the map

Dear Detta,

Hey, it’s me. I mean, it’s you. I mean…never mind. You get it. Can we talk for a minute about a few things? And before you begin with, “writing a letter to yourself is so overdone” I want to remind you about what you tell your students. There’s no such thing as a copycat, it’s just called parallel inspiration. And besides, even if it’s been done before a thousand times, it’s never been done by you. You can put that stamp of “unique” on this so you feel better about it. But, for the record, that stamp doesn’t really matter.

I’ve noticed that you are feeling lost. You’re running on the hamster wheel, managing the menagerie, weathering the storm. Pick your metaphor. And you’re afraid that while you are in this “season” as you like to call it, that you will lose yourself permanently. Like a balloon drifting off into the sky. But I need you to remember that you will never lose yourself. You know the way back. You just have to remember the map and follow it.

First. Can you talk a little nicer to me? You say all day long that friends speak nicely to each other. But have you heard yourself lately? So much “I can’t…” and “I’m a failure…” and “This will never work.” Yes, you can. No, you aren’t. And yes, it will. You have tons of cheerleaders that surround you. But if we can’t get it together in our own cheering section, then it’s going to be a lot harder to get there. You will still get there. Let’s just make it a little friendlier. Remember when you used to say, “You’re doing good, girl!” Try that again. It felt nice.

Second. Let’s discuss self-care. But before we can even discuss that, can we start with basic needs? Go to the bathroom when you need to. Drink water. Eat more food. This is being Human 101. Even animals have that figured out. (Ok…that was judgy, let’s try to be nicer). And as for self-care, remember it’s not a Millennial thing and it’s not selfish. It’s called choosing joy and presence. It doesn’t mean alone time, but it could. It doesn’t have to be a spa day, but that sounds like a great idea. What makes you laugh? Board games. Watching TV with Mike. Playing with the kids. Do that. What helps you relax? Massages. Writing. Yoga. Of course there’s no time for this. So figure out what you can let go of (see number four) and replace it. I know you still don’t fully believe that it will pay off in the end because you don’t know when “in the end” will be. You still see taking care of yourself as shooting yourself in the foot. But the reason you keep coming back to it is because you know, deep down, it’s true. Go back to that old prayer you used to say, “I believe. Please help me with my unbelief.”

Third. Please, just say yes to help. It doesn’t make you less of a mother/teacher or more of a failure. You may not know this, but when people offer help, it’s because they see possibility in you. They wouldn’t do this if you were a lost cause (as you often feel). You are loved. Say yes and do so without hesitation. This morning, when you said yes to help, you were able to step outside your front door and notice the way the light came through the trees. You felt like yourself again for the first time in a month. Saying yes allows you to be rooted and present with the precious time you do have with others.

Fourth. Remember what your wise friend Heidi said earlier this year? You are the cake. Whether it’s your kids or your students or your husband or your family or your friends – they do not need anything more because the cake is enough. Everything else is a bonus and absolutely unnecessary. If you show up, that is enough. Perfection is included in this analogy. Trying to perfect things is the sprinkles and the decorations. You are wasting a lot of time on this, quite literally in your classroom. Redoing charts, rearranging furniture, trying to “fix” the crappy feelings by moving the picture an inch to the right. The cake is enough. You are enough. Show up. 

Fifth. Can I give you a compliment? With this crazy busy “season”, you’ve actually been doing pretty great at not giving a f*ck about people pleasing. Keep it up! I guess when you have too much time on your hands, it’s easy to obsess over a comment someone said two weeks ago. But lately, you’ve had tunnel vision. The hamster wheel will do that to you. So I guess that’s good. Remember how it feels to not over-worry about making others happy. When you get off the wheel, it’ll be helpful to recall how nobody disowned you. 

Ok, that’s enough for now. Thank you for taking a little time for us this morning. Good job at saying yes to help. You’re doing good, girl.

Love, 
Me

P.S. And for goodness sake, please go buy a new bra. What you have been wearing is embarrassing. (This is Judgy Detta talking again…and sometimes a little straight talk is necessary.)

thoughts at 4 a.m.

Nearly every day, in the wintery pitch black morning, I have to explain to my three year old that it is a “daycare day”.

“Why?” she asks.

I start with altruism, “Because I like to help kids learn to read and it’s important to help people even if they aren’t our family.”

“Why?”

I decide to go for economics 101, “Because we need money to have a house and to eat good food and to go to the doctor.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s my job to take care of you and keep you safe and provide for you.”

“Why?”

This is about to turn dark. So you don’t die! is what almost erupts from my lips. Instead I circle back to simple truth, “Because mommy has to work.”

This satisfies her.

“I don’t want to go to daycare,” she mumbles around her thumb that’s since become lodged in her mouth out of boredom or worry.

I don’t want to go to work either. The rigamarole of bags and crying and shoe battles and trying not to look like the biggest shit show in the parking lot leaves me exhausted by eight a.m.

Once I’m there, I feel ok for a minute. I jump into the work. The smiles of the kids and the humor of my coworkers, who have become like family, warm me up a bit. But then, by mid-morning, I am tethered to a teat-sucking machine for a half hour and the doom and gloom set in again. This is my planning time so all the things that I said I’d do are not getting accomplished. And the shame-list of motherhood begins to swirl in my head too.

Is it worth it? No not really. Not on paper anyway. Children are expensive and exhausting and I haven’t eaten dinner while not also serving as a human jungle gym in about two years.

