Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 11.28.08 PMIn a darkened Tennessee motel room, just a mile from the Virginia border, my children are sleeping, each splayed across a double bed. At some point I will have to squeeze in beside one of them so I can sleep. It will most likely be Zeke, because he is smaller and therefore slightly easier to move, and he is less likely to leave bruises on my legs when he kicks me during the night. All those years of martial arts and soccer and running have endowed Zoe with very strong legs. Over the past nine nights of this trip, I have slept in a variety of beds in four different states with each of my children, occasionally my husband, and once–I think–alone. I am very much looking forward to being home in my own bed with space enough to sleep peacefully. Randy sometimes steals the covers but he never thrashes around or elbows me in the face.

On this trip I saw three cousins, two cousins-in-law, four second cousins, an uncle and two aunts. It had been so long since I’d seen some of these family members that they’d never met Zeke, or interacted with Zoe since she was an infant. I also got together with a high school friend, whose kids instantly befriended my kids. As we were leaving her house, Zoe asked, “can we exchange information?” I instructed her before she went to sleepaway camp this year to make sure her friends wrote down their names and contact information if she wanted to keep in touch with them, so she wouldn’t come home with scraps of paper saying “mom’s #” with a phone number and not know whose it was. Zoe drew one of her signature dragons for her 16-year-old cousin Elizabeth, with whom she was greatly enamored, as a thank you for Elizabeth giving her two stuffed animals from her childhood collection. Zeke came away with a large plastic version of a Swiss army knife, which he called his “tool,” and he spent hours asking everyone he could find if they had a problem, which he would then attempt to solve with his tool. He stuck the tool in his pocket and carried it everywhere. He dissolved in sobs when he was FaceTiming Daddy and couldn’t find his tool to show him. Zeke can’t seem to remember the name FaceTime. Earlier today he asked if we could TimeFace Daddy, and then as we pulled up to the hotel he asked if we could HotelFace Daddy. I said yes.

On this trip we hung out with five different dogs–Bella, Maisy, Lily, Dewey, and Lucy–in three different houses. Even though Zoe was reluctant to even walk into the house when Bella was standing at the door, after less than 24 hours with her, Zoe and Randy wanted to adopt her. On the way from South Carolina to Georgia, Randy was looking at dogs on an animal rescue website. Discussion quickly turned to how many pounds was too many and which dogs were better with kids or required a fenced yard. The jumpier, louder dogs at the next two houses perhaps curbed Zoe’s enthusiasm to adopt, yet by the end she was sad to leave the dogs who had seemingly terrified her moments before. Zeke was unfazed by all of it. He just couldn’t remember that some of the dogs were girls, saying, “Hi little fellow!” as he pet them.

IMG_0045On this trip I tried to pack in as much family time and adventuring as possible and therefore did not plan for adequate napping for Zeke, which resulted in several meltdowns and a lot of huffing and puffing. I suppose this is to be expected from a three-year-old, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating. Zoe was a good sport about almost everything and usually continued to do whatever she was supposed to be doing while I dealt with Zeke. Sometimes she helped. It is easy to forget that it is hard for three-year-olds to adapt. All things considered, Zeke probably adapted really well. We did a LOT in 10 days–the Georgia Aquarium, Legoland Discovery Center, the High Museum of Art (exclusively the Eric Carle exhibit, family gallery, the outdoor climbable sculptures, and the ArtLab, IMG_0093lest you think I tried to coax my kids through the Walker Evans exhibit or anything too sophisticated), Zoo Atlanta, the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, and the climbable sculptures at the Abernathy Greenway. We shopped all too briefly at Little Shop of Stories and devoured ice cream at Butter & Cream (I recommend the OG Goodness).

We saw sea lions perform and beluga whales glide gracefully by and we touched sea anemones. We learned that sea lions have ears you can see and seals do not. We pedaled into the air and shot at bad guys on the rides at Legoland, and admired a Lego model of Atlanta’s famous buildings. We read Pancakes, Pancakes and learned about Eric Carle’s technique of sweeping paint onto paper on the floor with a broom and then cutting it up to create his vibrant illustrations and how growing up in Germany and walking through the woods with his father influenced his work. We built block towers and created collages and Zoe and Randy made a stop motion animated film. Zoe and Zeke fed romaine lettuce to a hungry giraffe with a long and powerful tongue. We saw orangutans and pandas and flamingos and giant tortoises so calm and contemplative that I thought at first they were IMG_0160statues. We rode the train and the carousel and an exceptionally kind zoo employee went out of his way for me. I had bought a souvenir cup at lunch and refilled it with water which I was sharing with the kids. While I was watching Zoe climb a very tall net structure, Zeke finished the water and went over to recycle the cup. I tried to stop him, shouting that I had bought the cup to keep, and he pushed it further into the recycling big and then hung his head, Charlie Brown style, which he does when he realizes he did something wrong but seems powerless to stop himself. The zoo employee, who was on duty at the climbing structure, but there was no one else there but Zoe, said he would be right back and he went to get me another cup. I thought that was amazingly kind of him. It wasn’t a big thing, but he really didn’t have to do it at all, and I never would have asked. We watched a clever and engaging puppet show called Old MacDonald’s Farm. I bet you think you already know the story, but there was really a lot more to it than you’d expect, and it was quite well done. Then we made our own chicken puppets, even the grown-ups. We visited quite a few gift shops and came away with too many souvenirs (the number diminished at each stop), except at the Children’s Museum where we bypassed the gift shop altogether because the kids’ behavior there was especially unpleasant.

I learned more about my Dad’s family–that they used to drive from the Bronx to Yonkers on Saturdays to visit Grandma Yeager and eat delicious Hungarian food, and take leftovers home. I learned that Grandpa Rosenblatt was some sort of peddler and that he traveled back and forth from Romania to the US but once to Argentina–speaking only Yiddish– for some time because he couldn’t get back in the US, and Grandma Rosenblatt worried that he was going to abandon the family so she sent Max (my grandfather) to America when he was a teenager to make sure his father would send for her and her daughter Sara. I learned that my dad and his brother and sister and their mom spent several summers at a bungalow colony in upstate New York, which they loved, and my Uncle Larry and his friend went fishing and unexpectedly caught an eel. And there’s more, for another post another time.

