The White Lie I Told Myself About Blackness

“It took him [Kunta] a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they [whites] didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.” Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family

When I was thirteen years old, the miniseries Roots aired on television. Though I probably was old enough, and certainly would have let my own children watch it at that age, my parents would not let me watch. The saga of Kunta Kinte, portrayed by Levar Burton, unfolded in my family’s den while I hid in my room listening to records and wondering what story was being told.

Now I know. Strike that. Now I am learning. 

This week, we here in America have reached a boiling point. The long slow simmer of placid protest or blissful ambivalence has finally reached its tipping point. The death of George Floyd has ignited the earned frustration and justified fury of Blacks across the country. White allies, by turns broken-hearted and angry, walk alongside them in marches. My own daughter was one of them, she sent photos of black smoke rising from behind buildings, where police cars had been set afire.

I am not sure my elders would have understood.

My mother was a genteel racist, she voiced irritation when hearing Spanish spoken in public, she forbade me to have friends of color, going so far as to attempt grounding me from playing with a girl across the street whose name was Kathy Peters. She had dark hair, and my mother assumed she was a Mexican Catholic. I finally gained permission to enter Kathy’s home when I was able to provide the name of an acceptable evangelical church that the Peters family attended. Mom always and only spoke of people whose skin was a different color as “other.” As “wrong.” As “different.” Those for whom I worked as a teenager in retail trained me to follow Blacks who entered our stores so that I could thwart their assumed shoplifting. If a group of more than two Black people came in, I was to notify security, whether or not there had been any indication of intent to steal. When I was in college, a dear woman stated that our Black song leader should be worshiping at the church where his own people attended, “He would be happier with his own kind,” she said. I had not known that in 1986, it was unheard of for a white church in west Texas to allow a Black man to stand before the congregation to lead “It Is Well With My Soul”:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is no longer well with our collective soul here in America. It has never been, though we white folk may have been blindly, blissfully unaware. The truth will out as the smoke clears from the riots: who started what, who actually broke the windows, did the worst of the looters travel from afar, funded by extremists and anarchists with the intent of spreading strife and clouding the vital message, pitting Americans against one another? Where did the pallets of bricks, planted strategically in cities where protestors might turn to rioters, sending the handy bricks through windows, come from? Who ordered and paid for them? Will we begin to hold ourselves accountable? As a young woman, I said, “I never owned a slave, I don’t understand why today’s Black people, who never were slaves, are still so angry!” I cringe now to even think of it, there was so much I needed to learn about how roots affect the tree that grows, about how systemic, generational abuse can be borne so deeply in the soul that the bitter sorrow of admitted culpability and the mutual gift of radical love are needed to heal the wound.

I hope we will do both. Acknowledge and own our part as whites. Accept the blame, whether we understand and agree or not. Perhaps be granted grace by Blacks. For all my life, I have lied to myself, believing my inaction was enough. No longer. I know I intend to learn, read, ask, donate, phone call, letter write, and march. I will continue to do the terrifying work of confronting my own biases, because even at its most terrifying, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real physical terror that my Black fellow citizens face now and faced 200 years ago. I will seek forgiveness where I can. Most of all, I will learn to listen. Listen hard. Because other than recognizing the legacy of racism I inherited, other than acknowledging that as a white person in America I don’t have to overcome racial bias, I really don’t have much to add to the conversation. It’s time for me to hush up and learn.

The lie I told myself? That only bad people were guilty of racism. Now I know better. And as the wondrous Maya Angelou said, when we know better, we do better.

In this beautiful article, author Courtney Ariel lays out a list of ways white people can be effective allies. She calls this “holy work.”

https://sojo.net/articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies?fbclid=IwAR3dRnGltvHQclba3DqVfvbOSSA9gyr3rWRsQS8a1FFXAYQ-YPgVYKAh9LE

 

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I Hugged My Husband On Wednesday…

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. In a moment of crisis, I hugged him because I had to. It was hug him or hurt myself; desperately upset and out of practice, my head knocked sharply on his shoulder as I thrust myself toward him, and I discovered there had been nothing to be afraid of, after all. Oh, joy of joys! His strong hands stroked my back, his broad shoulder absorbed my tears, and I broke open just enough to look around. The world is full of beauty:

books dog-eared with affectionate reading, sunshine sparkling through jewel-colored crystals, juicy peaches, baby toes, the hum of summer locusts in the woods. A Chopin nocturne.

