From That – To This

It feels a little as though things have been turned upside down. (Not a Hamilton reference, believe it or not – although the sentiment is the same…) Since the white supremacist flyers were distributed in our town’s neighborhoods, all of the fears and anger and hatred that were happening Somewhere Else, that had seemed almost hypothetical, were suddenly impossible to ignore. It was one of my most difficult parenting moments – my daughters and husband being targeted for their race, knowing others’ privacy had been violated, wondering if we would be next. I began having difficulty sleeping; I awoke every morning anxious to see if our driveway had been hit, if, on the way to school, our girls would find strips of paper disavowing their existence.

Turns out, I was far from the only person feeling this way. Within 48 hours of the initial intimidation campaign, a meeting was scheduled for local residents to discuss a counter-response. Over 50 people showed up on a Sunday afternoon, including Nick and me; we strategized, imagined, and shared ideas on how to organize a visible anti-racist, inclusive message – both in the immediate aftermath and well beyond. A group was formed: Pittsforward. I left the meeting feeling wary but energized, so grateful that others were willing to be brave enough to come together and say, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE!” rather than silently condemning from the safety of our houses.

We agreed that, among other things, a march or walk of some kind was in order. Exactly one week later, all of the details were in place and we gathered for our Unity Walk.

(I always have said I’m not the kind of person who marches for stuff; it’s just not my thing. Turns out, when you literally bring hate to our neighborhoods and driveways, I have a different reaction. Funny, that.)

It wasn’t just the 50 of us, however; hundreds upon hundreds of people showed up to stroll peacefully en masse through our little town, joyfully and resolutely declaring that racism will not be accepted here, that we stand united, that we celebrate our differences, and that everyone is welcome here.

That so many residents in my community wanted to stand with one another and say, NO, NOT HERE! was deeply heartening. That they did so in a steady rain kind of blew my mind. img_7253img_7255

Neither of our girls was particularly looking forward to the walk. Part of this was our waiting until the last minute to tell them about it, and part of this was their relative lack of perspective on why something like this was worthwhile. Often, when Ella or Annie strongly object to participating in a “family” outing, either Nick or I will step in to say, “Hey, maybe this isn’t so important; let’s allow her to skip it.” (Like, I might say this regarding a hockey game and Nick might say it regarding a dance performance. YOU KNOW, JUST AS HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLES.)

On this, however, we were in agreement: our family would walk, period. It was important. It was necessary. We were going, driving rain or sunshine. (Side note: we would have preferred the latter.)
img_7279
So, this is a totally crappy photo… It’s actually a screen shot – from my phone – of a video that was shown by one of our local television stations.
Still, it’s the only photo (such as it is) of us at the walk, so… yeah.

After almost 41 years of tearing up at Budweiser commercials and getting misty over inspirational memes on Pinterest,  you’d think, by now, that I would expect to be emotional at things like this. Apparently I still surprise myself, because I was not prepared to become so choked up at the sight of everyone in their raincoats and umbrellas, coming together to support one another.
img_7262
Low bridge, everybody down… (Get it?)

There were families with kids – from babies in strollers to high schoolers. Some were biracial families, like ours. Others had adopted children of mixed race. Others were all people of color. And, alongside them, hundreds of white folks – who, despite being “included” in the “acceptable” list provided in the supremacist flyers, found their rhetoric anything but acceptable.

There were older couples without any children (accompanying them). There were college students. There were groups of adults with signs and placards. There were women in headscarves. There were priests in collared shirts. We passed our local Chabad House, where members were preparing for the start of Rosh Hashanah; despite their preparations, they stepped outside to wave and join our chorus.

14479605_10210999907901754_1838754398092969073_n14485128_10100287595069075_2231779531500025766_n
A couple of the many signs from the walk…

We walked behind our local Flower City Pride Band, their 60s and 70s rock songs providing us a cheerful soundtrack. Police had cordoned off portions of our little town to make it safe for the marchers to go by; they were on hand, directing the traffic that inevitably backed up. As we passed them, we leaned into their patrol cars to thank them for being there. And, at the end, we gathered – alongside many of our locally elected officials and members of the school board – in a town park. The display of love in the face of hate, of support in the face of threats, was so incredibly powerful.

We can do this. Together, we can do this. Just look at all the people willing to say so.

I will fully admit it: I cried. More than once.
img_7258

Because our little town is, indeed, little, the entire affair lasted only twenty minutes or so… but that was enough. We said what we needed to say. We were where we needed to be. And, whether they understand or not – whether they like it or not – we showed our girls what it means to stand up for diversity, acceptance, and love.

There is a time for deliberate indifference, for willful ignoring. I absolutely believe that, sometimes, the best way to handle an ignorant bully is to not even acknowledge their existence – to not give them the attention they’re seeking. I also believe that, sometimes, when a bully pushes too hard, when they threaten you by coming to your turf rather than spouting their message from afar, a strong, direct, vocal opposition is exactly what’s needed.

The time had passed for quietly shaking our heads in disapproval. We needed to take a stand, to make it clear that not only would we not tolerate this kind of hate and propaganda being delivered to our homes, but we also celebrate our differences and our diversity. Perhaps most of all: we are not alone. 

I’m a silver lining kind of girl (see: yes, the basement flooded, but at least the floor is clean!). The flyers were certainly The Bad. But there is The Good, too: people are no longer content to be complacent. We are making connections, having conversations, coming together. We are recognizing that our neighborhoods are more than just where we live; they’re also the people who live there. If nothing else, the flyers’ aftermath has caused me to want to get to know my neighbors better, because it’s much more difficult to hate and fear someone you’ve talked with face to face.

This isn’t going to change overnight. Yes, the walk was tremendous and important.But there is so much more to do to make our community truly inclusive, safe, and open to other viewpoints. Together, we can make a difference in our community. I have to believe it’s so, because the alternative is just not okay.

14484964_312715835763190_7795085902730877513_n

Oh Hell No

The unthinkable happened – or so I thought*.

(* see what I did there?)

As is well-documented, I love where we live. We moved to our cozy, tight-knit, western New York community because it is exactly where we want to be, and especially where we want to raise our girls. No, it’s not as diverse as I’d like, but we take as many steps as possible to help Ella and Annie understand that there is a world beyond what they know. Life feels good here – safe, supportive, inclusive.

Yesterday, in our cozy, tight-knit, safe, supportive, inclusive community, a man was seen handing out flyers in a residential neighborhood. The flyers were titled, “Make (Rochester) Great Again” and contained the link to a website that is being used as a recruitment tool for white supremacist groups.

According to one of our local news outlets, the website advertises a “network (of) like-minded Whites for the furtherance of the European white races… (It) promotes that European whites should not feel constrained in recognizing their ethnic and racial identities and in promoting its interest. It is thus taken as legitimate for whites to challenge attempts to turn whites into a minority. (The group) is an incipient initiative that aims to Make (Rochester) Great Again, by making Rochester Whiter.”

Um. Hell no. Fuck no.

I shared the story with Ella to get her opinion – she’s usually pretty good at framing things for me from a kid’s perspective (which is almost always better than whatever we adults are thinking) – but I could barely read the words aloud. I am of the European white race. My daughters and husband are not. Looking at my child and saying that my race should be furthered, but not hers… That I should take pains to recognize and promote my ethnic and racial identities above hers… That anyone attempting to promote equality and equity for non-white races (like, say, the Black Lives Matter movement) should be seen as a threat to me…

… was literally stomach-turning. I felt like I was going to throw up.

These are my children that this website is targeting. MY CHILDREN. In MY CUTE LITTLE TOWN. This is not happening in some big city or some podunk nowhere. It is happening in my own backyard. I knew, of course, that there was racism and hatred everywhere, even in my community, but to see it happening exactly here, exactly now, was absolutely chilling.

 

Thankfully, Ella found the article more amusing than alarming – she was so shocked that anyone in 2016 believes such drivel, she was basically speechless. But it still woke me up to the reality of what we in 2016 America are dealing with (I thought I understood; until tonight, I didn’t) and made me vow anew to make absolutely certain that our children are able to do better than we are.
img_5764
Our community; soccer game.

In fairness, it’s something I’ve been working at for my whole life.

In elementary school, my first Cabbage Patch doll was black. Her name was Guinevere Camilla and she smelled like baby powder and I adored her from the moment I saw her. I gave not one shit that she wasn’t white.

In middle school, I accompanied a Jewish friend in requesting that a menorah be included alongside the Christmas tree in the school office. The principal called my mother to ask if I was considering converting. The very idea that I, a Christian student, would be supporting this “cause” just because I was, you know, a friend who happened to believe in the radical idea of equality was absolutely beyond his backward brain. Even at age 12, though, I knew.

