True Story

Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.

Would that this were true.

I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.

Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.

“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”

“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)

“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)

I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.

I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.

Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:

(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now:  That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.

Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.

Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.

A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.

It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.

There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not?  How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:

I am a writer.

No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one:  the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.

It is my life’s work, loving this way.

I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.

And I want to live.

Photo courtesy of Kate.

What kind of German would you be?

In 1983, as a senior in high school, I took a class called 20th Century Europe, which I remember mostly as a blurry litany of battles interrupted by a grisly Christmas-break research project on medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps.

I do, however, clearly remember the day I learned about how Hitler rose to power through legal means, and how he used legal means to create an authoritarian state. I remember when discussion turned to the German people, and we collectively wondered how they had let the atrocities of the Third Reich happen. I listened to my classmates, one after another, condemn ordinary Germans for not resisting, for turning on their neighbors, for looking away from the columns of smoke rising from the concentration camps. They insisted they would never do such things. They would speak their minds. They would hide Jews. They would not be “good Germans.”

I listened in disbelief. Perhaps it was because I had memories of my great-grandmother who immigrated to this country from that one; although I didn’t know them, some of those ordinary Germans were my family, and I imagined myself in their place. Perhaps it was because I already knew my own fears and weaknesses and strong instinct for self-preservation. I doubted very much that I or most of the others in the room would risk torture and imprisonment and death to resist the Nazis, and I thought their belief that they would and their judgement of Germans who didn’t was just plain wrong.

Which is what I said aloud in class, probably too forcefully. I remember the uncomfortable silence that followed my words and the stunned look on the face of the girl who had last spoken before me. I didn’t know how to criticize the ideas without criticizing the people who voiced them, and I sure didn’t know how to repair the feelings I had hurt without saying I didn’t mean it, which wouldn’t have been true. I felt defensive and embarrassed and regretful long after our teacher moved us on.

I wish I could tell you that I feel differently about myself and my fellow Americans than I did in 1983, but I really don’t. I think that if writing blog posts such as this one might get me jailed, I’d likely stop writing them. If hiding a member of a targeted group would mean risking imprisonment for my family, I probably wouldn’t do that. We all want to be this man, but how many of us really are?

I have thought about that day in class many times since November 8th, wondering exactly what it is we all need to do and how–and when–we should do it.

Despite all the ways in which Trump seems to be following the playbook of other fascist rulers, we can’t know that he’s setting his sights on being an authoritarian despot. I know it’s inconceivable to many Americans that Trump could ever wreak the kind of havoc on the world that Hitler did, and any comparison to Hitler causes them to dismiss the one making the comparison. It’s important to remember, though, that in early 1933, Germans couldn’t know what Hitler would become, either. The signs were there, and many saw them, but I’m guessing people told themselves the same kinds of things I hear many of us saying today:

  • Congress will keep him from doing anything too terrible.
  • We’re never going to lose our rights to free speech and free elections.
  • C’mon, this is the United States of America. We’re still us.

I suppose that’s why so many Germans did nothing until the price of resistance was too high for most to pay.

Unlike us, those Germans didn’t have the advantage of such a recent example of how terrible things in a democracy can get. But we do, and that’s why I’m trying hard to be the kind of German I hope I would have been in early 1933, when Germans could still resist without risking everything.

We need to be strong enough to stand up to those who tell us that our speaking out is the problem. We need to remind ourselves and then tell them that true unity and peace does not come from keeping our mouths shut about what we feel and believe and know (verifiably) to be true.

We need to take back the word “patriot” and remind ourselves and tell them that patriots are not loyal to a person, but to our country. We need to remind ourselves and tell them that dissent and free speech are part of what has made our country strong –it’s never been what has made us weak.

We need to remind ourselves and tell them that name-calling (crybabies, libtards, snowflakes) and logical fallacies are the tactics of abusers who attempt to silence others through intimidation and shame.

I get why it might feel better, right now, to quietly wait and see. As alarmed as I am by the things I’ve already seen, even I can tell myself that it probably won’t ever be as bad as I fear it could be. I fear being dismissed as an alarmist or extremist. But I am reminding myself and telling others repeatedly that if we wait until things are truly alarming and extreme before we act, it may be too late.

Incidents like the one in my high school history class caused me, over time, to silence myself. I wanted to avoid those moments of discomfort and embarrassment, especially with those I care about. If I didn’t feel sure that I could say something in the best way, I often said nothing at all. But the time has come for us to value other things more than comfort, for both ourselves and others.  The time has come to be like the Germans we wish there had been more of in 1933–because I never want to have to know what kind of German I might have been in 1939 or 1942. And I will neither apologize for nor own the discomfort of others when I do, even if I do it clumsily.

