Monday, October 16, 2017

Being a girl

Photo courtesy of Ian D. Keating/Flickr

Last night, after reading stories about Harvey Weinstein and Mayim Bialik's New York Time's Op-Ed and then criticism of Bialik's Op-Ed– I felt agitated. Disgusted, too. Angry. But I had this itchy feeling that I get under my skin when I'm trying to find clarity on an issue and can't quite sort out my thoughts.

I started writing in my journal* hoping to figure out why it was I felt so angry and frustrated about everything I was reading. Part of it, of course, was that someone could amass so much influence and wealth while systematically and habitually abusing women for three decades. It's disgusting and disturbing. But it's not new, is it? We can't honestly say that we're surprised that someone would leverage their name and their money and their power to take advantage of a person or a situation, can we? 

It's infuriating, but not because it's anything new. Maybe it's that bang-our-head-against-the-wall fury we feel when these stories are unearthed every few weeks or few months or few years. Now do you understand why women feel so angry? Now do you understand why women feel so marginalized? Now do you understand why women feel so vulnerable? Now do you get it? 

Now? 

NOW?!

Except that even now as we're tar-and-feathering one Jabba-the-Hut-sized lothorio parading himself as a champion for women, there are others doing the exact same thing at this exact moment. And who will continue doing the exact same thing. Because we don't demand more of our CEOs, presidents, generals, heroes, leaders.

Even as I'm writing now I'm recalling another Washington Post story from the past couple weeks– this one about an Air Force Colonel who trapped a female subordinate in an office and forcibly kissed her after months of sending her lewd and harassing texts (including a video of himself masturbating). Instead of being courtmartialed, sent to prison and being registered as a sex offender, he was disciplined for "minor offenses."

And you could click the "related links" in this story or the Weinstein story or the Cosby story or the Fox News stories or the stories about sexual harassment at Uber or the stories of sexual assault at [insert name of NCAA men's sports team here] back to the dawn of the internet and still not scratch the surface of the problem.

And these are only the stories of the wealthy, influential and famous. This doesn't even account for the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of incidences we will probably never know about. The ones involving regular people going about their regular lives. 

Remember Nabra Hassanen, the 17-year-old Muslim girl beaten to death just miles from my house? The man suspected of killer her was indicted today, not only for her murder, but also for rape

My Facebook feed today is filled with "Me too's." All these women I know posting that they've been sexually harassed or assaulted. I'm certain there are plenty more who chose not to raise their hands. And I'm angry for them. Angry that they feel their hands were held to the flames of just ... nonstop, endless, forever assault and that the only possible way they felt they could change the status quo was to face the demon yet again. The one they don't get to escape from ever. 

Who are we as a society that this is what we require of our most vulnerable?

I've hesitated about posting a "Me, too." Not because I'm all that shy about exposing my fleshy underbelly, but because I'm not sure my experiences quite qualify. Maybe they're on the spectrum. Maybe that's enough. I'm not sure. 

This again is where I lack clarity. But feel that itch. Right under my skin.

Last night I found myself writing in my journal, "I feel dispossessed of my body." I'm not really sure where that comes from. Only that I've felt that way for years. That I really feel uncomfortable in this body. That it's not really mine. That I'd prefer not to acknowledge it or deal with it in any way. That way nobody needs to have an opinion about it, least of all me. 

It's not about feeling like I'm in the wrong body. It's not a self-esteem thing. Just that when I'm alone, out in the world, I feel like a balloon head with all its thoughts and ideas floating above a body that isn't about thoughts and ideas. And that I'd rather just be the balloon head.



I've gone down a rabbit hole, I realize.

It's these memories that pop up. Like being nicknamed "Piggy Sue" and "Fridge" (after William "Refrigerator" Perry) when I was little. Little, little. How my hair was always too wild and untamable. And that time those boys in elementary school followed me, barking as I walked home from school. And how these guys in high school called me a feminazi– which somehow made me feel less attractive, less feminine, which probably means I wasn't a feminazi, but a high school girl, like so many other high school girls, who was profoundly disappointed by high school boys. How by college I had the sinking feeling that while I'd go out of my way to validate men, they weren't going to go out of their way to validate me. I had the sense that men see the world as theirs already. That I saw the world as something I needed to fight to have a piece of. How I got to a certain point in life– maybe mid-high school– and I had this thought that what made me attractive was that I was a certain type of shape. Like it all came down to geometry. 

I know, I know, this doesn't make any sense. 

I can and will only speak for myself. But I thought of this analogy the other day while trying to get to the bone of my thinking. It was this: That I feel like a rock that's been tossed around the ocean for millennia. That my whole sense of self has been shaped by the perceptions of the things I've bumped into and scraped against. 

That's probably not particularly original. Or even enlightening. 

But it feels kind of true to me. 

So when it comes to conversations about sexuality, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, my attitudes about it, its affect on me– that's where I stand. I've been thrown around waves of our day and age for almost 36 years and the result is I don't spend much time in front of mirrors, I hate selfies, I hate (most) pictures of myself, and even if I do like the images of myself I hesitate to share them for fear of what sharing them might say about me. 

It's less about disliking how I look– I feel like I'm a pretty standard-issue person– but that I hate the idea that I have to look any particular way. And that people react to it. And that people might have an opinion about it. And that it might put me in a vulnerable position.

