Bad teeth, bad dogs, bad weeks. And Puerto Rico.

The world offered up to me a week of minor insults–an emergency trip to the vet, a date that didn’t go as planned, a several-days migraine, a nasty email, a flat tire, ridiculous lines at the fabric store, a work meeting on Saturday morning, and a broken disposal on Saturday night that spewed water, cilantro, and various other semi-rotten vegetables all over the inside of the under-the-sink cabinet.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico.

By which I mean (yes, of course) multitudes of people without food, water, homes, power–but also, everything wrong in our country right now that’s wrapped up in the reasons for Puerto Rico and that’s come out in all kinds of other ways over the past week. You know:  racism, corrupt/inept leadership, seemingly willful ignorance, our ability to be distracted and divided by lesser things, and–maybe most of all–our collective weariness and inability to be truly surprised/shocked by anything that’s going down any more. (Or is that just me? )

I found myself so longing to return to a time when I could feel free to share on Facebook the petty slings and arrows flying my way and gather sympathy in response. I did indulge in sharing a pic of the flat tire, but later that night when I thought about sharing the garbage disposal mess, it just didn’t seem like the thing to do. Because:  Puerto Rico.

I mean, how can I complain about the things bringing me down when I have food, water, shelter, and power? When I am not the target of so much that is wrong right now? When my problems, literally, would not exist if I didn’t enjoy the privileges I do?

I heard from three different friends this week that all their friends seemed to be having a particularly bad week. But it’s not a full moon and Mercury’s not in retrograde until December 3. Remember when that’s the kind of reason people looked for when it seemed like everyone was having a kinda hard time all at the same time?

What you get when you Google “is mercury in retrograde”

I know part of the reason I started crying when the vet asked, “So, how are we doing this morning?” was that I was afraid she was going to tell me that we’d have to put Daisy down and it would mean I am a shitty dog owner for letting things get so bad, and I could feel the migraine coming back for the third day, and I didn’t know how I was going to get done for work the things I’d promised to get done (I didn’t), but I think it was all of those things and Puerto Rico.

Daisy is one of the two canines living in my home that one of my children refers to as “your divorce guilt dogs.” The label is not entirely unfair. I hope I didn’t say to the child something like, “We’re going to totally disrupt your life and make you live in two different places (thereby no longer having one real home), but hey! Now you can have the dog you’ve long wanted!” but I can see how this child might have heard it that way.

I’m glad she didn’t see that I also wanted those dogs because I knew I was going to need a reason to come home on dark winter nights when there would be no homework to supervise and no squabbles to referee and no one to care if “dinner” was an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese eaten straight from a saucepan.

Daisy and her compatriot Rocky aren’t particularly good dogs. Because they pee and shit at will in our house despite my many attempts to persuade them to do otherwise, we’ve had to remove all the carpet from our home. (The other child and I once created a parody of the Commodores’ “Brick House” about Daisy, which opened with, “Oh, she’s a bad dog / She’s mighty naughty, just poopin’ all over the house.” ) Because they are Dachshunds, they’ve cost me thousands of dollars in dental surgery. Because I somehow didn’t believe what I read in the nano-seconds of research I did before bringing them home that told me such dogs are notoriously difficult to housebreak and and are prone to bad teeth, I have been surprised by these things.  In addition, Daisy lets us know pretty regularly that she doesn’t really give any fucks about a lot of things we care about. Like not whining all through dinner, or not eating Rocky’s poop, or coming when we call her and she is looking right at us.

I love her anyway.

She doesn’t do a lot of the things I’d like her to do, but she’s ours. The song-writing child, not long after I’d moved to a house filled with mis-matched things cobbled together from garage sales, thrift stores, and craigslist, once looked around and said with disgust, “Everything in this house is used. Even our dogs are used!”

It was true. I found them on craigslist, and Daisy wasn’t mine from the beginning, but she’s mine now. I love her, and despite the fact that she disappoints me on a regular basis and has never been quite the dog I envisioned for my children or myself, she’s the dog we have and dammit, I don’t want her to die. Not yet.

When I let one of the children know that I for-sure wouldn’t be coming for a maybe-visit in November because I’ll be paying for doggie dental surgery instead, even though the lower portion of Daisy’s jaw has so deteriorated that it has detached from the upper and cannot be repaired, she asked me, kindly, when I’d know it was time to let go.

“I mean, what’s the amount that is too much, Mom? She is just a dog, you know?”

I don’t really know, but not yet. I mean, yes, she’s just a dog–but she is also love and hope and dreams and history. Not unlike my country, which I love in ways not unlike the ways I love my dog and my kids:  Imperfectly, irrationally, deeply, unconditionally.

Even when it’s been a bad week. Even though Puerto Rico.

Because they’re mine.