But what about the love? The snuggles? The smell of your baby’s head tucked under your chin? Surely these moments of joy outweigh the difficulty. But that’s like trying to measure both joy and frustration with the same tool, comparing a fever to an earthquake.

I look down at my milk dripping into the bottle and calculate my worth. The machine’s woo-woos starts to mimic words. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.

There are minutes of my day that I channel some of the deepest zen I can find and later, I look back on that memory with feathered awe. I’m impressed with myself. But the truth is, in the middle of it, I have so much self pity and regret that you’d think my heart was made of stone.

I love my children. I wouldn’t trade them for the world, as they say. What I hate is the rat race. The suffocating and constricting parameters we shove ourselves into, where there’s no wiggle room for humanity to stretch. So we crack our skin trying to fit into these lives. We lower the bar even though that comes with the rising tide of shame. On a good day, we aren’t overcome by the waves.

Michelle Obama was right when asked about leaning in. “Sometimes that shit doesn’t work,” she said. People freaked out. Mostly because she swore but also because it threatens our very belief that if you just work hard enough then you can have it all. We were all taught to believe in the little engine that could. But most of the time it feels like you are being expected to chug up two different hills at the same time.

Perhaps instead of “leaning in” we need to lean out. Instead of balling up in fear at the center of the merry go round, perhaps I should be like the kid who hangs onto the railing and surrenders to the centrifugal forces that pull them that way anyway. As Eckhart Tolle says, once you stop battling the “isness” of your life, then you can begin to accept the story that is forming before you.

Can I accept a story in which I’m only kind of good at two vocations? Can I accept Macaroni and Cheese for dinner for a third night this week and that someone thinks I’m a flake at work because I’m always late? Maybe. Little by little, I think I might be capable of letting go of the measuring stick that requires perfection. But that would require people to not judge me… My brain begins to calculate the specifications of the story that I am willing to accept. Acceptance never starts with the word But…

Here we are again, in the pitch black morning. My baby boy has miraculously slept all night and I’m sitting at my desk weighing the cost-benefit of checking on him to make sure he isn’t dead. And my three year old is curled up on my lap, sucking her thumb, and watching me type with one hand.

“Is it a daycare day?” she just asked me.

“Yes, honey,” I told her.

But she doesn’t ask me why. Maybe she is accepting the “isness” of this story. Maybe I should too.

stretch

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I am a working mom.

Most of the time I have made peace with this reality. But tonight it feels like I’m being asked to walk the plank. I’m an anxious, weepy mess. Which causes me to cling to my tiny baby while snapping at my ornery toddler at the same time. As Daniel Tiger would say – I have “mixed up feelings.” (I also have mixed up feelings about only being able to quote Daniel Tiger these days…who am I?)

I know there are many ways to experience humanity on this planet and many many ways to be a mother. And sometimes that means calling on the service of another nurturer to help care for your child. But my heart hurts tonight. It never quite feels right. I just don’t know how to make peace with handing my three month old baby over to a perfect stranger. And if you look at pure numbers, my children will be cared for by someone other than me for 54% of their waking hours. That doesn’t include the date night I may want to go on or the errands I might need to run without children in tow. The mom guilt is so deep right now it feels like I might drown in it.

I can’t say that I’ve been a particularly stellar stay at home mom for the past four months. The first month was filled with so many hormonal roller coasters and toddler tantrums that I think I may have blocked it from my memory. Months two and three had some rhythms – with trips to our library story time, playdates, and walks to the park. But by month four I found myself ancy to do adult things and never watch another episode of Doc McStuffins again. If I were able and chose to stay home with my kids I’d definitely need an attitude adjustment.

But that is not my story. My story is one of a woman who is the insurance provider and the steady paycheck for my family. And I also love to teach, a job that seems to bring out the best in me. So it’s not like I hate my lot in life. I’ve heard the juggling metaphor. And the many hats. And the feminist in me says “lean in”. But I know that, for me, being a working mom means I am going to have to stretch. And when you are stretched, there are no additional resources added to account for the increase in demand. It’s the same pot of time, energy, and positivity that will have to cover all parts of your life. This leads to a general shitty feeling about all parts of your life.

I guess I’m not looking for the perfect anecdote or anyone to attempt to silver-lining my situation. I know my children will be fine. I know it’s good for them to be social. And I know eventually they will have a great immune system (tell that to my daughter who ended up with hand foot and mouth disease TWICE in a year). I just kind of want to say “this sucks” out loud and maybe hear a few “amens” in response.  

Tomorrow I will stretch. I will pour myself into my work because it’s important and world changing. And then I will try to save a little positivity for my sweet children who are sure to test me when we enter the witching hours. Because who I am to them is also world changing. And when the house dips below sanitary levels of clean and my toddler has watched the lemonade stand episode of Henry Hugglemonster for the third time that day, I’ll lower my bar and try to cover myself with as much grace I would a dear friend.

Please send wine. And Oreos.

man in a picture

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Lately, my two and half year old (actually two and eleven-twelfths year old) has been talking about my dad.

“You miss your dad, huh mom?” she says as she softly places her hand on my shoulder at the dinner table.

In fact, she’s been talking about him nonstop…

In the car: “Your dad died, huh mom?”

On the toilet: “Your dad went to the hospital. That’s why he’s not here, huh mom?”

Before bed: “Your dad’s body doesn’t work any more, huh mom?”