I was subbing recently, making small talk with another sub. I mentioned I had two kids. The sub (a male) reacted in surprise and commented that I didn't look as if I'd had two kids and made some mention about my body looking one way or another and I wanted to disappear. I wanted him to stop talking. I understand he meant to be flattering. But instead I felt flustered. 

I understand it was probably an innocuous moment. No big deal. But for me, it felt hugely uncomfortable. 

I feel uncomfortable, too, reading reactions to Mayim Bialik's piece. It's not that I'm a diehard "Blossom" fan or a diehard" Big Bang Theory" fan. But she went out on a limb, wrote from her heart and from her truth and I admire that. As imperfect as it might have been. And it frustrates me that so many people were so quick to be critical of her. You know, because she is us, too. A woman who has shaped how she moves about this Earth by her experiences with all the others on it. I get that. Me too.

I admire the women sharing about the harassment and the trauma they've faced. They're brave and resilient– even though maybe they just think they're regular people. I hope it makes an impact.

But it's an enormous ocean we're all in here. 

Last week in middle school, I reconnected with my feminazi roots. A couple of boys were teasing another boy because a girl had scored a goal on him playing soccer in gym. Not only were they flabbergasted that a girl could be good at soccer, but it was a "shocking" enough incident to antagonize another person with. 

I felt the blood rising. "Seriously, guys? Why is it an insult that a girl scored on him?"

Their response: "Because she's a girl."

I found myself gearing for a fight, like I might have at 14 or 15. But they were back on their phones. I'd lost them already. 

Forgive me for feeling a little cynical. 

*Which will never not make me think of Paul Rudd in this scene of "Wet Hot American Summer."


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Now can we talk about gun control?

Photo courtesy of Malmo/Flickr

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

The five stages of grief

After
Columbine
Virginia Tech
Sandy Hook
Charleston
Orlando
Las Vegas

After all the others
(And there are many, many others.)

Round after round of denial.
This can't happen here,
We say.
Again and Again and Again.

Round after round of anger.
This time. This time. THIS TIME. 
ENOUGH.
We say.
Again and Again and Again.

Round after round of bargaining.
We don't want all of your guns.
Just the ones that fire bullet after bullet after bullet in seconds.
We just don't want them to get to the people
Who fire bullet after bullet after bullet
into innocent people
We just want some control.
We compromise.
Again and Again and Again.

Though we don't really want to compromise.
We always want more.
But we'll settle for anything.
Anything.

We sink into depression.
in round
after
round
of moments
of silence.
The seeping realization 
That no amount of surgery
Can repair our shattered hearts.

What stage is next? 

Acceptance?
We can't accept this.

Can we?

We can't accept that it's acceptable
For men, women and children 
to be gunned down 
in classrooms, at concerts, on campuses 
in movie theaters, in dance clubs, in churches.
That it's OK for them to be collateral damage
for our right to bear arms.

We can't accept that it's acceptable
For kindergartners to have to do lockdown drills.
Cowering in the same corners
They play pretend
As their teachers tell them, "hush, hush."
Pretending there's an armed assailant nearby
Because of the times there was an actual armed assailant nearby.

We can't accept that it's acceptable
For there to be a rush on firearms and ammunition
the day after the slaughter 
of one or tens or 20s or 30s or 40s or 50s.
That even though the common denominator 
in all shootings is guns, we should battle for our right to own them.

We can't accept that it's acceptable 
For 315 people to be shot each day by guns
For 93 people to die each day because of guns
For 46 children to to shot each day by guns
For seven children to die each day because of guns
For 114,994 people to be shot each year by guns
For 33,880 people to die each year because of guns
For 17,012 children to be shot each year by guns
For 2,647 children to die each year because of guns.

We can't accept this.

Acceptance is complicity.
Acceptance diminishes our humanity.
Acceptance makes us something else.

There can't be acceptance. 
Because this is unacceptable.

Source for gun violence statistics: BradyCampaign.org

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Two days back in middle school

Photo courtesy of Turinboy/Flickr
My brain on seventh grade.

I spent two days subbing in seventh grade this week.

My brain feels as if it's been repeatedly crumpled up like forgotten homework and tossed into a trashcan like a makeshift basketball (a pastime seventh grade boys still seem to relish, by the way). 

My memories of seventh grade are hazy– though I can say with confidence I don't recall that stage of my life with anything bridging on fondness. Mostly, I remember crowded hallways. Really crowded hallways. And giant backpacks. And everyone pushing against each other. And loud, spazzy adolescent boys who always seemed to be running or bouncing off walls and other people like pinballs. And equally loud adolescent girls with long hair and even longer judgmental stares. 

But mostly it was loud. The school always felt as if it were, like, a doublewide trailer careening along some poorly maintained, winding mountain road in the Himalayas. Just one wrong move from tumbling into an anarchic abyss.

Based on my brief foray back to romper room– it doesn't seem like much has changed.

I mean I've changed. Mostly. My go-to outfit no longer consists of a T-shirt featuring the Animaniacs and carpenter jeans (why would a seventh-grade girl needed a hammer loop on her pants? You ask. For style. D'Uh (double aside, the kids don't say that anymore)). I no longer carry around a rubber frog named Newton in my pocket or a bedazzled Orange Tic-Tac case named Bob. And whatever. As if you had it all together in seventh grade.

