I’m going to tell you something you already know: it’s
easier to be angry than it is to feel sad. It is harder still to acknowledge
the fear that lies behind both the sadness and the anger without becoming
entangled in it and letting it take over. 
And the most challenging scenario I’ve yet encountered is when the fear
and anger and sadness spring from incidents that involve my children.  There is a certain intensity to the
feeling, the difference between a freshly-honed butcher knife and the paring
knife you’ve used for everything from slicing apples to cutting bread to
peeling cucumbers. That sharp edge makes all the difference and it gleams in
the light.
Even though fear underlies both sadness and anger, the anger
comes with a drive to act, a sense that I can do something to mitigate or
repair or eradicate. It feels like a positive force, propelling me forward. The
sadness feels like a pit, a low spot in the landscape where I have to just sit
and see my limited view of the horizon for a while. That feels hopeless and
helpless, especially when it comes on behalf of someone else, someone who will
benefit more from quiet compassion and understanding than any action I could
possibly take.  I am much more
comfortable being the Mama Bear, putting out a forearm to block incoming
trouble and uttering a frightening roar because it feels proactive and
empowering. Sitting in that ditch with my kid while she sobs is not so
satisfying.
If I were a caveperson, I would understand. Sitting in that
sad pit will get you eaten. Injury to the soul is of little consequence when
you aren’t sure whether or not you will find a meal or be the meal. And so I
suppose it is a consequence of our relatively luxurious life that I can feel so
acutely the emotional pain of my children and long for a solution that will
instantly make things different, or at least one that will give me the illusion
of control.  But the backdrop of
luxury doesn’t make my heart hurt any less. And reminding my kids that they’re
not the only one this has ever happened to doesn’t make their hearts hurt any
less. It is nice to know you’re not alone, but it sucks to know that you still
have to make your way through the hurt in your own way, in your own time, no
matter how many people have been there before and how many others are sitting cross-legged in that damn pit with you.
And as a mother, it is far more difficult to watch my
children make their way through, in fits and starts, with frustration and doubt
and, sometimes, utter desolation, and know there isn’t a damn thing I can do but
love them and love them and love them until my heart feels like it will burst
with a single touch. As I walked the dog this morning I wished for anger, for
someone or something to project my fears onto because holding this emotion is
exhausting and anger is exhilarating in its power, even if it is often
destructive.  Anger feels
galvanizing, strengthening, and when I go all Mama Bear, I am certain my kids
know I’ve got their backs and it feels good to express it publicly. Telling
them quietly that I acknowledge their pain and sadness and letting them see my
sadness feels supportive but falls flat because it doesn’t have all the
attendant bells and whistles of action. It isn’t necessarily in my nature to choose the easy way out but, man, do I really want to sometimes. 

I am reading my first book by bell hooks. I have read quotes of hers before and come across people who think she is absolutely brilliant and yet, I have never once picked up a book by her. Until now. And to be honest, I don’t even really remember what made me pick up “All About Love: New Visions,” but it is quickly becoming a tome to set next to the likes of David Whyte’s “The Three Marriages” and anything by Brene Brown to read over and over again.  I have taken so many pages of notes I’m running out of space in my notebook and I am only about 70% of the way through it.

hooks’ meditations on every kind of love from friendships to family to intimate, romantic relationships to self-love are so simple and profound that I am stunned again and again. And, as I often do, I find myself stopping mid-page to muse about the ways in which her philosophy pertains to different aspects of my life and pop culture.  The fact that her thoughts feel so incredibly universal to me is one reason why I suspect I will be able to read this book many times and find some new perspective during each and every reading.

She begins by defining love in a way I’ve never heard it spoken about before and, yet, it feels absolutely right to me.  She uses M. Scott Peck’s definition, the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, as a springboard, and adds, “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”

She has chapters on every imaginable application of love but in light of what is happening in the Middle East right now, I am particularly struck by her chapters on community and what she calls a “love ethic.”

