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Image Description: tent encampment in the plaza of a Federal Building

 

Nearly once a week a “discussion” erupts on my local NextDoor site in regards to homelessness (or, more accurately homeless people) in Seattle. My neighborhood is a mix of upper-income, middle-aged white folks in single family homes and younger, mostly white folks in townhomes that are rapidly gentrifying the area, with some families who’ve been here for generations thrown in. Mostly, those folks who have lived in this area for a long time are people of color, as this is the neighborhood where, historically, Black people were redlined to. (Yes, I am one of the gentrifiers, and that is something I grapple with quite a bit).

It happens like this: someone posts an angry or disgusted rant about homelessness or tent-camping in public parks getting “out of control,” the same five or six people chime in with questions about where these folks ought to be living instead, given the lack of housing and shelters in the city, and fifteen or twenty others clap back with comments about crime or garbage or needles and encourage the “libtards” to open their own homes to “these people.” It devolves from there, and it only ends because people get tired of having the same back-and-forth. At some point, another person will post something similar about a different area of town or an encounter they had with an unhoused person and it starts all over again. 

In other cases, I have read stories of people really struggling with basic needs on social media, written by friends and acquaintances in an effort to highlight the challenges so many families are having, and read comments by folks who accuse them of fabricating these stories just to create division. Other commenters pile on, asking if the original poster did anything to help or were they just co-opting the story to make themselves look good.

Why do we do that? Why do we deflect and make these experiences about things they aren’t about? Instead of talking about the overwhelming numbers of people who are unhoused, we argue about “hygiene” or “cleanliness” or property values of homeowners living nearby. Instead of sitting with the knowledge that there are so many among us who can’t afford food or medication or are one disaster away from being unhoused themselves, we fight with each other about the veracity of these stories or yell at folks for not doing something Right Now. 

Discomfort. I think that’s what it comes down to – who is able to sit with discomfort and who isn’t. It is incredibly painful to witness another human being suffering or struggling, and when it shows up in our own neighborhood, we can’t simply turn off the television or walk away. If you live across the street from a place where people have erected tents and are living without running water or enough food, it’s hard to shut it out. It takes courage to be a witness to suffering and to really acknowledge that the folks who are struggling are human beings who deserve care and comfort. 

The city of Seattle created something they call “Find it, Fix it” for citizens to report issues that the city needs to address. It was designed to address infrastructure problems like potholes or stop signs that fell over or are obstructed by trees, but increasingly, it is being used by citizens who don’t like homeless people living in their neighborhoods. A few days ago, another resident of my neighborhood posted on NextDoor, imploring folks to flood the Find it, Fix it voice mail with concerns about a tent encampment in our area that just keeps growing. When I pointed out that tent camps are populated by people, not “it,” I was predictably met with the same arguments – the garbage, the needles (minus any evidence that there actually is any drug activity happening), the loud arguments coming from that area at night. One commenter wrote about loud arguments he heard coming from the tents at night, saying they frightened him because he was sure violence was imminent. But, I asked, if you were sitting out on your back deck relaxing and you heard your (housed) neighbors having a loud argument, would you feel unsafe? If not, is that because they are housed? Are you only frightened by people having public arguments who don’t have the privilege of being in a home they rent or own? 

It is uncomfortable to admit that there are people who don’t have enough. It is more uncomfortable to witness it. The whole NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) paradigm isn’t about solving the problems our cities face, it is about making sure we don’t have to see it. The assertions about property values and cleanliness are thinly veiled attempts to say that some people are more deserving of comfort and care than others are. When we blame unhoused people for being unhoused, we are more able to see them as people not worthy of the same comforts we have. When we begin to believe that they are somehow fundamentally different from us, we are more likely to be afraid of them and imagine them to be unpredictable or somehow dangerous. When we blame poor people for being poor, we are divorcing ourselves from any responsibility to them as humans, as members of a community. We are assuming that their actions, their choices, have rendered them outside of the collective we belong to, and diminishing the reality that their basic needs are not being met and they are suffering. 

But when we choose to witness the suffering of another as an equal human being, as a member of our community, we have to be able to sit with all the fear and sadness that brings up. My friend Nicci said the other day, “being a witness to suffering is much different than suffering with suffering.” Until we have practice acknowledging that someone is struggling and holding compassion for that without deflecting, we are simply suffering, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we turn that suffering in to anger and resentment toward those people, and sometimes we try to deflect that in to action, to try and “fix” it. Our brains are so good at finding ways to keep us from feeling that it takes practice, and vigilance to learn to be a witness and sit with the discomfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t act, but the more we learn to be compassionate witnesses, the more likely we are to center the individual people in our search for solutions. This isn’t deflection, it’s transformation, it’s metabolizing our empathy and compassion to find ways to act that serve those who are suffering. 