In the Story Time room at the library: “Your dad’s in a picture, huh mom?”

And, once last week, while she twirled around in her “pink” dress (which is actually yellow) with the tulle “baller-nina” skirt, she sang with joyful exuberance: “Your dad is dead!”

Each time she brings it up, I wince a little, its randomness and slight insensitivity like being pelted by tiny bits of gravel. I haven’t thought about my dad this much in a long time. It all started when I showed her a picture of my father which I have pinned to a bulletin board in the dining room. He stands there next to a boat, holding up two salmon. His hair in a curly fro and wearing jean overalls. A small child is tucked behind him, perhaps my brother. It must have been the late 70s.

I told my daughter that this was my dad, just like she has a daddy. I imperfectly explained that he’s not alive. That he got really sick and the doctors couldn’t fix him. That his body doesn’t work anymore. Each time I say a little more, attempting to explain death to a two and eleven-twelfths year old. Once I tried to say that he was in heaven but when she asked what that meant, I settled on “he’s only in pictures now.”

I was so young when I lost my father. Many of my memories are acute: the minty smell of the gum he always chewed, the sound of him clearing his throat, the pain I felt when I saw him in the casket for the first time. Then there are the faded ones: the way he crossed his tree trunk legs and an outline of a wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. And some memories are completely lost: the sound of his voice, every word he ever said to me. These days, he’s becoming more and more just a man in a picture, static and enigmatic. I have a hard time articulating why I miss him. But I’m still overwhelmed by emotion on the anniversary of his death, twenty-two years later.

We gave our son the middle name Archer as a nod to my dad. He was a bow hunter, spending his late fall weekends in the Michigan woods, hoping to fill our freezer with enough venison to last the winter. In the summers, my father would set up a target in the backyard to practice. My siblings and I would take turns standing at one end of the clothesline and shooting the child-sized bow and arrow we had. Occasionally my dad coached us but mostly we played with these weapons by ourselves, two missteps away from an After School Special.

We also picked the name Archer because of something I read once in a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

“For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and he bends you with his might that his arrows may go swift and far.”

At the time, I had recently experienced a miscarriage, so I mainly breathed in the passages about grief and pain like air from an oxygen tank. But I tucked away the notion about children as arrows in the back of my mind as reinforcement for why I wanted to have a child.

Tonight as my daughter sat on her bed, actively avoiding bedtime, I said to her (or maybe more to myself), “This is the day that my daddy died.”

And she simply replied, “Mmm hmmm. And he can’t have any tea parties.”

Exactly, little lamb. I laughed a little as my eyes filled with tears. There would be no tea parties or any other memory shared with her Grandpa Daniel.

But then I began to think about the passage from Gibran and a deep comfort began to spread in my ever-anxious belly. Even though my children will never actually meet my father, they will know him through me. I am a “living arrow” that he sent out into the world. When I work hard, they will know him. When I laugh heartily, they will know him. When I offer a hand without hesitation, they will know him. He will be more than just a man in a picture.

thrive

20170507_193704.jpgJust one year ago this week, I was daydreaming about a career change. On a whim, I checked some HR pages of different school districts “just to see” what was out there. I had been commuting over an hour a day, some days even two hours, to and from work. I was working a job that I was good at and loved the family that I had formed amongst my coworkers and bosses, but I resented it too. And my nine month old daughter was growing tired of the long drives. She had taken to screaming her head off for at least half of the drive and then falling asleep in exhaustion, making a 7pm bedtime nearly impossible to swing.

I was stretched so very thin. I was freaking exhausted (my darling baby girl also would not sleep for longer than two hours at a time). I was ready for a change.

I decided to apply to a few positions that were nearby my house. When I noticed the application closing date was the very next day, I frantically put my resume together and requested letters of recommendation from people who wouldn’t say anything if it didn’t work out. And then I hit send, like throwing a paper airplane off a cliff.

Within a few days of applying, I had three interview requests. Shit was getting real.

For one of the interviews, I had to write an essay about my teaching philosophy and how it meshed with one of the programs that the school had going on. As I opened a word document, with the blinking cursor staring at me, I felt stuck. The past few years I had gotten a bit jaded by politics. There was drama and pride and all kinds of silly things that I wore on my shoulders like two ton bricks. I had a hard time picturing the faces of my students because they were lost in data reports due to the state department and board presentations. I wondered what I could possibly say to make these new people want me to teach with them. I’m not normally at a loss for words, being a writer and all.

Then I saw my African Violet plant sitting on my desk, a teacher appreciation gift from our office staff. It was dry and shriveled and looked to be on its last leg. I remembered something someone had said at one of the countless education conferences that I had attended. African violets are apparently super resilient. They will survive in almost any environment. Yet there are also certain conditions in which they thrive. The speaker then compared this plant to children, suggesting that children are perhaps some of the most resilient creatures on the planet. But are we satisfied with survival? Or are we working to give them the very conditions they need to actually thrive?

So I wrote about it. I remember feeling a bit like a bull shitter. The metaphor seemed more about me than children. I was the shriveled little violet who needed water. The children didn’t need me. I needed them.

Nevertheless, I got the job.

It’s been nearly one school year at Hazeldale Elementary. And I am SO glad I made the change. I have a six minute commute, twelve minutes round trip (in case you needed help with the math). Mila and I are home by five, most days. I see my students at the neighborhood grocery store. And it has been refreshing to rediscover the “me” who works with children. Not the “me” who got bogged down in bureaucracy and my insecurities as a leader and my tendency towards neurosis and worry.