I have been called hopelessly idealistic and a dreamer most of my life. I own it. And so, in that spirit, I began thinking about what the world would look like if we embraced the notion of a love ethic, cultures rooted in mutual respect and acknowledgment instead of materialism and consumerism and money and power.  In this kind of society, it would be absolutely necessary to address our fears and take daily leaps of faith. In this kind of society, we would be required to forego the possibility of having everything we want in order for everyone to have some of what they want.  In our current model, we are encouraged to think constantly about what we as individuals want which sets up this endless cycle of desiring and attaining and assessing and desiring more. We are always comparing what we have with what we don’t have, what we have with what others have, and we will always come up short. In our current model, where possessions equal success equal power, we are tricked into thinking that more stuff will make us happier and we dehumanize other people who get in the way of us having more stuff.

When I think about the daily violence happening in Gaza and Syria, I see a cycle of fear and entitlement. I see groups of people desperate to have exactly what they think they need and willing to go to any length to get it.  I see militaries who have embraced the power of fear to make others do what you want them to do and one of the big problems with that is that, while fear is a terrific motivator, it is only ever a temporary one.  And fear doesn’t allow you to have relationship with others, so if you’re intent on controlling them for long, you either have to continue to ratchet up the fear factor or you have to worry about their retaliation. (Of course, one other solution is to entirely eradicate the “other” so that you don’t have to consider being in relationship at all.)

In hooks’ love ethic, everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and to live well.  Everyone expresses themselves honestly and openly and with a view toward living their ethic in everything they do and, in doing so, they are investing in their own individual growth and the growth and happiness of everyone else.  Individuals in these kinds of communities recognize the humanity of the other individuals at every turn even if they don’t agree with them. In acknowledging the humanity of others, there is no desire to “win” or rule over another, there is only a concern for the good of all and the acceptance that nobody can ever have all that they want because that is not good for the community.

The irony in the present situation in the Middle East is that everyone’s actions are rooted in fear, even as they are doing their mightiest to instill terror in the hearts of their opponents. And when we act out of fear, we cannot hope to accomplish anything but inciting more fear and anger. This cycle is endlessly destructive and while we may gain momentary feelings of righteousness as we claim small victories, we
have not made any lasting, sustainable efforts toward peace.

In the case of the violence in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu has been very clear that the goal of attacking Gaza is to shut down the tunnels that Hamas has built from Gaza into Israel’s territory. They are afraid and, goodness’ knows I don’t fault them for that. Their fears are justified, given the violence Hamas has rained down upon Israel thanks to the tunnels. But in disproportionately attacking the civilians in Gaza, what Israel is doing is showing that they can instill fear in Hamas, that they can be scarier than their enemy in hopes of what – convincing them that Israel is mightier and they ought to just give up? Even if Hamas did concede that point for now, if they ever hope to get any power again, they will have to invent some way to be even more frightening in the future. And the Palestinians are not likely to ever forget the horrific numbers of innocent civilians who fell prey to Netanyahu’s military which means that the prospects for a peaceful solution are even farther away than they were before.

There will always be someone who will come along and threaten to take what you have – your feeling of security, your home and possessions, your family. And we can set up fences, locks, alarm systems, but as long as we are operating from a place of fear, we are focused on what we might lose instead of what we already have, what is most important. If we can learn to retreat to a place of “enough” instead of continually visiting the well of “I need/deserve more,” we won’t feel threatened by others and worried that they will take what is or might one day be “ours.” And if we can build communities based on everyone taking the courageous, incredibly difficult step of extending a hand and trusting in each others’ humanity, we might just begin to find solutions that are rooted in love one day.

In 2013 our beloved dog, CB, was diagnosed with melanoma. It was a stunning blow to all of us and even the veterinarian had a hard time with the test results. The tumor was in one of the bones that made up his first toe on the right foot and we made the decision to remove the entire toe as a precaution. The vet assured me that he would do just fine without it and she was right.  Following several weeks of healing, he was right back to bounding up the stairs behind me every evening on our way to bed, back to three or four walks around the neighborhood every day.  You would never know he was missing a toe.

