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?

I know from fear.

I grew up an anxious, perfectionistic little kid, afraid of new things and new people and situations I couldn’t control.

I spent the first years of my parenting life terrified that I was doing everything wrong, that my children would get terribly sick or my husband would leave us.

I know from fear. And my life began to turn around the day I decided I would no longer be ruled by it. It wasn’t a sudden thing, just a gradual dawning that I had a choice to make, and once I recognized that I had been choosing scarcity and fear for most of my life (all the while wondering why happiness and contentment weren’t showing up at the door), it was pretty profound.

I have been watching with amusement the growing concern over the Zika virus “outbreak” and, until yesterday, was mildly confused. Yesterday, NPR broke a story about the World Health Organization saying that this virus had “explosive, pandemic potential” and it was all over my Facebook page. Really? This virus that most people never even know they have because it causes mild cold-like symptoms is all of a sudden something we are cautioned to freak out about? Yes, I understand that it has major implications for women who are pregnant, although as of yet, there is no causative connection that has been established. And I get that, in many countries where there are no options to control whether or not you get pregnant, this is a conundrum.  Wow. Nothing like stirring up fear of something that is likely to not really cause any problems for the vast majority of us.

This morning, NPR had one of their correspondents in Iowa interview Republican voters regarding last night’s GOP debate and I was struck again by how the front-runners have stoked the fears of people in order to gain votes. Over and over again, I heard people talk about terrorism, ISIS, and the fear that, if a Democrat were elected to the presidency, their guns would be taken away and they would be left altogether defenseless against “meth addicts in my front yard with guns.” Huh? In Iowa? Is there some sort of terrorist cell network in Iowa that I don’t know about? Are there lots of armed, methamphetamine-addicted folks running around at night burglarizing towns in Iowa?

A little later, on the Tavis Smiley show, there was a political analyst who was talking about the odd phenomenon that is Donald Trump and when Tavis asked him about the “best way to fight Trump,” his answer was, “I’m curious why you’re focusing on fighting Trump and not supporting Hillary.”

Yes. Not that I’m a Hillary supporter. To be honest, I am pretty firmly in Sanders camp, but that’s not something that we need to discuss here.


I was reminded of the knowledge that what we fight against grows in power, if only because we are giving it our energy. The key is to direct our energy toward the thing we desire, not against the thing we are afraid of. That is not to say that there aren’t things to fear in life, but if we take a step back and really think about it, what are the odds that any one of us in this country is likely to be touched by terrorism, contract the Zika virus, or be shot by a meth-addicted robber? We are more likely to suffer slowly from income inequality, domestic violence, and pollution. And in the meantime, when we let our daily activities and choices be dictated by fear of things we won’t likely ever encounter, we are wasting our energy. When we make the choice to rail against the things we are afraid of (most of which will never come to pass, and even if they did, we have almost no control over them, anyway) instead of creating space for the things we do want to see in our lives, everyone is hurt.

The main difference I see between focusing on hope and focusing on fear is that one of them is actually more frightening than the other one. When we focus on what we’re afraid of and put our eggs in the Trump/Cruz/Rubio basket, we are actually less afraid because we think we’re following people who can control or prevent what we’re scared of. When we focus on hope, we are putting ourselves out there in a way that is vulnerable, with the knowledge that it will take some effort on our part to make it happen, and that responsibility is often much more frightening than sitting back and letting someone else do it. But ultimately, that is what this country was built on – groups of people who were committed to working for a better collective future for us all, and that is where I will continue to put my energy. Here’s hoping there are lots more people out there that feel the same way.  Fear is a strong motivator, but it doesn’t ultimately get a damn thing done that is good for all of us.

Twice this week I’ve heard stories of hateful verbal attacks in public. I am quite certain that there have been dozens and dozens and that these are only two that I have encountered in the news, but it  makes me think about how we ever came to the place where we believed in our inalienable right to share every trivial opinion loudly and vehemently.

