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.
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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.
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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.
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Turns out the invisibility cloak isn’t as much fun as I’d thought

I’ve been wanting – needing, actually – to write this post for some time. It’s been on my mind for weeks, but I haven’t figured out just what I want (or need) to say. I still haven’t, but I’m going for it anyway. Bear with me, please.

I knew that it would be really hard when Bill died. That’s a completely ridiculous statement, of course, because – duh – it’s always really hard when you lose someone you love. But I knew it would be more than emotionally hard; specifically, I knew it would be difficult being the spouse of someone who’s lost a parent.

‘Cause, y’all, this is not easy. It’s not easy answering your kids’ questions about death. It’s really not easy helping them navigate their own grief, when they can’t always verbalize their thoughts and feelings. You wind up second-guessing their meltdowns and seemingly unusual behaviors and wondering, Is this because Grandpa Bill died? Is it because of their new, crazy schedule? Is it simply because they’re being little schmucks? If you’re just being a schmuck, there’s an app for that. If you’re exhausted, we can re-work things so you get more sleep. But if this is Grandpa Bill-related, we can skip the time-out and go straight to the hugs. Shepherding kids through grief is complicated and scary and really damn stressful.

It’s also not easy being a supportive wife. Nick is so deeply sad, more sad than I can fully grasp, and I so want to help him… But there’s so little I can do. He’s working through his grief in his own way, and as much as I want to crawl in there beside him, I just can’t; it’s not my grief. It is a tremendously awful, peculiar feeling, watching and knowing that someone you love so very much is suffering, and you can’t fix it, you can’t take away their sadness. It’s a strange and anxiety-riddled spot, this spouse-of-someone-who-lost-a-parent place.

I know that just being here, both literally and emotionally, is perhaps what Nick needs the most (that, and someone with whom to not eat anything for five days, for the love). And I’m trying, very hard. I’d read that one of the best things a spouse can do when their partner is grieving so freshly is to take over most of the household chores, and so I’m trying to do that, too. I’m still doing what I used to, of course – getting the girls off to school, emptying the garbages, making most of the meals, doing the laundry, paying the bills – but I’ve been actively taking on chores that Nick and I used to share, from mowing the lawn to feeding the dogs. Perhaps surprisingly (given that I have a tendency to sometimes, um, keep score of who does what around the house; I know… not my finest quality…), I don’t mind any of this. I absolutely get it; the little things are just too much. And if I can’t help Nick actually feel less sad, at least I can let the dogs out before bed. There’s a comfort in that.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Running a household (for lack of a better term) is trying under good circumstances, when you’ve just gotten home from work and have dinner to make and homework to supervise and dogs to feed and floors to be vacuumed and laundry to be put away and emails to be written and books to be read and lunch boxes to be packed and fights to break up. It’s especially trying when you’re doing all of that and trying to help your children and your husband in the wake of losing their grandfather and their dad. I don’t mean to say that it’s harder being the spouse of someone who lost a parent than it is being the person whose parent died. Not at all. I’m not comparing. I’m simply saying that this spouse role is really tough.

It’s downright paralyzing when you, yourself, are grieving deeply, too.

There have been many, many times when I’ve wanted to curl up in bed and sob it out… but I just can’t. The girls need to get to school. Groceries need to be purchased. Dogs need to go to the vet. Life is going on, and when it’s up to me to see that we dot our Is and cross our Ts, plus actually shower every once in a while, there’s time to burst into tears while mowing the lawn and time to cry after reading emails that had long been forgotten, but there just isn’t time to fall apart.

Man, though… there have been times when I wanted to. I miss Bill fiercely.

Lest I give the wrong impression, Nick, for his part, has been fantastic. He knows that this has been hard for me, this balance of grieving and being there for him and the girls and making sure that the house-stuff functions as it should. We’ve talked many times, and he has done his damndest to support me. He knows that I’m sad, too.

But the thing is… No one else seemed to realize it. Whenever Bill’s death would come up in conversation, people would – rightly – jump in and ask how Nick was handling things. They’d maybe ask about the girls. They would offer their condolences. But very few people asked how I was handling things.

