Sometimes the strangest stories get stuck in my head, back somewhere half-buried in the sand with just a glint of shimmer peeking out to catch my eye (thoughts) a few times a day.

Sometimes when I am listening to a friend talk, I feel a deeper sense of knowing, or at least the potential to find a deeper understanding, and that feeling echoes throughout my days and nights until I’m ready to haul it out from the sand and give it a once-over.

Yesterday I sat and had a fully impromptu cup of coffee with a dear, lovely friend and we caught up a little bit, talking of things important and not so important.  She told me a funny story that sat with me until this morning when I finally realized why it was resonating.

Over the past few weeks, J has been cleaning out her attic, purging boxes and old documents and hauling things to the thrift store that she no longer needs.  Among other things, one item she decided to get rid of was an old stool of her daughter’s. It was a mushroom-style stool that her mother had given to her daughter to use with her vanity table – a table that has long since been sold or given away, but the stool remained.  It was unique and presumably in good condition and probably had some sentimental value, but J took it to the thrift store in town along with a load of other things.

A few days or a week later, J got an email from her mother with a link to a listing for a stool just like that one on Craigslist.  Vintage, 1960s mushroom stool for sale. $45


“See?” her mother wrote, “You could sell that stool! Here’s one just like it.”

J laughed out loud.  That WAS her daughter’s stool. The same one she had dropped off at the thrift store. She examined the photo on the listing and determined that someone must have bought the stool cheaply, recognized it for what it was, and decided to make a little cash off of it.

As she told me that story, I thought of my dad for some reason, and how furious he would be at the missed opportunity to make some money off of an item. How angry he would have been that someone else was selling something that had been his, that he could have had that $45.  I marveled at J’s easy laughter, at her complete lack of frustration, even as I knew I would have felt the same as her. Imagining the time spent photographing the stool, creating the listing, entertaining emails and phone calls from interested buyers, and waiting at home for someone to come pick it up, I tried to gauge what my time was worth and where the tipping point would have been. $50? $100? In the end, I gave a mental nod to the cleverness of the person who saw the stool in the thrift store and recognized it as something special and made some money off of it.

I have always resisted writing or speaking about my thoughts on the conflict in the Middle East, mostly because I don’t feel as though I have any right to do so, given my lack of knowledge.  I have read articles and some history on the Palestine-Israel, Gaza Strip issues and have a rudimentary grasp of the players and their beliefs, but I don’t feel as though I truly have a grasp of the deepest issues and the raw wounds and I am loathe to offend anyone with what will most likely be a superficial assessment of the continuously erupting wars in that part of the world.

That said, there is a part of me that feels as though the most superficial (perhaps basic is a better word) treatment is the most accurate.  These are human beings, killing each other and each other’s children, afflicted with a sense of scarcity and fear that causes them to continue killing in some effort to gain more.  More of what is, in my mind, beside the point. In any war or armed conflict, there is a basic underlying assumption that someone else has what I want, or what I believe is rightfully mine. There is a belief that I deserve or own something and that the only way to get it is to prove my physical (or military) superiority.  Grief is not a big enough word for what I feel when I read about the loss of life on a daily basis in Gaza and the Ukraine and parts of Africa.  We are killing each other for things. We have become seduced by the notion that we can not only have more, but we deserve more, and that it is perfectly okay to go in and take more by whatever means necessary.  We have succumbed to the notion that what we have is not enough, or that even if it is enough, that we are entitled to something more. We are teaching our children that power and property are more important than love and life and community and cooperation.  We dehumanize each other by putting each other into groups based on skin color or ethnicity or religion or gender so that we can more easily justify going after what we are so afraid to not have, as if it will give us peace and happiness.