Also, I've changed because I didn't totally dread going back to middle school this week. It was exhausting, no doubt. But I get it. I get these kids. The ones stuck between wanting to make sure their Marble Composition books were totally covered in unicorn stickers and wanting to make sure their hair was styled just so (side note: The boys were the ones sharing hair product). You're just figuring out you have all these huge thoughts about life and the world and all its injustices (and all these thoughts must be shared at high volumes) but you're still also kind of freaked out about dressing out for gym. You still find yourself doodling Pokemon characters on your English notes or fawning over pictures of puppies. 

It's a time of transition. 

Your whole life kind of feels like that four minutes between classes– all rushed and harried and thrilling and scary.

I was subbing again as an instructional assistant, this time helping out teachers in classrooms with kids who had learning disabilities or emotional disabilities. This meant I spent a lot of time trying to get antsy, easily distracted 12 year olds to focus on their lesson or reminding them (again and again and again) what the instructions were from the teacher or asking them (again and again and again) to stop looking at their cell phones. I don't know how teachers teach when there are cell phones in the vicinity. If you've ever found yourself wondering, what would a seventh grader be interested in more- the Reconstruction Amendments or Snapchatting pictures of yourself with dog ears– the answer is always Snapchat.  

I got to work a few of the kids one on one. They were funny and smart, also overwhelmed and forgetful. They just wanted to go. Go to the bathroom. Go get some water. Go sharpen their pencils (again and again and again). Go to sleep. Go home.

One student was having an especially rough day– she wished she could go back to her elementary school. She walked into English class yelling that she just wanted to go to fucking lunch (her words, not mine). The bastards (her words again, not mine) weren't letting her. She slammed a water bottle to the floor, splashing her teacher. I waited with her in the hallway for the administrator. Just suggesting that she take some deep breaths, acknowledging that switching schools is hard. She did look particularly calmed.

But I got it, you know. I mean, obviously, the water bottle and the swearing was inappropriate. But she's a different sort of kid, too. And, hey, we've all been hangry before. And seventh grade is hard. It's the worst, if we can be honest.

There's this funny thing I noticed about swearing in middle school. It's like this new toy. The kids kind of know they shouldn't be playing with, but they just can't help themselves. And the "F" word is especially shiny and enticing. I'd hear it shouted in the hallways (followed by teachers shouting that they should not be shouting the F-word in the hallways). I heard it mumbled by annoyed kids in class. During some downtime in one class, I asked a student if the book he was reading was any good. He didn't volunteer much information about it– instead asking me if I ever read books with curse words in them. "Sure," I told him. "Sometimes." His glittered and he smiled a little. "I like books with the f-word in them" ... OK ... that's not quite accurate. He actually said, "I like books  that have the word fuck in them." But at least he wasn't shouting, it right? It was used in context... sigh.

I had no idea how to respond. How do you respond to that? I think I said something lame like, "Yeah, it can be fun to read books that have language we don't usually use... especially not at school." 

One girl came into class complaining that she felt discriminated against because it seemed like there were groups of kids in school who could get away with cursing in the hallways, but that she got in trouble for it. I later learned that she didn't get in trouble for saying a bad word between class among friends. But that she may or may not have dropped an expletive or two while arguing with a teacher. Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh, amiright?

Another teacher helped her draft an apology letter. Then helped her re-draft the apology letter because the student seemed to be suggesting that it was the teacher's fault that she was arguing with and swearing at him. I wanted to take this teacher home and sit her down to have a similar discussion with Lily about why she can't blame Jovie when she chooses to pinch her sister. It seems I'll be repeating the "we have to take responsibilities for our own actions" from now until forever.

These teachers that choose to go into special ed– you need to know they're amazing. I've only been subbing for a few weeks, but it's mostly been in these classrooms. These teachers are charged with educating children with a wide variety of needs and abilities, who are sometimes mixed into a single classroom. Teaching them to read or write or learn history seems to be come secondary to just offering them acceptance, support, steadiness and structure. The goal to just help them function in a world with all these other humans. It's tough. They're so patient. And not begrudging. There's grace in how they interact with these kids.

The teacher in the class with the swearing, water-bottling throwing student had such positive energy. I could feel the kids relax in her room. She used an old Bugs Bunny cartoon to illustrate a lesson on characterization. She lip synched along with the Bugs. Poked fun at Elmer Fudd. She processed the onslaught of requests and needs and questions with patience and ease. When they pointed out that she had a lot of gray hair, she joked and named each hair after a different student. She also took the opportunity to share a lesson about being mindful of the comments we make. She told them that while she laughed about her hair, she was kind of self-conscious about it. One student apologized for pointing it out. Not that she was looking for an apology.

It's delicate with these kids, I think. With all kids, really, but especially these kids. Having to balance a certain amount of tension that allows things to get done, being loose enough to give students the space to relax and feel safe. So that they can learn. It's an art form. A ballet. I've gotten to watch some masters. 

***

A P.S. to the parents who attended back to school night. We really tried to help your children fill out their schedules with their teacher's names and room numbers for you to follow. For real. A month into school, this sounded like such a straightforward task. But asking a kid to remember both where they are from one minute to next and the name of the person standing in front of them was kind of like asking them to recall what the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are. Maybe they should just Snapchat you a picture of teacher wearing a flower crown or spewing rainbow vomit ...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It ain't easy being a grownup

Jovie. Being weird. And being Jovie. It's funny, right? We need that right now.
I met up with a friend for breakfast earlier this week. 

