Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Balm of Spring

Spring is certainly coming.  Every morning after I wake the girls up, the dog and I go for a 10 minute stroll around the neighborhood and in the past week I have noticed that we aren't walking in the dark.  I no longer need to use the flashlight app on my cell phone to find the mess he leaves in the neighbors' grass and clean it up.

During our mid-day walk, I have seen tips of crocus and daffodil bulbs peeking out of the ground and the camellia bush someone has espaliered across their front fence has five open blossoms already.  This morning while I prepared my coffee I saw the little black-masked chickadees chasing each other through the air around the branches of the cherry tree just outside the window.

As I packed snacks for Eve's class this morning (they are taking four days of standardized tests and some of the parents have volunteered to bring in 'brain food' each day for all the girls to help them make it through the endless, boring hours of answering questions at a computer screen), the paper towel I was using to hammock the bunches of grapes split down the middle and grapes went everywhere, collapsing the bag, rolling across the counter, landing in the sink and on the floor.  I was instantly aware of a message playing in my head:

Today is a day to pay attention.

I realized I was simply going through the motions, not paying complete attention to anything around me.

You see, yesterday evening I was responsible for causing psychological and physical trauma to another human being.  Directly responsible.  And while it was entirely accidental and I never would have intended it, I still felt the weight of it in my heart this morning.  Despite the fact that I did the right thing and stayed to ensure that everything was okay, despite the fact that the man I hurt, a complete stranger, assured me repeatedly that he was fine, that I shouldn't worry, I saw the faces of some of the witnesses.  I watched one woman cross her arms and close her face in judgment. I heard the sharp words of another who questioned me and I felt Wrong.

I engaged in all sorts of self-talk last night when I was done sobbing and questioning myself.  I reminded myself that one accident does not change the person I am, does not negate the warmth and love I intentionally radiate out into the Universe every day.  I progressed to wondering why I thought I was exempt from making big mistakes, effectively reminding myself that I am human like everyone else.

But I still woke up sad.

During a break in the rain this morning, I pulled the leash over CB's head and we quietly strolled through the neighborhood.  While I recall looking at this house we live in during the Spring months last year, I have not yet lived a Spring here and I was reminded of the potential beauty that will surround us in a month or so.    Trees are beginning to form the tiniest of leaves and buds, bulbs are poking up all around in flower beds and the birds are flipping from bush to bush gathering nesting material and chatting all the while.


I came home, lit a candle in my office, and sat cross-legged on the floor.

Ever since the accident yesterday, I realize I have been working hard to find some reason that this happened.  I have also been working really hard to 'talk' to those two women who were so angry with me last night, to defend myself and explain when I know their judgment was more about themselves and their fears than anything they thought they knew about me.

What I learned this morning by being quiet and really listening, really paying attention, is that Spring is coming.  I need only to settle in and raise my head and heart to the sunlight and continue to stretch for the warmth in order to use what is already within me to rise up and flourish.  That by listening to myself and the core of who I know I am, I can truly hear what I need to and express it in the best way possible.



Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Confessions of a Shoplifter

When I was in the 4th grade, I started shoplifting.  Actually, the first thing I stole was something from my friend, Jacque's, bedroom.  We took piano lessons one after the other at her house every Tuesday afternoon and while I waited my turn with Mr. Fox, I sometimes explored her perfect bedroom.  She didn't have to share with her sister in this enormous white colonial house with black shutters on the windows.  It looked for all the world like what I expected a plantation would look like in the deep South - wide bay windows with window seats for reading, and light streaming in from every angle.

Jacque (pronounced "Jackie") had everything. And I wanted in on that.  While it may have appeared as though I, too, had it all - two parents, a large house, enough extra money for piano lessons - there was an undercurrent of danger in my life.  Beneath it all was a deep fault line that threatened to shift and rumble at any time and I used to lie in bed at night wondering how it would go.  When the ground opened up, who would be swallowed and who would scramble clinging to the edge, screaming in stark fear?  I had my moments of wishing for certain individuals to fall endlessly down that dark chasm but that always left me behind. Alone.

And so I felt entitled to any small trinket that would make me feel better. I reasoned that my life was nowhere near as safe and secure, neat and tidy as Jacque's, and she had so much stuff she wouldn't possibly miss whatever I took.

She did. And I got caught and that was the end of shared piano lessons.  After that day, Mr. Fox with his bulbous alcoholic's nose streaked with red veins and impossibly large pores, shuffled in to my house once a week, his leather briefcase full of loose sheet music and his pea-green trench coat flapping around his shins.  I had been exiled.

And so I started stealing things from the local mini mart, instead.  I had lost a friend in the last round of theft and I, who was so desperate for affection, could hardly afford to lose any more.  It started with lip balm and I was shaking so badly I had tunnel vision.

I never used it.  It sat to the side in the drawer of my nightstand for years.  Other items gathered next to it - a butterfly barrette, licorice taffy, a box of candy cigarettes.  These were symbols of my entitlement. They were my great, silent, "Screw You!" to the Universe that had placed me with two parents who couldn't be what I needed them to be.  They were a sign that I was allowed to have something that I wanted.