We enjoyed seeing my Uncle Larry appear suddenly as Bobo the Clown, which initially frightened Zeke but then delighted all of us with magic tricks and corny jokes and a couple skits. Zeke was still talking today about how funny it was when Bobo the Clown was trying to sleep and a bee was bothering him. Zeke cracked up both watching and remembering the scene.

We enjoyed eating authentic Southern junk food at the Varsity in Atlanta. I had two hot dogs with chili and slaw. I don’t think I’ve had hot dogs like that–or that good–since my Nana died because I used to have them at her house. Chili and slaw in Arlington are not the same. This morning we hit Waffle House. I was reminded of my desire to eat at Waffle House by the Waffle House-replica kitchen at the Children’s Museum, where Zeke served Aunt Susan a stack of six fried eggs. I decided we would stop and eat not long after we left Atlanta this morning, worried that we wouldn’t encounter another Waffle House. As it turns out, there was one about every other exit for hundreds of miles. Not to worry. I took my aunt’s advice and ordered hash browns covered and smothered.  Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 11.30.27 PMThe kids had chocolate chip waffles. Which means I ate my breakfast and half of Zeke’s waffle while he ate bacon and my biscuit.

I love how Zeke made himself completely at home with all of my family members, most of whom he’d either never met or hadn’t seen in years. And if you’re three and you haven’t seen someone in years, you might as well never have met them. He just jumped right in with no hesitation. Zoe is more circumspect, but still enjoyed bonding with the family, especially getting silly with my uncle and glimpsing the glamorous lives of her older cousins–ages 12, 14, and 16. As soon as we left each of our family’s houses, she declared that she missed them already.

I almost forgot how we started the trip with the Insane Inflatable 5K in Virginia Beach. Zoe and I signed up for this fresh off her excitement about the Girls on the Run 5K she ran with my sister in May. We watched videos of the Insane Inflatable 5K and it looked fun. And it SBW3158was, mostly. It was also very hot that day and traversing those inflatables was way harder than we anticipated. But we did it, and we were proud of ourselves. And I got a migraine later that day but that’s to be expected. We also enjoyed the Children’s Museum of Virginia that afternoon. I think I am done with Children’s Museums for a while.

I did not accomplish much of anything else this week. I thought I’d be able to squeeze in some work because this week was a completely inconvenient time for me to take off, in terms of my work schedule, but this week was when we could make the trip. So, sorry clients. I’ll be back on task next week. I was so exhausted I fell asleep two nights this week putting Zeke to bed, and stayed asleep for the night. I apologized to my uncle for being antisocial but he said he understood. I am thankful to everyone we visited for their flexibility. They were all remarkably solicitous and accommodating.

The last leg of our journey is tomorrow. Roughly six more hours to go, not counting stops to eat and pee, of which there are always plenty. We had a terrific adventure, but we are all ready to be home. And now it’s time to claim my sliver of bed, next to Zeke and Kitty Kat and Uh Oh Dog. Good night.

The_Schuyler_Sisters

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman,
 dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean
 by providence
Impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

This is the first stanza of the first song in the musical Hamilton, which, if you haven’t heard of it or heard the music yet, is fantastically brilliant. No, I haven’t seen it. I’m not rich or that lucky. But I have listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count.

As have my children. We’re liberal around here with the music. Our kids know Mozart and they know Madonna, and everything in between. And Zoe has memorized all 20,520 words  in Hamilton. She’s well-read and has a sizable vocabulary, but as you might expect, she was not familiar with all these words. One day she came into the room where I was working and said, “What’s a bastard?” and I explained that it was a derogatory term for someone whose parents were not married when he was born. She knew orphan already from a million fairy tales and Disney movies. Next was whore. This was a little trickier, since–as far as we know–her understanding of sex is that it’s what two people who love each other and want to have a baby do together. (I’ve long been troubled by the significant gap between this definition that we teach kids when they’re first learning about sexuality and the reality of everything that sex can mean in our society, which most kids just hear or see or prematurely experience without any parental guidance whatsoever. That’s a discussion for another day.) So I explained whore, or prostitute, or sex worker if you really want to get it right. Whew. 

Then she asked, “What’s a Scotsman?” And I laughed. “That’s easy, I said. A person from Scotland, a country next to England and Ireland and Wales. It’s not a bad word.”

Of course along with the adult words, there are plenty of adult themes in Hamilton, including adultery. Some of these things Zoe has asked about and some she hasn’t. Some explanations we’ve discussed in-depth and some she has absorbed silently. I know she’ll feel comfortable asking more when she needs to do more. I have told her many times that I always want her to be able to ask me anything at any time and I hope she takes me up on that.

This summer she outgrew her booster seat in the car, got her ears pierced, and requested a certain feminine undergarment, which she wears every day. She brushes her hair before she leaves the house. She swims like a fish, she learned to ride a bike, and she earned her red solid belt in martial arts–the last belt before becoming a black belt. Watching her take the test to earn her red solid I was awed by the confidence and power she has developed since she began learning martial arts four years ago. It is increasingly apparent what she is capable of accomplishing.

She spent two weeks at sleep-away camp–of which she apparently was homesick for one, but she still threw herself into archery, fishing, and wilderness skills and had a great time. She wrote us a letter every day. At camp she swam in the lake daily. She jumped off the high dive and swung into the lake on the rope swing, neither of which she did last year and both of which she swore she wasn’t ready for the day we dropped her off at camp. She remains terrified of thunderstorms and she sleeps with seven stuffed animals every night. She becomes impossibly sad or angry or frustrated without warning. She glares. She cries. So do I, right?

These days she is demographically classified as a tween, which seems particularly accurate right now. Even at nine, she seems poised to become a teenager while still clinging to the vestiges of kid-dom that she loves. She wants to play with her little brother’s toys and read picture books and watch cartoons, but also be independent and grown-up and fierce and beautiful. She wants to snuggle and she wants to be in charge. I guess that could describe a lot of people I know, of many ages.

She wants to be Eliza Hamilton (the one on the left in the picture above) for Halloween. I have no idea where we will get an Eliza dress. If you have an idea, please let me know. I will pay you if you want to sew one for her. Much as I love the American Girls for the same reason, I love that Zoe has learned so much about American history and the founding fathers and mothers even as it’s all tied up in romance and violence and politics and intrigue. Hamilton is as good an introduction to the complexities of real life as any. She knows when Hamilton was shot by Burr and where the Revolutionary War ended. Today at lunch we were making a list of mommy-daughter activities to do over the coming year, and she was excited at the prospect of visiting the National Archives when I told her that the documents that Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and their compatriots wrote are displayed there.