Fresh starts. Worn paths.

Dandelions. Doodlebugs.

Apologies accepted. Grace granted.

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Who knew that resilience, that trauma recovery, that learning to love who you are, would turn out to be a lifelong journey? That ugly voices once thought vanquished could worm their way back in? But beauty and power lay in reconnecting with the deepest part of our spirit. The part that, merged with the Divine, beseeches us, “Don’t listen to the Darkness! Behold the Light! The birds! Sparkling water and leafy trees! Those who love you, not because you’ve earned their love, but simply because YOU ARE.”

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. I accepted his love for me. Though still reluctant to be touched, I am aware of it; I’m still working on shaping my own love for me. But I know where to look to find it, for the Divine Creator is an infinite and persistent source of love.

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A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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RenFest, Empathy, and Mindfulness

God, my feet hurt, like millions of shards of glass inside when I step, their skin is red and angry. Just touching them, even to rub, hurts. The ache is not only in my feet, though. Ankles, knees, arches, heels, basically my legs, hurt. I would rather wear my New Balance sneakers, the ones with patented foam cushions, today. But I can’t. Because I am on the management staff at a Renaissance Festival.

Yes, a Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

To be completely precise, it’s a Medieval Faire, and we staffers wear all sorts of fun costumes. Sometimes I’m a pirate, sometimes I’m a fairy, sometimes I’m just in a pretty velvet gown. Whatever the costume, I am never in sneakers. I wear boots. The ground is rocky and hilly, and I have recently had knee surgery. I ache as I work and walk, it’s as simple as that.

In the world of the Ren Faire, fashion choices are as closely and critically scrutinized as those at any runway at New York Fashion Week. The “insiders,” those who have been attending for years, whose closets are stocked with thousand-dollar hand-crafted leather breastplates or jewel-encrusted Elizabethan gowns, love to see and be seen. We may be guilty of preening a bit, like peacocks proud of their beautiful feathery tails. We may also be guilty of sneering at those whose costumes are less correct, less complete, and no single faux pas gathers more derision than the improperly clad foot. “Why bother to wear a costume at all,” we whisper to each other, “if you don’t get the right boots to go with it?”

I am discovering, friends, that it might be that the wearer quite simply doesn’t have the physical stamina or health to do it. And here is where I finally get to the thrust of it, the point, the moral: We cannot always know the burdens that are carried and endured, unseen and unspoken.

 

My grandmother was a survivor of polio, contracted when she was a girl. Her legs were withered, her feet gnarled, with toes literally curled underneath the balls of her feet. When she walked, she walked on nubs, her weight carried by lower legs as thin as the shinbones themselves. As a child, I did not know why she walked as she did, slightly wobbly and frequently touching bits of furniture or wall to steady herself, nor did I give it a thought. She walked how she walked and I loved her dearly, no matter. In retrospect, I marvel that she had the courage to bear and raise five babies. What determination and possessed, to lift children from cribs and carry them with her.

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When her children celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, they threw a wedding. My grandmother, who had a JP wedding in her youth, made her own wedding dress, it was a beautiful ivory lace top and a moire taffeta skirt with a flounced knee-length hem. Ivory stockings. And she wore matching orthopedic SAS shoes. Her hand was firmly tucked in at my dad’s elbow as he walked her down the aisle until Daddy handed her to my grandfather, where her hand tucked lovingly into the elbow of the man who had been her firm foundation for half a century. Her shoes were not elegant, but her heart was.

Sometimes, we look at the outside appearance and make a judgment of worth, of intelligence, of taste. But we don’t know the battles the target of our judgment is facing: health, fear, pain, want.

