mantra. This is at the core of who we are and how we make our choices.

We believe in love.

And here's the thing that's so maddening. Even after Diana crosses No Man's Land, taking all the fire so that the men behind her can follow. Even after she leaps in and out of trenches in single bounds. Even after she fights off an entire battalion almost singlehandedly. Even after she throws a tank and stops a sniper by destroying a bell tower. Even after she saves the village. Even after she proves to be more than extraordinary, the men who witness all of it still doubt her.

Well some of them do. Mr. Steve "Above Average" Trevor still doesn't believe in her mission to kill Ares. Neither does the shell-shocked Scotsman, Charlie. Sameer and The Chief are more open-minded. Nobody suggests that it might be wiser to put Diana in charge of the mission instead. She's left to go her own way.  

And so it goes for the rest of us. In the face of all the doubt, women are left to go our own way.

I double majored in college in journalism and international politics. I didn't study international politics to satisfy some underlying passion for world affairs– rather, I thought it would make my dad happy. He wasn't exactly thrilled to have a child pursuing a career with the biased "liberal media." 

I took a lot of classes on comparative politics, international relations, American foreign policy, terrorism, and international relations of the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe. I should probably know a lot more about the world than I do. 

One of the first lessons you learn in international politics is the difference between realists and idealists– the two competing philosophies that are supposed to dominate foreign affairs. Realists pursue foreign policy that puts national security and economic interests first, idealists believe that foreign policy should promote justice, freedom and equality. Looking back, it seems odd that international politics is divided into just two ways of thinking about how countries relate to each other.

I had one professor in particular– had to take a few classes with him– who was a realist. Which, meant, I guess, that he could justify his belief in hawkish foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. We spent a lot of our classes discussing oil and natural gas and pipelines and why it was important for the U.S. to base its relationships and policies with these countries on our energy demands. Say what you want about media bias, it was fairly clear to me that this professor had some obvious bias and kind of made it his mission to indoctrinate his students to his way of thinking. 

I hated his classes. Not because the subject matter wasn't interesting, but rather because I felt as if I was being presented with just one way of thinking about the world. And it all felt very cynical to me. 

There was a lot of that in my international relations courses though. I got my degree and was left with this sinking feeling that, as nations, we are selfish, paranoid, reactive and destructive. But I don't believe that's who we are as people, as individuals.

I got to thinking about those international relations classes while watching "Wonder Woman." The Steve Trevors who justify overlooking the vulnerability of individuals in favor of the potential advancement of a nation and the Dianas who refuse to ignore the suffering of the men, women and children who are treated as collateral damage. Those, like Ares, who believe humans are inherently wicked and not worth saving and those like Sameer, Charlie or The Chief who are just trying to make their way through the world while waging their own person battles. And all the people who fall somewhere in between. 

I know where I land. I knew where I landed even before "Wonder Woman."

But what she offers is a rallying cry. A visual for the person I want to be. A blessing to cross No Man's Land. 

At one point Steven, yet again, tries to stop Diana from following through on her mission to kill Ares.

"What I do is not up to you," Diana she says.

Right. 

It's time for women to make their own paths. To blaze a new way of being in this world.

"I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves - something no hero will ever defeat. I've touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they'll go to for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give... for the world I know can be. This is my mission, now. Forever."

I stand with Wonder Woman. Only love can save this world. Only love.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The grace of falling apart and being put back together

A few days ago, during the first of two Polar Vortex Days off of school, I heard a crash then a cry from the family room.

As crying does in our house, it mobilized and amplified, scooting through the front hall, past the front door, up the stairs and into my bedroom. The source of it was a red, smeary-faced Jovie.

"Mama, I was playing with the Sophia ornament and it falled and now it's broken and I didn't mean to break it and I'm really sad because I loved that ornament because it was so pretty..." She trailed off succumbing to another fit of sobbing.

I sighed the sigh of a mother who had just been home with two spastic children for two weeks of holiday break replete with play dates and cookie making and present wrapping and Christmas Light cruising and family movie dates and bouts of pink eye and road trips to Pennsylvania and visiting all the friends and seeing all the relatives and returning home to an empty refrigerator and a car crammed of all the stuff doting grandparents and aunts and uncles could buy that needed to be unpacked and stowed away. The sigh of a mother who'd sent her kids back to school for two glorious days before the arrival of bomb cyclones and coinciding sub-zero temperatures that made her wish humans hibernated in a cozy cave somewhere like the sensible mammals do. 

The sigh of a mother who, not 10 minutes before, had suggested to the two sweet little apples of her eye that there were certain ornaments and decorations that should just be looked at and not really played with. Like, for instance, the aforementioned Sophia the First porcelain figurine that now lay on the living room floor in 10 or so pieces.

Suffice to say, it was a heavy sigh.

I gave Jovie a hug. Told her I was sorry the ornament broke, because I know how much she loved her. And because I'm the parent, I also mentioned the part about how she really shouldn't have been holding it to begin with and that maybe next time she'd remember to listen  ... yadda yadda yadda... [insert all the generic parental warnings and scoldings that I hate. Hate. HATE. having to issue because I'm all but certain they're ineffective at best and at worst I'm setting my children up for a lifetime of self-loathing and doubt.] 

I picked up the pieces of Sophia and deposited them in the trash.

Jovie continued to mourn the loss of the ornament. She found me throughout the day to tell me so.

Later in the day I opened up the trashcan and stared at the ornament. I remembered that poem I shared back in June. The one I'd chalked onto our sidewalk.


Maybe there was an opportunity for kintsukuroi here. Maybe I'd given up on Sophia too soon. 