It’s the deflection that seeks to push the pain out of our visual range that is harmful, because it denies the humanity of others and our connection to community. We don’t get to be selective about the communities we belong to, no matter how hard we try. The fact is, we are all connected whether we like it or not. That is being shown every single day in a myriad of ways. I see posts from people about their struggles with family members who hold completely different political views than their own, anecdotes about others who were surprised to find that someone they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with was able to help them in some way, people who have to rely on others for assistance. We are all part of a community, like it or not. 

I truly believe that most of the people who get indignant about homelessness and poverty are people who, if they really let themselves acknowledge what they’re feeling, are empathic. I think that the coping  mechanism they’ve developed to deal with the (very real) discomfort of witnessing suffering is anger and blame and if they allowed themselves to put that aside and really feel what they feel when they see a person who is unhoused or needs help with basic necessities, they might begin to feel more connected, and more empowered. I think that the instinct to share our views and feelings on social media is an attempt to build community, to ask others to validate our feelings and be witnesses for us, but ironically, it almost always devolves in to an argument about those who are suffering rather than an invitation to really witness what they are living with. 

Confession: I spent the first half of my life without any discernible personal boundaries. I have spent the last twenty years or so believing that boundaries are the holy grail of healthy relationships. And in the last few weeks, I am really beginning to question whether or not that is really true.

            Before you quit reading (or finish formulating your comeback comments in your head), hear me out. Because I’m not saying we shouldn’t have boundaries in relationship. I’m saying, what if we saw them as a tool instead of a permanent fixture (in most cases)? What if we could use boundaries as a way to press pause on harmful relationship dynamics while we go do some work in a protected way, with the hope that the barriers can be removed at some point to allow us to re-engage in that relationship with an eye toward deepening it and enriching it for the future?
            To be certain, boundaries are often necessary to keep us safe. Continuing to be in relationship with someone who harms us physically or abuses us emotionally, tries to control us or is a source of active pain, is unhealthy. But there are a myriad of ways in which we use boundaries to keep relationships stagnant, to effectively block people who challenge us and spur us to growth that can lead to more awareness.
 
            I recently had a disagreement with a friend I’ve known for nearly a decade. We have a lot in common and have had some really engaging conversations over the years as well as light-hearted, enjoyable times. This particular disagreement came about during the volatile time of COVID sequestering and the burgeoning protests in mid-May, and I think it took both of us by surprise, but it shook me and made me question what our friendship could possibly look like going forward.
            A week or so ago, I had another significant, painful exchange with a family member I’ve struggled to create and maintain healthy boundaries with for decades. Neither of these people are folks I want to cut out of my life entirely, but if I didn’t find a way to respond, I anticipated getting triggered over and over again in ways that felt painful and not productive, or at the very least, holding on to some resentment, because it wasn’t possible to dive in and resolve the issue in a timely way.
            In both cases, I pulled back and stopped engaging immediately, and I began to think about how to create new boundaries in response. It occurred to me at some point that often, we create boundaries in a punitive way – “you hurt me and as a result, I am going to stop sharing certain things with you” – and we generally think about those new boundaries as permanent. I’ve heard from lots of people who say that they’ve decided certain topics are off limits with individual family members, or that they will continue to be friends with someone on social media, but they will no longer follow them, meaning that their posts won’t show up in their regular feed. This is self-protective, but it also means that the relationship is stuck in a place where it won’t be able to grow. It occurred to me that relationships aren’t healthy unless they are dynamic, if both people aren’t allowed to grow together. And so I began to think about the possibility of using the new boundaries I was creating as temporary.
What if, during this time, I work to become more mindful of my own triggers, and really process where they come from, how I react, and what it would mean to move forward with this person in my life? In the past, I’ve created new walls and distanced myself from people and been content to interact with them from that place rather than seeing opportunities for each of us to work on our own stuff and then find a way to come back together and have a deeper, more accountable, more enlightened relationship.
            What if doing the work on my own stuff while I am safe within my temporary boundaries enables me to have a greater sense of compassion for the other person and enlarge my own container so that I can hold that compassion and the opposing ideas with more grace? What if I am able to strengthen my own sense of self, my ideas around what I value and how I move through the world, and then come back to the relationship clearer and more ready to engage on a different level? How would that create growth in myself and the relationship?
            This is, of course, predicated on the fact that the other person is doing work as well, that they are contemplating the nature of the disagreement and their own role in it. And it is my hope that if we are each doing this on our own, rather than continuing to trigger each other by trying to work through it together, we can eventually come to a place where we want to reconnect and deepen the relationship.
            All too often in my own life, I’ve used boundaries as a protective mechanism – a way to wall myself off from folks who trigger me in one way or another – and then I rest in my safe space and don’t do the work to understand how to learn and grow from the painful interaction. Sometimes, boundaries become my own personal ‘cancel culture’ and I write people off entirely. Sometimes, boundaries are a way to convince myself that I am “right” and the other person is at fault, and I don’t need them in my life at all, or that I get to define exactly how they exist in my life. But if I am a person who believes in community care and self-awareness and understands the importance of relationship for all human beings, and if I believe in the ability of each one of us to grow and evolve, and in the power of relationship to help us all grow and evolve, then permanent boundaries have no place in my relationships.
            I fully expect and understand the immediate, gut-level reactions of folks who will call to mind people who abuse others, who refuse to do the work, who don’t want the relationship to evolve because it serves them that it stays the same. I am not advocating for folks to toss all their rules about how they demand to be treated out the window in favor of compassion. I am not saying that it will be possible for every relationship to evolve in this way. I am saying that I hope that every person in my life knows, going forward, that I am working to deepen my capacity for compassion, for building accountability in relationship, and that I will attempt to keep myself available as I can. That doesn’t mean that you are free to treat me poorly without consequence. It means that I won’t use boundaries as a crutch to avoid doing my own work and keep myself small and safe and stagnant. It means that in order for me to be a vital, functioning part of a healthy community, I know that I can’t only surround myself with people who will always agree with me and make me feel good about myself.
Image Description: a spiral tattoo with the words “You are here” pointing to a specific spot on the spiral

