Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
The New England Prep School rape case
Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex
Sex trafficking rates skyrocketing
The advertising phrase (and perhaps its most bedrock belief) “sex sells”

I could go on, but I think you’ll get the point. I’ve written here many times about rape culture and Sex Ed and I have very, very strong opinions, both as a sex assault survivor and as the mother of two daughters. But more than that, I am concerned for the way our entire culture treats the topic of sex because I think that from a very young age we are taught that sex is, first and foremost, a commodity, and secondly (sadly, a distant second for many, many people), an act of affection and/or love between individuals.

Long before most parents even consider broaching the subject of sex and sexuality with their children, they are bombarded by slick magazine ads, television shows, movies, and books that depict sex as a commodity, as something that we all ought to want and that we can buy our way into. There are many young people who are taught by older children or adults that their sexuality is something that can “buy” affection or special favors. Parents who prostitute their children are not only profiting financially, but they are teaching their children that sex has power and if you want money – or if you have it – you need only sell yourself. Many teenagers, both girls and boys, have a deep understanding of sexual favors – there are those who purchase social capital by giving blow jobs or hand jobs to others and those already in power who cement their status by receiving those favors.

Even if these kids do get “Sex Ed” in school, it is largely mechanical in scope, outlining anatomical features and talking about how pregnancy happens and how to avoid STDs. By the time they are adults, very few of them have an understanding of sex as something that is theirs to define – that they have every right to engage in it with an expectation of pleasure as opposed to some “reward.” Our American notion of “sex” is a very transactional one that is often one-sided. By the time we have the courage to really talk to our kids about sex (if we ever do), there is so much damage to undo that it feels overwhelming. And for children who learn early on, through abuse or sex trafficking, that sex is a tool, it is possible that their fundamental understanding of this act that is supposed to make their lives more whole has been forever damaged. How do you undo the notion that the person with more (power, control, money, status) has the right to obtain sex from the one with less when that is what you are shown in so many different ways over and over, nearly from the time you were born?

When girls are raised with the idea that their power lies in their ability to grant or withhold sex (the most egregious example of this I’ve heard of recently was Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-Raq), it is damaging to their ability to see sex as something that is more intrinsically rewarding. When they are surrounded by images of women who are sexually provocative and who are praised for it (Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram photos, anyone?), they are taught that sex is a tool, and that it ought to only look one way or it isn’t right.

When boys are raised with the notion that the more sex they have, the more masculine they are, it is equally damaging. Because, in our culture, they are born with more power at the outset, when they are presented with the idea that sex is a commodity, it isn’t much of a mental leap to imagine taking sex when they want it, simply because they can. When we set sex up to be about power, we can expect rape to follow along shortly. When business lunches are conducted in strip clubs and sex trafficking rates rise sharply during the Super Bowl, you can be sure that we have embraced sex as a commodity.

The question is, are we willing to live with the consequences of that or can we start talking to our young people about what else sex might be, instead?

*

I remember hearing, back in September or October, a report on NPR about microchimerism of mothers, and it is one of those things that has stuck in my craw for months. Basically, there is evidence that when a woman is pregnant, not only do things pass from her to the baby via the placenta and umbilical cord, but that fetal cells can cross the placenta and circulate in the mother’s body as well. There is also evidence that these cells can lodge in the mother’s body and morph into new cells, integrating themselves into the mother’s tissues and dividing along with the rest of her cells.

Yeah.

Whoa.

I think that means that I not only have parts of Eve and Lola in my actual body, but that Bubba is in there as well.

And I have to say that, as this notion has been stuck in my craw, turning around and around in some remote corners of my brain, it has conjured up all sorts of flashes of weirdness.

Like, there is part of me in my mother, too. Which has me thinking about the cycles of mother and daughter and mother. And that leads to the idea that no matter how much we rail against becoming our mothers, maybe our mothers become us a little bit more, too, and so there’s just no escaping the eventual similarities. It puts me in mind of parallel lines that aren’t quite parallel, so that at some point in the distant future, they will touch, if only for a brief moment.

And it makes me think that (as much as I think my mom would hate this idea), there is some of my Dad floating around in her, too, since she had two kids with him. And, while it is of some comfort to me that I carry some of Bubba with me wherever I go, I wonder how much it would bother me to know that, had I not chosen to have a child with someone (for example, if I were sexually assaulted and it resulted in a pregnancy), that I might always have some part of them in me.