The same is true for things less obvious, less visible than shoes. The student who is chronically tardy because she’s living with an alcoholic parent, the CEO whose money can’t save the mother disappearing in plain sight due to Alzheimer’s, the single father working three jobs to pay the light bill.

As I mulled over my grandmother’s cheerful tenacity and stretched in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort, I realized that the simple act of putting on my sneakers, of slipping on my grey no-show socks and tying that double knot, had become a spontaneous meditation. It had enabled presence. I was, for better and worse, fully present in the moment I set my sore feet on the floor. Mindfulness may be more than just walking amongst the bird and the trees. In fact, it must be; for how often do we actually find ourselves in a picture-perfect setting, like modern-day fairy-tale characters surrounded by chattering woodland creatures and babbling brooks? No, daily, modern mindfulness requires gentle rigor, a commitment to listening to both body and spirit. Presence needs an allowance of space and a measure of quiet for the mind to think thoughts and explore intentions. Dressing in solitude, without noise or conversation, this morning allowed me to be aware of my body and provided my mind a chance to make the sorts of connections that will allow me to do my work in the world, moving into and amid humanity from a place of compassion.

I am going to endeavor to seek mindfulness in this time of extreme stress and anxiety, to practice quietude, to intentionally turn off media and allow my spirit to rest. To breathe.

And then I will walk out of my home, sore feet and all, and chat with my neighbors. Conscious connection and gentle presence may be the way through this worldwide, yet crazily intimate, crisis. Peace, my friends. may you stay well.

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Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Yesterday, as I arrived home and walked in the door to my house, I heard a squeal as my 14-month-old granddaughter walked away from me in that precious, stiff, wobbly way unique to toddlers, hoping I would chase her. Of course, I dropped my bag, slipped off my Skechers, and crept after her, sweeping her sweet little self into a giant hug. Giggling children remind us of all that is joyful, don’t they?

Take a moment to close your eyes and remember the games you played as a child: tag, red-light-green-light, heads-up-seven-up. Do you remember the warm sunshine, the chirp of crickets camouflaged in the verdant grass, the breathless anticipation of waiting for your thumb to be pressed down to your fist by your best friend? I was a hide-and-seek master as a child. I was small enough to hide in very creative places and patient enough to hold my breath if required to remain hidden. Safety was paramount in my game;  I was afraid to try for home base because I didn’t want to give away my prime spot, nor did I relish being tagged in a way that felt physically aggressive.  I’d climb trees or tuck into the laundry hamper to evade my brothers and the neighborhood kids.

When I was a teen attending a church youth group retreat, I remember playing a version of hide-and-seek called Capture The Flag. I don’t recall the rules; what I do remember is that I hid so well and for so long, listening to new friends run around in the inky night of a countryside retreat center, getting caught and laughing while I remained silent and solitary, that no one ever found me; to my knowledge, no one even tried. I finally gave up and went back to the cabin, where the entire group including the chaperones had moved on to a new activity. No one had noticed my absence, and certainly, they had not sent anyone to find me.

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Hiding didn’t always mean literally tucking myself away in a wee spot. Sometimes I hid in plain view. One day in my senior year of high school, my friends and I were goofing around in the choir room with some inflatable frisbees I had in my car trunk from the water park where I worked. All five of my friends struck silly poses and someone snapped a picture. That pic ended up in the yearbook, and my friend Celeste wrote “Kim, where are you?” beside the photo in the book. Where, indeed? I was standing beside the photographer, waiting and hoping that one of my friends would notice I was not in the picture and invite me in. Same thing happened in college at a club Christmas party- my entire group was getting a picture made by the Christmas tree and I was standing off to the side, waiting for someone to notice me.

I tend to hide as an adult, too. I tuck away in my office or my home, surrounded by comforting items that make it too easy to cocoon. My bedroom has always been my refuge, I would happily spend days tucked into my bed surrounded by books and sunshine spattered yellow walls. Travis is always telling me to call someone to set up a date. I can’t. I just can’t. But the presence of my daughter’s family, with those sweet little baby faces, has given me a reason to leave my nest.