I don’t know about anyone else, but in my life, when the Universe decides I need to make a big leap to the next phase of my personal evolution, it tends to pile on. As in, give me many instances of the same kind of bullshit over and over again until I start to pay attention and recognize it for what it is.

Thus, the last two weeks or so have been a lot. To say the least. A whole lot.

I won’t go in to the details, but I finally figured out this morning that this particular lesson is about making choices, pretty consequential choices. And that’s something I can have a hard time with because I am not one of those “trust your gut” kind of people. My gut is either not particularly loud, or I have an overdeveloped connection between my gut and my brain such that my brain is always always always weighing in, considering options, looking at potential outcomes and thinking of unintended consequences.

When this happens, I spin. The part of my brain that makes decisions goes very quiet and offline, and the part of my brain that convinces me that this particular decision is incredibly monumental and I’d better not fuck it up rules the day.

So, yeah.

At least three times in the last two weeks, I’ve faced decisions that I considered, second-guessed, made lists about, considered again, tried to divorce myself from, and then ultimately made. And guess what? The world didn’t stop turning.

I know I’m not the only one who worries about making the “Right” choice, but I think I’m learning that what I need to pay attention to more is the right reasons. Meaning, it’s more important to get really clear on my own values and needs and use those as the basis for examining why I’m conflicted. Figure out who or what is being centered in my deliberations.

In this time of crisis, I am reminded that we are all entrusted with caring for each other. that there is nothing more profound or elemental than that.

Today, my youngest daughter got up and went to work, nannying two precious boys she has taken care of for a year – 18-month old twins whose faces spread into grins when they see her, whose arms reach for her, who giggle when she makes silly noises. Who trust her.

I am holed up in my bathroom with a tortoise, having just filled a tub with warm water for him to bathe in, put together a pile of fresh greens for him to munch on, and cranked up the heat so he can roam and explore comfortably.

My pups are fed and walked. I’ve checked in with my oldest daughter who is far away and having to scramble to pack up and move out of her dorm. She and her friends are collaborating, pooling resources, opening up couches and offering rides to each other to ease the stress.

I just got off the phone with my mother’s caretaker, having learned that she is being placed on hospice care as of today, and the facility isn’t open to visitors. “She is so pleasant and lovely,” he says, detailing to me how they are caring for her at this time and encouraging me to call and get updates as often as I want to.

Someone posted in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group an offer to shop for anyone who is afraid to leave home. “How can I help you?” she asked.

Funds are being created for small businesses who are hit hard by the lack of mobility in Seattle.

We are entrusted to each other’s care.

Our strength is in our compassion, not our fear. Care comes in so many forms: a text message or DM, a Twitter post asking if others are ok, feeding our pets or tending the garden, offering thanks and gratitude to those who are working hard to make policy and heal the sick.

We’ve got each other.
We’ve got this.
It’s all we’ve got, and it is a lot.
Let’s take care of each other.

Everywhere I’ve ever lived there has been at least one neighbor who is way out of the norm. They have all been unique in their own way, and now that I think about it, they’ve all been male. Hmmm.

Anyway, in this particular neighborhood, the guy who makes me raise my eyebrows doesn’t actually live here – he’s just here a lot. His 90-something-year-old father owns the house – a 100+ year-old, 4500 square foot house that has clearly been neglected for at least a decade. The owner has lived in assisted living since before I moved here five years ago, but his two sons come by to mow the lawn and do the bare minimum to maintain the house until their dad passes and they can sell it for a million bucks (I’m not exaggerating – this is the Seattle housing market. You can sell your dilapidated, likely tear-down home for $1M + in my neighborhood. Thanks (?) Amazon). But, I digress.

