The Lost Little Ones

Oh, yes, I am so going there.

Today my son and his fifth grade class went on a field trip to historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Mayflower Pilgrims landed in 1620 and site of what would later become the birthplace of New England. I carefully packed his lunch bag to ensure he had plenty of food to eat and share, gave him cash to spend at the gift shop, hugged and kissed him, and sent him off with my husband, who brought him to school to catch a 6:45am bus.

After they left, I prayed.

I prayed to God for the bus driver to get him and his classmates to and from Plymouth safely. I prayed that they would be safe while they were there. I prayed because as an American parent, I can no longer take my child’s safety at school, or anywhere, for granted. There are people out there with guns, many obtained legally, who want to hunt down and kill our children.

My son and I rarely go to the movies anymore. When we do, we sit in the way back, against the wall, so I have a clear view of the theater. I calculate what I might do if a shooter were to come in and start spraying bullets. Throw my son on the floor, under a seat, and then lay on top of him. Alternatively, throw him down, tell him to stay down and hide while I charge the shooter so he kills me instead of my son.

In church, we usually sit toward the back. If a shooter were to enter, I would tell my son to get under the pew and crawl his way to the end of the row, stay low while he heads to the exit, then run like hell away from the church. If this were not an option, I would throw myself on top of him and shield him with my body.

I do not share these thoughts with my son.

We send our most precious, priceless gifts from God  – our children – to school and sometimes they do not come home. This is not a fluke or an anomaly anymore; this is a regular occurrence in American society. No child is safe, not yours and not mine, and our government does nothing about it.

Arm teachers. Have fewer entrances. Be kind to each other. These are the innovative solutions our government throws at us each time we experience another violent loss of innocent life. They expect us to predict which one of the “weird” kids will become a mass murderer before he kills. They blame the victims when he, in most cases with legal access to semi-automatic weapons, massacres them while they learn .

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for term limits for our elected representatives. Too many of them have been in office during these massacres and still are unwilling to compromise or take action to implement policies and laws to help prevent this bloodshed from happening in our schools.

Something is fundamentally wrong with a country that values the right of a private citizen to own an inanimate object capable of mass murder over the rights of living, breathing human beings to live their lives in safety and peace.

Children are dying. Do not think it cannot happen to yours.

We will all die. If we are fortunate, it will be at a ripe old age, after a life well-lived. As you lie on your deathbed, which do you want by your side, your gun or your child?

“In the end, both sides wanted what the Pilgrims had been looking for in 1620: a place unfettered by obligations to others. But from the moment Massasoit decided to become the Pilgrims’ ally, New England belonged to no single group. For peace and for survival, others must be accommodated. The moment any of them gave up on the difficult work of living with their neighbors—and all of the compromise, frustration, and delay that inevitably entailed—they risked losing everything. It was a lesson that Bradford and Massasoit had learned over the course of more than three long decades. That it could be so quickly forgotten by their children remains a lesson for us today.”  ~ Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

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Resolve

Every day life tests our resolve. Two weeks ago, I posted that my goal over the next year is to practice greater self-acceptance. The other day, I found myself wavering in that goal.

I took a much-needed day off from work, and so I picked up my 11 year old son from school. Before we even got in the car, he asked to go to his friend Jack’s house. I didn’t know Jack or his parents, plus my son mentioned that Jack’s mom wasn’t home from work yet. No way was I going to let him go to a strange house with no adult supervision. I said no, but told him to have Jack’s mom call me.

Back home, I got involved cleaning my grandmother’s old mirror that I’d taken down from the loft over the garage. As I was prying thumb tacks off the back cover of the frame with a butter knife, my son tells me, “Jack is coming over in a few minutes with his mother.”

What?!

I looked around me. Dirty dishes in the sink. School papers, bills, and newspapers strewn about. Piles of shoes thrown near the back door.  Dried cat food stuck on a dish. Loose ends that needed tying up from a remodel – and that was just the kitchen!

I wanted to throttle my son, but I was too busy panicking over the horrible first impression I would make on Jack and, more importantly, his mother. The impression of a disorganized, scattered, messy mother who is too busy indulging in personal activities, like fiddling with a 50 year old mirror, to keep her house in good order.