Beyond that, it makes me wonder about whether Lola carries some part of Eve in her thanks to being the second child. Were the cells from Eve so much a part of me by the time I got pregnant with Lola that some of them transferred into her sister? I think I might have to wait for just the right time to broach the subject with them…

And is there some evolutionary purpose to all of this? Does it exist to make the familial bonds stronger? To bind parents together more tightly? To bind mothers and children together in some elemental way? To tighten the strings of sibling connection? I have often noticed that when my children are in pain, I feel it, and even, to some extent, when Bubba is suffering, I have the sense that I am commiserating on a deeper level – something that goes beyond empathy, it seems to me. Could this be because I have had children with him?

It is all pretty mind-boggling and, to be honest, I find it very entertaining to think about the possibilities. I know a woman who tried to get pregnant for years and couldn’t, so she ended up adopting a fully fertilized embryo from a fertility clinic and she now has a lovely little girl whom she describes as a “great passenger” during the pregnancy. Does she now carry the DNA from two complete strangers in her body and will her subsequent children carry that, too? Whoa. Just, whoa.

It really does lend credence to this notion that we are all connected, and I have to say that I like it.

*I searched for pictures of chimera and was dismayed that all the ones I found were hideous and frightening. I chose this picture of a piece of art that hangs in The Louvre because, technically, it has Pegasus on it, so it qualifies, and it’s beautiful.

Last Thursday, I gave myself permission to take a hot bath.
In the middle of the day. With piles of laundry yet to be washed, a dog that desperately
wanted a walk, and a dinner plan yet to be determined.  I ran a deep, hot bath, added a few
drops of lavender essential oil, lit a candle, and stepped in. 
The tub is set in the corner of the room with large windows
framing two sides, frosted below for privacy, and open to the sky on top.  Lying back, I could see a triangle of
roof with the downspout attached, a few bare tree branches, and grey sky.  We have enjoyed a lot of sunshine in
the last week and temperatures in the upper 50s, but today was grey with
spitting rain and that soft light that makes it impossible to tell what time of
day it is without consulting a clock. 
As I let my thoughts drift away a smile appeared on the
right side of my lips.  My nostrils
flared slightly and the left side of my mouth followed until I was positively
grinning.  For no reason. I hadn’t
just remembered something funny or sweet or thought about something exciting in
the near future.  I just
smiled. 
As I pondered this strange, unprompted grin, I recalled
something my nine-year-old said to me once. And I finally understood what she
meant. 
When she said it, we were leaving the hospital after having
just paid a visit to her favorite teacher.  Mrs. H had suffered a severe bout of pain and dizziness the
night before and was rushed to the ER and evaluated for a stroke.  She was disoriented and confused and,
at the time of our visit, still in some measure of discomfort.  And the doctors had no real answers.  Despite that, she was delighted to see
Lola and I walk in to her room and she immediately squeezed us both tightly and
began talking in her rushed, irreverent way.  The three of us were laughing within minutes and Lola
perched on the side of the hospital bed with Mrs. H’s arm draped over her.  We bounced from topic to topic, dipping
our toes in the waters of concern, but mostly skipping lightly around school,
pets, and things we were looking forward to.  When Mrs. H began to get tired, Lola and I left, promising
to check back later in the day.
As we walked down the hospital corridor, I began to feel a
bit melancholy.  I caught glimpses
of other patients, lying in bed asleep with mouths agape, struggling to get out
of bed, pushing IV poles down the hallway as they steadied themselves against a
nurse or a loved-one.  I thought
about Mrs. H and all she has meant to us and our family over the years and
found myself sending an urgent wish out to the Universe that she heal quickly
and completely.  I was lost in my
own thoughts until I felt Lola’s bouncing gait next to me and looked at her.
She was half-walking, half-skipping down the hall, bopping
her head from shoulder to shoulder and singing a little song under her
breath.  Her eyes twinkled with
mischief and she wore a huge grin.
“What are you so happy about, little one?” I asked, relieved.
I had originally resisted bringing her, worried that it might upset her to see
her beloved teacher sick or in pain.
Lola stopped mid-stride, cocked her head up at me in
confusion and let out a laugh.
“Mom. You don’t need any reason at all to be happy. You need
a reason to be sad or upset or angry, but you can be happy just because you’re
happy.” 
I laughed, too, thinking that it was such a “Lola” thing to
say. She truly believes it. She lives it.
It wasn’t until today in the bathtub that it sank in for
me.  As the smile crept across my
face, the first thought I had was, ‘what
are you smiling about?’
  The
answer that came to me first was, ‘Nothing.
And everything.

I don’t need a reason
to be happy.’