We’re also going to check out a roller derby bout, hike the Billy Goat Trail, bake for our neighbors, and volunteer at the food bank. When we decided she would not continue with Girl Scouts I committed to special monthly mommy-Zoe activities. I imagine these outings will provide more opportunities for these conversations. And for me to learn to give her space when she needs it.

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 10.41.31 PMUsually I use this space to share my own experiences. Right now my experiences are not the most important ones to share. Instead I want to share some other voices that everyone needs to hear.

This is a letter to four-year-old Dae’Anna Reynolds, who was in the back seat of the car when her mother’s boyfriend, Philando Castille, was murdered by a police officer.

Dear Dae’Anna:

You and I have never met, but I know your little Soul. It is one of bravery, courage, and wisdom – an old Soul, really. I suspect that you get these qualities from your Mommy, Diamond, who displayed such calm and composure when her fiancé, Philando, was killed earlier this week. I watched the video your Mommy recorded, and I was so scared. But it was not as scary as it must have been for you, sitting in the backseat, watching it all happen. I continue to keep Philando, and you, and your Mommy in my prayers. I hope that whatever sadness you feel goes away quickly, so that you can get back to being the kid that you are who loves fireworks!

When I heard you comforting your Mommy in the video while in the back of the police car, letting her know that you were there, and that everything was going to be OK, I wept. I wept for many reasons all at once. First, you were so strong. Second, you knew exactly what to say; I was in awe of your ability to console your Mommy in such a loving way – the way she would console you. Third (and this made me cry a little harder), in that moment, I watched you step into your birthright as an African American female, taking on inherited responsibilities that are often a cross to bear. You had to be strong in the midst of hatred directed toward our people. You could not be the child that you are; you had to grow a little faster than most girls. You bore witness to what enslaved women of our ancestry bore witness to – the murder of our black men. At only 4 years old, you experienced what it is like to be a black woman in this country.

Now that you have been initiated, I want you to know that being a black woman is awesome! We come from descendants who were pharaohs, queens, peace activists, tribal leaders and more, with origins from our motherland, Africa. Our history is made up of rituals, customs, and traditions that center on the family unit, spiritual growth, pride for where we come from, strength, and resilience. My favorite thing about being a black woman is that I am supported in our community, and encouraged to be all that I can be. It is also nice to have so many options on ways to style our hair!

I want you to know these things because being a black woman can sometimes be difficult in the country where we live. The oppression our ancestors experienced in the United States has been deeply internalized, so much so that we unconsciously become slaves to this society, by feeding into stereotypes, denying our wellness, degrading our bodies, and working harder to reach a white-Americanized standard of success. We forget to be and live free, because for so long we were never free. We take on the mindset that we must struggle to survive, instead of thriving. We often forget that we are women of worth.

What happened to Philando is something that you will never forget, and I beg you not to let this traumatic experience lead you to believe that because you are a person of color, your value is diminished. Remember what I said above? You are strong, courageous, brave and wise. These are qualities you also inherited, and I encourage you to use them for good in this world. I encourage you to use your gifts to build a life for yourself that reflects your biggest dreams. I encourage you to tap into your wisdom when the racists sentiments that still exist in our society today, lead you to doubt that you are deserving of a life well lived – you are deserving, Dae’Anna. I encourage you to embrace your black skin because it is beautiful; because you are good, and because you are a human being with inalienable rights to all that is good in this world. Remember this, sweetheart. Remember when people look down at you as inferior because of your dark skin, that you can be anything you want – you come from royalty. And know that you are loved by so many people – your Mommy, Philando, me – everyone, because you are you.

You can read the original post here: http://www.traceylrogers.com/empowerment-blog/to-the-little-girl-in-the-backseat. This was written by my friend Tracey Rogers. She has a perspective I do not. Tracey’s letter was read in church today.

The other words I want to share are, in part, those of my pastor, Rev. Aaron McEmrys, but mostly he is using the pulpit to share the words of Black Americans who have the courage to continue to speak out about how our country is not going to treat them like their lives matter until we all wake up.

Today’s sermon was called “Red Rain.” If you don’t feel like watching the whole service, you can skip to around minute 38 to hear Rev. Aaron speak hard and necessary truths.

If the video doesn’t work for you here, you can visit http://unitarianuniversalistchurchofarlingtonva.yourstreamlive.com and click on the archived service from July 17, 2016.

I urge you to learn more. Especially if you are white.

http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles

http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision

It is not an unreasonable demand to be treated as if your life matters.

One of the many online memes says, “Black people are literally saying, ‘stop killing us,’ and there are people saying, ‘but…'”

None of us can let this go on.

This is some of what Lavish Reynolds, Philando Castille’s girlfriend, was saying in the moments after he was shot.

[To police] Please don’t tell me my boyfriend’s gone. He don’t deserve this. Please. He’s a good man he works for St. Paul Public school. He doesn’t have no record of anything. He’s never been in jail anything. He’s not a gang member anything.

[Praying] Cover him Lord. That you allow him to still be here with us Lord. Still with me Lord. Please Lord wrap your arms around him. Please Lord make sure that he’s OK, breathing Lord. Please Lord you know our rights Lord you know we are innocent people Lord. We are innocent people. We are innocent.

Today our church service was led by members of our worship team, including me. I had the opportunity to share a reflection–like a sermon but shorter. Here’s what I said. If you want to watch, the archived video will be posted here shortly. 

juicy-fruit-gum-stick-i12Think about Juicy Fruit gum. Do you remember what it smells like? To me it smells like the small Methodist church where my Nana and Papa worshiped in High Point, North Carolina. Everyone knew my grandparents—so everyone knew me—and welcomed me warmly when we visited during every school holiday. Mr. McSwain always gave me a piece of Juicy Fruit gum after Sunday school. That gum, my Nana’s white shawl wrapped around me in the pew, her smooth black patent leather pocketbook, from which she extracted a dollar bill for me to put in the offering plate, my great Aunt Millie singing soprano in the choir, and my mom’s favorite cousin Rhonda playing the organ, not to mention my Nana’s rock solid devotion to Jesus, made me feel at home. I belonged.