True story: people showed me more support and empathy when we lost Madison than when we lost Bill. Now, for sure, Maddy was tremendous, and I was heartbroken to see her go. But losing our dog wasn’t exactly in the same league as losing Bill.

In fact, not only did people not acknowledge that Bill’s death was hard for me, too, they purposely minimized it. When I saw the doctor for my bronchitis, he – very kindly – warned me that I was more susceptible to illness because of the stress in our lives. Then he said (and I quote, for real), “Even if it’s only your father-in-law, you’re still feeling that stress, so you need to take care of yourself.”

Even if it’s only my father-in-law.

Clearly, losing one’s spouse’s parent doesn’t even register on the list of things to feel sad about; who on earth would feel sorrow at the loss of a parent-in-law?? Which means that there’s not a whole lot of support offered to those in my position. We become invisible – necessary, helpful, but invisible. And yet, in reality, this has been the most difficult, most raw, most heartbreaking experience of my life. I cannot do this without support. I cannot do it without grieving.

But how was I supposed to grieve – while keeping our lives humming along – if no one even recognized that I could be grieving? How could they possibly offer strength and encouragement when it didn’t even occur them that I might need it, because it’s “only” my father-in-law? And how on earth was I supposed to explain that I needed it? It’s not really common practice to enter a room or a gathering of friends and gamely announce, “Hey, y’all. Rough waters. I need help.”  I debated pinning a button to my shirt that said, “I’m really sad because I lost someone important to me. Even if you don’t realize that he was important to me, he was. So I’m sad.” But that didn’t feel quite right.

To be clear, I was not wanting people to emphatically throw their arms around me and forget about Nick. He absolutely, justly, deserves and needs people’s support, sympathy, words of love, prayers, shoulders to cry on, proffered glasses of whiskey, and whatever else they would like to give. I have never wanted Nick to be unnoticed, nor for me and my desires to trump his. And, sure, if you want to get technical about it, I’ll grant you that he possibly deserves those things “more” than I do. Like I said, he’s experiencing a kind of sadness that I cannot truly comprehend. I am not comparing me to him.

But I’m still awfully damn sad, and I needed support.

That was what this post was originally going to be about – about my explaining why this was so hard for me, saying that no one gets that I’m upset, too, and to please acknowledge that this really, really sucks. But then two things happened: I wrote about Bill, and I spent some time with a wonderful friend. And now, this post is about something else. Or it’s about to be. Hang on.

Although I’ve been talking to, and seeking support from, friends and family on the phone and online, it just wasn’t enough, and my therapist strongly encouraged me to chat with someone face to face. I knew just the person – a new-ish but already very dear friend – and we tried for weeks to find a night to go out, but our schedules just didn’t mesh. At last, ten days ago, the stars aligned and we grabbed dinner at a local restaurant… and something changed.

She listened – really listened – to everything I had to say. About how stressful it was running the house, about how worried I was for the girls and for Nick, about how very sad I was about Bill but how no one even acknowledged that I could be sad, and I didn’t know what to do. She offered advice. She commiserated. But, most of all, she listened, and I felt heard – and , for the first time since Bill’s death, I felt un-crazy for being so sad. I felt supported. And I felt so very much better, like maybe I can make it through this after all.

Thank god for awesome friends.
And delicious Greek food the night before a five day juice cleanse.

Right around that time, I decided to write about Bill – because, even if no one understood that he could be that important to me, he was that important to me, and I just needed to say it. So I did. And, really… saying it made all the difference. That may be a cliché, but it’s true. Talking about Bill was so freeing, so good; writing let me get it out. As friends began reading the post, I – finally! – felt heard. People got it – no button-pinning necessary.

While I appreciated the catharsis, I didn’t expect to learn something in return. As friends commented about the post on Facebook, however, I came to understand how truly rare Bill’s and my relationship was, and how very, very lucky I am. Apparently, most people truly don’t mourn the loss of their parents-in-law the way that I am. They have a different kind of relationship with their in-laws, and when they die, profound sadness is – according to them – pretty unusual.