She's a journalist, podcaster and new mom among other descriptors. She recently did a video for USA Today about breastfeeding– it was funny, warm and candid. Relatable to new moms and seasoned moms alike. I told her I appreciated how open and down-to-earth she was.

We talked a little about being vulnerable in our work. How it could be painful at time, but ultimately led us to find deeper relationships with readers or viewers. How we felt that it was both gratifying and terrifying.

So here's me today. 

I'm driving around Northern Virginia in a loaner car because my car is in the shop. The check engine light came on the other day– it needs a new valve or another and is long overdue for a tune up, and there's the new timing belt. Thousands of dollars of work. And I'm crying and angry. Because money is always tight. And we should've seen this coming. 

There's always something coming. It's like de ja vu, too. Because I spent a lot of high school driving around these exact same roads. Crying. I mean it was over different crap back then. Some things do change. Thankfully.

I found myself asking the question, "What am I doing back here?"

Like, how is it that life came full circle back to this place? And it's still so hard. Here we are, adulting like adults are supposed to. Changing jobs. Moving. Pursuing new opportunities in the hopes that we can provide a better life for our family. And it's still always so hard. 

I'm driving around and I'm wondering if we made a huge mistake. I'm wondering if we should've stayed in York, where we were comfortable. Where life felt less rushed and more stable. It felt more limited, too. Maybe safer. It was a good life. Smaller maybe– but also more expansive, too somehow.

I'm feeling anxious. And wistful, too. Anxiety is such a pounding feeling isn't it? And wistfulness? Wistfulness is not that way. It's soft and wispy and a little sad. 

How do you go about making the right life for yourself? How does that happen? What are the steps you follow from the first to infinity that result in the good life? The right life? Why is it so goddamn hard? 

It seems unfair, doesn't it, that you are handed a "how to" when you are born? "How to Survive and Thrive in This Life You Were Given." Where's that book? Don't answer that question. It was rhetorical. 

I think it's that you just have to do the living to get through life. There's no guide. You have to be carried and then you crawl and then you walk and then you run and then you drive around aimlessly on the byways of your youth crying to yourself about how hard it all is. 

Snacks knows. It's hard being a dog
with annoying owners forcing you to wear shit.


The best parts happen in the simplest moments. Maybe you're driving with the windows down and a Josh Ritter song comes on and ... joy. Or your kid tells you a legitimately funny joke– not just a kid funny joke. Or you flop on the couch at the end of the day and commiserate with your husband about the struggles of forcing your 7 year old to write a thank you note. The struggles are real, by the way. Just ask our 7 year old, who throws down the pen after each word of said thank you note lamenting a misshapen "B" or a forgotten "A". It is painful. And also kind of hilarious.

At some point I feel ashamed for feeling so frustrated. I feel it's unwarranted. So I'm having car trouble. And it's expensive. But I have a roof over my head. 

There are people tonight who have spent the day huddled in their home on some Caribbean island as the world raged against them. And when it was safe enough to stop huddling, there was no roof over their head. And there are people whose homes are covered in mold because of flooding. And people who have been forced to flee their homes for fear they'd be massacred by their own government or by marauding extremists. Murdered by people who allowed fear to trump love.  

And people I know. My beautiful friend who right now is working to put back the pieces of herself– of her life– so that she can return to her family. My amazing, hard-working, loving siblings whose hearts are too big for this world, who always feel like they're just scraping by. It's just not easy– this life. 

It's all hard. It's all relative. 

So here we are. Here I am. Just muddling on through. 


And I'm lucky. And not just in a compared to all the suffering way. Because there are those that are suffering who feel lucky, too I think. Lucky is knowing that it's a gift to recognize that the best parts of muddling through don't happen in these big, grand moments. It's in watching the freckles wrinkle up on your kid's nose when you ask her if she remembered to feed the T-rex living in your back yard in an attempt to make her forget the long walk to school in the morning. Or watching your 2-month-old niece yawn. Or scratching your dog's stomach. Or chatting with your mom about her new haircut. Lucky to spot the prettiest maple leaf. Lucky to listen to crickets singing at night. Lucky to sleep in on the mornings when there's just the right amount of cool fall air drifting through the open window. 

Deep breath. 

We're all just trying to sort things out, right? I can't be the only one, right? I don't think that's the case, but on day's like today, you start to wonder. You start to really hope that your big mistakes will be your big lessons. Or that they weren't mistakes to begin with. That they were turning points for the next thing. Or that they're all the same thing. It's a both/and sort of situation. Life is like that. All gooey and complicated and exhausted.

Tonight, the next step is sleep. And thank God for that. Tomorrow? 

Tomorrow I'll go to my next subbing gig, pick up my freshly repaired car and figure out the rest as I go.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

On B.O., incompetence and new adventures

Photo courtesy of Zoe Rudsill/Flickr 
Last spring, as I was mulling what I would do when the girls went back to school, I thought substitute teaching might be a good option. 

Back then, it was sort of an abstract thought about some abstract time in the near(ish) future. Like, what does one do after staying at home with young children for six years if one doesn't want to return to a traditional 9-to-5 office job or some non-traditional, odd-houred job at a newspaper? If one isn't ready (or interested in?) dealing with after-school care or summer care? 

What does one do? 