This is what democracy looks like.

Just in case you think I am being too alarmist, take a gander here or here.

Photo of August Landmesser via http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/august-landmesser-1936/

The beat goes on…

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If I were to evaluate my high school journalism teacher, Miss S., through the  current thinking about what makes a teacher good, she’d get a pretty low grade.

Sometimes, she’d teach what looked like a lesson, sort of. I do remember her standing at the front of the room occasionally, sharing information about journalistic principles or practices for a few minutes. There were no learning targets on the board, no rubrics, no scoring guides, no real assignments other than the ones we were given to produce our student newspaper.

The teacher who chaired the English department told me that the journalism class wasn’t a good use of my time. When I shared that with Miss S., she laughed, and I understood that they didn’t like each other and that my presence in her class gave her a battle win in some kind of teacher war. It was the first time I understood that there were such things.

She was volatile and erratic. Once, in a fit of anger with one of us, she yelled and kicked a wastebasket across the room. I remember that, and the way we all went silent, afraid of what she might do next. We whispered among ourselves about what might be wrong with her. Someone once snooped in her closet and found an empty pint bottle. We wondered if she drank at school.

And yet, we produced an award-winning newspaper. Under her direction, our scope extended beyond the walls of our high school. She drove some of us to the state capitol so we could interview law-makers for a story about the impact of state budgets on our education. We wrote a story about the Green River Killer, who targeted young women in our area. We took national stories and examined what they meant for us locally.

Somewhere along the way, between flying trash cans and trips to the capitol, I learned the fundamentals of journalism that guide me as a consumer of information today:

  • You need to present all sides of a story.
  • You need credible sources of information.
  • There is a hard and clear line between fact and opinion.
  • You need to dig beyond the surface of a story to what lies beneath it.
  • Good journalists ask hard questions and tell hard truths, even when others don’t want them to.

One of my award-winning stories was about the dangers of “look alike” amphetamines, which students across the country were buying and selling. It included photos of such pills taken in our newsroom, as well as quotations from anonymous students who were dealing them in our classrooms. My principal did not appreciate the story. He wanted the names of my sources, the students who told me how they were doing business during class. For a people-pleaser like me, this was kinda scary stuff–but I was never really scared because I knew that Miss S. had my back. I also had the strength of convictions she’d instilled in me about the necessity of a free press and the duty journalists have to tell the truth and protect their sources. I wasn’t privy to the adult conversations that took place and don’t know what kind of heat she took from her boss, but I never did have to reveal mine.

When I went to a large state university and was looking for places that could make campus feel smaller, I sought out the newspaper staff. The first thing I saw when I walked through the newsroom door was a graffitied wall with “Fuck Objective Journalism” scrawled across it in huge letters. I was offended not by the language, but by the sentiment. Objectivity was a bedrock principle for me. I left and didn’t return for a few months.

Eventually I did, and I took the beat covering our crew team. I was not a sports writer, but it was a way in. I worked my way up to writing in-depth feature stories, and despite my colleagues’ irreverence (or perhaps because of it), I never abandoned the principles formed during my time with Miss S. Like so many experiences in young adulthood, though, it was one that showed me what I wasn’t cut out for. I hated calling people I didn’t know on the phone. I hated making people uncomfortable with hard questions. I hated writing under the pressure of a deadline and not having enough time to polish my writing or my thinking. Eventually I ended up working in education, not journalism.

As I’ve watched the demise of print journalism over the past decade, I’ve been thankful many times that I didn’t pursue a career in it. If I had, I may well have been objectively fucked, a victim of mass layoffs at a point where I’d be too old to easily switch careers but not old enough to retire. There are always casualties when industries and economies change, aren’t there?

But what’s happened in journalism isn’t the same as, say, what’s happened to the coal industry. Coal is, as one might say, a “disaster” for the environment. I truly do feel for those who are suffering because the backbone of their economy has snapped–especially those who, like me, are at exactly the wrong stage of life to be able to recover from such a catastrophic injury. But I also know that alternate sources of energy are what we need to survive as a species. I wish we could find ways to support those people without bringing back that industry.

