There are so many examples in my life lately of the
power of simple. The more I witness disagreements on social media, the more I
retreat inside to my own quiet authority. Everything from the Kentucky court clerk who refuses to issue same-sex
marriage licenses
 to arguments about immigration reform and how
we treat US immigrants; refugees desperately fleeing their homeland only to be
shunned in other countries when they reach the shore and the Pope offering absolution for Catholic women who chose
abortion
 tempt me to enter the fray. And when I sit and think
about why and how, I realize that countering arguments is batting at paper
tigers. 
I am increasingly horrified at the use of religious
writing to prop up acts of selfishness (often couched as “good
policy”) or terror. I am ever more disillusioned with statistics and
studies and numbers that justify treating human beings as problems to be
solved. 
I continue to know in the deepest core of my own
being that there is no external authority – religious text, political or
spiritual leader, or otherwise – that will ever lead me to act in the way that
expresses my best, highest, most human self. If a leader or book encourages me
to get very quiet and still, to look at the photos of the human beings drowning
and starving and fleeing their homes to save their children and really see,
that is something. If I am prompted to read about people who are suffering and
struggling no matter the circumstances or the choices they’ve made, and to open
my heart to them, that is something. Because when I do that, when I acknowledge
the humanity of each and every person on this planet without judgment, without
moving from my heart to my brain that wants to categorize and problem-solve and
blame, I am closer than ever to doing what is right. When I am driven by a
shared humanity as opposed to data or someone else’s interpretation, I am
certain. There are no conflicts, no pros and cons, no licking my fingertip and
flipping back and forth between pages that contain charts or someone else’s
words. The day that I can look upon another being who is suffering and only see
“the bigger picture” is the day that I will have lost myself, my own
internal sense of what is right. 
This doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with
others, it only means that I wish others could do the same. If Donald Trump and
Jeb Bush and Kim Davis can see before them someone who needs their help and
deny it based on some external notion of what is right and just and moral, I
can’t change that. If soldiers in another part of the world are convinced that
raping and torturing women and children is justified by their religious
beliefs, I can’t change that. I can attempt to speak in the language of
scripture, find citations and passages that call for mercy or implore us to act
out of love. I could consult data and past precedent to counter a politician’s
words, but it is easy to twist words and numbers. It quickly becomes a question
of whose authority or perception is “more real,” and, ultimately, if
I am going to act from a place of certainty and clarity, the source isn’t a
book or a data set. I can only hope that in some quiet moment somewhere, each
of us is able to look within and find a connection, any small spark, that
reminds us that words and prophets are not our true authorities, that at the
end of the day, all we have is our own internal sense of what is real and right
and human, and that to not reach out and help goes against everything that we
are.

Time and time again, we hear stories of people who have had incredible
moments of insight – generally when they thought they were about to die. The
majority of them talk about suddenly realizing what is important, eschewing
external motivators and measurements of success and happiness. Instead they
strive for human connection, more time with family and friends, and a deeper
understanding of themselves. We are all born with a need to be connected to
others on a very basic level and as we move toward independence, we lose
something. I love Dr. Dan Siegel’s idea that instead of raising our children to
be independent, we raise them to be interdependent,
that is, to never forget that we are all connected and rely on each other. That
is the world I want to live in. The world where everyone sees the pictures of
the small boy drowning as he flees for his life and feels an enormous tug on
their heartstrings. A world where that pull of love, of connection, leads us to
talk and think about how to reach out, where we lead with our hearts instead of
our heads, where instead of distancing ourselves from the pain by closing our
eyes or explaining why that could never happen to us, we open further. A world
where we are not driven by numbers and statistics and policies, but where those
things become merely tools as we work to alleviate suffering and create support
instead of walls we build to keep us from listening, from seeing, from feeling.
It is in feeling where I find certainty. I don’t always know where to go from
there, but for me it is always the best place to start.

I had an entirely different post in mind for today, but I can’t let this one go.