Last spring I started to remember how much fun I had as a co-leader for the Teen Takeover staff at my last job and then got to thinking and how much fun I have hanging with kids– nieces and nephews, the girls' friends, etc. And I thought, "hmm teaching." And I submitted a resume and a transcript and three letters of recommendation and various other things. And that was that.

And then summer comes. And it's summer! And there's the pool! And vacation! And sleeping in! And I got to be summer mom! Summer mom is kinda fun (except when she's gritting her teeth because summer kids). It was all splashing around and extra cartoons and all the ice cream and "stop biting your sister."

Summer's over now (obviously). The kids went back to school. I eventually pulled myself up off the kitchen floor after hours of uncontrollable sobbing (OK, actually there wasn't hours of kitchen floor sobbing. It was probably more like hours of wandering the empty rooms of my house thinking about how they used to be noisier– they were still just as messy, but I couldn't bare to do anything about that. Too distraught to clean. You know how it goes.)

I thought about that application. Followed up on some unfinished application business and all the sudden found myself sitting in the orientation for substitute teaching.

That's when it became less of an abstract thought and more of a "OK, this is happening." sort of thought. The feelings of panic started creeping in early. Like when the presenter started talking about what you should do when you weren't left lessons plans. 

What do you do when you don't have plans? Wait. What? 

I started envisioning myself standing in front of a room full of skeptical, petulant-looking teenagers in high school English or a room full of loud, rambunctious second graders. Sweating. There would be all the sweat. With absolutely nothing to say. No idea what should come next. The armpit stains conducting a hostile takeover of the rest of my shirt.

Like, all the sudden I'm going to have anything remotely useful to say about high school English? Like I would even know what second-grade math should be? 

Then she jumped into a conversation about problem students and avoiding power struggles and using all this non-verbal communication and redirecting. Then it was what to do if there's a fight. What to do if you suspect a student has a weapon. What to do if you suspect a child is being abused.

That conversation wrapped up and we calmly moved on to how to use the computer system.

They took my fingerprints and my picture and sent me on my way. 

I got into my car. And promptly decided I was wholly unqualified to be a substitute teacher. 

But my house was still really quiet. Super quiet. So on Monday, I logged on to that computer system and set up my profile. And then on Monday afternoon I got a call.

Did I want to accept a gig as a substitute instructional assistant (IA) at the girl's school on Tuesday? And I thought to myself, "Assistant? I can be a substitute assistant." And I knew my way around the girl's school. So I said yes.

And then panicking commenced. For the next 12 or so hours. Which meant I didn't sleep a whole lot. And then all the sudden it was time to wake up, get dressed and go to school. I was very smelly, I think. But you just keep on taking the next step, right? Sign in. Get the badge. Get the instructions. Go to the room. Introduce yourself. 

As a substitute IA, I mostly got to sit and watch the teachers teach. Which was really helpful. Like going to school, but not having to teach at the school. A pretty sweet deal for someone who was pretty sure they were out of their league. Sometimes I'd listen to a kid read and help them with hard words. I sat with a group of kids as they sorted shapes. I helped kids write numbers and helped others round to the nearest 100. 

Mostly, I marveled at teachers. How they have to impart wisdom on the most abstract of concepts while simultaneously wrangling children who have no interest in waiting for their turn to speak, sitting still or keeping their hands to themselves. 

How the hell does anyone teach a second grader about the concept of evens and odds while also monitoring the class for unprovoked poking and incessant whispering? When a kid asks the question, "Why is zero even?" How do you even begin to answer that?

"Yeah," I wanted say. "Why is zero even?"

Well. It's because if you have a buddy and each of you have zero M&Ms, you both have the same amount.

Oooooooh. Good call teacher. See. That's why you're the teacher. And I'm just the substitute instructional assistant.

That's why. Because you know the way to a child's ears is M&Ms and I have no idea how to explain the concept of zero being even. Up until that moment, I probably hadn't even considered at all whether zero would be even or odd. 

And what do you do when you have a class of third graders and you've wrapped up your lesson on government and there's still 10 minutes left to the end of the day? What do you do with that time? See, I wouldn't know. I'd probably try to make small talk and ask if any of them had seen "Trolls" and start talking about how much I love the part where the spider whispers into Branch's ear during "Sound of Silence" and they would stare at me blankly and wonder why my mouth was moving.

I wouldn't think of playing "would you rather?" 

Asking them whether they'd rather lick a moldy trashcan or the bathroom floor.

(They say bathroom floor).

Whether they would want to sleep in a cemetery or live on a desert island.

(Desert island. Unless you can bring a teddy bear, then cemetery).

Whether they'd rather have a lot of friends or be really famous.

(They picked fame - cuz being a pop star would make you rich. They tell me I have to download the app Musical.ly, so I can pretend to be my own kind of pop star). 

It was all very enlightening. 

I made it through the day. I mean, I didn't smell great. I smelled like a locker room. But luckily, nobody commented. I survived. And it was OK.

So then, when I got a robocall at 5 this morning, asking if I wanted to accept a job as an IA at the high school– half asleep and still delirious from my previous days' half-win, I said, "yes." 

And in I went to school and learned I was going to be working special ed. And I was kind of psyched– because why not?

I survived my second day of substitute teaching, too. Not just the first but the second. Still sweaty mind you. Definitely still clueless. 