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I am reposting it here so readers can find it. 
An active mind and time alone are not a good
combination for me.  Ironic, considering how much of my time I spend
alone, writing from home during the day (or not) and alone in the evenings as
often as not with my husband’s travel schedule.
I have known for a long time that going for
stretches without social interaction does something to me. It pushes me somehow
in ways that are uncomfortable.  And while I know that this discomfort is
a sign of something I need to examine more closely, my methods of examination
push me in to a darker place from time to time.  
I am very good at telling myself what I Should Be
Doing.  Years of being directed by my parents, a Marine Corps father and a
mother who was desperate to be in control of her own destiny, to go here and do this and prioritize that
taught me that inactivity was to be avoided.  It also taught me that
service to others and their priorities was of paramount importance.  So I
often find myself struggling to prioritize tasks in such a way that it becomes
eminently clear which things deserve doing first, second, and on down the line.
 Struggling because there is no way to do that. There is no universally
accepted rubric that says this book review is more important than that load of
laundry or taking the dog for a walk as he whines and follows me from room to
room.  
I tend to give precedence to those things that
serve others – laundry, cooking, shopping for household necessities,
straightening up – and push off others that seem more nebulous.  I have,
over the years, figured out that the dog only really needs to be
walked every other day (please don’t tell Cesar Milan), that if I make it to
yoga or the gym twice a week I am really doing well, and that I can crank out a
good book review in an hour.  
I know that the best thing I can do is banish
“Shoulds” from my vocabulary.  And I’ve come a long way in that
regard.  But I became aware today that I do it in so many other ways, I’m
not sure I’ve really come as far as I thought.  Every time I catch that
inner voice berating myself for wanting to do something more than
another thing that is probably more productive or helpful, I am
“shoulding” myself.  If I have the urge to lie down on the couch
and take a cozy nap with the cat instead of folding that load of laundry or
going to get Bubba’s contact lens solution, the nap is vetoed even before it
was fully realized as an option in my mind.  If, instead of reorganizing
that closet of Lola’s that disgorges random items every time you open the door,
I would rather sit down and read for an hour (who wouldn’t?), I hear this
sweet, condescending voice in my head that says, “You can read on your own
time, dear. That closet isn’t getting any cleaner while you sit there, and
you’ll feel guilty the whole time you’re on the couch, so you won’t focus on
the story, anyway.”  
I have even become so sophisticated at this
little game that the notion of spending an entire day rewriting a chapter of
the book I’m currently working on becomes physically repugnant.  Not
because I don’t want to write, but because I have so thoroughly convinced
myself that my writing serves nobody but myself (at least until I sell
something), that every word I type is a piece of laundry left unfolded or six
steps fewer with the dog this afternoon.  I have associated things that
give me joy with guilt and feelings of laziness in an effort to convince myself
to be more productive in the service of others.  
The truth is, I spend more time performing mental
calculations in an effort to decide how to structure my day than I do actually
performing the acts themselves.  It is as though I envision some stern
judge and jury I will face at the end of the day as I justify the things I
decided to spend time on.  And for what? There is no gold star that goes
on my permanent record.  There is no jail time for dishes left undone.
 From time to time there is an extremely hyper retriever in my face if I
neglected to walk him, and almost always there is remorse that I didn’t write more
(or at all) today.
So the question remains, what am I avoiding by
continuing to deny myself the freedom to choose things that please me each and
every day?  What would happen if, for some portion of every day I sat down
and did something that speaks to my soul? Something whose only purpose is to
make me happy?  As I write this and envision myself doing it, the
grounded, heavy feeling in my core is enough to convince me that I’ve been
looking at this the wrong way.  The simple act of imagining that I have
given myself permission to indulge my desires regardless of what anyone else
may think warms me from the inside out.  Calms me. Settles me.  

That is not to say that the notion of
implementing it doesn’t frighten me a bit.  It is counter to everything I
was taught and every example set for me by adults in my life.  But if I
close the door on that chatter and sit in the space and stillness of the other
imagining it feels possible.  

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I have reposted it here so that readers can find it. 

I just don’t understand the appeal of having a gun. I didn’t really grow up with them, although my mom’s first boyfriend after she divorced my dad and her second husband both loved them. They each took us kids out shooting in the rural areas of Oregon, aiming at tin cans on a log. I don’t remember much about it, to be honest, whether I was afraid of the kick of the pistol or if the sound bothered my ears. I have no idea whether I got a rush seeing the can jump off of the log when it was hit or even if I ever hit one. I don’t recall any conversations about where the guns were kept or if they were locked. I do remember my stepdad’s sunny office at the back of our house sporting a box of bullets in the windowsill, but I don’t recall being afraid of them, even though I was sometimes afraid of him.