I fished her out of the trashcan. Got some Gorilla Glue and got to work. There were a few other Disney friends who needed some rehab, too. Elsa had lost an arm, Elena her feet and another Sophia had been decapitated. 


I put everyone back together. 

Imperfectly.

The ornament took the longest.


When she was more or less whole (maybe less whole, but more hole is accurate) I performed some kintsukori, painting the seams of her broken parts with gold acrylic.


It felt good to fish something out of the trash and put it back together. To be reminded that being broken does not have to mean being thrown out. Being unworthy or being overlooked. Being lost forever.

The inspiration to retrieve the ornament from the garbage came from the oddest places: A pair of books about the Columbine shootings.

My niece Hannah, gave away books as favors for her "Beauty and the Beast"-themed wedding last August. I'd picked out "The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb– ever since I read "She's Come Undone" he's been a go-to author of mine. In the novel, Lamb tackles enormously weighty subjects– Columbine, for one, but also Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, PTSD, broken prison systems, race, gender inequality, marital discord, familial secrets, Greek mythology and more. The narrative stretches back to pre-Civil War New England and lurches forward to the present day as the protagonist, English teacher Caelum Quirk, and his wife, Maureen, struggle to rebuild their lives after April 20, 1999, when Maureen's witnessed the horrors of what happened in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col. The couple move back to Caelum's hometown of Three Rivers, Conn. to his family farm that boarders the woman's prison his great grandmother founded, and are faced with waves of grief and pain. 

It's not exactly light reading. But I'm not much of a light reader (see that time I read a book on the history of cancer). I stuck with it because Lamb, as always, does such an excellent job of capturing how messy, complicated and paradoxical we are as humans. How we have such deep longings for spiritual and human connections. How we all arrive in this world relatively unscathed and then life happens to us in unpredictable, sometimes cataclysmic ways, and we're left to reassemble ourselves and move forward as best we can. 

I mentioned to someone I was reading this book (who, I can't remember)– and they suggested I check out "A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy" by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold– one of the shooters behind the Columbine tragedy. So I did. I read both books concurrently, Klebold's book was my downstairs reading and Lamb's was my upstairs book. They complemented each other perfectly, not just because of shared subject matter, but also because of shared themes: How to make sense of the monstrous deeds, how to sort through the wreckage of a life, how to put it back together. 

In her memoir, Sue Klebold details the story of her life, her son's life and her family's life in the years leading up to and after the Columbine shootings. Every page is weighted in heartbreak, guilt and regret. This isn't her attempt to redeem herself or her son– she knows forgiveness isn't for her to ask for and probably wouldn't feel deserving of it anyway. Rather, she sifts through all she knows about her son, or thought she knew about her son, to try to make sense of what happened. Not that she can. And she seems to know that, too. How does a mother reconcile the kind, funny boy she raised with the monster responsible for the deaths of 12 students, a teacher and the injuries of more than 20 others? She can't. She recognizes that as much as she thought she knew her boy, she really had no idea what was lurking inside his head.

As I read the book, I couldn't help but think of my own high school experience. I graduated from a large, affluent high school in the D.C. area. I was a junior when Columbine happened. It was one of those events that brand themselves into your personal narrative, no matter how close or far away you were from it. As a teenager, I felt immediately connected to those students half a continent away. I remember sitting in the newspaper room– where I spent most of my time the last two years of high school- shell-shocked. My classmates and I attempting to process that level villainy and despair. Learning about who Dylan was– at least from his mother's perspective and that of his friends– I realized I knew kids like him. I was friends with them. No- not kids who went on murderous rampages. But kids who were introverted. Who felt like outcasts. Who could've been facing debilitating depression or social anxiety and who were daily teased and picked on by other kids. 

I recalled this one incident- I think it was junior year. Someone had called in a bomb threat. The whole school was herded out to the football stadium and seated in the bleachers. At one point, two boys I was friendly with went out on to the 50-yard line of the football field and kissed each other. Why? I don't know. I don't think they were, like, together or anything. I think they were bored. Maybe it was intended to be a joke or a statement of sorts. I remember a bunch of guys from the lacrosse team running them off the field. Beating at least one of the kids up. I remember one of the boys coming back to a class we had together with his lip split open. 

As Klebold writes about the environment at Columbine– the bullying and teasing- I thought about this long-forgotten day. Because the dynamic was the same at my school. It's easy to sit on the outside of any situation and pass judgement and damnation; it's harder to realize just how much of ourselves is reflected in those we cast stones at. 

Parents, educators and those passionate about mental health should definitely pick the book up. Also, anybody wanting to deepen their well of empathy. At first glance, Sue Klebold could easily come off as someone who is just trying to tell her side of the story for personal gain or redemption or who's trying to profit off a tragedy. But I don't think either is true. She's donating all proceeds of the book to research and charitable organizations focused on mental health research and is passionate about raising awareness about brain illness and suicide. Maybe, after years of silence and feeling like a pariah, she is looking for the chance to explain herself- to share with people who assumed she was a terrible parent– ignorant or unloving or uninvolved– that she was really none of those things. 

She's just human. Like the rest of us. Fumbling through this life. 

Whatever her reasoning for writing the book, I'm glad she did. I've found softness in my heart for people who might otherwise be considered beyond redemption. The broken ones who belong at the bottom of the trash bin.

I was re-reading my old journals from the years leading to and following Columbine– trying to see if I'd written anything about the tragedy in the days following it (I hadn't). I'm not sure why I didn't reflect on it. 

