Saturday, December 31, 2011


I stopped believing in Santa when I was 9 years old, but I didn't tell my parents I didn't believe for another 2 years.  At that point, I'm pretty sure my mother thought I was never going to stop believing in Santa but, the truth was, I knew I had to pretend anyway for my younger sisters, and I didn't want to disappoint my parents or have them think I was less excited about the holiday.  My mom sat me down at some point to have the "there is no Santa" conversation, at which point, I finished her sentence and told her I hadn't believed in Santa "for YEARS."  It was a short conversation.  I even told her that at Christmas I could pretend pretty well, but damn if I didn't feel like a fool for pretending to believe some big bunny hid eggs in my front yard a couple months later. 
While I officially stopped believing when I was 9, I'm pretty sure I never really bought the whole Santa thing.  I know the year I stopped believing in Santa because, like most of the major events of my life, I have it documented in one of the bagillion journals I have kept over the years.  When I was 9, I started a "tradition" of my own, that has come to mean a great deal to me over the years.  Sometime between Christmas eve and New Years day, I started writing a letter to myself.  As I continued this ritual for years and years, part of the tradition became reading my old letters.  At 12, and 16, and 21, it was strangely comforting to have this tradition that was all my own, away from the hustle and confusion and chaos that seemed to be associated with the holidays.  Until now, this tradition of mine has always been "secret."  I never wanted anyone to know what I was doing, why I did it, or how much it meant to me.  I didn't want to answer any questions about why it was important, or what I wrote in these letters.  In a family that was often into, on top of, underneath, and in between everyone else's business, having this one private tradition was essential.

As a child being raised with parents of different religions, celebrating Christmas, Chanukah, and sometimes the solstice too, I was not always sure what this time of year meant.  To be perfectly honest, I am still trying to determine what means the most to me, how I want to celebrate it, and how I want to conceptualize it in my mind so that the traditions feel meaningful and the holiday spiritually fulfilling.  I haven't gotten there yet.  My tradition, though--my secret tradition--is special.  It gives me the permission to take the time and space to reflect on the year.  To talk to myself and take stock of what is going on with me, what's good, what's bad, what's changed, and what needs changing.  As I read some of my letters, I laugh remembering the craziness of that year, or laugh at how I thought I would never forget it, and I can now barely remember what I thought was so important.  Some of the letters, though, make me sad.  There were some rough years in there, and I wish someone had told me things would be okay.  I wish someone had told me somewhere along the line that I was a pretty cool kid.  I don't think I would have listened or been able to hear it, but I wish I could have told me that I was definitely pretty okay.

I haven't gone back and checked, but I'm pretty sure that I have a letter written every year from the time I was 9 until I was 25.  Last year, though, I didn't write a letter.  I wanted to write a letter.  I tried to write a letter.  I'm pretty sure I even started a letter.  But I didn't write one.  I even remember starting a post for this very blog about the fact that I was not writing a letter, and trying to justify not writing one.  I told myself that traditions change, and that this is a good thing.  I was lying to myself, though, and I knew it, so I didn't write the blog post OR the letter.  Halfway through January, I was still thinking about the damn letter, feeling like it should be written.  At that point, I told myself the chance was already past, and I didn't really want to write the letter anyway, and soon, I forgot about it.  (I swear, I am not normally this rigid about things).  I guess 2010 was just a rough year, and one that I was not ready to think about or remember. 

When I was very young (and in some of my older letters, too), I started out by writing a bulleted list of "who I am."  This ranged from lists of adjectives to descriptions of how I wore my hair to long lists of what types of music I liked and my favorite books.  Looking back at some of those letters, you would think I was putting them into a time capsule, or explaining myself to an alien who knows nothing about this culture, much less me.  There was a time when I could write long lists of who I am that was punctuated by exclamation points, smiley faces, stars, hearts, and positivity.  These lists gradually faded away and have become increasingly difficult to write.  Last year, even the act of writing the letter was an act of self-care and, potentially, gentleness, that I was unable and unwilling to venture into.  That I was unwilling to give myself.  Perhaps I was unsure of who I was.  Maybe I still am.

This year, though, I am going to write a letter.  I haven't written it yet.  I'm not going to post it here when I do write it, because this tradition is secret, remember, and it is just for me.  This tradition is something that, in my core, is important to me.  It is something I want to continue to do--for me.  Perhaps you could even say this tradition I developed is part of who I am.

Do you have a personal holiday tradition that is meaningful for you?  Have you/do you write yourself letters?  Would you consider writing down who you are--now?  Be gentle with yourself as you write.  Remember that the events and memories you share with your paper are precious, and that every part of you is deserving of love and gentleness because those memories make up the person you are today.  I will try to remember this as I write, too. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Makings of a Writer