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I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert and a survivor of childhood trauma; I am not unique in that. How many of us find safe, cozy places and huddle in there, waiting for our friends, lovers, children, parents, co-workers to seek us out and pull us from our isolation?

Leaving the hidey-hole means risking vulnerability. There is a journey to be made between the safety of darkness and the safety of home base. You may get tagged, knocked down, or made “it.” You may risk love and not be loved in return. Even when you are loved in return, there is even more at stake, because nothing hurts worse than the pain inflicted by a loved one. You may express yourself artistically and not be understood. You may try a new career and fail. You may initiate a new friendship and be ignored.

As a middle-aged adult, I have owned that I have often been complicit in my own isolation. If I had jumped into the photos, I’d have been welcomed. If I’d run out into the darkness of Capture the Flag, I’d have been tagged, sure, then invited in with the rest of the group for snacks.

Yet I don’t know if I will ever be comfortable enough to jump into the photo or invite the friend over. If Travis is ever gone from me, you will probably find me tucked away like a hermit, reading books and eating saltines in bed. I won’t send out an S.O.S. But if you come to find me, let me know you’re around by hollering that old standby: “Olly-Olly-Oxen-Free!”

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Let’s engage!

If you’re an introvert or simply a survivor who tends to hide away or blend in, what are your go-to strategies for taking a risk and engaging? What are your defense mechanisms that might not be healthy?

I tend to hide behind organizational matters and busy-ness.

Loving a Quiet, Ordinary Life

How did you answer the question, the one single question that every adult asks every kid when they need to start a conversation, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a tough one, kids only really know the careers they see on TV or in their own small circle of people. They share those big ones, the ones that their families have encouraged: astronaut, football player, doctor, the President.  I usually said I wanted to be a famous singer like Marie Osmond or the beautiful ladies called Dawn who sang with Tony Orlando. I loved their pretty clothes, I loved that people clapped for them, and I knew I loved to sing. In my secret heart, I wanted to be a singer all the way through my growing up years. And I could sing, I really could. I don’t mean in the way that we’ve all heard some poor, deluded American Idol candidates, who show up to audition so sure their voices are awesome because their moms always thought so. No, I had a voice that could have played pretty much any Rodgers and Hammerstein lead; if I had chosen to do the work, to study and rehearse and push. I had the instrument. 

But I chose a different path. I met a guy my first day at college. I fell in love and got married at nineteen years old. I changed my major from vocal performance to elementary education. I made the conscious, deliberate decision to follow an ordinary life, to settle down and raise a family and have a little house and a conventional, safe career.

I had my first child at twenty-one years old, my second at twenty-four, and my third at twenty-seven. I probably changed thousands of cloth diapers, washed lots of them in an old avocado green washing machine that I bought from my grandpa, made baby food in a food processor, read Watch Your Step, Mr. Rabbit and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? so often I still feel their rhythms in my bones, graded countless first grade math papers, matched socks, drove to baseball practice and dance lessons, sewed dresses and Halloween costumes, baked birthday cakes, emptied Friday folders, buckled church shoes, made love with my husband, made beds, made lunch, made…a life. An ordinary life.

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Art by Charlie Mackesy

In the quest to instill a spirit of courage and daring in our kids, we encourage them to dream big; and dreaming big seems to mean fame. Perhaps prestige. Most likely hefty cash flow. We tell our kids (both families and teachers do this) that they can be anything they want to, that if they just want it enough and never give up, they will reach their goals. That’s good stuff. We definitely want kids to know that they are smart, that they have talents, that they can do good in this world. They should shoot for the stars!

But that’s not invariably true. Have you ever seen the scene, the incredible moment, in Little Miss Sunshine when Dwayne, the brother character, realizes he cannot be a pilot because he is color blind? To see the realization dawn in his eyes, then inhabit his entire body until his limbs cannot be contained, to see an entire childhood aspiration lost, and so an entire identity erased, is excruciating.