I guess, because I loved Bill so deeply, I couldn’t quite understand why people didn’t offer me an, “I’m so sorry, Emily” or “But how are you doing?” Now, I know differently. Now, when someone learns that I’ve lost my father-in-law and they don’t acknowledge that it’s my loss, too, I know it’s not because they don’t care (unless they’re just, like, jerks), but because they don’t know. I no longer become hurt or frustrated; instead, I try to count my blessings. I am reminded of how exceptionally fortunate I was to have loved Bill as I did, and to have been loved by him in return, and I am profoundly grateful. Gratitude is a pretty powerful thing.

So… if I’m all good, then why write this at all? Well, because I’m not all good. Yes, I no longer feel so alone, but this grief thing is still a load of crap. Even though not everyone understands having a fantastic relationship with one’s in-laws, everyone, on some level, can understand grief. And it’s just absurd to be putting constraints on grief based on preconceived notions of how someone should feel, or how close someone was “supposed” to be to the deceased. It’s high time we stopped doing it.

When my BFF Kiki lost her dad in the spring of 2006, there was absolutely no doubt that my mom, my stepdad, Nick and I would attend his funeral. John was very special to me; I’d known him my whole life, and his death hit me hard. Moreover, he was my oldest, awesomest friend’s father. She wanted me there, and I wanted to be there – for me as well as for her. No questions asked.

That is, until I returned to my classroom (after having called in a sub) and had to explain my absence. I’d already used up my personal days for the year, so taking a day “just because” wasn’t acceptable. I suppose I could have lied and said I was sick, but that was, you know, wrong, so I applied for a bereavement day instead. A couple of weeks later, I was contacted by the HR department to clarify my relationship to the deceased. You see, “best friend’s father who I have known my whole life and loved dearly” just didn’t cut it.

On the other hand, if John had been my parent, or my parent-in-law, or my cousin or my uncle, that would have been fine… even if he and I had hardly spoken over the years and I was taking the day off because I’d heard the food at the reception would kick butt. I puzzled over the form for the longest time, becoming more and more annoyed and angry with each passing minute. Who were they to determine what relationships were special enough to warrant “needing” a bereavement day? Who were they to tell me who I should, and shouldn’t, grieve? Who are we, as a society, to be doing the same?

I call bull.
Grief is grief. It is not something to be quantified or compared, but is our own, and only we know how deeply it affects us. Whether someone lost a spouse or a child or a third cousin once-removed or a childhood babysitter, grief is painful and it is real. People who are grieving deserve respect and support.

In the end, I decided that my sadness was real, and so was my relationship to John… or, should I say, “Uncle John.” Bereavement day granted.

And so this is why I decided to write this post: to propose three things. First, if you are grieving, please talk to someone. Whether that’s in person or via email or snail mail or in a blog entry that the entire world can read, talk. Get it out. Say something. Say anything. That, alone, can be so very therapeutic.

Secondly, if you learn that someone has recently experienced the death of a family member or friend, ask how they are. Don’t put constraints on their grief. Don’t assume that, because they lost a parent, they’re wallowing in sorrow and can hardly get out of bed. Don’t assume, because it’s “only” an in-law or an uncle or a 95 year-old great-grandparent who’d “lived a long, happy life,” that the person isn’t enormously sad. Don’t assume, period. Instead, ask. A simple, “How are you doing?” opens the door for the person to spill their soul to you or mutter, “Fine, thanks,” but at least it allows them to determine how they’re doing, rather than you doing it for them.

And finally, after you do ask how someone is doing, listen. Really listen. Let them talk – or not – and be there while they do. Let them know that you hear them, that they’re not alone, that you support and love them, that this sucks, but you’re there. Listen.

By doing so, we can all become a little less invisible. And, with time, a little bit better.

Move over, Jackass

The start of school smells good. I don’t just say this because today was one of the most perfect days, weatherwise, we’ve experienced maybe, like, ever, nor because of the girls’ fresh, clean, new school stuff, all of which comes with its fresh, clean, new smell… New backpacks, new supplies (erasers, I heart you), new clothes, new lunch boxes… Each has its own crisp aroma, un-stained, not yet having taken on the stank of leftover spaghetti or forgotten sneakers.