Looking back the period in my life between my freshman and junior years was rife with tragedies closer to home. There were family members struggling drug addiction, the feeling as if siblings I'd always been close with were drifting away and becoming people I didn't recognize. I had a mentally ill aunt who committed suicide and a grief-stricken grandmother who came to live with us in the aftermath, slowly fading away into a shell of herself before passing away seven months later. A friend from school– not a close friend really, but always a friendly face– committed suicide the fall before Columbine. He was just 17. Then, of course, I wrote about boy drama and friend drama and school stress. And a lot of non-specific rambling about feeling lonely and ordinary and like an outsider, which I'm pretty sure reading back was reflective of significant (though undiagnosed) depression.

Is this what they mean when they talk of "coming of age"? Columbine was just the tiara on all of that. Sept. 11, 2001 would be the crown just a few years later.

So, you see why this idea of kintsukori is so appealing to me, who at 36 is basically an assemblage of little chipped pieces. 

And for everyone, really. Because we are all, I think, the same. Cracked by the quakes and tremors of existing in this place. We are called, each of us, to pull each other out of the trash bin– even (and maybe especially)– the most broken, hopeless looking cases. We'll find our own humanity and our own grace by glueing each other back together. By lining the cracks with gold and silver. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

In case you're feeling weepy on Christmas



Merry Christmas internet.

I'll try to be short winded tonight. Because it's Christmas and you should probably be watching the Eagles while doing a 750-piece Disney-themed jigsaw puzzle (as Brad is) or snuggling your beagle or slumping on the couch with some eggnog (or something equally boozy) after having tucked in your kids who've spent the past week all hopped up on Santa and marauding around the house like a band of spider monkeys. 

Low on the priority list should be scrolling Facebook looking for ways your Christmas was inferior or superior to anybody else's. Or was that just me? Sigh. Truthfully, I was only kinda gazing enviously over other people's yule-fences. Mostly, I love to see so many posts filled with so smiling faces and twinkling lights and stacks of cookies and ridiculous pajamas. (Seriously, when did the family pajama game get so awesome? Growing up, had my family tried to do matching pajamas for the obligatory in front-of-the-tree photo, we would've had three options (based on the three main pajama-ing methods in our household): We would've been A. Covered head-to-toe in plaid, flannel nightgowns B. Slouching in oversized souvenir T-shirt from most recent family vacation, no pants or C. Proudly sporting a white undershirt tucked into our tighty-whites. Reading this, I'm again thankful that Facebook didn't exist when I was a kid). 

Where were we? Oh right, I was going to be short winded. 

I felt like showing up here tonight just in case anyone was struggling with the holidays ("What?!" you ask, totally befuddled. "Feeling a little bit gloomy and wistful and overwhelmed by the state of the world, on Christmas?! Of all days. Impossible!"). I know, I know. As unlikely as it might be, I have to go ahead and assume there might be someone else out there who, like me, texted her sister, "I just want to hide in a closet and cry for awhile."

Because, pretty much, that's where I was. I won't go into all the gory details. Suffice to say hormones, exhaustion and general anxiety about the future all played varying roles. 

I'm sure none of you can relate.

I found myself really missing being little. Missing my mom and dad and Christmas morning in the great room my dad built with the woodstove making everything so cozy and dad's sorta stuffy but deeply moving Handel's Messiah album playing in the background. Even more, missing Christmas dinner– getting out grandma's china and the silver and mom fussing over this and that in the kitchen her apron and her cheeks covered in flour. Sitting down to dinner with my siblings where we'd inevitably throw rolls at each other or get in tense conversations about politics or social issues that would result in one or more of us leaving the table in a huff. Doing dishes with my sisters afterward. I miss all that. Now I'm the mom and I have these kids and we're left to create our own traditions and I can't help but feel sometimes that it's just not as good. 

Like I said, it's probably just me, right? 

Laura reminded me to take some deep breaths.

"Enjoy Christmas on a micro level... the needles on the tree, the shine of a glass ornament, the smell of dinner, the warmth of a home, the smiles on the kids' faces, the flush of their cheeks ... So... go cry ... cry... and cry and then dust off and know that you are loved, no matter what you do or don't or how you feel or look or anything. Love you sister."

I never did go hide in that closet. I made a chocolate peanut butter pie with the girls, took a nap with the dog and played Go Fish with Jovie instead. I wrapped the last gifts, made some butternut squash soup.

That's not to say I didn't cry. Because that happened in short bursts throughout the day.

Like at the start of the the 5 o'clock Christmas Eve service at the local Methodist church. We're not churchy people, but someone told us last year that the children's service features a puppet show and we thought that was an ideal way to introduce our heathen children to the idea of church without going full Catholic (as Brad and I were raised). 

There's no place like a church on Christmas. The candles and the seats full. Girls in their floofy shiny dresses and boys in reindeer sweaters, their hair slicked back. The sense of peace. The music. The music is what gets me.

No sooner had we started singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" at the start of the service and my nose is dripping and I'm chocking on the words. 

I'd just listened to an interview Krista Tippett did with writer Adam Gopnik. There was this portion where Tippett quoted Gopnik that I loved:

"I keep coming back to that piece, 'Bigger Than Phil,' where you talk about how the hardest rationalists, people who would define themselves that way, still 'they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate on the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles.' At the end, you talk about them going to services and leaving early — but, you said, 'You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.' "

I'm not a rationalist or anything (at least I don't think I am... that probably means I'm not one. Most days I feel like an irrationalist.) But no matter when I go to church, I'm the weepy one in the rear. And on Christmas I'm especially weepy. Partly, because all of my memories of Christmas as a child involved going to Mass. Wearing itchy tights. Parking waaaay in the back to avoid all the traffic. Holding hands with my sister for the Lord's prayer. Hearing my dad sing (maybe only because my Grandma was there and she would always comment on what a lovely voice he had). 