I should add that my son goes to parochial school, where a large chunk of the student body come from families who are well off. I’m just an ordinary, middle-class educator married to a blue-collar guy, who sometimes struggles to pay the tuition. Our house is in an older, working class neighborhood that I sometimes fear may be going down the tubes.

My inner demons kicked in: Will the mother look her nose down on me and my home? Will she think we’re not good enough for her son?

Then my goal came back to me. So what if my house was messy? I preferred self-care and creative projects to cleaning on a day off. We might not live in the best section of town, but our 1930 colonial was charming and in a friendly, down-to-earth neighborhood that we enjoy. That was what mattered, not the opinion of a stranger.

I thought back to the family with five girls that used to live in the little ranch behind me when I was a girl. Their house was the place to hang out. They had a Roly-Poly, a round, wooden contraption with bench seats and bars to hold onto while someone rolled us around the yard. There was an underground fort where we would bunker down, in the pitch black, and pretend to be hiding from danger. Their basement was finished into a recreation room where we would put on plays for their parents. The girls’ dad made us homemade potato chips, and on Halloween night he would pile us into his station wagon and drive through a nearby cemetery while we screamed in terrified delight.

In retrospect, they probably didn’t have much money, and their house was way more messy and disorganized than mine, yet I loved being there. The chaos was part of the charm.

Suddenly, I was excited that Christian’s friend was coming to hang out at our house. If he and his mom saw me as messy and scattered, all the better. To hell with perfection!

They arrived, and I invited the mom inside so we could get acquainted and exchange phone numbers. Her eyes scanned the kitchen, just as they’d scanned the neighborhood.

“We’re at the tail end of a kitchen remodel,” I said, feeling the need to explain the plywood backsplash over the counter, the lack of trim by the floor, and the box of silverware on the kitchen floor.

“It’s cozy,” she said, leaving me to decide if this was an insult or a compliment.

Then it dawned on me: I knew nothing about this woman. Not where she lived, where she came from, what her story was. I was making all kinds of assumptions based on my own insecurities. Hadn’t I resolved to end this bullshit?

I smiled at her, and felt warmth and acceptance spread through me. “Thank you.”

OMG, Did I Really Just Say That?

The older I get, the more I wish I could say whatever I want without fear of repercussions. It gets tiresome having to always be politically correct and feel responsible for people’s feelings. I am constantly searching for the right language to use so as not to hurt, upset, offend, anger, alienate, or demotivate someone.

Not that I want to be a jerk, but once and a while it would be a relief to tell someone what I really think, exactly as I am thinking it, instead of keeping my mouth shut or censoring my words.

Like that former co-worker who clipped his fingernails at his desk. I wanted to shout, “Why in the hell would you do that here? It is disgusting and unsanitary. Who raised you to think that’s okay?” Instead, not trusting myself to find a polite way to ask him to stop, I said nothing and cringed each time I heard a clip.

How I long, even for a day, to do away with the filter and speak my mind as I please.

In response to that job interview question: How do you cope with stress? “Mostly I do yoga and journal, but on really bad days I drink an entire bottle of wine, then pick a fight with my husband.”

To the delusional college senior who is applying to medical school and asked me to write a recommendation, even though her GPA is 2.6, she flunked chemistry, and has yet to volunteer in a health care setting, “Girl, you do realize that your chances of getting into medical school anytime soon are like no way in hell?

Twice in my life I actually said what I wanted without a filter and the feeling of freedom was liberating. The first time was in a supermarket checkout line. An item rang up higher than I’d expected, so the cashier put on a blinking light to alert the manager to come over. The people in line behind me started to shift impatiently.

Then one guy said, “There’s one in every line.”

I could have chosen the path of dignity and kept my mouth shut. Instead, I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry, are you referring to me? Yeah, because I purposely selected an item that I knew would ring up incorrectly just so I could hold up the line and wreck your day. Because it’s all about you.”

He went still. Said nothing. In a moment, he slinked away. The others in line avoided my gaze. Turns out the item had rung up incorrectly. Ha!

The second time was when the worst plumber on the planet entered my basement to inspect a leaking pipe. I followed him down and told him that every time I turned on the outside hose to water the garden, a loud, thumping sound roared through the pipes. The resulting conversation went something like this:

“Lady, I don’t know anything about a thumping sound,” he sneered. “I don’t know what’s wrong with the pipes.”