Journalism is different, though. We need journalists–real ones, who investigate corruption and share truth and ask hard questions we all need the answers to–like we’ve always needed them. We need them perhaps now more than we’ve ever needed them. That’s something Miss S. taught me.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, not the least of which is that in spite of the economic challenges facing those who produce print journalism, we still have newspapers that adhere to the principles I learned decades ago. I’m thankful that in spite of all that is currently troubling and uncertain in our President-elect’s relationship with the press,  we still have a free one. I worry about the fact that so many of our youth cannot tell the difference between valid and bogus news. I worry about the proliferation of fake and clearly biased “news,” which may very well have influenced the outcome of our recent presidential election. I worry about lowlife scum who care more about the personal profit they make from creating and disseminating misinformation than the damage they do to all of us through their actions. But I take hope from journalists who are the ones who really tell it it like it is, and those who vow to keep doing so in this strange new world we seem to be living in.

I’m thankful, too, for the public education I received that’s helping me navigate it. A high school acquaintance of my daughter’s recently shared that he distrusted a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist’s article in The Wall Street Journal because she “went the school route.” I wish so much–for himself and for all of us–that in his education he’d encountered a journalism teacher like Miss. S. and wonder how things might be different for him if he had. Like pretty much all of us, Miss S. was flawed, a human mix of strengths and weaknesses. I think of her often these days as I reflect upon what went wrong in our election, one of the first people from whom I learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be (and do) good.

(If you’d like to contribute to the continued existence of publications that provide accurate information about matters of crucial importance to us all, please check out the links on the Resources page.)

Photo Credit: Christof Timmermann 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

 

Walking my talk, the better late than never version

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I’ve been finding it kinda ironic that I proclaimed “voice” my word of the year, and where I find myself living now is a place that requires me to (mostly) shut up and listen.

But “voice” is what carried me to the Portland production of Listen to Your Mother, which has been one of the best experiences of my year. We performed the show in early May, and last week videos from all of the shows were released online.

I’d sort of forgotten that was going to happen, and when it did I found myself feeling…a whole bunch of things, but, mostly, vulnerable.

A few days after they were out, a  friend from the cast asked me why I hadn’t posted about it on Facebook, and aside from questions about vanity and the general weirdness of seeing oneself on video, I realized that I was wrestling again with  questions about when and when not to publish, and who has a right to tell which stories. It was feeling like one thing to tell a story that involves our children in a blog post, or in a small live performance, but another one to tell it on video and then direct people to that video. I’m still not sure if it is different or not, but it feels like it might be.

I am a deep believer in the power of story and preach (often) the necessity of telling them. I know how important it is for us to tell our personal stories, particularly about topics that carry stigma. I wrote the blog post that became the story I told on stage because I wanted to create something to help others understand what it is like to parent a child with a mental illness. I hoped that doing so might alleviate for someone else the fear, guilt, and isolation I felt early on. It always helps to know that we’re not alone in grappling with a hard challenge.

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But, but, but…

I am a mother before I am anything else, and the world can be a cruel place. There can be real consequences to sharing your membership in a stigmatized group. While I want to serve others, I serve our children first. Always. It is hard, often, to know how to best do that. I want to do my small part to make the larger world a better place (for everyone’s children), but I don’t want to hurt my children’s personal world to do that.

After a fair amount of internal hand-wringing and conversations with good friends, I’ve decided that the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks. So many people right now are being called upon to be brave, in so much larger ways. The hard stories that help us see each other more truly and fully are the ones we most need to tell. So, here’s my offering, my small act of courage, some walk to go with my importance-of-sharing-our-stories talk:

You can click here to get to  the national Listen to Your Mother post that will connect you with all 500+ videos from this year’s productions across the country. You can find videos by location or you can browse featured playlists. (I am feeling really honored that mine was selected as a featured video.) If you couldn’t attend the Portland show and want to experience the next-best thing-to-being-there, you can go to the Portland playlist and watch it in order. Our producers did a fantastic job of putting together an anthology of stories best listened to in the order they were presented. (Nope, not biased at all!)

Before you click over, I warn you:  You may find yourself spending more time there than you planned. The stories (and their tellers) are so compelling. Raw humanity always is, isn’t it?

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Color photos by Elizabeth Sattleberger of Lizilu Photography
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lack-and-white photo by Amy McMullen (of our wonderful cast).

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.

Listen to Your Friends

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My friends told me that it was an amazing experience. They said it was life-changing. They said it was powerful.

And yet, none of that really captures it, any more than the prenatal class I took for those expecting multiples conveyed what it would really be like to care for two babies. I want to write words that will somehow help anyone reading to know how amazing, life-changing, powerful, and down-right magical it is to appear in a Listen to Your Mother show, but I’m pretty sure it’s not possible.

I think you had to be there.

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I’m going to try anyway.

All of those things my friends told me–they are true. What it really all comes down to, I think, is the power of shared story. Sharing:  That’s where the magic is.

