Saturday, December 24, 2016

Me and George Bailey

I am not much of a knitter but my friend Amy?  

She is one of those clickety-clickety-clickety knitters.  Her second knitting project was a poncho.  An adult-sized poncho.  That’s a lot of yarn, my friends.  She picked up those needles - even the scary, double-pointed kind - and never looked back.  Cabling?  Check.  Felting?  You bet. Intarsia?  I don’t know but I do know she knit Bambi mittens.  BAMBI WAS ON THOSE MITTENS.  OK?

I am a wanna-be knitter.  And as much as I would like to clickety-clack like Amy I am making peace with the fact that my knitting skills will probably never be much more than serviceable.  After many winters of struggling I am now pretty darn proficient with scarves, simple hats and cowls.  (My poms, however, are legendary.)  Knitting in the round is my jam.  And although I had to rip apart my next-to-last project about 8 times before I got it right (ball yarn over the thumb! don’t twist those stitches! there was nothing actually wrong the 6th time!), I can proudly report that my last project was cast on without a hitch.

I have a sweet little circle of friends.  On the face of things the four of us really couldn’t be more different, although there is some sort of magical glue that holds us together.  These are the ladies who get reports on the state of defacation at our house (a more common topic amongst mothers than I ever would have imagined), who hear me rant about my husband (it happens), who get the stunned phone call that I’m pregnant.  Again.  (No, no - I’m not.)  These ladies hear it all.  And they still like me.  It’s a small, everyday miracle that they are in my life and let me tell you:  I don’t take it for granted, not even for a second.

At this time of year I feel compelled to find them the perfect gifts.  This is harder than you might think, although I suspect it’s much easier than I make it.  And while Elaine definitely won the Best Christmas Gift Award this year I still feel like I owe these ladies something special.

So, I bought my most favorite yarn and picked up the needles.

Given what I’ve said about my knitting proficiency it would be understandable if you were to find yourself thinking that maybe my “serviceable” skills were going to make for a fairly lackluster gift.  And it’s entirely possible that you’re right.  I can’t knit anything fancy - and if you’ve paid attention there’s a pretty big hint about what I may have come up with for these girls - but I can knit with heart.  That’s exactly what I did, actually:  I knit those ladies right into my heart.

I know, I KNOW: Cue the cheesy background music.  But it couldn’t be helped, really.  As I sat there knitting I found myself thinking about each of these amazing women.  I wondered what prompted me to choose that particular yarn for each one.  I thought about our individual friendships and how they’ve unfolded.  I meditated on the two or three or four words that I felt were most representative of each of them.  I prayed for them.  I gave thanks for them.  

When I found the most colorful yarn they had I knew I had the right one for Amy.  Amy is one of the bravest women I know.  She is the one who encourages me to embrace colors and patterns that I might ordinarily pass by (lifelong wallflower that I am).  She is passionate about the people and things that she loves.  She has challenged my thinking and my assumptions, and helped open my eyes to a lot of truths I didn’t realize I had never seen.  Amy is fiery when she needs to be.  She is honest but kind.  Amy isn’t afraid to reinvent herself - or, if she feels that fear, she isn’t bound by it.  She inspires me to be better.

Thinking about Tricia feels…  comfortable.  In so many ways she is a reminder of the life in my house when I was a child.  She is down to Earth.  No-nonsense.  When I chose her yarn I think I had the blues and yellows in mind - a little too obviously reminiscent of her features, I’ll admit - but as I started knitting I saw a predominance of green and wondered: Green?  But as I got further into the project it became obvious: She thinks about gardening with the same ease and simplicity as my mom, and it invites back all of those memories I have of digging and planting by her side.  Tricia is fiercely dedicated to her family. When I talk with her I feel like she is fully invested in knowing and understanding me.  Sometimes I find myself thinking “I am really just not this interesting,” but Tricia would never let you believe it. 