J could have been bitter and angry that she “lost out” on the money she could have made by selling that stool, but she didn’t fall prey to the myth of scarcity.  She recognized that what she has is enough and was pleased to simply be lighter thanks to having given the stool away.  I recognize that the stool is not the same as the Gaza Strip or the Ukraine, that there are much more complicated issues and beliefs associated with these conflicts and I do not mean to demean them in any way. My heart is heavy when I think about what it will take to stop the bloodshed, even for a little while, and heavier still when I imagine the scars this round of killing has inflicted on the families of the dead.  I absolutely believe that our best shot at stemming the tide of violence is to ask ourselves who we are willing to kill or maim in order to get a strip of land, to see the faces of those individuals being bombed and shot, see them with their families and friends, hear their voices, acknowledge their humanity alongside our own family and friends, and assess what we already have to see whether it is enough. To ask ourselves whether it is worth taking the life of another person to get a little bit more, or for the purpose of making some point or other, asserting our “rights.” Can we instead make do with what we have?

I consider myself to be a pretty compassionate person. I try hard to not react too strongly to anything without giving myself time to let intense emotions pass, and I work hard to put myself in the shoes of other people.  If I hear myself making some judgment about another human being, I can often stop myself in my tracks and try to identify what it is that I’m feeling, what might be driving that need to distance myself or put someone in a box.

Unfortunately, my compassion sometimes has limits and what I’ve recently discovered is that they lie pretty close to home.  There are a few people in my life that I tend to treat much differently than others and that realization stings.  For years, my dad was one of those people, but somehow I was able to move past that and develop a bottomless sense of understanding and love for him. (I wrote a little about the beginning of this process here.)

What I came to understand this morning, as I thought about the folks I have trouble having compassion for, is that they all have something pretty profound in common.  They are all people for whom I have felt responsible at one time or another, very, very responsible.  It occurred to me (well, actually, hit me in the chest like a punching bag) that my inability to have a pure sense of compassion for them was more likely the result of me not being able to have compassion for myself. Because on some level, I feel as though many of the things they have done that I have trouble with came about because of me, that I am somehow to blame for the way they are, and by distancing myself from these aspects of them, I am really distancing myself from the things I don’t like about what I may have done to them (or prevented them from becoming).

You see, for me, not being able to relate to another person enough to have empathy for them is a direct result of my walling off in order to protect myself.  If I can look at someone and judge that they are “Wrong” or that they “deserve” what is happening to them, I am basically telling myself that what they are going through is nothing I will ever have to deal with. I am using my intellect to craft some imaginary world in which I get to be in control of all circumstances and contingencies and determining that this Other Person’s life is so different from my own that I will never have diabetes or a child in prison or a husband who leaves me for another woman.  I am not that person.

But in this case, my ultimate fear is that I may have created “that person,” perhaps by not saying enough or by saying too much, by not saying the right things or doing the right things or simply by not being who I Ought To Have Been at some pivotal moment.  And of course, none of this means that I don’t dearly, deeply love each of these individuals because they are some of the most beloved people in my life. And, it turns out, I am not actually struggling with having compassion for them at all. I am simply struggling with the idea that they are individuals that don’t belong to me in any way, shape, or form. Once I can begin to see them as human beings whose actions and beliefs are their own, whose lives do not reflect on my self-worth, I will be free to offer them as much compassion as I do anyone else. And then the work can begin wherein I turn it back on to myself.

Spring Break. That’s why it’s been a while since I wrote anything.  It is this particular week that both strikes fear in to my heart for the coming summer (and having the girls around all day every day) and thrills me because I get to hang out with my girls and do things like walk the dog and read books in the sunshine and bake cookies.  This week has been a perfect window in to just that. And now that it’s Thursday, I’m ready for them to go back to school. And I have no idea how I’m going to survive summer.  None.  I will certainly have to be more diligent about carving out time to write (and read) if I am to preserve what little portion of sanity I have left.

One incredibly bright beacon this week came thanks to Kris Prochaska and her talents.  Kris is a counselor by training who has built a practice around helping people decipher what she calls their “human design,” in an effort to optimize the way they work and live in the world.  I wrote about one session with her last November where I had a multitude of “a-ha” moments and, following that, I became interested in seeing if she could help my girls navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence.  I pulled up our Human Design Charts (a mixture of information based on chakras and the zodiac and the I-Ching, among other things) and asked Kris to work with Lola first.  On Tuesday, she spent a little more than two hours with us helping Lola understand what Kris calls the blueprint of her personality in order to better understand how she can most effectively make good decisions that are in alignment with her design.  Kris explains it better on her site:

“In every case, when I am talking with my clients about miscommunication with their family, stress around money and marketing, and feeling overwhelmed around their calendar it boils down to the initial decision and commitment they made.  Invariably they say something like “how did I get in this AGAIN?” And we look at the energy and emotion behind the decision and realize they were making the decision and commitment from their little voices of fear, doubt, shame and lots of guilt.  Ugh.  No wonder stress and overwhelm is there.