The first incident was a woman (I confess, I can’t recall whether she is Muslim or not) traveling on a bus who endured much hollering from a white man, telling her to “go back home” and “get out of our country.” Of course, as it turns out, she was born in the US but, apparently because she is half-Iranian, this man assumed she was both a foreigner and a terrorist, and none of the other passengers on the bus intervened on her behalf. It was only when she could take no more and decided to yell back at him and defend herself that the bus driver finally kicked him off the bus. The second involved a woman in Southern California who was driving her two small children somewhere during the day as she wore a hijab. A man in a large truck sped up next to her car, flipped her off and began spewing curse words at her, intimidating her by swerving his truck next to her car and honking before he finally turned a corner and drove away. She made it clear that the things he was hollering were in regards to her hijab and not her driving skills.

As I think about these stories and consider the number of times I’ve been spoken to in a rude or hateful way by a total stranger, I am left wondering who ever told us that it was okay to talk to other people like that? I am a supporter of free speech, but to me, free means that we are open to expressing our ideas and beliefs in a way that encourages discourse, understanding, and education. Free doesn’t mean unfiltered, unnecessary blathering. I frankly don’t care if you, man-on-the-sidewalk, like my outfit today, or the way my ass moves in my skirt. It isn’t important to me whether you think someone’s Spandex shorts are “gross!” or that guy’s purple mohawk is “faggy.” I’m pretty sure nobody else cares, either. Even if you’re going for a laugh, it isn’t funny. It’s just obnoxious.

What makes us think that our opinions are so important that everyone needs to hear them all the time? Even if you are a person who is nervous around those who practice the Muslim faith, I don’t think it’s important to share that on a bus, especially not in a way that feels threatening to others. I even feel like it is your prerogative to share your off-the-cuff thoughts (and true beliefs) in your social media feed – fine, go ahead. But directing your snotty or disparaging opinions or, worse, propositions or hate speech, at one particular person or group of people does nothing but make you a bully and a narcissist. Maybe you like Donald Trump enough to emulate him in public, but it is really unnecessary. The world doesn’t need more of that.

Perhaps two simple guidelines can help here.

  1. You don’t need to say every single thing you think. Honestly. If it isn’t going to make the world a better place, if you haven’t been asked for your opinion, if it isn’t kind or supportive, maybe it ought to just stay inside. 
  2. Your thoughts are not facts. I know, sometimes that’s hard to wrap your head around, but just because you think something doesn’t make it right. There are many, many things we can’t know about other people’s lives and circumstances, and if you’re at all unsure of whether or not you know for certain that there even IS a “right” and “wrong” in this particular case, maybe it ought to just stay inside. 

It happened again. And there has been much acknowledgment that it keeps happening – we are killing each other at an unprecedented rate in this country and it is overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and I wish that we could find a different way to talk about it because, clearly, the way we have been approaching it isn’t working.

I popped in to my book club for an hour last night and, even though the topic was the book of historical fiction that we had all read, it quickly bled into discussing the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Someone noted that one positive aspect of all of these things – wars and terrorist attacks and mass shootings – is that it rallies communities, that we all notice each others’ humanity and come together to support each other.  But I couldn’t quite agree.  The other common aspect of all of those things that ostensibly bring communities together is that they are united against a common enemy. In war it is the other country, after 9/11 it was “terrorists,” after yesterday, it is either mentally ill people or mentally ill people with guns or, in some people’s minds, simply people with guns.  So while this may feel like solidarity, it is false, because while we may truly be recognizing the humanity of those who are suffering the same way we are, we are setting up a false dichotomy and altogether failing to recognize the humanity of the “other,” whomever we have decided they are.

The fact is, we are all in this together. How much must a person be suffering to pick up a weapon and shoot scores of people? How much pain must someone be in to want to inflict that much pain on others?