 

 

 

Overwhelm and Antidotes

From a Facebook post that came through my feed a while back:

Syrian refugees, White Helmets, Standing Rock Sioux, DAPL, Black Lives lost, Black Lives Matter, Aggression towards Muslims, aggression towards people perceived to be Muslims, Oil Company YES Men being put in charge of our government’s environmental departments, children worrying to themselves at night that their parents will be deported, Flint Michigan is still drinking water from bottles, Oil Spill right now running into the Missouri, people feeling insecure that they will have access to healthcare in 2017……is it any wonder we are feeling overwhelmed? We are feeling torn between what front to fight on? We are feeling alone?

This is only a partial list of the things I can’t stop thinking/worrying about–and yes, I have been feeling overwhelmed and torn and alone.

I have been struggling since early November to figure out how to respond to what is happening. I have attended two protests, but I left both feeling that it wasn’t the best use of my limited resources.  I am watching very-capable others around me, and I haven’t seen any clearly important gaps I might fill better than those already filling them. I have been frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest of things; while I’ve made a few phone calls in response to calls for action, because of my work/life obligations I often can’t do that during business hours, which is when such calls are answered.

I have been stuck in a scarcity mind-set, continually exhausted from ping-ponging between worry about how to meet urgent, immediate needs (those call-to-action requests) and long-term needs (how do we shift societal thinking/understanding about race, justice, information, government, etc.?).

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing much. I spend too much time on social media, consuming information that I don’t do much with. The information is important, as is the connection with like-minded others (so we know we’re not completely alone/delusional), but the balance has felt off. I have felt off-balance.

I’m pretty sure the thing to do is get over myself.

I need to get over the idea that I can somehow, on my own, save anything. I need to get over the perfectionism that can keep me from doing anything unless I think I can do it exactly right. I need to get over figuring out the one, best right thing to do and just find good things to do, trusting that others will carry the weight of the other right things I’m not the best person for.

So, this is me getting over myself:

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times story from George Yancy, a professor who’s been placed on the Professor Watchlist, a list created by Turning Point USA to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (I refuse to link to this. You can find it easily if you want.) Yancy’s concluding paragraph felt like a rallying cry, the most compelling call to action I’ve seen:

Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.

Hell, yeah! I thought. I want to be dangerous, too.

I have been sitting with his words, letting them marinate in the stew of all I’ve experienced this year. As I’ve learned a more complete reality of my country’s history, heard and read the reality of lived experience from people of color, and seen the ugly reality of where so many of my countrymen are with respect to race and justice today, I’ve been ashamed that it has taken me so long to be truly moved.

I have been reflecting on what it is that moved me, finally, and I know that it has been a combination of information and story. Learning the systemic mechanisms of racism in our country alone didn’t move me. Hearing others’ stories in isolation from systemic analysis didn’t move me. Having both come together–so I could understand intellectually the causes of personal suffering while empathetically feeling the suffering–is what has made a difference in me. It is what has made it impossible for me to close my ears and mind and heart and retreat back into my own, private world. It is what woke me.

In the face of all this intellectual and emotional messiness, I have been floundering in the sea of all I don’t know and don’t have:

I don’t know a whole lot about how to organize. I don’t know how to make change happen politically. I don’t know how to advocate for policy.

I don’t have much in the way of resources. I’m not rich and I don’t have a lot of time. I work full-time in two under-funded public sector positions. It takes most of what I have to just take care of myself and my kids.

I don’t have a large platform from which to speak. On a good day this blog gets 150 or so views. I think more of my social media friends tolerate my utterances/shares more than look forward to them. I am not much of an influencer in the ways we typically think of that term.

But here’s what I do have:

I’m an educator. I’m a writer. I have faith (most days). I believe fiercely in the power of knowledge and story to change us. Yes, even to save us. I believe that saving happens one person, one community, one city, one state at a time. I believe in ripple effects. I would rather be read by 150 of the right people than 150,000 of the wrong ones–meaning, those whom my words will have no impact on. Those who will not take my words out into the world in some way for good.

Before the end of the year, I will post about a project I’m planning to launch–one that will make the best use of the talents and resources I have. It will be a collective project. It will involve story and education. I hope it will involve you.

Let’s get dangerous together.

 

You can’t go home again

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Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.

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I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.

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Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.

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Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.

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Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.

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Grief is a luxury we can’t afford right now

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I get it. So many of us who wanted things to go a different way on November 8th are grieving right now.

Some of us are in denial. We want to believe that what happened was just politics, business as usual. We tell ourselves, OK, so our guy didn’t win. Let’s trust the system and wish him the best and wait and see what happensLet’s take a break from political news and figure out how to reconnect with the other side. Let’s trust the checks and balances of our system to do its job. We tell ourselves that practicing self-care will make us feel better. We dismiss those who are worried our democracy may not survive intact for four years because of course it will! It can’t not survive. (Yeah, just like Trump could never get elected.)