In 10th grade, a friend asked if I believed gay people were going to hell, which puzzled me. I don’t even think I knew anyone who was openly gay, but I’d never heard or even considered such a possibility before and I was completely flummoxed as to what she talking about. She attempted to explain to me that her religion taught her that homosexuality was against God’s will. I told her gay people were born gay and God loves everyone, so no, they’re not going to hell, good grief.

When I was in college and finally saw, for the first time, racial profiling up close and personal, it rocked me so hard to my core, I never forgot it.

Basically, I think I’m hardwired to believe that we all are deserving of respect and love and kindness, regardless of race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, age, religion, dis/ability, or favorite sports team (although obviously the Yankees > Red Sox). I believe this so strongly, I talk about it – a lot – because one of the ways I think we’re going to combat and ultimately end the horrible cycle we’ve found ourselves in is to feel comfortable talking about this stuff.

Our girls have heard me talk about these things – a lot. They knew what it meant to be gay before they knew their uncles were gay; they never thought it was weird or taboo because they were familiar with it. Ditto gender identity and religion and, absolutely, race.

‘Cause my girls aren’t white. When strangers look at them, they don’t see white kids – even though they’re half-me. They see Asian. (And, if they’ve got eyes, they see awesome, but that’s neither here nor there.) And, apparently, some people in my own little town see my children as Other. As, What Is Stopping Rochester From Being Great. As something to be opposed.

My girls don’t see that. They think that’s insane – and I’m sure most of their friends do, too. But we need to do everything in our power to ensure that none of our children grows up thinking that these thoughts are even possibilities.

So? Have the damned discussions. No, for real. Actually talk about race relations, about what’s happening in America – today, 2016. These flyers aren’t from 1956; they’re from now, for fuck’s sake. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t pat yourself on the back for being bummed that the Academy Awards didn’t honor any people of color this year while still shouting “All Lives Matter!” Don’t assume that your community’s goodwill is going to somehow override centuries of overt and covert racist programming.

Don’t be afraid of talking about people’s race. Use terms like white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian, hispanic/Latino, Native American (“brown” is also widely used and accepted for people of color) to identify people – as you’d describe height or hair color –  not cutesy terms like “people with a tan” (seriously, wtf) or “darker-skinned people.”

Somehow, those of us in our sweet, affluent, mostly-white-but-genuinely-trying-to-do-the-right-thing communities seem to think that it’s, I don’t know, accepting? Supportive? Inclusive? to simply not refer to skin color, period. In fact, we’re doing way more harm than good when we teach our kids that discussing race is shameful. Skin color should not be whispered like cancer. It is not bad or wrong or offensive, and it’s certainly not racist, for the love, to refer to the color of someone’s skin –  any more than it’s wrong or racist to refer to the color of someone’s eyes.
img_5771
Our community: summer sunset

I know many people are sick of discussing race; others think it’s still not an issue. To that, I would say, Ask yourself – and really be honest here – how you’d feel if you were pulled over. If you’re white, like me, I imagine that you’d be a bit nervous, a bit pissed that you were caught, the tiniest bit contrite (’cause you recognize that you must’ve done something wrong even if you don’t want to admit it). You might be considering what you could do to talk your way out of the ticket.

If you’re white, like me, there is almost no way that you’d be concerned even a little bit that your pull-over might result in your being shot by the police officer who stopped you. You could yell at the officer. You could swear. You could dance. You could tell them that you’re secretly rooting for ISIS and maybe even Donald Trump. Hell, you could show them the handgun that’s sitting in your lap… and you know damned well that you’d still come out of it alive.

And deep down, you know the same would not be true if you were black. You know equally damned well that people of color, and especially black men, are not afforded this luxury. You’d be scared to death because you know in your heart that these black lives are not treated the same as yours.

We need to talk about these things openly and honestly and without shame. We need to acknowledge the problems that exist – and not be so defensive. Yes, these flyers are repugnant; instead of ignoring them or wishing them away, we need to confront them head on. We need to say FUCK NO and come together and show people who believe that diversity is the problem that it is actually the freaking answer.

Turns out, I wasn’t wrong; Ella did have some words of wisdom after hearing the content of the article (which I had to explain to her, because the very concepts were so foreign). She asked, for the millionth time, why people don’t get it — that WE – all of us, every last black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, male, female, transgender, able-bodied, disabled, neurotypical, differently-abled, old, young, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, Yankees-loving, Red Sox-loving, sports-hating one of us… ALL of us – are what makes America great.

We, in our diversity, ARE America’s greatness. We, in ourselves, are our greatest strength.
img_5822

The Handy Truth

Periodically, we have people come out to the house to work on things. Over the years, we’ve seen our fair share of plumbers, electricians, tree trimmers, HVAC specialists, chimney sweeps, cable/internet/phone installers, and handymen.

Since Nick works full-time and I work part-time, I’m the one who is home for 99% of these appointments. Whenever the folks who come out to Do The Fixing are able to complete everything themselves, they hand me a copy of the bill, pack up, and go. Occasionally, however, there are things that they can’t do (time constraints, part not in stock, outside of their realm of expertise, costs as much as a mortgage payment) and the project remains unfinished.

If the work is of the DIY variety (i.e. no electrical or major plumbing), they’ll usually give me a brief rundown on how to get started. And every time (as in every single one of these instances), before they give me their spiel, they’ll ask: “Is your husband handy?”

Um.
Excuse me?

First off, for the record – no. No, Nick is not “handy.” He is many awesome things – funny, intelligent, supportive, well-read, creative, a hockey fanatic – but handy isn’t really among them. This isn’t to say that he can’t do the DIY stuff, but he can’t usually do it off the top of his head (aka without Google or YouTube), so I don’t think of him as handy.

Secondly, why the everloving eff does it matter?? What difference does it make if my husband is handy or not? (I could also kvetch about the automatic assumption that I have a husband, but I don’t want this entry to get too War and Peace-y.) I mean, if he IS handy, then sure – I suppose that’s swell because he can easily wield the hammers and read the tape measures and twist the screwdrivers and grout the heck out of the tile. Yay for not having to call in another professional; handy husband to the rescue!

But if he’s not handy… Then what? Then we’re doomed? Gonna need to take out a home equity loan? Might as well move?

‘Cause, thirdly: Guess what, serviceperson? I can handle it. Yep, me. ME – the woman. The wife. The mom. The lady with the double X chromosomes. I’ve got this.

SHOCKING, I KNOW.
img_6846
Washing machine: undone.

Would I describe myself as handy? Oh hell no. I can break things just by looking at them (and not in a cool, Matilda telekinesis kind of way) and couldn’t begin to repair something just off the top of my head. But what I can do is read directions <insert stereotypical joke about men and directions> (Nick often reads directions, btdubs). I can watch YouTube. My Googling skills are second to none; I could probably have helped find El Chapo just through a couple of expert online searches.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m pretty damned strong (not to brag). But mostly? I have the determination to get shit done. If it’s possible for one regular, non-bodybuilder layperson to accomplish a job, I am hellbent on giving it a try. (Also I’m cheap frugal and don’t like spending money where I don’t need to.)

I mean, I pushed one baby out of my hoohah and labored for several hours without an epidural, 10 centimeters dilated, with the other before she was taken from my stomach via emergency c-section. DO YOU NOT THINK I CAN HANDLE A LEAKY FAUCET ON MY OWN?

All by myself, I have: installed our dishwasher; taken the kitchen plumbing apart, found/removed the blockage, and put the pipes back together; diagnosed running toilets and replaced their inner mechanism thingies; torn up and gotten rid of carpeting; moved loveseats and recliners up and down several flights of stairs; detached, cleaned, and reattached the dryer vent; and built furniture. I’ve caulked, grouted, drywalled, sanded, painted, and drilled. Numerous broken, small appliances have been rescued from a trashcan fate because I cozied up with Google and un-broke them.

AND THAT’S JUST WHAT I COULD THINK OF OFF THE TOP OF MY PRETTY LITTLE, NON-HANDY HEAD.

Most recently, I replaced a part in our washing machine, thereby allowing it to function properly again. True, the leaky washer contributed to an unexpected panic attack, so I can’t say that I necessarily take the discovery of faulty stuff in stride. But once it comes time to either buckle down and get ‘er done or fork over cash to have someone else do the work, I tend to roll up my sleeves a la Rosie the Riveter, flex some (legit) muscle, grab my computer (to look stuff up and to listen to my Pandora stations; I cannot do silent reparations), and get moving.

