Given the number of corners of my house I have completely emptied, cleaned, and reorganized over the past couple weeks, I feel certain we must live in a geodesic dome. At first glance our house does not appear much tidier or emptier than it did before, although we have now put 11 bags of detritus out for the trash. I have been working so hard, and I feel like I must have made progress, but so much of it seems invisible.

It started when I was looking in my office closet for Hanukkah wrapping paper. This is the closet where everything is thrown or shoved when you don’t know what else to do with it. A closet where things have often literally cascaded out of it when you open the curtain or move one item. It was the abyss. When I attempted to retrieve the wrapping paper, I noticed that one of the overhead shelves was sagging. I thought the boxes on it must be too heavy. So I took them all down. It turns out the shelf had actually ripped out of the wall on one end. For some reason at that moment it seemed like an excellent idea to empty the entire closet. So I did. And I went through every crumpled cardboard box (and forced my husband to sort through his boxes as well. In one of them was a homemade wooden dagger he had no recollection of making or owning. In another was a scouting patch that reads “Totin’ Chip” and featured an image of an axe. He did not recall what that meant or how he had come to possess it). I found hundreds of postcards and letters–some handwritten on pages of notebook paper, some typed on notebook paper, and some printed on dot matrix printers with the perforated edges still intact–from friends and family members. I found tens of hundreds of pages of emails I had printed out during my semester in Oxford and from old boyfriends. I consolidated all the correspondence and put it in labeled file folders. I couldn’t bear to throw any of it away, except for a few cards and letters I found signed by people whose names brought no faces to mind. This included a couple letters from someone named Larry, who mentioned how much he missed me. I could think of no such Larry. Eventually I found a reference to this Larry in a letter from my friend Jonathan who lived upstairs from me when I lived in England. “Larry is still the same,” he wrote. But I still don’t know who he was…

I found an assortment of political bumper stickers that do not yet have significant value on eBay. But perhaps someday, and they don’t take up much room, so I’m hanging onto them. I found many, many copies of publications I wrote or edited in past jobs. I threw most of them away. I can’t even remember the last time a client requested a print copy of a writing sample. I have one of everything, just for the heck of it. I found binders that include every clip I ever wrote for my college newspaper, The Flat Hat. Zoe was impressed by those. I found a folder containing almost every report card I ever received from kindergarten through college, and the Old Testament part I course I took at Wesley Seminary and the continuing education course in typography that I took at the USDA grad school. I got As in both of those classes. I was surprised, however, that my grades overall were not as stellar as I had remembered. My story was always that I earned all As except for math from 4th through 12th grade, but that wasn’t always true. I definitely remembered that my grades at William and Mary were not particularly good, at least until my senior year. But apparently none of that has kept me from doing what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. No clients have ever asked what my GPA in college was, or what my SAT scores were. But I have them, just in case you need to know. I found report cards belonging to my dad and my Nana. She had much better grades than I did and she had to work in her family’s cotton fields a lot of the time she wasn’t in school. I found a million poems I wrote over many years, many of which I didn’t recognize. I had no idea I was so prolific. I found dozens of mix tapes that I made and that friends made for me. I don’t have a tape player anymore but I can just look at the labels and remember all the songs and everything they meant to me. And someday when my kids are grown I can create digital playlists with whatever technology exists then, like an mp3 chip implanted in my brain.

I found so many photos–most of which I just put in a big container to sort through after Christmas when I have more time–including many of people who I didn’t recognize, although they were taken at parties at the apartments I shared with my friend Melissa for several years. I texted her images with arrows pointing to the people asking if she could identify them. She said, “Are you sure this was at our apartment? I don’t know who these people are!”

I went to Target and stocked up on large plastic bins and disposed of all the cardboard boxes and now every container has a theme. They are neatly stacked in the closet. The shelf has been repaired (thanks, Chris Flanagan!) and I was able to easily slide the Christmas decoration bins back on the shelf after we put up the tree today. For the first time in years, I don’t have to worry about something falling on me when I open the closet.