The son who is here several times a week has been dubbed “no-pants neighbor-man” because, depending on the season, he either wears shorts or sweatpants with the side and/or back seams completely split open. And when he bends over to pull weeds or wind the hose back up, he reveals his personal preference for not wearing any underwear. At all. Even in the winter when the breeze must surely remind him that HIS BACKSIDE IS COMPLETELY UNCOVERED AND REVEALING ALL OF HIS ANATOMY DOWN THERE TO EVERYONE WHO IS WITHIN SIGHT LINES OF IT.

Did I mention that this house happens to be less than a block away from an all-girls Catholic high school? The students park along the side streets in the area and walk to school and this guy is a legend. To a girl, every single one of them crosses the street before they have to walk on the sidewalk in front of the house because they all know about this quirk of his.

He seems harmless. He never calls out to anyone or seems to purposely bend over and display himself to anyone – it just happens as he’s working in the yard. He has had some prolonged projects in the yard and on the front porch and occasionally sleeps in the house. Every once in a while, I walk the dogs and simply can’t avoid him and, except for his attire, he mostly just seems like a lonely old man who feels the need to mansplain to me why my small terrier should be a “house only” dog because when I take him outside I run the risk of having him carried off by a hawk, among other head-shaking things. (I’m not sure where he thinks my dog should relieve himself if I never let him outside, and that’s not the kind of thing I’d ever muse out loud about, anyway, because generally I’m most interested in keeping the interaction brief).

Yesterday, I was driving away from the house when he stood in front of my car and flagged me down. When I stopped and rolled down the window, my attention was first captivated by his really awful DIY dye-job, probably because I was working hard to keep my eyes averted from his scandalous shorts that came nowhere near covering what they should have. The hair he has is perhaps 2″ long, and it starts just about 2″ above his ears. The top of his head would be perfect for a comb-over if he decided to go that route. But so far, he hasn’t, and so the top 1/2″ of his hair is lily-white while the rest is some shiny black, from a box look. Because I was so absorbed in wondering how often he dyes his hair and how he does it, I missed the first part of what he was saying, but my attention snapped back to his words when he uttered, “…he’s a homeless.”

A homeless.

No, I thought, he’s a person. A human.


I finally realized that the neighbor was warning me that he had just discovered a sleeping bag and some clothing in the backyard of his dad’s house and when he went to throw them in the garbage, he ran in to the owner of the items who seemed to be high or really struggling with reality. Of course, he didn’t use those terms, and the terms he did use just made me tired and sad.

I endured the next five minutes of the rant/warning/educational seminar on how “the homeless work,” cringing inwardly. I admit to having a moment of concern, wondering whether this person who had been summarily kicked out of my neighbor’s backyard would seek refuge in mine, but mostly I just felt ill. Every reference to this young man was couched in language that was designed to set him apart, dehumanize him, set up a dynamic that puts us as neighbors on one side and “vagrants,” “derelicts,” “homeless” on the other. In the end, I nodded my thanks for the warning, rolled up the window, and drove on.

I have often wondered how this neighbor came to be in the position he is in – unable to convince his elderly father to sell his house but responsible for taking care of it, lonely and a little out of touch with social norms. I have worked to have compassion for him and also talked to Eve and Lola about how to graciously and cautiously interact with him if he speaks to them. I have, a time or two, laughed about him with Bubba or another neighbor, and I will admit that I wish I hadn’t. I know that making fun of someone is a step on the road to dehumanizing them and I’m sad that it took his dehumanization of a homeless person to remind me of that.

It is perfectly natural to have a fear-based reaction when you discover something like my neighbor did. I can’t honestly say that I’d have been able to keep my wits about me if I walked into my backyard to find someone sleeping back there. I would certainly have ordered him out and perhaps called the police. I struggle with the line between knowing that everyone deserves compassion and respect and protecting myself from potential harm. On the one hand, I know that what the young man likely needs most is resources to help him, and on the other hand, if he was under the influence of some sort of drug, I can’t predict what he would do if I let him stay so that I could call someone to help him.

I know that I will continue to struggle with these kinds of situations, with how to put my beliefs into action. One thing I have gotten significantly better at, though, is recognizing my own tendencies to see certain people as ‘other’ and resist them. Whatever he has done or experienced, wherever he sleeps, this young man is not “a homeless.” He is a human being.

In the past several days, I have seen more requests for people to “unfriend” and “unlike” pages on social media than ever before.

I have spoken with people who acknowledge that their loved ones voted for a different Presidential candidate than they did and roll their eyes, saying that they don’t get it.