Taking apart the washing machine was easy (and kind of fun). Actually installing the bellow required some pretty intense manual labor that was a lot less exciting – and nearly pulled the skin out from under my thumbnails (ouch ouch ouch) – but once I completed it, I felt like a total badass. (As for the lawn mower? The Internet and I diagnosed that problem, too; a replacement cord is on the way, to be installed by moi next week. Stay tuned.)

Most importantly: the washer no longer leaks! And it didn’t cost us anything in labor (I paid myself in Starbucks and wine).

My husband? Not even home. He did, however, offer up a helluva lot of support via text.

I’m not necessarily good at any of this. I’m more of a Measure Once, Cut Twice kind of girl, so sometimes things wind up a little askew… but they work. And I can do them all by myself. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a division of labor that has the man doing most of the physical work, I’m damned proud that my girls know that women don’t need men to do tough stuff.

Sure, sometimes Nick does house projects on his own. Sometimes, we do them together. Other times, we call in the pros. But most often, I’m the one doing the fixing. I was a little tongue tied today when the guy from the mold company asked if my husband was handy –  “Actually, I’m handier than he is” – but next time, I’ll try to have a better retort.

Or I could just use Ella’s. When I told her about today’s exchange, her eyes widened with scorn. “Doesn’t he have a wife? I mean, who else does everything around his house?”

BOOYAH.
img_6957

 

Knocking Down Hurdles

In a matter of minutes, all hell broke loose.

We’d just returned from Minnesota – 12 lovely, fun-filled, family-rich days. It was a great trip, especially watching Ella and Annie enjoy the heck out of their cousins. Still, 12 days is a long time (for us; okay, for me), and – creature of habit and structure that I am – I was looking forward to being home.

The Re-Entry Itinerary contained some standard hurdles to leap (or, in my case, to knock over; according to the Olympics, basically anything goes with regard to hurdles, right?). Dirty clothes, empty fridge, unpacking. The grass was at least 8″ tall and we had the usual back-to-school litany: teacher meetings, orientations, sports, shopping.

All perfectly do-able — but, still, a rather jam-packed couple of days that would require me to turn off my Summer Brain and dial back into something vaguely resembling Competent School Year Brain. I just needed to keep my old, uninvited visitor, Anxiety, in check, and all would be well.

I’ve done pretty well making Anxiety talk to the hand this summer. I mean, summer and I will never be BFFs, but I’ve learned how to acknowledge Anxiety’s presence while not allowing her in.

Although the flight home was uneventful, traveling is always a bit exhausting, and I was doing that self-talk thing that we who struggle with anxiety know all too well: It’s all good, just keep going, I’ve got this. Not ten minutes after walking in the house, we discovered that Langston had a double ear infection. An Urgent Vet Visit had not been in the Re-Entry Itinerary. But, in between the grocery store and mowing and swim practice, I could slip in a trip to the dog doctor. Deep breaths. Hurdle added. I’ve got this.
IMG_6715
Pitiful vet-visit face.

Since, in that moment, I couldn’t help poor Lang out, I decided I might as well accomplish something and took the first load of Minnesota Trip laundry down to the basement. There, in front of the washer, lay a strip of dried-up blue duct tape – the “fix” I’d applied to the tear in the rubber seal to prevent it from leaking. Anxiety raised her hand, contemplating knocking, but I told her to back off – then took another deep breath, gave myself another pep talk, applied another strip of tape, stuffed a towel at the base of the machine, and hoped that it would hold.

It wasn’t until I turned around to go upstairs that I scanned the room and saw, clear as day, at least an inch of standing water covering the far side of the basement. A further scan revealed a wide-open window (screen still attached), the cinder block wall damp beneath it.

Hurdle. Added.

(Our best guess was that a huge rainstorm must’ve overloaded the window well, causing the window to burst open from the pressure. GOOD TIMES.)

A review of the damage revealed that my teaching boxes, stacked under the window, were soaked, their cardboard frames flimsy and soft. Nick’s music equipment – guitar pedals, sound-effect-thingies (that’s the technical name), microphones, speakers – sat on the floor, surrounded by water. Without thinking, I grabbed a towel (not the one protecting the washing machine, thank you very much) and threw it into the lagoon; instantaneously, it sank to the bottom, useless and drenched.

My old, uninvited visitor was now persistently banging on the door. I could feel warmth rising in my chest; my pulse began to throb in my ears. When you regularly deal with anxiety, you learn which “helpful” strategies work for you and which make you want to punch someone. For me, mindful, slow, feel-like-an-ass-but-it’s-actually-calming breathing is my go-to. Deep breaths. Come on. Innnn two-three-four… Out two-three-four…

Surveying the mess, I understood this was not something I could tackle on my own. I don’t have this. Not right now.

I went to get Nick.

Together, we got the music stuff out of harm’s way, closed the window, picked up the sopping wet rugs and dragged them outside, rearranged the furniture so it was no longer in the lagoon, gathered enough towels to actually absorb the water, and made sure the dehumidifier and a fan were running. The non-stop action enabled me to momentarily suppress the panic that was waiting impatiently on the doorstep.

Hurdles: not gracefully leapt, but definitely knocked down.

The dog to the vet. The soaking wet basement. The potentially ruined items. The discarded rugs and the water they tracked through the house. The towels that now needed washing – in addition to our Minnesota Trip clothes. The faulty window. The mold that appeared to be growing on the basement wall.  It was a lot to process, and my processing skills – exhausted from the deep breathing and Anxiety-fighting pep talks – were zilch.

When everything goes wrong at once, it’s probably a lot for anyone to handle, but for those of us who battle anxiety, it can seem temporarily insurmountable. Anxiety is a real bitch. She whispers in our ears that we do not, in fact, have this. She reminds us of all that can go wrong – and then, when we attempt to counter her, counters us right back.

This is a disaster.

If I take it step by step, it’ll seem more manageable.

Maybe someone snuck in through the broken window. It might not be safe here.

The screen is still intact and the petsitter would have noticed.

If the infection has been there for a while, Langston’s hearing could be affected.

I’m sure he’ll be okay. I’ll bring him in tomorrow.

What if that’s not enough? What if you aren’t enough?

I’m trying. I’ve got this.

Do you, though? I bet other people don’t feel this way. You’re obviously broken.

That’s the real kicker. In addition to causing you to feel nervous and unsettled over even minor things, to making you go down every absurd rabbit hole and through all the obscure What Ifs, anxiety makes you question yourself. Can I really handle this? Why don’t other people do this? What’s wrong with me?

It was now well past 6:00 and the girls were starving, so I ordered dinner. I’d planned to cook but I – mercifully – decided to give myself a pass. It’s most important that they eat. It’s okay. Give yourself a break.

IMG_8422August sunset on Long Island.

While waiting for the order to be ready, I ventured back to the basement to change the laundry… and found, yet again, a puddle in front of the washer. The duct tape hadn’t held. We needed a repair person ASAP.
More hurdles. The course was getting long.

Anxiety, impatient, began to open the door.

Before returning upstairs, I stopped to check on the drying-out process – and was stunned to discover another big ol’ pile of water in the middle of the concrete. Assuming there was some scientific explanation (the water was sucked back to the surface through blah blah, science-y words), I knelt down with yet another towel to sop things up… and heard the dripping.

The air conditioner unit was leaking. A lot.

Somehow, not only had the window burst open in a torrent – flooding the basement – but the A/C was also hemorrhaging water onto the floor. How this twofer managed to occur at the exact same time is clearly the work of the devil.

Anxiety stepped in and closed the door behind her.

The sides of my vision began to darken. The warmth in my chest turned to heat. My stomach began to knot. In addition to my heartbeat flooding my ears, there was also this rush of nothing – like white noise – that grew ever louder. My hands started to shake.

Innnn two-three-four… Out two-three-four…

I debated getting some medication – the kind specifically prescribed for times like this – but heard Anxiety telling me it was a stupid idea. “Other people don’t need that. Don’t be weak. Shouldn’t you be able to manage on your own?”
Another ironic kicker: that anxiety can make us too nervous to take our anxiety medication.

Nick found me in the kitchen standing at the counter and immediately knew something was up.

“I’m having a panic attack.”

Rather than running, rather than ignoring, he came closer. Putting down what he was holding, he took me by the shoulders and told me, measured and calm, “Okay. Let’s do this. We can figure it out.”

Yes, we can. I can. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

I told him about the air conditioner (we added more towels). He hugged me; tight, long.

“I’m sorry that I’m sort of broken.”

“No. This situation just really sucks.”

I’ve had panic attacks before and know their paralyzing horribleness. I also know, every time, I’ve gotten through them. I know that they end. I know, if I’m persistent, I can shove Anxiety back out the door. But I still need to remind myself each time it happens.