For me, church and Christianity had everything to do with those warm, comforting feelings and nothing whatsoever to do with theology.

Meanwhile, back at home, my dad was—and still is—Jewish, and we enjoyed celebrating Hanukkah and Passover as a family. But our annual forays to synagogue for high holy days left me confused. I didn’t understand Hebrew and I didn’t know anyone besides my dad. Judaism seemed remote, whereas Christianity was intimate.

So when I was 12, I became Presbyterian. I helped build houses in West Virginia, and taught Vacation Bible School to four-year-olds. For my first college spring break I went to Florida with my Presbyterian fellowship group, not to lie on the beach, but to build a tent city for migrant workers after Hurricane Andrew devastated the town where they lived. After college, when I moved to Arlington, I joined a wonderful Presbyterian church here and met people who I now know are my friends for life. I was chosen to be an elder—even though I was only in my 20s—the equivalent of a member of the board. In all of these churches, I loved the people, the music, and the opportunity to serve. I admit I glossed over some of the words of the traditional prayers, and didn’t dwell on the scripture. I convinced myself it didn’t really matter if I didn’t believe what everyone else did, as long as I felt at home. Then, when I met my husband in 2003, he asked me a lot of tough questions about my theology, and I realized it did matter.

After a bit of searching, I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church—not this one. I was excited to finally find a church whose theology matched mine. Yet, in the middle of that large congregation, I still felt alone. I struggled to find community and a sense of belonging. I made a few friends there, and improbably sang in one of the choirs, but most of the time I came and went on Sunday morning unrecognized, and the big events in our family were dealt with impersonally or went unnoticed by the church.

In January 2015 my friend Dana Cook, who I’ve known since our now nine-year-old daughters attended preschool here together, invited us to UUCA. I told myself I didn’t have to come back if I didn’t like the service, because I was feeling a little down on church, and braced for disappointment.

But leaving worship that morning I was blown away—completely surprised and thrilled by Rev. Aaron’s thoughtful and challenging sermon, and by the warm welcome I had received here. I knew I would return the next Sunday.

In the year and a half since my kids and I started coming to UUCA, we have been fully embraced by the congregation. Here, I can honor my Christian and Jewish roots but still nurture my own theology. I feel confident that what my kids learn here is in keeping with our family’s values and beliefs and that all of us will be enriched by the variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences that members of our community bring with them.

Brené Brown, a researcher and author whose books and TED talk I highly recommend, wrote, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

What’s been transformative about being my whole self here has been the unexpected opportunities I’ve found to be with your whole selves, when you’re making that choice to show up and be real, creating space for the kind of conversations you don’t usually have with strangers.

The first opportunity I found here to cultivate those connections was with the covenant group I agreed to co-facilitate with Mary Pike last fall. I had only met Mary a couple times when she taught my daughter’s RE class. I had no idea how cool or what an intuitive leader she was. I had never even been in a covenant group before. All but one member of the group were strangers to me in October.

But then we spent time together. Exploring what matters to us and why we matter. Sharing our insecurities, fears, hopes, and joys. Revealing our true selves, knowing that we would be fully listened to and heard, and never judged. If you haven’t been part of a covenant group, this might sound ridiculous to you, or even terrifying. But actually, this kind of openness is a balm for the soul.

At our last meeting, we talked about how often we would rush to church for our meetings after a long day, feeling preoccupied or stressed out. But always by the end of our time together, the feeling was relief. Like sinking into your favorite armchair. It is a relief to be able to bring your true self into the room and be seen and loved. Stone by stone, we were dismantling those walls we usually fortify between strangers and ourselves. The walls around our deep truths crumbled, as we felt safe to share with the group.

Another transformative experience I’ve had here has been in the circles of trust retreat series that Rev. Aaron brought to UUCA last fall. Based on the work of Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer, the premise of circles of trust is that everyone has an inner teacher. Whether you call that your heart, soul, spirit, or some other name, it is the source of strength within. As we all know, however, sometimes the noise of our lives can drown out the still, small voice of that inner teacher. Or sometimes we know exactly what our inner teacher is trying to say but we want to cover our ears and squeeze our eyes shut because we don’t want to hear what we know is the truth. So in circles of trust, you spend time reading, writing, thinking, and talking to enable your inner teacher to find its clear, strong voice. Sometimes this requires the help of others.

To help each other hear the inner teacher with greater clarity, what we practice in circles of trust is asking open, honest questions. When someone is brave enough to share a challenge he is facing, we help him find new ways of understanding or looking at the problem without offering advice, trying to fix his problem ourselves, or telling him about when that same thing happened to us. Instead we ask questions that require him to look within. Questions that don’t have yes or no answers. Questions that use metaphors to help him visualize himself and his dilemma in a new way.

The result of this process is we learn about ourselves. We learn what shadows lurk in our spirits and how we can channel our shadow sides, because they are part of who we are. We can’t ignore or deny them. For me, one of those shadows is the need for control. My internal struggle when things don’t go as planned can be intense, but I have come to understand the silver lining of this shadow is a gift for taking care of business. I’ve also learned that, even if I can’t—and shouldn’t—eliminate my shadow, I can work to modulate it. Fortunately I have the opportunity to do that many times a day as a parent, because there’s a lot about raising kids that you can’t control.

We learn about the ways we stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap—the space between what is and what could be, and how to hold that tension with as much grace as we can muster, even though we might be tempted to just run away. For me the tragic gap appears both locally and globally. I stand in the tragic gap whenever I don’t talk to my kids the way I should. This often happens in those moments I mentioned earlier when I cannot control their behavior, which is to say, most moments.

I stand in the tragic gap when I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I am angry about the innocent people whose lives have been destroyed by our broken justice system, uncertain if creating a fair justice system is even possible, yet still inspired by the dedication of Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative.

Exploring ways to handle these tensions and contradictions, and even simply learning the vocabulary to identify them, has been transformative. When was the last time you faced a problem at home, at school, at work, or at church that had a quick and easy answer? To reach real and thoughtful solutions we have to ask good questions. Open, honest questions. Of ourselves and each other.