Sometimes it’s not so much the little voices that are pulling us this way or that, but rather living out of alignment with how we are uniquely designed as individuals to manage our energy, communicate our message, or commit to the next business venture.All of your results stem from the moment you choose a course of action and how you approach that choice emotionally and energetically.  Wouldn’t it be prudent (and totally freakin’ powerful!) to know exactly what voices are making those choices, and how you best listen to the only voice that you need ever heed: your Inner Voice?”

We all have different ways of listening to (and finding) our inner authority and after talking with Kris, Lola has a much better shot at honoring hers. I am convinced that, armed with this information, she will be able to make her way through the challenges of teenagerhood with more clarity.  Eve is already bugging me to schedule her session with Kris, but my brain is so full from Lola’s I feel like I need to go sit in a dark cave for a week to process it all.

I was looking forward to a few hours free today while the girls head to school for an exciting opportunity, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay away.  Their school was one of four in the nation chosen by The Clinton Foundation to engage in a Skype discussion about empowering girls to change the world.  I am fairly certain that neither Eve nor Lola truly understands the significance (I know I wouldn’t have when I was their age – hang out with a former Secretary of State on video? Who cares?), but I’m happy that the sun has gone away for today so they won’t be resenting me for intruding upon their Spring Break by making them participate. Of course, because I understand the significance of it, I will likely be sitting on my hands in the back of the room, clamping my lips together to force myself to stay quiet and let the girls speak, so my “few hours free” won’t be.

It will all definitely give me more to write about, although that isn’t a challenge right now. I have so many half-begun essays and poems, so many pieces sent out for submission to different publications (some hanging out there for weeks, waiting, and others simply rejected), that I hardly know how to tell them apart anymore. It would take the entire summer of writing in a vacuum to complete them all, and that’s only if nothing else occurred to me while I was writing.  There is a constant buzzing in my head from all the ideas and thoughts, both disparate and connected, and it’s all I can do to remember what Kris told me about my particular cycles of activity and how this happens every Spring.  I will wait for the bees to settle in and be still so that I can take the time I need with each one and it will all get done – or at least the stuff that needs to get done will get done. The rest can just buzz on away like so much background noise.

How do you survive Spring Break?

So, Lyz Lenz wrote this about how to parent babies and toddlers and I’m pretty sure I peed my pants laughing because I’m just that lucky not to have children that young anymore and if I did, I would certainly stop seeking parenting advice from anyone but her because, well, you just have to head over there and read her advice.