Beyond that, however, there’s still the geeky kid in me who always loved the start of school each year, and that kid sits eagerly beside the teacher in me, who met the beginning of each September with equal parts trepidation and exhilaration. Yes, the year holds the possibility of something dreadful, of birds pooping on your head while you wait in line to go inside from recess (first grade, true story; Sarah Tallman was kind enough to help get the poop out of my hair while everyone else laughed), of classmates who are tyrants hiding behind polo shirts and jeggings, of parents who think that little Junior deserves special treatment and plays the not my child card every. single. time. But there’s also the promise of new friends, of clean notebooks and smooth desks, of games at recess and giggles during library, of field trips and science experiments, of fall and cinnamon and hay rides.

A month in, school begins to take on the metallic, pungent smell of tiny, sweaty bodies who defy logic and seem to need deodorant, despite being only eight. But the start of school? Those first, unblemished, ripe-with-promise weeks? They smell great.

Each year, as the girls begin school, I try to do something special for them – a fun first day breakfast, a treat when they come home, a dinner of their choosing, notes in their backpacks – something to make this day stand apart from the other 179 days of the school calendar. This year, with the (very) recent loss of my much-adored father-in-law (there will be more to say on this in coming weeks – I promised Bill it would be so – but right now, I need to wait and process and grieve, and think about just what I’d like to write), I have had to cut myself a break and be patient with my lack of focus… but I still want to be doing these special things. Not for any grander purpose, not because of any outside pressure, not even because of expectations that I may have inadvertently raised in my children, but simply because they make me happy.

And, I’m learning, that’s a pretty damn good reason for doing most things.

Except watching Real Housewives (of Anywhere). Or wearing Uggs year-round. Or preferring dark chocolate to milk. There are rules, people.

I’m also learning what I can and cannot do, and I’m learning to be okay with it. Which isn’t such a novel concept, except I recently read two seemingly opposing blog posts and found myself agreeing with basically everything they both said. Which means… thinking. And growing. And learning. Or something. And all that jazz.

First, I read this post, and loved it not only because “Pinterest Bitches” is a fabulous phrase and they worked “explosive diarrhea” into their narrative, but also because, hell yes! Crazytown! A stitched-together pencil caddy? “Yay school” and a little globe? Have we all gone insane?? Reading that post made me feel instantly better about getting the time wrong for Ella’s meet-the-teacher day, and going to Target yesterday in biker shorts and a dirty Zumba t-shirt.

But then I read this post today. Michelle had me with “braless in the drop off lane”(and also made me feel a little like maybe she was stalking me with the whole, Does Emily pause before posting about finally, finally having her depression under control because she knows there are other moms still struggling? thing), but also got my attention by mentioning, despite her house never being company-ready, that she does throw “Pinterest worthy” parties… both of which sounded awfully familiar. (Not because the parties I throw are necessarily Pinterest worthy, but because I, um, did post photos here specifically so I could put them on Pinterest.)

So… It seems that the Pinterest Bitch would be… me.

Conundrum, no?

The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more I’ve decided that the dichotomy not only makes sense… it’s okay. It’s good, even. It’s just me; it’s who I am. It hurts no one (except myself, when I stay up too late making Looney Tunes birthday cakes or getting pancake batter ready to go for the first day of school). It’s a bit nutty, but that’s fine. It makes me happy.

And it’s high time that I reconcile what I can and cannot do, and become okay with it. Or, as Michelle puts it, it’s high time that I “quit being a jackass” to myself.

I can make cute first-day-of-school breakfasts with pancakes shaped like school buses and the girls’ current grade numbers. first day breakfast
Don’t worry; Annie eventually received more than 1 cut-up strawberry. We are all about equity in this house.

I can make brownies for when the girls come home from school, with their newly-begun grade levels powdered-sugared onto them.first day brownies
Notice how these are the corners? I ate the gooey middle piece. It was delicious.