I suppose if there is a center spoke to our crew, or Council of Ladies as we sometimes refer to ourselves, it is Elaine.  But that is who she always is: the one person in the room who will embrace everyone, the friendly spirit who will welcome you in.  She is, without a doubt, the most generous person I know.  She understands what you need, even when you can’t see it yourself, and she sets out to make sure you have it.  When you are broken Elaine builds you back up.  She is a light in a world that is all too often very, very dark.  She is warm and safe.  She is the best kind of friend you can ever hope to have.  I chose her yarn because it captures the intensity of blue in all it’s hues - pure, clear blues, from the most saturated navy to the brightest aqua.  This is her: a true blue friend.

At the end of the day this knitting project evolved into something else altogether.  It was an exercise in reflection, for sure, but oddly enough the time I spent bent over those needles left me better than I was before.  A better friend?  I don’t know (I should be so lucky), but certainly a better knitter, though still far off from the clickety-clickety-clickety speed that Amy has mastered.  And it really makes perfect sense because these ladies are always making me better.  More thoughtful, more brave, more tolerant.  It is just like them to turn this given-gift into a gift received.

So.  Merry Christmas to The Council, my dear friends whose generous spirits never cease to amaze me.  Thank you, thank you, thank you for the gift of knowing and loving you.

Me and George Bailey.  We’re the richest people in town.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Common ground

So.  You've said some things, I've said some things...

I don't know.  Maybe it's too soon?  Maybe the anger on both sides is too raw to try and have a heartfelt conversation?  Maybe the wounds are so deep and jagged that we need to retreat and tend to them before we can exercise those relationship muscles again?

I don't know.

I don't know how it all got so ugly.  You are my friend.  My family.  Someone I've trusted and admired, laughed with and cried with.  And then so many people rushed in:  political surrogates, pundits, activists.  They all told us what they wanted us to believe.  Some of it was true.  Some of it wasn't.  A lot of it preyed on our fears.  For some, it stoked the fires of anger and hate - anger and hate of all political stripes.  Sadly, there is enough to go around.

But I just don't know.  I don't know where to go from here.  I want to offer my hand, to grab yours and squeeze it tight and say "this is all going to be OK."  It has to be OK, right?  And I don't mean politically.  You may have loved Clinton or loathed her.  We all know what I thought about Trump.  But it is what it is.  Despite all my misgivings, he is going to be our president.  It's done.  And unless my wildest, darkest nightmares play out I don't think he will single-handedly unravel the fabric of America in four years.  But that's not what I mean, I don't mean politics or policy.  I'm not talking about trade agreements, tax plans or infrastructure.  Those things are meaningful, don't get me wrong.   But it's not what I'm talking about.

I don't know how to say this in a way that won't sound....  harsh?  Maybe that doesn't matter, so I'm just going to say it:  Things are not OK, and it seems like you can't see it, or don't want to see it, or simply steadfastly refuse to see it.  There are vast divisions in this country - but they aren't between you and me.  They are between the marginalized and those that choose to actively marginalize.  It's real.  It's happening.  It's the chasm between the single black mother of two young boys and the bigot who sprawls "get out nigger" on her car.  It's the disconnect between the young, independent woman walking down the street and the males who promise to "grab her by the pussy" as they drive by in their car.  It's the incongruence of Christ's church, obliged to serve as His hands and feet, standing mute before their defaced sanctuaries, marred with words and symbols that could only be from the devil himself.

I don't know how it's possible for us to disagree on the wickedness of these things.  Is it possible?  Or can we at least look each other in the eye and say "of course these things are wrong?"  How can we not find this sliver of common ground?  It's such a small stretch of green but there's room enough here for both of us - for all of us.  Surely, surely we can lock arms and stand together in our intolerance for things such as these.  Can't we?  I'm not sure I can bear the thought if we can't.