Not surprisingly, in the course of asking these open, honest questions, we learn about each other. Really learn about each other. We see each other’s true selves and hear each other’s truths. And just as the members of my covenant group experienced, it brings a feeling of relief. Your problems may not be solved. The world’s problems are definitely not solved. But you are not alone. You are held, accepted, and loved for who you are. You belong. That sense of belonging, the profound comfort in a world that can be so uncomfortable, is transformative. When I am truly seen and heard, I am vastly more capable of truly seeing and hearing you. Then I can share with you a measure of that comfort and that belonging.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.36.00 PMMy daughter is finishing a book in bed, reading with her book light while her brother sleeps on the other side of the room. This fills me with such delight I do not care how late she stays up. It helps that today is the last day of school, and there is nowhere she needs to be in the morning. I have turned off my 6:30am weekday alarm until September. My husband pointed out this morning that I never get up at 6:30 anyway. But that’s when I am supposed to get up, and that’s when I need to begin the process of gradually waking up and hitting snooze until it is absolutely necessary to get out of bed and start the day.

I am thankful there will be no more late passes until the fall. When Zoe and I looked at her end-of-year report card today at lunch I noticed that her teacher, or the school, or some benevolent being, didn’t even count her tardies for the fourth quarter, which were numerous. Only some of them were her fault. A few were mine. Many were caused by her brother needing to poop at the precise moment we’re walking out the door. Now he can poop any time of the morning that he pleases, because who cares if you’re late to camp?

Speaking of pooping, we are done with diapers! This feels miraculous to me, a day I was never quite sure would arrive. I discovered with Zeke that having a kid potty train when he has a fully functioning bladder is not so bad. I have a greater appreciation for Zoe’s years of struggle with a recalcitrant bladder and immense gratitude that it went so smoothly for Zeke. Now all we have to do every morning is pick out which superhero underwear he wants to wear. Tonight we discussed whether Superman wears underwear with little pictures of Zeke on it. He said Superman’s underwear also has pictures of Zoe and me on it. I guess that makes sense, since some of Zeke’s underwear has Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. So when Amazon delivers underwear to Metropolis, perhaps it’s the Rosso Family variety pack.

After Zoe and I and a few hundred students and parents from her school watched all the teachers and staff do their song and dance numbers after dismissal, one of my favorite traditions at Zoe’s school, we went out to eat so I could have lunch and Zoe could have pie while we pored over the last day contents of her backpack, including several more items that her teacher gave away to the kids so she wouldn’t have to pack them up today because the school renovation starts Monday. Zoe already came home bearing a dictionary, an atlas, and several other books she was thrilled to have “won” in class. Her teacher is quite clever.

Then at Zoe’s suggestion we went to a paint-your-own-pottery studio and made mosaics, which we had never done there before. We had a lovely, meditative time together, which we always do when we make art. She also painted a bowl. They sent us home with grouting kits to use to finish the mosaics in 48 hours when the glue dries. I have never grouted before. Exciting!

Finally, I am thankful that the three of us enjoyed an unprecedentedly peaceful dinner tonight at Silver Diner, which I allowed Zoe to choose in celebration of the last day of school and her great report card. We went after her martial arts class, and after I let the kids run around the turf room at martial arts fighting with swords made of pool noodles, and after Zeke totally averted a tantrum on his own when Zoe handed him a plain noodle instead of one with Superman duct tape on it, and after we talked with Zoe’s instructor about what’s required of her to earn her red solid belt at the end of the summer, and after we got snow cones (blue raspberry, cherry, and grape for Zoe; pineapple and strawberry for Zeke and me to share) from the truck in the Evolve All parking lot because I had promised the kids last week we would get them tonight. So really you can see we went to dinner quite late and given all that I fully expected any or all of us to meltdown, but we didn’t! Everyone ate all of their food. Zoe discovered she liked asparagus after eating it accidentally thinking it was green beans. We even got milkshakes (yes, I was super indulgent today–whatever) and the waitress brought Zeke a sthamiltonbroadway10rawberry instead of a chocolate but he decided he liked it anyway–another chance for a tantrum that didn’t happen! We listened and sang along to Hamilton at top volume in the car on the way
home, showered, and no one argued about anything. Zeke asked me to sing “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Helpless” in the shower but I couldn’t remember all the words, even though we’ve listened to it a gazillion times.

Seriously, this is all true. I know it sounds extraordinary. I didn’t yell at anyone all day. The kids didn’t fight. It was awesome. Of course now Zoe comes in and says she feels ill, which is probably because I let her have so many treats today. So, perhaps my fault. But otherwise it was such a lovely, peaceful day. You really need one of those every now and then.

 

 

IMG_8357Our fourth grade class had just returned from recess or PE when a classmate–nominally a friend–looked at me with disdain and said, “Betsy, you sweat too much.”

It’s true, I do sweat a lot. From what I’ve heard, it’s the body’s ingenious way of keeping itself cool while exercising. And at the time, it was perfectly reasonable that I’d be sweaty. We’d just been outside–exercising. But of course I didn’t point that out to her. I was just stunned by the way she’d taken a natural human bodily function–which of course I had no control over–and made it–and me seem disgusting. Thirty-two years later I can still picture the look of revulsion on her face.

Add to that my addiction to books as a kid (which happily continues) and aversion to sports, and that I was made fun of for years for being uncoordinated and lacking any athletic skills. I never joined any teams. I didn’t even learn to swim until I was 12, embarrassed by so many years of taking beginners lessons with five-year-olds.

So what am I doing on a 40+ women’s soccer team now?

Loving it.


When I first met my husband, I joined his co-rec soccer team because I wanted to challenge myself and because I was in love. His teammates were friendly and welcoming but I was consistently terrified at every game because I didn’t know what I was doing and everyone else did. Sometimes they would shout across the field, “Betsy, I’m passing to you!” just to give me the chance to participate (I’m looking at you, Chris Newton), but whether I would make contact with the ball was anyone’s guess.

My husband left the league because too many opposing players were trying to knock him down as if they were in the World Cup, so I joined a women’s team. They were, for the most part, insane. Everyone had played soccer in college and I was WAY out of my depth. I only lasted one season. I had kids. I wished I would someday find a team that was basically soccer moms, who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing, but who maybe had a coach or someone kind and patient to offer guidance.

A year ago I signed up for an adult beginner soccer clinic sponsored by the parks & rec department. Aimed at soccer parents who wanted to be able to keep up with or play with their kids and get a little exercise, it was tremendous fun and no pressure. I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn and play and the fact that I was surrounded on the field by other novices and there was nothing at stake. Not scary at all!