Meanwhile, the kitchen cabinet that holds our glasses and mugs has been gradually inching out of the wall, threatening to shatter its contents all over the floor. We had to completely empty it out, as well as the neighboring cabinet containing all our plates and bowls, in order for our friendly neighborhood handyman–the aforementioned Chris–to take them down and shore them up and reinstall them. So we did that and when he was done I ripped out the gross old shelf liner and wiped everything down and went to Target (again) to get new shelf liner. In the process of doing all this, I found a lot of lids with no cups or containers, and broken water bottles, and bits and pieces of long departed kitchenware. That led me to clean out the tupperware cabinet, which always descends quickly into chaos but I have to fight the good fight. And now I have a big stack of lonely lids and unmatched bottoms waiting to be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner.

Somewhere in between the excitement of the closet and the cabinet, Zoe’s phone went missing. We are pretty sure it’s in the house, because she was using it last Saturday to film videos with her friend Andrea, and then we went to skate night but she didn’t bring it because she noticed the battery was down to 7%. But where she left it before we headed out remains a mystery. In attempts to solve it, we have cleaned out under her bed, which was a trove of wonders but contained no phone. We cleaned out under Zeke’s bed, which was mostly junk that I threw away, but which contained many unfinished activity books and a massive amount of paper and so many markers and a lot of happy meal toys that I tossed. There is now enough room under both beds for people to crawl in and hide, should the need arise. Because the phone still had not surfaced, Zoe and I cleaned out her area downstairs, including her desk, the game shelf, her Legos, her American Girls and their accessories, and the absurd amount of art supplies that the kids share. I made her consolidate all her slime and slime-making supplies into one large container. We threw away many empty bottles of glue and assorted items. We moved the couches. I mopped. I removed vast quantities of dust bunnies. We started to put Legos she had built on the bookshelf, but ran out of time. I started finding things on the bookshelf to get rid of, but we ran out of time. There’s still work to be done over there. Still no phone. Just in case she had set it down in the kitchen, I cleaned out the space under and around the kitchen cart, and on top of the refrigerator (we found a large red plastic bat and a red plastic golf club that had both been confiscated from Zeke probably two years ago when he was likely using them as weapons). We threw away some yucky old lunchboxes and consolidated half-full boxes of Cheerios. Still no phone, but my theory that somehow it could’ve ended up there was validated by the discovery of an old Arlington County car registration decal.

In the process of all the organization, I have emptied a drawer of my nightstand and a drawer in my office. I don’t remember ever possessing an empty drawer. And there are so many more drawers I haven’t yet explored! I am by no means done. There is still a pile of stuff on my desk that I haven’t figured out how to sort, and there’s a mountain of items to be sold or donated or freecycled taking up a lot of space in the hallway. Not to mention that we haven’t yet found Zoe’s phone. If you have any ideas about where it might be, please let us know, or better yet, come over and take a look! Chances are you will come across some unique and valuable items that you might want for yourself, and I will be delighted to give them to you. If you would like to make Christmas presents with glass bottles, we have some to spare. The more I clean, the more ruthless I am in my decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. The persistent challenge is how to purge in a compassionate, responsible, and environmentally friendly way. I can’t just throw something perfectly useful in the garbage! Just because I don’t need it or want it doesn’t mean someone else won’t! So if there’s anything you’re in the market for, please let me know because we probably have an extra. And special thanks to the trash collectors who will be coming tomorrow morning to pick up several more bags than usual that are a significant weight off my shoulders.

Invocations

My daughter once taught me a game that her third grade teacher taught her called Fortunately Unfortunately. Someone starts a story and the next person continues with a twist of fate, either positive or negative. It can be very funny, and more philosophically a good reminder to count your blessings. There’s a story told by Stillwater the Panda in Jon Muth’s Zen Shorts with a similar moral.

I feel like our lives this weekend have been a litany of good fortune and misfortune. Not all of them are funny, but all of them are true.

Unfortunately my wallet fell out of my back pocket into the toilet. Fortunately I had only peed, and the $25 in cash remained miraculously dry.