By the time my parents divorced and spread themselves a few states apart, I lost the desire to take anything more.  I felt so conflicted about the shoplifting; knowing it was Wrong and that, somehow, it wasn't going to fix anything, anyway (clearly not, since my family had just come apart like so many dandelion seeds on the wind). Was this Conscience? I didn't remember details of the bad times - the angry arguments or physical abuse - but I recall everything I ever took that didn't belong to me.  I trace the edges of that Bonne Bell lip balm in my mind's eye, the opaque wrapper of the black-as-tar salt water taffy.  I can still smell the sugary, waxy, dark licorice scent of my drawer every time I cracked it open.

I still feel shame.

Many years ago when Bubba and I were traveling with the girls I did it again.  He had been so sick off and on for two years and I was terrified to be so far from home in case he relapsed. He wasn't scared. That was part of the problem.  He was never scared, even when I was calling 911 or racing to the ER myself, two toddlers strapped in to car seats in the back seat as I whipped my gaze back and forth from his ashy face to the road in front of me.  His lack of fear meant that I had to hold it all - every sour-smelling drop of it - for all of us.

And then it happened. One night in the middle of the night in a foreign country, he got sick.  And I didn't panic. I got him to the hospital and they spent an entire day inserting IVs and pushing fluids and taking photos of his internal organs.  And I spent the day trying to entertain two small children in the park, among a sea of strangers whose language I didn't speak, not knowing whether he would emerge from that big brick building at all.  I fed them and played with them, changed diapers and didn't let one tear fall.  I deflected curious questions about where Daddy was and when he would be back, all the while feeling that old familiar fault line beneath my feet.

He did emerge, grey and tired, and we holed up in the hotel for several days. I put the children down for a nap, got him some tea, and crawled into bed and sobbed.  Every time I closed my eyes I saw me, fingernails dug in to the red clay at the edge of the Grand Canyon, alone and dangling.

The next day we ventured out to the lobby of this old hotel, sitting by the fireplace, looking at the views, checking out the gift shop.  And I stole a necklace.  An inexpensive but beautiful necklace.  I told myself that if I got caught, I would simply claim exhaustion and tell them to put it on our tab.  But I didn't get caught.

I love that necklace. I wear it often, but it has a loose clasp and a nasty habit of coming unhooked and sliding down inside my bra from time to time.  Every time I put it on I think about that dark, dark time in our lives and feel ashamed.  And I think that maybe this is Conscience.  I could have afforded that necklace a hundred times over. But that wasn't the point, was it? The point was that I felt entitled to something. Something free. Something compensatory.

But it didn't compensate for any of the pain I was feeling any more than that barrette did when I was nine.  And none of the things I took had the power to change circumstances in my life. They reminded me, in some small way, that I had self-worth, however misguided.  These were symbols that I mattered to me, that I still valued myself enough to give myself something nice.  I see the twisted logic in all of this and don't condone my behavior, but I will forever be grateful that, throughout the darkest periods of my life, I was able to retain some small measure of belief that I deserved something.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Readings and Planet Alignment and All That

I love the drive to Portland.  Maybe it is because it is a trip I made hundreds of times when Bubba and I were dating and he lived in Seattle and then a hundred more when we both lived in Seattle and were planning our wedding in Oregon.  I recognize the crazy names of some of the towns, the roadside diners and the landscape.  I let my car sink into the ruts I probably had some part in creating and smile as Mt. St. Helens comes into view, its top shorn off from the eruption I still recall vividly from my youth.

I don't often get to make the drive by myself so yesterday I reveled in listening to NPR as long as I could before the static caused me to squint as though it would help me discern Warren Olney's voice a little better.  After stopping to pee, I switched over to my iPod and set it to shuffle. Chick music.  Brandi Carlile, Marie Digby, Ingrid Michaelson.

I was committed to this trip, regardless of the fact that every nerve ending in my body lit up like a strand of Christmas lights when I thought about it. That said, it wasn't until I reached Battle Ground that it hit me why the book launch for Get Out of My Crotch had to be in Portland.

Portland is the city where I went to my first-ever pro-choice rally.  My friend S, the woman responsible for introducing me to the concept of "feminism" and "women's rights," came up on a gloriously sunny Saturday, picked me up at my dorm, and drove me to the city to mingle with hundreds and hundreds of other women rallying in support of reproductive rights.  I was stunned by the feeling of power and solidarity in that square. I had never experienced anything like it.  And then, the Indigo Girls showed up. Seems they were playing a concert in town that night and decided to stop by and lend their support.  They stood up on stage and sang their newest hit single, "Hammer and a Nail."  It was the beginning of an era for me.  The notion that I could be considered an activist. That I could stand up publicly, loudly, for something I believed in.

It seemed to make sense. Especially since S had decided to attend the book launch and would be my "face in the crowd." Her support of me over the years has been bedrock.

As I exited the freeway and headed toward the hotel I had chosen online for its proximity to Powell's Books, I just barely missed the light.  My bladder was bursting and I hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand in frustration just as my iPod shuffled to the next song.  (I'm guessing Carrie is a step or two ahead of everyone else and she probably knows that the song that came on was "Hammer and a Nail."  Yup. No lie. You can't make this shit up.)

The reading was tremendous.  I wasn't officially on the program since I committed so late, but everyone was so welcoming and eager to find a way to fit me in. Especially when we noticed that the local Planned Parenthood buttons they were handing out in honor of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade read "I am not in your shoes."  The title of my essay in the book? "A Mile in Their Shoes." They found a spot for me.

I read first.

I spent a few frantic moments marking sections to read before heading onstage and I was surprised to note that I wasn't really nervous.  Well, except for the 80-something lady who came in and refused to purchase a copy of the book because she didn't want to support Planned Parenthood.