I can send my kids off to school, and welcome them home from their first day, with a bang (a bang that is created with the help of boxed mixes from Wegmans, but a bang nonetheless), and they love it, and I love it, and it’s just the way it goes. I cannot, however, manage to keep our fridge and cupboards stocked with actual necessary food, so when my kids request a sandwich with pepperoni and cheese, they’re going to get some pepperoni and a torn-up cheese stick instead.
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Yep. Real lunch from last year. Super proud moment.

School bus pancakes. Cheese stick sandwiches. Pretty much me in a nutshell.

I can send my girls to school each day with a joke in their lunch boxes (or a joke told over the phone)…
first day joke
Ellen” and her Facebook page FTW!

… But I cannot organize the papers in the kitchen – nor manage to replace the window shade that’s been broken for at least two years – to save my soul.

messy papers
I know you’re jealous. Just keepin’ it real.

I can make number signs the night before and pose my adorable children in front of the house on their first day…

ella first day 3rd
HOLY CRAP, she has gotten so absurdly old.

… But, for the life of me, I cannot get ahold of the weeds that are overtaking every spare space in our garden, in the yard, and on the sidewalk.
annie first day 1st
The foot-tall “bushes” to the left, in front of the bricks? Yeah. Weeds. Every last one.

It used to be that both sides of this coin bothered and embarrassed me. I didn’t want to admit that I studied hair blogs so that I could send the girls off to school with cute and fancy ‘dos, because that somehow felt like something I should be ashamed of – as though admitting it would somehow be showing off, or trying to put other non-hairdo-ing parents down, or saying that I had too much time on my hands, or making a judgement one way or another.

And yet, I also didn’t want to admit that the third seat of the car is so filled with dog fur, we cannot have people ride there without producing a towel for them to sit on. That was also something to be ashamed of, an admission that I cannot keep everything together, that I let some things go.

But lately – and quite uncharacteristically – I’ve been going easy on myself. I’ve come to realize that I don’t always have it all together (a shocker, I know, I know), not even in a scattered sort of way, and that’s okay. I’ve certainly never felt that I’m Super Mom, but I’m coming to see that my priorities are just that — my priorities — and that automatically makes them different from everyone else’s… but it doesn’t make them bad or wrong, nor something to be bothered by or ashamed of.

Again, to paraphrase Michelle (can you tell I really liked her post?!), I’m being a good parent. I’m loving my kids. I’m doing the best I can.

And it makes me happy.

I’m going to scour Pinterest for ideas and then send my girls to school with Halloween-themed Bento boxes – because it makes me smile – and doing so says nothing about anyone else who thinks that Bento boxes are as absurd as The Real Housewives. It says only that I like them, and that’s okay.

I’m never going to knit the girls a scarf, nor make them fabulous scrapbooks, nor send them to school with stitched-together pencil caddies, because that’s just not my bag… which is also okay. And I will always have a perpetually messy stovetop, because making Halloween-themed Bento boxes takes priority over stovetop scrubbing (plus also, hello ADHD), and that says nothing about people who do prize a gleaming kitchen. It only says that I don’t, and that’s okay, too.

Some things I can do.
Others, I can’t.
Or maybe I just don’t. Either way, it’s okay.

I’m going to give myself more of a break, cut myself a little more slack, and allow life to slowly come back together, without rushing it or being impatient with myself when I need to take a little more time. I’m going to do the things that make me happy, and worry far less about the things that don’t (except for, like, mowing the lawn and paying bills, because when I let those slide, it doesn’t work so well), and I’m going to stop apologizing for both. And I’m going to encourage everyone around me to do the very same.

In short, I’m going to quit being a jackass to myself.

Privileged; Through the Peephole

You know those essay contests, where they invite you to name something that changed your life, or your Ah-Ha moment, or your biggest regret, or your celebrity crush, or whatever? (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck.) I’ve never considered entering those contests, mostly because I don’t want to write an essay (I left grad school behind long ago, thanks), but also because I didn’t really think I’d had any of those moments. Life-changing experiences, sure. Influential people, absolutely. Middle school ceiling plastered with posters of Charlie Sheen (pre-winning and much more Ferris Bueller), oh hellz yes. But I didn’t think there was a singular moment.