We didn’t grow up hunting. Dad never really talked about it, but I know he had a gun for a while. I don’t think I ever saw it or touched it or even thought about it. Nobody in my family ever talked about needing one for protection, even when it was just us kids and Mom living alone.

So maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I don’t have some piece of the puzzle that I would need in order to really feel strongly about “my 2nd Amendment right.” But, frankly, I am more than willing to forego it altogether as long as the shooting stops. As long as I never have to see another story about a toddler accidentally shooting himself or his mother. As long as I don’t have to hear about teenagers playing Russian Roulette on a dare and someone ends up dead. As long as I don’t have to hear that there is another guy loose in some town somewhere shooting people for no apparent reason. I’ll give it up. And I’ll ask you to give yours up, too.

Because here’s what I see. In our current circumstances in this country, when there are more people living in poverty than there maybe ever have been, when there is extreme racial and gender inequality, against a backdrop of loud ranting on social media and radio and television shows from people who freely persecute and alienate other people, we can’t afford the 2nd Amendment. We can’t keep our guns if we aren’t willing to treat each other like human beings.  It’s too expensive. The cost is too high.

I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I have a strong belief that simply owning a gun lowers the threshold for violence. That, all things considered, if you have two people with similar personalities and tendencies, one with a gun and one without, and they each get into a fight with someone – the kind of fight that really pushes your buttons, makes you see red – the person with the gun will be more likely to escalate to violence than the person without one. I believe that someone who owns a gun is more likely to use it to settle a score, to make their feelings known, to end the battle once and for all, than the person who doesn’t have a gun handy is to throw a punch, use a knife, or find some other weapon. I believe that there is something impersonal about using a gun that allows us to feel detached from the act of violence in a significant way, such that we don’t have to consider what it might mean for us. If we have to stop and think about getting into a fistfight with someone we are arguing with, we have to wonder how badly we’ll get hurt in the scuffle. But if we have a gun and the other person doesn’t, it’s an easier decision. The effort it takes to pull a trigger just isn’t the same as the effort it takes to physically assault someone.

And before you point out that I just made an excellent case for everyone to own a gun, just stop. Because the above scenario is only for arguments and road rage and innocent victims killed by an enraged Uber driver in Kalamazoo.

The idea that we would all be safer if we all owned guns is belied by the statistics on accidental shootings. According to the Washington Post, in 2015, an average of one person per week was shot in the US by a toddler using an unsecured weapon. In the first six weeks of 2016, nearly 350 people have been shot in accidental shootings. That is more than five people per day, shot accidentally. Nobody can protect themselves from an accidental shooting by using a gun. I don’t care how much of a ninja you are.

And, for the record, I also reject the argument that what we have here is a mental illness issue. To be honest with you (and, again, I am no expert, I’m not a certified mental health professional, so this is ‘just’ my deeply held conviction), I don’t think that ANYONE who sets out to shoot a bunch of random people in a school or movie theater or from an overpass is someone I would call NOT mentally ill. I think that in order to want to inflict serious bodily harm on a group of people you don’t even know, by definition, means that you have a mental illness. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to know that until after it’s too late and people are dead.

We could piecemeal this situation with background checks and laws against certain people owning guns – violent criminals, those with a restraining order, people undergoing treatment for mental illnesses – but we won’t cover the people who just snap. The people like Robert Dear and Jason Dalton who were “quiet neighbors” and “loners” without any real red flags going up will continue to elude us. We also won’t capture the accidental shootings that happen at the rate of 5 A DAY in this country. And so we need to ask ourselves whether the need to protect the rights of regular citizens to shoot at cans and deer and ducks a few times a month is worth it. We need to weigh gun enthusiasts’ right to recreation against the rights of the rest of us to not get shot randomly. There is no other item of leisure that compares in its lethality to that of a gun, and I, for one, am willing to forego my right to bear arms so that other members of society can live without fear of harm or death at the hands of someone who was, up until now, a “responsible gun owner,” but they snapped, or they forgot to lock up the gun, or they got pissed off because the other driver didn’t signal that lane change.

As a nation, I would hope that we have progressed past the point of needing to arm ourselves against our own government. I think that we have come far enough and developed tools enough to band together and make our will known without worrying about soldiers coming to our door to force us to do something we don’t want to do. Besides, if our government was truly determined to quiet us, they have weapons much worse than guns and your personal stash of firearms won’t do much to stop them if the drones come.