But it's not just reminiscing that makes me weepy. It's also because there's so much community and goodness and love at the heart of a church. On Christmas, there's so much promise, you know? For our better selves. So much hope. And I feel so desperate for that. That we, as a species, can be better than we are.

And for a moment it seems that we can be. Beyond being a celebration of the birth of Jesus, I look to the Christmas story as a reminder of who we can be. Who we should aspire to be. I'm going to sound very un-Christian here when I say this, but I prefer to think of "The Man" Jesus, rather than "The Messiah." Because when I think of him in that light, I can see myself in him. All earth-bound and flawed. That's just how I prefer my role models. Someone who simply shows what is possible. 

I didn't cry my way through the entire service. There were too many moments of levity. The silly-sweetness of the Christmas story being performed by children with puppets whose mouths were never quite moving with their words. The earnestness of the talking donkey. The little boy in front of me who could not handle sitting even remotely still for 45 minutes (I wanted to take him aside and be like, "Dude, you think a holiday puppet show is boring? Try sitting through an hour-plus long Mass with a long-winded priest whose endless sermon is just a dressed-up reminder of all the reasons you're a weak sinner destined for hell, followed by various Catholic calisthenics, creeds, prayers and liturgies that are intermittently sung in Latin and recited by the entire congregation in much the same way the Google map lady reads off the directions to the nearest Target." Seriously though, that kid didn't know how good he had it. I would've killed for a Christmas Eve puppet show when I was little- thus sealing my entry into the seventh circle.) 

At one point the kid, bored with whatever was happening up on the alter at the time, pulled out the Bible and decided to take his Christian education into his own hands. 

"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth," he started. Then turned to his dad, not really whispering. "Wait? What does be fruitful mean? To be full of fruit?"

I giggled. He turned back to look at me. "Close enough," I told him. 

I smiled, too, watching Jovie stand on her tippy toes to hold up her little battery-operated candle during "Silent Night." And Lily singing "Joy to the World" with such earnestness it made my heart burst. 

"Thank you, Laura," I thought to myself. For reminding me to be on the lookout. For reminding me to see what was important.

The girls continued to offer so many reminders. Jovie screaming when she received a shirt featuring the cast of "Trolls," then proceeding to wear it to bed and then all day today and probably every day for the rest of her life or until she grows out of her Poppy obsession, whichever should happen first.

Lily screaming when she received an Eagles t-shirt– saying she couldn't wait to wear it in front of Toby, the very definition of a frenemy who never misses the opportunity to remind Lily that he's a Redskins fan. Like, she's in first grade and she's already getting into bombastic sports rivalries. It is endlessly amusing to me. A couple weeks ago, Lily was home sick with a cold. Toby wrote this note:



Or, to translate: "Dear Lily, you were [absent yesterday]. But [Carson Wentz] got [injured]. Love, Toby"

To reiterate: Statement of fact about Lily's absence. Presumed smack-talking about injured Eagles quarterback written, on purpose I believe, in burgundy. 


Jovie using her new headphones to listen to the "Trolls Holiday" soundtrack and singing "Celebrate" at the top of her lungs because she doesn't think anybody can hear her. It's on Facebook. You can watch if we're friends. It's amazing and everything I love about her.

Snacks unwrapping presents. He gets so, so excited about getting a present. So excited. It's the best ever.


And the cat getting into everything. Bounding among the boxes under the tree. Diving into the trash bag filled with wrapping paper. Hiding out in the "stall" Lily's toy horse came in.



So many micro-level moments whittling away at my macro-level worries.

Brad and Jovie woke up this morning with pink eye. We were supposed to have my sister's family over for dinner– something I'd been really looking forward to, hoping to re-create some of the noise and hub-bub we experienced as kids. But the doctor told Brad over the phone that it was highly contagious and that we should probably cancel our plans. So we did. Begrudgingly.

It was a quiet day. The girls played with all of their toys over and over again. Brad and I worked on the aforementioned puzzle. I took another nap then got to work on dinner. Roast beef, mashed potatoes and green beans. Reminiscent of what we would've eaten at mom and dad's. 

Despite the fact that we wouldn't have any guests, Brad set the table in the dining room– we used the china and the drinking glasses we received as wedding presents (my favorite dishes and glasses because they feature dragonflies) and a festive red table cloth. It was just the four of us– a small fraction of the number of people who would gather at my parent's. The girls liked the pomp and circumstance though. Especially the opportunity to say "cheers" and clink glasses. They didn't care too much for the roast beef (as I probably didn't when I was 5). 

I took a few bites of my food and looked up at Brad, kinda weepy again. "What's wrong?" He asked. 

"I always want my cooking to taste like what my mom made growing up. And I always feel like it falls short. But this tastes like home. It tastes like she made it."

So I guess Mom was here in a way- even though she and Dad live out in Colorado. In spirit ... or in roast beef and mashed potatoes, rather. And the small versions of me were here, too. Dancing around to "Trolls" music and brushing their new horse's hair. And Brad even wore plaid most of the day, which is Dad's signature print, though you'll be relieved to know the comparisons end there because ... WTF? That was going to a weird place.

My point being, it can be tough not to feel sad on Christmas. It just weighs so much. But sometimes you can turn that sad into a happy-sad and even a happy-happy. Sometimes it goes back to being just sad-sad. And all of those things, I think are OK. So wherever you fell on the spectrum of the day, you're not alone. 

Your mom might still be lurking in your kitchen if you just dust your self off and keep your eyes open.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The day you realize God's work is actually just human work

Photo courtesy of Annika Leigh/Flickr
Artwork by Emma, who has Down Syndrome.