Fortunately I accomplished a lot of cleaning and organizing. Unfortunately, I fell hard after mopping the floor because the soles of my feet were covered in lint and therefore slippery…

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Invocations

At 11pm, the grocery store is blissfully quiet, but not empty. I find my items: bacon, milk, laundry detergent, and two kinds of bread–healthy whole wheat and soft and delicious Martin’s potato bread.

At home everyone is asleep, or almost, and I set to work mashing the eggs I boiled the other day. The yolks are ringed with green, which I learn is from boiling them too long.

After I turned the stove off I set the timer for 20 minutes but then got distracted and abandoned the eggs for some other activity.

I mix in the mayonnaise and sprinkle salt and it’s all an odd shade of yellow green, but I don’t care. On the potato bread it tastes perfect.

I think about everyone who has made egg salad for me, and deviled eggs, and chicken salad, and meatloaf, and slaw with freshly grated cabbage and carrots, and macaroni…

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At once weary of returning again and again
to the ragged scrap of memory ripped
from your long ago life
folded over and over into a tiny square
and shoved into a back pocket
yet feeling one small breath of relief
each time you open it up and
air it out and you hear the choir of one million women
singing, “i hear you ~ i believe you ~ i know you ~ i am you”
their refrain is your lullaby

it is our song now

We have been told
by petulant, bullying, liars
wielding weapons of ignorance and egomania
that our bodies are not our own
at any moment of our lives–they are the domain of men and babies

It has been etched in stone
that truth means nothing
compared to getting what they want
No matter if it is our truth
or the truth we expect from others
Fingers crossed behind their backs
as they take the oath,
like the juveniles they are

We will not forget this week of
scorn
hypocrisy
betrayal
injustice
the defensive outrage of privilege
the sneering sarcasm of entitlement

We will not forget any more than
we could forget our own moments of
being pushed into bedrooms
being laughed at
while someone put a sweaty hand
over our mouth

We will never get over it
but we will survive
we will persist
we will sing
we will write
we will make art
we will preach
we will march
we will meditate
we will pray
we will love
we will listen
we will volunteer
we will campaign
we will gather
we will vote
we will protect ourselves and each other

We will look those men in the eye and say
GET YOUR HANDS AND YOUR LAWS AWAY FROM MY BODY
and we will teach our children to say it too
and

WE
WILL
NOT
BACK
DOWN

 

October 2018

(c) 2018 Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso |
please only repost or reprint in entirety and with credit given

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 12.33.51 AMThis morning I rearranged my office while in my underwear because I needed to shake things up. My office is cozy at best with a propensity toward absurdly crowded when everyone discards their stuff in it or it becomes a staging ground for various family projects.

In recent weeks my office has also become a vortex of lethargy. One of the perils of operating my own business is that it is all to easy to walk back into the house after the kids have been dispatched to school and collapse on the futon in my aforementioned office. Especially because I often sit on the futon instead of in my desk chair, for no particular reason except maybe there are comfy pillows nearby and the window through which I can gaze out onto Columbia Pike. Oh, and I should mention that I have a sleep disorder, and if I forget to take my medication for it then I get really sleepy when I sit down at the computer. Under ideal circumstances, I shower before my kids leave for school, and the act of getting clean and dressed sets me up well for the day and I’m good to go. If I don’t shower because I’m busy getting the kids ready or because I oversleep, or because I’m just lazy, then it’s that much easier to slip into morning nap mode, because I’m still in pajamas. On bad days I shuffle back to my futon, shadowed by the twin gremlins of anxiety and depression. I had the epiphany a couple weeks ago that the transition to new schools for both my kids was not challenging for me just because of my overactive sense of empathy and my concern for them, but because of my deep need to be part of communities, and the fact that I was leaving the nurturing preschool community that had embraced my family for the past decade, and the elementary school community that we had loved for the past six years. In their new schools I know very few people yet, so I am emotionally adrift.