It hasn’t been all roses and sunshine. It’s been hard work and letting go. It’s been so much self-reflection I could drown in it. Here I go again, trying to control this or prove I’m smart or make so-and-so like me. And lately it’s been 31 out of the last 44 days with a God damned cold. But I really, truly am happy to be back in a school and working with those little carrier monkeys.

I took a huge leap of faith last year. I made a decision that was certainly risky (going from a contracted job to probationary status during an election year and in a state whose education budget is as rocky as an old canoe, yeah not that smart). But I had to do it. My conditions weren’t right. I was barely surviving, let alone thriving.

You guys, let’s be real. I’m not exactly the poster child for “thriving vs surviving” these days either. I’m still freaking tired. Maybe that’s just a constant from here on out. Our kid shit on the rug this month, my husband is overworked and sometimes has to sleep on his office floor, and I seem to be addicted to eating cookies by the sleeve-full. I can’t even eat them bite by bite. I instinctively shove the entire thing into my mouth and then chew very quietly for fear that our small child will hear or see it and then need to eat one too. And then it feels like I should eat more, since I technically only had one bite.

The conditions for me to thrive aren’t right yet. I’m still in that deep parabolic trench of life that researchers say is inevitable when you have kids that are under five. But they are closer because I listened to my heart and not my head last spring. And today, while (finally) watering the plants around my house, I noticed something. My African violet is blooming! I thought I had effectively killed off that capacity through my extreme neglect. See…told you they are resilient! And I had this hopeful feeling that I too will be thriving again soon.

fault lines

My husband and I don’t agree on everything politically or socially. On most issues, we are like-minded and we cheer each other on. But on some, we argue about things (or if you ask him, we discuss them) on a regular basis. And you know what? It sucks to disagree. It would feel so much better to have the person you are committing to love and cherish all the days of your life saying, “Yes, honey, I completely agree!” all the time. But we don’t…and that leaves some conversations a little unfinished and uncomfortable.

One thing we can agree on is that something this time around with our new presidential administration is different. And that different is more bad than it is good – which leaves a spectrum of possibility for our future ranging from “just a little fucked” to “royally fucked”. And within that space, I am unsure how to navigate my world. I do not have the political knowledge that I probably should. I have vague recollections of my high school Government class but it’s spotty at best. (It didn’t help that the answers to the questions on the matching section of the test spelled out a word when you finished. They were more like a crossword puzzle than proof of my solid political understanding.)

And so every day I am searching my phone like an addict – scrolling through articles that predict the fall of our great empire and liking posts (but not necessarily sharing posts) that tell me I’m not alone. All to find some solace in a very anxiety-filled and unpredictable time. Most of this happens in a fake little digital social-world that I wake to in the morning and say goodnight to at night. On Facebook, I seem to have created a cushiony community of like-minded friends who make me feel good about my beliefs. It makes me feel like the majority of the world thinks like me! Though I know this is not true because, scrolling on his phone next to me, is my husband with a very different newsfeed and headlines.

Aside from the very obvious issue I have with social-media addiction, (Are therapists starting to see people about this yet? Would I be the first to admit I have a problem?), there is another one I realize I need to address. I really don’t like it when people have different beliefs than me. The other day I hid someone’s posts from my newsfeed because they disparaged Beyonce. So you can imagine what this means for friends who I disagree with politically. When it comes to disagreement, I am very much flight and not an ounce of fight and Facebook has offered a very handy tool to aid me in my avoidance of discomfort.

More and more since January, when I watch politicians talk on the news or hear family members say things that feel offensive, I find myself searching for a “hide” button. How can they believe that? I think, in exasperation. But if I am being honest, I usually add the word still to the end. Because, once upon a time, before Facebook and Twitter and whatever the kids are doing these days, I thought very differently than I do now. I voted differently, I discussed differently, and I fought differently. If the now-me and the then-me ever met, we probably would not be friends.

It’s hard to pinpoint the actual impetus of my changing beliefs. There are the vague generalities of growing up and some distinct memories of the first tinglings of metamorphosis. I guess you could say it began with the start of college, in which I emerged from a very small, sheltered community and joined a very large, secular world. I found myself surrounded by people who thought very differently than me. Change didn’t come immediately. In fact, I rooted into my belief system more deeply than I ever had before. It was a stubborn and passionate time in which I clung to my past and the friends who thought the same as me. I did a lot of arguing and judging then, which led to a lot of crying from guilt and loneliness.

A year and a half later, I spent some time in South Africa on a study abroad. Along with the obvious cultural differences of the South African people that I met, among the other Americans I traveled with, there was not a single like-minded person in the group. Perhaps because I viewed this as an inevitable part of travel or maybe because I was alone on the other side of the world, I opened myself up to the discomfort of befriending people who think differently than me. It was prickly and anxiety-inducing but, mostly because I am very non-confrontational, I spent a lot of time listening to others and taking it all in.

I distinctly remember a moment of the trip, where I was all by myself, walking to the college campus we attended. A noise coming from the hill caught my attention and I looked up to see a man standing on the rooftop of the mosque and another on the roof of the Hindu temple right beside it. They both wore loose, white pants and a long, tunic-like top and their heads were covered in different variations of a white scarf. The two men, in an unrehearsed harmony, were calling prayers out over the hills. And the sound of their calls made my heart lurch.