I have a story to share (don't I always?). 

It's about a moment I'm not proud of. Actually, looking back, I'm kind of mortified by it.

I was a senior in high school. My friends and I had just spent the perfect day in D.C. wandering the mall admiring cherry blossoms. On the train ride home I was in an especially goofy mood. Sitting with my friends, I started talking to a water bottle I was carrying. Why did I start talking to a water bottle? I don't know, it was 18 years ago. I've always been a strange person. 

As I recall, one of my friends dared me to continue talking to my water bottle for the whole ride home. They all got up and moved a few rows back so I was sitting by myself.

Well, I suppose, not myself. I had the company of the aforementioned water bottle. Which I continued talking to, even as strangers sat by me (then promptly got up and moved). I vaguely remember the dialogue involved me planning a wedding for myself to the water bottle.

I know, I know.

Here's where it gets uncomfortable.

My friends were sitting behind me, whispering among themselves and laughing. Periodically they'd throw bits of paper at me. 

There was a woman nearby who glared at my friends. 

She looked at me and asked, "Do you know those girls?"

I lied and said no.

She told me not to worry about the girls. That they were being mean and that I was special.

"My teachers tell me that, too," I told her. 

I know. I know. Asshole. I was an asshole. One of the biggest kinds of assholes. 

The woman chatted with me for a bit then moved on. My friends stopped throwing whatever it was they were throwing at me. 

I kept praying that the woman would get off the train so that I could go back to being ... myself. But she rode all the way back to Vienna, which was our stop too. I waited on the train as she and my friends left. Then I got off and kept my distance until I was sure the woman was out of sight. At that point I reunited with my friends. They couldn't believe I'd taken the joke so far. I couldn't believe it got out of hand.

And what was the joke even? Looking back, I'm not sure. A seemingly normal teenager pretending to be someone with special needs, someone who could've been construed as mentally ill or mentally disabled isn't much of a joke. It's not all that funny. I know this now. I knew it at the time, too. The situation unraveled in front of me and I didn't have the courage to back up and own my own assholery.

I'm sharing this story today because so often when I tell people I sub a lot in special ed, I often get this look from people. Like they're impressed. Sometimes they'll say something along the lines of, "I could never do that." One person commented to me that special ed teachers were doing "God's work." There's this sense that there are people who are "called for special ed" and then the rest of the world. That the people who teach special ed or who work with people with special needs were somehow born with more patience and more compassion than everyone else.

With all due respect to the wonderful special ed teachers I've worked with, this is kind of bullshit. For evidence, I will refer you to my opening anecdote. Clearly, I wasn't someone born with some natural affinity for helping the mentally disabled. I wasn't born with endless reserves of compassion, kindness or sensitivity to other people's feelings.   

I'm just the same old bumbling human we all are. 

I know I'm just a substitute teacher. That's different than pursuing a career in special education. But even the special ed teachers I've worked say they sort of fell into their careers by chance. One started out as a sub like I did. Another studied psychology in college and decided to try out teaching after a stint working in a psychiatric care facility. An adaptive PE teacher I was talking to recently said she'd studied nutrition but decided to teach after a stint working with Special Olympians.

The common factor for all these teachers is just exposure. As in, at some point in their lives or careers they happened to have spent time with individuals with special needs (whether by choice or by accident). 

I'm not sure I would've said, "yes" to subbing in special ed if it weren't for the fact that for seven years, I happened to live across the street from someone who was born with multiple intellectual disabilities.

Christie, one of my neighbors in York, has a big smile and an infectious laugh. She always loved seeing Snacks and has a standing date with Pat Sajak to watch "The Wheel" every night at 7. Her nails are usually painted and she likes to accessorize with bracelets or a Minnie Mouse watch. 

When the girls were little, I used to spend hours on slow summer afternoons chatting about life with Christie's mom, Georgia. We'd bond over the isolation of stay-at-home motherhood- though my dependent children were just babies and her dependent child was just a couple years younger than me. 

I was so touched by Georgia's relationship with Christie– she once told me, "Sometimes I don't know where she ends and I begin"– but I could also see how much Chritie's future weighed on Georgia's mind. She and her husband, Scott are in their 60s. Georgia has had various health problems in the past several years. I know she loses sleep over the question of what would happen to Christie when they were unable to care for her anymore. 

To be honest, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable around Christie. Maybe comfortable isn't the right word. I think I just didn't know how to interact with her. I didn't know what she'd understand and I was fearful of making her nervous. I didn't want to do or say the wrong thing. So, for a long time, I just didn't do or say anything.  

But over time I began to realize you interact with Christie the same way you interact with any person, you know? You say, "Hello." You ask about her day. You find your commonalities. I just learned to talk louder (because she was hard of hearing). I learned to listen harder (to make sure I understood her). And I learned that even a short conversation could be a meaningful conversation. 

Christie is a busy lady– she goes bowling, goes out to eat, she goes to a day program where she learns life skills and does art and has "club" in the evening where she meets up with friends. And, of course, she had "The Wheel." When we became friends, she'd greet me with a smile and a hug, but if she had some place she'd rather be or something she'd rather be doing, she didn't waste time chatting.  

It was enough for her just to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be appreciated. And these are skills we're born with as humans, right? Our instincts are toward companionship, toward community. 

We're born to seek connections with other people. 

The thing is. when someone seems so drastically different than us, we get caught up in this idea that we won't know how to connect with them. But what Christie has taught me– and the kids at school have taught me– is that you don't need special training, you don't need divine powers, you just need to be human and you need to see them as human and then you go from there. You meet them where they are.