Not me, but I was totally this cute

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember.  I think one of the earliest pieces of writing I have is from when I was in 1st grade.  I wrote my parents a letter that states: "Dear, Famile. (insert several stars and hearts here).  I am goeing awoy becuse (sister) has ben agervading my incibes incides out.  Love, (Autodidactpoet).  (Translation: Dear Family, I am going away because (sister) has been aggravating my insides out). 
Another prime example of my early writing comes from a journal when I was in 2nd grade.  It reads like this: "Thesmorning whan The bus came my sister (name) kisted me so hard and so closeto my nose that my nose bone started to hert."  There's a picture of us at the bus stop with me with a "herting nose bone."    What about that doesn't scream of greatness?
In 1996, however, my writing exploded and my talent soared to heights I have yet to recreate, and it was all due to one character.  I have no idea where this character came from, but my 11 year old mind created this character, who will one day be loved by children everywhere: Sam Funny.  Sam Funny is a 5 year old hippo and, after the success of "Sam's Hanukkah" (which won the 11-15 year old fiction prize in the county's writing competition, thank you*), I wrote "Sam's Ballet Class," "Sam Becomes Vegetarian," "Sam Goes to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship," and "Sam Becomes Homeschooled."  Of course, I was also vegetarian, homeschooled, and Unitarian Universalist, celebrated Hanukkah with my dad's family, and was a dancer.  I like to think of Sam's Ballet Class as the first example of a time I tackled writing about gender politics, as Sam was a boy who was made fun of for taking ballet (as was one of my best friends at the time). 
Here today, in its original form, complete and unabridged,  for the first time since 1996, I am going to share the story of "Sam's Hanukkah," (otherwise known as "The Story That Inspired It All").
Sam was going to Hanukkah dinner.  This year, it fell on the 13th of December, but that was the day Sam's playgroup went to the swamp.  So Sam's mother tried to pick him up early, but he didn't seem to want to leave.  Sam's sister, Maxine, carried him to the car in her best dress.  "To think that I put on all that perfume just to get to smell like a swamp!" said Maxine disgustedly.
"I always wanted to smell like this," said Sam.
When they reached their yellow house on Neighborly Lane, they saw their neighbor, Mr. Grump.  He took one look at the muddy family and turned away. 
"I guess Mr. Grump isn't being very neighborly today," sighed Maxine.
"No wonder!" said their father who had been waiting for them.
"DADDY!" cried Sam as the muddy figure ran and hugged his clean father.  There was an uneasy silence until his father said, " I guess I'll go change."
Not Sam.  He's definitely cuter.
Then came the trouble of getting Sam in his suit and tie.  The trouble was his mother practically had to shove him into it.  Sam howled, "why can't I wear my Bahama shorts and top!?!"
"Because it's the...whew, you really are getting big, Sam...middle of December...and...and..."
"It just isn't appropriate," said Maxine walking in.
"Exactly!" said his mother.
When the whole family was dressed and on their way, Sam's mother said, "now remember Sam, BE POLITE."
"And eat your kugel even if it is hard," added his father.
"And be kind to Aunt Ern," said Maxine as they drove up the drive to Aunt Ern's cottage.
They all piled out of the car and walked up to the door.  Mom rang the bell and they heard a thousand voices saying, "I'll get it!"
"Let Johnny get it," said a voice.  The door flew open and so did Sam's mouth because there stood his cousin in his Bahama shorts and top.  Sam's family swallowed hard.
"Look at Sam!" exclaimed Uncle Bert.
"Isn't he cunning?" said Aunt May.
"He's really adorable," said Aunt Ern.  Sam hid behind his mother.
"Has the cat got your tongue?" asked Uncle Max.  Sam peeked out and stuck out his tongue.
"Uhhhhh!" his aunts gasped.
"He's really literal about things," said Sam's mother with a fake laugh. 
"Dinner's read," said Aunt Ern in a flat tone.  Everyone ate in silence until Aunt Ern asked, " well, is the food good?"
"The kugel's hard," said Aunt May.
"I think it's wonderful!" said Sam.
"Bless his little heart," Aunt Ern said sweetly.
"I think the bagels are too dry.  I guess I'll have to talk to the baker," said Aunt Ern.
"Not when you put cream cheese on them!" said Sam, happy to be getting on his aunt's good side again.  Somehow, everyone found something to complain about, but Sam liked everything.
After dinner, Uncle Bert said, "well, well, is it time to say the blessing over the Hanukkah candles?  Jonny, will you say it this year?"
"Um...ahh...sure, I guess so."
Believe it or not, Google Images
did not have a picture of a hippo
lighting a menorah.

"Um, what is the blessing?"
"All right, I guess Johnny won't say it this year.  Veronica?  Naomi?  Kristen?"  They all looked at the ceiling.
"I'll say the blessing, Uncle Bert!" cried Sam.  Uncle Bert looked touched.
"Why yes, say it Sam."
"Adorable, just adorable," sighed his aunts.
"Go ahead, Sam," said his father.  The lights dimmed as Sam sang, "Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melach ha-olam, asher kid-shanu b'mitzvotav, vitzivanu, l'hadlik ner, shel Hanukkah."
Everyone clapped and cheered, "bravo Sam, bravo!"  As they turned up the lights, they saw Sam fast asleep on the chair. 
"Bless his little heart," Aunt Ern said.
"Well, we really have to go.  Thank you for everything, it was lovely," said Sam's mother.
"Oh, don't mention it," they said.
"Well goodbye, goodbye!"
As the family piled into the car, Sam popped his eyes open and said, "did you see Johnny in his Bahama shorts and top?  That sure wasn't appropriate, was it?"
"Go to bed you stinker," said Maxine.
"I can't wait till next Hanukkah," sighed Sam as he fell asleep.

*I think I was also the ONLY one who entered the fiction writing competition in the 11-15 year old age group, but that's hardly my point.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Being The Ugly Friend, or, the one in which I remember how gender stereotypes are harmful