When I returned home to my like-minded community, it felt like I was standing on fault lines and I feared the inevitable tremors that threatened my worldview. I isolated myself, wrote a lot of things in private while I said a lot of things out loud that didn’t really match my real thoughts. A heavy-footed question lurked in my mind,

What if I am wrong?

Fast forward ten years to a workshop I attended on Culturally Responsive Teaching at an education conference. When discussing how to change people’s belief systems, the presenters shared a theory by Chris Argyris, a professor of business at Harvard University. During his study of human thought and decision making in the 70s and 80s, Argyris developed an idea called the “Ladder of Inference”. And while only nerds might say something like this, that theory on human thought rocked my world.

Basically, it suggests that humans tend to hold on to the belief system that they have very tightly and self-select data to further reinforce that belief system. This is why two people can read the same exact thing and walk away with two totally different conclusions. And because this is, I’m sure, inadequately paraphrased by me, this illustration explains it better:

ladder-of-inference

The presenters suggested that the only way to change a person’s belief, or to change your own beliefs, is to get out of the “reflexive loop” of ignoring data that doesn’t reinforce our worldview. In the context of education, this meant I needed to stop “throwing more data” at people in hopes that they would see it differently. Instead, I needed to create a space for people where they could safely ask themselves, “What if I’m wrong?” or “Why might someone think that?” Personally, I thought about the events that led to my changing beliefs. Through listening to and learning about people who thought differently than me, I was forced to pay attention to data I had been ignoring before.

I am not writing this to suggest that you need to change your beliefs. I keenly recognize that my privilege allows me to say “listen” because I have not been scarred by the system. And I want to be clear that the bigotry and hate that is being embraced right now is horrifying and decidedly wrong, with some people just not deserving of a listening ear. But there are people in our real lives (family, neighbors, friends) who we are isolating ourselves from because it feels uncomfortable right now. I don’t see any solutions coming from dividing ourselves any further. When faced with disagreement, instead of sticking my head in the proverbial sand, I am challenging myself to ask that scary, ugly question, what if I’m wrong and to ask others why do you believe that? It’s in this discomfort, we may actually see more and grow stronger in our beliefs.

I count myself lucky to have a partner in life that I don’t completely agree with all the time. Especially in a time where I am constantly bombarded with conflicting beliefs and actions by our governmental officials and leaders. I feel like this allows me to grow – not only because I have to consider the fact that someone I love and respect isn’t a complete heathen and, gasp, has another opinion. But it also helps us really check ourselves – where are we getting our information and can we recognize the details we are purposely ignoring in order to feel comfortable in our already established conclusions? I hope you have someone like this in your life too, who challenges you to think and question.

I know some people will read this and say, man that girl needs help. Yes, I know I do, thanks. You are much too well-adjusted to need my advice. But if you are having heart palpitations just like me and find yourself asking the universe, “what the actual fuck is happening?” on a daily basis then maybe you’d like to join me in my game plan to survive these trying times:

  1. Check my bias and privilege at the door (try my best anyway…) when I read things. Ask myself “What if I’m wrong?” to allow myself to select more data.
  2. Stop searching the interwebs for the next piece of drama like an addict. This is real life, not the Bachelor. Try to stay level-headed and not get emotionally involved with the actors.
  3. Embrace discomfort. (Go un-hide the Beyonce hater and my Aunt Rhoda.)
  4. Get off social media and get connected to real people, including those who may disagree with me. Then, listen.

P.S. I recognize the irony in sharing a social-media warning via social media. That same irony was not lost on me when a man came to my door with a homemade “No Soliciting” sign and then proceeded to ask for a donation once he affixed it to my house. But, as a writer, I don’t know how else to process this conundrum. I write it out so I can really chew on it, then I share it in case my words might help someone else.


© 2017 D. Willson

my protest

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When I was sixteen, I got my first job as a waitress at the Lansing airport. It was a tiny little “restaurant” that sold sub-par food to people in a hurry. If you worked the morning shift, you usually were paired up with another waiter to divide up the 15 tables that made up the floor. Between seven and nine a.m. we busted butt. Sometimes we were so busy it felt like I might split in two from trying to go a million places at once. Then after the rush, things slowed down and there was time to socialize while you restocked the maple syrup dispensers and the cellophane wrapped muffins in the display case. Sometimes, when it was really slow, we’d set up towers of the little jelly tubs and throw sugar packets at them to pass the time.

All of these memories are trivial details that seem to have faded along with faces and names. That is, except one face and name I will never forget. Charles.

I often worked the morning shift with Charles. He was in his early twenties and was attending the local community college studying music. At the time, I was a pretty serious Christian. Meaning, I went to youth group, loved Jesus, and prided myself on carrying my pocket-sized Bible around with me wherever I went. Charles told me one day that he was a Christian too. We talked about church, God, etc. It felt safe.

Then one day Charles told me that I should come over to his house some time and we could study the Bible. He said we could pray together. Then he said we could pray together in the shower. He said all this while standing very close to me behind the counter. He said it so close I could feel his breath on my neck while I nervously tried to count the quarters from that morning’s till. My heart raced and I laughed. I told him to shut up. But I said it while laughing and quickly changed the subject.

A few days later, Charles and I were on the same shift again. While I was getting some food out of the walk in cooler, Charles came in behind me and tried to tickle my sides. I jumped and told him to stop. But I laughed and ignored it.