I have seen many posts on social media today from people and organizations vowing not to mention the name of the person responsible for yesterday’s shooting, and I can’t help but feel that that is part of the problem. His act was horrific and deplorable, to be certain, but we cannot deny his humanity. Pretending that there is an “Us” and a “Them” is simply perpetuating the problem. The fact is, Chris Mercer was one of us, but he didn’t know it and I doubt he felt that way. So often, we hear the stories of shooters in these incidents described as “loners,” “quirky,” “angry,” and “isolated.” In other words, not part of a community.

I absolutely believe that stricter gun laws are a vital necessity in this country. I have said that time and time again. But I also think that until we recognize the equal human rights of every person, to dignity and health care (including mental health care) and education, we are destined to see this repeat again and again. Uniting in the wake of tragedies like this, or against a common enemy is not a positive reaction, it is a reaction rooted in fear and scarcity. Coming together to fight AGAINST something drives us into a corner and forces us to erect walls. It is only a matter of time before those boundaries are breached, and being united in fear is a tenuous thing. It is high time we started uniting in purpose, finding a reason to include each and every person in our community and work toward a positive future for us ALL. Refusing to speak the name of someone who is hurting so intensely that they could plan and execute a horrific act like a mass shooting is just another way of burying our heads in the sand. We need to acknowledge the humanity of us all, recognize that we are all entitled to be part of the community of people who deserve happiness and liberty and that so long as we ignore and marginalize individuals out of fear, we are setting ourselves up for more acts of pain like this one.

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer’s book on campus rape, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” at a snail’s pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,

“I didn’t want to come across as too offensive or rude….I didn’t want to cause conflict,”

 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,

“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”

And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn’t really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I’m uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don’t want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the “Right” thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I’m certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother’s face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother’s face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told – would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn’t going to tell – it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn’t weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can’t ever take back those moments where they didn’t stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for “talking back,” but I’ll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don’t want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I’m okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, “F*ck rude – I said NO!” It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military

I was reading a mental health journal this afternoon and the following phrase leaped off of the page and smacked me in the forehead,

” ‘Defiant, combative, hostile, and uncooperative,’ were labels used by many people who knew Sarah…but what if we saw her as “frightened, struggling to cope, confused, and abandoned” and dealing with the effects of extreme stress?”

Yeah.
What if?

It occurred to me that those labels used by so many mental health professionals, teachers, social workers, and other folks tasked with teaching and serving individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities are selfish. They reflect not the individual’s feelings or challenges, but the frustrations of those around them.

How many times have I seen someone from afar in public who is acting in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable or sad or afraid and labeled them according to what I feel instead of thinking about what they might be feeling? I would say, pretty much always.

And while it is important, to be certain, to protect ourselves if we feel as though we’re in danger from someone, these phrases – defiant, uncooperative, hostile, combative – are generally used to pigeonhole people who would benefit more from our help than our defensive posturing.

I am reminded of a time when Eve was little and we were meeting with our toddler group. The kids were all around 18 months old and had varying degrees of language. They had all had lunch and were tooling around the living room playing while the moms cleaned up and visited a little bit.  One of the boys walked up to the keyboard, climbed on the bench and sat down to play, but within seconds he was throwing an absolute fit, screaming, red-faced, flinging himself off the bench and causing all of us to come running in to see what was wrong. Nothing was immediately apparent – none of the other kids had touched him or tried to take his place, he was simply freaking out and nearly inconsolable.  When his mom picked him up and folded him into her arms, he arched his back and pulled away, screaming and clawing at her hair and face. We could have easily called those behaviors erratic, defiant, hostile, combative, uncooperative, and so on and so forth.  I remember pulling Eve close to me as she stared wide-eyed at the spectacle.

After running through a few options of what could be making him so angry, all the while fending off his little fists, his mom laid him down on the carpet and undid his overalls. None of us actually believed that a dirty diaper could be causing this much mayhem, but it was worth a shot.  When she undid the velcro fasteners and folded down the front of his diaper, she found a fork. Somehow, he had taken one from the lunch table, slipped it down the front of his overalls, and as he walked around and eventually climbed up onto the piano bench, it had fallen so far down inside his diaper that the tines were stabbing him in the penis. Every time his mom had moved him as she tried to console him, it poked him again. I’m pretty sure I’d scream and resist, too.