I am someone who used to be prone to depression. I say “used to be” because it has been a long time since I really felt that deep, penetrating sense of darkness, and I’d like to think I’m cured. If that’s even a thing.

After coming out of the last dark hole without the help of pharmaceuticals, I was simultaneously thrilled that it was possible (for me) and waiting for the slapdown because I had gotten too cocky. Too big for my britches. Thought I was above it all. As if depression were some spiteful older relative who was setting me up to watch me fall, laughing in the corner as I celebrated because he knew he had the power to pull the rug out from under me.

I remember being afraid to even hear the word “depression” for fear that that combination of letters could trigger another episode. I couldn’t read about someone else’s struggle with it, nor could I watch a television show or movie that featured any characters who were depressed. It seemed contagious, like my emergence from the darkness was the result of the fact that I had simply forgotten it was part of me – a limb I was ignoring but would soon rediscover and have to deal with. Seeing someone else with the same thing would inevitably draw my attention to it and dump me right back into that deep hole.

But it turns out that depression doesn’t work that way. And on some level, I always knew that, but when you are still feeling tender from the last blow, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that the next one is right around the corner. And so I cowered. But eventually I came out of my hiding place and started to think that maybe this time I could be ok for a while. Or longer.

And it’s been a long time. And I’m grateful.

But this week I discovered Furiously Happy, a book about depression and what it means to fully embrace the craziest, most wildly happy things in life. And I am remembering that, while gratitude is great, it is somewhere near the middle of the rise (and fall) of the roller coaster, but happiness like Lawson writes about, that is at the top, with the amazing views and the stomach-dropping adrenaline and the involuntary grin that spreads so wide you think your face will split like an overripe watermelon. And while it is probably way overused, that phrase “feel all the feels” comes to mind, with the emphasis on the ALL part.

Sometimes, when I am acutely aware of my status as a responsible adult, I hold back from laughing out loud when I see something ridiculous. I put all my energy into anticipating who will be hungry when and do we have healthy snacks in the house. I pay attention to the road and the pedestrians because I have a new driver in the car who is watching me (or not, it’s sometimes hard to tell). I look for the lessons – and, believe me, during this crazy election cycle there are plenty of lessons. Sometimes I forget that adulting and irreverence are not mutually exclusive.

Last week I was really sick. That kind of sick where you really can’t make yourself get up off of the couch and every time you try you fall over again. I mostly slept for two days. But then, even when I wasn’t tired anymore, I discovered that I couldn’t just bounce back, that emptying the dishwasher was enough to physically exhaust me and I had to go sit on the couch. The problem with this is that I normally don’t sit around much. Unless I am reading a really great book, I can’t sit still for very long and I certainly can’t watch more than one TV show at a time without getting up to do something else. So being forced to sit around was painfully boring and I started getting a little weird.  At one point I found myself looking at all of the emojis on my phone and texted them to Lola.

Because who uses a circular saw blade emoji*? Or maybe it is supposed to be a free-floating gear? In any case, who created that and why? And what about the bamboo one with the little star-like thing and the red flag/leaf coming off of it? What the hell is that supposed to symbolize? I spent a long time looking at all of the stock emojis available, imagining what prompted their creation, and bugging Lola who was busy in her room doing homework. She was amused for a while, but quickly ran out of patience with me. I think her final text went something like: Oh, God, Mom! You need to find something to do.


The point of this was that it was useless and fun and goofy and that’s something I haven’t been in a while (well, I hope I’m never useless). And it rocked. And it reminded me that I can crack that door of irreverence open whenever I want to – not just when I’m deliriously sick – and that it is restorative. And since then, I smile whenever I think of something funny, even when I’m the only one around. Like this morning when I drove by a guy walking his pug (who, incidentally, looked exactly like the human version of his own dog) who thought he was alone and mimicked his dog’s whole-body-shake-the-pouring-rain-off-of-me maneuver and stuck his tongue out at him. I laughed out loud. Or when I heard a song in my head as I stepped out of the shower and instead of trying to banish it or ignore it, I decided to dance to it. By myself. In the bathroom. And that dance move was the first one I’ve done in a while.

My poor kids. I think I’m going to start being weird a little more often. It’s pretty fun.