Some of us are bargaining. We think that maybe, somehow, if we just try to understand why all those people in middle American voted for Trump, we can broker our way to some better place. We think that if we develop empathy for those on the other side and reach out to connect with them, we can find our way back to one another and we’ll move forward together toward a peaceful, accepting, diverse culture. We’re hoping that if we do those things, Trump won’t make good on all those election promises he made.

Some of us are just flat-out angry.

(Righteous anger hurts so good, doesn’t it?)

Some of us are depressed. We can’t seem to move on. We feel powerless. We can’t concentrate or get anything productive done. We’re pretty sure it’s all in our head, and some others would agree. Our days have looked kinda like this:

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Well, if you’ve been bouncing around in these various circles of grief hell over the past two weeks, I’ve got a suggestion:

let’s get  ourselves to acceptance as soon as we can, because shit’s getting real, and it’s getting there real fast.

On November 9, I wanted to go along with the folks urging us to wait and see. But when Trump brought in Steve Bannon as a White House advisor, it became clear that we weren’t going to have to wait long. Just in case you aren’t fully up to speed on what the “alt right” (a Newspeak term for white supremacists) is, please listen to this interview with Richard Spencer, who coined the term. (Actually, please listen to it anyway. Even if you think you know what it is, listening to this guy will make your skin crawl. Unless, of course, you think skin color is an OK criteria for determining, well, just about everything.) And if you can stand it after that, go check out Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general.

I, too, in an effort to understand what the hell happened and how to fix it, went looking  for explanations and solutions. I wondered about my bubble. Then I realized that even if I (and so many of us liberal white people) have been in a bubble, we aren’t the only ones. Those struggling midwest white folks are likely in a bubble, too. I wanted to believe that if we all seek empathy and start having hard conversations about race, we’ll get everyone moving in the direction of social justice and we’ll work to dismantle our systemic racism.

I don’t disbelieve that, but it’s clear we don’t have time to wait for that kind of change. And if the person we’re trying to move is a narcissist (like, you know, our President-elect), best just to move on.

So:  Let’s get to acceptance. 

Let’s accept what is and figure out what we’re going to do about it. Let’s stop focusing on who voted for whom and why. While there are plenty of reasons for folks to be angry with those who voted for Trump–and implications about what it means that a majority of white men and women voted for Trump should be wrestled with–the election ship has sailed. It’s over.

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Let’s focus on how we’re going to get on board the next one. I’m still really pissed about lots of the reasons people voted for Trump, but like this guy, I care more about what people are going to do now.

And like this guy, I am absolutely on Team Nah. Since election day, Trump has shown us exactly who he is (the same guy he was in the campaign), and as the article linked to above explains, when we’re dealing with narcissists there is no appealing to reason or a sense of what’s right.

Rather than waiting and hoping we can reason Trump and his administration onto some higher road, let’s get to work doing whatever we can to demand that all citizens are treated fairly and that our rules and best practices for governing be followed. And let’s obstruct any attempts by anyone in our government to do otherwise.

Because honestly, what else can we do? I suppose we can keep on denying and bargaining and turning away from the overwhelm of what’s happening, but lots of people don’t have the luxury of that any more than they have the luxury of prolonged grieving. I don’t want to roll over because what this requires of us is hard and feels maybe futile. I’m more realist than idealist; I know I might end up on the losing side of history, but I want to know I went down fighting on the right side of it.

So:  Let’s get our boots on the ground.

(If you want some concrete ideas of things to do, check out the Resources page.)

Did some walking this weekend in Portland.

Literally got our boots on the ground in Portland this weekend.

Statue Photo Credit: Aramisse Flickr via Compfight cc
Boat Photo Credit: serbosca Flickr via Compfight cc

Boots on the ground

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In first grade, I coveted Heidi Bernasek’s boots. Shiny, crinkly, white patent leather, lace-up knee boots. I remember seeing them as we lined up on the playground, waiting to be ushered into school. We all knew what go-go boots were, but I’d never seen anything like them on anyone I knew, much less someone my own age.

Like me, Heidi was blonde, but she was tall and beautiful in some way that I was not. In our class picture, she is standing in the back row, beaming. I am in the front, scowling. She would go on to be a Las Vegas showgirl, while I would go on to be a librarian. After sharing my admiration of her boots with my mother, I ended up with my own pair, eventually, but they were not white. They were black, and although I was grateful to have them I knew they were lesser than Heidi’s. I didn’t wear them much, probably not because they were lesser, but because they just weren’t me.

I was more of a sneaker girl.

*****

For a brief time in college, I lived in a sorority. It was a “good” house, meaning that most of its members were pretty and rich and smart and accomplished, and I was accepted into it only because a good friend from high school was already a member. I was smart and attractive enough, but I was neither rich nor particularly accomplished.