I'll be the first person to admit that I am not like my peers.  I never have been.  I never will be.  The majority of the time--99% of the time, even--I am quite alright with that.  I can fit in enough in enough, but I am definitely different.  Most of the time, actually, I don't even think about it anymore because I hang with people on the same wavelength as me.  My friends are people who get it, and get me, and are people I feel good around.  I guess that's why we're friends.
This weekend, though, I had a holiday party thing I had to go to for work, and I stayed with some of my colleagues from work--friends from work--who invited me to stay and go to a Christmas festival near their apartment the following day.  What fun!  I love working with these folks.  They make great colleagues, we laugh, we help each other out, we support one another, and we serve as sounding boards and idea generators for one another.  I could not ask for better people to work with.
So I went, I hung out, we had fun, we laughed a lot, and I came home.  Driving home yesterday afternoon, though, I had this distinct sinking feeling in my stomach.  It had been coming for a while and had been building throughout the afternoon.  I ignored it, because I knew I had fun, I knew spending the weekend with them was better than spending the weekend at home in SmallTownUSA by myself, and I knew my friends had fun as well.  What's the problem?
I'm not good at ignoring things for long, though.  My mind likes me to think things to death, and if I attempt to avoid that, it only serves to make it worse.  So I started thinking.
My friends, Amanda*, Sarah*, and Matt*, were the primary cool kids I hung out with this weekend.  Other people were there at various points, but Amanda, Sarah, Matt and I were the fearless four who went adventuring.  Amanda and Sarah are, in a word, gorgeous.  They both in different ways exemplify our culture's ideas of beauty.  Although we were just going to a street festival in the cold where people drank beer and bought gingerbread cookies,  Amanda spent at least half an hour doing her make-up before we left.   She straightened her hair.  She tried on three different outfits before settling on the skinny jeans, tall boots, sweater with a cowel neck and a belt that emphasized her skinny waist, and I swear to all that is holy, her purse matched her boots.  When we met up with Sarah, she was also in the skinny jeans, with boots, a cute holiday-ish shirt, and an adorable little peacoat.  Every hair was in place, her eyelashes were aligned, and she had a cute little purse that Amanda flipped over.  Their jewelry all matched and I'd bet money that their underwear matched their bras.  And Matt?  He wore a red shirt with a black tie and a pullover sweater so he looked like he stepped out of an L.L.Bean catalog.  I was, without a doubt, the ugly friend.  If I'm honest with you--and I do believe in honesty--I spent much of my time walking around focused on the fact that I was the bruised or misshapen banana in this bunch, and praying to the Goddess-of-Women-Who-Don't-Fit-In that nobody had a camera in their adorable, shoe-matching bag.
To be fair, I was at a distinct disadvantage because I had only what I had packed, did not have access to my full wardrobe or make-up or accessories, and...let's get real.  Even if I had, I wouldn't have looked like that because that's not how I dress.  My hair is always in some sort of disarray, my body is far from perfect, my accessories never match, and I don't own any matching bra and underwear sets.  Sure I'll wear some mascara, but that's typically the extent of the makeup, and my eyes are terrible and have been rejecting of any contact I have tried in the past 5 years, so I seem to be stuck with glasses until I can afford Lasik.  To make me feel even better, Amanda and Sarah commented routinely on their appearance, asked one another for opinions, and commented on how much they had eaten, or hadn't eaten, and which clothes were going to fit or not fit after the upcoming holiday season.  When Sarah posed questions about what to wear to an upcoming winter wedding, and which purse would match her dress, Amanda was able to think it through and come up with an answer.  Me?  I just agreed with whatever was said as I, honestly, have no opinion or experience to offer on whether a clutch with feathers or a clutch with sequins would be better with a black strapless dress with gold sequins and a little poof in the skirt at a winter wedding.  (The answer, for anyone curious, was feathers).
So we're walking down the street and we started going into stores along the very expensive stretch of road we walked along.  There were jewelry stores, purse stores, shoe stores, and expensive cupcake stores.  There were random expensive clothing stores, insanely expensive furniture stores, and another jewelry store.  We walked through the festival, sometimes going into stores to warm-up, and it was in these stores that my sinking stomach feeling originated.   See, when women shop together, I've found, we all comment on what we see and what we love and what we don't like and what we can't imagine anyone ever buying.  This proves difficult, however, when the women you are with act like they would buy out the store in a heartbeat and, had someone given you a thousand dollars upon entering the store and told you to buy whatever you like, you would have left empty-handed.  There is something in me that just can't justify ever spending that much money on a purse.  And the shoes?  I would either break my leg, wobble like an elephant on stilts, or never get my foot in the damn things to begin with. 
But you know, even being the ugly friend, even having nothing to say about the $500 purses, and even being the only one who didn't try on a pair of $185 heels didn't bug me as much as this: the signs/mugs/plaques.  You know what I'm talking about?  They have signs like these in all cute little shops.  They can say anything, but these signs held primarily quotes about lipstick and shoes and what it "means" to be a woman.  What women should be like.  The way, supposedly, that women are.  "A girl should be two things: fabulous and classy," said one, with pictures of high heels and lipstick around it.  "Shoes are the foundation of all fashion," said another.  My friend pointed to it, and nodded knowingly.  "That is so true," she said.  I nodded.  "Yup," I said.  One can only crack so many jokes to avoid the awkwardness, and one can only disagree so many times.  "Just around the corner in every woman's mind - is a lovely dress, a wonderful suit, or entire costume which will make an enchanting new creature of her."  "A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to want to take it off you."  The quotes were endless.  My friends agreed, "yes, that's TOTALLY true."  I laughed with them.  As The Ugly Friend, it seemed only appropriate: one can't be The Ugly Friend and also disagree about things every woman wants!  That would indicate being perhaps a hopeless cause, or worse. 
At one point, I was desperate for some sort of validation.  As Matt and I stood waiting for Sarah and Amanda, I pointed to a sign that said something to the effect of "All a woman needs is a good pair of heels and some great lipstick."  I nudged him and motioned towards the sign: "I've gotta tell you," I said, "I just don't buy it."  I motioned in the direction of the $500 purses.  "And that?  I just can't understand."
"Oh," said Matt.  "Huh."
"Yeah," I said.  "Just not how I was raised, I guess."
"Hmm," he said.  "Every woman I've ever known went crazy for this stuff."
And just like that, the final bottoming out of my stomach happened.  Perhaps, because I was different, because I don't wear skinny jeans and match my earrings to my purse and my purse to my shoes, perhaps I am less of a woman.  That feeling--that feeling of being less of a woman, of not quite meeting the criteria I am supposed to fulfill to keep that title--is what stuck with me in the car ride on the way home.  I am different, and somehow less than, and not what I am supposed to be.
It's not anything my friends said or did.  If anything, it's my own insecurity playing out and has nothing to do with them, but it's also the effect of a society that has taught men and women alike that, just as "all men" are macho and strong and manly and brave, women are interested in shoes, moody, cry at the drop of a hat, are sweet, and match their lipstick with their purse.  When people--such as myself--don't fill that stereotype, and are among people who either fill that stereotype because that is genuinely who they are or because they drank the Kool-Aid, the only logical conclusion that can come up in the moment, sometimes, is that they are less than what is expected.  Are there women out there who love fashion and shoes and lipstick?  Absolutely.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Of course not.  Is this trend representative of all women?  No.
I don't generally mind marching to the beat of a different drummer.  Sometimes, though I wish the drummer would just, at the very least, be in tune with the music of the others around me. 
*All names have been changed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gratitude: Sing it, praise it, shout it