Pope Allows Priests to Forgive Abortion if Women are ‘Contrite’

Being a long-lapsed Catholic, I am not really worried about this for myself. And I admit to having watched this Pope with a significant degree of awe because I feel like he really is being true to his Jesuit roots with regard to many of the decisions he makes and the things he says. I admire his commitment to being a voice for those in poverty and his courage when speaking about climate change. But this, well, perhaps there is something lost in translation, but this makes my blood begin to boil.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

I call bullshit.

With all due respect, you don’t know. You have no idea what a woman who is trying to make a decision like this goes through. And you have no right to assume that you know, especially as the head of the organization that puts many of the roadblocks in her way in the first place (what’s your church’s official position on birth control, again?)

I think that the Pope is trying to do the right thing here, and I can appreciate the sentiment. But the notion that a woman, any woman, needs a man to absolve her for making a private medical decision makes me sick to my stomach. Some folks have commented that priests have no business ‘forgiving’ anyone, that that is God’s job. Others have praised the Pope for his liberal stance on this issue. In the context of the Catholic Church, a horrifyingly patriarchal system in and of itself, I suppose this seemed like a noble thing to offer.  Indeed, devout Catholics can be forgiven for a whole host of sins if they just ask with contrition, regardless of whether they are male or female, but to ask a woman to be contrite for a choice she made that is entirely private is utterly ridiculous. What’s next, you can have birth control if every time you go to pick up your prescription you go straight to confessional afterward and ask for forgiveness?

Asking a woman to be ‘contrite’ is whitewashing the entire set of cultural pressures that Catholic women live under daily. The Pope’s slight nod to the church’s anti-birth control stance (if that is what it was) doesn’t erase the reality for many women around the globe that basically tells them their highest purpose is to get married and procreate and be subservient to their husbands. It ignores the reality that women are the main caregivers of these children and yet are powerless to determine how many of them they are willing to risk their health and life having and give up their careers to raise. It ignores the reality that the only alternative to birth control or abortion is to refuse their husbands, often at their own peril. It ignores the reality that women often have very little control over whether or not they will engage in sex, especially in areas of the world where sexual assault is used as a weapon of war, but that these women are the ones left behind to deal with the consequences of that violation. Are these women to feel ‘contrite?’ Are they to come to the church and beg a powerful male figure for forgiveness because they made a decision that that powerful man who has taken a vow of celibacy could not possibly understand or have the right to judge?

I call bullshit.

Nice try, but it’s time to move along. Perpetuating the idea that a woman’s sexuality either belongs to the church or to her husband is so last-Pope. Don’t even get me started on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Bible even once…. The bible is a religious text, not a medical one. It has no authority to tell a woman how to make a medical choice, nor to forgive her for making it.

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

Another day, another abortion ban struck down. I am happy to see it happen, but frustrated at the vast sums of money and energy and time that are spent in the effort to keep women from having reproductive freedom in this country. I know it’s been said before, but it is so absurd to me that these resources aren’t directed toward things that would educate and support women and girls instead of punishing them.

I heard a story yesterday about a clinic in Montana that was so severely vandalized a year ago that it had to be shut down. And since the woman who has run the clinic for over thirty years can’t really afford to revive it, women in the Flathead region of that state are forced to drive 120 miles each way to receive care. Not just abortions, but any kind of reproductive health care, because the clinic provided a huge range of services to women in that rural area, like most clinics that are targeted by anti-choice lawmakers and protestors alike.

Toward the end of the story, the reporter noted that the man who destroyed the clinic was sentenced to 20 years in prison – fifteen of them deferred – and forced to pay restitution.  I won’t get into the sentence that was handed down for a variety of reasons, but the notion of restitution was what piqued my interest. So many questions flitted through my head:

