Thursday, April 28, 2011

Culmination


At Eve's school, they have Culmination ceremonies instead of mid-terms or finals. The purpose of these gatherings is to demonstrate their proficiency with the material they have been studying to their peers, teachers, and families. The school very much has a "stand and deliver" philosophy that encourages the girls to truly achieve mastery of each subject and understand it in a way that they can then teach it. The point is to ensure that they aren't simply cramming their heads full of facts that will promptly be forgotten once they lay their pencils down.

Last night, we went to the second such ceremony and, just as I was the first time, I was struck speechless. The theme last night was "Literary Salon." The girls have been studying fairy tales, both modern and ancient, and their impact on culture and were tasked to create their own books, complete with illustrations. In addition, they have been talking about personal identity and were asked to create what Eve's teacher calls a "river" poem, honoring many of the tributaries that flow into them to make each girl a whole. Finally, they have been studying music (guitar, keyboards, singing, and music theory) individually and as a group. The girls performed in groups, recited their poems individually, and read their stories aloud to the family and friends gathered in the room. Not only were they asked to memorize poems and music, they were asked to find their voices and their courage to speak publicly and showcase their talents and creativity.

The grand finale came as each and every girl in the class sat down with her guitar and they played and sang "Lean On Me."

"Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow.
But if we are wise
We know that there's
Always tomorrow.

Lean on me
When you're not strong
And I'll be your friend.
I'll help you carry on.
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.
Please swallow your pride
If I have things
You need to borrow.
For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you don't let show.

Lean on me
When you're not strong
And I'll be your friend.
I'll help you carry on.
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

If there's a load
You have to bear
That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me.
So just call on me, sister
When you need a hand.
We all need somebody to lean on.
I just might have a problem
That you'd understand.
We all need somebody to lean on."

I was absolutely (to the intense mortification of Bubba and Lola) brought to tears. These girls, each of them so different, were really singing this song to each other. There are girls who come from broken homes, lesbian homes, girls being raised by extended family, African American girls, girls from Cambodia and those of Latina descent. There are girls on scholarship, a girl whose father was recently killed in Afghanistan, girls with learning disabilities and one who is repeating fifth grade. There is a girl adopted from China, another who has never met her birth father, and others who wish they hadn't. There are girls who are proficient in mathematics and others who are great with music or art. There is a girl with a debilitating anxiety disorder and one whose mother recently battled breast cancer. These girls know all of these things and more about each other and yet they banded together when everyone was cleaning up last night after Culmination to ask their teacher to let them perform an impromptu song for us all. They have spent evenings together camping on the beach in the cold, wet Pacific Northwest, cooking meals together and pitching tents and holding each others' hands and heads as they got seasick on a boat. Despite their differences, they are united in their accomplishments as young women of passion and humor, ideas and love for life that literally brought me to my knees. This is not a group that is concerned with gossip or fashion, boys or competition for the spotlight. This is a group of young women who are well on their way to finding out who they are as individuals and recognizing their strengths as a group. And I, for one, am honored to be a spectator of it all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Make Love, Not War


I am a pacifist. It started when I was a freshman in high school and I read Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." I was so captivated by it that I convinced my English teacher to add it to the semester's teachings, much to the chagrin of the rest of the students.

On beyond the idealistic years, (several of which I spent as a vegetarian, as well) of high school and college, while I protested the death penalty and marched in pro-choice rallies, I still believe that war is never the answer to a nation's problems. I am not naive enough to think that there are simple solutions, and I don't intend to get into a political or moral discourse here, and as a realist and a citizen of today's world, I fully accept the reality of war in our human experience.