The next shift included him saying he liked the way that I bent over to get things out of the fridge. He reminded me he still wanted to have a Bible study. He corned me in the walk-in cooler again, this time I bolted out before he could touch me.

I knew this wasn’t ok behavior so I went to talk to my boss. I explained what he did and asked if he could talk to Charles. I said I wasn’t sure if I could work there any more if Charles was there. My boss explained to me that he couldn’t fire Charles because he was dating Charles’ sister. He promised me that he would never put us on the same shift again. I felt relieved, but not safe. I knew Charles would still be there when our shifts overlapped.

At the time, I chalked this experience up to “dealing with sleezy men”. A normal, adult experience. And then I didn’t think about it much until about ten years later when I went through required sexual harassment trainings at my very first teaching job. All of the feelings of violation came rushing back. I felt infuriated that my complaint fell on deaf ears because my boss didn’t want to make things “awkward” with his girlfriend. I thought things like, “I could have sued his ass! He should have been fired! What’s worse, I was a minor! That asshole should be in jail!!” I felt so un-empowered, so naïve, so stupid.

Fast forward to October 2016. A tape was released of the current president of the United States talking about touching women without consent. “They let you do it,” he said.

His words made my skin crawl. Again, I immediately thought about what happened to me in high school. Technically, I “let” Charles do it too. I didn’t report him beyond the conversation with my boss, I didn’t report my boss. I laughed it off and when my boss had no consequences for him, I accepted it. And there was no one there telling me that this was not ok. So I normalized it.

When the actions and words of the man who is now the president of our country came to light, what bothered me most, or should I say scared me most is that, while alarm bells went off in me that I didn’t even know were there, it didn’t alarm a lot of people that I know. Instead, men had to use their wives, mother, and children to explain why it was wrong. And still others chalked it up to “locker room talk”. They called it vulgarity but they also called it normal. I began to wonder – has the world not changed at all in the nearly twenty years that have passed? And my child, my child with two X chromosomes, has to live in this world.

On November 8, when news of the election results broke, I cried. I cried all night as if I had just heard that a loved one had passed away. But it was more than this. They were akin to the tears I shed when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11. It was a fearful cry, terrorized by the unknown and dark thoughts that hope tried to keep at bay this year. They were also tears of defeat. But not like simply losing a game. Defeat, like when love doesn’t win, even when everyone told you that it does in the end. It was like watching the man who raped you get off scot-free.

For me this was something of a metaphor, for others it hit way too close to home.

As the months have passed and we find that this plot, that seems like something from a Hollywood movie, is our actual reality, that cloud of grief and disbelief, or whatever you want to call it, seems to be lifting. I feel more aware and awakened than I was before. I wonder if another candidate had won whether I would be as fired up about these things? Do I dare say that this is a good thing? I don’t want to use a Hallmarky-adage from Mr. Rogers about scary news and looking for the heroes. Yes, it’s true, and yes, it’s a good way to look at it. But it never, really, makes me feel better. Because it’s still so god damned dark and I can’t seem to see the forest for the trees yet.

Today I didn’t attend the Women’s March in Portland. Not because I didn’t believe in it but because of some pretty good excuses (nap time, another engagement scheduled, etc). I really wanted to go and I spent the whole morning having a huge existential crisis. I hemmed and hawed, called my best friend, waffled back and forth. And even though I felt like I was failing my daughter by not going, I made a final decision to stay home and vowed to figure out how to be a part of it all in another way.

As I sat on the couch while my baby girl napped this afternoon, I read news articles and saw pictures of friends and family taking to the streets to protest a man that they did not choose to be their president. Their signs, their words, the beaming, powerful faces of their children as they stand with them, were a balm that my soul has needed after these past few months. And even though I was unable to join them physically, I felt suddenly emboldened by their energy to speak up too and say out loud that I do not accept this as normal. I do not accept that the bad guy wins.

For those of you who know me, it won’t be surprising to you that this piece is hard for me to post. In fact, I started writing it back in October. I was fueled with anger and wine and a hot topic from the news. So I fervently wrote for hours, spewing my thoughts like a cartoon character with steam coming out of my ears. And then I let it sit in my documents folder for months because the topic was political. And I hate talking politics, especially when it’s not face to face. I hate talking about anything that might spark disagreement. I am so anti-confrontation that I once referred to my baby as a “he” for an hour with the Comcast guy because he thought she was a boy. I know I have a problem. I’ll work on that.

In the meantime, these words will have to do. They are my protest for today. The courage to post them comes from a passionate desire to change this world for my kid, our kids, for all of us.

This is for you my dear, future president. A new normal where love wins, in the end. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure of it.

© 2017 D. Willson

saudade

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It’s been over a year since my great aunt passed away. There was the purchase of an emergency plane ticket to try and make it home to say all the things I had left to say, the phone call that informed me that it was too late and the preparations to return for the funeral instead, a eulogy that felt chilled and prescribed, and finally a burial that laid her to rest next to her husband, whom she had lost two years before. I returned to Oregon dazed by the event, but jumped back into life, distracted by work and preparing to have a baby in a few months. It didn’t really feel like I actively mourned her death, rather I simply checked it off a to-do list.

To be honest, it felt like I had lost my aunt months before she physically passed away. It was after a phone call in November, a few weeks shy of my 32nd birthday. We tried to talk, but the conversation was filled with long silences and she kept saying, “I’m sorry hon, I can’t understand you.” I tried calling her back on my mom’s cell phone, with the volume as high as it would go, but it yielded the same result. I hung up and sobbed. It felt as if I had lost her when we could no longer communicate, when she no longer asked me questions about work or could tell me what she ate for lunch.