  • like squeezing blood from a turnip. I wonder how much money he has, anyway, to pay restitution. Do you suppose it will ever be fully repaid? 
  • restitution to whom? To the clinic owner? To the staff that lost their jobs? To the scores of women whose lives are affected by his act? Does he have to give them gas money to get to Missoula? Does he have to pay child support for all of the babies that were born to mothers who now have no option but to raise them?
  • how do you calculate the proper amount of restitution to compensate for the trauma someone suffers when their life’s work is brutally destroyed? 
As a teenager, I worked in a small-town clinic that provided abortions two days a week. The rest of the time, we provided routine family practice services like treating infections and offering vaccines as well as contraceptives and vasectomies and OB care. Two days a week, the sidewalk was lined with protesters – many of them bused in from the big city 30 miles away. They laid spike strips across the entrance to the driveway, shoved their signs in patients’ faces, yelled and chanted, sang and cried and occasionally threatened both the staff and the patients. One day, as I left work, one of them started to follow me home and I drove around for an hour and finally parked outside the police station until he gave up and drove away.  Twice, the clinic was stink-bombed after hours and once there was a small fire set in the back of the building. The doctor and nurse practitioner wore bulletproof vests to work. My boyfriend begged me to quit. 
Decades later, I continue to be shocked at how blasé people are about these kinds of tactics. I am horrified that an organization could get away with putting together an “expose” on Planned Parenthood, alleging that they sell fetal tissue for profit, be exposed themselves for blatantly lying and creatively editing the footage to show things that never actually happened, and suffer no consequences. There is a vast difference between protected free speech and lying, bullying, in-your-face terror tactics. Make no mistake, these are terror tactics. It is terrifying to go to work and have to cross a line of angry protestors. It was surely terrifying to come to work and see your clinic burning, get death threats in the middle of the night on the phone, watch the protestors laughing and chatting in the quiet moments as they ate their lunches together as if this was just another day at the office.  
The continued legislative attacks on women’s reproductive rights – abortion bans at 20 weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, restrictions on contraceptions, the latest bill that would allow employers to fire single women who get pregnant – these things add fuel to the fire of the protestors and the organizations that are adamant that women not be able to control their own bodies. They set up a climate in which it feels normal to tell women how to live their lives. It presents the view that a woman’s health is something to be parsed out by those in power. We will let you have fertility treatments, but not oral contraceptives. We will allow your employer’s insurance to pay for your hospital stay when you have a baby, but not if you have it at home with a midwife. We will pay for your mammogram but not your D&C.  
I have come to the conclusion that there is a culture of bullying that encompasses both right-wing legislators and protestors and everyone in-between who is determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body. The same groups of lawmakers continue to craft new bills restricting clinics and imposing time limits on abortion services. Even though the majority of them are ultimately overturned, the time and money that is spent by the target of this abuse is debilitating – a fact I’m sure the perpetrators of this brand of abuse are well aware of. Perhaps if the lawmakers had to pay restitution when their restrictions are deemed unconstitutional,  it would slow them down. What if we acknowledged these repeated efforts to curb reproductive freedom as frivolous and saw them for the bullying tactics that they were and forced those who push them to pay the legal fees for both sides when they lose? At this point, other than the punishments handed down by judges and juries to individuals who are caught vandalizing clinics or harming abortion providers, there is no real consequence for the organizations and politicians who continue to push women of childbearing age around. This is bullying, plain and simple, and until we figure out a way to make it hard for these kinds of laws to be written, we will continue to waste our time and money on taking them to higher courts.  

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.

It is often hard to remember that listening is the best first step to creating solutions, especially when the solutions are not for us, personally. The older I get, the more I understand that listening is truly the best first step in nearly every situation, though, whether it’s meeting someone new, planning a project, walking with a friend.

If we don’t listen, it’s easy to forget that someone else’s perspective might be incredibly valuable.  Last October, Gloria Steinem told this story to a room full of people I was lucky enough to be in.

She had traveled to Africa to attend a summit on sex trafficking with many, many organizations and governmental representatives all gathered together to come up with ways to combat this rising challenge.  During a break in the meetings, she was approached by a woman who asked her to travel with her to a small village where several women had recently been lost to this trade. Gloria was flattered and shocked, unsure of what she could do to help this small village, much less how she would manage to communicate with the villagers, but she went.