Turns out I was wrong.

It was the summer of 1995, between my sophomore and junior years at Connecticut College. I had signed up to work for the LEAP program, an organization that — back then, anyway (it may have changed somewhat over nearly two decades) — paired up college-aged kids with inner-city children in a summer camp environment… except much more hardcore. Rather than bunking in a quaint cabin or hiking through woodsy trails, we counselors would live in the same housing projects as our campers, spending our days pounding the hot inner city pavements while doing educational and fun activities together. I knew that it would be intense, but I was looking forward to working with the kids, to maybe making a difference. I didn’t anticipate that the greatest difference would be made in my own life.

When I arrived in New Haven to begin several weeks of training before meeting my campers, I quickly discovered that mine was one of very few white faces. Nearly everyone — all but a handful out of many dozens of people — was black or Latino, college students from Conn (like me), Yale, or nearby Quinnipiac University. I had never before been a racial minority, and it was both intimidating and eye-opening. As the days passed, I began to see that difference not as a burden, but as a gift, peering through a peephole to see what it might have been like to be a person of color, someone who is a racial minority moving among white peers. I soon learned, however, that despite my seeming newfound understanding, the brief glimpse I’d been granted was just that: a passing glance, a toe dipped into an enormous lake.

As part of our training, our New London crew (leaders, counselors, and junior counselors) embarked upon an actual camping trip — tent sleeping, cooking over fires, engaging in trust falls and writing exercises, all designed to help us get to know our co-counselors more closely. I thoroughly enjoyed the activities and found my fellow counselors – many of whom were from Conn, but who I hadn’t really known prior to LEAP – to be funny, trustworthy, and fascinating.

On the other hand, I was unsure how they felt about me. Me, the privileged white girl. The girl who had few non-white friends, and whose previous introduction to diversity consisted almost solely of joining a Jewish friend in trying to convince our middle school principal to include Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah alongside Christmas on the school calendar. (The principal had promptly phoned my mother, asking her if I was considering converting to Judaism. She asked if he was insane [but not in so many words], and informed him that, shockingly, friends sometimes help other friends. The Jewish holidays were added to the calendar the following year.) I was keenly aware that I was different, that I’d never before experienced how unsettling it can feel to be in the minority. I liked my fellow LEAP-mates tremendously, and so wanted to be thought of as a buddy and not an outsider.

Doubts continued to plague me until the final night of our trip. Sitting at a picnic table next to the fire, we were asked to share our impressions of our camping experience. When it was my turn, I was hesitant, but decided to risk embarrassment and admit that I’d been nervous, afraid that I wasn’t accepted, that no one liked me. The moment I uttered those words, I felt arms encircle me from behind in an enormous bear hug as David (not his real name), one of my co-counselors, squeezed me tight and said, “Aw, Emily! We love you!” I was elated.

David was a big guy, a tall black student who was also going into his junior year at Conn. I vaguely recognized him from school — an art major, perhaps — but knew little else about him. He had been relatively quiet during our camping adventure, which I initially thought indicated his indifference, or perhaps even contempt, toward me. Now, I knew that he had simply been keeping his thoughts to himself, and – to quote Miss Sally Field – that he liked me. He really, really liked me. I was a buddy. Yes!

Upon returning to New Haven, our training continued for at least another week. At some point, David, two other counselors, and I went out to lunch together, dining at a small restaurant near the Yale campus. I was again the only white participant, but by this point, it had become a non-issue for me — for all of us. We talked about race, about our upbringings, but it wasn’t a problem, merely a starting point for conversation. We also talked about much more than race; we were, after all, friends.

Once lunch was over, we had some time to kill before we needed to return for training, so we decided to peruse a few nearby shops. I can’t remember what they were, but given that they were within walking distance of Yale, they were undoubtedly typical college town establishments: record shops, clothing stores, drugstores, places to buy beer with fake IDs. The final shop we entered had long aisles with numerous shelves and hanging racks at the back, so we split up to check out the merchandise. And that’s when I noticed her.