I have never been much for history, however, and so my understanding of war and other conflicts that have happened in the past is mostly based on what I learned from textbooks in the 1970s and 1980s and what I hear on NPR now. But one thing strikes me over and over again and that is just how easy it has become for nations to wage war on an enormous scale. Notwithstanding the financial cost, thanks to the technologies we have developed, instead of hand-to-hand combat with your 'enemy,' where you might be forced to look him in the eye and acknowledge his existence as a fellow human being, we can now wipe out entire city blocks from miles up in the sky as though this were some ultra-realistic video game. Instead of smelling the metallic tinge of blood on the ground or one's clothing, we simply see smoke and rubble. The depersonalization of conflict seems as though it would make killing less psychologically painful for the soldier. Certainly not for those on the ground who are witnessing the violence, nor for those who are dispatched to clean up the mess, patching up limbs and faces and removing bodies from battlefields, but for the pilots dropping bombs and the generals ordering airstrikes, it seems that they are removed from the acts of violence they are committing.

[Please know that I am not condemning any of those who served in the armed forces. I know that their work is done with conviction and a desire to help. I support their sacrifices in the name of their beliefs without judgment, despite the fact that I fervently wish for a world in which war did not exist.]

Rather than anger, the subject merely prompts sadness on my part. Until yesterday when I was listening to a reporter embedded with the rebel forces in Libya describe the scene there. His report served to bring the listeners close enough to hear the shells explode and get a vivid picture of the loss of life. It occurred to me that, since this phenomenon of sending reporters out with troops began, the tide may have begun to turn. The average citizen who is privileged enough to get honest media coverage is not just a little bit closer to truly understanding the impact of warfare on human beings. Despite the fact that our weapons are still technologically capable of letting us kill masses of other people from afar, there is a human element. Reporters can interview physicians in the battle zone and describe with painful clarity what is happening to individuals, soldiers and civilians alike, real-time. While many of the soldiers involved in the conflict may not be fighting face-to-face, those at home listening or watching the coverage can actually see what we are doing to each other in the name of war/conflict/uprising/substitute other euphemism here. And if there are those who aren't inured to the violence, perhaps we can begin to build some understanding of just exactly the harm we are causing to other human beings. Perhaps this understanding can lead to examination of our goals and, if we can lean into the discomfort of killing other people because they don't agree with us or because they have something we want, maybe we can begin to have a dialogue about whether or not there are other ways to go about living together on the planet.

I can only hope.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Free To Be (You, Not Me)

I don't love one of my girls more than the other. But I do treat them differently. I wish it weren't so, but I have to say that I am not sure it is unusual or wrong. Since the first day Eve opened the door a crack to let her personality out I saw myself. When she was two and we battled over naps or bedtime or dinnertime, the crumpling of her eyebrows, the concrete set of her intentions - that's me. The absolute need to be Right and Win, my particular Kari cocktail running through her veins. Over the years I have worked to remind myself that these traits will serve her well in her life. They will allow her to stand her ground even when she is feeling shamed or alone in her convictions. In our daily interactions, they often lead to unpleasant stand-offs between the two of us and I am left desperately searching the recesses of my brain for ways to temper some of Eve's most problematic qualities. As I see them.

Which leads me to the knowledge that what I consider to be her most difficult personality traits are the things I hate most about myself. I cringe in shame as I remember times when I rushed, face first into an argument with someone else, convinced I had The Answer and determined to prove the other person wrong only to discover that there were things I didn't know. Possibilities I hadn't considered. Or, worse yet, maybe I was "Right," but in my quest to render that fact in indelible ink, I trampled someone else's feelings or disregarded their self-worth. I see Eve wearing a path in that meadow, back and forth, more often than not between her bedroom and Lola's.

Yesterday as I sat on the back porch with my book, soaking up the sunshine, Lola quietly made her way to my side and sat down, forearms crossed over her eyes in a familiar pose of misery. I put my book down and turned to her as she parted her elbows to give me a glimpse of wet, full eyes. She and Eve had fought in front of Eve's friend and Lola, embarrassed, shoved her and stormed out of the room. Eve followed, some angry words were exchanged, and Eve slapped Lola on the arm. I don't know how hard she hit her or what they said to each other and, frankly, as soon as I heard that Eve hit her little sister, I stopped listening. I knew I couldn't punish her in front of her friend and I had the presence of mind to know that any consequence I came up with needed to not come from anger. And I was angry. Really angry.