It feels both utterly cliché and utterly appropriate to write about gratitude now, two days before Thanksgiving.  I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon with such things: why be grateful and tout your gratitude only one day, one week, one month out of the year when we have 365 days, 52 weeks, 12 months in which we can celebrate and live in gratitude?  Why express gratitude then if, during that one day, that one week, that one month, you just aren’t feeling grateful?  Why fake the gratitude just because some holiday or cultural ritual (which may or may not have meaning for you) tells you it’s time to give thanks?  I say, “pfffft.”  If you feel grateful now, sing it, dance it, shout it in whatever way you can.  If you decide in the middle of January that the warmth of your hot chocolate on a cold, snowy night is your time of thanksgiving, sing it, praise it, revel in your gratitude then.  If it suddenly sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise as you watch the sunrise one morning in March, let that morning, then, be your time of thanksgiving. 
Thanksgiving rants aside, I am thinking about gratitude.  (I have many, many thoughts right now I am trying to rein in and focus, so I apologize if this becomes disjointed).  Lately, I have noticed a change in myself.  It’s been sneaking up on me for a bit now, and I’ve noticed glimpses of it off and on, but more and more consistently I notice that I am feeling…(I can’t find the word I want here, and realize I’m balking a bit—taking the easy way out—backpedaling, finger over the backspace key).  Here’s a story:
The night I was sexually assaulted (have I ever written that out, directly, on here before?  I think not.  And there it is, in black and white—backpedaling, finger over the backspace key, I continue), the woman who was with me—a friend, I thought, was just one of the people who hurt me beyond what I thought was possible.  It’s funny what stays with you when you hurt like that.  I recall one conversation we had a few weeks before the assault and subsequent ending of our friendship.  I don’t know what we were discussing, but I used the word “strength.”  There were several people standing around, witnessing this conversation.
                “What did you say?” she asked, laughing.
                “What did I say about what?” I asked, confused.
                “The word you just used.  Say it again.  S-t-r-e…”
                “Strength?” I asked, totally lost.
She shuddered, dramatically.  “You know you say it wrong, right?  I hate when people mispronounce things, and so many people say that word wrong.”  She shuddered again.  “Argh, I always want to tell people ‘just say it right, and if you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it.’  Say it likes it’s spelled.”
                “How do you say it?”
                “Strength,” she said.  I couldn’t hear the difference.
                “What did I say?”
                “Strength.  You say it like Amelia* says it.  I want to smack her every time she says it.”  Amelia was someone in our program at school that this friend hated.  Hated, with a capital H, and probably a capital A-T-E-D, too.  To be equated to her was definitely not a good thing.  I was embarrassed—the people around me didn’t say anything.  For those few weeks, I caught myself when I was about to say that word, unsure of whether I was going to say it “correctly” or “incorrectly.”  I’m still not sure if I say it correctly or incorrectly, or even if the way I say it or said it is or was correct. 
After the assault, though, every time I heard this word, I was reminded of this conversation—and subsequently of the hurt, of the assault, of the loss of the friendships, the loss of trust—a single word became enough to literally take my breath away as though I was under the enormous weight of the word.  Strong.  Strength.  You don’t realize how much people use the word “strength” until it takes you to a heart-racing, mind-flashing place every time you hear it.  The funny thing is, people talk more about strength after an event like a sexual assault than they do at any other time.  Well, in actuality there’s really nothing funny about it: having your sense of power and autonomy stripped away, feeling like you are scraping down as far as you can reach to dig up one iota of whatever will get you up and through the day, and being unable to even use the word “strong” without feeling as though you crumble into a million pieces is a situation no word fits.  “Funny” will have to do.
I struggle with the concept of being strong, and my issue with the idea of being strong goes back much further than the story above.  (Tell the story here.  Just tell it.  Take your finger OFF of the backspace key).
I was 11 years old.  My 9 year old sister was having her 4th heart surgery, and I had spent hours in the waiting room and walking around the hospital entertaining my 4 year old sister.  In the waiting room, I listened to a mother on the phone telling family members that her son did not make it through surgery.  I try to shield my sister from the raw grief before us and we go for a walk.  In the playroom, we meet a little boy who has tubes coming from seemingly everywhere and is attached to a big, beeping machine taller than he is.  “Hi,” he says to us.  “My name is Henry, and I’m waiting for a heart.”
Hours later, I am allowed into the PICU to see my sister, an hour out of surgery.  She looks tiny on the little, low bed, and looks nothing like the loud, obnoxious sister I know.  “Talk to her,” my mother says.  I can’t.  My throat closes, my eyes fill with tears, and I can't breathe, much less fake a smile. “Leave,” says my mother, pointing to the door.  A well-intentioned nurse pulls me aside.  “Your sister is going to be fine.  You have to be strong for her, you’re her big sister!  Be a big girl and go tell her she’s going to be okay.  She needs you to be her strong big sister.” 
“What’s this?” my grandfather asks, rounding the corner.  “None of that. Pull it together now, pull it together.  Aren’t you going to be nice and strong for your sister and your mother?  Pull it together.”  I swallowed my tears and walked back into the PICU.
And one more story:
When I was 20, I had two sisters with serious health problems.  I was a senior in college, a few short months away from graduating, trying to finish classes, I took some time off to be at the hospital when my sister had surgery.  In the midst of it all, I reached a breaking point.  I was sitting in the waiting room, studying while my grandfather sat across from me doing a crossword puzzle.  Without saying anything to him, and just really wanting to be left alone, I quietly started to cry.  My grandfather looked up from his crossword puzzle.  “I am so tired of you crying all the time.  Why can’t you just be strong like me?  You have people depending on you.  What would your mother say if she knew you were crying right now?  Pull yourself together.”  I stood up, turned my back on him, and moved to walk out of the waiting room.  He called my name and I turned, hoping for an apology.  Instead, he flipped me the bird.
There are three stories.  Just three. 
Amalia Ortiz, in her poem “Some Days” writes, “When people tell me I am a strong woman/I want to tell them I don’t always feel very strong.  Some days I get so tired of being strong I want to let my legs collapse under the weight of the world on these shoulders and just cry myself to sleep./ Some days some days I get so tired of being strong frustration sends me pacing the floor, no solutions, no where to go, nothing to do but pace myself crazy… Some days,” she ends, “we must let ourselves fall apart, before we can move forward.”
For a while, it was important to me to try to reclaim that word and the last line of that poem went through my head constantly.  "Some days, we must let ourselves fall apart, before we can move forward."  It was important for me to try to see myself as “strong.”  To believe that I am a strong woman.  I tried to redefine it.  I tried to change my view of it.  I tried to change how I pronounce it.  It didn’t help.  It wasn’t mine.  It isn’t me.  I resigned myself to the fact that, perhaps, I just am not “strong.”  I am not a woman who has the strength I am supposed to have.  Not strong enough.  Not strong, though, is weak.  I don't want to be strong, but I definitely don't want to be weak.
But I started this post to be about gratitude.  And it is—really—if you made it this far, stick with me here until the end.  I am not strong.  I don’t want to be strong.  I don't have to be, I've realized, and the weight that takes off my shoulders is liberating.  For the first time, I don't feel that I have to be strong.  The change I’ve noticed is that, most days, I am more confident.  I am looking the day square in the face, ready for what it brings me.  I am greeting the world with eyes wide open, willing to give and slowly—but slowly—willing to receive.  Trust is a long time coming.  Once it’s lost, I don’t know that you ever fully get it back.  But it’s coming.  And it’s not because I’m “strong.”  It’s not because of some reserve of strength I have stored somewhere inside me that I am able to summon when I need it.  It’s not because I have some inherent strength to pull it all together and keep marching like a good soldier should.
It’s because I’m resilient.  Resilience is not a trait, but a process.  It’s the “bounce back” process.  The “get up and try again” mechanism.  The ability to find the people, resources, supports, and thoughts I need to cope, navigate my environment, and move forward.  It is not something inherent in me that I have because of these or other events, or something that I just happened to be lucky enough to be born with.  It is, in part, because I do have access to the things I need.  It is in part because of my personality and who I am as a human being.  In short, for me, I see resilience as a power I have, and that is important, vital, precious.  I don’t believe things happen in our lives for a reason.  I also don’t believe that bad things happen to teach us something, to show us how strong we are, or to test us.  I believe that things happen.  Good things happen.  Bad things happen.  What we do with that determines where we go in our lives.  Not who we are—but where we go. 
I don’t know where I’m going, but I know that this resilience—this power that I have as I navigate my internal and external world, is something I want to celebrate: to sing it, praise it, shout it in whatever way I can.  For that, I am truly, undoubtedly, and immensely grateful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Not a Love Poem