Between November and April, I mourned the loss of this relationship in different ways. I wrote about her, trying to capture every memory in as many details as I could scrape up. I did this before she died so she could read my words, though I never heard whether she read it, or understood it, or what she thought. I cooked her recipes and used her dishes to serve them to people I loved. I urged e to have seconds and thirds, the way she always did. And as if it were a closing chapter in a book, I sobbed in my mother’s arms as we stood in front of her open casket. At first it felt complete.

In the wake of her real death, came the eventual revelation of my great aunt’s trust. Though the details of which don’t need to be shared, suffice it to say, everything of sentimental value was not left to anyone in my immediate family. And soon, the gloves of politeness and feigned interest quickly came off, leaving a bare knuckle fight between siblings through lawyers and formal letters. The finality of my aunt’s death severed the dangling thread which tied our extended family together for over twenty years and exposed an ugly reality in all of us. Anger, jealousy, and unforgiveness all bubbled to the surface of our grief like a sulfurous mud pot.

In June, I went home to visit family. On my way to my sister’s house, I drove past my aunt and uncle’s farm. The brick house stood there a few hundred feet away. The bushes were neatly trimmed below the window where she and my uncle would always wave goodbye. I could almost see her come out the front door to water the nonexistent geraniums. I wanted to pull in, to sneak behind the house and look, just in case there was a dishtowel on the clothes line or some sign of life. But I couldn’t pull into the drive. Just like in a hundred dreams I’ve had since she passed away, I feared the cops would be called and I’d be escorted out. I feared they’d know. 

As I drove away, it felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. The reality of her being gone had hit me like a ton of bricks. I would never again sit on the couch in the den, or fiddle with the keys in the dish by the back door, or help set the table with the largest glass set out for my uncle’s milk. I would never again sleep in the guest bed with the sage green headboard. The bed I shared, three abreast with my cousin and my sister. The bed my aunt bought for her mother to use when she came to stay. The one she said I could have. It felt like such a robbery.

And in between each raw feeling of loss was a layer of guilt. Am I really that greedy? Why do I care about all these THINGS? My aunt had already given me so much. I didn’t need or necessarily deserve anything more. I felt like a four year old throwing a tantrum because she didn’t get a pony for her birthday even though the gifts were piled high. On top of all of this was a heaping spoonful of resentment. Not only do I not have those things but they have them. And they will probably just throw things out because they don’t know the story behind them. They are clearly heartless and pure evil.

When my father died, I would go into his closet and smell his shirts. I would stand in his workshop in the basement and study his tools on the wall. I collected all the pictures I could find of him and put them in a box next to my bed. But with my aunt, it was as if I stood on one side of a cliff where a bridge once existed. On the other side, I saw all the material things that I once felt ownership over. A grandfather clock, a cottage on a lake, a child’s rocking chair. The gaping, impossible precipice that was created in between made me weep and feel desperate because most days my memories don’t feel as if they are enough. I miss her so much…but it is more than just this word “miss”. I miss eating cheese and getting snail mail letters. Miss doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to a person.

A few years ago, I bought a coffee table book for my sister called Lost in Translation. Included with cute little pictures were words that can’t be directly translated into English. Amid the Norwegian “Palegg” which apparently means anything you put on a slice of bread and the Arabic “Gurfa” which is the amount of water you can hold in your hand, a Portuguese word stuck out to me. Saudade. It’s used in a rough sense to describe missing something that you will never have again or homesickness for a place to which you will never return. But that is not exactly what it means, since it can’t really be translated. I had been thinking about this word in relation to my aunt when a friend of mine posted pictures of her trip home to Brazil on Facebook. At the top of one of her posts there was that word, “Saudades”. Curious, I decided to ask her what it really means. She explained,

“TO FEEL ‘SAUDADE’ MEANS TO MISS SOMETHING DEEPLY. OR HAVE ‘SAUDADE’ WHICH IS A SOLIDIFIED AND ETERNAL FEELING. THINK OF IT AS A NOUN. IT’S PART OF YOU. YOU HAVE/OWN/FEEL IT.”

Yes. This. When she explained it to me, it’s as if a light came on. This word describes perfectly what I have been feeling this last year.

Losing my aunt has given me so much saudade I feel a bit over-emotional most days. Like, the first strum of a guitar string causing the water-works to immediately flow, kind of emotional. I’m realizing that beyond missing my aunt, I miss home. Not in the sense of a particular location, home as in a feeling, a sound, a smell. The bristly fake grass carpet that scratched my shoulders while lying on the floating dock at Higgins lake, the taste of strawberries picked directly from the patch, the sound of a speed boat on the water very early in the morning, the smell of the hot truck tire my dad used to make a sandbox for us. In moments where living life feels like one more dirty dish in the sink and the eery expectation of depressing evening news, I have saudade for these things, for my childhood, for innocence.

I think then about the other part of my friend’s definition when she said that saudade is “a solidified and eternal feeling.” For some reason, this gives me peace. It’s not like the paralysis of fresh grief. It’s not something I carry with me, separate from me, a weight necessarily. I will grieve the loss of the physical things and that feeling will eventually go. But I will have saudade forever. It’s become a part of my bones.