The clerk – the only salesperson in the entire store, and the only other white person I’d seen in a while – had been sitting at the cash register by the door when we came in. Now, although we were the only customers, and although we weren’t touching anything or asking her any questions, she had gotten up from her cozy chair and begun to walk slowly around the store. I remember thinking that it was so strange, her moving around all of a sudden for no reason. She wasn’t engaging us in conversation, wasn’t hovering to make sure we didn’t unfold the t-shirt stack. Instead, it seemed almost like she was following us.

I soon realized, to my horror, that I was only partly right: she was following. But she wasn’t following all of us, and she certainly wasn’t following me. She was following David. Every aisle he turned down, she was there. Each time he stopped to look at an item more closely, she slowed, keeping him within easy view. She wasn’t blatantly on his heels, but it was incredibly obvious that she had fixed her attention on him and was watching his every move. It was flabbergasting. There were three more of us in the store. We were all the same age, from the same program, in town for the same purpose. If any of us was touching the merchandise, it was me or our other two female friends; David merely kept us company as we window shopped. But he was followed, for absolutely no reason… other than that he was a young black male.

I was dumbfounded. David! She was following David! David, who had bear-hugged me and welcomed me into the group, accepted me as a friend, despite my starting off as an outsider. David, who was no more likely to have stolen anything or committed a crime than my grandma. David, who was spending his summer in the New London projects in order to help inner city kids. David, who would soon welcome my presence as the only white person at a true (and awesome) “Yo’ Mama” contest (my first and only). David, who, later that summer, would help shepherd me into my apartment after one of the residents accosted me in the urine-filled elevator, and my male LEAP counterparts – fearful of my safety – put themselves at risk to make sure I made it home safely. David, who was doing nothing at all except being himself. An artist. A student. A counselor. A son. A friend. A young black male. And that was all it took to make him worthy of close observation.

I’d heard of things like this before, of course. I may have been living as a sheltered white girl, but I wasn’t entirely stupid. Still, I had never seen it with my own eyes – I’d never watched, aghast and mortified, as a completely innocent person was assumed to be up to no good because of his race. At first, I was horrified. As time went on, I became livid.

I attempted to find some kind of justification for her behavior. Perhaps she had recently been robbed by a young black male, or perhaps some kids who looked like David had vandalized her shop or other shops near her, and she was nervous, even prudent. Perhaps, however, she had simply been indoctrinated into the idea that black men do bad things, and so every black male automatically looked suspicious to her. Regardless of her reasoning, the outcome was the same: David was assumed to be doing something wrong simply because of the color of his skin.

I approached him about it, indignant, furious, and shocked. How could this have happened? It was blatantly unfair. It was awful. I was so sorry.

He listened to what I had to say but then, for all intents and purposes, shrugged it off – not because he didn’t notice, not because he didn’t see exactly what I’d seen, but because he had become so accustomed to being viewed as suspicious, it no longer even occurred to him that it was newsworthy. That was just the way it was. Perhaps he seethed inside; maybe he swore under his breath every time he was treated like this. But all I ever saw was him shrug it off, and then go back to being David. We had training to complete, kids to work with, and our lives moved on.

For him that experience was nothing to get worked up about, commonplace. For me, it was life-changing, and I’m not using that term just because I have a flair for being dramatic. Even though the clerk wasn’t being overtly racist – wasn’t calling David names or refusing him admission to the shop – her actions spoke volumes. I’d grown up assuming that such attitudes were long extinct; that woman proved me wrong.
I’ve never forgotten it.