*I just looked up that emoji on my phone because I was going to post a picture of it here and I think it’s supposed to be a gear, but in my defense, that is still a fairly obscure thing to have on one’s phone. There is also a table clamp one which is beyond ridiculous because, really? And, as someone who doesn’t often use emojis because, well, I’m 44 years old, both of them are now in my “frequently used” emojis that pop up whenever I text someone. So I’m going to start using them both to see if I can confuse people and make them wonder what the hell I mean by that. Because that’s fun, right?

It has been so long since I wrote here. In the past few weeks, I’ve had fleeting shots of brilliance, inspiration for new posts that I promptly forgot as I slipped back into the conversation and game-playing that comprises an O’Driscoll family holiday.

At one point, we renamed the girls Chaos and Mayhem because they got into the habit of staying up until 2:00AM giggling in their shared room at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I wondered whether it was the magic of the holidays or if they would have the same fun if they shared a room at home.

There was much cousin-love – piles of teenagers like puppies on the couch, sharing headphones and listening to each others’ music, playing games on their phones in competition and cooperation, both. At other times, the littlest cousins joined in, playing Candyland – the never-ending game of Candyland – and building gingerbread houses and Dance, Dance, Freeze! There was more delicious food than anyone could have imagined with decadent chocolate mousse and macadamia nut pie for dessert. Oh, that pie!

There was a photographer who came to do family pictures that we will all forget about until the proofs are emailed two weeks from now and the warm memories of that week flood our brains and bodies. It was a glorious time with rest and games, squeals of delight (none louder than my own Eve’s when she opened the bag she has had her eye on for months), and then a return home to a bit of discombobulated priorities. We have one more week outside of our routine to figure out how to spend our time and I am vacillating between thoughts of organizing and purging, finding a quiet space to work for hours, nesting and cooking healthy hot meals, and feeling so overwhelmed I just want to lie on the couch and nap.

And then there is the world outside, with its flooding and tornadoes, refugees still pouring out of their home countries desperate to find some safety and security, and Tamir Rice’s family. There is some part of me that wishes January 1 was truly a reset button – a way to clear the mistakes of the past the same way the dog’s tail swipes the contents of the coffee table with one clean motion. I often wish we could start from scratch; instead of patching policies with “additional training” and “stopgap measures,” couldn’t we just scrap the whole tax code, the immigration rules that exist now, the biases and built-up fears of police officers from the last several decades? If we had a way to design humane, equitable, compassionate systems of care for those who are ill, to deal with finances, paradigms of authority, I might feel as though it were possible to change things more quickly.

But then I remember that the only way out is through, and that the best way to make a positive change in the world is to start with myself. And so I will continue to work on being compassionate, open-minded, leading with my heart, and listening, listening, listening. And instead of making grand, sweeping proclamations that an entire year will be “the best ever,” I will focus on each step I take, each day as it comes, and set the intention that today will be a good day.

May you find happiness in many moments of today and every day.

I have just had the most extraordinary experience, and despite the fact that I’m sitting in an artificially-lit room with rain showering down from charcoal-grey skies outside, I am absolutely glowing. 


My oldest turned 16 yesterday and, to celebrate, she and I spent three days in New York City touring around and indulging in all of her fantasies. We poked around Barney’s and Bloomingdales, stood with the hordes outside Rockefeller Center and snapped photo after photo of the tree and the ice skaters. We wandered across the campus of Columbia University, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and stood underneath the Manhattan Bridge on a sunny, bright day. We perused the wares at holiday markets from Union Square to Bryant Park and walked through Times Square at night people-watching. Perhaps her favorite experience, though, was seeing Wayne Brady in a production of Kinky Boots. She was hardly able to sit still from excitement and when we stood outside the stage door afterward, shivering, she barely felt the chill in the air. The star himself came out to greet his fans and promptly wrapped her in his wool trench coat and offered her a warm “Happy Birthday!” as I took photos of them together. She floated back to the hotel and couldn’t get to sleep, she was so thrilled. 


These moments together, whether they be tiny ones like sharing a delicious snack or huge ones like meeting Wayne Brady, lifted me up to a place I won’t soon come down from. I know that I have only two more years before she is off to college and I see her much less often (especially if she chooses to go to school in New York, which she says she will), and while I feel as though I ought to be sad about that, I was really just very honored to be part of the joy that she had this last weekend. Watching her face light up in a grin as big as I’ve ever seen when she spied the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and hearing her exclamation of bliss at the first bite of New York cheesecake are some of the things I was so lucky to be witness to that I will never forget. 


