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slowed down a bit by the bandages and stitches and a little dopey from the anesthetic, but he wasn’t angry or morose or withdrawn.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?

I learned about Occam’s razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major – biology and chemistry – and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam’s razor is

“a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.”

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates’ life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don’t know what his managerial style is, but I can’t imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 


Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene – the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas – and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn’t require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can’t patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn’t mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can’t be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you’re interested in serving.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve had occasion to think a lot about our system of health care lately. Bubba is doing a big project at work for a new client that revolves around prevention and healthcare education and I love kicking around ideas with him on our evening walks, especially because I love that this giant organization is thinking in this way. The questions are huge and the obstacles seem enormous, but so do the implications if they can find a way to pull it off.

With 8 million people and counting signed up for the Affordable Healthcare Act, as a country we need to get it together with respect to the way we deliver (and even think about) healthcare.  In Washington state, the number of folks eligible for the Medicaid expansion has outpaced their wildest imaginations and it is increasingly becoming obvious that we need a new game plan in order to serve these people. Many providers refuse to take Medicaid and even Medicare because the reimbursements are so paltry compared to private insurers and there is a big question looming about whether or not we’ll be able to find enough qualified practitioners to treat these new patients.

While we may utter the word “prevention” a lot with regards to health, the simple fact is that the vast majority of people don’t truly understand what that means or how to put it in play in their own lives.  Yes, we all pretty much know that our lives will be better if we get enough sleep, manage our stress, eat healthy, exercise and don’t smoke or do drugs, but actually knowing how to implement those things regularly and effectively is tremendously difficult.  When so many people, especially those newly eligible for health insurance, are struggling to pay the rent every month, finding the time to locate honest resources where they can educate themselves about what healthy food is or learning effective stress-management techniques is pretty far down on the list of priorities.

So where do most people get their information about health care? Not from their physician, it turns out, because as a system, our health care priorities lie in treatment of symptoms and deployment of technology, not conversation.  Doctors get paid to write prescriptions and schedule surgeries or diagnostic tests, not to sit with their patients for an hour at a time and help them understand how to read a food label or coach them in relaxation techniques or set up a viable exercise plan.  And while there are some physicians who take the time to really listen to their patients and explain things in depth, it isn’t always easy to remember exactly what they said once you leave the office.  Yes, it is possible to find people who will teach us about nutrition and stress management and exercise, but they are rarely paid by insurance companies and most people can’t afford their services.  Why don’t we make it part of our health education to offer those services in the doctor’s office as part of the care? The first real nutrition education my mother got from her healthcare provider was a class on how to eat after being diagnosed with diabetes. Helpful, but maybe classes on how to avoid diabetes in the first place would have been better, given that now Medicare pays hundreds of dollars for prescriptions every month that might have been unnecessary.

I predict that, thanks to the ACA, many healthcare providers will find themselves overwhelmed by a glut of new patients with complicated health histories. There are some who are relatively young and healthy who have signed up for coverage and may choose to establish a relationship with a physician, but there will be many more who have suffered with chronic conditions for years because they couldn’t afford to have someone treat them.  It is here where the rubber meets the road and, I think, the issue that will prove to be the stickiest for this much-needed leap forward in our healthcare system.  A doctor who sees a middle-aged person with multiple complaints that have been ongoing for years will be hard-pressed to find enough time for a comprehensive introductory examination that can unravel years of health issues. Most of these patients will end up leaving their first doctor’s appointment in years with a fist-full of prescriptions that may or may not make a significant difference in their long-term health, and will more likely treat symptoms instead of causes. Additionally, if the fee schedules don’t change, the folks who have to pay for some portion of their prescriptions may find themselves unable to afford the treatments they’ve been offered.  Without some effort to integrate these individuals into a system that educates them and offers them someone to collaborate with when it comes to preserving their health or reversing chronic conditions, we are destined to continue to have the most inefficient, expensive healthcare system in the nation, albeit one that is covering more folks than ever before.  Until we revamp our priorities by paying more for consultations and less for quick-fix deployment of technologies like surgery or prescriptions, we can never hope to turn the tide from treatment to prevention. We will always be playing catch-up and we will never catch up to our national obsession with fast food and sugar and vapor cigarettes as a viable alternative to regular cigarettes, because we haven’t been educated by people who have credibility, with whom we have an ongoing relationship. We have to enlist our healthcare providers as educators and partners and pay them to work with patients to keep them healthy and help them make good choices instead of giving them incentives to do expensive surgeries and prescribe drugs that treat symptoms. Until we are willing to turn our attentions from quick-fix ideas to long-term prevention strategies, we are doomed to continue down this path of being one of the unhealthiest countries in the world. With some of the most educated healthcare workers in the world, it is an absolute tragedy that this is the situation we find ourselves in, but if we choose to use doctors and nurses as collaborators instead of auto mechanics, we can make a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you survive Spring Break?