But I got to learn about two-perspective drawing and help a student with Down syndrome re-create a city block while listening to her describe her obsession with playing clarinet for the school band. She sat at the table that was the equivalent of the table I would've sat at in my art class years ago– I saw myself in them– quiet and serious– looking for the teacher's approval. Trading inoffensive jokes. High school is the same arrangement of people as it was when I was there. Just with cell phones.

And I got laugh about the fact that it was only Wednesday with a student who was really, really wishing it could be Friday. And while helping a student with basic sight words, I got to marvel at how beautiful all of his work looked–adding little wings to each of his "As" and always outlining each word he was charged with writing in a bright color and its complement. When he'd have to match the uppercase letter to the lower case letter – he drew a yellow line with red polka dots. Each time he used a yellow anything, he added red polka dots. I wondered about it and loved it. Both. His whole worksheet on the word "and" a work of art.

Not much happened in the day. No major revelations or major anythings. Just kids being kids. Just life. Easy as that.

There was no mention of my B.O. or my incompetence. We were all just people going through the school day.

And that has helped tame the monster of fear. Because in the end, all you need to do is say "yes," show up and be willing to help.

And I can do that.

And that's enough for now.


***

Finally, this song is singing to me today. So I'm sharing it.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Click here to save a life

Kristen, right, and me. Just before I got my nose pierced.
So the first thing you'd remember about my dear friend Kristen is her smile. 

At least that's the thing I remember about the day I first met her. It's as wide as the Amazon. And so bright. You'll probably also note that she's beautiful and really put together. Like she's just walked off the pages of an Anthropologie catalog. Qualities I assumed would preclude her from wanting to be my friend– as I am often, you know, not put together. A little schlumpy. But she is my friend.

You'd quickly learn about her weird obsession with cats and the color aqua. How her nails are always manicured and her house always, always covered in glitter. She's a passionate person, too. Passionate about being a mother and raising kind, resilient children. Passionate about her education and growing her skills as a nurse. Passionate about advocating for those who struggle with eating disorders and other mental health issues. 

When you talk to Kristen. She listens. Really listens. Makes you feel as if you're being heard for the first time. And understood. So naturally, people gravitate to her. 

We became friends because we both needed someone who spoke our language– one of morbid humor and hopeful cynicism. Back in York when our first kids were just babies, we'd both joined a local Mom's group and became friends on Facebook. She must've read something I wrote here about my own struggles with depression, because one day she messaged me and asked if I'd be willing to listen. And I'm always willing to listen. So she'd share her story and I'd send her Parry Gripp videos. And she'd share some more. And I'd send her cat emojis. And so it went. We kind of dug deep into our souls right at the start.

We'd watch each other's kids. Drink cup after cup of coffee picking over the detritus of our lives. Lamenting how impossible motherhood could be some days. Analyzing the days we felt like the world was just the worst. And celebrating the ridiculous moments that made it better– like caroling or the kids pushing cats around in doll strollers or Convos With My 2 year old

Then, you know, life evolved. Forcing our friendship to stretch across a distance. Which hasn't been easy. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding last fall and in January I drove up to York at 2 a.m. to witness the birth of her son in her living room no less (he was immediately covered in glitter). But we don't live three minutes from each other anymore. She works weekends and with the girls in school it was tough for me to visit during the week. We text sporadically. It's just not the same.

I share all this about my friend Kristen– because it's important you get to know the person I know before I share the next part. She's generous. Unflinching in her honesty. She's one of the strongest people I know. She's a force. A lioness.

But she's also spent long stretches of her life bearing the weight of depression. Debilitating depression. 

Saturday morning I was scrolling through Facebook and came to a post from Kristen's husband:



"Click here to support saving my family"

I clicked. Here's what Justin wrote:


"Throughout the past 5 weeks, my wife has been struggling with post partum depression. She has experienced severe symptoms including suicidal thoughts. In the last 5 weeks, she has been hospitalized on 3 separate occasions. She has tried all forms of treatment including partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient therapy, group therapy, and expressive therapy. Each time that she has been released from the hospital her suicidal thoughts become more serious.  The program that has been recommended is a long term inpatient program. This program is known as residential treatment for mental health Though we have great insurance, there is absolutely no coverage for this type of program. Our insurance would pay for this treatment if my wife had some type of substance abuse issue, but she does not. They will not cover this treatment. For her to attend the program, we will pay approximately $50,000 out of pocket. We are a young family with 3 children. I am looking to my community for any support that is available. I will continue to appeal our insurance claim, look for financial assistance, and save as much as I can. With my wife being sick and not working, we are risking bankruptcy and the loss of our house, let alone paying $50,000 to save my family. If you are unable to financially contribute, we are asking for prayers. Thank you for all that you can do to help."


I felt as if I was going to be swallowed up by the bedroom floor.  

I knew Kristen had been struggling with postpartum depression. I knew she was struggling to find any light. Any hope. Any possibility for a life free from the shackles of her dark matter. 

But I didn't know how bad it had become.

We hadn't been in touch in recent weeks. I tried texting a couple times a week just to check in and say hi. Sometimes I'd hear back from her. Most of the time I didn't. Twice I'd planned to visit her in York this summer– when we lived up there, her daughter and my girls were like sisters. But the day before one visit she'd was hospitalized. Hearing voices. Thinking about death. The second visit was more tentative. She told me she would be around and then I didn't hear from her. 