She described a scene where a feast was prepared and blankets spread out on the grass, with all of the women in a circle ready to address her.  Translating their concerns was difficult, but they found a way to get their request across – the women of the village wanted elephant fences.  Gloria was confused. What do elephant fences have to do with sex trafficking? The women explained:

The livelihood of this village was largely dependent on growing maize.  Over time, though, as elephant habitats become smaller and smaller, the elephants discovered the fields of maize and came  to the village to feed on them.  This left the village in dire straits – they had not enough maize to feed their own families, much less to sell to others.  It is because of this that three young women traveled to the nearest large city to find work to send home money to support their families. When they arrived in the city, they were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.  The rest of the villagers reasoned that if they raised the equivalent of a few thousand dollars to erect fences that would prevent the elephants from eating their maize, they could keep their young women from having to leave the village to find work.

Gloria was stunned by this simple solution – one that nobody at her enormous conference would have come up with. She traveled back to the city and worked for several days to raise money to build the fences.   More than that, she demonstrated the power of listening. By traveling to the village to hear the ideas of the people most affected, she was enabling them to empower themselves and helping them find a way to prevent their girls from being sex-trafficked.  It is not a solution for the many, to be sure, but for this village it was monumental. And it cost mere pennies compared to the proposals being raised at this multinational conference, most of which were not preventative solutions, but punitive ones for the traffickers themselves.

I am so often struck remembering this story as I read stories in the news about government agencies or non-profit organizations who are puzzling over potential solutions to poverty, hunger, major health issues, and violence in particular countries or communities. The first question I ask myself these days is whether the folks with the leverage and money to provide help have asked the communities in question for their stories, their ideas, their solutions. Bringing American-style answers to questions that exist in non-western countries may turn out to be wasteful or overkill and it may well be that if one or two people listen to the individuals living with the struggles and ask for their perspective, they can come up with simpler, more comprehensive solutions.

It seems obvious, but it is so easy to get caught up in our own viewpoint and the belief that wanting to help is enough. I do the same thing with my kids all the time, swooping in to offer advice or put into place some new system that I think will fix a pervasive problem in our household without asking them what they think. And, especially when it comes to kids, I think adults do that a lot. I watched my daughters’ middle school revamp their dress code four times in four years, having discussions with staff and administration, parents and board members, but it wasn’t until they listened to the students that they came up with a solution that everyone feels good about. It was a student that got so frustrated she crafted a PowerPoint Presentation to illustrate the issues and potential solutions, and it took a month of student council meetings to come up with a new set of guidelines that has everyone breathing a sigh of relief. Four years (at least). Four years of meetings, research, discussion, fiddling with different ideas, and nobody was happy.

I have a photo of an elephant fence tucked inside my nightstand as a powerful reminder that listening is one of the most effective, efficient things I can do every day. Even if I see my strengths as collaboration and a strong desire to help, it turns out that the best way to do that is by asking the stakeholders what they think, no matter who they are.