I don’t compartmentalize. Anything. Ever. I’ve heard it said that women don’t, or at least that men do it better and more often. I don’t know if that’s true or not.  In my personal experience, I have observed that Bubba seems to be very adept at putting aside certain things that may be difficult emotionally so that he can go on with his work day and revisit them later.  I don’t know if that means he simply doesn’t think about those things at work, or if it’s easier to think about them later when his emotions have died down or if he’s even self-aware enough to ask those questions and answer them. He has told me that when he’s at work, he isn’t worried about the house or the dog’s cancer or the kids or me. He trusts that we are all just fine – he has to, or he wouldn’t be able to function.

A friend told me once that she believes that the reason fathers have an easier time shutting off their “father” persona at work than mothers is because they were never physically attached to their children via an umbilical cord.  I remember thinking at the time that I hoped one day someone would do a study of adoptive mothers to see if there was any truth in that supposition.  It is certainly true for me that I am never not a mother, that at any given time no matter what I am doing I am aware of my children somewhere making their way in the world, that I am always ready to answer a phone call from the school or a friend’s mother in case one of my girls needs me.

But that could be because I don’t compartmentalize.  My life is like a watercolor painting on some coarse, linen-like canvas, where any stroke of color you put down is likely to bleed in several directions to blend with what is already there.  Every conversation I have with a close friend is held up to the light and examined within the context of what I already know. Every time I have a fight with one of the kids or discover someone’s massive screw-up, I question my entire parenting philosophy and make Bubba crazy with my self-investigation.

It wasn’t always like this.  As a kid, I was an expert at keeping things separate.  What happened at home stayed at home. I didn’t talk to anyone at school about the things that went on behind the front door of our house and, frankly, I didn’t think about it at school, either.  Upon walking out the door into the world, I simply became someone else, someone confident and competent, someone who didn’t have a personal life beyond school and sports and my job waiting tables.  I didn’t allow myself to think about anything but what I was doing in that skin and even when I got home, I tried desperately to inhabit that other person’s body.  Needless to say, my worlds eventually collided. I cracked the compartment wide open and began letting light in and the things stuffed inside all tumbled out and left footprints all over everything else in their haste.  Somehow, after years of talking and writing and thinking and figuring out who I am, I have managed to integrate all of my selves: daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend, writer. I don’t know how to go back and, frankly, I don’t want to, but it does mean that when something painful happens, I am likely to ruminate on it for a while as it slowly spreads out into places I can’t predict, changing the landscape of me. That also means that when I’m feeling particularly happy and optimistic, I have a different perspective on everything. Occasionally, I am able to step back and take a look at this multilayered, crazy textured work of art and see how rich and amazing it is with the overlapping bits of dark and light and feel a deep gratitude for this life.  Occasionally, I am prompted to reach out and stroke a particularly awful piece of memory to see if it has maintained its power to sting after many many years even as I marvel at the way it mingles with its beautiful surroundings.  Honestly, I think it is this knowledge that keeps me moving forward when I am skewered through with pain, the belief that it will thin out and become part of something wonderful in the end.

As I walked the dog yesterday following a particularly ill-advised exchange on Facebook regarding a vitriolic “anti-vaxxers” blog post, I struggled to tease out the strings of what bothers me so much about these kinds of interactions.  The same gut-burning, chest-tightening, jaw-clenching feelings came over me yesterday that I get when I encounter anti-choice protestors or read stories about the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful acts against homosexuals. It seemed to me that there was some wisdom in my body that wasn’t making it through to my brain.

I am certainly bothered by the Us vs. Them mentality – the assumption that there are only two sides to these issues and the disregard that there might be a shared goal.  No, neither pro-life nor pro-choice activists think killing babies is okay. Yes, both think that it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions. Neither folks who vaccinate their children nor those who choose not to (or slow down the regimen or ask question after question before deciding) want horrible diseases to take over mankind. Yes, we all want healthy, thriving children.  And regardless of your sexual preference, each of us wants to live a meaningful, happy life shared with people we love.