I tried not to take any of it personally. I know depression intimately. I know how it draws a dark curtain around you. How it forces you to isolate. To ignore. To reject. Even people you care about. Maybe even especially the people you care about. 

It's an insidious beast. Creeping about, telling you untruths about yourself. 

I texted my sister Laura about how sad I was for my friend. How frustrating it was that someone who brought such light into the world could be aching so much. Her response, as always, was so wise:

"It's an acute pain when you are intimately in touch with that gray dense bog... the tarpit, the cancer ... its like ancient mythology where the souls of the dead are just under the surface of the river Styx but you can only see them ... you can't reach them."

And that's the thing. I feel like I can't reach her. And that's pretty terrifying. Not that I'd ever have the right words or have the right numbers to plug in to solve the equation of her pain. It's not that simple. And for Kristen, I know the pain in her heart, in her brain is deeply rooted. 

I'm afraid for her. Afraid for her husband and for her children. Because the stakes are so high. This is her life. Their lives. 

I don't want to lose her. And I don't want our planet to lose her. She's good for us, you know?

I've felt so overwhelmed recently. Like, there's just too much happening in life. Vacations, anniversary parties, showers, birthday parties, weddings, school. It's happy stuff, mostly. But I can't stop my brain from churning about what needs to be taken care of. It was hard last week– with both girls at school. The house was so, so quiet. It was isolating. I freelanced, but mostly felt like I'd just been fired from my real job. I'm mourning the days I won't get back. The little years went by so quickly. Too quickly. I've felt like I should've had a better life plan. Because I've known this day was coming. I've felt powerless. Like I can't track the direction I'm headed. 

In situations like these, I'd often turn to Laura, who I know has her own stresses– what with a newborn and her oldest getting married in a week. Or Kristen, who I can't reach.

And I know most of you don't know my friend Kristen. But I need you to trust me that she's good people. And her little family– Justin and the three littles– they're good people. 

They're good people who don't have an extra $50,000 lying around to pay for the residential treatment program recommended for Kristen. I know there are a lot of different options available to individuals who need treatment for mental health. Kristen has explored most of them. She needs something more. And if she doesn't get something more ... I'm afraid for her life. I don't think her suicidal thoughts will go away without intensive care.


I know that there is so much need right now. That everyone just went back-to-school shopping and that the devastation down in Texas is so massive and we want to do our part. That there will always be the next thing that requires our time, attention or money. 

But I'm asking you ... you, the person reading now ... to consider making a donation toward Kristen's care. I know with all the demands facing us right now, I won't be able to contribute much, but even a little counts I think.


And if you don't have the means right now, well, please say prayers. Or have a chat with the higher power or send some good energy out in the universe or do whatever it is you do when you feel powerless but want things to be better. Do that thing. 

And thank you. Because I need my friend to stick around.

Monday, August 28, 2017

When Your Baby Goes to Kindergarten


Jovie goes to kindergarten, Lily to first grade.

It happened.

The first day of school.

Lily gave us a hug, then marched through a line of teachers cheering for her and giving her high fives like she was on the red carpet on the way to receiving an Oscar (probably for her amazing turn as "all the woodland creatures" in a live action version of "Bambi"). She didn't look back once. 

And Jovie. Jovie stood between Brad and me. Her feet rooted into the sidewalk. A look of panic on her face. "I don't want to go!" Her mouth was resolute. She shook her head for emphasis. I hugged her for the millionth time and told her it was OK to be scared for the millionth time and that she was brave for the millionth time and that it would be a good day for the millionth time. And eventually Brad and I each took one of her little hands and skipped through the crowd like we were an odd trio of newlyweds walking out of a church– minus the rice or the bubbles or the sparklers. Like we were heading into the Magic Kingdom. 

Mind over matter, right?

Jovie made it to her kindergarten classroom. She sat down in her chair and accepted the Play-Doh offered to her. She kept her coat on. Like armor, I think. But didn't cry again.

And neither did I.

I'd prepared myself for all the tears, recalling last year when I'd kept my sunglasses on in the building ushering Lily to that same room. Feeling as if my whole life was breaking apart over such a little thing as the first day of school. Something that would happen over and over again for years to come. Those oversized backpacks looking smaller and smaller with each new grade as the girls stretched out taller and taller. They'd lose teeth one year, then grow new ones the next. They'd go from wanting sparkly butterfly barrettes and dresses with parrots and ruffled wing sleeves to off-the-shoulder shirts and the perfect sneakers. They'd want the goodbyes to be less emotive and father away from the school. I can see it all around me. The past and the future in all these parents and all our mixed emotions. 

I was ready and waiting for the knot in my throat. That burning sensation in my eyes. The self-consciousness of my nose turning bright red. 

But nothing. I kissed my baby, No. 2 out of 2, goodbye and went to Lily's classroom to help out her teacher by sorting school supplies. It helped, I think, having a job. Breaking open boxes of glue sticks and dry erase markers. Organizing folders by colors. Stacking boxes of tissues. Labeling headphones. Anything to forego the empty quiet of the house. 


Lily goes to Kindergarten, 2016.
I felt familiar pangs and a gathering of tears on the walk home. The one I'd done holding Jovie's hand the previous year. Plotting out the day and listening to her complain about how hot and tired she was. I won't have my grocery buddy. My craft buddy. My backseat buddy. My lunch buddy. I thought it was quiet last year when it was just the two of us with Lily at school. I probably didn't know what quiet really was.