There is an autographed, glossy, 8×10 photo of Bill Cosby on
my mantle. It has been there for years, although in the last several months it
has been face down so I don’t have to see it every time I sit down to watch TV
with my kids.
Many of the most cherished moments of my childhood involved
Bill Cosby.  Much of my childhood
was tumultuous, peppered with divorces and multiple moves and brothers and sisters
split up into different households.  My parents hated each other, but in the years before their
divorce, at least once a week my siblings and I would lie belly-down on the
shag carpet in anticipation while Dad packed his pipe with sweet-smelling cherry
tobacco, pushed the 8-track in, and settled in his favorite chair. We spent
hours listening to tales of Fat Albert, rolling around in hysterics and trying
desperately to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t miss the next hilarious line
about the dentist or Buck-Buck Number 5. Those evenings were magical. There
were few things that we could all agree on – vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s
syrup and Cosby’s routines being the only two I can recall now – and we
listened to those tapes until we could recite them verbatim. I used to delight
in spontaneously rattling off a line in the middle of a boring road trip or
somber meal just to see everyone crack up.
After an ugly divorce from my mother, Dad and I had issues.
He was a complicated man who didn’t always do the right thing. He cheated on my
mom. He cheated on his second wife. He had a terrible temper and ruled with
shame and fear. He was also committed to teaching us to be better people,
coaching my brothers’ soccer team and letting me help him wash and wax the cars
and change the oil. He was serious and meticulous and didn’t laugh easily, but
when he did it was like Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. I
was simultaneously terrified of him and desperate to make him proud of me. For
much of my life there was no more powerful force in my world than Dad.
 Mom had a lot
of really terrible things to say about him and nearly a decade after their
split when his second marriage began crumbling, my stepmother added to the
accusations. I was a senior in high school and a budding feminist. I was
disgusted by the tales of my father’s cheating and indignant in my defense of
my mom and stepmother. I began to distance myself from Dad, which was fairly
easy since I was soon to be off to college, anyway. I never confronted him,
certain that he would deny their allegations, and kept all of our interactions
purely superficial.  I didn’t trust
him and wasn’t about to put myself in a vulnerable position.
When I was 29 and expecting my first child, things changed.
I had been too afraid to formally disengage from Dad’s life since that would
have required having an honest conversation about why I was choosing that
route. Instead, I held him at arm’s length, determined to protect myself. But
as my belly grew, I began daydreaming about the life I wanted to give to my
child. I recalled my own family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of
cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; torn tissue and ribbons and smiles
all around. I remembered that allies don’t always come in the form we expect
them to and, regardless of how fiercely I hoped to be the one my child came to
when she needed help, it dawned on me that I may not be the one she chose. I
decided that I wanted to give my baby the biggest, most loving family in the
history of the world. I wanted her to know her aunts and uncles and cousins and
grandparents. I wanted her to hear their stories and see their hilarious
antics. I wanted her to stand in the center of a room full of her people and
feel loved and protected and cherished, and I realized that that group included
Dad. My heart melted as I recalled some of my favorite moments with him  – playing Heart and Soul together on the
piano, hiking in the mountains on a sunny summer day, lying around cracking up
to Bill Cosby routines. I had forgotten how safe I had felt with him as a kid.
But I was unsure how to go about it. I would have to steel
myself for this conversation, this decision to let him into my life for real. I
figured I would have to confront him with all of the accusations Mom and his
second wife had made and ask him to answer for them. I lay in the darkness, one
hand on my belly, my anxiety ratcheting up as I imagined the awful fight we
would have. The baby started kicking furiously, turning somersaults and
flipping around.
Gradually it began to dawn on me: was there anything he
could say that would appease me? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would
say, “I cheated on your mom because of ‘x’” and it would be okay with me? Could
I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he
made as a parent? Anything that would make me nod my head and say, “Oh, I get
it. I totally would have done the same thing.”
The baby stopped moving and I went cold. It was in that
moment that I realized I had been vilifying my father for decades and he was
simply a human being. He hadn’t had a set of rules or guidelines for being the
perfect parent any more than I would.
Yeah, but did he do
his best?
the devil voice on my shoulder sneered.
The answer surprised us both. Yeah. I think he did.
When faced with this question I was forced to admit that I
didn’t honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me
or my siblings or even my mother. I don’t think he was ever trying to hurt any
of us. Not that his actions were excused or excusable, but it wasn’t my job to
make my father pay for his mistakes, especially those he made with his wives.
And so Dad and I started over. From that moment, as adults,
we began again, without mention of or atonement for past mistakes, with an
acknowledgment that we were both human and fallible. Our relationship as adults
was based on mutual love and respect and while I still wanted him to be proud
of me, I no longer needed his approval. Most importantly, I stopped judging him.
We had eight fabulous years as father and daughter. We spoke
on the phone a couple of times a month about anything and everything and he
never hung up without saying, “I love you, Kari.” Watching him get down on the
floor with my girls and play Polly Pockets and build Lego houses and sing goofy
songs, I often thought my heart would bust wide open. He was funny and
irreverent and would have done anything for his granddaughters. He was amazed
at how smart they were and wanted them to have every opportunity in life. More
than once, I saw threads of him woven into the fabric of my children – their
tenacity and determination came straight from him through me, I’m sure. Because
of my children, I was able to recapture the good memories of Dad. Before that,
I only saw the cheating and lying.
My father died in my arms after a brutal battle with lung
cancer six years ago. I spontaneously offered to write and deliver the eulogy
at his memorial service and for a few terrifying hours I sat on the guest bed
at my in-laws’ house searching for inspiration. What came to me was Bill Cosby.
As a kid, Dad was stern and serious except for those nights when he lit his
pipe and put his feet up and laughed at Cosby’s routines until tears rolled
down his cheeks, and that is what I told the room full of people that came to
pay tribute to my father. I chose Dad’s favorite routine – the one where God is
trying to convince Noah to build the ark – and wove the humor and persistence
of that bit into my acknowledgment of Dad’s gifts.
Today, I mourn for the tainted memories. I am relieved that
my daughters never took to my attempts to hang out and listen to Bill Cosby CDs
as a family because now I don’t have to dismantle that family tradition for
them. They are too young to have watched The Cosby Show or have seen any Jell-o
adds featuring Cosby, so all they know about that autographed 8×10 on the
mantle is that it belonged to Papa. I will throw away the CDs I’ve had tucked
away in my car for long road trips, naively thinking that the girls would stop
listening to their own iPods long enough to hear the “snakey lick” routine that
still makes me giggle, but I’m torn about how to handle the photo. Do I burn it
and repurpose the frame? Do I throw the whole thing out? And what do I do with
the memories? How do I reconcile the bonding that occurred over his comedy
routines with the possibility that, during that time, he was drugging and
sexually assaulting young women? 
Oddly enough, I’m very clear on how to handle such things
with my children. They are very aware of which music I refuse to buy because
the musician is not someone I wish to support.  The misogynist characters who build their reputations on
objectifying and, at times blatantly threatening women and girls are not
welcome to be heard in my car. One day as we drove to school, a PitBull song
came on the radio and my youngest quickly reached for the dial to change the
station.
“You know, it’s sad, Mom. He is a horrible human being, but
he is a really good rapper.”
In our current era of social media and citizen journalism, I
suspect we know far more about today’s celebrities than we ever have
before.  It wouldn’t surprise me to
find out that many of the artists I listened to as a teenager did awful things
but were lucky enough not to get caught by the general public, and it makes me
wonder whether I would rush to get rid of all of their music now in response.
If I discovered that Robert Plant or Jimmy Page had committed terrible acts
against women or gay people or Latinos, I would be devastated. Would I never
again listen to “Stairway to Heaven?” I don’t know.
Can I separate the individual acts from the performance? In
the case of entertainers like PitBull and Eminem, it is clear from their music
that they espouse certain beliefs and claim particular entitlements. It has
been claimed that there
were indications
in Cosby’s routines as far back as 1969 that he wanted to
drug women. I remember the Spanish Fly bit and, honestly, I don’t remember
thinking anything of it at the time, mostly because the whole notion of Spanish
Fly seemed confusing and “adult” to me.
I am a firm believer in consequences and if it turns out
Bill Cosby did the things he is alleged to do, he deserves to pay harsh
penalties and he has a lot to atone for. But the organizer in me wants to know which file to put those memories in, or whether I ought to just bag them up and throw them out with the dog poo. 