There is a song in Kinky Boots called “Not My Father’s Son” that reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years ago called The Fallacy of Belonging, where the two lead characters sing about feeling as though they disappointed their fathers because they couldn’t “echo what he’d done.” All of the singing was exquisite, but as I sat and listened to that particular song and turned to watch Eve, I knew in my heart that the best thing I can do for her is to let her travel her own path in life, wherever it leads her. No matter how many instances I can recall that point to our similarities, she is herself, and it is not my place to convince her of anything, to hold her back because I am afraid or don’t understand. My gift to her is to lift her up, help her believe in herself and trust her own gut, and revel in the things that she enjoys and desires. I could no more imagine myself at 16 wanting to go to school in NYC than I could have imagined myself being abducted by aliens, but it doesn’t matter. The simple fact that she and I can share these moments together, with her driving the agenda and feeling free to explore possibilities for her own life means more to me than anything. 


On the flight home, I sat next to a woman whose daughter is a senior at Columbia University. She was on her way home from a visit and she confided to me that she never could have prepared herself for how hard it was to have her daughter go away to college (they live in Anchorage, Alaska – almost as far apart as you can get and still be in the same country). She confessed to having gone through a deep depression when her daughter was gone, and said that even now, she visits her 2-3 times a semester just to reconnect. For a moment, I panicked and started to wonder what it might be like for me to have Eve so far away, but then I made a decision to stay in the glow of this weekend. It will probably be very hard for me if she goes across the country to college, but all I have to do is conjure up the memory of how happy she was to be feeling grown up in the big city, exploring all it had to offer, and striking out with a confidence I never had at that age, and I think I can find it in myself to be happy for her. She is not me, and I am so honored to be given the opportunity to see her for who she is without placing my own filters on her. That would only limit her and goodness knows I don’t want to do that.  Happy birthday, sweet girl. Thank you for being in my world. 

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It’s an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Fred Rogers

“Love is an action, never simply a feeling.” bell hooks

As a kid, I thought love was a commodity. Something that I could acquire if I only had the right currency. And I often felt as though I had hit upon the right combination of things to do and say and be, but, as with all other things we pay for and think we own, once I had it, I was forever fearful of losing it. Because if love is a thing not freely given, it can be taken away. I never felt as though I had the power in this particular scenario, which meant that I was always hustling to stay one step ahead.

Perhaps the trickiest part of this view of love was that the cost of it was different for each person I encountered. Mom seemed to need very little to bestow her affection on me until life became more complicated and she was single and raising three kids. Unfortunately, I equated anger and disapproval with a lack of love, as I think most kids do.

As I got older, I experimented with giving and taking away love as a way to get some control over my own life. At least, I thought it was love I was giving and taking away, but it turns out that wasn’t true. I recall attempting to punish my dad by ignoring him or being strictly businesslike in my conversations with him. I gave not-so-subtle signals by withholding physical affection and not making eye contact. But I never stopped loving him, and I never stopped wanting to know that he loved me. I just thought that we had taken love out of the equation when it turns out it was there in the background while we mucked around with each others’ feelings in an attempt to gain power.

It wasn’t until I had Eve that I became aware that love is not a thing in the sense of other things. It is not static or transferable. I cannot give someone else my love for them, I simply love them. Whether either of us chooses to recognize its existence at any given time is another issue. As for love, it is simply there. Available. Pulsing.

With Dad, the struggle came about when I chose to focus on what he owed me for my love. I resented the fact that I loved him so deeply and he wasn’t fulfilling his part of the bargain. He wasn’t wooing me with apologies and admissions and the honesty that I so desperately (thought) I wanted. I resented the fact that I (thought I) had to work so hard to obtain his love – get good grades, work hard at a sport and a job, be polite and ladylike – and that one small misstep put me back at the start like a game of Sorry. But when I had Eve, I realized that I had been wrong all along. There is nothing this child can do that would ever cause me to take away my love for her. It is not even possible. The fact is, I didn’t choose to love this child, I simply do. There are certainly times when I choose to ignore that fact, push it aside and focus on something she has done or said that hurts me, but the truth is, I am only hurt because I love her.

I recall reading a parenting book at some point that cautioned that parents should remind their children often that they are loved unconditionally, and for a while I went about my life believing that my parents’ biggest mistake was in not telling us that. I vowed to remedy the situation by telling both my children and my parents that I love them unconditionally. But these days I feel as though all love is unconditional. If I truly abandon myself to loving another being, I cannot place conditions on it. It is doing love a disservice to pretend that it is a commodity that can be earned or paid for. Perhaps the best part of all of this for me is the knowledge that love exists out there in the world in vast quantities. Regardless of my actions or accomplishments or physical appearance, I can access love at any time. That’s a pretty cool thing to remember when things get tough.