I am not trying to make sweeping statements about race in America, nor about race relations in 2013. I am not tying this to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, although certainly the discussions regarding the verdict have gotten me thinking and led to my writing this post. Since that summer, I have been out with black and brown friends (and, of course, my husband and my daughters) and have seen them treated with respect and kindness, not because of their behavior or their skin color, but because they are human. Likewise, I have seen people of all races and genders — some of them my own students — be presumed guilty of crimes they never committed, because those proclaiming guilt made false assumptions with no facts in place. I am not saying anything is irrevocably broken, nor do I consider myself to be an activist. I am simply talking about my particular experience that day in New Haven, and how it shattered my notion that people no longer judged others because of the color of their skin; and, therefore, how it changed the way I see and move in the world.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the lesson I learned that day had a flip side, one with equally important consequences. I never worry that I’ll be stopped by the police, unless I’m actually doing something wrong (no texting while driving, I promise). I don’t get followed around stores. I have never been instructed to use a bathroom separate from the main restroom, and the only time I’m detained at the airport is when I have one of our service-dogs-in-training with me. I float through life largely unnoticed – by my neighbors, by authority figures, by other adults. Some of this is because I don’t purposely draw attention to myself, and some of it is that I, like many of us, generally find myself surrounded by people who, by and large, look like me. But part of it – the part I’m not consciously aware of, the part that many of us are not doing consciously – is because I’m a white female, someone who, we tend to think, is not up to no good, so there is no reason to pay me any unnecessary attention. I absolutely take this lack of attention for granted; in fact, it’s so not on my radar, I almost don’t know it exists… until I think back to that summer of 1995.

Having only been a white woman (at least, that I remember…), I, obviously, don’t know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, and certainly not those of someone with black or brown skin. But I remember that glimpse through the peephole, that toe in the lake. I remember being the only peach face in a sea of tans and browns, being instantly doubted by my campers’ parents because I was a well-off white girl, and being shown outright hatred (because I was white; they told me as much) by some inhabitants of the housing projects where I’d spend the summer. I can still feel their withering glances and how it almost physically hurt to be called horrible names. I can also still feel my own indignation and confusion: But you don’t even know me. Why do you assume that I won’t be a good counselor? How can you distrust me when I haven’t given you any reason to do so?

It was easy for me to avoid their judgement and persecution if I’d really wanted to; I could simply, literally, walk away. I could return to my dorm at Conn, or even just drive down the street, and I would no longer be the only white girl around. How fortunate for me, no?

Eighteen years removed from my LEAP summer, I am still just as fortunate. In fact, I am privileged. I live in a wonderful, safe neighborhood. My daughters attend a fantastic public elementary school. Nick has a stable job with a good company. We make enough to make ends meet, but still have enough left over to take vacations and buy random apps for our iPads. I am healthy. I am happy. I am privileged.

I know, too, that I am privileged to be a white female. Truthfully, it’s not something I think about often, but perhaps I should. With privilege comes responsibility, and while I don’t feel that I can easily change the world and make it a fairer place, I can change my world. At the very least, I can acknowledge how fortunate I am, and be grateful for it.

I’d rather not do the very least. I’d prefer to do a bit more. I’m not really the attend-a-rally type, and my thoughts on race are too jumbled and discombobulated to turn them into a soapbox. But I do like to think, and I sure as hell like to talk. And so that’s what I’m going to do. Think, and talk – in my head in the shower, out loud to myself in the car, and now “publicly” in this forum. Then maybe I’ll think some more and talk with friends… and, who knows, maybe someday I’ll lead a rally. But for now, this seems right.

I owe it to David to tell this story. (For the record, David and I fell out of touch when our LEAP days were over. Although I haven’t seen him in years, I have it on good authority that he’s a married dad now, and has started his own consulting firm. I hope he counsels women like the one we encountered that day in New Haven.) I owe it to all of the Davids out there to tell this story, not because it’s unique, but because it is so commonplace, it’s often overlooked. I owe it to my friends who have never experienced such judgement. I owe it to myself, so that the lessons I learned are not forgotten.

Perhaps most of all, I owe it to Ella and Annie (who, themselves, are not white) – not because I want them to know how horribly people can treat one another, but because I want them to know how awesome David was, and how his story is too important to be disregarded. Peering through that peephole was an incredible gift; I want to share it with my daughters, so that they, too, can think and talk, and eventually, do.

Maybe, just maybe, one day, that they’ll share David’s story, too… And I hope it’ll begin with, “This is the craziest thing — can you believe it?” We have a long way to go, but the journey will never be made if we don’t start. I’m starting today – with this leap.