Ironically, something that happened to me today was that a local parenting magazine published an essay of mine that was essentially….wait for it…giving advice on how to choose a school for your child. You can find it here if you’re interested.
And so, after having my advice appreciated enough to have it published, I was feeling as though I ought to follow Lyz’s example and offer some tongue-in-cheek advice for how to parent your teenager. Please note that I am not nearly as hilarious as Lyz, but I figure I have to beat her to the punch because it’s only 11 more years until she has her first teenager and if I wait, well, you know. So, here goes.
On the subject of food: With all of the scary chemicals and things out there in our food supply, it is important to feed your teens only organic, fresh, “real” food, not things that are laden with preservatives or ready-made. While your teen looks huge, he is really still developing and who knows how harmful those genetically modified organisms and pesticides are? Plus, you are setting up eating habits for life, here. Of course, now that your child is a teenager (and they tend to run in packs), they can inhale $14 worth of organic grapes in approximately 49 seconds and, mouth stuffed, complain about being hungry. So, with the price of organic fruit, perhaps it just makes more sense to just head to Costco and buy the party-size bags of potato chips and 800-pack of fruit roll ups so that you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to give them enough calories to keep growing. The added bonus of this plan is that you can teach them the all-important life lesson of cleaning up all the wrappers they discard on the TV room floor so that when they get to college, their roommate doesn’t stab them in their sleep for being such a slob.
And, speaking of teaching them to clean up after themselves, you must remember that even though they say they don’t want anything to do with you, your teenager most certainly is craving boundaries. Yes, now that he or she is older, you can certainly begin to relax things, but you want to remain diligent for any sign that they are pushing things too far. The portion of a teenager’s brain that is responsible for impulse control is not fully developed yet and you have to stay on top of them. Except that they are very clever and know so much more about social media tools than you do, so this tactic is most certainly doomed to failure. And, also, teenagers are programmed to despise any idea that comes from their parents, so whatever you tell them they cannot do, they will strive to do. And if they think they will be punished for doing it, they will work really hard (harder than they do on their homework) to ensure that they don’t get caught. So, at this point it’s probably easier to pour yourself a glass of wine and say something like, “I trust you to make good decisions. I love you,” in hopes that a little guilt will go a long way.
Because your teen’s brain is still developing, it is vital that they get at least 10 hours of sleep every night, so you should impose an early bedtime and you should ban all electronics for the last hour before bed so that they get in the habit of doing something quiet that will prompt melatonin production. However, it is likely that your child will yell and scream because (a) he or she has homework that has to be done on the the laptop so you can’t take it away and (b) the homework will take hours and hours so a bedtime of 9pm is altogether unreasonable. Please realize you have no recourse at this point even though you know that while your child is doing homework, he will most certainly be listening to music or watching YouTube videos or texting friends or all three simultaneously and THAT IS WHY THE HOMEWORK TAKES HOURS AND HOURS. Also, you’re screwed because it’s a well-known fact that teenagers’ brains don’t produce melatonin until about midnight which means that even if you have the most well-behaved teen in the world (damn, your guilt trips are awesome!), she will be lying in the dark for three hours staring at the ceiling and waiting to get tired before she ever falls asleep. And unless she has a will of steel, she will probably develop some deep-seated neurosis about her insomnia and it might push her off the deep end. So, again with the wine.
I will only give you one more piece of advice and that is regarding driving. If you are lucky enough to live in a big city, don’t let your teen get her driver’s license. In our case, there is a bus stop one block away that will get her nearly everywhere she needs to go eventually. Driving is a risky business and with cell phones and GPS and friends in the car, there are too many distractions. I have heard way too many stories of entire carloads of teens ending up in tragic accidents to think that my child ever ought to drive. Of course, that means you will spend the rest of your days schlepping your children everywhere they need to go – three lacrosse practices and two games a week, ballet practice, the high school football game/dance, to the mall to hang out with friends – and you can’t implore anyone else to just “run to the store for me and get more chicken stock while I finish cooking dinner.” So, basically your life will suck until they leave home and maybe you ought to give yourself a break and send them to driver’s ed. Please be aware that most cities now require your teen to enroll in driver’s ed through some private company that charges a thousand dollars (no shit), and your kid will never learn to drive a stick shift which is important if she ever finds herself at a party where everyone but her is drunk and the only way to get home is to borrow someone’s car but IT’S A MANUAL TRANSMISSION! But, freedom. And so, go ahead and let your teen get a driver’s license so she can drive her younger siblings around and you can have more time to drink wine.
Thanks, Lyz, for letting me point out how utterly ridiculous it is to try to figure out the “best” way to parent your child – baby, toddler, tween, or teen. I think I’ll go to Costco and buy a case of wine so I can at least relax at night and know I took someone else’s advice about self-care.  

Elizabeth highlighted this op-ed on her Facebook page on Sunday and, as it is fairly short, I urge you to go read it before you continue reading this post.  It makes me sad that the author is so spot-on as he calls out the responses of so many of his readers.  I agree with him that there is a lack of compassion in general in this country (and maybe in others – I don’t honestly know because I’m only here), but more specifically online. I think that it is much easier to assert our opinions in sound bite form with respect to challenging issues when they are stereotypical or beside the point.  I can cite several examples of nasty comments I’ve seen upon reading a news article or blog post that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serve only to attack either the writer or one of the main people in the story for superficial, usually physical, attributes or knee-jerk reactions to one minor point of the story.