The depth and breadth of my anger was out of proportion to the incident. I realized that. There was a heaviness in my lower gut that led all the way up to the set of my jaw. I was furious with Eve. Despite what went before, how could she hit her sister! Would I be this angry if she had hit someone else? Nah, that's not even a question. She would never hit anyone else but her little sister. That realization made me even angrier. I sat on the deck steps, my arms around Lola as her tears dotted my shirt, and fumed.

An hour later, standing at the kitchen counter chopping zucchini for dinner, it hit me. I was angry with Eva because, as the oldest sister, she is supposed to protect Lola, not hurt her. Wait. That was my life. My childhood.A door opened. The thoughts came swirling out like smoke rising from a campfire - as a kid, my siblings and I stuck together so that none of us would get hurt. And even when we did get hurt, we didn't go it alone. We had each other. We stuck up for each other and looked out for each other and took care of each other. It kills me to see my girls fight. The thoughts bumping up against the ceiling of that hatred for their arguments tell me that, someday, they will be all each other has. Their sibling bond is stronger than anything. Through breakups and fights with close friends and disappointments they are too embarrassed to share with anyone else, they will have each other and they need to protect that bond at all costs. And Eve, as the oldest sister, is charged with being the gatekeeper. The key holder.

Or is that me? When I see so many similarities between us, I wonder if I too often mistake her for a miniature me. Despite the fact that her childhood is not mine, her life is not mine, I think I may be, in some way, reliving my childhood vicariously through her. All of the times I mentally assaulted myself for not doing enough to protect my baby sister, Eve could fix by taking care of her sister better than I took care of mine. And here was the source, the wellspring of my anger. I was upset because I would never have done anything to hurt my little sister. I had given myself the job of protecting her and couldn't imagine doing anything to make her life more difficult or challenging than it was already.

But Eve is not me. And her childhood is not mine. And I have no right to expect her to fix the mistakes I made in my life by doing them over better. There is some Bubba in this gorgeous girl, too, and I need to honor that. But more than anything, I need to honor the Eva in Eva and allow her the freedom to explore who she wants to be outside of the boundaries I might think of for her.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Repression by Any Other Name...

Two recent international news items have wormed their way into my consciousness of late and, while I confess that I am uneasy about my relative lack of knowledge on the subject, I am somehow still compelled to wonder out loud. Both issues have at their core, the issue of Muslim women wearing head coverings, often called hajib or naqib.

France banned the wearing of any overt religious symbols in schools in 2004. These were not limited to Muslim headscarves by any means, and the purported reasoning behind it was to somehow erase visual differences between citizens in order to promote a more cohesive society. The most recent proposal would ban women from wearing their naqib in public at all, again supposedly to promote acceptance of others in French society, but also because some lawmakers are offended by their belief that Muslim women are often forced to don these head coverings and they want to rid them of this discrimination.

Today MSNBC ran a story about women in Turkey who are effectively barred from getting jobs because of their choice to wear headscarves. Because Turkey is a "secular" country, these traditional head coverings are prohibited for public officials and women in public places. There is a fragile balance between the Muslim ruling party and the secular bureaucracy and much fear on both sides that the scales will tip in the other side's favor. The women are left wondering if they will be able to use their education and passion for careers and lives outside of their homes and places of worship.

For me, this issue has very little to do with religious or political beliefs and simply leaves me scratching my head. For the people who claim to be advocating for women's rights by banning the headwear, I wonder how much of their rhetoric is genuine versus an excuse to get rid of something that makes them uncomfortable. I know the issue is complicated, and it may well be that some women are forced to dress in this manner by the men in their lives, but isn't it just as repressive to force other women to remove their naqib when they don't want to? I truly believe in the notion that individuals ought to be free to express themselves in most any way they choose, so long as it isn't offensive or hurtful to others. And if there really are women who are feeling intimidated or abused by their husbands or fathers, in any way, maybe the French government ought to spend their time beefing up domestic violence resources rather than telling others how to dress. At this point, there is a small minority of French citizens who are being singled out and forced to act in ways they aren't comfortable with and, as an American, I can only see trouble coming down the tracks.