Unfortunately, after the clinic ended I signed up for a parks & rec sponsored pickup game, where I was knocked over twice within the first five minutes by giant steamrolling men who left me with a bruise on my leg that lingered for weeks. I took a hiatus.


This spring a friend who I knew from a freelance writers group told me she was putting together a women’s soccer team to play in the 40+ division and she wanted me to join. No one has ever wanted me to join a sports team. Also, she had never played soccer on a team either. She had also participated in the adult beginner clinic, in the session after I did, and loved it. I was ambivalent and nervous and actually pretty reluctant because what if it was a disaster? She persuaded me to join.

During my first game I messed up two throw-ins, prompting the referee to blow the whistle and award the ball to the other team. Playing left defender, I froze as a striker from the other team blew past me and scored. I assumed it was all my fault. I felt slightly better when the same played blew past other defenders when I was subbed out on the sidelines and scored three goals. It wasn’t just me. Still, I felt clumsy and unfocused and embarrassed. After that game I went home and cried. My soccer-loving husband reassured me that everyone has good days and bad days and that I hadn’t humiliated myself or cost the team the game or done anything terrible, really. I decided to go back.

And I got better, and our team got better, and I started having a lot of fun. I was proud of myself just for playing the whole game. Actually I was proud of myself for showing up. And  I wasn’t terrified. It turns out these women were extraordinarily friendly and kind. Most, if not all, of the opposing teams told our team that we were nice to play with and that they were glad we had joined the league. Everyone on the team–to a person–was encouraging and patient with everyone else. Only a few of us had serious soccer experience, but it did not matter. Those of us who were new gratefully took direction from those who had more expertise, always offered in the most helpful and constructive way. When players got injured, everyone else rallied around to offer support and see how the person was doing. After one game we celebrated someone’s birthday. We had a family night where all the kids and some husbands and even a dog or two came out to watch us play. We went to a Legwarmers show and got our 80s dance moves on and afterward half the team stuck around to keep me company while I waited for my Uber to arrive. I got knocked down (maybe tripped? Who knows?) a couple times, bruised a rib, but I recovered. I looked forward to playing every Monday night and felt exhilarated afterward.

At the end of the season I wrote an email to my team telling them a little about my previous fear of organized sports and utter lack of confidence in my abilities. One of my teammates–who I’d seen in every game run hard, kick well, evade opponents, and generally play fantastically–said this about her own history: “I was the scrawny, skinny kid who was picked last EVERY DAY on the playground for our daily kickball game.”

Our goalkeeper, who thankfully came to us already armed with mad keeper skills, said this: “I don’t think there are many things more powerful (except for perhaps your faith and your family) – than the sisterhood of a TEAM. You meet, from all different paths, and you work TOGETHER. You figure it OUT. You celebrate each other. You laugh. You help. You are a cheerleader, you are a grinder. You sweat. You hustle, and you try to shine and you try to make you teammates stars. Why?
So that you win together.
You grow together.”

Another player, who ruptured her achilles tendon in the last two minutes of the first game, but nonetheless cheered us on in person or virtually for the rest of the season, offered this: “I am also in awe of the courage all you newbies have shown, and not just because of the, ehem, element of danger involved. I thought it took guts to get back out there after 17 years, but it’s nothing compared with the guts it took to get out there for the first (or nearly the first) time after 40. Your ferocity was a joy to watch.”

Did I mention the team is called Ice & Ibuprofen? And that we had jerseys printed up with nicknames on the back? A self-described intense and perfectionist teammate called Sparkles said this, which I would never in a million years have guessed after watching her energy and tenacity on the field. “I decided to take a risk and play soccer for the first time since college intra-murals. And I was scared.to.death. What if I sucked (I did)? What if it was too hard (it was)? What if everyone was better than me (the majority of you are!)? What if I wanted to quit (sometimes I do because of all the reasons listed before this)? But five minutes into that first game I knew it was exactly the right place to be and this group is like a warm, cozy blanket of positive energy, support and crazy-ass enthusiasm.”

Which reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about and struggling with for a long time–this idea of not being good at–or good enough at–something and therefore not doing it. This is an idea that we grow into as adults. When you’re a kid, you’re typically encouraged to try everything and (until or unless you have teachers or parents or coaches who unintentionally destroy your little developing ego) it’s ok to do something that’s fun even if you don’t excel. But then we decide that if we’re not excelling at it, we can’t do it. Maybe we’re told that or maybe we just turn our back on a thing that may have brought us joy because we’re not the best at it. I was taught to excel, and be the best at whatever I did. In my mind that meant, if I wasn’t the best, I might as well move on to another arena where I could be.

In one of our games late in the season, my teammate Jonisaurus said I’d played the best game of my life. While the bar for me may be low, she was only commenting on what she’d observed and that she’d seen me working hard and playing Big_Hero_6_Baymaxwell. I have to say that felt pretty good. I know I am not going to become some kind of all-star athlete. I am not fast, as Baymax says in Big Hero 6, and I am overweight and I love junk food. But I am also strong, fierce, and determined. And it is so much fun to play soccer with these women.


For the past couple years I’ve been trying to change my definition of myself from the kind of person who…always returns calls and emails, always gets things done by the deadline, always remembers birthdays, always does the right thing, etc etc etc. The more mistakes I acknowledged making, the more I thought, “oh no, I’m not the kind of person who…” I didn’t give myself permission to make mistakes until pretty recently. I am working on eliminating this idea of being a certain kind of person from my identity. I am a human who tries hard to return calls and emails, get things done by the deadline, remember birthdays, do the right thing. But because I am human–and the mother of two kids and an entrepreneur and a daughter and a friend and a volunteer–I don’t always do it right. Things slip through the cracks. If you look closely at the cracks, you’ll find a lot of stuff stuck in there. And that is ok. It does not mean I have failed or am failing as a person.

Since I’ve been playing soccer this season, several women who I’ve mentioned it to have said similar things to what I thought before I played–they’ve never been athletic, they’re out of shape, they couldn’t keep up. Basically they’re not the kind of person who would play on a 40+ soccer team. But they could if they tried. I know it.