I think a lot of people go through a version of that internally every day. I know I did; not every day, but sometimes. I got lost in the piles of unrelenting dirty dishes, the long rehearsals when I taught my theatre students how to perform instead of working on my own art, or the constantly replenishing pile of bills.

Yet there were so many moments of enchantment- some troubling thorns, but more glittering magical seeds:

Kissing tiny boo-boos and bandaging little knees.

Seeing students hit milestones.

Swimming in a central Texas lake.

Preparing my Aunt Molly’s Thanksgiving dressing recipe.

Loving and losing pets.

Being baptized at age ten, then helping to baptize my own children later.

Giving a daughter away in marriage.

Holding that daughter close when it was time for her to file for divorce.

Being estranged from my adult son for a period.

Seeing the first ultrasound image of my grandchild.

Choosing over and over again to love my husband and to let him love me.

Somewhere along the way I realized that my life was pretty ordinary, and also pretty great.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the beloved Little House book series, has said, “As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.”

What would happen if we taught our kids that an ordinary life is beautiful? That having a vocation, whether it’s accounting or bagging groceries is an honor; listening to music is transcendental; noticing the sunlight in the tree leaves is holy; sometimes sandwiches for dinner are perfectly okay? That life does not have to look like a Pinterest board? That children’s birthday parties don’t have to compete with each other or be Instagram worthy? That wedding proposals can be intimate instead of viral?

As I really dig into my sixth decade on this planet, I am choosing to love my ordinary life, to share my ongoing journey to heal from trauma and betrayal (both in childhood and adulthood), and to be okay in alone-ness. I am learning to be as grateful for playtime with my grandchildren as I might ever have been for grand adventures. Restlessness gives way, inch by excruciating inch, to contentment.

May you know that your own ordinary life is also precious. I hope so. Though we’ve all got to walk our own path.

What are the joys you find in your ordinary life? I’d love to know!

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If you’re in a quandary how to start conversations with kiddos, this article is great. I wish I had had this information when I was raising kids and teaching school.

https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/stop-asking-your-kids-what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up-ask-this-instead.html

 

Grandma’s Post-Postpartum Depression.

A couple of days ago, I found myself picking up, by hand, all the little crumbs and leafy bits scattered on the light beige carpet on our stairs. One by one. This, after stacking toys and reversing the hangers of each piece of clothing in our bedroom closet.

My husband is worried about me.

My daughters are worried about me.

I am a little worried about me.

Plagued by insomnia, heart rate excelling, breath accelerated; for three consecutive weeks I have found myself unable to sit still in my own home, my eyes constantly darting to and fro, seeking messes to straighten or clutter to eliminate. I do not exaggerate, my family pleads with me to stop, to sit down and enjoy a movie or a book or a chat. I fail. Tonight, my spouse stalled me by encircling me with his arms, saying, “Honey, stop. Sit down.” I lay my head on his shoulder for the briefest of moments, then replied, “I can’t,” then trudged upstairs to put dirty laundry in the wash. The garage has been cleaned, the cabinets cleared, the linens assessed and mended. I painted a bedroom on New Year’s Day. Even the slimy produce has been disposed of and the drawers of the fridge washed with hot, soapy water. That’s the worst job, isn’t it? I hate it.

Oh, and just two months after knee surgery I am pushing myself to walk 10,000 steps a day and/or ride my bike. Movement is, at this point, compulsive, though apparently and unfotunately not yet burning enough calories to erase the stocking-stuffer imported English wine-flavored gummy candy from my hips.

Amidst this frenzy of activity, there have been only two things that could stop me in my tracks:

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Binge-watching the second season of Fleabag with my older daughter on the day before she returned to Los Angeles; we holed up in my bedroom with wine and chocolate to cram all six episodes of the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her Hot Priest, and I took that break because my girl insisted. It was her one request before going home…

And my two grandchildren. One, a girl, is thirteen months old. She is playful and headstrong. The other, a boy, is only three weeks old. He is angelic and hungry. They and their parents live with my husband and me. It’s a blessing. I love having them. I do. Really, I do.