I have so many sad thoughts running through my brain after
yesterday’s attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Most of them are
surface thoughts, mourning for the loss of life and the feeling of fear that
must be in the air for families, for children going to school, for teachers who
put their lives in danger by just going to work. The deeper thoughts run to the
absurdity of war, of “conflict,” of targeted attacks and drones and the ongoing
back-and-forth in so many parts of the world.
“We want them to feel our pain,” said one Taliban commander
as a justification for the attack.
Well of course you do. Regardless of your politics or
religious beliefs, you are human and you feel pain. And the relentless attacks
on North Waziristan have most likely caused much collateral damage.
Instead of contemplating that statement (which I only heard
on one news outlet one time despite the nearly constant coverage of this
incident), the Pakistani government – no doubt with a significant amount of
support from our country – retaliated almost immediately, sending air strikes
to Taliban strongholds.
Rather than answering for the innocent women and children
they have killed and the “tens of thousands” they have displaced, the Pakistan
military decided to take it up a notch.
Let me be clear. Nobody is right here. This continued
escalation of violence with no nod whatsoever to the loss of life, the
impotence of the entire endeavor, the impossibility of the stated goal
(Pakistani Prime Minister has said that they will keep fighting until
“terrorism is rooted from our land”) can only serve to further entrench both
sides. There is no weapon that can secure peace. I know that there is no simple
solution, but I do know that this is no solution at all. It feels to me like
two teenage boys punching each other in the arm.
“Take that!”
“Oh, yeah? Well I can punch harder than that. Take that!”
“That’s nothing. Here, how does that feel?”
Eventually, one of them will get tired of the one-upmanship or
too hurt to go on, but if they’re mad enough, they might come back with a
different weapon later on. And what has been proven? The one with the most
might is not necessarily the one who is right.  Continued escalation of violence, state-sanctioned or not,
falls under the definition of insanity as far as I’m concerned. How long will
we continue to take this same approach to no avail before we acknowledge that
it isn’t working? And how many more people have to die during the learning
curve? War is a failure of imagination, of creativity, of willingness to find
other solutions. We can’t lose much more by stopping the violent attacks and
trying something else than we already are by escalating things.