"They kill babies," she announced to the editor and me as we stood there stunned.  The young woman who brought her refused eye contact and did her best to look bored as she shrugged, "She's pro-life."

This odd couple then made their way over to the far side of the room and the elderly woman stated her intention to "just sit and listen."

Before I began reading, I stole a quick look in their direction to see if she had her arm cocked back to chuck something at my head.  A few times throughout my reading I did whatever the mental equivalent of wincing is as I wondered when she would start to heckle me.  I sincerely hoped she had fallen asleep in the dark back room of the bar.  She didn't. And she didn't make a peep the entire evening.  I still wonder why she came.

The other writers were terrific.  The range of topics and stories presented by the five of us who read last night was vast. There was Camille Hayes who talked about policy and the Violence Against Women Act that was NOT reauthorized by the Republican controlled House of Representatives this year. There was Lydia Yuknavitch who stood up and bared her soul and left us all breathless. Kevin Sampsell wrote about the rape of a friend, and Sarah Mirk recounted her undercover efforts in a local Crisis Pregnancy Center.  I signed a few books (! - thrill of a lifetime), felt lifted up above the stars when a few people commented positively about my reading (and, thus, my writing), and fairly floated back to the hotel where I am certain I fell asleep with a smile on my face.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Some Weeks are a Wild Ride

I like to say that I love roller coasters.  There is some truth to that statement, but it isn't that simple in all reality.  I love the idea of roller coasters. I love that they exist and I love remembering the times I have ridden roller coasters.  But I don't like to look at them too closely. Especially the wooden roller coasters that go two stories high. I don't want to see any peeling paint or splintering wood and I don't particularly want to examine the construction.  Maybe that's why Space Mountain is my all-time favorite roller coaster, because I can ride it entirely in the dark.  I can't anticipate whether the next thing coming is a dip or a turn or an enormous drop, I can just sit back in the saturated darkness and ride.  I can't see if there is a loose bolt or an inexperienced-looking ride operator.

Last  Monday I woke up and found myself standing in line. It was my turn next, to sit down, strap in, and take off and, true to form, I was both excited and a little bit nauseous, wondering what I had been thinking when I got in line for this upcoming week.  Fraught with anxiety and excitement and the entire spectrum of emotions in between, for several days I was unable to do much more than watch the passing scenery and confront each emotion and situation as it hurtled toward me.  In the end, I know I will walk away with shaky knees and a sense of accomplishment and a smile a mile wide.

I am glad that I wasn't given any opportunity to stop the ride and step off because I am not sure I would have opted to get back on after a brief time-out. The expectation that I will simply see this all through to the end is a rather comforting one. Somehow, it doesn't require anything of me other than my presence and that is enough.

The highlights have come in a big way. Katy Hutchison came to speak to the students and staff at Eve and Lola's school on Thursday, delivering a presentation that left us all breathless after an hour. She talked about synergy (positive and negative) and personal responsibility, group dynamics and tragedy, forgiveness and restorative justice and provided a jumping off point for our community to begin having conversations about the way we interact with each other when things get hard.  She is an incredibly generous, dynamic, authentic person for whom I am incredibly grateful.

Lola is embarking on a courageous adventure this weekend with many of her schoolmates that will be a test of her resilience in many ways.  It helps that Eve will be along for the trip, and I am excited to hear about the weekend when I pick them up on Monday. That said, in the quiet moments, I wonder if she is homesick or sad and I fervently hope that she is too busy to be either. The neighborhood has been shrouded in fog for going on three solid days now and the oppressive grey mist has set the trees to dripping. I can't help but feel that when I pick the girls up on Monday it will magically lift.

I am headed to Portland on Tuesday for the book launch of "Get Out of My Crotch," the book for which I wrote a chapter about reproductive rights.  I am thrilled to be an actual published writer and so looking forward to meeting some of the other people who share this passion with me.  I also get an entire night in a hotel to myself in one of my favorite cities on the planet, which is pretty cool. But I'm nervous about meeting the other writers, all of whom are more accomplished than I, and I'm sad about leaving the girls less than 24 hours after their return home.

CB, the injured dog, is feeling a lot better on his cocktail of anti-inflammatories, pain killers and antibiotics and is driving me insane with his pleading for walks every couple of hours.  Unfortunately, the specialist who read his x-rays believes that a spot on his bone is either cancer or a deep bone infection - neither of which are an easy fix.  Sorting out the options and trying to understand the ramifications has been difficult even as I am nudged by his wet nose and reminded that, for now, he is here and he wants attention.

Somehow I knew, when I stood facing this week that it would be a wild ride. Even Monday I saw this roller coaster looming as I stood in line to get on it feeling slightly ill and wondering why I chose all of this.  Despite that, I also knew somewhere in the recesses of my brain that it would be worth it to get on and strap in. I will do my best to experience and cherish every moment, but I would be lying if I didn't say I was looking forward to getting home next Wednesday, stepping off for a bit, and taking a nice quiet seat on a bench in this vast amusement park.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lance Armstrong and the Pitfalls of a Personal Brand

There is so much hoopla around Lance Armstrong today. I will be the first to admit I am curious to see Oprah Winfrey's interview with him and will probably record it to watch snippets when Bubba isn't home. That said, the thing that has stood out the most for me this week in the media are headlines like: "Lance Armstrong's Brand May Be Damaged Forever."