Andrea Gibson, on her Facebook page, recently posted a status that said: "write a love poem to one part of yourself you haven't learned to love yet." I read that and thought, "ooh! I can totally do that!" So I tried...and I tried...and I tried...and all my attempts came out completely pathetic. Or rather, nothing really came out at all. I'm pretty sure my muse has abandoned me. The way I've neglected her recently, I can't say I blame her.

This poem, apparently, was what wanted to be written instead. Each word was like pulling teeth, but it was written. I doubt it will appease my writing muse enough to come home, but there are words in black and white. That means something, always.

What about you? Can you write a poem with Gibson's prompt? Or what about an un-love poem, as I seem to have written? Regardless of which one you write, remember that the words on the page mean something--always.

Not a Love Poem

I’ve never written a love poem
--certainly never to you—
my poems
are more anxious than loving,
bitter, not doting,
have more anger than passion,
my poems
travel existential roundabouts
instead of lovesick highways
to impossible stars.

I’ve never written you a love poem because before
I publicly declare my love for you
I need to break off this thing I have going.
It’s nothing serious but I’ll
have to go through the break-up phase:
the boxes of tissues,
the chocolate,
the sappy movies,
the sleepless nights.
I don’t want to nurse a heart so broken,
don’t want to risk the violence:
I know she’s no good for me, but self-doubt can be
a jealous lover.

I’m not writing you a love poem because
I can’t find the pieces of my broken heart:
I left it out like a jigsaw, and tenderness
was just one of the piece that got chewed on and batted
to no-mans land with the dust and old change.
Don’t blame yourself.
It’s me, not you:
watch me striking out again
I close my eyes and miss the ball knowing
a home run would let me
run home
but I’ve been running for so long
like ET and Dorothy, I just want to get there
so I get on my bicycle and pedal like hell
click my heels three times,
throw pennies into wishing wells.

Follow me
around my existential roundabout
as I pedal and click, throwing old change at it all:
I’m not writing you a love poem.
I have no idea