Six weeks after the surgery, the vet said we ought to give him the once-over to see whether there were any more tumors or spots we needed to check out.  As a nearly-10-year-old purebred, he had sprouted odd bumps and lesions here and there that we hadn’t ever really thought twice about. I pointed out a few that were larger but didn’t seem to give him trouble or pain and we did biopsies.

Most of the remainder of 2013 was spent either in surgery or recovery for our poor boy after discovering another large tumor on his back that had wrapped around his spine.  I learned several big lessons from all of this, but the one that I hope to remember for the rest of my life is how to act when you’re diagnosed with cancer, just in case I ever am.

During the visits where we first attempted to figure out what was going on with CB’s foot, he was the same as ever.  Happy, goofy, loyal, exuberant. For as long as we have known him, he has loved people (especially children his height), other dogs, water, balls, stuffed animals, and food. He loves nothing more than a walk around the neighborhood and sleeping on the floor in the same room where there is a person. Any person. He hates being alone.  He follows me from room to room all day long as I empty the dishwasher, run downstairs to do a load of laundry, sit at the kitchen table to write for a few hours, walk out to the alley to dump the garbage, and head upstairs to shower. If we walk past a car with a door or the hatchback open, he sees an open invitation for a ride, even if he doesn’t know the owner of the car. He doesn’t mind going to the vet in the slightest because it just means that someone else is going to pet him and scratch behind his ears.

After his cancer diagnosis, nothing changed. He was slowed down a bit by the bandages and stitches and a little dopey from the anesthetic, but he wasn’t angry or morose or withdrawn. His tail still thumped on the hardwood floor in anticipation of some attention every time someone walked by. He still struggled to all four feet upon hearing the word “walk” uttered by anyone anywhere.  He still perked his ears up at the sound of Bubba locking his car at the end of the day before heading up the stairs to come inside.

Even after five surgeries in nine months and weekly visits to the vet, he was unchanged with regard to his most basic personality. He was a little more hesitant to get in the car because that generally meant we were headed for some more poking and prodding, but I can hardly blame him. I was, too, because for me, it generally meant a huge bill and more heartache.

I don’t know whether it’s because he has very little control over most of the aspects of his life that he has chosen to embrace the things that matter most to him – connection with his human companions and pleasure-seeking – or if it’s even a “choice” at all. I just know that watching him continue to be exactly who he always was even as physical parts of him got chipped away steadily through most of a year was inspirational and touching. He never stopped trusting me to change his bandages and give him pain meds. He never refused to get up and walk or greet me with a huge tail wag. He never lost his enthusiasm for meeting other dogs or new people or carrying some goofy toy around in his mouth. Through it all, he stayed CB. CB with melanoma, to be sure, but CB nonetheless.

If I am ever diagnosed with a disease that requires me to undergo painful or debilitating treatment and is potentially life-threatening, I hope that I can remember how CB handled it. I hope that I can make my way, one day at a time, through the treatments, rely on others to help me, and never let it change who I truly am.  I hope that I can continue to focus on the things that make me happy and let them make me just as happy as they always have even if I don’t have the same energy to enjoy them that I once did.

As of now, CB is mostly back to his old self. I suspect that he has more tumors growing that we don’t know about, but he is living a good life and is very active thus far. We have decided that five surgeries is enough for one dog and, while we won’t let him live with debilitating amounts of pain, we are going to let him enjoy the time he has left without anesthesia or stitches or casts.  Every morning when the two of us get up to start the day, I am grateful for the gifts he has given me, not the least of which is the constant reminder to just be who I really am as much as possible.

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?

My piece wondering why, in this country, colleges and universities get to investigate sexual assaults on their own without involving the local police.