I said, “Neither do we, which is why we called a plumber, so you can figure it out and fix it. By the way, did your boss mention that we don’t have hot water in the kitchen sink and the downstairs toilet is running?”

“Jesus,” he said, “No, he didn’t. It’s almost four o’clock. I wasn’t planning on being here all night.”

We went back and forth like this for several minutes, mostly with him bitching and moaning and gesticulating, until finally I exploded.

“Listen, mister. My mother-in-law passed away last week, just before that my husband was in the hospital and almost died, and now I have to stand here and deal with you? If you don’t want the [expletive] job, leave.”

I feared he might strike me, so aghast did he appear. Instead, he held up his hands as if surrendering.

“Calm down, lady. I’ll take care of everything.”

While part of me could not believe I had just spoken to him like that, another part was glad I had. Clearly, it was the only kind of language he understood.  Some people need to hear it straight, no filter involved.

Imagine if everyone in the world said exactly what was on their minds? We would either be at war constantly or maybe we might start behaving better. Then there’s the matter of having to take in what we dish out. Would we want to know what people wish they could say to us? Probably not.

As I was writing this, Justin Timberlake’s “Say Something” kept playing in my mind. Here’s the song if you want to listen.

The Road to Self-Acceptance

I used to be a self-improvement junkie. From self-help books and journaling, to daily meditation and yoga, I was forever striving to become the best I could be, but somehow always falling short.  Now that I’m older and wiser, I am so over it.

It takes tremendous energy to always be striving toward a better version of yourself. Almost as much energy as learning to love and accept yourself as you are, flaws and all. Of the two, I am convinced the latter is the greater use of our energy, and the more difficult, which may be why so many of us prefer the former.

Evolving  toward our highest potential is a beautiful thing. Sadly, too many of us start our journeys of growth and self-discovery from a place of lack instead of love, convinced we’re not good enough as we are and that we therefore need to strive and change to be better.

My entire life has been a struggle to feel good enough, to appreciate myself for who I am – the good, the bad, the quirks, and even my God-given strengths and talents. Did it start in the womb, with my 17 year old mother “disgracing” the family by having pre-marital sex and getting knocked up with me? Can shame be passed on at the cellular level? Does the stain of being the black sheep seep into one’s offspring?

Or could it have started with my father? He never could seem to accept me for who I am. He still corrects my speech (not how I say things, but what I say) and seems overly concerned with how I make him appear. There are digs about me acting like my mother, as if being like her in any way means that something is wrong with me.

What about those small moments that add up over a lifetime, such as when I was eight years old and sitting on my friend Jenny’s front steps with her and a group of girls. Someone mentioned the new landscaping around the front walkway of Jenny’s house and I, in innocence, said, “My parents said they copied our landscaping”, which they kind of had given it was identical and we lived directly across the street. Not that I cared, but my parents had taken issue with it.

Unbeknownst to me, Jenny’s mother was listening inside the house through the screen door. All of a sudden, a voice hissed, “You little devil. How dare you say that. Get off my property.” Stunned and afraid and ashamed, I left without saying a word and spent the rest of the day sitting in our garage watching the girls play. The residue of that day has stayed with me all these years.

I don’t know how my lack of self-acceptance started, but the days of feeling like I have to act a certain way, say things a certain way, dress and wear my hair a certain way – I could go on and on – to fit in and be accepted by others are slowly coming to an end. I am getting too old for such bullshit. I want to experience myself fully for the first time in my life, to know what it feels like to appreciate and accept myself as I am, right in this moment. I want to observe my thoughts, words, and actions without judgment, even the “bad” ones, and to naturally be myself first in every situation, instead of adhering to my tendency to adapt myself to others’ opinions of who and what I should be.

A funny thing that has been happening lately that has prompted this shift. All of the things I’ve learned and thought I understood in my self-improvement heyday are rushing at me, seeping into me as primal, mini-revelations during which I think, Oh my, God. This is what it meant. Now I get it. Now I really, truly get it, in my soul. I couldn’t explain the revelations if I wanted to because they go beyond words to a deep knowing.