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On loving the world

When I was in 4th grade, I completed a homeschooling curriculum on World History.  I had a fantastic history book that was easy to read and did not read at all like a text book.  I remember reading the chapter on Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.  There was a section on the city-state of Sparta and the culture of the Spartans.  When I read about the Spartans leaving babies that seemed weak (i.e. those unlikely to succeed as soldiers) on a hillside to die, I went to my mother so distraught I couldn’t even explain to her what I had learned through my tears. 
That memory serves to remind me that, perhaps, I am indeed hardwired to be the person I am.  From the time I was tiny and my mother had to glue together pages of my wild animal picture books because I was upset about the picture of the lion killing its prey, I have been rather unnaturally sensitive.  Over the years, I have learned how to better harness that energy.  How to manage it so it does not overwhelm me.  I have learned to channel my passion for caring.  I would be lying if I told you this has been an easy road.  Time changes you, though, and painful personal events shape you and change your ability to tolerate comfort and discomfort.  Your life perspective, and who you are as a living, loving person in the world changes.
I work in a job now where my heart could—and sometimes does--break on a daily basis.  I have worked to be able to handle the stories I hear because, just as I was born to cry about Spartan babies dying on hillsides, I was born to hear stories.  Through stories, through interpersonal connection and dialogue, through contact with other human beings, we come to understand our world.  Through living and engaging with others honestly, we open ourselves to change our souls, or bodies, and our minds.  When we engage ourselves with honesty, the possibilities and potential for change is endless.
There is a certain vulnerability that comes with honesty that makes it frightening.  Professionally, I fear that “this child’s story makes my heart hurt,” can sound like “I can’t handle what this family is telling me.”   I worry that “this family stays on my mind long after I see them.  This is a case I bring home with me,” sounds like “I have poor boundaries and can’t separate my personal and professional life.”  I  assume that statements like “I nearly became tearful in session as the mother described her current circumstances” sounds like “I cried because I felt so bad for her” or “I became overwhelmed with my own personal reaction and couldn’t handle mom’s affect.” 
But I hold strong in my conviction that it takes courage to love the world.  It takes courage to wake up every day and walk out into the world, ready to love again.  Putting oneself in a position where your job requires you to extend that love on an intimate and interpersonal level, in all the myriad of ways we can show our love for humanity, is an act of bravery.  Hearing stories, sharing lives, moving towards healing and health and wholeness, whatever that means, is a radical act of compassion and love.  Acts of courage and bravery leave battle wounds and scars.  These wounds leave our perceptions of the world irreversibly changed, and yet, the bravery that is valued seems to be the bravery to carry on as though you are unshaken. 
The courage that I live is simply the ability to hear it all, and to love the world again.  The bravery I live is the ability to soak in stories and continue to be open to holding them, to telling them, to making them and breaking them down to deconstruct them.  The bravery I live is the ability to sit with the people the world seems to have ignored so long they have been forgotten.  The wounds I carry are sometimes physical, but more often and more substantially, lie in the intimate knowledge I hold of the pain in others’ hearts.  The battle scars are in my eyes as the lenses with which I view the world become obscured with knowledge I’d rather not have. 
And yet, I listen.  I open my heart to the breaking and healing.  And I continue to love the world.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Giving Gifts

In a moment of hope
I read you my poem.

I knew you wouldn’t understand
but read it anyway,
like a child wanting
a pat on the head
a smile
a thumbs up
a high-five:
I’m not particular about the ways praise
can find me.

You looked baffled, asked
what I plan to do with a
box full of writing.
Asked if any of it was
worth saving.

Long ago you taught me the rule:
when someone gives you a gift,
you smile
and say thank you.

It was so long ago
I'm sure you have just

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Pennhurst Asylum", or, whatever happened to compassion and respect?

 So the other day I got an email alerting me to this: . Needless to say, I got pretty angry. Okay, really angry. So I wrote this letter, which I will be sending to various people. If you have any suggestions, or if something is unclear, let me know. I encourage you to write a letter as well. What the heck is wrong with the world?
October 25, 2011

To whom it may concern:
Halloween is, certainly, a fun time of tricks and terrors.  I understand that, currently, Halloween is a time where the scary, evil, supernatural, and odd are brought out and celebrated.  In the past several decades, Halloween has evolved into a time for scary movies, haunted houses, and haunted hayrides, all activities that can certainly remain harmless and pleasurable for those who enjoy being frightened. 
However, as an advocate for persons with disabilities, and as a predoctoral intern in psychology working with individuals with disabilities, I am outraged by the fact that the former Pennhurst State School will be used as a tourist attraction.  Per your website, you are aware of the history of the school, as well as the abuse and suffering that occurred there.  The historical treatment of people with disabilities is certainly a dark spot in American history and, while much has improved, the lingering effects from these views remain in the varying ways we continue to stigmatize people with disabilities and people with mental illness.  The fact that the known suffering, abuse, and death of former residents of Pennhurst State School will be used as “entertainment” is unacceptable. 
Historically, persons with mental illness and people with disabilities have been perceived as “evil,” supernatural, and something to be feared.  Although these beliefs are not generally held overtly by individuals in today’s society, there continues to be significant shame, stigma, and fear surrounding disability.  “Pennhurst Asylum” as a tourist attraction perpetuates and capitalizes on this oppression and stigma.
Pennhurst State School, and many state schools and institutions similar to Pennhurst, closed in the relatively recent past.  According to your website, Pennhurst began the deinstitutionalization process in 1986; conceivably, there are individuals and their families in the community who survived the horror of living in the actual institution.  The trauma resulting from the inhuman treatment of the people living in the institution is one that affects not only the individuals, but also their families, their communities, and the country as a whole.  Having worked in several facilities for individuals with disabilities, I have personally met, worked with, played with, and laughed with several older adults who lived in various institutions and “state schools” for the majority of their lives.  The impact of these environments on some of society’s most vulnerable citizens is unforgivable.  As people with disabilities attempt to move forward from this time in history and establish their place in society, they continue to work to obtain such basic human rights as safety, freedom, independence, and accessibility.  The daily discrimination, segregation, and barriers faced can be daunting, and the disability movement is largely unnoticed by mainstream society.  By opening Pennhurst State School as a tourist attraction and sensationalizing the horrors of that point in history, “Pennhurst Asylum” is contributing to the marginalization, oppression, and segregation of a population within our society. 
Unless a society is unable to acknowledge its historical mistakes, history is bound to repeat itself in some way.  By sensationalizing the abuse and suffering of a group of people, “Pennhurst Asylum” is not only condoning the acts that have occurred in the past, but also allowing this and other forms of oppression to continue in the future.  Basic respect for the suffering, abuse, and trauma of people is the very least that can be done in a historical location such as Pennhurst State School.  From that respect, I can only hope that we as a society can move towards much needed, and long awaited, respect for the personhood and autonomy of persons with disabilities.
In Peace,

Please write a letter?  You can take ideas and even pieces of mine if you would like.  On the email list I got this through it suggested writing a letter to the Pennhurst people, but also writing a letter to your legislators (particularly if you live in PA), writing a letter to the editor (again, particularly if you live in PA), posting about it on your blog, posting on your Facebook...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A snippet of conversation...