Between Nick’s reassurance, my breathing, the eventual return of my self-belief, and deciding that taking Xanax was actually the smart, strong way to go, things got better. My heartbeat returned to normal. My vision cleared. My stomach relaxed.

By the time dinner was ready, I was back to myself. The girls never even knew what happened – which was both reassuring (I wouldn’t want to worry them) and disquieting… because I want them to know that this is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. In fact, my hearing Anxiety’s self-doubt-filled warnings, flipping her off, and doing whatever it took to kick her out are not only not shame-worthy; they’re powerful and awesome.

We, as a nation, do such a poor job handling things like anxiety and depression. Their taboo nature makes difficult situations even more difficult. I want to show the girls that, despite my own statements to the contrary, I’m not broken. I’m me – strong, smart, kind, Starbucks-loving, kickass me – and just because Anxiety has barged in, those things don’t change.

Also? I’ve got her number.

Less than 24 hours after the panic attack, the A/C guy had come (sweet fancy Moses), the groceries were purchased, Langston got to the vet, the floor was dry, and I’d made appointments with the washing machine and mold folks. I also mowed the lawn – where, mid-backyard, the mower cord snapped and I sprained my toe. Two more hurdles. But this time, instead of panicking, I boldly kicked them aside.

I wrote about the whole shebang on Facebook, treating it more like a joke. 24 hours later, it was a joke –  but that was only part of the story, and I know that so many other people have similar stories… but we rarely share them. That’s why I decided to write about it: so that all of us who struggle with anxiety – or who recognize ourselves in this scenario – might feel a little less alone. Only by talking about it can we de-stigmatize it. So here I am, talking about it.

If you, too, battle anxiety, know that you’re not alone. You can do it – maybe on your own, maybe with the help of friends and family, maybe with the help of medication – but you can, and all of that is okay.

The hurdles will always appear… but remember that you don’t have to clear them. You just have to knock them down and keep going.

IMG_8718
The girls having a blast at the Minnesota State Fair.
They keep me going.
Them… and caramel macchiatos. And Xanax. Amen.

Worth It Already

Last Friday was one of the best days of our lives. We’d dreamed about it for years – literally, since 2009, when we brought home our first service dog puppy for Canine Companions for Independence. Our first two pups had been released from Advanced Training (flunked out, basically). Our third was accepted as a breeder – a success, but not quite the heartwarming, This Animal Has Become A Service Dog And Will Now Change Someone’s Life moment that we’d imagined.

Then came Fenwick.
fenwick at the vet

After six months of Advanced Training, he’d learned all the skills he could master and, after nearly two weeks of intensive Team Training, he’d been matched with someone in need. He was, indeed, to Become A Service Dog And Change Someone’s Life. Seven years later, we were finally attending the first CCI graduation of a puppy we’d raised.

IMG_6390


Reunited!!

It was almost more than I could handle.

I thought I understood why this was such a big deal. I assumed that Fenwick’s long-awaited placement would be the “reward,” that after a seventeen months with him – obedience classes, vet visits, bringing him everywhere with us, loving him with everything in us – we would finally see our hard work “pay off,” and that would feel great.

Turns out, assumptions really do make an ass out of you and me.

Ten days prior to graduation, we learned that Fenwick had been matched – but we didn’t know with whom. That news was, in and of itself, tremendous. He’d done it. OUR BOY HAD DONE IT!! Whoever he was placed with was surely perfect for him; it was all good.

Three days prior to graduation, however, when we learned that Fen’s perfect partner was a twelve year-old boy… Somehow, that made things seem even more tremendous. A boy – a child – would grow up with a buddy by his side. A child‘s life was going to be different because of Fenwick. That joyous news nearly did me in.

Again, I thought I understood why I was so deeply moved. Children tug at our heartstrings. Children are supposed to be carefree. They’re supposed to play, laugh, run, grow, and dream. They’re not “supposed” to have to deal with the hardships that adults face, whether they be financial difficulties, illnesses, physical limitations, losses, or heartbreaks. When we hear that a child is going through a challenging time, our Not Fair genes kick into high gear and our empathy goes into overdrive.

I assumed that was why I was so moved by Fen being matched up with a young child. But that was only part of it.

On Friday morning, we arrived at the CCI Northeast regional center right at 9:00, which was the earliest we were allowed to meet up with Fenwick. We hadn’t really worried that he’d have forgotten us since February, but seeing him wiggle around with glee at the sight of us and physically knock us over with his exuberance felt pretty great nevertheless. After an hour of hugs, belly rubs, a walk, and making him show off a few of his recently-acquired skills (he totally gave us some side eye when we made him “get” my cell phone off the ground), it was time to bring him to the reception room where the graduate teams were waiting.
IMG_6385

No way around it: I was nervous. Would it be awkward, this meeting of two families who loved the same dog? What if we didn’t have anything in common? How could we convey that we were genuinely thrilled that Fenwick was being placed with them, but we still wanted to hug him one more time? Could we explain how delightful we thought it would be to keep in touch, without it seeming stalker creepy?

And most important: What if they didn’t like us?

After a few deep breaths, we entered the room and found G and his mom almost immediately. There were introductions and polite greetings until G’s mom and I got to one another. Rather than accepting my handshake, she held her arms out for a hug. I was so relieved and grateful, I thought I might sink right into the floor; and then, as our arms encircled one another, she whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for doing this.”

The tears that had already escaped a few times that morning let fully loose; I pretty much didn’t stop crying for the next five hours.

All of our concerns and anxiousness disappeared the moment we began talking with G and his mother (her sister was with them as well, and equally lovely). They were nice! They were funny! Our kids are six months apart in age! They like books and Star Wars! Best of all, it was readily apparent that Fenwick and G were crazy about one another, and that this was exactly what Fen was born to do: be with G. We never felt awkward or uncomfortable; they could not have been more gracious about the “we love the same dog” thing.

The 90 minute brunch absolutely flew by as we exchanged life stories, Fenwick stories, ate scrambled eggs and cake, traded mementos and gifts, looked at Fenwick photos and videos, and generally took one another in. It was a bit mind-bogglingly awesome to think that what connected us was a yellow furball asleep at our feet.

Things were going just about as well as I could have hoped when G’s mom explained how she’d sought out CCI in the first place: because she knew that G needed help, and a service dog was a way to obtain that help. As was said during the graduation ceremony, Fenwick provided G with “the bridge between ‘I can’t” and “I can” (and is) “the friend (he) can always rely on.”

All at once, what had been light and happy became substantially heavier and more meaningful. Fenwick’s placement with G opened up avenues and possibilities in G’s life that, two weeks prior, had only been hopes and wishes. Within the span of mere days, and embodied in one furry being, G’s entire life had changed. While I had considered all of this before in some capacity – it’s why we started with CCI in the first place – seeing it right in front of me was more affecting than I can describe.

While this is true for every graduate, from eight years old to eighty, and is why what CCI does is so incredible, hearing G’s mom describe how the life of her son was changing drove everything home. Yes, my heartstrings had been tugged because G is a kid and kids aren’t “supposed” to have to go through the hard stuff, but now I saw things through G’s mom’s perspective. She had been searching for answers to help make things better for, easier for, open possibilities for her child – and BAM! all at once, those wishes came true… in a four-legged pup. As a mother, I cannot imagine anything more significant or worthwhile.

With comprehension finally dawning, I felt like the Grinch with his suddenly three-sizes-larger heart; no joke, my heart literally felt bigger, spreading a warmth throughout my chest that lasted all day.

When we’d learned that Fenwick and G were to be matched, I’d gleefully announced their pairing on Facebook. A wonderful friend of mine commented on the post that it was a “full circle moment… Such a great example of the love you showed him!” I had never considered it in that way but before instantly latched onto the idea. For all of those months, through those vet visits and grocery store trips and Target candle aisle mishaps, through nights snuggling close and days romping about, we were loving on Fenwick with everything we had. That love was stored up inside of him – and maybe even made him just a wee bit more awesome (I mean, we’re pretty cool) – and now he was able give that love back to G.

Mic. Drop.

IMG_0539One last hug for Fenwick at graduation before we turned over the leash…

I’ve written before about how raising CCI pups changes lives… most significantly, our own. I’ve also written about how it’s pretty much awful saying goodbye and turning the pups in for Advanced Training. Through it all, I’d assumed that, if one of the pups made it and became a service dog, it would have been worth it.

The more the girls, Nick, and I talked, the more we understood that the joy of Graduation Day – and all it means – so far eclipses the sadness of Turn In day, there’s no comparison. Fenwick becoming a service dogs wasn’t the reward (although, don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened in my life).
Raising him was, in and of itself, the reward.

