Friday, November 20, 2015

It's Time to Get Out of the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

The State of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 09, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More work to do.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Deciding What is Really Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wrestling With Parenting Demons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 02, 2015

I Will Speak His Name

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

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

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

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

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