 “Who's there?" Bubby says as soon as I open the door.  I walk into the family room and her face lights up.  "Hi Pussycat!  Thanks for coming.  It's so good of you to come.  You can't stay long, you're busy. Come sit down.  You'll just stay for a little bit.  I can’t offer you a thing.  I don’t know what’s in my Frigidaire and I can’t get up, I…”
“Hi Bubby,” I say, kissing her cheek before taking the seat she indicated.
“How are things?  I can’t offer you a thing…there’s water in the kitchen.  And a glass.  And maybe some nosh, I don’t know.  I can’t offer you a thing.”  She says “water” like my dad does, so it sounds like “wooder.”  I am momentarily embarrassed that I trained myself to say “water” instead, just like I taught myself to say “on” instead of “oin.”  Bubby’s house is synonymous with “nosh” in my mind, and I feel a pang that there is nothing to eat on the table, not because I’m hungry, but because it’s symbolic of the changes occurring.
“Things are good, Bubby,” I say, taking off my jacket.  “I don’t need anything, I just ate.”
“How’s school,” she says before I’ve finished.
“Work’s good,” I say.  She forgets I’m not still at school and can’t really understand the concept of an internship.
“You work hard,” she says, nodding, like she knows she’s right.  “You always work hard.  All my kids work hard.”
“How are you feeling?” I ask, trying to get a word in before she asks another question.
“I’m fine.  That school you go to, it has a good reputation.  I never hear anything bad about it.  You do good work.  You work hard.”  These are not questions, they are statements.  “And you love it.  You work hard but you love it.  You work hard but you love what you do, baruch hashem.  You work like a dirty dog.”
“Everything is good though, Bubby,” I say.
“You never complain.  You work hard and you never complain.  You cook for yourself?  You make yourself dinner?”
“Yes Bubby.  I…”
“I think that’s so good.  All you kids cook for yourselves.  I don’t cook anymore.  I put the thing from the Fridgidaire, from the – the freezer--in the…um…the…I put it in the…um…”
“The microwave?”
“Yes.  I put it in the microwave and…that’s it.  I don’t cook anymore.”  She nods, finalizing her last statement
“That’s okay, Bubby.  And you’ve got people helping you here now.  Don’t they cook for you?”
“Yes, they cook, the other day she…uh…what’s her name?  Not this one.  The other one.  The one that comes here sometimes.  At night.  She comes at night.  She made chicken.  It was alright.  She made it in the kitchen and gave it to me, and it was alright.  It was alright.”  She continues without taking a breath.  “Your father won’t let me drive anymore.  And the doctor, he doesn’t want me driving anymore.  But I told them I know I can’t drive right now, so we’re just going to wait and make a decision later.  We don’t have to decide now.  I’ve been a good sport, but I’m not going to give that up.  I don’t go far.  I go to the beauty shop.  I go to…you know…just right up here.”  She points.  “Down…” she points in the other direction, “you know…McDonough…no, not that one…Liberty…down near where Aunt Jean used to live…anyway, I go down to…you know that place to buy groceries.  I go down there.  And I go to Betty’s.  And I visit Aunt Faygie.  And that’s it.  That’s all I do.  I don’t go anywhere else.  But they say I can’t do that, and I tell them they can’t take that away from me yet, for the thing there.  But that’s what they said.”
“Well Bubby, I think everybody is really worried right now.  And you have all these people here helping you that can take you where you need to go.  You just tell them you need to go to the beauty shop or go shopping and they’ll be happy to…”
“We’re not talking about it.  I don’t go far.  I just go to the beauty shop and to visit Aunt Faygie and…”
“It doesn’t matter how far you’re going.  Things can happen, even just going down the road to the beauty shop.  Things can happen in a parking lot.  You know that from when you hit that pedestrian before…and everything was okay that time, but Bubby, you’ve got to listen to your doctor even if you don’t want to listen to Daddy.”
She laughs.  “He takes good care of me.  I know he just…he worries.  Does he worry?  He worries.”
“We all worry, Bubby.”
“I know, we all worry about everybody, honey.  We all worry.”
“We’d worry less if we knew you weren’t driving.”
“We’re not talking about that,” she says.  She folds her arms to let me know the conversation is really over.  There is silence for a moment as I listen to my heart pounding in my ears.  How do I contradict my 87-year-old grandmother?  She isn’t a scary woman, but in this blur of a conversation, my heart hurts as I try to figure out how to be her granddaughter and also protect her.  How to convey my respect of her authority and age and wisdom.  How do I give her the respect I need to give based on the very fact that she is my Bubby, and also let her know that she is wrong.  That I disagree with her.  That I am in a position where I need to protect her.  This is a woman I have never seen cry, even when my grandfather died.  A breast cancer survivor, a woman with 14 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren, my grandmother serves 42 relatives for Passover seders.  She makes salads so big she uses garbage bags to toss the lettuce with the dressing.  She yells at me when I carry dishes to the sink, telling me to sit down and stop doing so much.  You don’t disagree with her.  You don’t tell her what she can and can’t do.  She uses lines like “I’m your Bubby and you listen to me.”  And so you do.  You just do.
But none of that matters now, because we’re not talking about it.  That much is clear.  It’s a conversation we will need to wait to resurface and, maybe then, I will have better answers.  Maybe then I will know better how to say it…or maybe not.  Maybe it will still make my heart squeeze in a rhythm not my own. 
“The lady who helps me…you know the one?  She was here the other day.”
“Which one?” I ask.
“You know the one.  I can’t think of her name.”
“Was it Paula?”
“No.  The other one.”
“No.  The other one.  I don’t know why I can’t think of her name.”
“What about her, Bubby?”
“Why can’t I think of her name!  You know.  The other one.  This is so silly.  Why can’t I think of her name?”
“It’s okay.  Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t get old, kid,” she says.  “Getting old is for the birds.”
I laugh.  “I’ll try not to,” I say.
“Why can’t I think of her name?” she asks again.  “She has the same name as me.”