I don't know how our government will unfold in the coming weeks, months, or years.  We have all had the chance to say our piece and we have elected the men and women that we are entrusting to do right by all of us for the next four years.  But we have to make sure that we are not leaving anyone behind  - the ones who are targets because they are different from the cowards who persecute them, the ones who are belittled because of their faith or their gender, the ones whose pleas are drowned out by the din of angry voices who shout only for their own interests.

I don't know.  I don't know how we do it, how we make sure that no one is lost along the way.

But I know we must.

Monday, July 11, 2016

First things first: take off the color-blinders and leave your baggage at the door

I've wondered so many times how to begin.

The silence about what is happening between "black" and "blue" has been deafening from many family and friends.  Good people.  Honest, hard-working people.  Believers. 

White folks.

I first started working through my own thoughts and feelings about these things about a year ago.  Another black man had been killed while in police custody and my first thought was "well, I mean he must have done something.  The police wouldn't stop you just for      fill in the blank     ."  And I held to that for a long time, until I started reading more and more posts from friends who had experienced otherwise.  Strong, smart, successful people - black people - who had no reason to lie or exaggerate their stories.  People I trust.

So I started asking questions.  I asked if they would mind telling me more.  If it was OK for me to ask them about their experiences - not just with law enforcement, but with life.  It dawned on me that I couldn't draw conclusions about their lives by looking only through the lens of my own.

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it wasn't until the ripe old age of 44 that I stopped looking at life from the same perspective as my toddler.

I spent two fantastic years at Purdue University where I was taught to critically examine evidence.  Who is offering this proof?  How was it vetted?  How big was the sample size?  Who is funding the research?  Was the study well designed?  Were the right questions asked?  What does the data really tell us?

This is how I'm trying to look at race right now.  And racism.  And privilege.  Where is my information coming from?  Who is providing it?  What do they have to gain/lose?  How many people are saying the same thing?  What questions are being asked, and were they ever really answered?  What does it all tell us?

Of course it's impossible to be dispassionate about what's happening these days but for the sake of change I think at some point we need to be able to talk and think about race without the baggage of an agenda.  Black folks are scared and angry and, more than any other word I see out there, they are tired.  White folks are scared and angry, but for entirely different reasons.  I acknowledge the feelings on both sides.  But I also respectfully suggest that right now, it's my white family and friends who need to put their fear and anger aside and just LISTEN.  We are so busy defending ourselves that we aren't even listening to the issues for which we are being asked to account.

For as long as I can remember we've talked about being "colorblind."  And I guess if  you don't stop to think about it that's a nice sentiment.  If I don't acknowledge your color I can't be accused of judging you by your race.  Sure.  But let's be clear: skin color is no more a marker of a person or a society than hair color or eye color, height, weight, or shoe size.  Skin color is an easy marker for what makes us different but it is meaningless.  What really makes us different are the lives we lead, the languages we speak and the cultures of our communities.  If you put me next to another overweight, reasonably well-educated, tired brunette mother in a side-by-side photo you might assume we have a lot in common.  But if that woman lived in, let's say, Lisbon we might struggle to find any common ground:  different languages, customs, political beliefs, religious beliefs, diets, fashion...  I really have no idea what life for a woman in Lisbon might be like.  Our outward appearances alone would inform absolutely nothing when it came to what we have in common.

I think it's the same here, only generations of US history have created vast cultural divides between white and black America.  Our attempts to erase those divides by simply disregarding color were perhaps well-meaning but most definitely ill-conceived.  Just like I use different languages when I speak to a doctor and a parent, all while conveying the same information, many black and white people use different language to communicate with people who share their own cultures.  And there is nothing wrong with this - until one culture possesses more power and determines that the other language is inferior.  And it doesn't stop there:  religious practices, family dynamics, cuisines, fashion, beauty - we have fostered a pattern of "us" and "them," and "we" who have historically held the power have subtilely and not-so-subtilely determined that "they" are inferior.