But I think I may be experiencing a bit of post-postpartum depression. Is that a thing for grandmothers? It should be. I bet it is, and we just don’t talk about it.

Recently, my husband and I met a new couple, lovely folks. As we chatted, we described our living situation: youngest daughter and her domestic partner living with us with their kids while my daughter finishes school and they try to get ahead financially. Incredulous, they said something like, “We told our kids once they finished school (and they paid for their kids’ degrees, a feat we had been unable to accomplish on our pastor/educator salaries) they were on their own, and we meant it. We enjoy our kids and grandkids, sure, but no way would we let them live with us.” Emphatic shakes of their heads emphasized their resolve. Maybe that grandmother doesn’t have any post-postpartum depression. She seems to have it pretty together. But this one? Me? Hell yes. I think I do.

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I went looking to see what humorist Erma Bombeck might have to say about being a grandmother, certain that if she could find something funny to say, it would shake me out of the funk of anxiety, and she had nothing but niceness to say, she the pinnacle of rapier wit:

“Grandmas defy description. They really do. They occupy such a unique place in the life of a child. They can shed the yoke of responsibility, relax, and enjoy their grandchildren in a way that was not possible when they were raising their own children. And they can glow in the realization that here is their seed of life that will harvest generations to come.”

Why can I not “shed the yoke… [and] relax?” What’s wrong with me?

It’s a lifetime of perfectionist habits, partnered with a legitimately diagnosed anxiety disorder and a compulsion to be the best, most generous and helpful mom/grandmother/employee/teacher/etc…

Magnified by menopause. That, to quote Fleabag, “horrendous…magnificent” process that shakes us women up, down, and sideways.

Enough about how I have been struggling. We’re all struggling one way or another. What you may wonder, dear reader, is what is she doing about it? 

Here’s what:

After a couple of months letting my anxiety prescription gather dust, I got it refilled and I started taking it again. Faithfully, every morning, with my daily 4 ounces of orange juice. At first, I did it because of the look of dismay on my husband’s face when he realized I had not been taking it. But then, I decided to take it for myself. So often, when those of us with a mental illness feel better, we think it’s time to take ourselves off our meds (and of course, we do not consult our physicians because we know what they say. I actually did ask my doctor and she said No and I did it anyway). It’s been a couple of weeks and I am feeling incrementally calmer.

I started letting my family help more. Right now, as a matter of fact, my husband is loading the dishwasher (so…many…baby…bottles…) while I write up here in my cozy bedroom writing space. When I got home from work today, there were dirty dishes in the sink and I left them there! No one in my household expects a constantly clean house. Just me. That’s my hangup, it comes from growing up in sometime squalor. Gotta let that stuff go.

I stuck to my guns with my new boss to get a private workspace. Is it in an old closet? Yes. But it’s my closet. It’s quiet. I can avoid the chaos of an open concept office (which is fun when you’re in an office with Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael, and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew, but not so great in real life). The important part of this situation is that I stuck to my guns and spoke up for something I knew I needed.

I did yoga yesterday.

And I canceled a commitment I’d made to my extended family this week. I’d made it with the best of intentions. And I had tried to honor it. But I simply did not have enough time. They accepted it with silence, then someone else stepped up to do the job. The rest of the family is rallying to help her accomplish it, which is great. I think I disappointed or angered them, but I know that after all these weeks of crying, shaking, and lying awake, my health mattered more. Listening to my inner voice tell me where I had overextended, then doing the humbling work of canceling, was the best self-care I could do at this time.

What I am emphatically not going to do is send my daughter and her family away. They need help, and I remember what it was like to feel bereft and overwhelmed when a young mother. Maybe I am a sucker, but I want to provide a nurturing foundation for my daughter and her family. The best part of “grandma’s post-postpartum depression” is the exquisite beauty of being a grandmother, anyway.

Medication. Boundaries. Saying no. Self-care. Accepting help. Leaving the dishes. Hugs from my husband. Cuddles with two grandbabies. And plenty of the genius of Fleabag. These are tools for coping with the rarely discussed and maybe only case ever of post-postpartum depression.