In celebration of the Summer Solstice, on Sunday (and Monday at a special service) at church we had fire communion, where we symbolically let go of something that was holding us back by lighting it on fire and throwing it into the air. You might think this is dangerous and a fire hazard, but Rev. Aaron has all these tricks up his sleeve, including using flash paper (technically nitrocellulose) in church. This is a little square of translucent paper that burns into nothing after you light it on fire. It’s used in magic tricks and theater. What we did was write down the thing we were letting go of and burn it up. I am letting go of this script that I am a certain kind of person, that there’s any reason to deny myself the opportunity for fun and joy and to try something I might love and never excel at. I am letting go of the absurd notion thatfront I can avoid making mistakes.

The mantra on this t-shirt runs through my head a lot.

Yes, I sweat a lot. That has not changed since fourth grade. I get stinky. And so does every other woman on my team. Because that’s what you do when you work hard–you sweat. My sweat is hard-earned and I am proud of it. I can’t wait to get back on the field.
Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 11.48.56 PM

The portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt that we talked about today on Zoe’s field trip.

This morning I spent chaperoning a third grade field trip to the Lincoln Memorial and the National Portrait Gallery. I completely rearranged my schedule to do this. It was not convenient. I’m not saying this because I deserve a medal (but I’ll always accept a cookie) but just to provide the context that I understood that my presence meant a lot to Zoe and it was the final opportunity of the year to go on a field trip with her class so I made it happen. All the previous field trips had been scheduled on days that I was required to drop off or pick up at preschool. I haven’t been asked to volunteer in her classroom this year (although I offered repeatedly) so I haven’t had the chance to get to know her classmates like I did the past two years.

So today I had a chance to check out the boy she has a crush on, and meet some of her friends who I had only heard about. I bounced along in the back of the noisy school bus marveling at my early childhood ambition to become a school bus driver. I escorted girls to the bathroom and tried to keep kids in line and handed out bag lunches. I watched in sympathy as two of the other chaperones who were 7ish months pregnant climbed up and down the stairs at the Memorial and in the museum. I appreciated not being pregnant.

When we returned to school, Zoe’s teacher said I was welcome to take Zoe home, as the class would not be doing any important work for the last 40 minutes of the school day today. I took Zoe to Dairy Queen where we enjoyed blizzards. We came home and Zoe took herself to the playground in our neighborhood while I sprouted a migraine and took a nap.

Then later in the afternoon when I mentioned to Zoe that I had a meeting at church tonight, she despaired. “I feel like you’ve been gone every night,” she lamented. I said, yes, I was out last night, when I left the house at 9pm, when she should have been in bed anyway, to play in my last soccer game of the season. I had spent every moment of the afternoon, from 4:45 when I picked her and her friend up for their soccer practice to 9pm, with her. This afternoon Zoe said to me, “I wish I could spend every minute of every day with you.” I know this is not true. I understand the sentiment behind it. The result, however, is both flattering and smothering.

At least last night when I left Zoe did not scream and wail like Zeke did. Zeke, who also should have been asleep but was not, desperately wanted me to put him to bed. He was clinging to me like I was about to disappear forever. This represents a recent recurrence of the all-mommy-all-the time phase we have previously experienced. We have also experienced all-daddy-all-the-time phases.

There is something so painful and sweet and confounding about these moments. It is excruciating to hear and see your child sob violently because you are going away, even if it’s for two hours and he’s going to be asleep, or at least calm, within five minutes after you leave. It is amazing and sometimes startling to be wanted so intensely, to know that you are the person that someone most wants to be with in the world at that moment, that you snuggling with him would provide complete contentment. And that snuggling and rocking and singing would provide contentment for you too. But at the same time you have to do other things sometimes. You have to exercise your body, cultivate grown-up friendships, nurture your spirituality, see a movie. You have to have a life of your own or that time spent with those little people who want you so much will feel less blissful and more resentful. You need to have a life so you can demonstrate to your children that you do have a life that does not revolve 100% around them. 98%, sure, but you need to squeeze out that 2% for yourself.

I have worked for myself for a decade now and I started my business in part because I wanted to be able to make my would-be kids my first priority, after witnessing bosses who were not particularly family friendly. I am thankful every single day that I get to be a mom, which I’ve dreamed of being since I was seven, and a writer, which I’ve planned on since I was eight. I try hard to be present for and involved with my kids while still giving them room to develop their own imaginations, relationships, and interests. Yeah yeah yeah. It is still really freaking hard to not feel like I’m disappointing them when I am not going to be with them. Zeke loves playing with the kids at his day care, loves his babysitter, is always smiling and happy when I pick him up. But he never wants to go there because he always wants to stay with me. My saying, “but I have to go to work” does not matter in the least to him. I don’t know why I bother saying it.

You can’t please everyone. You have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of your business-work, relationships, community. But all these reasonable ideas, rational concepts, true statements seem to dissolve like so many toddlers bursting into tears in the face of your children who want nothing more in the world than to be with you.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 11.14.14 AMAll though high school I was a volunteer at Fairfax Hospital. They used to call them candy stripers, and yes I wore a goofy red and white striped jumper, but technically I was a member of the hospital auxiliary. The volunteers–both teenagers and adults–would sit in a room and wait for calls to come in from various wards and labs in the hospital. The day chairman–Lynn, a really great woman–would announce the job and whoever wanted it would grab the slip of paper on which she’d written down the task. Blood bank to 9 west, or 24-urine from 6 east to lab, or wheel someone from outpatient surgery to the lobby to be picked up by his family, etc.

I loved doing this. I never had the slightest interest in becoming a nurse or a doctor or anything else medical, but I really enjoyed helping people at the hospital. From that experience and from my own experience in hospitals, I have come to recognize that nurses are HEROES. During the labor and delivery of both my children, it was the nurses who did the lionesses’ share of the work. And when my kids have had surgeries, the doctors seemed to breeze in and out in a flash while the nurses helped us prepare and recover from the procedures. If you’ve ever been in a hospital, you know what I’m talking about.

So one of my favorite parts of my work for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society has always been interviewing the Society’s phenomenal visiting nurses. NMCRS has a cadre of several dozen nurses working around the country with combat-injured veterans, new moms and their babies, and retired service members and their spouses. The nurses visit whenever needed and for as long as they are needed, at absolutely no cost to the patient. They provide equal parts empathy, compassion, and education in addition to any actual medical assistance. They are counselors, cheerleaders, job coaches, social workers, surrogate moms and grandmas. They are there 24/7 for their patients.