 

I have learned that it is possible to change my attitude simply by remembering what my values are. And while that may sound ridiculously simple and obvious, it often isn’t to me. In fact, it generally requires a focused effort and a pointed (internal) question. When I am in the throes of feeling annoyed or frustrated or distressed about something, I don’t always remember to access the part of me that is curious about what I’m feeling. I am more likely to embark on an entire fantasy monologue with someone I believe can change the situation so that I will feel better, and that monologue is peppered liberally with sarcasm, in most cases.

Lola is on her school’s volleyball team. The school is small and the students that play sports for the school are generally not the ones who have already specialized in one particular sport and play on “rec” or “club” teams year-round. The coaches are terrific, committed and fun, and the students’ abilities vary widely, but we can mostly agree that everyone improves throughout the season. That said, there are still some athletes who have strong natural talents and others who struggle with some basic ideas of the game, and many in-between.

I love watching sports. I love the strategy, the physical ability, the way teams are able to work together and complement each other. I also grew up with some very competitive male role models and have chosen teams to root for that I am very passionate about. I have been accused by both Eve and Lola of being too loud at games when I come to watch them play, but I don’t particularly care. I try to learn all of the girls’ names and cheer for them in supportive ways. I would never yell at a referee or berate a player for missing a chance to score or making a mistake. I don’t make fun of anyone, even on the other team, but my mother-bear does come out when the game is close and I thoroughly enjoy watching my girls’ teams win.

There are a few girls on the volleyball team that have not mastered the overhead serve. There are a few that have never, ever gotten one over the net, and yesterday as I watched the series of three matches and one girl in particular got a chance to serve several times, I found myself getting annoyed. I recall thinking, Why has nobody told this girl that she should give up trying the overhead serve? Just have her serve underhand, for God’s sake. She’ll get it over the net. It’s a guaranteed side-out every single time she tries an overhand serve. Even as I heard the sarcastic tone in my head, I justified it by looking at the scoreboard and seeing how close it was. I rolled my eyes and breathed deeply.

The next time this girl came up to serve, I watched her step uncertainly past the back line and try to steady herself. I could tell by her body language that she was going to try the overhand serve again and just as the mean thoughts began surfacing again, something else rose up to take their place.

What is your true value here? Is it winning the game at all costs? If it is, criticize away. 
 I brought myself up short. It isn’t. Winning isn’t the real, important, long-term value.

Courage. Courage is my value. What I want for all of these girls is to find courage. 
Yeah. I talk so much about hoping that my daughters can tap into their own beliefs and knowledge about themselves and express that with courage and honesty. And that is exactly what this girl is doing. She is trying. She continues to try. She steps up to that line every time, tosses the ball in the air, takes a deep breath, cocks her arm back, and smacks the volleyball, hoping that this time it will go over the net. And when it doesn’t, she smiles an aw-shucks smile and the other five girls on the court high-five her for trying. They say things like, “It’s okay. We’ll get it back. Nice try.” And they turn around and refocus and wait for the serve.

Whether they win or lose, they are playing as a team and reinforcing each others’ right to continue to try. From the most talented athlete to the most awkward one, they rotate on and off the court, play together and encourage each other. The thing is, I remember being that girl – the one who couldn’t get an overhand serve over the net. By my sophomore year in high school, I had given up and only served underhand because I knew I could get it over every time, and I knew that if I couldn’t serve, I wouldn’t play. I got the message that winning was the goal. And then I met Tara. She was a year older than me and stood an inch or two shorter than I did, which was hard to do in high school. She was a brilliant setter and was so tiny, I couldn’t imagine how she could ever get an overhand serve over the net, either. I idolized her on the court and watched her every move. Tara had internalized the ‘winning’ value, too, but she never let go of her courage. She held the two side-by-side and created her own wild, wicked, side-arm overhead serve that baffled the opposing team every time. I never mastered that serve, either, and every time I stepped up to the line to serve my puny underhand serve, I felt ashamed despite the fact that it went over every time. I know now that I wasn’t ashamed because of anything outside of myself – nobody on my team ever made fun of me for my serve. I was ashamed because I had let go of my courage and stopped trying.

Lola’s team won two matches and lost one yesterday, I think. Honestly, what I remember the most about the game was the transformation that happened when I was reminded of what I truly value the most. The warm feeling of pride that came over me when I watched that player try again and again to get her serve over the net made me smile. May she never lose her courage. May I remember to honor it in people more often.