I have seen calls for parts of the country to split off from the rest because of the deep philosophical divisions that showed up on Tuesday night, and I have listened and watched as groups form with the intent to “fight.” I heard one person say last night that she doesn’t talk to people who voted differently than her because “we can’t.”

We can’t afford to not talk about this.


It’s hard.
It is often painful.
It sometimes feels as though we are speaking different languages.

And we have to try.

The future of our country depends on it.

The first thing we can do is stop pretending that debate is conversation. In a debate, there are sides. There are factions with deep-seated beliefs and the goal is to show up and talk the other person under the table. The entire setup is predicated on the idea that this is a zero-sum game. That one side is “right” and the other is “wrong.” Debates are about power, they aren’t about common ground, and what the American people need right now is to find our common ground.

Instead of one-upping each other, we need to listen.
Instead of either/or, we need to start thinking in terms of yes/and.

When Lola headed out to take the bus with a couple of friends to the movies yesterday, I nearly had a panic attack. At some point, it occurred to me that I was sending my 14-year old daughter out with another young woman (who happens to be black) on to public transit and out into the world without an adult. Before Tuesday, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But in the days following the election, my Facebook feed was filled with stories of women and girls being harassed in public, people of color and Muslims attacked for simply being who they are, and I was gripped by fear. I hated the fact that I had to give her instructions as to how to behave on the bus – eyes up at all times, assess the situation constantly, if your gut tells you something isn’t right, scan the area for the nearest trustworthy adult and have an exit strategy that puts you in a safe place. I tried to do it as calmly as I could without scaring her, but still letting her know that she needed to heed my warning.

I am keenly aware of the daily fear that accompanies being a woman in this country. I am also aware of what many of my friends who are people of color go through on a daily basis and I think I understand their fears. I have heard and acknowledge the fears of those who are immigrants, refugees, and people who do not identify as Christian. I also feel as though I understand the concerns of folks who are part of the LGBTQ community.

And…

Yesterday, I had a very interesting exchange on Facebook with someone who supported Donald Trump’s presidential bid. He wrote that he wanted us to all stop fighting and start working to make this country great for “our kids,” and I inquired whether he meant all kids – black and brown kids, immigrant kids, gay and transgendered kids, and Muslim kids. What ensued was more than 30 minutes of back and forth clarification, peeling layers to really understand what he meant by making our country great and if it was inclusive of all of us. What I learned was that he doesn’t care a whit about reversing Roe v. Wade or marriage equality. He isn’t interested in deporting anyone and he believes that the Bill of Rights was written to include every single one of us, regardless of what we look like or where we worship or who we love. His reasons for voting the way he did had nothing to do with racism, xenophobia, homophobia or sexism.

In my quest to understand, I had to refrain from lumping him into the box that is so handy and makes it easy to jump right back in to that zero-sum game of Wrong and Right. Goodness knows, I didn’t agree with Hillary Clinton on everything she said. In fact, I vehemently disagree with her on several issues, and I know that I wouldn’t want to be characterized as someone who is in full support of her positions on military spending or energy policy. Because of that, it is my responsibility to treat others the same way. I can’t make a blanket statement that every single person who voted for Trump is racist, misogynistic or sexist. They may well have voted for him despite that.

And…

The fears of folks Trump has alienated and denigrated are real.
They have every right to have their feelings validated and fight to keep their personal freedoms.

And…

The fears of folks who don’t live in urban areas where the economy is rebounding, where opportunities exist for job training and social programs are just as real. Those folks who have struggled to put food on the table for their kids, whose schools have been taken over by the state because they have failed to meet standards for years, who have been farmers and miners for generations and still want to be, but those jobs are going away or getting harder to do without the support of the government? Their feelings are just as real. Their fears are just as existential.
They have every right to fight for someone they hope can pay attention to their plight, too.

Just because I haven’t lived those fears doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They just don’t show up on my radar. Like the fears of women and immigrants and minorities don’t show up on the radar of folks who haven’t lived that reality.

We can continue to try and convince each other that the things that show up on our personal radars are more important than the things that show up on someone else’s if we want to. We may gather bigger numbers next time and “win” elections. But we won’t have addressed the underlying issues that are driving the divide and we will continue the wild swing of this pendulum that throws our country into chaos every few years. The only way to slow it down is to learn about each other, to set aside what we think we know and listen to what others live with. Unfriending each other or voting to split states off from the Union might make us feel safer, but it only deepens the divide. And it won’t make the other side go away. It certainly won’t make them change their minds. It is the equivalent of a parent kicking their teenage daughter out of the house because she is pregnant. It doesn’t make her any less pregnant, it just leaves her with fewer supports and it means you don’t have to look at her anymore when you come downstairs for breakfast. We have to face this with compassion and a genuine desire to find commonality or we will continue to break apart even more.  I truly believe that the people of this country have more in common with each other than we know. It is in our own best interest to find those goals we all share and begin talking to one another because it appears that there are some folks in power who are more interested in being Right than they are in being part of something real and honest and human.