What a gift! The world is opening up to me and I’m ready to dive into it.

Drowning In Extremes

I want to talk about life’s ups and downs.

About extremes and trying to find the middle ground.

A wonderful week in Florida; two magical weeks in Prague.

Then I come home.

Husband laid out, on oxycodone,

After work accident led to surgery.

A new kitchen floor installed.

Refrigerator and dining table in living room.

Washer, dryer, dishwasher in driveway.

No hot water in kitchen sink.

Piles of dishes.

Lugging hot water from downstairs bath in pitchers.

Piles of laundry.

Dragging baskets to parents’ houses.

Husband in tears from pain; his boss whines,

“I’m losing money without him. I’m so stressed I need a massage.”

Then just as things are looking up, it happens.

Mother-in-law has a heart attack.

Survives five bypasses, only to end up with blood clot and paralyzed legs.

Emergency surgery doesn’t save her.

Funeral plans. Countless phone calls to relatives.

Final viewing. Burial.

Father-in-law’s blood sugar plummets.

Picked up by the PD for erratic driving.

Rushed to hospital.

Okay for now.

Then,

Two co-workers announce they have new jobs.

Boss is leaving for China.

Work follows me on my so-called vacation.

Thanks to invention of Smartphone.

Is there enough wine in the universe to help me forget?

Will this, too, really pass?

They say when it rains, it pours.

It is pouring.

But I am alive.

I am healthy.

I am free?

Still, I wonder,

Is there always a price to pay

For joy,

For love,

For beauty,

And the desire to be free?

Hallways

Strange things happen in hallways. Beautiful things. Painful things.

This morning when I arrived at my office building, I saw a student crying into her cell phone in the hallway.  Another student, whom I knew, was comforting her. Since I knew the crying woman was in good hands, I passed by without saying a word, nodded to the woman I knew, and climbed another flight of stairs. When I reached the third floor, I saw a colleague hovering in the hallway. He’s not someone I know well, him being a VIP and me being a lowly in the trenches gal. But he seemed to be waiting for me. He knew I saw her, too.

“There’s a girl crying downstairs.”

I nodded. “I know the student she’s with. She’s in good hands.”

“She’ll be okay?”

“Yes.”

We went our separate ways. Later that day, in the hallway on the second floor, I saw a man who looked to be in his late sixties. He was dressed in a suit, wandering around,  lost. I wanted to ignore him, but I couldn’t.

“Can I help you find something?”

“Yes,” he said. “I need to speak to an advisor. My daughter was admitted here, but she couldn’t make the Open House. I’m on my way to visit her at prep school. I thought I’d stop by and talk to someone about your Learning Communities.”

The only prep school I knew of in the area was about an hour away, exclusive, expensive. He looked quite old to have a daughter who was a high school senior. We made small talk while I walked him to the appropriate office.  When we arrived, he shook my hand, thanked me for my help. We went our separate ways.

As I was preparing to leave work that same day, I left my office suite to get a glass of water from the fountain. A young man was seated at a table in the hallway, looking at his laptop and wiping his eyes with a paper towel. It took me a moment to realize that he was crying. It’s so seldom one sees men cry. I hesitated, but in the end I knew I couldn’t just walk by and ignore him.

“Are you okay? Can I help?”

“My friend just died.”

He went on to explain that it was a girl he’d grown up with.  He showed me her photo on Facebook. She was smiling, and so young. Her beautiful soul radiated out of the computer screen. She wore a silky scarf over her head.

“She had cancer?” I asked.

He nodded.

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Do you want to talk? My office is right over there.”

He shook his head. “No, thank you. She’d be mad if she saw me crying.”

We spoke for another minute, then I left him alone with his grief.

What is a hallway but a passage from one place to the next?

Husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters pass each other in hallways without saying a word.

When I was a child, after my parents divorced and I had teenaged babysitters all the time, the neighborhood kids used to come over and play hide and seek in my house at night. With all the lights out, no one ever found me when I climbed up the hallway walls, one foot and one hand on each wall, until I was near the ceiling. In that same house, I used to have dreams that I was flying down the hallway, about a foot off the ground, and I could see everything that was happening, and that had ever happened, in that house.

The next time you’re in a hallway, stop, look around, and feel.