And then came the horrifying yet disgustingly unsurprising spectacle last week in the Senate. I won’t recount it all here because you’ve probably read and seen and heard more than enough coverage of it. I began reading articles so obsessively I feel like I am now an expert on the life of federal judge Brett Kavanaugh. I consider Dr. Christine Blasey Ford a hero. And, like most women, I have my own #metoo/#whyIdidn’treport story but I am still too scared to publish it here. I have been reading about how to talk with your children about consent, which apparently it’s never too early to do. I’ve implemented a plan with my 11-year-old daughter in which she can always text us at any time from any place if she feels uncomfortable and needs us to come get her and make an excuse for her needing to leave. Of course I am registered to vote and of course I will vote in November, but where I live is already bright blue. Every day I think about victim blaming and shaming, about rape culture, about pervasive misogyny and sexism, about all the very old straight cisgender privileged white men who run the country right now and who have never experienced and will never experience what it’s like to be a woman or a person of color or any sort of person who has been marginalized or mistreated. Every day I read threads on twitter and in comment feeds on news and opinion stories by women and men who were sexually abused as children and whose parents either did not believe them or told them to just suck it up and not cause trouble. If any news cycle was going to cause me to pull the covers over my head and play solitaire on my phone until I fell back asleep, this one would do it.

And there’s more to the story, because there’s always more to the story, but that’s as much as I can stomach retelling right now. Thankfully, however, there is soccer. When I played Monday night, in my third game this season, it was the first one I wasn’t dreading as I drove to the field. I knew that the moment I stepped onto the turf I would completely forget about all these people and all their pain. I play on a fantastic team of strong and supportive women in a women’s league, in a 40+ division. Some women on teams we’ve played are in their 60s or 70s. Talk about resilient. And thankfully, there is rearranging furniture. As I set about my task this morning–which I started envisioning in the middle of the night last night when I couldn’t sleep, but realized if I started then I would wake up my whole family–I thought about one of my college roommates who always cleaned the bathroom when she was avoiding studying for a big test or tackling an assignment she didn’t want to do. We enjoyed an unusually clean bathroom for college students. But moving furniture–and cleaning the bathroom–isn’t just about procrastinating, it’s about taking control. Here is a mess, here is a room where I have not been productive lately and I’m sitting here wallowing in a toxic brew of emotions, and I can clean it up. I can reset. I can take control. So I spent the morning moving the desk to one wall and the futon to another wall and vacuuming up the clouds of dust that emerged from underneath things, and shifting pictures, and throwing stuff away, and prioritizing, and now I can sit at my desk and look out the window and be in charge of myself.

Of course the closet in the office is now even more crammed with junk, but that’s a project for another day. And my neatened desk does nothing to restore my broken faith in our democracy. But I did talk with three new clients today. And I made a new to do list and crossed one thing off. It’s hard these days, it really is. Nevertheless, we persist.

Originally published on https://invocations.blog/2018/09/21/i-picture-you/

I picture you
sitting as close as you can possibly pull the chair
up to his bed
careful not to disturb
the noisy network of artificial arteries
filling him with electrical impulses
and life
because you need to hold his hand and
he needs to feel your hand holding his

I can hear you talking with him at times
telling him what the babies have been doing
knowing how they make him smile and how
he can elicit the baby laughs that are the sweetest music on earth
you recall moment after moment of your life together
both ridiculous and sublime, always steadfast
sweet and bittersweet

Thought sometimes you are silent
watching him rest
wondering what is happening in his brain
glancing at the machines that are measuring and monitoring but
not revealing any of the secrets that you want to know

I can picture him lying there
knowing you are nearby
knowing you will never leave
enveloped by your love
waiting to come back to you

September 2018

(c) 2018 Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso |
please only repost or reprint in entirety and with credit given

Originally published on https://invocations.blog/2018/09/17/no-one-reads-the-fine-print/

I suspect you did not know what you were signing up for in this life
No one bothered to read you the fine print when you were born
They were busy
It would’ve been meaningless to you anyway, as it probably is now
The letters shrink smaller and smaller until no one can decipher them at all
So we are forced to improvise

You probably didn’t know how many times your heart would break
or guess who would be the ones to shatter it
and who would mend it
and who would fill it up again with love until it spills over
in tears

You may have thought the instructions should be clearer
the answers more obvious
Subtlety and nuance require patience
You may have heard patience comes easier than it has for you
but you learned quickly that what’s easy is to make mistakes
When they tell you everyone makes mistakes, you’re not sure
you believe them