Now.  I don't believe most white people wake up determined to make these distinctions or determinations.  I think it's just what we have been steeped in for generations.  It is unconscious.  And to the extent that it's not intentional it's forgivable - until that moment when you recognize your complicity.  Then you are on the hook to do better and be better.  We cannot be "colorblind" anymore because we have defined society in this country by race.  Instead, we have to recognize our differences without making judgements about them.  We have to look at the life of a black family as different from ours because it is different from ours.  Not in they way they love their kids, or work to provide, or value their liberties, or love this country, or honor God.  But in the way they live, how they interact with the world and how it responds to them.  Why do we assume we know so much?  Why do we assume that black men aren't interested in being good fathers?  Why do we assume there is no desire to break a cycle of poverty?  Why do we assume that we can't help the black community until they figure out how to "help themselves?"  Have we really taken an honest, unbiased look at life for black America?  Have we cared enough to even do that?

I don't think so.  I know I didn't.  I didn't know I had to.  

Probably, if you've stuck with me this long, you've already gone through this thought exercise.  You are wondering how I could be so colossally dense about all of this.  But maybe not.  Maybe you're waiting for me to get to the punchline so you can weigh in and tell me how wrong I am.  That is certainly your right and, in all honesty, I'd love to hear and try to understand your perspective.  But since white folks are so accustomed to thinking about life through their own point of view, let me frame it this way:

I have three children.  They are all happy and healthy with their own unique personalities. But outwardly, one is noticeably different.  She is small and clumsy.  She is obsessed with fans.  She is not a great talker.  She has some unique behaviors that don't make a lot of sense to me.  Based only on those things I could decide that this child won't ever quite measure up to the others.  I could expect less from her because she is able to do less; things are simply harder for her.  I could continue to love her and care for her, never really knowing whether I was doing the best that I could for her.

Or, I could do the work of trying to understand her.  I could read, talk with people, observe her.  I could ask a million questions.  I could ask another person, or two or three or a dozen more people another million questions.  I could keep learning and reaching out until I felt like I really understood what makes this child tick.  And in doing that I could make changes.  I could see that my good intentions from before maybe weren't what was best for her.  I could make adjustments to my own life for the benefit of hers.  I could maybe even realize that all of the efforts I made to lift her up also lifted me up, too.

I suppose I view my efforts to understand the black community in much the same way.  Despite my attempts at "colorblindness" I've always viewed them differently but never bothered to understand them. And while I'm not suggesting that it's white America's job to "save" black people, I am suggesting that we would be honoring them and helping ourselves by making a deliberate effort to understand their lives and help lift them up when we can.  How different would my daughter's life be if I raised her through the lens of my own life experiences rather than working so hard to understand the needs and realities of hers?

How different could things be if we would extend the same love and respect to an entire race?

It still makes me twitchy to say "black people" and "white people" as though we are different.  But in as many ways as we are the same we do lead very different lives.  It's time to see that and own it.  "Black" and "white" is not the end of the story.  It is the story.  And for everyone's sake, I'd really love it if this story got to have a happy ending.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Tall, small and smaller

Three views into my world:

I have a 10 year old who is approaching her 25th birthday any minute now.  She is independent and sometimes surly, but I am reassured that she still needs me when I hear her ask her father "is Mama here, too?"  Several strangers told me this weekend that she is beautiful, which is lovely - and true - but what I really want to tell them is "you don't know the half of it."  She is a loving big sister and a helpful oldest daughter, and I really hope that someday, when my job as disciplinarian is done, I can be both her mother and her friend.

I have a 2 year old who is fully embracing it's reputation.  She is sweet and charming and sometimes kicks me in the face.  Things are a little harder for her now and then but she doesn't know it: I watched her today, bravely riding her pony on hands and knees without a trace of fear.  I watched her tiny little body holding her therapist's hand as they left the arena, and how she stomp-stomp-stomped the dust from her feet like an old pro. I watched her and realized how strong she is. She may look like a china doll, but this girl is tougher than I have ever been.