In Turkey, the issue seems that much more insidious because of the blatant nature of it. There are those who are unashamedly vocal about their discrimination against women who wear headscarves and see no problem denying them access to the professions for which they have trained. I know of no similar way in which men are set apart from society because they choose to display their religious preferences. It seems to me that, while there are some complex issues involved, this is just one more way in which society is attempting to control women and I, for one, hope it backfires by causing powerful women from around the world to band together and raise their voices in protest.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Empowering and Understanding


Lola decided to play lacrosse this Spring instead of softball. She has a good friend who wanted to play and there is much more movement and action in lacrosse - simply more her style. Practices are twice a week for an hour and a half and they play two games every Saturday. It's definitely a commitment. Especially in the Pacific NW in a La Nina year. They've been at it since February and I think I can count on the fingers of one hand (okay, one practice) the times it has been sunny for practice. After the first week, I took to bringing an old paper bag with me when I picked her up so she could put her muddy cleats in the bag before getting into my car. By last week, I was putting a beach towel down in her seat so that her mud-splattered backside wouldn't ruin the upholstery. And when I say "backside" I don't mean bottom. I mean that it looks like she stood facing a wall while someone took a paintbrush dipped in mud and flung it at her body, splatter-paint-style.

She is in Heaven.

In hail, strong winds, pouring rain and, yes, even snowfall, her solid 4'3" frame hurtles across the field, spraying wet clumps of grass behind her as she chases the ball. Without fail, halfway through practice she slows down slightly to unzip her sweatshirt, peel it off, and fling it to the sidelines because she's sweating from the effort. A grin adorns her face for each and every one of the 90 minutes she is on that field.

Last week as I sat in the car with the heater warming my toes and my heated seat on to its full potential, I wondered whether the coaches would call practice off. The baseball and softball players had long since gone home and the black clouds had that particular electricity to them that warned of a thunderstorm. I half-wished they would call it off so I could get home and start dinner early. But in that same moment, another thought pushed that one away. The boys weren't going home. Their lacrosse practice was still on - I could see them in the farthest field, crashing their helmets and shoulder pads into each other with abandon, the way boys in middle school do because they know they're too young and strong to get hurt. Yes, it was wet. Yes, it was cold. But these girls weren't in danger of suffering anything they couldn't handle. Of the four teams of girls, only one has a female coach, and none of the coaches, regardless of gender, was about to call off practice. Whatever their reasons, I decided I didn't care. Knowing that Lola was out there having the time of her life and receiving the message that she was strong and capable enough to practice in inclement weather was terrific.

Eve is playing basketball with her classmates this season as well. She is not much of a 'team-sport' kid, but when her school fielded a 5th grade team and she realized she could play with girls she knows who are her own age, she got excited. This age brings with it self-criticism and a shyness borne of comparison like no other. Among her peers is one girl who is smaller in size than Eve, several who are slightly taller or bigger, and two who could pass for 7th graders. Two have played basketball before, but the rest of them are newbies. The coach treats them all the same. She mixes up the scrimmage teams, runs drills where she stops each of them at some time to make a particular correction or explain something further, and plays with them. At the beginning of practice, held in a local community center that is usually full of older boys playing the rough, NBA-style ball, she makes sure to shoo everyone out of the gym and shut the doors before beginning practice. She gets it. But while she makes that concession for them, she is tough with them in other ways. They are not allowed to sit down for the entire practice. They can rest and take water breaks as necessary, but everyone on the team works their butt off. She makes sure they know what their bodies are capable of and shows them time and time again. Eve is so proud of her ability to do things she never thought she could. She convinced herself long ago that she is more a "creative-type" than an athlete and, while she enjoys messing around on her bike and shooting baskets in the backyard, she was fairly resigned to the fact that playing a sport on a team wasn't for her. She's discovering just how wrong she was about that.