And while one of the first comments on it is by someone accusing me of wanting to strip extra layers of protection for college victims, I am most certainly not looking for that. I know our system of justice is woefully inadequate when it comes to rape, but I think it’s a good start to hold all perpetrators (and those accused) of sexual assault to the same standard, regardless of where they live or go to school.  Check it out if you’re interested.

And have a terrific Monday!

This banjo is sitting in the corner of my living room. For the first few weeks it was here, it sat inside its case because I wanted to make sure my head and heart were clear when I finally opened it up.  It belonged to my dad, and even though he died nearly six years ago, his wife only recently began packing up his things and figuring out what to do with them. She knew I wanted the banjo, but she couldn’t find it in any of the places she expected it to be and then one day, as she lie on her bedroom floor fishing underneath the bed for a roll of Christmas wrap, her fingers bumped up against the black faux-leather case.

I brought it home, having only unzipped the case once or twice to peek inside and marvel at its pristine condition (although I shouldn’t have, my dad was a Marine in every sense and took impeccable care of his things).  When I finally sat down in the living room to take it out all the way – Bubba off on a business trip and the girls away at school for the day, weak February sunshine filtering through the leaded glass windows – time stopped.  I don’t remember hearing anything from inside or outside the house; no dogs barking or airplanes soaring by, no hum of the refrigerator or the dryer. Of course, that is impossible, but I felt weighty and deliberate as I gently lifted it out by the neck and the body, careful not to smear fingerprints on the shiny chrome or twang one of the strings and break the spell.  Nestled beneath the banjo itself was a songbook and instructional manual by Pete Seeger and I nearly cried out when I saw it. Dad was a huge folk music fan. We grew up listening to the Kingston Trio and The Mamas and the Papas and Dad, while he couldn’t read a note of music, could hear a song once or twice and pick it out on the banjo or the guitar or the piano.  I don’t recall how often it happened, but I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged in the living room in a small circle with my sister and brothers while Dad taught us “Froggie Went-A-Courtin'” and “Greensleeves” and we had sing-a-longs.  I remember his long freckled fingers with the ridged nails and knobby knuckles picking and bending the strings in perfect time as our little troupe swayed back and forth singing with great gusto.

Laying the banjo across the couch cushions, I picked up the songbook and flipped through, hoping for some handwritten evidence of Dad somewhere within. His distinctive scrawl, always in pencil, shaped by the tremor in his hands, didn’t show up anywhere.  I was deflated.  I think I was looking for some message from beyond.

In the months since that day, I have walked by the banjo many times as it sits propped up in a box in the corner, neglected. I would love to learn how to play and have often thought about picking up that instruction book to give it a shot, but I’m both afraid and intrigued by what the music would do to me, what doors it might open if I do, indeed, figure out how to strum that banjo to play the folk songs of my childhood.  Occasionally as I walk past, I can smell the scent of cherry tobacco that came from Dad’s pipe and I am suddenly in the middle of that living room with the green shag carpet and the gold velour couch and swivel chair, Dad leaning back with the newspaper and the pipe smoke wafting gently to the flecked ceiling. My thoughts drift to the brother we lost during that time and I quickly shut the door of my mind.

Last Friday, Bubba and I took the girls out for dinner to a place in our neighborhood we’ve never been before. As we sat and waited to order, I became aware of the music playing and my heart swelled.  Throughout our fantastic meal, an entire Jim Croce album played, each song in the order I remember: Time in a Bottle, Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels), Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy), Bad Bad Leroy Brown, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, One Less Set of Footsteps, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  The girls kept getting annoyed with me, alternately because I was singing along with the songs and because I got lost in my reverie and dropped the thread of our conversation.  I know they don’t understand the pull of this music for me and the melancholy memories, but it was such a lovely warm feeling to be surrounded by Dad, laughing at the absurdity and playfulness of some of the lyrics as well as the innocence and sweetness.

Even though Dad was not a musician by trade, nor would he ever have considered that a possible career, one of his purest joys was music and it was often the one thing that we could all agree on.  The soundtrack to our summer road trips featured folk artists as well as popular music from The Doobie Brothers and The Little River Band (Dad was not a Beatles fan at all). More often than not, we would pop in an 8-track, roll all the windows down and sing together in what we thought was perfect harmony. And it turns out, it was.