Okay, Erma, I am ready to glow.

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Tell Them a Story. Like Big Bird!

“Sunny day
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?”

This morning, my daughter suggested we turn Sesame Street on for her one-year-old. We did, and oh, the feelings that swept through me.

It’s the first week of a new decade. My holiday decorations are stored, the garage is impossible to use while we try to clear the house of clutter, I used New Year’s Eve to paint a bedroom. There’s a new baby, just twenty days old, living in my house and distracting me from my chores (I am joyous to oblige him). Lots of fresh starting going on.

There’s also a lot of nostalgic wishing and sighing. A little angst- I still haven’t had a book published or lost the ten pounds I need to, but those are little angsts. The big angst is over people I miss. When you’re very, very young, like my two grandchildren, time has no meaning. Days? Months? Years? Decades? Pfft. When you’re a teen or perhaps a young adult, every new year may feel like the beginning, like a fresh start full of promise. Onward!

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When you’re in the middle, like I am, you look forward and backward in equal measure. And this morning, with Big Bird on the screen, I didn’t just glance backward. My very soul seemed pulled right out of the now. The episode began with Elmo singing with friends on the stoop of the brownstone, the green doors opening to reveal Gordon, his father, and his son, Miles. They told a surprised Elmo and Miles, who couldn’t imagine that the two old guys might have been musicians, stories of their younger days as a singer and a guitarist. Gordon’s flashback included Luis and Bob, and my five-year-old spirit danced in recognition.

I have always loved Sesame Street. Its literacy lessons gave me reading, but its inclusive kindness gave me hope. I was a pretty lonely kid, and Big Bird’s gentle love for the invisible Snuffy was a source of great joy for me. When my own eldest was a toddler, I shared SS with her on the Lubbock PBS station; Ernie was her favorite. For her second Christmas, we got her an Ernie ornament for our tree. My father was with us that Christmas, and when we hung that Ernie, he told me that he remembered how I had loved the show as a small girl. I had never realized he’d noticed that. But I did, I really did love it. And my dad. He loved me, too.

Caroll Spinney, the operator and voice of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, passed on my granddaughter’s first birthday, and as she stood at the TV screen this morning, I realized anew just how important it is that we pass along, to our children and grandchildren, all the things that Sesame Street holds dear: kindness, literacy, and story.

Story is power, it is magic, it is blessing and curse. Humans love stories. We draw them, film them, record them, write them, and tell them around campfires. My Grandma June used to tell the same family yarns over and over at gatherings, so often repeating herself that her kids and kids-in-law developed a hand signal: when Grandma started a story they’d all heard before, they would start flashing their fingers above their heads to indicate how many times they’d heard the tale. Then they’d all laugh, including Grandma, and she’d tell the story anyhow. Story is how the thread of a family can be woven in and around generations, creating a tapestry that is indestructible. It may become threadbare at times, perhaps worn or frayed, but the through-line will preserve a household. How can we share story?

Story can be long. My Grandmother Juanita was a seamstress; when I’d visit and she needed to sew for a client, she’d set me up near her machine with my own doll, fabric scraps, needle, and thread. I’d cut and stitch as she made beautiful dresses, while stories fell from between her pin-filled lips. Stories of raising children while picking cotton, stories of church. Stories about the women who came to her home for dress fittings. She shared an oral history with me that could not have been heard if we’d been in front of a screen. Those stories took hours of communication: her talking, me listening and asking questions.

But that’s not the only way to share story. There are ways to incorporate it into a daily life lived in such a way that our tales flow out of us, long and short, deeply profound or joyfully silly, memorable or not. Each story shared, no matter length or gravitas, builds a connection with each other: parent to child, roomie to roomie, teacher to student.

Though I usually shy away from creating a list, today I am giving it a try. Here are some ways to share story with your loved ones, whether family of blood or family of choice, friends treasured, or students respected.