But it’s true

Did you ever imagine
you would spend so much time awake
because someone desperately needs you
in the middle of the night
Who could possibly have known
how much demand there would be for your presence
in the middle of the night
someone crying or coughing or barking or puking or
flinging their arms and legs across your face and body
while they find the peaceful rest that you have surrendered

I doubt that you predicted what you would let go
and what you would cling to
what would always matter and what would fade
You are probably still making these discoveries
With reading glasses come epiphanies

When did you realize you would be the one
to make the hard decisions
to take the high road
to put on your own oxygen mask first
to say the thing that no one wants to hear or
to swallow the words you wish you could say
because you know no one will listen

You might have thought by now it’s too late
to start something new
But I know it’s never too late
You have shown me that you know it too
It may be hard and it may be messy but
I have faith in you
September 2018

(c) 2018 Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso |
please only repost or reprint in entirety and with credit given

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.10.16 PM.pngFor dinner, I ordered fried catfish with potato salad and mac and cheese from Margaret’s Soul Food Truck. The food truck was parked outside my daughter’s middle school, along with several others, for the gustatory enjoyment of parents who were attending back to school night tonight. Before back to school night, there was a PTA meeting scheduled in the library. With my styrofoam container of deliciousness and my cold can of Coke in hand, I asked someone wearing a school polo shirt whether I could take the food into the library. “Of course!” they said, as if nothing would delight the librarian more than the aroma of fried fish. My desire to participate in the meeting overcame my concern about bringing food into the library so I went in.

At the PTA meeting I learned about the prodigious school garden, where students can volunteer for community service hours and whose produce helps feed our community. The school also operates a food bus program where food that students buy but don’t eat is delivered weekly to our local food bank. I learned about the used book far and the Booktopia new book giveaway, where every student goes into the gym and chooses one free book from among boxes and boxes of new books.

The school principal told us that this year’s sixth grade class (of which my daughter is a member) is the largest in the school’s history, with 426 students, bringing the school population up to 1,140. No wonder every classroom was crowded with parents as we followed her schedule in 10-minute class increments. Fortunately most of her core classes are clustered together in her team area so she doesn’t have far to travel. I have to give the principal credit too for remembering Zoe’s name after the first time we met her. How does she learn the names of 1,140 students?

I still remember my teachers from my first year of junior high school–Ms. Hamilton (English), Mr. Rycroft (Algebra), Ms. Duncan (social studies), Ms. Mills (science), Ms. Kramer (home ec.), Ms. Beck (art), Mr. Andrukonis (speech and drama). I do not remember, however, having such a clear understanding of what was expected of my classmates and me. Tonight every teacher shared their syllabus, gave a PowerPoint presentation (which is also available online), and gave us their email address (I realize there was no such thing as email addresses in 1987). We know exactly how our children’s grades will be determined and where and how to view their assignments and up-to-the-minute grades on homework, tests, and other projects. All of this is accessible to our kids as well, and they are expected to stay on top of it. They have school-issued iPads on which they can log in to see their homework assignments, study guides, academic calendars, and more. They use their iPads every day in class and can access any texts or primary sources or any resources they need for any class. NONE of Zoe’s teachers have issued textbooks. Her science teacher said she received five copies of the textbook and that she may refer to it occasionally but it doesn’t include all the material she wants to cover. If you do want to read it, however, you can read it all on your iPad and you can even press a button and it will be read aloud to you. Other teachers said they have textbooks if a student desperately wants to read one, but they by no means rely on them, if they use them at all. For English class, students are expected to bring their own book that they’re reading to class every day, and read every day for 30 minutes for homework. They can basically read whatever they want. If the teacher feels like the student needs to expand her literary horizons or challenge herself more, she may recommend other books. All the teachers said they would accept late assignments through the end of the quarter, and that the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, which is the foundational curriculum of this school, requires that students be graded on the content of their work (according to prescribed rubrics) and not on the timeliness of it. Most teachers said students could retake tests on which they performed poorly, and the teachers wanted to ensure the students had mastered the material. Best of all, the science  fair projects are completed ENTIRELY IN CLASS by the students, with the help of their teacher and their peers, with zero parental involvement. Hallelujah.