Fenwick has taught us – and our girls – more about what it means to love, to give fully, to believe, to hope, and to dream than most people ever will. We couldn’t teach Annie and Ella those lessons on our own if we spent our lives trying; raising CCI pups does it for us. Saying that it was an honor to have raised Fenwick, and then to have seen him pass that love and those hopes and dreams along to G is an understatement; our Grinch-grown hearts are so full with pure joy, they are nearly bursting.

I’d worried that saying goodbye to Fenwick for the final time would be tough. Turns out, it wasn’t at all; he’s doing what he’s meant to do and we’re so thrilled him and G, sending them off was happy and hopeful.

Plus, we had our own CCI furball waiting for us at home… With another year to pour love into her, just imagine the possibilities…

IMG_6447This face definitely makes things worth it. Dirty… but worth it.

Balloon Jesus

A week ago Saturday, I found myself doing something I never imagined: making Balloon Jesus dance in Rochester’s Pride parade.

When my friend, Nancy, explained that our little church group (Sophia Community) would join other local church communities to march at Pride, I knew I wanted to join – and bring the girls. Given that we have both family members and close family friends who are gay, Ella and Annie are completely un-fazed by the thought of same-gender people loving one another; in fact, hearing that others don’t believe that this is completely okay and normal absolutely astonishes them. “But mom – they’re people! No one can control who they love!”

Participating in the parade would be an opportunity for us to actually demonstrate our acceptance and support at an event where the LGBTQ community feels not only safe but celebrated for exactly who they are.

Also, let’s face it: the gay community knows how to throw a party!

In the aftermath of Orlando, I wanted our outfits to be focused on spreading the love. We spent the morning before the parade decorating some t-shirts and psyching ourselves up for the joyful spectacle that was sure to occur along the parade route.
FODX5728
Annie’s shirt: “PRIDE” {plus drawings of same-sex couples holding hands and a heart with “love” written many times}
My shirt: a geeky music reference that reads |: love is : |  (get it??)
Ella’s shirt: “LOVE is a magic to live by” (the parade’s theme was “Let’s Make Magic”) {also, a drawing of a magic wand}

IMG_6102
Me: “fill the world with music, love, and PRIDE – LMM” (from JLo and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new song, “Love Make the World Go Round,” written in tribute to the Orlando massacre)
Ella: “Love Is Love Is Love Is Love”
Annie: “LOVE is PRIDE”

On the drive over, I attempted to let the girls know that we would encounter some… unusual… costumes, displays, signs, etc. I also shared my not-so-secret hope that we’d be marching near some drag queens, ’cause ever since seeing Kinky Boots, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with men capable of pulling off “female” waaaay better than I ever will be.

Due to blocked off streets, we had to park in a church parking lot about a mile away from our assigned gathering spot and wait for Nancy’s husband, Paul, to shuttle us closer. Paul wasn’t there when we arrived… but a complete stranger another man was. He approached us, saying, “Are you looking to get to the parade, too?” I acknowledged that we were waiting for a ride, but didn’t want to engage in conversation. Being polite to strange men is totally cool, but more than that? Nope. Need to set a good, cautious example for my children.

Then the man said, “Are you waiting on Paul, too?”
Um, yes actually, we are.

“Was he supposed to bring you to Nancy?”
Um, yes actually, he was.

“You’re meeting at 210 Alexander Street, right?”
Yep.

“I’m driving people, too. I can just take you!”

And that is how we wound up riding to Pride in the backseat of a sedan driven by a man we’d met 30 seconds earlier. As soon as we got out of the car – after thanking the nice gentleman for the ride – I whirled around to Annie and Ella and said, “You do understand that accepting rides from strangers is usually a DEFINITE NO, right?”

Good examples, y’all.

Although it took a while to make our way to 210 Alexander, the walk over gave us an opportunity to pass the other participants, floats, etc. I had to stop and collect myself at the We Are Orlando group, where marchers held photos of each of the massacre victims, but otherwise, it was pretty much the very definition of happiness.

All ages and races, rainbow everything, glitter, spandex (so much spandex), butterflies, mermaids, leather bodysuits and masks (the Rochester Kink Society float was particularly eye-catching), tutus, Speedos, unicorns, a log cabin-esque float for a local gay campsite, muscular bare-chested men with towels around their waists atop a float advertising “Bathhouse: The Musical!” … and more smiles and laughter than I can remember seeing in one place in a long damned time.

Oh – and Balloon Jesus. Gimme a sec.

After taking only 20 steps or so, the girls’ eyes were so wide, they looked like young Botox patients gone awry. I leaned close to whisper, “Normally, I’d tell you it’s rude to stare… but everyone here is dressed up specifically so you’ll look at them – so feel free to look! Just try to make your expressions more ‘interested’ than ‘terrified,’ okay?”

I’d seen some in-progress photos of the Sophia Community float, but didn’t know what to expect from the final product. When we rounded the corner to 210 Alexander, I could  vaguely make out a large balloon structure in the distance. This didn’t surprise me – Nancy and I have a friend, Kelly, who makes incredible balloon sculptures for a living (how cool is that!), so having a balloon sculpture as part of Sophia’s float wasn’t particularly unusual.

I briefly considered the possibilities – a balloon cross? Doves? Angels? – but then, upon realizing what it actually was, said aloud, “Oh my gosh. It’s Balloon Jesus.”
13775354_10208194604814417_2709941056032193408_n

The first great thing about Balloon Jesus was all of the phrases he inspired. “Let’s go meet Jesus!” “I know we’re where we belong because we’ve found Jesus.” “We’ve been touched by Jesus!” 

The second great thing about Balloon Jesus was the sculpture itself. Kelly always does a remarkable job of turning balloons – balloons!! – into incredibly realistic-looking re-creations of whatever she’s modeling, but Balloon Jesus was particularly fantastic. I mean, he looked like Jesus (or whatever I imagine Jesus looks like). To make him more authentic, Nancy had requested that the balloons for Jesus’s skin not be pink or peach – as a Middle Eastern man, Jesus wasn’t light-skinned – and the tannish color of his radiant face was pretty terrific.

The very greatest thing about Balloon Jesus, though, was the reaction that onlookers had upon seeing him. One of the floats behind us was for a local nightclub, and it blasted pop-y music as we made our way along. (This float also featured drag queens; score!) Marching to the celebratory sound waves, Nancy and I – who were each holding a stick propping up one of Balloon Jesus’s hands – decided to move Jesus’s arms so that he appeared to dance.

The parade route was a relatively straight shot, so it was pretty easy to see the folks on the sidelines before we reached them. We watched as they scanned each float or marching group, shouting affirmations (“Happy Pride!”) and cheering. We also watched as their eyes eventually panned to our float, narrowed with contemplation about what on earth they were viewing, and then widened with joy-filled realization.

That’s when the awesomeness really began.
IMG_6092
IMG_6090

Other awesomeness: tossing candy!

It was fun, certainly, hearing people call out some version of, “Balloon Jesus is dancing!” and calling back, “Yes, he is!” It was affirming and lovely hearing a good half-dozen onlookers delight, “Hooray! Jesus isn’t white!” or “It’s black Jesus! YASSSS!” 

But I was unprepared for how it would feel hearing people yell, with triumph and utter jubilation, “Hey – you’re right! Jesus loves EVERYBODY! Even us!!”

I never thought I’d feel comfortable shouting to the world, “Jesus loves you!” And yet, as these rainbow-bedecked onlookers gleefully cheered at the thought of Jesus accepting them, when maybe their faith communities had not, it felt not only comfortable but pure, real, beautiful. “Yes, he does! JESUS LOVES YOU!”

I am so grateful to have found Sophia Community, whose members espouse what I’ve always felt about Jesus: that we are, indeed, loved just as we are. That’s the grace and power of God’s love; it is endless, boundless, and meets us right where we are. God’s love is for Ella, Annie, and me. It is for those who go to church every Sunday and those who will never step foot inside a cathedral. It is for those who pray religiously (yes, a pun; God has a superb sense of humor) and even for those who don’t believe.

God’s love is for everyone marching and everyone on the sidelines – the married heterosexual couples with kids, the older men in dapper hats holding one another’s hands, and the younger women with multiple piercings wearing rainbow tank tops that said, “GAY AS F*CK” (there were a good many of those). God’s love is, sometimes to my annoyance, even for the guys on the corner shouting through megaphones that God says gay people are going to hell.

I’d worried that, by marching in the parade instead of standing on the side, we’d miss out on (what I assumed to be) the best part: seeing all of the participants. Now, I understand that, by marching, we had the remarkable opportunity to spread the Love Wins message, to see people feeling accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are… because of Balloon Jesus.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Amen!
IMG_6108

 

Yes, It’s About Race

Have you seen the videos? The ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot and killed? The ones where two black men were shot and killed by police officers? Two days in a row, two sets of videos, two men’s lives lost.