I know that with the ubiquitous presence of social media in our everyday lives, there is a lot of buzz about one's 'personal brand.' Heck, I've even heard Bubba talk about it to the girls, cautioning them that whatever they put out there in cyberspace, via a Facebook page (which neither has) or a text message or a blog (again, blissfully irrelevant here) is not likely to go away. That it could affect their scholarship opportunities or college or job applications. That they ought to consider that they are "building a personal brand" and act accordingly.  I've even bought into it to some extent, both for the girls and for myself, certain to only write about or talk about or 'like' things after I take a good, long look at how they might be received publicly.  And I'm not a celebrity or a business owner.

But I am curious as to why it seems important that Lance's "brand" is damaged.  I know he built up a public persona as an athlete and a cancer survivor, as someone who triumphed repeatedly against all odds, and I see how he has traded on that over the years for fame and fortune.  I understand how his teammates could feel cheated or betrayed by him if he did, indeed, take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs in order to win bike races year after year.  I sympathize even more with those who are angry that he lied about it multiple times as he tried to run from the reality that his drug use may have affected many, many people over a long period of time.  I can see how it would be difficult to trust anything the man says for a good long time.

But when we talk about someone's "brand" isn't there a tacit understanding there that what we are talking about isn't the whole person? Don't we really get that what we mean by "brand" is the public image this person or corporation chooses to put out into the world? That this is only the part of them that they wish us to see?  And so how many times do we have to be surprised when it turns out that this brand is false?  We have set up a system that values winning and financial compensation more than honesty and fallibility. We have created a place where, in order to do business and succeed financially, an individual or organization must appear to be strong, solid, and perfect. Yes, he was diagnosed with cancer, but because it was seemingly something outside of his control and he didn't die from it, Lance's brand became stronger as a result.  When celebrities are revealed to us as actual human beings (Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Mel Gibson...), we are indignant and shocked.  They are absolutely no different than any of the rest of us. Some are bigoted, others are immature, still more fall prey to the lure of money or fame. And yet, we continue to encourage them to project this illusion out into the universe that they are something more so that we can look to them for inspiration.  The sad truth is that a "personal brand" is rarely a true representation of a person or company, it is merely a marketing device that is designed to make us feel better about buying what is being sold.

I am not a huge cycling fan so I don't have any particular issue with whether or not Lance used performance enhancing drugs other than a general sense of the fact that it isn't fair to all of the other athletes who compete on their own physical merits.  To me, this is part of a larger discussion about our current cultural obsession with creating a personal brand that is not indicative of who we truly are or what we believe in.  There are those out there whose intentions may be to craft an authentic brand for themselves or their company, but the waters quickly get murky as soon as you begin trying to sell something based on that brand.  We have all met new people and attempted to "put our best foot forward" in order to make a good impression. We have all told little white lies or omitted certain things in particular settings so that we can fit in.  Ultimately, though, we can't build meaningful relationships unless we are truly honest about our humanity and vulnerability. We cannot truly have other people in our corner unless they know us and accept us for who we are. I am not suggesting that every public person try to befriend their fans in this intimate way, but I do find it surprising that we as a society continue to act surprised when we discover that each of these individuals is just as human as we are and that the "brand" we bought into wasn't an accurate representation of the whole person.  It is impossible to build a brand for public consumption that isn't idealistic and incomplete and until we accept that, we won't be able to stop expecting perfection from the people behind the brand and feeling disappointed when we find flaws.

I don't know if Lance can rebuild his brand, but I do hope that he is surrounded by a group of people who know him for who he truly is and can help him through what is likely to be one of the most difficult times of his life.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Power of Pets

It is a freezing cold, cloudy day here in the 'hood and I am a bit bereft because the house is too quiet.  The fireplace is on, the cat is napping on the back of the couch, the kids are at school and Bubba left before dawn's crack for parts South and then East.  I have plenty of work to be doing, but CB, my faithful friend and (as Eloise says in those beloved children's books) "mostly companion" is at the vet.

Saturday afternoon the girls and I took him out to throw the tennis ball for him and on the first throw, as it skittered across the solid, frozen ground whose frost has not thawed for nearly a week, CB took off running.  Despite the fact that he is nine years old with a slowly graying chin and moustache, he tucked his head and flew like a greyhound chasing a rabbit.  The third or fourth time his feet struck the ground, I saw him falter and heard a whine.  He slowed only a bit, snatched the ball up and returned limping and whimpering, a confused look on his face even as his tail swung wildly back and forth.  He refused to put any weight on the foot and my first thought was that he had stepped on something sharp that had imbedded itself in his pad.  I felt around as long as he allowed me to before pulling his trembling little paw away from me and determined there was no blood or obvious injury.  The girls and I headed home, watching the poor guy toddle along on three feet.

By Sunday he was no better and I was having to make the hard judgment of whether or not to take him to an emergency vet despite the lack of blood or obvious swelling.  CB was clearly in pain, but he is too social for his own good and couldn't manage to stay as still as he probably ought to have.  When Bubba and I trudged up two flights of stairs to tell the girls goodnight, he followed, and then followed us back down to watch another episode of Homeland.  He lie in his bed whimpering from time to time until we were ready to go upstairs and then he hopped up with us and settled in for the night.