I have a 1 year old who is exhausting.  She goes and goes and goes.  She says "no" and shakes her head all day long. She may have a career in shot-put because she is perfecting her throw with her sippy cup allllllll day long. She has the sweetest curly hair and twinkly eyes, and because the growth chart reassures me that her dimensions are perfectly healthy I can also revel in her deliciously squishy belly.  This girl is so funny and clever.  She's going to take this world by storm.

Just wait.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Words matter

I have always believed that words and language are powerful things. More powerful than any weapon we've yet had the misfortune to design.

We escape into someone else's imagination because of them.  We build whole nations on the power of them.  We forge or forgo relationships based on our interpretation of them. We play with them in poetry and set them to song.

Language is used to reveal ourselves but also to betray.  Words can elevate and inspire, or they can weaken.  They can hurt. They can crush a spirit.

They can fill a heart with so much joy that the bursting would be well worth it.

I broke a friendship once because of words (though I could not tell you today what, exactly, those words were). Words can't be captured and they can never be taken back.

I agreed to a marriage because of words.

I teach using the best words I can find for each person.  They are never the same twice.

I am raising three beautiful little souls by filling them up with words - and silence.

Today I sat in the waiting room.  I am becoming accustomed to being one of Them, just another one of the parents that sit together on the other side of the door while our children get the extra help they need to find their own big and small successes.  I see kids whose struggles seem so much greater than my child's challenges.  Sometimes, I see those struggles eventually become hers, too.   And other times, I see her hop and skip past them (although she herself is neither hopping nor skipping... yet).

It is not often that I meet a child whose difficulties are subtle enough that my clinician's eye doesn't quickly identify his challenge, but today was one of those days.  A sweet, charming, inquisitive boy of four.  He didn't seem unsteady on his feet, wasn't trapped in his own world.  And he talked.

Oh, how he talked.

I watched how he and his mother and therapist had one of those funny four-year-old conversations about how he brought his bicycle today and he would ride it.  And he should ride it in the arena, with the horses because the horses wouldn't be scared.  But they couldn't ride it outside with Dorian, the therapy dog, because that would be silly.  Dogs can't ride bicycles! And would he ride Zippy today?  Or Fairytale?  But let's ride bikes first, OK?

And all at once I realized how much I have been missing those sweet conversations.  So simple and silly. Little hearts opened up for us and shared with words they cannot abuse.  Pure little glimpses into their lives: what is important and not important, or funny, or scary.

The day will come, I know.  But the road is a long one and I am not made of very patient stock.  My girl's mama chose a career that understands the value of words and language, and helping people find them and use them. I am wired to help people - my daughter - do that.  I can't not do it.  Even so, she is having a hard time gathering all of them up.  I see her looking for them.  She understands what they mean and what they can do.  But she just can't quite make her way there... yet.

And so together, she and I, and you - we will all just keep on looking until she finds them.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Both sides now

I don’t know about other parents, but for me the raising of each of my kids is a unique process.  And by that I mean that there has been very little I’ve taken from the experience of raising one child that I could simply transfer to another.  I guess that surprises me a little.  As it turns out, even this three-time mom is still just an amateur.  A three-time amateur.

Becca has knocked me completely off my game.  She is my greatest puzzle and mothering her has humbled me in a way I would not have expected.  Because of my education and training, and where I work and what I do, you might think that the little girl who struggles to communicate caught a break.  The truth is, she hasn’t.  I suppose she’s fortunate enough to have a mother who knows what to worry about and what questions to ask, who isn’t afraid to be demanding and call in a few favors now and then.  I guess that’s “fortunate.”  But really, in her day-to-day living she’s no better off than any other child with special needs.  I’m just another parent, trying to do whatever I can to help my kid.