I haven’t seen the videos, and I’m not sure if I will. I have no desire to each two more men’s lives be horrifically taken, right in front of my eyes. I’ve already seen this over and over again – so many of us have – and yet it’s still happening, so clearly watching isn’t helping things, and I need to maintain a small shred of protection around my heart.

To Anton and Philando’s families, I’m so sorry, and I’m sorry that I’m not watching; I simply can’t right now. But I’m here speaking out for them, and I hope that’s one minuscule consolation.

Where is the outrage? Not amongst black and minority communities, but amongst the rest of us? How are we not so aghast and appalled and furious and devastated that we have to take a moment to sit down and then figure out what to do next? (Actually, I cried when I told Nick about it, and now I’m literally shaking, so there’s at least one of us who feels this way.)

Every single time this happens, the number of people who positively stumble over themselves in their rush to say that “race has nothing to do with it” is astonishing. I’m sure the excuses are already in full force: but Anton had a record! He just got out of jail! He was carrying a gun! (He didn’t reach for it, and was on the ground when he was shot, but yes, he had a gun.) He wasn’t complying! In other words, he somehow deserved to be killed, or was asking for trouble, or at least presented an awfully strong case for violence against him.

Nope. Not about race.

But what about Philando? He had no lengthy rap sheet. In fact, he worked for the local school system as a cafeteria manager. (Not sure why this matters? Well, these days, every school employee is required to be fingerprinted and background-checked, so there is absolutely no way that this man had a violent record. Further, do you have any idea of the saint-like patience and stamina it takes to run a school cafeteria??) Those facts aside, he was pulled over for a broken tail light and was asked for his license. After informing the officer that he had a permit to carry a weapon and that, if the officer checked, a gun would be found in his car, he calmly leaned over to reach for his license and registration – fully complying, as he had been asked – when the officer shot him.

So, just to be clear, Philando deserved this, or was asking for trouble, or presented a strong case of violence against him… how?

Think this is still not about race?

A couple of months ago, I was pulled over for speeding. The whole family was in the car and I lost track of how fast I was going. I didn’t even attempt to pretend otherwise; I acknowledged to the officer that I’d been going too fast, apologized, and handed over my paperwork. I explained to the girls that I absolutely earned the ticket I was about to get, and that it would be a great lesson for me (and them, fingers crossed).

When the officer came back to the window, he returned my license and registration… and told me to drive safely, then headed back to his cruiser. That was it. No ticket, not even a warning. I was stunned, and told the girls so. They wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten a ticket when I’d broken the law. Maybe it was because I was only driving fast, not erratically. Maybe it was that I fully cooperated and took responsibility for my actions. I probably just got lucky. But I also told them that I was lucky to be a white woman rather than a black man, because the outcome could have been different.

At the time, this statement – although true – felt extreme.
It doesn’t this morning.

And yet, most people continue to say that race is not an issue.

When a white college student gets only six months of jail time for sexually assaulting, and attempting to rape, an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and the photos paraded around the media are of him as a shining athlete, rather than his mugshot, I grow a little suspicious. When a white man guns down people in a theater and is not shot and killed on the spot by responding officers, but is arrested and led away, I grow still more suspicious. When a white man deliberately targets a black church, murdering parishioners in cold blood, and is offered a bulletproof vest by police as he is taken to the police car, I am no longer suspicious; I am certain.

Race has a heckuva lot to do with it.

Still unconvinced? Try this. Imagine that you could trade places with someone for a day. You experience life exactly as they would – a Freaky Friday sort of situation. Now imagine that you’ve traded places with a black man, and that you’ve been tasked with driving around. You’re on the highway. You’re in the ‘burbs. You’re downtown… a black man, behind the wheel. Imagine that you’re pulled over – maybe you ran a stop sign, or maybe you just have a broken tail light (did you even know your tail light was broken?). The cop shows up at your window, and there you are, strapped into the driver’s seat behind the wheel.

Be honest: you’d be terrified. You would’t be sure that you’d come out of it alive.

Think this is still not about race?

We cannot begin to fix this if we cannot even acknowledge, as a country, that racism is an *enormous problem*. So I will say it: racism is an enormous problem in this country. Yes, there is also a police brutality problem (although I truly believe the vast majority of cops are good and are trying their best – but our best is a best that is inherently, unconsciously racist). There’s a gun problem (which is another issue that is still not even acknowledged as a problem, so that’s fun). But right now, right here, the biggest issue is race (ever seen this video of how differently a white and black man are treated while openly carrying?).

WE NEED TO FIX THIS. This is not a black problem or a minority problem; it is a human problem for all of us, every race. I know that the United States is facing almost unprecedented division and difficulties right now, but at its heart, I know we are better than this. I believe in America, and I believe that we can do this; I believe that we can truly be the land of the free, where everyone is created equal.

But until all of us would feel safe walking around as a minority (a person of color… or a Muslim, or someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender, or heck – a woman), we have not reached that place. When most of us would be scared for our lives to walk in those shoes, there is a serious, dangerous, heartbreaking, terrible problem.

Please, let’s stop pretending that this isn’t happening. Let’s not avoid talking about it because it’s difficult. And, for the love, let’s stop explaining away violence against black folks and people of color. Let’s acknowledge that racism is a tremendous problem. And then let’s work together – all of us – to make the change.

 

Moving On Up

I knew this day was coming: the day that my elementary-school kiddo would – just like that! – become a middle schooler.  It’s been on the calendar for over a year: Last Day Of School. Circled, anticipated, imagined. And yet, until now, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel.

Truth is? I still don’t really know.

For weeks, people have been stopping us in the hallways at school, in our cul-de-sac, even at the grocery store, and uttering some version of, “Hey there, are you ready for 6th grade??” Each time, I would jokingly shush them. “STOP IT. Not yet! She still has more time!”

(To be clear: they were saying this to Ella, not me. I answered anyway.)

It wasn’t that I was dreading this moment; not at all. But I hadn’t been looking forward to it, either. It’s just… different.

For one thing, it’s the end of an era. Six years is a long time when you’re eleven; a lot has happened and changed since 2010. Plus, our elementary school is just so very lovely – a wonderfully close-knit community, delightful and involved teachers, a truly welcoming and warm and inviting space where everybody knows everyone.

It’s like Cheers, really. Except without the alcohol.
IMG_7516
Obligatory Last Day photo. 
When I got to school to help with the moving up ceremony, I noticed a whole bunch of her classmates wearing much fancier duds – while Ella had opted for, um, this. I hadn’t thought anything of it until I saw everyone else… and by then, it was too late. I didn’t care; I just hoped she’d be comfortable.
And then, after gym, she rounded the corner wearing a floor-length sundress, courtesy of her Grama — which she must have tucked in her backpack without me even knowing. 
This girl is ready, y’all.

Middle school is… bigger. Farther away; no more walking, no more talking with the crossing guard, no picking dandelions on the way home. (Much) earlier mornings and later nights. New people.

That last one is a doozy. I’m a bad New People person. I understand that it’s Ella, not me, who will be meeting said New People – and I also know that I met the majority of my closest childhood friends in middle school, so this is really a wonderful thing – but still. New People anxiety is real, you guys. Even when I’m not the one doing the meeting.
ella grad
Obligatory photo with us in the courtyard after the ceremony.

It’s also occurred to me that part of what makes this so different (from the other school transitions) is that Eleanor is reaching the age I remember. I have a few scattered memories from elementary school – playing with Smurfs on the playground, getting pooped on by a bird while waiting to go inside from recess, pretending to get a drink at the water fountain after I’d been sent out of class for answering other classmates’ questions out of turn… But my real, solid MEMORIES begin in middle school – and they are strong.

I can recall precisely the way the lunchroom calzones tasted, the feel of the auditorium seats, the way the hallway curved to the right to go to Home Ec, and the weight of the library doors. If I really ponder it, I bet I could remember the way to my locker. And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the memories of what took place in those spaces – the way my French teacher laughed, the look on my classmates’ faces as I divided the them into East and West for a Berlin Wall presentation, the sound of my math teacher’s voice, the projects we created in Social Studies.

Because these memories are so vivid, they don’t seem far away… and certainly not 30 years old. When I dropped Ella off at an evening birthday party a few weeks ago, the DJ already playing, she disappeared into a sea of eleven year-olds who were awaiting pizza and hula hoops… and I was immediately immersed in my own middle school party memories. It felt as though I, myself, should be handing over the gift cards and joining my friends out back. I could easily distance myself from her grade school experiences, as though I were watching a movie from the back row. Middle school, on the other hand, feels 3-D, as though I can reach out and touch it, as though it’s mine – which makes everything blur and blend in a strange way that I can’t quite distinguish. I just know it’s a unique path in this parenting journey, one that I hadn’t even known existed. Surprise!