This morning the girls helped me lift him into the car and as soon as I dropped them at school, I headed to the veterinarian office to sit in the parking lot until 9am.  The tech showed up early and helped me get him inside, but there is no doctor in today until 1, so the best she could do was take some x-rays and keep him until then.

All morning I did things halfway.  Started cleaning out the pantry and left things scattered across the kitchen counter, unsure of what to do with them.  I sorted through bills and permission slips by the phone and made a bigger mess on the kitchen table with more piles of things that can't be put away but can't be taken care of today.  I walked to my appointment with the chiropractor, the air so cold my cheeks ached and stung, thinking about how much it was going to suck to come home to a house without my baby boy smiling and wagging his tail as I unlocked the door not quite fast enough for his taste.

CB has been part of the family for eight years.  He has barked fiercely when strangers come to the door, encouraged me to go outside and get some fresh air every day even when it's the last thing I think I want to do.  He has befriended many a child and broken the ice for us during awkward moments when we meet someone new and don't know what to say.  He has sat at my feet for countless hours as I prattle away on my computer and he always, always greets us at the door with a toy or someone's shoe in his mouth - loathe to say hello without something tangible to offer.

He is middle-aged and, despite the fact that I know he will likely recover from this quickly, it has given me pause to say the least.  I am very attached to this lovely boy.  To see him in physical pain yesterday nearly undid me several times over just as it would if Eve or Lola or Bubba were hurting.  I have spent nearly every single day for the last eight years being followed around by CB and I have taken for granted that he will always be there.  Often, I am annoyed that he is always there, especially when I trip over him as I am cooking dinner or when he noses his way in to the bathroom as I sit on the toilet.

When the tech took him back this morning she asked me to complete some paperwork at the front desk.  When she returned, she took the papers and told me they'd call sometime this afternoon to update me on what they discovered.  It hit me that I hadn't rubbed his ears and said goodbye to him.  I nearly asked if I could go to the back and see him before I left but I felt silly.  It isn't as though he's terminally ill and I won't see him again. He will just be there for a few hours without me.  As I climbed into the front seat of the car and caught sight of his brontosaurus-sized bone in the back, my throat welled up and my eyes were full of tears.

"Why is this so hard?" I wondered. He will be fine.  I'll see him this afternoon or tonight.
"Why is this so hard?"

I don't rightly know, except that he is my shadow. My mostly companion.  My buddy.  There is something so powerful about this connection and, after today, I hope that I never again take it for granted.

Friday, January 11, 2013

More Meditations on Restorative Justice

This week has been, for the most part, a glorious one.  The kids happily went back to school after more than two weeks away, leaving me the house and the dog and my writing to focus on which, frankly, is more than enough.  The weather has been cold and crisp and the sunrises and sunsets a riot of color that stop me in my tracks as I walk the dog around the neighborhood and listen to his feet crunch on the stiff grass.  I am on Day 7 of green smoothies - not something I generally go in for - and am sleeping better and full of energy from the moment my eyes open in the morning.  I am due to have work published in two anthologies this month and am working on a chapter for a third that will hopefully come out later this year.
*sketch above from msn news coverage of the Holmes trial

But life is yin and yang. Balance. Give and take. And it is with a heavy heart that I go through my day listening to the radio programs that feature speakers debating gun policy in the United States and highlight the events of the trial that is beginning for James Holmes, the man who shot moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado last year.  I have been moved, more than once, to shut the damn thing off simply to avoid shrieking in frustration.  I do believe we are going about this all wrong.  I honestly do.  As the NPR commentator detailed the preliminary hearing in Colorado on Tuesday, he wondered aloud whether Holmes will plead insanity and, if so, how that will impact the victims.  He asked whether the defense attorneys were 'laying the groundwork' for evidence that Holmes was not in his right mind when he planned and executed his attack on the movie theater.

I was struck dumb.

I am not certain that it matters what name we give to the affliction that Holmes has.  I am fairly certain that most everyone would agree that any individual who could injure another human being purposely is not acting in their highest capacity.  Imagine that a decision is made that Holmes was not sane at the time of his attack.  What then? Presumably he would be sent to a facility that would treat him for his mental illness in lieu of or until he can serve a jail sentence. Many people would say that he is being let off the hook if this happens.  That he is not paying properly for his crimes.  There are those out there whose notion of justice includes Holmes dying at the hands of the state.

Because what happened to those innocent moviegoers should not happen to anyone.
It shouldn't.

But does that mean it should happen to the perpetrator?  I know he may not be 'innocent' by definition, but what if some horrific past crime against him comes to light? What if he was tortured by his parents or bullied and tormented by classmates or co-workers? It doesn't justify his actions, by any means, but how far are we willing to go back to see whether we can find a true innocent?  And does perpetuating the cycle of harm really solve anything? Does it really end up in "Justice?"

We have a culture of good vs. evil. We have built this notion that we can root out bad spots like bruises on bananas, cut them away, and leave only the good behind.  It is that idea that gave us turberculosis sanatoriums, leper colonies and prisons.  But until we discovered the causes of TB and leprosy, we were destined to fill up those colonies over and over again because we had no understanding of how to prevent either the disease itself or its transmission.  It is the same with prison.

Do we truly understand that each of us has the potential to harm others? We have spent decades studying "criminal masterminds" to determine their motives and have succeeded only in rooting out information that sets these individuals apart even more from the rest of society.  We look for the reasons why "that couldn't happen to me/my kid/my community" in an effort to make ourselves feel safer and look no further.