Even as we age and become more able to communicate with those around us, it isn’t always possible for us to find ways to express what we’re feeling, especially if we struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we take the time to unravel the stories and really pay attention to the individual, it is possible to come to a point where we take their actions less personally and begin to see them as indicators of what this person is dealing with. Many people with mental illness have suffered significant trauma in their lives and while that doesn’t excuse all of their actions, labeling them with things that reflect how they make us feel rather than what they are feeling only serves to keep us at arm’s length, and connection is a powerful tool when you want to help someone. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot of practice to shift my thinking, but I’m willing to try.

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. I just finished reading Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. It’s the story of Martin, who succumbed to a mystery disease when he was a young boy that put him into a coma for two years. When he “awoke,” he was unable to speak or move any part of his body other than his eyes and some minimal movements of one hand. It took years before someone was able to assess him for brain damage and fit him with a computer device that enabled him to communicate with the world and everyone was shocked at how much he was aware of and understood during the time he was mute and paralyzed.

I have to say, the book wasn’t my favorite, literarily-speaking, but it did spark a lot of thought processes in my head.  And ultimately, it led to me watching The Theory of Everything last Friday night. I have loved Stephen Hawking’s brain since I first read Black Holes and Baby Universes for fun in high school. (Yes, I was that nerd). I went on to read “A Brief History of Time” and was completely hooked.  His story was different, in that people knew he was brilliant before he began struggling with the symptoms of ALS and could no longer speak or take care of himself, but I was still fascinated by how heavily verbal communication weighs in our assessment of each other as human beings.

I remember when my grandmother was rendered mute by Alzheimer’s disease. Although she had been increasingly confused prior to that time, it was still confusing to me whether or not she understood the lion’s share of what was going on around her. I recall thinking that I would go crazy if I were trapped inside my own head and body, unable to respond or make my needs known.

As a young mother, I recognized my infant’s frustrated cries as just that – a desperate longing to tell me what she wanted and to have some control over her world.  Fortunately for her, normal developmental progression let her gradually gain that control. But until she could, I had to change my response to her by listening in a different way, paying attention to her body language and context, the time of day and where her eyes moved. I had to trust that she was doing her best to communicate with me and it was on me to slow down, change my expectations, decipher the clues.  When I came from a place of love and genuine desire to know, while it was often challenging and crazy-making, I was able to be more patient.

Some of the stories Martin told about how he was treated by caregivers in various care homes were horrifying. The lack of humanity he was shown simply because he was unable to speak or move his body the way he wanted to made me sad. And it made me think about how often we expect others to communicate with us in the ways we are accustomed to, instead of thinking outside the box. Fortunately, there are those out there who are committed to finding ways to help people like Martin and Stephen Hawking express themselves.  As for me, the next time I encounter someone who doesn’t communicate exactly like I do, I hope I’ll have the presence of heart to slow down and find another way to listen.

I have Operation Babylift to thank for my little sister. And perhaps some divine intervention, given that she was on the plane that crashed in 1975 and killed over a hundred of the passengers – orphans and adults evacuating them.

photo from the Daily Mail, UK

To this day it is hard for me to imagine strapping scores of infants to airplane seats. We would be reported to CPS these days for doing such a thing, and I suspect if I had been one of the nurses charged with tending to the babies, I would have been a nervous wreck trying to keep an eye on them all. 

photo from the Daily Mail, UK

Every time I think about this amazing story, I can’t help but feel that my sister’s survival, at less than two months old, means something big. That the fact that she not only survived her birth in a war-torn country, but then lived her first four weeks of life in an orphanage, was strapped into an airplane seat with hundreds of other infants and survived a horrific crash, only to be flown across the world to a foster family who would come to discover she had a tapeworm and multiple food allergies means something big. 