It doesn't take a saint to help a student with Downs Syndrome count by fives or help a student with Autism learn how to have a basic conversation. It just takes a willingness to see humanity in all its amazing beautiful shapes and forms.

And the ability to take a deep breath and maintain a sense of humor and a sense of groundedness when you're around someone who might randomly grab your arm, or who periodically jumps out of his chair and runs down the hallway, or who'd much rather spend an entire day discussing dragon mythology than learning basic social skills. Or someone who doesn't speak a whole lot, except to repeat the lyrics to "Hey Jude" or "Yesterday" or "We Can Work it Out" over and over. Or someone who bounces up to you and tell you he's going to eat your brains. Or someone who can't stop herself from swearing loudly in the middle of their English class. 

I see bits and pieces of myself and people I love in all of these students. So I can't help but like them, even as they baffle me and sometimes annoy me even. Because they're human and I'm human and none of us are perfect.

A couple years ago I co-wrote a story with my friend Ashley for the York Daily Record about how adults with special needs in Pennsylvania and their families are often left in limbo waiting for critical services. The parents I interviewed were in their 60s and 70s (one was in her 80s). They'd been caring for their special needs children for decades and just wanted to ensure they would be in good hands when they could no longer provide for their children. In Pennsylvania, and I imagine in most states, the resources devoted to individuals with physical and/or intellectual disabilities are stretched thin. The burden of caring for people who cannot care for themselves often rests on the shoulders of willing family members, paid caregivers, overwhelmed state agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer is running an in-depth series related to the story Ashley and I wrote title "Falling Off the Cliff." This excerpt caught my eye:


"Parents of adults with I/DD followed Christina's case closely, and they called to share their own horror stories about caregiver abuse and agency incompetence. About political and public indifference to the needs of those with I/DD. About the lack of compassion and resources for elderly parents who have become too old and frail to care for their aging, impaired children. About the sudden elimination of educational options when a disabled child turns 21, a descent so dramatic and universal that parents call it "falling off the cliff." 
Their stories could fill a book. But each would only nick the surface of a crisis that is barreling toward us like a tsunami: We will soon have more intellectually and developmentally disabled adults living in this country than at any other time in our history. 
Advances in medical care have allowed kids born with Down syndrome, for example, to live twice as long as they did just 20 years ago. And the explosion in the number of  children with autism -- one in 68 children are now diagnosed -- means we'll soon have a vast population of adults in need of services like those Christina's family had hoped would keep her safe. 
Add these numbers to those of children born with the two other most common roots of intellectual disability -- Fragile X syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder -- and we have a looming social, economic, and moral crisis. What will we do about, with, and for these vulnerable adults and the families who struggle to care for them? And how much are we willing to pay for it?"

That adaptive gym teacher I mentioned earlier told me she was out the other night talking with some guys at a bar. One of them asked what she did and when she told him, his response that was like the garbage collector of teachers– just working with all the rejects. The teacher swiftly corrected him without the use of expletives or physical violence, which I think, under the circumstances, was pretty admirable. Because really? REALLY?! Comparing a whole person to trash? Comparing somebody's child to refuse? How is this still the world we live in?

I wanted to write about this today because the story of people who are often overlooked and marginalized is our story. It's a story we all need to take ownership of. It's a story we all have to play a role in. Not just the parents of these children. Not just their overworked teachers and instructional assistants and therapists and caseworkers. Not just the nonprofits who are gracious enough to extend services. No, all of us. We all need to be willing to look past our obvious differences and search for our obvious commonalities. 

That's not to say that everyone needs to pursue a career in special education or occupational therapy or social work. I think we can start to make a difference just by acknowledging these families in our communities and being friendly. I get the sense that having a child or a sibling in this population can feel so isolating. So help them feel less isolated, you know. Say hi. Start a conversation. Get to know them. Just offer your time. Then go from there. 

You'll grow as a person. You'll find grace and gratitude. You'll deepen your wells of compassion and empathy. You will form relationships with people who will make you laugh and invite you to see the world from a new perspective and who will love you despite your many flaws.

You will learn that despite what might initially seem like massive differences, that there are still universal truths we all hold. 

The middle schoolers I hang out with have taught me so many useful things. Like:

  • Mondays are always tough no matter who you ever.
  • It's never not a good time to dance.
  • Beatles forever!
  • If you're having a rough day, sometimes all it takes is looking at a picture of Shawn Mendes (look him up, I had to) to cheer you up. You could sub out Shawn Mendes with your celebrity crush. But I know at least one student who would think that is unwise.
  • Making farting noises on your arm is never not funny if you're the one making the farting noise. If you're the rest of the class, it's the worst.
  • The best moment of the week might just be sitting in your teacher's pickup truck at the end of the day.
  • When learning about invertebrates, SpongeBob SquarePants is a surprisingly useful reference (Patrick the starfish! Gary the snail! Mr. Krabs! Squidward!)
  • It doesn't matter whether they're a seventh grader in a contained classroom (kids who need additional learning supports) or a seventh grader in mainstream classroom (kids who don't) they're all generally spazzy, obnoxious, prone to inappropriate outbursts, excitable and kind of ridiculous in the best ways possible. 
We're all just muddling through here. The best we can. Hoping to find small joys where we can.

My point in all this mess is that you don't have to wait for some sign from the universe or some call from the great beyond to start seeing people as people. I doubt the parents of these special needs kids felt they were suited for the job of raising their child with Down Syndrome or Autism or other intellectual developmental disorders when their kids were born. They were probably terrified, as any of us would be, in the face of the unknown. But it's not as if they have a choice. So they adapt. They educate themselves. They open their hearts wider than they thought they could go.