We are all so conditioned to have an opinion and share it that we rarely stop to consider nuances and details of a story that may have eluded us. We are conditioned to talk instead of listen, and make up our minds but not change them.  Compassion requires a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least acknowledge that their shoes are different from yours in a fundamental way. Compassion requires curiosity about the circumstances of another person’s life and it implores us to suspend (or altogether eliminate) judgment. In order to be compassionate, we have to take the time to build a bridge from the parts of us that are most human to the parts of others that are most human and that takes courage.

I struggle most with compassion when I am trying the hardest to keep fear at bay. When I see a parent grieving for their child, my mind races to find all of the reasons why that could never happen to me and often, that manifests itself as judgment. If that mom/dad hadn’t made the choice to ______________, this wouldn’t have happened. The more I convince myself that someone else is Wrong and my decisions are Right, the easier it is to feel safe, to believe that whatever horrible thing this person is suffering won’t visit itself on me and my loved ones.  Finding my way to compassion means that I have to step off of that righteous path and into the soft muck on the side of the trail, facing my fears and acknowledging that I am just as human as anyone else and I can’t know the details of someone else’s story. It requires me to open up and let fear and sadness move through me, to take up the mantle of shared humanity and responsibility and bear the weight of another person’s struggle along with them. It asks me to sit firmly in the knowledge that we are not ‘other,’ we are not separate, we all deserve love and acceptance and when we give it freely to one another we are stronger and happier for it.

It takes time and energy to be compassionate, much more time than is required to dash off a pithy, snarky remark about someone’s weight or tattoos or sexual proclivities. We have to be willing to consider, to listen, to really pay attention, and many of us don’t want to do that. We also have to be willing to forego the opportunity to see our own opinions in print or hear our own voices. One draw of the internet is that it allows us to all have our say. Our words can reach audiences we could never have dreamed of before and we don’t have to write an entire op-ed or letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper. But if “our say” is a twitter-length rant on how inferior someone else is or how they deserved whatever they got, it showcases our inability to understand the deeper connections and the vital points of any story.  Last week in our region an elementary teacher was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. The photograph of the teacher that ran on the news outlet’s Facebook page was of a mixed-race woman with facial hair. I cringed as I saw it, knowing what most of the comments would be like. Sure enough, there were hundreds of people questioning her gender, saying that of course she was a “child molester” given her physical appearance, and suggesting hateful things ought to happen to her, not because of her crime, but “because she needs to shave.” There were a few token comments from people outraged that the conversation was about her appearance instead of her crime, and a couple explaining the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which causes some women to grow facial hair, but the vast majority were hateful, even violent comments based solely on the photograph the media ran.

I asked Lola what compassion means to her and if she thought it was something that can be taught. She wasn’t very articulate about her definition of it, but she did say that she doesn’t think you can teach compassion. She said, “I think it’s individual for everyone. They need to come to it on their own and they can’t do it all the time. But you can put people in situations where they might think about it more – like volunteering at a homeless shelter or something – and then they might come to it faster on their own.”

I hope she’s right, or maybe I don’t. I’d like to think that compassion is something we can teach, but even if we can only plant the seeds and hope it spreads, that’s at least something I’m willing to put a lot of time and effort into, at least in my own household.

On Wednesday, Bubba and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage. Twenty. And, no, I’m not old enough to have been married that long, and neither is he, but we somehow managed to jump the space-time continuum and make it so, anyway.

The past year has been one of the best years of my marriage, for certain, and as much as it pains me to say so, I think it’s because it has been one of the most challenging years of my parenting life. Not despite,     because.

The first six years we were married, we worked full-time, Monday through Friday jobs and spent our weekends eating out with friends, going to the movies, taking urban hikes and sleeping late. We spoiled our cats, traveled domestically and internationally and drove his parents crazy as we remained childless.  One day, all of a sudden, I wanted to be a mom. I never had before and, in fact, had been quite vocal about my desire to never raise children. (Turns out Bubba never really believed that bluster, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and didn’t challenge me or tell me how much he wanted kids.)