But beyond that, I honestly think that there is a bigger issue. At least in these three instances, one group recognizes the need for individual allowances within the whole and supports a diverse population of choices and the other believes they are Right and everyone should just do what they say.  It is truly pro-choice versus anti-choice and the pro-choice contingent has a much more accepting, understanding, dare I say compassionate view of humanity. It is inclusive.

Being pro-choice (whether in relation to vaccinations, reproductive rights, homosexuality, etc.) means that I am floating in a vast sea of unknowing. It is scary sometimes and floating does not equal passivity. I must still often tread water to keep from drowning and often things come up from the deep to bite me in the ass.  It is difficult to find information and validate it and from time to time I have to seek out other people who are floating for support.  Residing in the vast sea of unknowing means that I have given up absolutes, I forego imposing my will on others, I admit that I don’t know what it’s like to be you.

The folks who have already decided – those who are certain they are Right – stand on the beach, firm in their own footsteps and throw rocks at those of us floating in the sea. Some of them might dip a toe in the water from time to time (“I get how you might think it’s okay to ____________, but if you listen to me you’ll see why I’m Right”) but without fully giving over to the idea that maybe there is more they can’t comprehend, their feet stay firmly on the ground. Others never even venture close to the water’s edge, sunk deep into the sand and their convictions that Homosexuality is Wrong or People Who Don’t Vaccinate are All Idiots or Being Pro-Choice Means You’re a Baby Killer and just keep throwing shit and yelling.

But compassion means that my views have to include these folks, too.  As I walked, I puzzled on the idea of some sort of Venn diagram that might illustrate it, but there isn’t one, because that would imply mutual acceptance or overlap of some kind.  In my ocean of “I don’t know all that I can and I accept that others know differently than me and that’s okay,” I am okay with someone who chooses not to abort an unintended pregnancy or vaccinates their kids on the doctor’s schedule or exhibits their heterosexual tendencies, because I accept the notion of choice and I know that what is right (without a capital R) for me is not necessarily right for another. So instead of a Venn diagram, my vast sea of unknowing encompasses everyone’s choice including those folks on the beach. The beach-dwellers’ circle is a little like a puddle of oil sitting atop my circle without accepting it or incorporating it.

In the sea of unknowing there are people who slowly stepped in foot by foot, cautiously examining what it might be like to float out there and truly not know; folks who were willing to entertain the idea that there are circumstances about which they know nothing that are part of the lives of other human beings every day. There are also those who were thrust into the water by a traumatic event – instantly faced with a horrible choice or a life event so jarring that it made them examine everything they thought they knew before. Others may have been born into it.  Don’t be fooled, we are all afraid. There is something about not knowing that runs counter to the way we think and many of us continue to search for knowledge and investigate so that we are not consumed. The thing about lying back in the water and relaxing into the idea that there are things I cannot know is that I have no need to prove anything to anyone else. There are some questions for which there isn’t a Universal Answer that applies to everyone and if we can’t all share in the Right Answer, then at least we can share in the pursuit of a common goal, a shared humanity.

The beautiful thing about seeing these issues as diverse and complex is that it means we can progress. If there were only pro- and anti- camps (pro-vax/anti-vax, pro-abortion/anti-abortion, pro-homosexuality/anti-homosexuality), it would be like flipping a coin over and over again. There is no forward movement, no growth, only switching back and forth between views. If the definition of one group requires the certain annihilation of the other, there is no ground from which to work. The recognition that there are really not two distinct “sides” to any of these arguments gives us the opportunity to define a shared goal and work toward it.  Not that I think that will happen anytime soon, because it is far too tempting to stand on the beach with the sand beneath your feet and believe that you Know. When you can define the threat as something “out there,” all you have to do to eliminate it is walk away and ignore it or stand on the shore and throw rocks at it. When you don’t have to take the uncomfortable step forward and question your own knowing, why would you? I understand. But standing in the water doesn’t mean you’ve given up what you believe, it just means you’re willing to accept that not everyone sees the same horizon you do.

But here’s the thing. Our knowledge of anything is never complete. If it were, Pluto would still be considered a planet and doctors would still be writing prescriptions for Thalidomide for pregnant women with morning sickness.  But we learned. We evolved. We questioned.

Once I fully succumbed to the pull of the deep unknowing, I couldn’t imagine going back to shore. The richness and diversity of this place is amazing and I learn something new every moment. Being willing to suspend Knowing has allowed me to forge connections with brilliant, passionate, articulate people who agree that there is more to our lives than Black and White, Right and Wrong. And floating in this sea surrounded by others who will not judge my ideas and experiences because they, too, have accepted the unknowing feels safer than standing on that slowly shifting sand throwing rocks out at the sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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