© 2016 D. Willson

fireflies

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“The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time.” – William Butler Yeats.

On the longest day of the year, my mother celebrates her birth. This season in June is marked by red-ripe Michigan strawberries, sugared and macerated on homemade biscuits, and dusky evenings filled with fireflies. Tucked in my mind, under photos that make various memories congeal together, is my mother’s 40th birthday. The whole family, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles, gathered for a picnic in the park.

I was nine, wearing turquoise corduroy culottes and pink-and-white saddle shoes. I had just started to notice my crooked teeth and the silky blonde hair on my pale un-sunned legs. Though it was 1992 and eyeglasses were starting to shrink considerably, my mother still wore large 80’s-style ones that covered half of her face. I always wondered if her cheeks needed to see too. She also donned a hand painted t-shirt she made at the craft store during a night class she had taken earlier that year. In that moment, I had no concept of whether she was cool or not. She was simply my mother and her lap was still a perfect fit for me when I curled up my legs. She still called me her little “monkey-shine”.

After gorging ourselves on ham sandwiches, watermelon, and perfectly prepared potato salad, it was time for gifts. Aunt Laveda pulled a wet washcloth from a ziplock baggy to wipe down the plastic tablecloth. Four or five packages were set on the table in front of my mother, each box meticulously wrapped with grosgrain ribbon bows that could easily be slipped off and reused for next time. This was before gift bags existed, or at least before anyone in my family considered buying them. I sat close to my mother in case my assistance was needed with any present opening.

To celebrate her fourth decade, Grandma and Grandpa Parker were going to take her and my father on a Royal Caribbean cruise. It was the big gift that didn’t need any wrapping paper. Naturally, all of the other gifts that year were nautical themed. Blouses with bright tropical fish patterns, flouncy shorts with gold anchors for buttons, and a new swim suit that was navy blue with white trim. I must have missed the memo because my present was a package of clove-flavored gum and a Mars bar, two of her favorites and all I could afford at age nine. Despite this notable disconnection, I was quite pleased with myself.

Next Happy Birthday was sang joyously over a piece of strawberry shortcake with a wax “40” candle shoved in the top. After listening politely to the adults chat for a bit, my brother, sister and I escaped to the playground. The light grew dim as we swung on the swings and rode the big metal animals that stood on coils but hardly moved, even with the strongest of efforts to get them to rock. We successfully slid down the slide with a perfect dismount before the puddle of water that resided at the bottom. Still too chilly for mosquitoes, we played easily and carelessly till the sun disappeared.

Across the grassy park, fireflies began to dot the air. We ran to catch them, only to discover nothing but empty air. Being experienced hunters, we stood very still, knowing that soon, a dark, slow insect would float before our eyes. They were the laziest bugs in the world and the easiest to catch. You could slowly lift your hand and give them a gentle bump, which caused it to trustingly rest on your hand. Some people would smash them to see it streak on the pavement. But I only did that once because I realized how unsatisfying and rude it was.

Eventually we navigated our way back to the adults by the light of the street lamp that was near the picnic table. In a lawn chair, with his curly mullet and giant glasses like my mother’s, lounged my father. His mysteriously tan legs were crossed at the ankles and his chubby large fingers were intertwined on his stomach. I grabbed his hand and pulled, begging for him to push us on the merry-go-round. Reluctantly he retired from the adult conversation and followed the three of us kids to the dangerous toy. My sister and I took our places at the metal arches, wrapping our legs and arms around them. My brother bravely sat right in the middle.

With his tree trunk legs and big-boned strength, my dad began running in a circle. He went round twice and set us free. Then, with one hand in the pocket of his too-tight shorts, he kept the momentum of our spinning with a swift shove of his free hand on a pole he could catch here and there. Holding on for dear life, I let my head lean back to view the whirling world upside down. Fireflies flashed in streaks behind my dad, who chewed his gum detachedly. Though it was dark, I thought I caught a glimpse of a smile and was warmly surprised.

While most of my memories of my father are gray and shadowy, this one is flickery and vivid. It’s my first solid memory of having the very desperate thought of never wanting a moment to end, a very contagious feeling that I haven’t quite nicked. Nine (going on sixteen) was an age when I seemed to grow into a consciousness of being: the difference between moving along without thought, and “knowing better”. It’s the precipice between childhood and growing old, when you notice how surprised you were by the attention of your father.

In the midst of winter, I long for this season. For daylight that stretches past nine and fresh fruit picked from the local patch. But mostly I long for the days when I simply played, rather than analyzing my every step before I take it (and consequently, stand frozen in fear). Would I have tugged my father’s hand to come play if I had been more aware in that moment? If I had been more calculated, would I still hold one of my dearest memories of him smiling easily and free, a space of three years buffering him from news of cancer and chemotherapy?

You know what they say, you can’t uncrack an egg. Actually, I’m not sure that anyone says that. But I’m saying it now. I can’t look back on these memories without the layer of understanding that I have woven over the years. I can’t just live instinctually as I did when I was a child because I simply have too many years of over-thinking things under my belt. But I can try to look forward and step without thinking as much, to race to those fireflies and stand right in the middle of the tangible stars. I can still measure a person by the space on their lap and try to look out at the whirling world upside-down, in order to see the things that shouldn’t be forgotten. In fact, in these dark solstice days, I think we could stand to look at each other from a different perspective. Remembering the light of summer and the surprising warmth of a smile.

© 2014 D. Willson