I fell in love with a boy who lived in the fraternity across the street. He was not really a frat boy, any more than I was really a sorority girl. I suspect that was a large part of our bond. Late in the fall of our first year together, Seattle was slammed by the kind of snowfall we get only occasionally in the northwest. Having no snow boots, I slipped around in my regular shoes, feet wet and freezing, and coveted the kind of footware I saw on the feet of my sisters.

Finally, I broke down and headed to the Nordstrom store on University Avenue with a newly acquired credit card to buy a pair of boots I couldn’t pay cash for. The relief I felt, slipping my feet into those fleece-lined boots!  I didn’t share with anyone except my boyfriend what they meant to me and how I felt about not being able to simply purchase this near-necessity that everyone else I lived with seemed to take for granted.

Six years later, when that boyfriend and I were divorcing, those boots were long gone. What wasn’t gone was the debt on that credit card, which we’d used to purchase a bookcase, too many pizzas, a sofa, a dog. I didn’t really understand then how you end up paying much more than an item is worth when you make only the minimum payment each month. I hate to think how much I really paid for those boots–and everything else I bought with credit that I couldn’t actually afford.

*****

When my daughter was a freshman in high school, she wanted a pair of Doc Marten’s boots. When I found a great pair at a thrift store that December, I bought them for a Christmas present.

She loved them but rarely wore them. “I just don’t think I can pull them off,” she’d say when I’d suggest them for some outfit. I sensed that the boots were aspirational, about something she wanted to be more than something she was. “I think I’ll wear them more in college,” she’d say.

I ended up wearing them more than she did. I liked that they were a little bit sassy, especially for someone like me–a middle-aged, suburban mom. I’d wear them and feel like maybe I wasn’t the stale white-bread person I suspected I’d become. Still, even I have hardly worn them for the past year.

When my daughter left for college last August, she didn’t take the boots with her.

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*****

Last summer, my friend Lisa and I made plans to attend an event headlined by a famous blogger/social activist whose work I admire. She would be joined by a small but diverse group of women, and their message would be about transforming the world through love. Lisa and I were down with that, so we bought tickets and put it on our calendars.

By the time we met in mid-September for the event, I wasn’t as excited about it as I’d been in July. I was feeling uneasy about the presidential election and what it was revealing about us. I had recently come off an intensive, two-week training on leading for equity, and my thoughts and ideas about how I need to show up in the world were changing.

Dressing for the evening, I selected my black heeled ankle boots. Not because they meant anything or had anything to do with my election anxieties, but because they looked good with my outfit. Before the show Lisa and I tried to catch a bite to eat at a happy hour across from the theater, but it was packed with women who all looked a lot like us. White. Middle-class. Middle-aged. Women who had taken care with their appearance and could afford both tickets to such an event and wine and appetizers at an upscale restaurant beforehand. The bar was so packed we couldn’t get in, so we ate at an inexpensive Chinese place a few blocks away. It wasn’t packed, and no one in there looked like us.

Lisa and I found our seats in the filled auditorium just before the event began.  As the speakers talked about the power of love to fight hate, I could feel something in my core saying, “yes, but…” The presentation was too slick, and I was reminded that the whole show was supposed to be in lieu of the blogger’s book launch.

When they had us all fill out a canned template to help us write a personal mission statement that would tap into our best talents and desires, my “yes, but” shifted into “Really?” When the first speaker shared a moving personal story about reconciliation with the man who killed her uncle in a post-9/11 hate crime, I found myself thinking, “Yes, OK, of course good–but it just doesn’t seem like enough.” When, right before intermission, recognition of a woman for her volunteer work was a thinly disguised commercial for an insurance company, Lisa and I were done.

We went back across the street to the now-nearly-empty restaurant bar and ordered whiskey. We dissected why none of it felt right to us.

“I just don’t see that making a personal mission statement is really going to do anything that matters,” I said. “I think we are in a time that calls for more than simply loving each other and doing good works. This feels like some thing that all of us privileged, liberal white women in Portland can attend and feel good about and feel like we’re actually doing something to make a difference–but we’re not.”

On my way back to the car, I turned my ankle and stumbled, the way I almost always do when I’m wearing those boots with a heel.

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*****

Last Wednesday, the day after the election, I stood in front of my closet, wondering what to wear. What would be fitting, on a day such as this? I thought of the students in the school where I work, many of them living in poverty. About half are white, and about half are people of color. We have students who are Muslim, students who are immigrants, students who are refugees. What did I want to communicate to all of them?

I reached for my black jeans, a black shirt, a black sweater. I did  not want to make a difficult situation harder, but I also did not want to communicate that the day was business as usual by dressing as if it were. I wanted to wear something that would broadcast my alliances. Something that would say that I am in mourning over what my country has come to, something that would demonstrate the grief I feel about the price so many of my countrymen are willing to pay to get what they feel they need.