Sometimes I have revelations that are laughable. Things that I feel like I ought to have known or accepted years ago, but have only just recently sunk into my bones and opened my heart and mind up just a little bit more.

I had a boyfriend in high school that marked a huge turning point for me – a shift in the way I saw myself and the world. I think that’s not unusual. I know many women who made choices that were seemingly unlike their previous personality; a “rebel phase,” you could call it for some of us. It wasn’t a bad relationship, but it ended badly and it went on longer than I was comfortable with and for many years afterward, my impression of the entire time we were together was colored by sadness and resentment that I had wasted so much time.  Over the decade afterward, I moved on, boldly and purposefully, and determined to never repeat the kinds of mistakes I made during that time. As I moved forward, my characterization of my ex became softer and more understanding. I began to take responsibility for my mis-steps and the ways in which I contributed to the unhealthy dynamic of our relationship – at least in my own head. We had no contact until one day several years ago when I got a Facebook friend request from him.

I declined it without hesitation.

A week later, there it was again. This time, I looked at his profile, curious to see what his life was like, and what I discovered was that many of our mutual high school friends were connected to him online. My sister was his Facebook friend.

I declined the request again.

A few days later I got a message from him asking why I was declining the requests. He was incredulous that I hadn’t moved on, forgiven, gotten perspective on how young and stupid we had been. And the thing is, I had done all of those things. And I still didn’t want to be his Facebook friend. I think I dashed off some message to the effect that I had no hard feelings toward him, but that my life has changed significantly and I am only interested in relationships that offer positive energy. I imagined the eye-roll when he read it. Hell, I probably even rolled my eyes at myself when I wrote it, but it was enough to stop the requests.

In the last several years, I have occasionally seen his comments on my friends’ pages and thought not much of it.

Today, I saw something that my sister posted that reminded me of their friendship all those years ago – a shared love of skateboarding and punk rock music and aspirations for a particular lifestyle, none of which I had in common with them. And that’s where the revelation came in. While I never begrudged any of my friends or family for not banishing him from their lives when I did (and I did, albeit in a very sloppy way), I never really considered what he may have meant to them. I didn’t think about it. I never entertained thoughts of what he might have represented for my sister or another friend, what role he played in their lives, and how important it might have been. And as I sat and thought about it, I was struck by the notion that each of us means something unique to the people in our lives. The person he was with me is not the person he was with his skater-friends or his co-workers or his mother. All these years, I’ve been seeing him only through the context of my relationship with him and, while that was an important step in my own personal development because it taught me to define personal boundaries and honor them to keep myself safe, it is not the extent of the person he is. In terms of my personal relationship with him, it’s fine for me to see him through that lens, but in terms of a definition of who he is as a person, it’s unfair.

I know he meant a great deal to a lot of people I care for and it occurred to me that the more I can see each and every person I encounter through that lens, the better. Simply knowing, in my bones, that we all are so much more complex than we seem offers me an opportunity to open to compassion and understanding. If I can remember that everyone has the capacity for love and caring and likely offers that to someone in their own life, that each individual is important to someone else, I can begin to put less stock in my impression and allow them more space to show me those things.

I was in no position to do any of that in high school, to be certain. I was also incapable of seeing myself as a whole, complicated person, if I’m being honest. But the realization that different people can mean very different things to the people in their lives finally sunk in today and I think it has given me a higher perspective from which to see the world.

“Our goal is to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever.” Katagiri Roshi

From time to time, at least once a year, I find myself parenting with grinding teeth. Generally, it takes me a week or so to recognize it for what it is. I begin with irritability. Things that haven’t bothered me for months or years suddenly piss me off at every turn and a cranky inner monologue starts up. The next step is passive-aggressive fantasies. I am not, by nature, someone who leaves ‘signs’ for other people. I am generally very straightforward and can ask for what I need or want, so when I start imagining scenarios where I follow the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle school of parenting, I know something is up.* I am really in trouble if I start acting on those fantasies. 


Fortunately, I am a ruminator. Or, unfortunately. Once I notice that something is out of whack, I do my best to inquire about it. It isn’t often that those inquiries are friendly or compassionate (they generally go something like this, “Dude! What the f*#k is up? Why is this driving you so mad?”), but they do at least open the door to some sort of curiosity, which is a good thing. It usually takes a few days of observing myself and my emotional responses to get at the heart of what is bugging me and more often than not, it is some sort of judgment of my lack of good parenting skills that is throwing me off. Some generalized notion that I am doing this all wrong and screwing up my kids for life (!!!) that is pushing all of my buttons and leaving me feeling like a burn victim who bristles at every touch. Within 24 hours of that realization, I can relax enough to realize that I’ve been walking through my days with a clenched jaw and balled-up fists for a while and it’s pretty uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as the recognition that I think I’m a pretty shitty parent, but unpleasant nonetheless. 