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For much of my adult life, I questioned and struggled with the purpose of writing. It was so hard. It took me away from other things. And for what? What would be gained? Who would really care? What purpose would it serve, really? Was it worth what I would sacrifice, taking the precious minutes of my life to write my stories?

Several years ago, I decided that the answers to those questions were pretty much nothing, no one, none, and no.

I think, perhaps, it’s because the crucial piece that was missing from my practice as a “serious” writer was the sharing. I mean, yes, publishing is sharing, but it’s such a one-way thing. I think I’ve kept at blogging because it’s more about reciprocal sharing. It’s about community, and that’s what makes writing matter.

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There are women in this group whose life experience is different from mine in important ways, but in our first rehearsal I found connection to every single person’s story. Some walloped me close to home–Sue’s story about a difficult pregnancy, Becky’s story about step-mothering, Susan’s story about how it is to be a family with a visibly disabled child, Amy’s story about her family of strong women who rarely speak openly about the tragedies in their lives.

But truly, there was something in everyone’s story that spoke to me: from Kate’s mother who loved the Handi-wipes I remember from my grandmother’s house to Mandy whose voice is so much like her mother’s that no one could tell them apart on the phone. (My dad never knew if it was my mother or me when one of us called home.) When Kylene told of her valiant struggle to carry her large baby on her body, I remembered my own challenges to give my babies what I thought they needed. Carisa talked about not shielding her children from life’s truths, something I’ve been doing with mine for years, and Sandra told stories about her mother who, like my grandmother, was the center of her family’s universe. The absurdity in Leslie’s story about burying a pet hamster reminded me of so many moments I found myself doing things I never imagined I might do as a mother.

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Through our stories–and making ourselves vulnerable by telling them honestly–we became a community. I have probably spent fewer than 15 hours with these women, but I tell you this:  I feel I know them better than others I’ve known for 15 years. And I would drop everything for any of them if they needed me to, because I’ve looked into the most tender places in their hearts, as they have looked into mine. (I also feel this way about so many of you I’ve only “met” in our online spaces.)

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Imagine how our world might be if we could all do this. What if we could lower our defenses and share our most important experiences? What if we could learn to really listen to each other? How much kinder and stronger and more able to love might we all be?

Putting our writing out into the world is hard because so often we are opening up the softest parts of ourselves (if we are doing it right) to others who may not accept our gift with respect or care. We put ourselves at risk when do that, just as much as if we were offering our bodies to a lover who can’t love us back.

But damn, the world needs it.

It needs brave souls who will say:  “This is my story. This is my truth.” We need it so that we can see ourselves in each other. We need it to know we aren’t alone. We need it so we can be strong in the face of all that life throws at us. We need it so that we can turn to each other in the face of our fears, rather than on each other.

We need it.

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My friends told me that being in Listen to Your Mother is life-changing. I believed it was true for them, but I wondered how it could be that way for me. How could getting up on a stage for a night and telling a story do that? I signed up to audition because I was full of my new year’s resolution to find and use my voice, but I didn’t expect it to change my life.

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I don’t know that I can really parse out how the whole thing works, much as I’ve been trying to here. I likely can’t tell you that any more than I can tell you how it really is to raise two babies at the same time.

But, thanks to this experience, I might just take a stab at trying to tell that story–and a whole bunch of others. These women have helped me see that I have stories worth telling and others I want to tell them to. I went looking for my voice, and I found it in a community of women who honored and amplified it. More importantly, I think I’ve also found the courage and heart to use it.

And that, my friends, just might be life-changing.

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All of these wonderful photos were taken by one of our sponsors, Elizabeth Sattelberger of www.lizilu.com. Please do not share without her permission.

New Rules of Engagement

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Some people become teachers because they love kids. Some become teachers because they love their subject. Me? I became a teacher because “an educated populace is essential to a well-functioning democracy.” Don’t laugh–or, go ahead and laugh if you want to–but that’s a quotation (as closely as I remember it) from my teacher education program application, and it was written with all the idealism, sincerity, and earnestness that characterized my 23-year-old self. (I’m a bit more cynical now, but I’m still pretty sincere and more earnest than your average bear.)

I became an English teacher, in particular, because I felt that knowledge of language was more important than knowledge of anything else. Strong literacy skills allow anyone to learn about anything and to avoid being manipulated by those who know how to twist language and make fallacious arguments. And yet, in recent years, I’ve removed myself from the kind of conversations my younger self felt were so important.

I stopped engaging because it’s gotten so ugly, filled with name-calling and gross, broad, unfair characterizations by those on both sides of our political divide. I stopped engaging because conversations in which everyone is shouting and no one is listening felt pointless.

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Pretty much something in here to offend everybody.