What if we embarked on a comprehensive system of restorative justice? What if instead of a trial that pits one side against the other everyone involved came together as a cohesive group concerned with coming to a deeper understanding of what happened and its impact on the entire community?  What would happen if, instead of vilifying and segregating certain individuals, we took the time to explore their place in the community and their effects on it?  What if, instead of directing hatred and anger (both of which are perfectly understandable and justifiable emotions) at James Holmes, we used compassion and engaged in a sincere effort to help him?

Restorative justice moves us away from the  notion of revenge or punishment and towards true healing.
But it requires something of us, too. It requires an admission that the entire community is affected when one person harms other members of the community.  It requires tacit acceptance that the perpetrator, too, is harmed - often both prior to and during the commission of the act of violence.  There has to be a willingness to see the perpetrator as a human being instead of a demon or a 'bad seed.' And there has to be a desire for healing, working through complex issues as a group of invested individuals as opposed to a swift sweeping away or walling off.

I know. Pollyanna. And, no, I didn't lose anyone in the Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech mass shootings - or any other mass shooting for that matter.  And I sympathize with those who are blinded by rage and pain at the loss of a loved one or the fear that was instilled in them as they prepare to go to the movie theater or lay in a hospital bed recovering from gunshot wounds.  I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I would most definitely want to set myself upon James Holmes or the parents of the Newtown shooter and scratch their eyes out, tear their hair, scream in their face until I was spent.

And then, what?  Live in a community torn apart and ruled by fear that we may not have locked up all of the bad guys yet?  Live in a place that encourages me to protect myself and my stuff at all costs, even if it means taking another human life?  Live knowing that this individual may someday come to an understanding of the implications of their actions, but more likely has choked off their own emotions and replaced them with anger or shame?  Because here's the thing: when you cut that brown smear out of your banana, the banana won't heal.  No big deal, given that it's about to be consumed, but in the real world of human relationships, we need healing. And, unlike a brown spot on a piece of fruit, I don't believe that it is at all ethical to simply discard a human life like so much trash.

It wasn't until I saw my molester as a human being that I began to heal my own profound wounds.  I spent years in therapy, took lots of different anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, started yoga, and came to a better place, but the REAL freedom from pain came when I forgave him.  Not in person (I don't honestly even know if he is alive today), but in my heart.  That doesn't mean that I don't still feel the impact of his behavior in my life and it doesn't mean I would have the courage to meet him face-to-face if I had the opportunity, although I hope I would.  It means that I acknowledge that he made a big mistake and, as a human being, he was entitled to do that. It doesn't mean that he is absolved of any wrongdoing, especially since I suspect he molested lots of other children as well, but it means that I don't feel as though I can pass judgment on him and his life. I certainly don't believe he deserves to be killed for his actions, although I did for many, many years.  What I find more compelling is the hope that if any of his victims were ever tempted to perpetuate the cycle of violence he created in their lives, that they are able to stop and be mindful of how it changed them.  That they could understand the impact of destructive, angry, behavior on their victims and the community-at-large and ask for help.  And I hope that they could find it. That instead of a society that shrinks back from hearing stories of abuse and trauma and stigmatizing or alienating someone who is struggling with the desire to harm others, we can somehow begin to become a society that embraces all of its people and takes responsibility for them in one way or another.  That we can come together with a goal of helping everyone be mentally and emotionally healthy and truly acknowlege that their actions have ripples in the community.

Pilot programs that work with restorative justice report significant decreases in the rate of re-offenses. It makes sense. Often, violence is the result of impulsive behaviors coupled with possession of something deadly (getting angry while in a car or happening to have a gun in your pocket when someone pisses you off).  If we can educate first-time offenders about what happens to victims of violent crime, make them sit down with the person or family they harmed, with the honest intent of helping them to understand the true implications of their actions, it makes a difference. The other thing that makes a difference is having the honest intent to help the offender.  I know that runs counter to much of the emotion that makes us want them to "pay" for their crimes, and when it makes sense, I think that paying monetary restitution is an important piece of the puzzle. To simply lock someone up without offering them education or therapy or truly trying to get to the root of their behavior constitutes placing a higher value on one human life over another and that undermines community. It breaks down trust and collaboration.

We have all made mistakes. Some of us have made enormous mistakes that hurt others immeasurably.   The notion of restorative justice allows for the fact that we are all human and uses our humanity as a tool to bring true healing to a community. It involves working through incredibly difficult emotions and, often, cultural or communication barriers but it ultimately sends the message that we are committed to acknowledging challenges and differences and working through them instead of denying them and categorizing them in an effort to make ourselves feel a false sense of superiority and security.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Green Smoothies and Growing Up

Despite the New Year celebrations (or lack thereof - I never make it to midnight anymore), I never really feel as though the year has begun until school starts again. Bubba went back to work on January 2, but the girls didn't start back until yesterday, so we had a few aimless days of laziness interrupted by spurts of organizing and not much else.