In very different ways, my girls are both learning that pushing themselves in a safe environment is a powerful feeling. I am terribly grateful for coaches and organizations that provide them the opportunity to spread their wings within these comfortable boundaries. It makes me that much more committed to ensuring that girls everywhere find places like these in their lives in order to empower themselves and better understand their own abilities.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Hey, Shorty!


Well, it turns out my most recent book review wasn't my last one for Mandy Van Deven of Elevate Difference. She and two of her co-workers at Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), have written a book that every mother, educator, and lawmaker ought to read. It is my distinct honor to have gotten an advance copy of the book for review.
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“Hey, Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets”
by Joanne N. Smith, Mandy Van Deven, and Meghan Huppuch of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE)
The Feminist Press

Most of us think about sexual harassment in the context of the workplace and would be genuinely surprised to know just how prevalent it is in the world our teens and pre-teens inhabit. Of course, there are incidents so extreme, both in the media and on episodes of Law & Order, that we sit up straight and feel the bile rise in our throats: teachers taking advantage of students, gang rape in the bathroom of a local park. But what about the pervasive, everyday climate of intimidation and pressure that exists in the hallways and locker rooms of our nation’s middle schools and high schools? And what does the tacit acceptance (and/or denial) of this culture teach our children about how to interact with each other? Is this how bullying gets so bad that children choose to drop out of school and deny themselves the opportunities to thrive that they deserve? Is this how we end up with teens deciding death is easier than living with a daily regimen of taunting and overwhelming negative pressure to be something they aren’t, don’t want to be, and couldn’t possibly live up to?

“Hey, Shorty” is the story of an extraordinary organization called Girls for Gender Equity (GGE). Ten years ago, they embarked on an ambitious mission: to uncover and define the ways sexual harassment affect New York City’s public school students. Borne out of a desire to give girls equal opportunities to engage in sports and gather together to share their strengths and challenges, Joanne N. Smith started the project. Fairly quickly, she began to realize that, despite the existence of Title IX, there were formidable barriers to overcome. Despite overwhelming agreement that both gender bias and sexual harassment existed within the community, there was little acknowledgement of either of these things as a pervasive problem that prevented girls from exploring opportunities on an equal playing field with boys.

Over a period of ten years, GGE fought to define sexual harassment and help students understand the insidious ways it affected their lives in and out of school. They enlisted student ambassadors to create surveys and educate their peers, all the while empowering these teens as solution-providers. They struggled with beaurocratic obstacles and lack of funding and found ways to energize the communities around them and find partners to join their cause. The amount of light that GGE is responsible for shedding on this pervasive issue in one of the biggest school districts in the nation is astonishing and exciting. As a woman who considers herself fairly open-minded and liberal, I was nonetheless shocked to discover that my notion of what is “acceptable” or “tolerable” behavior in schools was very much colored by my unwillingness to stand out or stand up for myself as a woman.

“Hey, Shorty!” is a primer for any group intent on addressing issues of bullying and sexual harassment in their own community. With practical advice on how to find supporters and engage individuals as voices for change, this book is one of the most important things any administrator or educator can read in preparation for dealing with tough issues among their students. As one of the authors says, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The women and girls of GGE have done it already and are happy to share the blueprint.

There is a public book launch on April 13th. If you are interested in attending, please follow this link.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Links for April

Crepuscular raus in GGP 8
I love it when I can find new places to explore on the Internet. It's not nearly as productive as exploring in the nature or, say, doing laundry, but at least these two places are just as important. The first came to me from a friend who has children with sensory processing issues (as does Lola). If you haven't already found it, this is a terrific resource and they have vast stores of information in their back issues.

SI Focus is an online magazine that has articles pertaining to all different kinds of issues for kids and adults who struggle with sensory integration issues. The subscription is fairly inexpensive ($25/year), and you can get a group subscription for several families together to make it even more affordable. I found myself glued to the computer while reading the first issue and am tremendously grateful to my friend Isabelle for passing along the information.