I think I was wrong. I trusted so fully in the strength of our political system that I thought it didn’t need me or my voice to carry on in pretty much the same way that it’s always carried on.

But look at where we are. I mean it:  Really look.

When Donald Trump clearly dominated the Super Tuesday primaries, just days after not repudiating validation from David Duke and claiming ignorance of who he is and what he represents (most likely falsely), I decided that I can no longer sit on the sidelines. I need to understand what is happening and to do what I can to counter it.

My concern is not just all of Trump’s reprehensible beliefs, so many of which are counter to values that have been the bedrock of our nation. It is that we might elect such a man as our president when we also have an incomplete Supreme Court likely to be deadlocked on key upcoming cases and a congressional process controlled by those who have vowed not to fill its empty seat by even considering a nominee, in spite of the fact that our Constitution gives the President the right to nominate Supreme Court justices (and there is precedent for doing so in the last year of a term, most recently by Ronald Reagan). Our system depends upon its checks and balances (thank you for teaching me that, Mr. Czubin). What happens if we elect a person who disregards the Constitution and we have a deadlocked and incomplete Supreme Court and a Congress that cannot work together or with members who refuse to do so in order to further their own political agenda?

To think that we are immune from the kinds of catastrophe that have brought down other nations is arrogant and ignorant. Our only hope, I have come to believe, is for all of us to re-engage in the kind of political dialogue that will help us move forward to find our common beliefs and solutions to our challenges that will not violate our common values.

For me, that means getting uncomfortable. It means engaging in conversations about politics, especially with those who do not share my opinions, even though I might feel unfairly judged and misunderstood. As I’ve started to do so in the past week, I’ve been formulating my new rules for engagement:

1. Look for the common ground and acknowledge it. We need to let each other know where we find agreement–otherwise we might not see that we have any.

2. Be open to changing my mind. I’ve got some pretty strongly held opinions, and I’m not likely to budge when it comes to my values. However, I think we too often equate certain solutions or positions with particular value systems, and we close our minds or jump to conclusions based on that. When someone I know linked to an article about progressives driving income inequality, my first instinct was assume he didn’t care about income inequality. I was wrong.

3. Ask questions to seek/confirm understanding before judging/refuting. This requires listening/reading carefully. In a recent conversation someone referred to “folks in the establishment” and I realized I wasn’t sure of who he meant. So I asked. Glad I did.

4. Ground discussions in facts provided by reputable sources. Sometimes the question I ask is, “How do you know?” I ask it not to challenge, but because I truly want to know where the information is coming from. If I’m going to refute someone else’s “facts,” I make sure I’m correct and provide verification from as credible a source as I can find.

5. Use neutral, non-judgmental, non-inflammatory language. This one requires me to stop and re-read and examine my language before I click “post” on social media.

6. Respectfully point out bias and fallacies in logic. We need to help each other see logic that isn’t valid or tactics of argument that divert us from the issue being discussed, and I can’t emphasize “respectfully” enough. I tried to do this recently and caused offense. If we alienate others by insulting or sounding like a know-it-all, we’re defeating the purpose of engaging. (And thank you, Mrs. McConnaughey, for your course on “Semantics and Logic,” which is where I learned to recognize both logical fallacies and loaded language.)

7. Assume positive intent. I’m writing here about engaging in conversation with those we know. Trolls have no positive intent, but I bet most people you know are not trolls–even that guy from high school who posts the memes you hate. When we look for the positive intent, it’s easier to stay engaged.

As I’ve been dipping my toes back into the pool of political conversation, using these rules, I’ve found that what we like to say really is true:  Our commonalities are bigger than our differences. I’ve come to understand some things about why some support Trump, which doesn’t lessen my fear of him, but it does lessen my fear of his supporters and lessens my bewilderment. My re-engagement hasn’t been comfortable, but I’m glad I’ve done it and will continue to do so.

I believe that many of us have disengaged because we feel powerless. We feel like very small cogs in a system we can’t game. Most of us are small, and the odds really aren’t in our favor. Still, this world hasn’t yet entirely killed that young idealist who still lives within me, and I think we all need to try and we need to exercise what power we have:

We need to talk to each other. We need to inform ourselves. We need to vote. 

My generation has never really experienced threats that required the kinds of sacrifices our grandparents had to make. I hope to whatever you believe in that we aren’t now. Let’s all do whatever we can to ensure that we won’t be. No one ever said democracy was easy. Might be time for all of us to get uncomfortable and do the hard work it requires.

If you agree, please share this post in whatever way you like to share. (Sharing buttons in the sidebar.) Let’s start a movement. #letsengage

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