My point here is these teachers all seemed eminently reasonable and fair and sensible and smart. I’m sure the teachers have their quirks and the program has its flaws, but it seemed like this system and these classes are designed to give students the benefit of the doubt, to trust that if they’re doing the best they can that they will be able to succeed. There’s tutoring available four days a week after school. Any student or parent can contact any teacher about any concern. There is a counselor for each grade and a vice principal for each grade and so many staff people who seem designed to help.

Obviously when I was in junior high school I had the perspective of a kid and not a parent, and I know that when you’re that age you’re often more concerned with navigating social situations than knowing what your GPA is at any given time. And obviously the technology we enjoy today was not available then. It’s a different world. But I like this world. It makes so much sense. You know what you have to do and you can do it. I know this is all theory and we’ve only had three weeks so far to put it into practice, but I am hopeful.

And that catfish was so tasty.

bodydiagram

This is where my organs would ordinarily be, if they weren’t displaced by my all-consuming anxiety. 

I am so filled with anxiety that I am certain there is no room left inside me for my internal organs. They have been squeezed together in some tiny crevice so my anxiety has ample room to luxuriously expand. The knots in my stomach have all but filled my stomach so there is little space left for such old-fashioned things as digestion to occur.

I have spent a lot of this summer reminding myself to breathe. Taking deep breaths that require much more effort than seems normal, but then again when was the last time I was normal? I suppose the breathing has helped, as the threatening panic attack remains hovering at the edge of my consciousness, ready to jump in at any time an opening presents itself. The panic attack is like a first responder, but not the helpful kind.

Chief among the myriad reasons for this anxiety (although really, who needs reasons?) are two new schools. Tomorrow my kids will get on their respective school buses–they have never ridden buses to school before–and be delivered to elementary school and middle school for the first time. They will have new buildings to navigate, new teachers to get to know, new classmates who speak different languages, new assignments to remember, new school cultures to learn.

Of course I realize that kids start new schools all the time. This is the way of the world. But all those other kids aren’t mine. And my kids, unfortunately or inevitably or just because of good old genetics, share with me just a bit of that predisposition toward anxiety. We are a sensitive people. I remember years ago hearing the adage that having kids is like letting your heart walk around outside your body, and so it is. Starting new schools is like your heart has developed some confidence, a sense of style, a few signature jokes, and then suddenly it’s stripped bare all over again, completely vulnerable in a new environment. And now my heart is split into two, wandering through two new schools, looking around desperately for other hearts that will be kind.

This year for the first time I have a number of friends who are sending kids to college. Zeke’s previous preschool teacher and preschool director, friends from church, friends from high school and elementary school, and my yoga teacher all delivered offspring to college for the first time in August. (All to excellent Virginia schools, as it happens). When I think of them, even when I see the pictures on Facebook of their smiling kids in freshly decorated dorm rooms, I feel like my heart is not simply walking around outside my chest, but has been forcibly ripped from my body and flung hundreds of miles away, where it may be lying in a ditch, attempting to struggle to its feet. College! Thinking about this literally makes my chest hurt. My daughter is only seven years away from this prospect. When I ran into our wise preschool director the other day and mentioned this, she said not to think about it yet, just to concentrate on kindergarten and sixth grade right now. Which is good, because that is all I am capable of at the moment.

I try hard not to be a helicopter parent. My philosophy is much more free range, although it’s challenging in a culture of helicopters. I do believe in giving my children the opportunity to be independent, and learn things, and grow on their own. But what if kids are mean to them? What happens when kids are mean to them? Because it’s bound to happen and it’s already happened and it’s so hard. Did I mention we are sensitive people? This summer at a couple of camps some little boys said mean things to Zeke. I don’t know what all of the words were. Some of them, as I recall, were, “I don’t like you.” No one wants to hear that, but when you’re 44 it’s easier to give someone the side eye and walk away. Of course, when “I don’t like you” is accompanied by being punched in the back while you’re trying to make art, it’s harder to let it slide. Especially when you’re five. The day after this happened, Zeke was desperately and theatrically upset when I tried to drop him off at camp. It took 30 minutes for me to get to the bottom of the problem, but I did. I talked with the teacher and reassured Zeke that she would keep an eye on things and make sure the boys didn’t bother him. She moved him to a different team, and he was calm and everything was fine. By the end of the week he was playing with the same boys. Sometimes I don’t understand how life works at all.