In the meantime, I will continue to breathe in suffering and
breathe out compassion. I will feel their pain, the suffering on all sides of
this issue. Someone has to.

It is increasingly difficult not to feel lucky that I am white, that my children are white, that they are girls who are not likely to incite fear because of their size and their race and their gender. Somehow, it feels horrible to think that way, to feel relief that, while we may as women and girls suffer some indignities and challenges, at least we don’t have to worry about an overzealous response to a real or imagined crime.

The girls and I have talked off and on in the last weeks about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City, all of us baffled at how a group of impartial individuals could come to the decisions they did. I am careful to acknowledge that I don’t have all of the details and I can’t judge the  outcomes or the people without having first walked in their shoes, but it doesn’t keep us from feeling despair about what these incidents are doing to our communities.

I have resisted doing much research because I don’t believe it will give me any vital information that I don’t already have and I suspect that if I did discover egregious errors such as are being alleged by many, especially with regard to the Ferguson case, it would only lead my heart to ache more.

I am sad that the takeaway from President Obama’s response to the Ferguson grand jury decision was his encouragement of the wider use of body cameras by police officers as a way to build trust between communities and the police.  If I told my girls that I trusted them, but I was going to put video cameras in their bedrooms so that I could capture footage of them at all times, I doubt they would believe my expression of trust. I think that the president is correct in his assertion that the breakdown is the lack of trust, but in order to have a trusting relationship, there has to be a relationship and it is there where things have broken down.  If there is no sense of commonality, no investment in each other, we cannot hope to combat the fear that exists on both sides of this equation. If there is one shared goal, that is where the conversation needs to start and stay grounded. Yes, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions, and in that respect, perhaps body cameras have some place in the solution, but first there has to be serious work toward preventing altercations that result in physical violence.

In an interview with NPR, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who works with the LAPD to overcome trust issues, Ms. Rice talked about how many of the police officers she interviewed expressed fear of black men. While she says those officers don’t “experience that as a racist thought,” it absolutely screams racism to many in the black community and that very real fear often translates into overzealous physical contact with black suspects.  Addressing that fear has to be the first step in relationship building. Understanding varied viewpoints and coming together around the common goal of safe communities is a much better strategy than arming police with body cameras. Especially in the case of Eric Garner, there is no guarantee that video evidence will lead to accountability or trust. In fact, if there are more cases where the video evidence seems clearly in favor of one story over the other and the decisions made fly in the face of that evidence, we risk causing even bigger rifts in our communities.

Ms. Rice cites one program that “brought LAPD officers into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities together,” as being particularly effective. That is because those efforts clearly endorsed a common goal and unless we begin there, we have little hope of effecting positive change.  It is time for civic leaders and police departments to step up and talk about the fears that lead to this kind of violence. Because police officers are put in harm’s way nearly every day, it is important for them to acknowledge which fears are grounded in reality and which ones are not. Because they are trained to react in a split second, they need to know which instincts to trust and how to draw on alternative methods of conflict resolution before making a decision that will have ripple effects for us all. We need to put more resources into finding common ground than we invest in body armor and cameras and the justice system. Moving forward with conversations and positive acts within the communities where there is deep mistrust of the police department will go a long way toward building bridges that we can all stand on together.