I had a conversation with Bubba last night about some of the things that are making me crazy this time and was struck by how little he internalizes these things. He admitted to being bugged by many of the same things that our girls do (or don’t do, as it were), and then he said, “But I don’t read anything bigger into it. I don’t think of it as my fault or your fault or expect that it means that they’ll grow up to be horrible/selfish/fragile people. It just pisses me off.” 


I wish. And I wonder if it is a function of my own expectations of myself or a function of our cultural assignment of blame/credit to the mother of a child that I do internalize those things. That while sometimes I can go through my days feeling confident and peaceful about my parenting skills, at other times I am absolutely certain that if the world only knew, they would condemn my abilities as a parent at once. 


In any case, I am within sight of the daylight at the end of this tunnel. Now that I have identified the awful things I have been saying to myself behind the scenes, I can begin to turn them over, feel their edges, contain them in one place and see them for what they are. I can dissect them and try to understand where they come from and eventually set them aside and come back to myself. I try not to think about how many more of these hidden condemnations exist within me, although I know how to confront them, because I suspect I would feel overwhelmed if I knew. As a young parent, I wrestled with many of them and always assumed that there would come a day when I had tossed each and every one of them into the abyss. I never imagined how many would come back around with the same form, triggered by different things. While I embrace the knowledge that parenting is a forever-job, I am less enthusiastic about the aspects of myself it forces me to contend with over and over again. I do think I’m getting better at it, though. There’s something to be said for practice…

*For those of you who haven’t read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, I’ll try to explain. She was the neighborhood child development expert/grandmother figure to whom all of the parents turned when their children wouldn’t eat/clean their bedrooms/do their homework/go to sleep on time. Her solutions involved what a lot of folks would call ‘natural consequences,’ but are what I think of as very passive-aggressive tactics such as leaving a child’s room to become so messy that they become trapped inside with all manner of stinky clothes and dirty dishes and eventually come to physical harm (albeit minor) after tripping on a toy they forgot was on the floor. They then magically see the wisdom of their parents’ rules and start cleaning up after themselves.

I used to have this fantasy about vacations – that you could go away and leave everything behind, and I think when I was a kid, that was true. Growing up in the 1970s, I didn’t have access to the news unless my parents turned on the TV at night when we got home from whatever adventures we had embarked on during the day. I certainly wasn’t going to pick up a newspaper to learn about what else was going on in the world.  I didn’t have to spoon out the smelly canned dog food on vacation, and I didn’t have to make my bed (unless we were camping in the pop-up trailer, in which case I had to completely dismantle it every morning). I didn’t have to take my turn doing dishes except over a campfire-warmed pot of water which was an adventure in itself, and I didn’t have to do homework.

As an adult, my first realization that vacations were different came when Bubba and I started traveling with the girls. As my brilliant friend, Sarah, put it, for a mom, a vacation was simply “parenting in a different place.” And it was often more challenging when you didn’t have all of the things you needed at hand, plus there were often strangers looking at you and judging your mothering decisions when the kids cried or acted bratty.

Even though the girls are now both teenagers and fairly self-sufficient, I have been reminded on our most recent trip that life is life no matter where you go.  Lola started complaining of a toothache the night before we left but I didn’t do much beyond imploring her to floss really good and swish with salt water.  By the time we landed in Honolulu, she was inconsolable and I knew something was really wrong.  After one altogether sleepless night and several doses of ibuprofen, we found ourselves at a local dentist on Saturday morning. And there we stayed for the next two and a half hours, getting her an emergency (half) root canal. It’s a long story, but they were only able to do start the procedure and put her on antibiotics, and we were told to wait until we get home to have it finished.  She was amazingly resilient and bounced back to engage in all sorts of fun activities within hours – paddle boarding and shadowing a dolphin trainer for five and a half hours. We have had a few rough moments of pain, but other than hoping the tooth holds on until we get home a week from now, it seems to be okay.

And then there is the news.  From the strange (reports of a naked, drunk woman in our area driving her car into a power pole and knocking out electricity to 4000 customers) to the horrifying (the shooting in Charleston), we have access to it all via Facebook and smartphones.  And as I sit on the lanai looking out at the waves crashing on the reef and the families playing on the beach, I am reminded that life is life. That no matter where we go, we are still called upon to be our best selves, that there is no vacation from being human. We may choose to disengage from news reports or work emails for a week or two, but it is the interactions that we have with all of the people around us that make up the entirety of our lives. I could no more ignore the incredible sadness I feel inside as I think of the people who lost their lives inside that church in South Carolina than I could stop breathing.