I also signed up for a 30-day green smoothie challenge with a group of friends that started on January 5 which added to my confusion about when this "new year" was really supposed to get going.  I don't really know what the 'challenge' portion of the program is about since the goal is simply to drink one green smoothie every day for 30 days and see if you feel different.  There are no dietary restrictions (although they highly recommend that you eat as few processed, high-fat, high-salt foods as possible) and send you a new recipe every day.  So far I'm not hating it, despite the fact that there are things like kale and spinach in my daily drinks.  I love most all vegetables, but I like some things to remain distinct in my life.  Drinks should be liquid, food should be chewed.  It's a little odd to get chunks of raw vegetable in your mouth when you drink something, so I've learned to peel the toughest strings from the celery rib and discard them before blending and to buy pre-pulverized ginger so I don't get the fibrous strings stuck in my teeth when I drink.  Other than that, the drinks are tasty and filling (although those people who swear drinking one keeps them full all day? I don't know who those people are. I'm still hungry for lunch at lunchtime).

The girls are happy to be back at school with all of their friends and Bubba begins his grueling travel schedule next week. As for me, I am enjoying the peace and quiet around the house and appreciating my newfound antipathy towards anything that resembles a New Year's Resolution.  For some reason, I am completely sanguine about the state of my life at this point, knowing that at some point I will feel compelled to change or improve something about myself, but for now I am happy to just take it day by day and plug along doing the things that feel good to me for the most part. There are, of course, things that I do which don't fit into that category (like walking the dog for the fourth time in one day in the pouring rain or cleaning the litterbox or scheduling a dental cleaning), but generally by the time I am either immersed in doing those things or have successfully accomplished them, I am at least pleased that I am able to cross them off my list.

I have lined up three great book reviews in the near future that I am excited about and, while I often feel a tad bit guilty about curling up on the couch with a book in the middle of the day, it is all I can do to stop soliciting more reviews. I know that reading makes me a better writer, or at least it makes me want to be a better writer, and I often end up with pages of scribbles of inspiration or exclamation at a particularly beautiful phrase I just read.

It's a pretty damn good life.  Hope your year has kicked off in a positive way!

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Dishing on Books

Michelle tagged me in a meme about reading and I just couldn't resist. I decided, though, that since my girls love to read as much or more than I do, I would see if they were interested in playing along, too.  They were.  Here are our answers to the questions Michelle crafted:


1) What is the quality in a book that makes you want to dive in and keep turning the page? Name a book that demonstrates this quality.
Eve – strong characters. “Wither” by Lauren DeStefano
Lola – lots of action. “The Wishlist” by Eion Colfer
Kari - Strong, sincere emotion and/or a storyline that explores the human condition. "Me Who Dove Into the Heart of the World" by Sabina Berman or anything by Mary Karr.

2) What’s the first book you read that made you cry? Why did it make you cry?
Eve – “Speak” (by Laurie Halse Anderson) made me cry because it seemed like something that would actually happen and it was so sad. 
Lola – “Where the Red Fern Grows.” Because my mom was reading it to me and she was crying.
Kari – “Charlotte’s Web” for certain. Absolutely, because it was so easy to identify with the animals when I read books as a child. As I got older it was more of a challenge, although I didn’t empathize with them any less. I tend to cry very easily when I read to this day because I get wrapped up in the story. I have cried at so many books since then – “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight,” (or most any sad memoir, for that matter)…

3) How has social media impacted your reading/writing time?
Eve – I get distracted by social media and don’t read as much as I used to.
Lola – it doesn’t impact my reading time. (note: Lola is 10, so she doesn’t have a Facebook page and only checks her email once every few weeks. I hope this stays true for a while).
Kari – Social media doesn’t impact my reading time much except that I read blogs a lot, so maybe it has increased it overall.  I am in the lucky position of being a book reviewer for Bookpleasures.com, so I feel obligated to read a lot ;-).  I do, however, get derailed by social media when it comes to writing time and I often find myself wrestling with whether or not to stop reading blogs so I can write.  It is difficult because I feel like reading more makes me a better writer, and when I don’t follow the usual blogs, I worry that I’m missing important information or the writer is wondering where I’ve gotten to. 

4) Have you ever loved a book so much you kissed it? (Not made out with it, but offered it a sweet kiss on it’s cover, like giving a friend a kiss on the cheek)? Yeah…me neither.
Eve – No. But if I did, it would be “The Hunger Games.”
Lola – Yes. “Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli
Kari – I don’t think so, but if I had, it would have been in my emotional-high teenage years and it probably would have been “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” or “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

5) Describe the ultimate reading conditions for you. Where? What? When? How? Go big.
Eve – Reading a book of fiction with a cup of hot chocolate in a local cafĂ© by myself.
Lola – Reading  a paperback in front of the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate and a fuzzy blanket.
Kari – Lying on a chaise lounge in the sunshine near a pool with a huge cup of fizzy water by my side and a paperback in my hand.  I should also have a notebook and pen handy so that if inspiration strikes I can jot something down quickly.  It would also be nice to have someone bring me fruit to nibble on every once in a while and adjust my umbrella so the shade covers my book.  I should be reading something painfully true and funny like nonfiction by Anne Lamott and nobody ought to look at me sideways when I laugh out loud.  Also, I should have a companion who is mostly quiet but indulges me when I need to read passages I find particularly brilliant out loud to them. 

6) True or false: (Tongue firmly in cheek)
If you can’t be bothered to read to them, you should not have children.
Eve – True.
Lola – True.
Kari – Mostly true, although, in my day I have heard some parents read out loud to their children who really ought not to. They don’t do different voices or they read in a monotone or so quickly that the child can’t follow the story and I just don’t know how that can be inspiring. I think it is important to introduce your children to books and sometimes let them take the lead on how to read them (ie. Should we look at the illustrations on this one page for twenty minutes before we are satisfied? Should we read the story backwards and see what happens?).