With girls it’s different, of course. I’ve been hearing a lot from fellow parents of tweens that we should brace ourselves for the mean girls of middle school years. Optimistically I feel like we can bypass this particular trauma because we’ve been dealing with mean girls since Zoe was in kindergarten. While she had an overall excellent experience in elementary school and has always had lots of friends, there was rarely a time in which she didn’t have at least one “friend” who was trying to manipulate and control her. There was the girl who, in kindergarten, insisted that Zoe play Justin Bieber (Zoe didn’t even know who he was, but cried about it nonetheless), and later threw rocks at Zoe because she was trying to meditate when the girl wanted to play. And there were other girls for the following five years who tried to take advantage of Zoe, who threatened to abandon her if she played with other friends, who attempted to enlist her as a personal assistant. There was so much drama. And it wasn’t even middle school yet. So the good thing, I keep reminding myself, is that Zoe has so much experience dealing with this behavior and has learned how to stand up for herself and take care of herself in ways that it took me many more decades to learn myself, that maybe she’ll be ok in middle school. I hope.

At her school open house, she was not the only kid to be walking around in a daze, clinging to a parent’s arm, wondering how she would figure all this out on her own. I know she won’t really be on her own. There will be 899 other kids there! I know she’ll be ok. But I also know it’s a little terrifying, and no amount of reassurance from her parents will take that away until she does figure it out for herself.

Less than 24 hours from now, my kids will be at school. I’ll be on my way to a new yoga class I signed up for, which will be an excellent way for me to not sit home and cry or give in to that panic attack. Then after yoga I’ll come home and attack the million work assignments I’ve been neglecting during the last week of summer when I’ve been trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of fun experiences with my family so they can have happy memories to hang onto during their own moments of encroaching anxiety. And I’ll try my best to focus on getting my work done while I count the minutes until those school buses pull up to our bus stop and I not very casually envelop my children in gigantic hugs and try not to pepper them with all my questions about how the first day of school went. I will exhale. And the next day at least it won’t be quite so new.

My amazing friends Gay Gibson Cima and Kristin Keller led worship with me this morning at UUCA. We talked about the blessings of discomfort. This was my reflection:

On the wall behind the cash register at One More Page, my favorite local bookstore, is a sign. The sign says, “WRAPPING PAPER HAS NO GENDER.”

Below the sign are three lovely rolls of wrapping paper, featuring dinosaurs, polka dots, and a shiny solid green.

I immediately understood that the bookstore had posted that sign because of customers who asked for “girl wrapping paper,” thinking that any female to whom they were giving a book as a present would rather receive it wrapped in pink or flowered paper than dinosaurs or polka dots or green. Everyone knows girls don’t like green, right?

Next, I thought about twin boys who attended my son’s preschool. One of them often wore pink, or patterned leggings I knew were from the “girls” department. Every time I saw him I thought, why is he wearing girls’ leggings? And every time this question crossed my mind, I thought, why not? He is three. He is probably wearing those because he picked them out and he likes how they look and how they feel. Why are leggings supposed to be for girls? Why is there even a girls department? Why aren’t there just clothes for kids?

This internal conversation quickly got old, yet I had it again and again. Why? Because that’s how we are socialized in this country. Certain styles and colors are arbitrarily feminine, and others are deemed masculine. There is absolutely no good reason for this distinction. And yet, even though we understand this intellectually, often our reflexive reaction to something we perceive as incongruous, is that it’s wrong. It’s inappropriate. It’s confusing. It’s uncomfortable.