The dentist who cared for Lola was a lovely, smart, funny woman. Despite her packed schedule and the fact that she was the only dentist in the office that day, she took care with Lola’s tooth, encouraging her, and patiently taking the time to ensure that she did as much as she could do that day. I know that her other patients were forced to wait, but despite the dental assistants who periodically came to remind her that there was someone else waiting for an exam in the other room, she never got angry or frustrated. She kindly acknowledged that she was needed elsewhere, and continued doing what she was doing with Lola meticulously until it was done. She explained everything clearly and that evening, as we lounged near the pool with ice water, my cell phone rang. It was her, calling to check on Lola, to make sure she was feeling okay and to see if we had any questions.  She has checked on her twice since then, each time making sure to tell us to enjoy the sunshine while we are here.

Even though we are on vacation from our home, from our normal routine, we are not on vacation from who we are. The kindness of the dentist and the tragedy of Charleston are a stark reminder to me that each and every interaction I have is important. Several journalists have pointed out the pervasive attitudes of racism and hatred that exist in the face of people in South Carolina – from the streets named after Confederate Generals to the flagpole outside the capitol that proudly displays the Confederate flag, not to mention the racist slurs and comments many people hear every day in that part of the country. There are more subtle, but no less harmful, examples in my part of the country, and it is up to us to challenge them, to find ways to be better to each other in small ways every day. Like building blocks, these kindnesses all stack up to create something we can be proud of, instead of tearing down our communities.

We are off to another island for one more week of bliss and beauty and, while I am hoping that we have no more surprises – dental or otherwise – I will do my best to live by the values I have at home; kindness, compassion, love for others, and be grateful for a vacation from the dishes in the kitchen sink.

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.

I just had to go and check whether my essay had been published yet.
I couldn’t email the editor or wait for her to email me. I had to visit the site and see it.

I submitted a piece to an online parenting magazine after multiple rejections from other places at the urging of a Facebook writers group. I didn’t know much about the ezine and I did a cursory check of it before submitting to make sure it wasn’t populated with articles about the Kardashians and “mom-jeans.” I figured since other writers I know from the group had published their work there that it was probably fine, and so I didn’t dig too deeply.

Last week when the editor emailed me with a few suggested changes, I was pleased. Her ideas were great and, in one case, she said she thought I should cut something because she thought it was victim-blaming. When I pushed back a little, she explained further and I saw that she was right. After I thanked her for her perspective, she said she was just looking out for me – that their commenters are pretty smart and can be murder on a writer.  I was tremendously grateful.

Today when I went to the site to see whether the piece was up or not, something caught my eye; namely, an essay with the word “Anti-Vaxxers” in the title. My heart sank. I read the article to the end, the bile rising in my throat with every word. As if that weren’t enough, I chose to read the comments. I’m not sure what I was hoping for – perhaps one or two voices that took the author to task for being nasty, for reducing the issue to black-and-white, some sort of intelligent conversation? I wanted to see that this was a community of parents who were thoughtful and compassionate, educated and nonjudgmental. Unfortunately, that isn’t what I saw. I saw eighty-plus comments from women cheering each other on for their choice to vaccinate their children for everything under the sun, egging each other on as they characterized anyone who wouldn’t do the same as “stupid” or “pro-death.” I saw not one comment defending a decision not to vaccinate (even against the flu). I saw not one compassionate response that called for an understanding of the difficulty of the issue.  In fact, at one point, the comment thread devolved into vilifying families for choosing organic food or avoiding GMOs.

Sigh.

One woman commented multiple times and seemed particularly gleeful when she was hating on “those people.” She wrote that she loved this particular site because “this place is so pro-vaccine/pro-common sense/pro-community…[it is] my vaccine safe space.” Oh. Well, then.

The last thing I want is to be part of a community that is one-sided. I don’t want to write for a group of readers who are so convinced that they already know everything there is to know about Subject X that they refuse to think about grey areas or nuances or what someone else’s life might be like. And so now that my essay hasn’t yet shown up, I have the dilemma of whether or not to ask them to pull it. It isn’t a subject that’s terribly controversial for this particular ezine and I’m not worried that I’ll get trashed in the comments (in fact, I may not even read them, after this), but I hate the idea that this particular site is known for polarization or nastiness. I don’t want my writing associated with that, especially if I’m being paid for it.

When I looked at previous articles by the author of this one, I was surprised at what I found. Honestly, many of her posts were funny and/or interesting. One or two were even helpful. I guess I was struck by the passion that this particular issue can incite in what I would consider to be an otherwise reasonable person. But if there is something that I can’t stand, it’s reducing a complicated issue to black-and-white and then using that as an excuse to call names and make fun of other people who disagree.  And so, here I find myself, in the crux of a dilemma. I think I’ll go sleep on it.