Eleven wine glasses. Stained with lipstick prints and puddles of dark red wine in the bottom, too tall for the dishwasher, sitting in a cluster next to the sink waiting for me to wash them. Remnants of last night’s book club meeting where we sat and talked about Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings,” our conversation straying to the challenging history of race in the United States and the recent rash of car burglaries and home invasions in our community. We agreed that we all sit in a place of privilege, but that we are not separate or immune, that awareness of and compassion for the lives of others is vital. We talked about our children and the ways in which their world is so different from the days of slavery in the South and how many strides we have made, not discounting the distance we have yet to go.

This morning I was grateful for those glasses and the opportunity to stand quietly and wash them one by one. I let the warm water run over my hands and imagined it melting the tension in my chest, the fear I brought home with me from driving this morning’s carpool.  As I soaped first the outside and then the inside, swiped the rim of each glass and then the stem, I reveled in the methodical work.  Last weekend there was a gang shooting a few blocks from the girls’ school and the park where they hang out at lunch was quickly host to a growing memorial for the 24-year old who was killed. The side of the school building became a display of sadness and love for the young man and school officials decided to leave it up until after his funeral to honor the community’s grief.
Last night I praised the school’s handling of the issue, the way they talked openly in community meeting with the students about the incident and let them ask as many questions as they wanted. The staff were sure to use the victim’s name and the girls repeated it often throughout the week. Eve shook her head as she told me he had two young children. Some of the girls were upset that their school had been defaced by the graffiti, and others were angry that they can’t go outside at lunch any more for a while. 
“Even though we may not be able to understand why someone would post graffiti on the school, we have to honor their process so long as it doesn’t harm us. Like it or not, our school is part of that community and it’s important to acknowledge that,” I told the women in our group.  
In the middle of the night, there were two more shootings within blocks of the school and I woke up to an urgent email detailing the increased police presence that would be at school today.  All outdoor activities were postponed, including the bike ride Lola’s entire class was to go on today.  When Lola found out, she buried her head under the covers and burrowed down to the bottom of her bed.
“I don’t ever want to go to the park again.” 
I wondered what it must be like for her to have a constant reminder of the young man’s death every time we drive by and see the memorial site, black and white balloons floating from the street sign above a collection of candles and stuffed animals and a bottle of whiskey. That park where she and her friends play tag and shoot baskets and swing as high as they can go. Will it be forever marred in her mind? 
I was thrilled to be the parent driving carpool this morning, if only so that I could see my girls safely from door to door.  After they were inside, I stopped to talk with other parents clustered around on the sidewalk in the shadow of a huge police officer who kept a watchful eye up and down the block.  Overnight, the graffiti in the neighborhood had bloomed, anarchy signs tagged in red on every block and a few posters pasted on signs declaring “The only good cop is a dead one.” My sternum was locked up tight.  The first victim’s funeral service is to be held on Monday and I am afraid of what will happen over the weekend. 
One by one, I washed the stains from the glasses and turned them upside-down to dry on a kitchen towel. Thoughts flitted through my mind, dissolving as quickly as they formed like so many soap bubbles.  In the suburbs, I worried less about random street violence. Is this the beginning of an uptick in gang warfare? Is there something substantive I can do to make a difference? As a white, middle class woman, would my showing up to try and do something be more offensive than not? None of my musings had any weight or substance and I washed them down the drain.  
I am driving carpool this afternoon, too. Until then, I will sit with this fear and examine it. I will do my best not to act from it and honor my own process. I have compassion for the families involved, who have lost sons and fathers and brothers, but today I think of my children. Today, I will think about how to shine a light on what is good and hopeful and promising in our lives so that I can show up for Eve and Lola feeling grounded in love instead of rooted in fear. It may take all day, but that is my task.