So one day, I woke up and said to him, in a hushed, rather quavery sort of voice, “I think I want to have a baby.” I couldn’t look him in the eye. I whispered it to him as his head lie nestled into his pillow, so close that if he had turned to look at me, my nose would certainly have lodged itself in his ear. He kept very still and said, “Cool. Me too.”

So here we are fourteen years later with one teenage daughter and another one on the cusp of teenagerhood.  In those years Bubba and I have grown together and apart, shifted the responsibilities of the household and our lives to accommodate each other and our girls as much as possible without blowing completely to pieces, and at times it has felt fragile. We don’t fight, but we have disagreed on some vital issues from time to time and on at least one occasion I insisted we go see a counselor in order to find common ground.  I have never stopped loving him, but there were times when I wasn’t particularly convinced that I could see forward to a time where I would ever be madly in love with him again. Part of that was due to simple fatigue (especially in the early infant and toddler years), other times I felt resentment when I saw his life as dynamic and mine as stagnant, and through certain periods it has been due to an absolute inability to see anything beyond the absolute frenzy of activity filling up day after day after week after month ahead.

But today, two days before we celebrate twenty years of marriage (and nearly twenty-four together), I find myself completely, madly, head-over-heels for this man. And I’m certain it is because of the turmoil and challenges we have faced with our girls in the past year. They are growing up, asserting themselves, doing their level best to find holes in our armor through which to poke sharp objects. They are doing everything they are supposed to be doing at this stage of their lives – testing limits and pushing back and exploiting loopholes and screaming, “INDEPENDENCE OR DEATH!” and it is hard. It hurts your feelings. It makes you question everything you thought you knew. It is ego-bruising, teeth-grinding, upside-down-in-a-hurricane, soul-defeating hard. There are bright spots in all of it, don’t get me wrong, but they mostly feel like opportunities to fill your canteen in anticipation of the next onslaught.  Bubba and I are flying blind here, not ever having found a manual for how to parent two such completely different children making their way through this life full of technology and stimulation and choices and emotion.

But we’re doing it together. And even when he is traveling for work, gone for days on end, he never fails to call or text us to check in. He never minimizes the challenges and he always reminds me that I’m a good mom. He lets me know that he is struggling, too, and he works really hard to stay engaged, asking the details of the last basketball game or pop quiz. He just returned from a week-long trip to Mexico with Eve and the rest of her classmates (14-year old girls, all) as a chaperone – a hot, exhausting, Spanish immersion trip where he was pleased as punch to get to know Eve’s friends. He is my rock, but just as importantly, he lets me know that I am his. On any given day, we might spend half an hour texting each other to talk about every subject from the most mundane to the most painful, it’s all on the table, and it’s all important.  This period of parenting has reminded me that what we have is a partnership built on mutual respect and trust. That Bubba remains vulnerable and honest about his own challenges while simultaneously supporting and affirming my strengths is huge. The fact that he can acknowledge my weaknesses without accusing or demeaning and step in to shore things up where necessary is just as amazing.

I remember thinking that after six years of marriage, I knew Bubba inside and out. I remember thinking that there was nothing that would surprise me about him. And then one day, when Eve was a toddler, he used a washable marker to draw this crazy face on the top of her foot. I had never seen him draw anything before and it was really good. I was surprised. Over the years, I have been surprised again and again as I watch him parent our girls with careful patience, humor, creativity, and so much love that my heart bursts wide open. I know now that twenty years is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to know and love about this man. And I am so lucky to have found him.

According to some, I “rescued” my 14-year old today and I shouldn’t have.  Ironically, one of the first things I saw on my Facebook feed this morning was an essay in Brain, Child that spoke to this exact issue and would probably have placed me squarely in the camp of “helicopter parent.”

I beg to differ.

As a child, I was fully indoctrinated into the world of toughlove. The world of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “learn to succeed on your own.” And, largely, I benefited from those lessons – the teachers who let me puzzle through challenging lessons without giving me answers, my dad refusing to bail me out when I got myself into debt because I didn’t think ahead, other adults in my life who showed me they believed in my abilities by not stepping in to forewarn me of some misstep I was about to take.  But there were times when I would have done much better knowing that I had support, times when I believed that independence was tantamount to connection and that being able to take care of myself was more important than asking for help. It would have served me very well to know how to even gauge my own thresholds, to know how to assess when I was out of my depth and needed a lifeline. Instead, the message I internalized was that I needed to be fully self-sufficient.