At the bottom of the closet I saw my daughter’s Doc Martens. I wondered, again, how she was doing, 3,000 miles away from me, in Washington, DC. I thought about how we’d hoped we might attend, together, the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States. I thought about her and about the young women who are her friends, so many of whom live in the intersection of race and gender and have so much more to lose than she and I do. I thought about what it will mean to her and to them, that our country elected a man who bragged about his ability to grab women by the pussy because of his power and position.

As I reached for my daughter’s boots, which suddenly seemed the only right choice for the day, the music that always plays in my head switched to Nancy Sinatra.

Nancy of the white go-go boots. Nancy of the song that says, I am not going to take it any more. The song that says, one of these days I’m gonna walk all over you.

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*****

Before the election, I went boot shopping. I had a pair of brown ankle boots, but they weren’t made out of leather and they were cracking and falling apart.

The boots I fell immediately in love with were expensive. They cost more than any pair of shoes I’ve ever bought.

“Those are Wolverine 1,000 Mile boots,” the salesperson told me, assuming I would know the significance of the brand. “They’ll last the rest of your life if you care for them properly,” she added.

“Rest of your life” has a different meaning to me today than it did when I coveted my first pair of boots back in first grade. I thought of all the things I’ve wanted and bought and discarded in my life.

“I wonder if I’ll like them that long,” I said. I’ve already traveled more years than I likely have left to go, but there could still be a fair number to walk through.

“Well, they aren’t necessarily stylish,” she admitted. “They are classic, though. They are almost beyond style, and good for someone who isn’t about trends,” she said, looking at me. I could see her wondering a bit uneasily if I was offended at her implication that I am without style. I wasn’t. They are the kind of boots a sneaker girl would wear.

“They are made in the US,” she added. “It’s hard to find that today.”

Yes, it is. And yes, that’s part of why they are so expensive. It’s part of why, a week later, after thinking about how I want to spend my money, I went back and bought the boots, the only pair of footware I’ll buy this season.

We have to put our money where our mouths are, I thought, handing over my debit (not credit) card. I’d rather buy one good pair of boots that will last years than keep buying cheap, imported crap that hurts our environment and our economy. It costs more upfront, but not in the long run.

I was acutely aware that not everyone has the means to make such a choice.

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*****

In the days since the election, I–like so many of us–have been thinking long and hard about what its result means, where we are and what is really happening. I have been thinking about boots and what they’re used for, and our economy, and cultural war, and who is walking over whom and how they’re doing it.

The Nancy Sinatra song playing on repeat in my head saddens and angers and embarrasses me, much as my country does right now. I’ve watched the video of her and her back-up dancers prancing around in spiky-heeled boots and short skirts and know that men in the ’60s must have seen her song as a joke, not as any statement of strength. She’s still playing their game, even as she appears to be denouncing it, which is evident in the trump card she plays in the final verse: she’s found another man who is her “new box of matches.”

Still, I can’t help wanting to reclaim the first few verses of her song and turn it into some anthem for our country:

You keep lying when you oughta be truthin’
And you keep losin’ when you oughta not bet
You keep samin’ when you oughta be a-changin’
Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet

For how many of us have the systems of our country been treating us in the same way cheating men treat their women?  And for how long? What compromises and bargains have we made to stay in the relationship, hoping it will get better, that we’ll eventually get the kind of love we’ve been promised?

War these days–the way many of us think of it in the US–is not war the way it was when last fought on our soil, in the Civil War. It’s not horses and muskets. It’s drones. It’s bombs we drop from above. It’s troops whose members belong to only a small number of our families. It’s something that happens somewhere else, and many of us are OK with the idea of fighting our enemies as long as we don’t have to put boots on the ground.

Maybe war is actually closer than we think, and we just don’t recognize it because it (like so many things these days) is changing so rapidly we don’t see it for what it is. If war has changed–if we are fighting each other in not just a cultural war, but also the kind of conflict that every war is over–resources and who will control them–and the rules of engagement are changing from what they’ve always been, then I have been complacent and complicit. It is I who have been samin’ when I need to be a-changin’.

I have been flying over head, removed from the real action, thinking that it was enough just to do good work in the public sector and be a responsible consumer and love others who cross my path. Thinking that it was somehow enough to engage in conversation on social media and drop my link bombs and vote my conscience.

It has become clear to me that what is required now is something different.

I need to get my boots on the ground.

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Go-go boots image via retrowaste.com
Lyrics: Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking Lyrics | MetroLyrics

 

Ode to Mr. Elwell

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Doing algebra homework, circa 1978.

I’ve always been pretty sure that I was the last kid they let into the advanced math track. At the end of 7th grade, we took a test to see whether we’d be going into Algebra or some other kind of not-ready-for-algebra math. I don’t know what that was, but my ensuing struggle with math that was more about letters than numbers made it clear to me that I must have been the cut-off kid on the Algebra list, the last one that got into the advanced party.