Finding Home

When I was a kid, I loved going on vacation.  I would wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…  I would look forward to it, ask about when it was coming, be SO EXCITED to go, and then, about a week before it was time to leave, I would balk.  I would start dreading it.  I didn’t want to go.  Vacation meant a change from the routine and, as much as I loved going places and seeing things, I liked the comfort, routine, and ritual of home.  Once we were on vacation, I was fine.  But I loved the feeling of coming home.  I could not wait to pull into our long gravel driveway, to run up to my bedroom, to find my cat and hug her and squeeze her until she was totally pissed off and looked like she wished I had been pulled away by the undertow of the ocean that left salt in my hair and sand in my shoes.
Some things, I’ve learned, change as you get older and others don’t. This pattern of both wanting and dreading change is something that remains constant.  I look forward to changes.  I love the excitement of going places, of changing things up, of seeing something new, of doing something different.  But afterwards, I love the feeling of coming home.  I love the settling into the routine, the calm comfort that brings.  I love the ritual of returning to what I know.  I think it is a good place to be, this loving both sides of this coin. 
If you count college, which I do, then in the past 9 years, I have moved 8 times.  Considering I just turned 26, that means I have moved almost every year since I was 17.  That, my friends, is a lot of moving.   
When I was a freshman in college, I remember talking to a friend who was getting ready to graduate.  “It doesn’t seem like you’re home here yet,” she said.  I was in the middle of what we’ll call “Bad Roommate Experience Numbers 1 and 2” so she was correct, but I asked her how she knew.  I was happy—except for the roommate stuff—how did she know I wasn’t really home?  “Because,” she told me, “you still call your dorm room ‘your room.’  You don’t yet call your room ‘home.’”
And I didn’t.  Not for the first year, because it wasn’t home.  Home was home—home was where my parents and sisters and cats and dogs lived.  My dorm room was ‘my room’ where I happened to stay for 9 months of the year with 2 very different, very—shall we say interesting­­—roommates.  Roommates, however, are a story for another time.  My roommate stories have nothing to do with home.
My next two years at college, however, my dorm room became “home.”  I loved those little rooms.  They were mine.  They were safe, and quiet, and they expressed me and who I was.  College was a safe place with my own rituals and routines and community.  Home was still home—the place with my sisters and my parents and my cat that looked pissed every time I showed up.  I had two homes then: the home of my childhood, and my home with my friends and my community.  I may not have always loved college or known quite what to make of it, but the space I lived in was mine: the community was a part of me and I was a part of it, and that very fact brought me home.
In Ohio, the first year was hard.  I had what we’ll call my “Roommates from Hell” experiences that I can only just laugh about now and, although I lived in a large apartment, I had only one small room I stayed in 98% of the time.  This room was smaller than any of my dorm rooms and had only enough room for my bed, my desk, and a very small path to walk between them.  That space, though, belonged to me.  It was my haven away from the insanity of grad school, from the chaos of living 9 hours away from everything I knew, and from the craziness that often occurred outside of my door.  As I settled more and more into my life in Ohio, it became home.  I had no choice—I was there, and I was in it for the long haul.  The home I pictured in my mind was my home.  My space.  At times, I was homesick for my family and for the scenery of the East coast.  There were times I wanted to see “my mountains” so badly it hurt, but in my soul, I was also home.  The home I grew up in slowly became “my parents’ house,” and whichever apartment I was living in was where I wanted to be when I craved going home. 
There were times, of course, when it didn’t feel like home: the three months I lived out of garbage bags because the apartment was infested with bedbugs.  The time the police searched my apartment for drugs because they smelled incense and assumed I was smoking pot.  The time I felt I had lost the safety and community grounding me and I couldn’t find a place in the world or in myself that felt even remotely like “home.” 
When it came time to apply for internships last year, I seriously considered not applying.  My life felt like it had fallen apart and was only just starting to be pieced back together: how could I leave when I had only just found home?  How could I voluntarily pack up and leave the place that had both torn me apart and also handed me back the pieces?  How could I dare to start over in a new physical home when my own internal home was missing?  I wanted to pull down the metaphorical gravel driveway of my soul and throw myself onto the bed I knew was mine that would welcome me with open arms, as if it had known I was missing and had been waiting for me to come along.  I consoled myself with the fact that I would be going back to Maryland—my original home.  I would be, I told myself, going home.  Home.  I would be going back to a place I once called home.
Perhaps it is because the 8th time one moves in nearly as many years, it takes you longer to claim the place as home.  Perhaps moving 9 hours away, even if it is to the same side of the country you were raised in, is always difficult.  Perhaps I am just not in the right place.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t given it enough time, or maybe the events of my past few years have led me just to be a little less trusting.  A little less likely to open my heart.  A little less likely to believe I can safely claim a physical, interpersonal, or emotional space as “home.”
All I know is this: this house is not mine.  It doesn’t make sense to me—the house that is--and I still, 4 months later, feel that I am walking into someone else’s space.  No matter how I clean it, it still feels dirty.  The light switches are perpetually in the wrong place.  The shelves are too high, the ants continue to march through my kitchen, and the heat sounds like someone let loose preschoolers with a combination of hammers and tap shoes into my pipes.  There is a distinct sense of not belonging that is pervading my time here.  As I work to continually reaffirm my belief that I am worthy of safety, worthy of community, and worthy of respect and friendship, this feeling of not belonging brings an uneasiness that is hard to overcome.  It is easier, almost, to sit with the not belonging than to challenge it.  It is easier to believe this not belonging stems from the unworthiness I’ve known for the past year and a half.  This sense of not belonging in my body, not belonging in community, not belonging in relationship. 
I know I am not alone in my struggle to find home.  From Dorothy clicking her heels three times, to country singers singing about country roads, to old adages claiming that home is where the heart is and Robert Frost claiming that home is where “when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” it seems this struggle to find and define home is universal.  Ideally, of course, home would not be a physical place.  Ideally, I could walk around knowing that I am home in my soul, in my body, in my heart.  When I have a secure base to go from—when I have a strong physical sense of home—perhaps I can get there, but I would be lying if I said I could find home that easily.  It is wrong to want that physical haven?  That safe place that belongs to me?  The community surrounding me that lets me know, in spite of my sense of unworthiness and non-belonging, that I actually belong?
What is home for you?  Where is home?  Have you found it?  What would it take for you to get there?