I don’t really like surprises.
IMG_7561
GrandMeg and Papa flew in for the occasion. Pretty awesome stuff.

Which brings me to the final reason I think this is all so foreign and bizarre: I don’t know what will happen next. Up until now, things were reasonably predictable. School ends; summer; school begins again – same basic schedule, same basic outline, same basic everything. Now, not only does the daily routine become new… I know that Ella, herself, is – in some ways – starting over.

She’ll be the one in charge of her classes and her assignments; we may hardly even know her teachers. She’ll choose electives and clubs. She’ll get herself to and from class – which, by definition, brings about its own form of independence… which is largely achieved by breaking away from us to become her own, independent person.

I know all of this. I know it’s exactly what needs to happen. Ultimately, I want it to happen, because I want Eleanor to become a capable, confident, competent human being who can give back to this crazy world of ours. But right now, the force of the pull for her to become her own independent self is so strong, it’s giving me whiplash.
IMG_7542
Humoring me by flashing a smile my way during the ceremony.

This isn’t a bad thing; I’m so enjoying watching her grow and mature and use sarcasm and hold conversations on politics and music and grammar. To put it mildly, she’s a fantastic, kind, funny, intelligent, good-hearted person – someone I would consider tremendously fortunate to have as a friend – so I feel tremendously fortunate to be her mother. But when she met me outside of school today and told me that she’d been invited to a friend’s house, along with several other buddies… and that she’d prefer to do that than partake in our annual summer tradition of new library books and balloons and snacks… and I let her, because she was so excited and I could almost see her desire to just hang out with her pals — that magnetic, soul-filling balm that is true friendship and which becomes essential right around this time…

Well. It was bittersweet.

Fifth grade, I understand. Fifth grade is wanting to sleep in but not being able to stay up. It’s refusing to acknowledge my presence but then reaching for my hand. It’s being offended that I want to look over her texts but coming to me when she finds a scary passage in a book. Fifth grade is deciding to be a vegetarian for two weeks but also being thrilled when I send a note in her lunchbox. Fifth grade is holding on and letting go and pushing off. It is the natural, logical extension of fourth grade, which basically followed kindergarten, right?

60165_473556250294_3241476_n59522_473556275294_3455816_n
First day of kindergarten – nearly six years ago.
Blue leopard skirt (she chose it herself)… Princess lunchbox and backpack… Bandaid on her shin… Still had all her teeth… FOR THE LOVE.

Sixth grade… and seventh and eighth… Are not the same. We all know and remember this; something changed in middle school. That doesn’t have to be negative – I had a wonderful middle school experience – but it is its own, new thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m anxious. I love my girl, and I love my relationship with her – and the relationships she has with Nick and her sister – and I don’t want that to change once she gets to middle school (and beyond). Change is hard (for me).

At last, however, I’m out of excuses and “Not yet!”s. There’s no more time. She’s really done it – elementary school is over. She’s headed on next year whether I like it or not, so if I want to continue enjoying this journey – as surprising as it can be – I’d better come along for the ride.
And, man. I want don’t want to miss this.

Congratulations, my dearest E-Bean. I’m so proud of your six elementary school years – of the person you’re becoming, and the person you already are. As you yourself said, “I did it, mama! OH EM GEE!”

You didn’t just do it. You rocked it.
Omg, indeed.
first and last day ella 5th
First and last day, fifth grade.

Un-Weird: They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

It’s been a heckuva couple of weeks.

Okay, so that’s putting it mildly.
Shit has really hit the fan, hasn’t it?

Last Sunday, after learning about the Orlando massacre, I wanted nothing more than to hole up with my phone and consume as much information as possible; it was almost all-consuming, this desire to know more, to reach out, to stay connected.

Simultaneously, though, was this desire to stay as far from the news as possible. There’s so much going on this time of year – family birthdays, end of school, beginning of summer, my girl “graduating” elementary school (I can’t even) – that I viscerally recoiled from the external forces that seemed intent on taking the little time and energy I had away from what mattered most… Meaning I also wanted nothing more than to hole up with my girls and Nick and the dogs and weed the garden and listen to Ella and Annie read to me and hug everyone as much as humanly possible.

In the end, we wound up telling the girls about the attack – in part because we would be watching the Tony Awards that night (duh) and I knew they were dedicating the show to Orlando, and in part because we thought they might hear about it in school and we wanted them to hear it from us, first.

(During their school’s annual Flag Day celebration on Tuesday, the flag was taken down before the ceremony – as it always is – so that it could be re-raised for everyone to see, followed by The Pledge of Allegiance. This year, the flag crested the top of the pole… and then was lowered down again until it reached half-mast. The jarring juxtaposition of the mourning flag, the kids in their patriotic regalia, and the words of The Pledge – “with liberty and justice for all” – was not lost on the parents in attendance.)

After we shared the basics, the girls asked – as they always do when they hear about hate-filled crimes – why anyone would do such a thing; do they not know that gay people/black people/women/transgendered people/Americans are okay? How do they not get it? We answered honestly that we don’t know; it makes no sense to us. There’s fear that fuels hatred… but beyond that, we don’t know why – not really.

Nick ended our discussion by saying, with resignation, that he didn’t know what the take-away message was — but he was so sorry these sorts of things are reality. At first, I agreed; but upon further reflection, I realized there was a message I wanted to impart:

Be kind.
See other human beings as just that – human beings – rather than “others” simply because they’re different. 
Don’t fight hatred with hate; fight it with love and knowledge and understanding.
And never forget that one individual – who claims to be part of a community – doing evil things does not mean that that entire community is evil, not by a long shot.

The girls looked at me like I had two heads; my “advice” was so basic as to be assumed. “Thanks so much, Captain Obvious. THIS IS ALL YOU’VE GOT?”

IMG_7315
Unrelated annual Memorial Day photo…

The background to all of this fear and hatred and judgment – from nutty “bathroom bills” to the absurd six-month Stanford rape case sentence to ISIS to Orlando to Britain to the lambasting of the parents whose two year-old was tragically killed by an alligator – has been Hamilton. I mean this literally and figuratively: the soundtrack has been on an almost-constant loop in our house, and the storyline is fresh in my mind.

Immigrants coming to America. Native-born residents taunting said immigrants and grousing about how they take away from those who were here first. Disagreements on the size and role of government. Pride causing people to do really stupid things. Women being treated as objects. Gun violence. People attacking one another simply because they see things differently.

The parallels between this 200+ year-old story and the craziness of today have made recent events almost entirely surreal.

The musical ends with Alexander Hamilton’s killer/rival/one-time friend Aaron Burr lamenting that he should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and him. (No, we haven’t seen the show and won’t before Lin-Manuel leaves… but we did snag tickets to a February performance. Only eight months to wait, yo!)

That’s the crux of it, I think – the crux of everything. Somehow, we allow ourselves to fall into the belief that there simply isn’t enough… space, time, energy, money, resources, love, etc. for all of us. It becomes us versus them. We fuel our narratives with fear. If you’re not like us – a different race, another sex, transgendered, gay, a different religion, from another part of the world – we let those fear-fueled stories take over until…

… well, until there are half-mast flags during Flag Day and dancing nightclubbers gunned down by an extremist and people screaming (literally) for a ban on Muslims and folks being harassed just for trying to use the loo.

The thing is, though? Our kids don’t get it. No, I mean it: they don’t understand any of this, because they cannot fathom this us versus them mentality. As Rodgers and Hammerstein so aptly said, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear… Before you are six or seven or eight – to hate all the people your relatives hate.” So we’re trying a different approach.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook about the push by some for Elsa to be shown as gay in Disney’s Frozen 2 – and how I thought that was unnecessary, but how I also thought it was nonsensical for people to oppose the idea on the grounds that they’d need to explain it to their children, or it would be too confusing for kids.

My awesome friend, N. – who happens to be a lesbian – backed me up with these fantastic sentiments:

Exposing children to things at a young age is soooooo important. Just like ‘love is an action…not just a word’…so is parenting.

It’s pretty simple. Things are only ‘weird’ to kids because parents make them that way.

YES, this.

Our girls live charmed, privileged lives. They want for little and go to a (wonderful) school that is not racially diverse. Largely because of that – because we know that their personal experience is what will shape their view of the world and of the people sharing this planet with them – we have deliberately made efforts to introduce them to things that are different from their experiences, to make those things un-weird.