I have few memories of that math class. I know I had Mr. Elwell, a kind, quiet man with the kind of dark, bushy mustache that lots of men had back in the late 70s. (The kind my second ex-husband, who probably came of facial-hair age at about the same time as Mr. Elwell, still has, although his is now white.) Despite learning very little algebra from him–and learning was generally a huge part of the criteria when determining whether or not I liked a teacher–I liked Mr. Elwell.

I had him not only for Algebra, but also for Driver’s Ed the fall of my sophomore year. That was the year our junior high was transformed into a middle school, and the 9th graders who should’ve been top dog at Sylvester Junior High were instead lowly freshmen when we all migrated to high school together. A handful of teachers came, too, one of whom was Mr. Elwell.

I’m sure one of the things I liked about Mr. Elwell was that it was impossible to rattle him, which made him different from so many of the men I’d known, starting with my dad. Any other teacher probably would have had some misgivings about my driving group the first day we all climbed into the Driver’s Ed car with him. There was Dorrit Norvell, who, I guessed from her skill, confidence, and obvious boredom, might have been driving since about the 3rd grade. She had eyes sharp as her Pat Benatar-esque attitude, and she made it clear that she did not suffer fools gladly. She scared the shit out of me because, when it came to driving, I was everybody’s fool. Unlike most parents, mine did not do one thing to prepare me for Driver’s Ed before it began. No practice drives, no sitting in the car introducing me to the controls, no nothing. I was a driving virgin that first day in the parking lot, and next to Dorrit, with moves as smoothly polished as her nails, it showed. The only saving grace for me was that the third person in our car was Cam Tu Nguyen. She was no fool–but she was a worse driver than me. Our first day Cam Tu tore up the parking lot at about 5 mph, and I thought Dorrit was going to get whiplash from the way her head snapped every time Cam Tu slammed on the brakes, but Mr. Elwell’s calm never faltered.

Eventually we all made it out onto the streets, even Cam Tu. Although I got better at it, driving was not something that came easily or intuitively to me–kind of like algebra, which is maybe why Mr. Elwell was kind to me, the way we are kind to those who are a little slow or a little fragile. Although I was considered to be a smart kid, driving challenged me. The only test I ever failed was the written driving test. I remember coming out of the DMV office and telling my mom I didn’t pass.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know…” my voice trailed off. “I think I got confused because of the colors of the cars,” I said.

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Well, it seemed like the colors of the cars in the drawings had something to do with the colors of the stoplights in the scenario questions. I was sure it did on this one question, and I got the right answer, but then it didn’t on some others…”

What are you talking about?” she asked, not even attempting to sound sympathetic or like I was making any kind of sense.

“Well, like, if the car approaching the intersection was red, I thought that had something to do with the color of the light, and so if the car was yellow or green…but it didn’t work if the car was blue…” My voice trailed off for a third time. It had made so much sense when I was taking the test. But trying to explain it to my mom, I could hear that it made none.

Later, I would attribute some of my failure on that test to being upset over my break-up the night before with David Ravander, my senior boyfriend who treated me so poorly I finally felt forced to end things between us. That morning of the failed test I couldn’t connect the dots between my broken heart and my foggy, over-thinking brain, but later I saw the lines linking one to the other.

None of my test failure was Mr. Elwell’s fault. He had been a bastion of calm support in that Driver Ed car with Scary Dorrit and Whiplash Cam Tu. Driver Ed cars came equipped with a brake on the passenger side, so that the teacher could, if necessary, save us all in any kind of near-death situation, but I never saw him use it. He didn’t even do it the time I came to a red light, carefully looked both ways to make sure the intersection was clear, and proceeded to turn left.

It wasn’t until after I had completed the maneuver that he said, “Uh, Rita, you might remember that we can’t make free left turns in Washington. You can get a ticket for that.” I felt my bowels begin to turn hot with shame, the way they always did when I’d made a public mistake, but his voice was quiet and calm, and that was all Mr. Elwell ever said about that.

Maybe it was because of that time that I asked him to be my escort for the Homecoming assembly that fall. Or maybe it was because I didn’t really know any of the other male teachers at the high school yet, other than the world history teacher who didn’t like me because I questioned why we spent a whole period watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, or Mr. Carmignani, whose creative writing class I had dropped because he made it clear on the first day that if we didn’t share our inner selves in our writing and our writing out loud with the class, we would not be earning A’s or B’s. I would no more reveal my inner self to my peers than frolic naked down the halls, and a C was unacceptable, so that was that. No creative writing for me.