I recently read an excellent young adult book called Lily and Dunkin, about two kids who are beginning eighth grade. Lily was born Timothy, but she knows she is Lily. She has come out to her family, but her dad will not accept her as a girl and insists that she not wear dresses outside the house. Her dad still calls her Tim. A group of boys at school, who Lily refers to as the Neanderthals, bully her. Lily is still known as Tim at school and dresses “like a boy,” but the Neanderthals hurl anti-gay epithets at her. At one point the main bully accuses Tim of being a girl, intending it as a cruel insult. But Lily thinks, yes, yes, I am a girl! Ardently wishing she could reveal her true self.

Dunkin has just moved to their South Florida town, and he is on his way to buy a Boston crème donut and an iced coffee when he walks by Lily’s house. She happens to be in the yard, wearing one of her mom’s dresses. Dunkin thinks she is beautiful. Dunkin sees a girl. Later, when Dunkin encounters Lily again, she is dressed as Tim. Lily tells Dunkin that she was dressed as a girl because her sister had dared her to do so. Dunkin eventually finds out the truth, but only after saying and doing some pretty mean things to Lily.

Unfortunately, I can identify too easily with Dunkin’s bewilderment. It’s so easy to see someone whose appearance doesn’t quite fit with what we’re expecting, and wonder, “Who are you? What are you? Why are you dressed like that? What does it mean? How should I react to you? How should I treat you?” Our brains automatically seek categorization. We think if we can classify someone, we will know all about them, and we can instantly decide how we feel about them, what they might mean to us, and whether to say hello or keep on walking.

When we allow someone’s appearance to shape this snap judgment, however, we do ourselves and others a real disservice. Instead of creating opportunities for connection or building relationships with potentially amazing human beings, we build walls and collapse bridges if we don’t understand why someone looks the way they look. What if it’s too hard to relate to this person? What if we say the wrong thing? What if this person judges us? It’s uncomfortable.

So what if we don’t know if someone is a boy or a girl or non-binary or gay or straight or bi or pan or queer? We can safely bet that they’re human. The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is that we value the inherent worth and dignity of every person. As Kristin mentioned earlier, we have to embody our principles—or walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

One of my daughter’s best friends recently came out to her as pansexual. It’s ok if you have never heard this word. I hadn’t either. I had to look it up. I learned that actress and singer Janelle Monae and actress and singer Miley Cyrus both identify as pansexual. Pansexual means that who you are attracted to is not limited by gender. My daughter’s friend said she doesn’t see gender, but she is attracted to someone’s heart and mind and soul. My first thought when I heard that was, “shouldn’t all of us feel that way?” It sounds like a beautiful way to live your life—looking at someone’s heart and mind and soul instead of their gender attributes.

This brave 11-year-old made a YouTube video about discovering her sexual identity, in which she describes the process of coming out to her mom and a few of her friends and offers tips to viewers about how they can come out if they’re struggling to do so. I was so impressed by the courage and confidence of her revelation.

I was equally impressed by my daughter’s reaction to her friend’s news. Zoe congratulated her friend on coming out and said that she understood. Her friend’s pansexuality didn’t faze her at all. She told me that, if anything, the news had a positive impact on their relationship because Zoe understood her friend better now, and they could become closer friends. The next thing I knew, we were in the dollar aisle at Target and Zoe was shopping for LGBTQ+ pride accessories for her friend.

A common reaction I’ve heard, even from very supportive adults, to young people coming out is, “isn’t that a little young to be coming out? How do they know already?” To which I respond, “they know.” I definitely knew I was straight when I was eight years old and first watched Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele. I had crushes on boys in my class starting early in elementary school. I think if someone knows how they feel when they’re 11 and they’re prepared to tell the world, more power to them.

In the allyship training I’ve participated in at UUCA, I’ve been reminded that I will never truly understand what it’s like to be LGBTQ+, because I am cisgender and straight. I will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, because I’m white. But I know what it’s like to be human. And I know what it’s like to make a connection with another human, and to have someone deny a connection. I know what it’s like to be uncomfortable, and that discomfort can be a blessing.

May we be blessed with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep within our hearts.

I invite you to watch the whole service here:

or visit http://www.uucava.org/livestream/ Click on archives and click on June 24.

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