It’s much harder to talk disparagingly about “them” when you’ve met them face-to-face.

Also – although their worldview is narrow, we make a point to discuss as much as we can, to give them language and context. Just prior to Ella’s kindergarten year, a friend of mine told me she and her partner informed their son that they were gay. He’d never heard the term before – their life was all he knew – but they wanted him to be familiar with it before he started school, in case the other kids mentioned it. Nick and I thought this was a good idea, so we – casually, matter-of-factly – told the girls that they were half-Asian, lest they hear the word at school and debate it (“I am not Asian!”). They’d never heard that term and were fascinated (Annie wanted to know “which parts” of her were the Asian parts).
IMG_7307

This isn’t good or bad or anything in between; it just is, we told them.

And so it has gone with everything else. They know we’re Christian – but not everyone is. They have classmates who are Jewish and Hindu and Muslim and atheist; none of them is good or bad or anything in between; they just are. We’re straight; their uncles are gay. It’s not weird, because it just is what it is. They have strong opinions about Donald Trump (yes, really); they also know that people they love may be voting for him, and that doesn’t make them bad people; it just is.

None of these differences makes people weird (well, maybe the Trump voters…), and it certainly doesn’t make them worth hating.

The more Annie and Ella learn about people who are unlike them, the more normal – and human – those people become. So, when they hear stories of racism or sexism or homophobia or religious persecution, they are genuinely confused. “But they’re not weird. Why would anyone hate them so much?”

As I said, there’s so much else going on in life right now, I haven’t even begun to process recent current events – and I definitely don’t have any big answers. But I think all of our kids may be the place to begin. If they can be distraught that Burr didn’t realize the world was wide enough for him and Hamilton… they can be distraught that anyone thinks the same today.

We need to teach them that “different” doesn’t mean “bad” or “weird” or “wrong” – it just is. We need to do it before they are six or seven or eight… So they don’t have the hate.

It’s a place to start, anyway.

 

 

 

When I Grow Up

Although I’ve been going to the lake since I was an infant – with Nick joining me for the past 20+ years and the girls spending virtually half of their summers there – last Sunday we did something for the very first time: we spent the day and night there, all by ourselves. No extended family. No friends. No Phoofsy.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been… anticipating? dreading?… the anniversary of her unexpected passing a year ago this past weekend until I found myself reliving each day last year. Today was when we gave Gram the last-ever lake book… A year ago today, we played The Lake Game and she challenged Ella so she wouldn’t lose a chip… This was the day we spent the night in the hospital… And so on, right up to the phone call from the nurse telling me that, shockingly, Phoofsy was gone.
IMG_0819
Phoofsy giving Ella the business while playing The Lake Game last Memorial Day.

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking the On This Day function on Facebook as part of my daily morning media roundup. I love the memories (especially posts where the girls said something particularly amusing), but that week leading up to the day we lost Phoofsy was really hard. My status updates were so… normal… giving no hint that my world was about come crashing down. How was it possible? How did we not know?

Then, finally, came the post where I shared that Phoofsy was gone – a memory that probably should have been miserable and unsettling. Instead, reading through friends’ comments (most had never even met my grandma), I was consoled and made whole. Comment upon comment expressed sadness not only for our family’s loss, but their own personal sadness that Phoofsy was gone – because she had such an influence on them, simply through my photos and stories.

“I’m heartbroken.”
“I loved it every time you posted a story about her!”
“She seemed like the most incredible lady!”
“The time you posted the picture of her on the scooter made my horrible day so much better.”
“I feel like I knew her.”
“Thank you for sharing her with us.”
“I was in love with Phoofsy from here.”

A good half dozen people said: “I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up.”

Who could blame them? A strong, smart, independent lady who was always game for anything, was an amazingly good sport, had a fierce sense of humor, and kept an active Facebook account at the age of almost-95? Yes, please! I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, too.

She wasn’t perfect, of course. I mean, no one is, and Phoofsy definitely had her flaws… But she was crazy about me and Nick and Ella and Annie and told us so whenever she got the chance. That’s a pretty awesome thing, to be loved and to know it.

Often, when we told the girls we were headed over to Phoofsy’s apartment, they would groan and drag their feet (usually literally). “Do we HAVE to?” And every time I would tell them that yes, we have to. Not out of obligation, but because that’s what you do when you love someone: you show up. You’re there for dinner and to take them to the store when they can’t drive themselves. You check on them when they’re sick, bringing soup and crackers. You accompany them to events you’d never otherwise attend, simply because they asked. You call to say “hi” when you’re out of town. You show up.

(Okay, usually I just said, “Yes, we have to. Because she’s my grandma and your great-grandma and nothing gives her greater joy than seeing you. She probably won’t be around much longer, so we need to spend time with her while we can.”)

I’m so freakin’ glad I dragged them over.
And you know what? They’re glad now, too. Funny how that works.

Three days before Phoofsy died, I got a call at midnight saying she’d been taken to the hospital. As I hung up the phone, I groused to Nick. “Damn it. Grandma’s in the hospital again. But the doctors just told her they think this is nothing; I don’t even know why she’s bothering to go in.”

Nick asked if I wanted to go.
My first reply? “No. I don’t want to go. It’s midnight, for God’s sake, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do anyway and I’m sure she’ll be released soon but if she’s not I can check in on her in the morning.”

Nick was quiet. We let my words just hang there for a moment.

“Shit. I need to go, don’t I?”
“Yeah. I think you do. Or I can… but one of us needs to go.”

Thirty seconds later, I was reaching for my shoes.

I spent the rest of the night with my grandma, navigating several areas of the ER and finally settling her into a private room on another floor. In between being seen by medical professionals and being taken away for tests, we talked; we used her iPad; we browsed magazines and looked at old photos. The entire time, she kept insisting that I should go home – “But it’s so late! You’ll be so tired! This is silly!” – and I kept insisting that I would stay until I was sure she was settled.

At last, around breakfast time, I was convinced that it was okay to leave. Before I did, she reached over and squeezed my arm. “Thank you so much for staying. I love you a lot, you know.” I told her that I knew.

After Phoofsy died, the attending physician called me at home. Among other things, she told me that my grandma thought I was fantastic, and that it was the girls and me who helped keep her going all these years. I’d never met this doctor; her comments were based solely on whatever my grandma had told her about me.

So yes, Gram. I knew.

I am so grateful for the time we had here in Rochester with Phoofsy – for every stuffy dinner, every comment about how our house was too small, every grumble about how apples cost too much. Yeah, sometimes it wasn’t exactly convenient… but we – Nick, the girls, and I – got to be a part of such a tremendous story. We got to witness, firsthand, what it meant to grab life with both hands and hang on for the ride, to always be up for something new, to be a true friend. People would tell my grandma that it was lucky (for her) that we lived nearby; truly, we were the lucky ones.

I don’t think I understood how integral she was to our lake experience, though, until we found ourselves there without her last summer. Even when our extended family was in town, the house just felt… off. Incomplete. To quote my aunt, being there alone made Phoofsy’s absence all the more pronounced. No one yelling down to the kids to wear their lifejackets properly… No sound effects coming from her iPad as she played online bridge well into the night… No one sitting in her favorite blue chair. Just empty.

It hurt. A lot.
So we made a point of never staying at the house alone.
IMG_5261
Crazy sky, Memorial Day weekend 2016.

I missed it, though. A well-loved home should be… well, loved. It’s practically illegal to not have someone enjoying it – empty chair and all. And so, this spring, I made up my mind that we would try. We would go down more often; we would stay overnight. It might be lonely and strange, but we love it there, so we would try.

My cousin, Andrew, and his girlfriend had been visiting the lake in the week leading up to Memorial Day. I’d thought they were staying through until Monday, but they left at lunchtime on Sunday instead. At first, Nick and I considered inviting friends to join us; staying there alone seemed too sad, especially over Memorial Day, a holiday we always spent with Phoofsy.

But then I decided – out loud – that we would do it. Just the four of us. The house is here and we are here and it’s not the same, but we need to try to find a new normal. The moment I said it, I had this instant realization that this might be how my grandma felt about the lake after my grandfather died almost nine years ago.
But she kept going. She made new memories. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m sure she dreaded going to the lake without him. But she did it. She hung on for the ride.
I decided to hold on, too.
IMG_5298
Going for a ride… with Jitter.

~~~~~~~~

We had a delightful Memorial Day weekend. We grilled. We went in the boat. We played The Lake Game for hours – literally – and laughed until our sides hurt. No, it wasn’t the same without her… but it felt good. Right. True. I even sat in Phoofsy’s beloved blue chair – and instead of feeling lonely, I felt comforted.

If I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, now’s as good a time to start as any.