One morning a few months ago, I stepped in to the quiet halls of the school my daughters attend.  The students were all in classrooms, the sunlight streaming through the windows and bouncing off the shiny locker doors. The receptionist sat at his computer typing away with the dean of staff hovering behind his shoulder. They both looked up in surprise as I tugged on the front door, needing to be buzzed in.

“Lola left this on the printer this morning,” I waved a sheet of paper in the air in explanation. The dean rolled her eyes and shook her head at me.  She would have preferred that I let Lola twist in the wind, that she learn a difficult lesson about remembering her own homework.  I felt a wave of shame and defensiveness begin to rise up in my belly but I blocked the words before they sputtered out of my mouth. I turned to the receptionist, kindly asked him to hand the paper to Lola at the next break between classes, thanked them both, and left.

Since that day, I have shown up at the school maybe once or twice to drop off basketball shoes or a hastily-prepared lunch for one of my girls. I will defend those decisions unequivocally and here is why.

As an adult, I cannot claim that I never forget anything at home that I ought to have had with me, despite the toughlove lessons I received as a child.  As an adult, I have the ability to return home in my car to get the things I forgot or use my debit card to purchase my lunch on the fly.  My children do not have that option available to them.  On more than one occasion, Bubba has called me from a business trip to plead that I stop by the dry cleaners to pick up his suit because he totally forgot to do it before he left and he will need it as soon as he returns home. Should I refuse him this kindness in an effort to “teach him a lesson?” I think not. And I won’t do that to my children, either.  I refuse to let Lola go hungry at lunch in order to impart some false sense of wisdom.  Instead, I will offer them the same courtesy I hope my loved ones would extend to me in my time of need.

There are obvious exceptions, and if there is a pattern of behavior that I think needs to be dealt with, I will of course address that in a different way, but it makes me crazy to envision a world in which my daughters are taught that they are the only ones responsible for every detail of their lives.  If that were true, we would all live in a house where we only did our own dishes and nobody else’s and we wouldn’t be able to count on each other to remind us of important events when our brains (and calendars) are overloaded.

Some of the examples of enabling the author called out in her essay felt to me as though they were oversimplified in the making of her point.  There is a difference between ‘rescuing’ our children and teaching them life lessons that will serve them well one day.  I long ago stopped doing all of my girls’ laundry for them, but if Eve has hours of homework to do and her basketball uniform needs a 12-hour turnaround, I’ll offer to help out if I have time. I don’t pay the girls’ library fines if their books are overdue, but when I realized that it was getting to be a problem, I offered to help them brainstorm ways to make it easier to find and return books they had checked out.  Instead of letting them believe that there are only two solutions (Mom does it or I do it), I hope I can teach them that we are all in this together and that makes it a better world for everyone.  Yes, they are ultimately responsible for their own stuff and their choices and behaviors, but there are times where you just mess up and other times when you can’t solve the problem all alone.  I know that the only thing stopping Eve from zipping home to get her own running shoes and socks today at lunchtime was the fact that she isn’t old enough to drive. Given that we live five minutes from school, I have absolutely no problem heading down there to drop them off because I think the lesson here is that I’m willing to help her out when I can. I would rather raise my kids to be compassionate team-players than super-responsible, hyper-independent individuals who refuse to help someone find their misplaced keys because “it isn’t my problem.” I would rather raise them to know that it’s okay to be human and ask other people for help occasionally, that getting assistance doesn’t lead to dependence and lethargy and laziness.  Most of my early adult life was spent pushing people away, feigning that I was capable of handling anything that presented itself. While I felt a great deal of pride in my accomplishments, I was also scared of the next thing that might come along that I might NOT be able to deal with and I was pretty damn lonely.  It feels a lot better to know that someone has my back and if my kids learn that I’m there for them when they can’t do for themselves, I will be able to sleep soundly at night, whether or not you label me a “helicopter mom.”

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.