But I didn't cry then either. I had to go to the doctor's to get a TB test– something I need if I want to be a substitute teacher here. Because that's my next move, I think. Filling my child-free days with children. Because I'm almost 36 and still don't know what to do with my life.

I got home from the doctors and running a few errands and it was quiet here. I put my keys down and my eyes stung. But just a little. I had some work I needed to do. And the lawn was overdue to be mowed. And before I knew it, time to get my girls, who were all smiles, of course. Because they go to a really great school and they have such great teachers. And they're young and life is this amazing adventure. There's gym class with the world's most glamorous gym teacher and there's egg shaker thingies in music class and there's getting to sit at table No. 1 in the cafeteria and the fact that you have a lot in common with your teacher because you both lived in Pennsylvania and you both have dogs. 

Jovie went to bed and told me she was too excited to sleep because she couldn't wait to go back to kindergarten. 

And who can cry about that? Because all is exactly as it needs to be right now.


*** 
Preschool, 2015.

Brad took the day off work Friday and the four of us went tubing down the Shenandoah. 

I'd gotten some Groupon-type deal for a four-person-plus-cooler-raft tubing excursion before summer started and, because this summer was kind of fleeting and over-scheduled, we waited until the last minute to go. 

The day wasn't looking so promising, a bit cool and overcast. Lily was shivering as we loaded onto a school bus retrofitted for transporting inflatable tubes and the leisure-loving people who sat on them to a boat launch up the river. The guy driving the bus told us we'd float about three-quarters of a mile and it would take about two hours, depending on how fast the river was that day. We doubted that tiny distance could fill two hours.

"The orange flag is where you'll get out of the river to go back to your car," he said. "When you see the flag, you'll still have around 40 minutes of floating."

That, too, seemed improbable. That it would take two-thirds of an hour to traverse a distance we could clearly see down river with our own human eyeballs. 

With a healthy dose of skepticism, channeled water buffalo attempting to mount an ottoman we gracefully stepped into our rafts , and proceeded to float. 


Summer 2014.

Because that's all tubing down the Shenandoah is. Floating. We had a cooler loaded on a  mini food yacht, so you can eat, too (the nearest flotilla family brought fried chicken, which we was a very festive choice in river snackage, we thought. Much fancier than our PB&Js and watermelon). But mostly you float. And listen to your 6-year-old scream at each passing damselfly. And observe that there are lots and lots of damselflies. And marvel at the fact that there are more colors of damselflies than you originally knew about. Like periwinkle and cloud and rust. And how is it that they're able to mate while flying around? And is it mating when the tail of one damselfly is jabbing into the neck of another damselfly? And why do they keep landing on my knee to procreate? 

So to recap, you float. And your kid screams about damselflies. And damselflies get it on, sometimes on you. And you just keep floating.

And with little-to-no effort, you progress forward.

Suddenly the boat launch where you started is out of view. But it doesn't seem possible, because you're going so slowly. At least it seems that way, as it takes a long time to get to the next landmark– say an abandoned rowboat or a heron on the shoreline– but maybe it's just because your one kid doesn't seem to understand the concept of just sitting still and going with the flow. She's never gone with the flow. The flow must be questioned at all times. The flow must be disrupted by splashing, shrieking and continuous wiggling. In short, the timeframe of the flow might be exaggerated based on the behavior of certain almost 7 year olds who shall not be named. 


Jovie's first Halloween, 2012.

It's blissful though– fidgeting children aside. That you can be carried from point A to point B. From starting point to destination, only occasionally having to dislodge yourselves from tree branches or boulders, without really doing anything at all. Just melting into an inner tube and watching the clouds or the trees. The sun warming your face. The quiet gathering in your ears like an un-choir singing about peace. The only place to be is where you are. The place you need to be dictated by a river current you can't control. No way to step on the gas. 

It occurred to me that floating down the river must be like faith. Giving yourself over to something else. Trusting it will be as it should be. That you'll end up where you need to end up at the pace you need to end up there in. 

How freeing that is. How it's a way to love yourself. Giving yourself the space to be unneeded and unnecessary (at least it feels that way, maybe) and how that's needed and necessary. 

I think about how I need to carry that feeling with me. How I've floated to where I am today and will float again to where I'll be tomorrow. And how they'll probably be a flag to let me know about landfall and life-fall. How I'll probably have to dislodge myself from a downed tree or two. How I've always had to dislodge myself from trees along the way. How floating down the river can be irritating at times. And comical. And calming. 

How it happens whether you want it to or not. How you can't stand in the downstream forever. Hoping to prevent the end from coming. It has to come eventually. 

We get older. And children grow older. And that's just the way it is. 

Stevie Nicks knows. 



And now I'm crying.

Because I used to sing this song to my girls. When they were little, little. Just babies. Swaying with them deep at night in their shared green bedroom in our little rancher in York. 

They were so sweet. Even when they were crying. Even when I was exhausted. I'm so glad the river carried me to those moments. Carried me through those exhausting moments. How lucky we are as mothers to experience heaven in our sleepless delirium. 

The weight of our children as we carry them. Their embrace as they return to us. 

How lucky we are to be carried through this life in this way. 

Lily's hand after we came home from the hospital, 2010.