I needed a teacher escort for the assembly because I was the homecoming princess for my class. This was an uncomfortable honor for me. I had no date for the dance and was facing the humiliating prospect of the Pep Club girls arranging to have some boy ask me if no one came forward. I didn’t want to ask my parents for the money to buy a formal dress, because I knew that we didn’t have much of that kind of money, but I was told that I would have to get one. And, I needed a teacher to escort me down the aisle and up the steps to the stage during the big assembly, and I didn’t really know anyone for that, either.

So I asked Mr. Elwell, who seemed both mildly surprised and quietly pleased. At the morning assembly for underclassmen, I hooked my arm into Mr. Elwell’s and we made our way down the auditorium aisle without incident. It was the stairs to the stage that proved to be our downfall. As I stepped up to the first step, I failed to properly lift the hem of my long, formal, faux-pioneer girl Gunne Sax gown, bringing my shoe down on the inside of its skirt. I realized my mistake immediately, but I didn’t know what to do about it, what with my arm hooked into Mr. Elwell’s and everyone watching and me needing to get up those steps. So I just kept going. When I stepped up to the second step, I also stepped further up the hem of my dress. And I did the same with the fourth and fifth and sixth step, even though I knew I was only making things worse. By the time we got to the stage, Mr. Elwell and I were both bent nearly double, as he’d never let go of my arm, and I fell onto it, ears filling with the laughter of my fellow sophomores and those lowly freshmen. Mr. Elwell didn’t say anything; he simply helped me up, re-hooked our arms, and walked me across the stage with as much dignity as he had given me all those times in the driver ed car and in algebra class when I didn’t know the answer.

Years later I would come to see this as a seminal moment, a metaphor for so many things that went wrong in my life. I have had a confounding need to just keep moving doggedly forward, even when it is quite clear that stopping would be the best thing to do–the only thing to do if I did not want my trajectory to end in tragedy. It is has not served me well, nor has my propensity for sticking with others who don’t treat me with the same kind of respect I got from Mr. Elwell.

He was not a very good math teacher for me. I began this essay with the intention of writing about Algebra II, the last math class I ever took because I could no longer fake my way through math without the fundamentals I’d missed in Algebra I with Mr. Elwell. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that he was teaching me something probably more important than how to determine the value of x. He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it.

I like to think he’d be both mildly surprised and quietly pleased.

The poor guy I manipulated into asking me to the dance.

The poor guy I pressured into taking me to the dance.

*******

This piece came out of the last session of my writing class with Kate Carroll De Gutes (the one on writing about serious topics with humor). I almost didn’t attend; I’d had a terrible week, and I was feeling so tired and broken on Thursday night that I didn’t think any good would come of it. But as Leonard Cohen told us, the cracks are where the light comes in. The prompt was simply to write about taking algebra. Although I missed 2 of the 5 sessions, getting this essay out of the class was worth the price of admission. Kate is a teacher in the same gentle vein as Mr. Elwell. (Suck it, Mr. Carmignani.) I highly recommend her classes, which Portland-area folks can take at Attic Institute.

Because “love” is a verb

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Somehow, the events in Orlando made me mute. Maybe it’s that I was feeling so wrung out by the emotional roller-coaster I’ve been riding for the past two weeks months years, or maybe it’s that I am so weary of the ways in which we humans are so very horrible to each other, but I just felt that there was nothing meaningful for me to say.

And then I read these words from Jen Hatmaker about what it does to those who are terrorized by violence in their community when those of who are not in it say nothing:

“What my black friends taught me is that the ancillary offense, where grief is compounded and loneliness sets in, is when their friends and colleagues outside of their tribe say NOTHING. When their churches don’t stop and grieve. When their coworkers are silent. When their neighbors look the other way because they aren’t sure what to say, so they say nothing.”

And so, I wrote something about Orlando on Facebook. It still didn’t feel like enough, but it was something. I still felt demoralized and beat down and just so very, very sad–and as if words are not enough in the face of these incidents which I feel myself becoming numb to.

That feeling intensified when I watched this clip from Stephen Colbert, who reminds us that love is a verb.

I wanted to DO something, but I didn’t know what.

As is so often the case, I got my answer from a librarian. Librarian Arika, to be specific.  Librarian Arika reminded me of one of my bedrock beliefs–that stories have the power to save lives. That words matter.

(It is easy to lose faith in the face of horrible, bewildering events.)

Arika reminded me that when it comes to building acceptance of humankind, “literature can help.” She wondered,

“What if it was as simple as this: commit to read, promote, share, and purchase books that promote tolerance of race, gender, identity, religion, ability, and sexual orientation.”

And suddenly I knew what I could do–the thing that is my thing to do. I can join Arika’s movement (#BooksBuildTolerance). For the rest of the month, she is sharing one book a day that promotes tolerance and understanding.

Me, too.

I’m starting with a book I read last month that I adore: George by Alex Gino.