7) Have you or have you not read Daughter of the Drunk at the bar?
Kari – I didn’t put this question to either of my girls because I know they haven’t, but I have and I loved it and I wrote a review of it and I passed the book along to a friend. 

And now I get to make up my own questions and tag people. I'm tagging ElizabethDebAlicia, and Lyz

Here is your mission, ladies, should you choose to accept it.

1.  Are there any books you wish you had been able to read, either because they are "classics" or because someone recommended them, but you just couldn't slog through them?
2. What kinds of books (or specific books) make you want to write more? Which ones make you feel so inadequate that you feel like you can't ever write again?
3.  Do you and your partner read the same kinds of books? What is different about the way you read? Genre? Enjoyment? Ebook versus 'real' book? Purpose?
4.   What is your favorite guilty pleasure, book-wise? Did you used to devour Harlequin Romance books? Do you enjoy graphic novels that your kids leave lying around?
5.  What is your favorite picture book of all time? What is the one that you hope to never have to read again? EVER!
6.  If you could inhabit the body, mind and soul of any writer for one week, whom would you choose? No limits.
7.  If "O Magazine" were to headline your memoir in one of its issues, what would the headline read?  

Readers, if you weren't tagged, it's not because I don't care about your answers to the questions, it's just that you don't have a blog to publish them in.  Please, use the comments field to dish on your favorite books.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Choosing My Own Memories

I had the opportunity to spend a day watching my nieces over the holiday break. Eve, Lola and I arrived ready to entertain two incredibly active four-year-olds for a few hours while their parents headed to the science center for the King Tut exhibit.  I was excited to share my homemade play-dough recipe with them, adding essential oils and food coloring to make it even better.  Since we don't live near these lovely little fairies, I don't often get to exercise my toddler-parenting chops and Eve and Lola have far outgrown needing me to design their entertainment.

We had a ball, breaking out all sorts of non-traditional tools like frosting tips and turkey timers and the girls loved playing with grapefruit and cinnamon-scented dough.  They were little angels, sharing all of the colors and giggling at each others' creations, and Eve and Lola were the sweetest big cousins, letting them experiment and stepping in to help whenever asked.

We took a break for cornbread with honey and then decided to go for a walk since the sun was shining for a short while.  Lola designed a scavenger hunt list of things we needed to look for on our stroll and when the little ones got chilly we sneaked into a corner cafe for a cup of hot cocoa to warm up.  Nobody got cranky or cried. Nobody spilled their cocoa or whined for more.  It was idyllic.

When we got back to the house, one of the girls wanted to resume playing with the dough and the other one dragged Eve off to play hide and seek.  I merely supervised until the girls wanted me to chase them.  Each toddler had a "big girl" to protect her so that when I got close to catching one of them, they were swooped to safety by either Eve or Lola.  We ran around the house for fifteen minutes or so and then Lola got distracted by the doorbell.  Without her protector, one of the girls got truly frightened as I jogged after her and she dashed under the table, crying.  I felt horrible, remembering how fully immersed children can get in imaginary games and assured her I wouldn't "get" her.  Fortunately, Lola returned to save her from the monster and all was well within minutes.

We played a board game together and took some silly photos, but I couldn't shake the picture in my mind of the stark fear on my poor niece's face.  I wondered idly whether she would remember it vividly when she looked back on our day together.

There was no mention of the incident over the next few days (or upon her parents' return), and I found myself hoping she erased it from her memory altogether.  Reflecting on my own childhood memories, I wonder how many frightening things I filed away that may have been so inconsequential.  I am reminded of the wholly subjective nature of memory often - all it takes is a conversation with my siblings to see that we each remember certain events in a radically different way.  My memories of that day will be fond because I was afforded an opportunity to interact with my nieces in a way I don't often get to and we did things together that were vastly different from the kinds of things they normally do.  I also got to see Eve and Lola in a very different light than I normally do; as big-girl role models and caring cousins.  But what if the fear my niece felt was powerful enough to imprint a stronger memory in her brain than the pleasure of the scavenger hunt and the play-dough?  What if the cafe and the games don't measure up to the raw emotion she felt as I chased her? I can't argue with her memory or the way she felt any more than someone from my past could change what I believe happened on any particular day in my life.  It is said that memories are influenced by emotion and I can attest to the fact that I am more prone to recall incidents I have imbued with negative emotions than those that simply left me feeling content or peaceful.  Perhaps the trick is to place some sort of emphasis or exclamation point on the pleasant memories and, over time, they will come to weigh as much as the unhappy ones.

I also think it is helpful to exercise our attention to the positive in our lives.  I know that when I started my daily gratitude practice, over time I was more likely to notice things in my daily life that I was grateful for.  From the beginning of time, fear was a tool we used to keep us alive, but now that I no longer have to worry about being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger while I'm out for a walk, I can choose to notice the sunshine on my face and the pattern the ice crystals make in the puddle on the sidewalk and reflect on how at ease I feel.  I can revel in the taking of a clear, deep breath after a week of coughing and sniffling or savor the way my tea tastes when it has steeped to just the right strength.

I don't want to manipulate my nieces' impressions of our day together, nor am I concerned that either of them was affected by the momentary fear during our game.  I am simply grateful that I was given the chance to see them (and my daughters) through a different lens for a few hours and to have gotten the reminder that I can choose which memories to accent in my own mind.
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