I think we can all do the same. We're always at our best when we serve those on the fringes. Those who are marginalized. And maybe serve isn't the right word– because that somehow implies a one-sided transaction. It's not. To coin a phrase from Stewie, we are all "richer for the experience."

Just go out and be kind. Even if you were the person who 18 years ago impersonated a person with intellectual disabilities on a Metro, for instance. Be like the woman on the train who stood up for the asshole (even though she didn't know that person was an asshole). 

We're all called to love. So go forth and love.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

It's time to catch up

Photo courtesy of Prof.Bizzarro/Flickr
Wednesday, I was subbing in special ed. The students were playing this game that was supposed to help refresh them on different conversational skills. They played in pairs - one partner would hold a card up on their head that said something like "eye contact" or "ask a question" or "body language" – and they'd have to guess what their card said based on clues given by the other person.

During the second round of the game, one of the students – a girl– got increasingly frustrated when she failed to figure out the words on the card. The other student was trying (the best she could) to use different ways of describing them but the girl just could not get the answers. I figured the game would be tough for her. These social skills she was working on were ones she in particular had to work really hard on and the abstract thinking needed for the game added an extra layer of challenge. 

She eventually stood up and shouted that she was stupid. Slammed her chair into her desk and began pacing the room. She kept repeating that she was crazy. 

I tried calming her down. I told her it was just a game and that I knew it was hard and it was OK that she didn't get the words. None of that had any affect. She kept pacing and yelling. Started punching a metal filing cabinet. I looked her in the eyes. I asked her to try to take deep breaths with me. She tried, but then would get upset again.

I was calling the front office for help when she told me she would stop. That she could calm down before her next class. And she did. Thank goodness.

But I understood her frustration. And I felt frustrated for her. I know she knows she is different. Like she realizes that she doesn't quite fit into this world the same way as most of her peers seem to. When she was saying she was crazy, I think that's what she meant. Not that she's crazy, but that her perspective, her experience in this world is just so, so different from the rest of ours. I wish the world could offer her a softer place to land. Like we could offer a place for her to be herself among us.

I know that feeling of not being able to properly express what it is that makes you so angry. That's driving you to pace and yell and punch. Because there are so many times I want to do all three, but I've managed to adapt to life as a grownup who just swallows it all down. That frustration though, it can still live right underneath your skin. Even when it can't be named.

And when it is named, your brain starts churning. 

Have you ever had someone says something that speaks some visceral truth you didn't even realize was hiding in you? Like, it wakes you up. It's your subconscious grabbing you by the shoulders, shaking you and saying "Pay attention. This! THIS is what I've been trying to tell you."

Last week, while walking the dog, I was listening to an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the new excellent "Between the World and Me" and "We Were Eight Years in Power") during which he discusses Malcolm X and how the human rights activist offered him the closest thing to hope Coates had experienced in his life. 

And I had this moment. I had to stop walking (both to listen better and to wipe the snot and tears that unexpectedly started pouring out of my face holes). 

Here's the excerpt from the interview (it's long, I'm sorry):

"So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.

And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.

And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on the — what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions — nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain 'The Brady Bunch' to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.

Catch up. Some people live like this. I know it’s not what’s around you, but some people live like that. Catch up. [indistinct] And that’s just how it is. You gotta be bilingual. You gotta figure it out. So if they have the right to talk and write like that, I have the right to write about Wu-Tang like that...

I can do that. I can say, 'Catch up. Catch up.'

You know what I mean? I can do that, and that’s a kind of freedom."

Did you get all that?

"I don't have to calibrate how I look. I don't have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right."

And see, I feel kind of guilty for identifying with this so much. Because I'm not a black person. And I have not endured the generations of trauma that black people in our country have endured. And I hope I'm not somehow appropriating an idea that is not mine to have here. 

But even now as I'm re-reading what he says, I'm tearing up. Not as a black person, but as a woman.

As a woman this speaks to me. This sings to me. This shouts at me. This rages in me. 

As a woman who feels my voice is valued at just 80 percent of a man's voice. As a woman who often feels only 80 percent ownership of her person (the rest belongs to my children, my spouse, elected officials who make laws legislating what I can do with my body and the world at large that judges my person or whistles at it or comments on it or forces it to be smaller in public spaces). 

I feel as if I'm perpetually calibrating myself based on the space I'm in and the people I'm with. That I've always deferred to men or yielded to men or been preemptively and overly apologetic to men. 

And I understand this might be surprising from someone who apparently has so much to say. Who is always sharing and opining about whatever it is she fancies. Who assumes the world needs to hear any of it. 

The truth is, I'm always dismissing what I think. Always apologizing for it. I've always felt that because it is coming from me, it's probably kind of quaint and obvious and worth less than the thing the next person says.

I'm a terrible feminist. But then, I wonder, how else am I supposed to feel in this world? 

The other day while subbing, I was doing puzzles with a student. We'd completed a map of the world puzzle and a map of the United States puzzle. The only one left was a puzzle of all the U.S. presidents. We got it out, spread all the pieces around and just sort of stared at it. So many white men. Forty-three white men. And one black man. 

The student looked a bit overwhelmed by all the pieces. I just felt depressed. After five minutes of half-heartedly shuffling pieces around,I asked the student if he wanted to play a game instead. He nodded. We cleaned up the puzzle. I Shoved all my frustration and sadness right back in that box.

And I guess I'm supposed to feel empowered, now right? Like with our Pussy Hats and #MeToo hashtags and the ongoing takedown of all these influential men women are having their moment. 

But I don't know. I'm just kind of sad. I'm kind of over it, too.