This reality hit me hard this week.  I have spent over a decade on the other side of the clinic door.  I’ve collaborated with my fellow therapists to expand my knowledge and develop my skills, and I’ve established professional relationships that have spanned across time and distance. I’ve been assessing patients, and developing measurable, functional goals, and writing quarterly reports, and helping with transitions from hospital stays to rehab to outpatient to school.  I’ve talked with doctors and other therapists, and done my best to be an advocate for both the kids I have seen and the families that care for them.  I’ve fallen short sometimes.  I’ve gone above and beyond other times. But at the end of the day the note was written, the chart was filed away, and I went home to my relatively uncomplicated little life.

Wednesday morning I sat in the waiting room during hippo therapy.  There is a whole lot of coming and going on the hour as some kids leave and others arrive.  You start to recognize the kids and the families who attend at the same time you do, and you make your way through the obligatory smiles and hellos.  And probably because of what I do I tend to engage with the kids, observing their behaviors and skills like I do every day at work.  But then the children shuffle off and I’m left with the moms and dads, and that’s when it becomes uncomfortable because suddenly and unequivocally my role changes.  I’m not the therapist anymore, I’m the mom.  I’m Becca’s mom, who is there because her child needs help - just like the mom whose son is autistic, or the other one whose son has CP, or the other one whose child has Down syndrome.  We are all there, together, on the other side of the clinic door.  And the truth is that I don’t want to be there.  I don’t want to hear one mom counsel another about getting an advocate to fight for more services at school.  I don’t want to compare notes about how many hours of therapy our kids get each week.  I don’t want to commiserate about all the running around we do or how honestly, it just gets to be enough already sometimes.  So I smile politely and find a way to pull out of the conversation, and I bury my nose in a very important e-mail. Or, more likely, a game of Words with Friends.

I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way.  It’s certainly not because I don’t want to do what needs to be done for Becca.  Just like any parent I would do everything for her.  Every Single.Thing.  And it’s not because I don’t understand the system in which we are now full and active participants.  Actually, maybe that’s exactly why I feel this way: I’m no longer just another part of the system, I’m in the system.  I’m a member of a community where I’ve only ever really participated as a guest (and a frequently unwelcome guest at that).  I’m part of a culture where I never thought I’d live - only visit, peripherally, from the safety of my side of the medical chart.

But I don’t want to live there.  

I think it scares me a little to listen to the mother talk about her son starting his third year of hippo therapy, and aging out of First Steps, and working so hard to get services set up at school.  I don’t want this for my child.   I don’t want her to struggle.  I don’t want her to have to work so hard to do what comes so naturally for other children.  I don’t want her facing years of therapies and never-ending goals.  I don’t want to keep wondering when, or if, she’s ever going to get “there,” wherever “there” is for her. 

So actually, I guess, it scares me a lot.

I spend hours every week trying to formulate the perfect Google query to find the answers for Becca.  Can I change her diet?  Add a new therapy?  Improve her sleep?  Set up more supports? Unlock her learning style?  But every search ends up the same, with more questions than when I started and a growing sense that I am in so very far over my head.  Despite all my fancy education and training, Becca’s mom is no more help to her than any other mom who doesn’t know a phoneme from a phenom.  To be perfectly honest, I’d like to be that mom right about now.  I know just enough to be miserable, not enough to be useful.

I’m certain Rob will love that I’m sharing this story, but the feelings are very much the same:  Shortly after we married, while we were still on our honeymoon, I sat weeping in a cafe in Whitefish, Montana because I was a Gunn.  Not because I regretted marrying him (best decision ever, by the way) but because I felt like I was no longer who I had always been.  I couldn’t identify with my own name anymore.  It seemed like I was no longer part of my tribe and had been sent off to dwell with another.  I was homesick, in a way, but it wasn’t for my house back in Indiana, it was for my own identity.  That’s a little bit how it feels now.  I’m on the other side of the clinic door, sitting with my new tribe. 

I’m homesick for how things were, and how I still want them to be.