  • The most obvious is to share meals around a table. Screens off. Though my hubby and I share our meals in front of a TV now, when we were raising kids, we gathered them around the table, television off, for dinner every night. Those thirty minutes allowed everyone to hear and be heard. It did get harder as they got older and began playing sports and taking dance lessons. But the foundation we laid in their younger years remains firm.
  • Leave the photo albums and scrapbooks out where everyone has quick and easy access. I used to spend hours poring over my parents’ wedding album and the albums of all the photos taken when they were young and my brother and I were small. Sometimes I asked my parents what was happening in a particular picture, but at other times I allowed these photos to be a jumping-off place for histories of my own creation. I personally have around twelve albums now of my own family.  And if some of the cute decorations in the albums that moms of my generation were creating so lovingly during the 90s and 00s get torn, so what?
  • Tiny moments call for short stories. Washing dishes, tucking in, not making the team…all opportunities for stories that are just a couple of sentences. When I was tightening the key on the expander in my kids’ mouths (they all inherited my narrow jaw, unfortunately), I’d tell them tales of my own orthodontic nightmares, including the time when my inner upper lip cut open then sealed shut over the arch of wire running along my upper gums. These old stories gave them hope that they’d survive the ordeal, it let them know that I really did understand their pain, and it helped them to understand that I am a person who lived and loved before they came along.
  • Write things down. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even grammatically flawless. One of my most treasured possessions is the file of letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during their courtship. Sometimes, I sit and read a couple of those letters that are in his scrawled, slanting handwriting, and I feel him and remember him so closely. Keep a book in which you grab a pen and write short notes. Your loved ones will be glad to have it someday. And it’s just not quite the same if it’s all done exclusively digitally.
  • However, sometime technology really can be helpful! Call and leave voice texts-not voice mails, but actual voice texts. They can be longer, can be saved, and can be listened to at convenience and on repeat. Since we’re all carrying smart phones now, you can simply pop in your AirPods and listen to a saved message from the one you miss.
  • When I was a kid, there was a rack of record albums sitting by my parents’ stereo console, I could pull a record out of its sleeve, set it on the turntable, and have a sense of my family through the music they loved. When I was a young adult, we were making mix tapes and CDs, assembling the songs we loved to tell others about us. Now, we can make a playlist and share it. And if we listen to it together, we can share the stories that go along with the songs. At our house, anytime Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby” comes on, I have to tell the story of my daughter pronouncing it “Maven, Maven” as I drove our used sedan to work, dropping her and her baby brother off at daycare at Ms. Sharina’s first.
  • Traditions and rituals make wonderful opportunities for sharing stories. It might be a cooking tradition, a travel tradition, a holiday tradition. At our house, the kids (now 30, 28, and 25) get a new ornament on the tree every year. They have to hunt for it on Christmas Eve after our traditional dinner of tortilla soup and tamales. Of course there is Ernie, but also a baseball player or two, caps and gowns, and a sparkly frog. And when I hang them, everyone there has to listen if I want to tell the story of any ornament. img_1449.jpgThere is one ornament we don’t hang now, it is the matched set of my daughter and her husband from the year they married, 2016. Custom made by an artist friend, they are perfect little replicas of my daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day. Their marriage crumbled after just one year, the weight of his opioid addiction simply too much to bear.

The stories will not be, should not be, exclusively happy. There are sad stories to tell: pets lost, marriages dissolved, arguments and deaths. But we should share them nonetheless. Our lives are the stories we live and leave behind. We have the power to create and share resonant truths. And from these stories of grief and struggle, we learn that resilience is possible.

More importantly, we have the privilege of authoring our own stories, living them daily in front and alongside the ones we love. May your story be heard and your life seen.

As the wonderful Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and my sweet Sesame Street said, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.”

Interested in learning more about telling story in your family? I love this blog!

 

 

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Conflicted Holiday Recollections

The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.

You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.

From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.

My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:

sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;

diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;

playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;

cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;

tossing a ball with my mom;

riding our shared Big Wheel;

playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.

These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?

Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…

Chad and puppy 1975I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.

When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.

She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.

The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.

So much joy, so much promise.

Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.

I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.

Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.

My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.

Kim and Daddy 2-70

It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.

With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.

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