I don’t know what it means. I can’t imagine that it means the same to her that it does to me. I don’t know what it’s like to not know where you come from (all of the orphans’ records were destroyed in the crash) and to grow up in a small town in Oregon where nobody looks like you – not even the people in your own family. 
I do know that when she arrived in our house, the local media showed up, too. I was three years old and completely unfazed by the reporter or the photographer, but I was entirely enthralled by this tiny little doll someone placed in my arms. She was so minuscule and weightless and warm with enormous brown eyes and crazy black cornsilk hair that stood up in all directions. I promptly christened her mine – a moment not lost on the reporter, as he quoted me in the article for the newspaper. 
To this day, I am still not sure what it all means, but April, 1975 is an important part of my life and it always will be. It was the month that I gained a sister. Regardless of the political or humanitarian implications of the war in Vietnam and the resulting evacuation of orphans, it forever changed the course of my life.

The human brain loves a shortcut. Maybe not as much as my Dad did, driving through the rural back-roads of Oregon, but pretty close, I think.  The look of pure satisfaction on his face as he turned in the opposite direction that we expected him to, the glee when he discovered a different route that would shave minutes or seconds off of our trip, it was a thing to behold.  Cheating the system, cutting a corner, figuring out a pattern and exploiting it – that was the stuff of legend in our household and always good for a cheap thrill.  I took notes as a kid, and my brain followed suit, laying down a nice flat steamrolled bed of gravel and pouring some asphalt over the top of it. Streamlining the process for the next time and feeling smug that I had discovered a better way, a faster way, a more efficient way to deal with all sorts of things, not just how to get from Point A to Point B.

After a few times of traveling that new road my brain laid down, it increased the speed limit for me. How nice, I thought, I barely even need to think about this anymore. It has become reflex to react in this particular way to this particular set of events. And, often, it was nice. It was time-saving. But when I got to the point where I could navigate those paths blindfolded and in my sleep, I forgot that they were crafted by a child.

When I was a kid, my brain laid down a path to being okay with people leaving. Forged over the span of a few years as some pretty critical folks peeled off and left, it gave me a way to shortcut the hurt whenever I suspected someone else was about to go. I used that road for a long time, and I got really good at it. The signage on that road went a little something like this:

GO AHEAD. I’M FINE.

and

I’M DONE WITH YOU, ANYWAY.

Long-time readers may recall that about ten years ago, Bubba was really sick with some mystery illness. He was in and out of the hospital every few months for days at a time and it took many doctors over three years to figure out what was wrong. But in those three years or so, he did his level best to keep on keeping on in-between episodes, continuing to travel internationally for work and provide for the four of us. This meant that on a few occasions, he would fall seriously ill in a foreign country and I would get a phone call in the middle of the night – from Prague or China or somewhere that felt really, really far away.  That path went from a foot-worn deer path in my brain and heart to a full on superhighway.

GO AHEAD. WE’LL BE FINE.

When he was home, I was guarded but loving. Affectionate and caring but ready to pull away just in case.  As if that shortcut would circumvent the deep wellspring of despair I would have plunged into had anything happened to him. As if I could distance myself enough emotionally to be able to just carry on if he were gone for good.

And yet. That shortcut beckoned. My brain saw that path as the well-lit one studded with diners and rest stops along the way and it was so well-traveled that I could barely discern the other road off to the side.

These days, I’m working on creating a new path. As Bubba readies himself for another long trip and Eve pulls away more and more in search of a new kind of independence and Lola hits the stage where her bedroom is the best room in the house (as long as she’s in there alone or with a girlfriend), I am discovering that that old highway is no longer useful. It never really got me where I needed to go, anyway. There’s no getting around the hurt when someone leaves. So instead of pulling away preemptively, I’m going to hang on a little tighter. I’m going to squeeze every last drop of affection out of the time I do get with these amazing people and hopefully the signs on my new road will read

I LOVE YOU AND I MISS YOU.
GLAD WE HAD THIS TIME TOGETHER.