Like, it's pretty damn awful that there are so many men who have been allowed to be so abusive for so long. But it's also not that surprising is it? I mean, none of us are really shocked to find out that major Hollywood producers, directors and actors have used their positions to take advantage of women are we? Or even that any person in any role of influence might have felt empowered or even entitled to making inappropriate advances on women solely because of who they are in their industry? 

Why do we continue to be shocked and dismayed when people in prestigious positions, abuse those prestigious positions? History hasn't exactly shown us that becoming wealthy and powerful inclines people to be benevolent do-gooders. 

I was really bummed out to hear about Louis C.K. I love his comedy and always thought his perspective on how we should treat each other as human beings was spot on. I was going to invite him on my celebrity cruise even! And I hate what he did. Ugh. It grosses me out so much. It angers me. 

I wanted better from him. But I mean, should I really have expected better from him? Why should he be immune to siren call of male privilege? Where in society and when in history has there ever been a time when men stopped themselves before taking off their bathrobes or asking for back rubs or grabbing breasts and asses and pussies (and I hate that word, but hey, if it's good enough for our president ...)? 

I'm not saying all men, obviously. I don't like blanket statements. I don't believe all men are serial abusers or harassers. I don't hate men (for real ... though boys did use to accuse me of that in high school. In their defense, it probably had to do with me saying that I thought their penises should be taken away from them until they'd demonstrated that they were capable of making rational decisions using an alternative organ. Or that they were capable of going more than five minutes without making comments about or related to sex. In my defense, if you've been around high school boys and their raging hormones, I feel like you might understand where I'm coming from. Right? Anyone? Anyone? Am I alone on this one? Touche). 

I am mostly speaking of the type of men who are written about in history books or who achieve some level of prominence or prestige in their field– whether it's entertainment, politics or business. Though it's not just those men. Anyone, who, for whatever reason, feels "untouchable" in their work or their position– whether as the owner of a small company or a high school coach or a manager at the local big box store. Really, I guess it can be anyone. But not really everyone.

At one of my last jobs there was an older man who routinely stopped by my female boss's desk before he left work each day and rubbed her shoulders (something she neither requested nor consented to). She took to hiding out in a conference room when she knew he was leaving in order to avoid the encounters. He once commented on the fact that I had a bra strap sticking out from under a shirt I was wearing and reached to put it back in place- before I quickly spun out of his reach. "It used to be that women didn't have their bra straps out," he lectured me. Not realizing it was a camisole top and it was none of his damned business to begin with. The man was in upper management, he'd been with the company for decades. The fact that he behaved the way he did in the middle of the office with no disregard to who was watching, suggests to me that it never occurred to him that his behavior was inappropriate. Which then suggests to me that there had been a certain level of acceptance of it. Or at least no outward disapproval. Like, in his mind, it was part of the culture.

And maybe that's the case for so many of these people. Maybe they just thought it was how things were done. "It's cool, right? Wait. What? Oh? You're saying we're not allowed to just grab at the ladies anymore? Really? Because, I thought that was going to be allowed from now until forever. So that's a hard 'no' on that?"

Why am I all the sudden looking up clips from "Anchorman"?

I hate that every day there are more headlines about this. And I hate that there are so many victims. And I hate that I'm not surprised that there are so many victims. Because I know so many victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, etc. that are just regular people. Friends. People I love. I hate that this is our culture. 

I also kind of hate that when it comes to these moments of exposing these mass, serial abusers, we're kind of likened to an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. Woody Allen warned against there being a witch hunt after the news of Harvey Weinstein came out. As if the women who've been victims of this culture are witch hunters. As if the abusers are like those women and men accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Victims of hysteria. 

Hysteria. 

"Behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess." (Merriam-Webster.com)

"Originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus." (etyomline.com)

You want to know why women are angry? Why women are furious? It is this. The language of women, the language rooted in women always suggesting that we are somehow unsound. Somehow unbalanced. Somehow not to be trusted. 

The language assigned to us as a way of discrediting us somehow magically, absurdly being used to defend our abusers. 

"Stop explaining yourself to the world. Stop calibrating yourself to fit other people's expectations about who you should be, how you should live, what you should write."

Let's set one thing straight. Women do not go on witch hunts. Women know better. Women know those who are called witches are most often the people who are the most misunderstood. The outliers. The oddballs. The people more in tune with Earth than with society. And women know well what it's like to be misunderstood. 

These men are not witches. This is not a witch hunt. 

These men are rational human beings who wanted something and took it without consent and without regard for the person or people they stole from. 

Their victims are not asking for their abusers to be burned at stake or hung in gallows or crushed under stones.

They want the abuse to stop. They want their voices to be heard. They want to take their power back.

And I think taking our power back is deeper than these headlines. Deeper than all the hashtags. Deeper than the hats and women's marches. It's about reclaiming our agency. Allowing ourselves to take up more space in this world. It's about not worrying about calibrating ourselves to fit to a society that's failed to make room for us. It's about all these intangible things we're still figuring out. Those things we still don't have names for.

This world has not been a soft place to land for women. 

We're tired of trying to explain why the hell we're so angry. Why we're so damn hysterical all the time. You can't see it? 

Catch up.

----

P.S. I know I kind of took a winding road here. And that maybe my conclusion wasn't wrapped up all pretty in a box. It's so much more satisfying when the end is like that, isn't it? I've been writing for hours though. Brad wants to talk about the Christmas budget. It's 10:15 p.m.. I have to move on for now. Brad's cousin sent me the kindest note this week- which I really needed. I've been feeling drought-like conditions in the writing department recently. She thanked me for, "For showing the process of thinking out loud and trying to figure something out, rather than just taking a stance." This week, I took that as permission to write freely.