From the publisher:

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part… because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

So, that’s what it’s about. I love this book not because it’s about a girl who is a boy, but because it is a tender, true, and important story about being human–which means being vulnerable, and scared, and brave, and bold. The characters are so real, from George/Melissa’s teen-age brother to their loving-but-not-completely-accepting mom. (“I always knew you were gay,” she says, “but not that kind of gay.”)

I love this book not because it is ground-breaking (though it is that) but because it is good writing. It’s not a book I chose for our elementary libraries because we needed a transgender book; I chose it because it’s a book any child who has ever felt different in some way could relate to. (And because it’s a transgender book and we have children in our schools who are struggling with that particular issue and they need to read a story in which they see themselves. And their cisgender friends need to see them in books, too. But first because it’s just a great book.)

This is not a very compelling review because I don’t have a copy with me and I’m tired and it’s late, but I think that doesn’t much matter.

Sometimes we’ve got to just do the best we can–because love is a verb and it’s important not only to not say nothing, but also to not do nothing. If you haven’t read George, check it out.

#BooksBuildTolerance.

Sunny side up

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Yesterday my car broke down for the 4th or 5th time in the last two months. On a blazing hot day when the cold that Cane gave me over the weekend decided to fully bloom. In the middle lane of traffic on a busy street. At 3:45 pm. (My antecedents aren’t very clear, but it really doesn’t matter. The breakdown, the blooming–it all happened at 3:45 in the middle lane of traffic on a busy street.)

I limped home at around 7:00. Literally–I had blisters on the bottom of my feet by the time I got there, after walking from the auto repair place.

But today is a new day!

The sun is still shining, but the temps are supposed to drop down to 80. I had already planned to take today off, so no work obligations for the car to wreak havoc with. I can be here when the garage door guy comes to fix the door a child broke last weekend by rolling the car into it. (Man, that car is the source of all trouble this week. Should just get rid of it!)

Nothing to do but sneeze and blow my nose and play with my collage.

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And maybe take an afternoon nap with this girl.

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She is a pro napper, this dog.

Right after the garage door guy comes.

 

 

 

Wednesday Words 3.2.16: Finding my oxygen mask

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One of my day jobs is coaching teachers. It’s sort of like being a life coach, but I only work with teachers and we only (mostly) talk about their teaching practice.

Last week, I met one of my coachees first thing in the morning, which is how I happened to be there when she was putting away her lunch, made by her partner. I mentioned how nice it would be to have someone make me lunch and that I’d most likely be having another drive-through meal later in the day.

She gave me one of her sandwiches and an apple. (Because:  teacher.)

I protested, she insisted, and then we got to work.

Later that day, I bit into the sandwich, and tears came to my eyes. It was just so nice to eat something homemade, and I couldn’t believe what a difference it was making to eat a simple ham sandwich. It was hard to feel how hard things have been through the contrast of real food to what my diet has been so often lately. It was hard to feel how long it’s felt since someone took care of me. (To be clear:  Cane cooks dinner more often than I do when he’s here. But breakfast and lunch have gone by the wayside, and…I dunno. I just felt cared for in a way I haven’t for a long time. And tears are just under the surface all the time lately. We’re still adjusting to the huge change in our family life and my babies are getting ready to leave the nest, and everything feels raw and momentous, all the time.)

Yesterday, I met with that teacher again, and again she had a sandwich for me. In my own bag with my name on it and a bottle of juice. (Can you even?)

So, even though my last post was all about my pledge to do frivolous creative projects for the fun of it, I came home (to take care of a sick kid) and made the thank you card you see above, so that I can properly thank the maker of these sandwiches.

But it was like that card was a trap door to a land of creative fun–because after I made the practical card, I made frivolous stuff (also above).

I have long been interested in juxtapositions of words and images, which is really what started Wednesday Words. And I love love love with all my heart old books.* I’ve also long loved collage, the creating of something new with the parts of many somethings old. I like to remix.

The first three images above are all cards, which, I suppose gives me some kind of permission I needed to make something as frivolous as collages. It’s really kind of silly, though. I can’t think of any real occasions for which any of the cards other than the thank you one might be appropriate.

That’s OK. I know I’m just working my way into this. I’m playing, and I like the small scale of the cards. It means I can start and finish in short time. There’s no big commitment. Lots of shorter works means my learning curve will rise faster than it would with fewer big works.

I love how messy my work table is now–filled with real mess, from real stuff, not just clutter because I haven’t put things away.

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I love how good it felt to lose myself in it for a while. Doing that felt as nourishing to me as a homemade ham sandwich. It filled me up enough that I was able to make a grilled cheese (and chicken soup) for the sick child with nothing in my heart but joy and gratitude for the chance to mother him just this way for a little while longer.

We really do need to put on our own oxygen masks first. This is mine.

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*All book images and words came from gutted books (which you can read about here), so I didn’t have to cut intact books. I’ve lost my source for such pages, so I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’ve used them up. It’s really hard for me to cut books that are still books!