The other link I found through a group on Facebook called "40 Days of Mindfulness." I joined them in their efforts to have each member meditate for 20 minutes a day for forty days beginning April 1. Twenty minutes indulging myself seemed pretty doable, although I will admit that, only eight days in, it has been as much of a struggle to keep my mind still as a boon, but I'm committed. After all, there are all these people I have to be accountable to! My friend Emily found herself fighting to keep from scolding herself for not living up to the 20 minutes a day and went on a hunt for a meditation around self-acceptance. Viola! She found this article. The article led me to the self-compassion website. At first glance, it appears to be a marketing tool for the author's books, but I would encourage you to check out the information on the right side of the screen. There is a quiz you can take to see just how self-compassionate you are and exercises to download to increase your own acceptance of yourself. It may sound a little woo-woo, but I truly believe we all could use a little more appreciation for ourselves and I'm intrigued by the research being done. I highly recommend both the Huffington Post article and the site itself.

Monday, April 04, 2011

What Are the Stories You Tell Yourself?

This whole lifelong learning thing is coming at me in waves! Unfortunately for me, I often plow through my days busying my brain with so many things that the Universe has to shake me or poke me or smack me upside the head to get me to pay attention from time to time. And with certain issues I prefer to avoid altogether, it is necessary to poke me repeatedly. Money is one of those issues. I am lucky enough to have what I need so that we aren't living paycheck-to-paycheck like most of the world is and that has enabled me to continue to hide behind the black curtain, blithely continuing to ignore the cavalier way I treat financial issues.

And from time to time, I get the nagging feeling that I'm spending too much money (not on big things, I'm the nickel-and-dime-you-to-death sort: Target loves me, so do the grocery stores where I often impulse-buy, and I love getting little gifts or cards for friends as I see them). Occasionally Bubba (who is the primary money manager in our household) will throw out phrases like, "hemhorraging money," and a little red flag pops up in my brain. But mostly, I continue on, blissfully ignorant. But last week Bubba was in Canada on business and it was the end of the month (one of those months where we had apparently been bleeding cash from every orifice) and my debit transaction was denied at Target. And later it was denied at the restaurant where I took Lola and one of her friends for lunch. So I went online and checked the balance of the account (barely recalling the password and username Bubba set up for us). Seems that Bubba did a big cash-grab for his trip, cabs and lattes being easier to pay for in cash - especially when you're in another country. This meant that until payday, my free-wheeling debit card days were over. Wake. Up. Call.

Lying in the tub that evening, I decided that my usual modus operandi (guilt and shame at how ignorant I am about our finances leading to self-loathing and resulting in complete denial of the issue until payday when everything would return to normal) wasn't going to cut it anymore. So I created this worksheet:

Turns out I have all sorts of "stories" I tell myself about money. That I am horrible at managing it (and so this gives me the excuse to not even try), that it isn't important to me and I can do without it (and so this gives me the excuse to disregard it), and that I have a partner who is terrific with money and interested in managing it for our household (and so this gives me the excuse to rely on him to tell me what to do with it). Putting that in writing made my skin crawl. I felt like I had just downed an entire bowl of sea slugs in salt broth. ICK!!! I felt guilty, ashamed, lazy, and confused about where these stories came from. And I felt motivated to change them. They are not accurate, but they are ingrained.

I made ten copies of the worksheet and am keeping the original in my office. I know that, as young as they are, Eve and Lola have their own dysfunctional stories they tell themselves about difficult things. I have stories about exercise and health, relationships and conflict, and my own mental health status to name a few. But having the ability to look at the way I find trapdoors for myself and excuse behaviors that perpetuate my own negative self-image around certain things is incredibly powerful. It isn't easy or pretty, but the simple realization that I have based a lot of my actions on inaccurate stories I tell myself is a huge catalyst for change. That doesn't mean I'm taking any accounting classes anytime soon, but it does make me feel more empowered about my own behaviors around money and helps me think of ways to teach the girls to do the same.

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