Today is the last day of National Nurses Week, which began last Friday on Florence Nightingale’s birthday.

Here are excerpts from and links to the five profiles I wrote of NMCRS nurses. They are heroes, not only to all of their patients, but to me.

Greta Ellison:

In New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 80s, next to Tulane Medical Center, was the Veterans Administration hospital and Charity Hospital. While in junior high and high school, Greta Ellison would take the bus after school to Tulane, where her mother worked. Walking to the Medical Center, she would see patients and would-be patients with an array of injuries and ailments who were seeking medical care and other kinds of help as well. The need was vast, she observed. “It was utter chaos,” she said. “I had this extreme sadness and empathy at the same time, and I didn’t know what to do.”

When she was a senior in high school, a friend of Ellison’s was in an accident and was admitted to the intensive care unit at the charity hospital. She went to visit and was appalled by the patients lining the halls, and the hospital overrun with sick people. When she buzzed for admittance to the ICU, she was stunned by the angelic appearance, the poise, and the confidence of the nurse who welcomed her, gently but frankly explained the condition of her friend who she had come to visit, and guided her to his room. “I knew right then that I wanted to be a nurse,” Ellison recalled.

– See more at: http://legacy.planwithnmcrs.org/national-nurses-week-2016-greta-ellison/#sthash.t3ESy5h5.dpuf

Sandy Thompson:

(I really related to what she had to say about those early days of motherhood)

If you’ve never given birth, it’s easy to underestimate the intensity of the physical and emotional transition to parenthood. “It’s just a dark path and nobody shines a light on it,” explained NMCRS traditional visiting nurse Sandy Thompson. “I tell moms, ‘you’re not crazy. Your body will heal and you’ll return to yourself.’”

Thompson knows that those first days, weeks, and months of parenting a newborn can be beautiful but grueling. “The moms can’t tell day from night and they feel like they don’t have choices,” she said. “You empower them with personal choices. You show them that they do have skills. You’re cheerleading and building confidence. You’re pulling out people’s gifts.”

– See more at: http://legacy.planwithnmcrs.org/national-nurses-week-2016-sandy-thompson-shines-a-light-on-the-path-of-parenthood/#sthash.27mhFRPV.dpuf

Peggy Walker:

At 107 years old, Mary lives alone in her family home and walks out to the mailbox every day. She doesn’t drive anymore and someone comes in to clean, but she still pays her own bills. Mary’s independence is possible thanks to the Society’s visiting nurse, Peggy Walker, who checks in on Mary once a week, just as she does for dozens of other Navy and Marine Corps retirees or their spouses. “It’s so rewarding to be able to help people live safely at home, if that’s what they want,” Walker said. “Mary inspires me.”

No stranger to the services of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, at 27 Mary had a high-risk pregnancy and had to deliver at a civilian hospital instead of the Navy hospital. Her baby girl weighed only three pounds. “She didn’t have the money for a civilian hospital,” Walker explained. “She asked her husband, ‘how are we going to pay for this?’ and he said, ‘don’t worry about it. I went to Navy Relief and they’re going to pay for it.’” Mary’s daughter is now 80 and lives across the street from Mary.

– See more at: http://legacy.planwithnmcrs.org/national-nurses-week-2016-peggy-walker/#sthash.lLwEAQhQ.dpuf

Diana Patterson:

(I wondered if she became a nurse hoping she would work with a doctor who looked like George Clooney one day. I didn’t ask that question.)george

As a high school student, Diana Patterson discovered nursing through the television screen. “I used to watch ER and that got me hooked,” she laughed. But after earning her bachelor’s degree in public health—thinking she would go into medical administration—she went to nursing school and realized she loved both direct patient care and mentoring other nurses. She returned to school once again to pursue a master’s degree so she could teach nursing.

Meanwhile, Patterson’s professional interests merged with her personal life when her brother deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the Army. “When I was in nursing school I had the opportunity to meet an admiral,” Patterson recalled. “He asked me if I could have any job, what would it be. I told him I would love to work with returning soldiers with PTSD. When my brother came back from Iraq I started hearing about the things he and his friends had gone through, and I was hoping there was something to help them.”

– See more at: http://legacy.planwithnmcrs.org/national-nurses-week-2016-diana-patterson-comes-up-with-creative-solutions-for-clients/#sthash.KwyjThsA.dpuf

Esther Valier:

Trusting her own instincts and her body’s ability to do what it was meant to do, Esther Valier gave birth to her daughter Leala (her second child) at home in rural Arizona in 1980, even after her physician fired her as a patient, refusing to provide prenatal care after she told him her birth plan. Unbeknownst to Valier, her daughter had an unusual congenital defect in which a small section of blood vessels in her intestines had atrophied, causing the baby to become extremely sick when she was only a few days old, jaundiced with a high bilirubin count. The local hospital rushed mother and child by ambulance to Tucson, more than three hours away, where they were better equipped to care for Leala, who required abdominal surgery a few days later. Valier and Leala stayed in Tucson for three-and-a-half weeks, which changed Valier’s life.

“My experience in the hospital with the nursing staff motivated me to become a nurse,” Valier explained. “The care we received, the role modeling from the nurses who were taking care of Leala launched my devotion to nursing.”

– See more at: http://legacy.planwithnmcrs.org/national-nurses-week-2016-esther-valier/#sthash.nhalh36a.dpuf

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Where I’m From

(After George Ella Lyon)

I am from newspapers, from Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, and garage sale treasures.

I am from the copycat suburbs: nondescript, comfortable, safe for roller skating around the cul-de-sac.

I am from the dogwoods and azaleas, uneven lawns decorated with dandelions.

I am from board games and stubbornness, from Myrtle and Milton Jennings and Rosenblatt.

I am from the bakers and bringers of cakes and the suppressors of strong feelings.

From you can figure it outs and keep your chin ups.

I am from old hymns whistled in the kitchen, Nana’s white shawl over my shoulders in the pew, a dollar from her black patent leather pocketbook for the offering plate, from matzoh, and colored wax melting into the menorah.

I’m from Santa Monica, and a village in Romania that no longer exists, and Hungary and Scotland and Ireland, from deviled eggs and chicken salad and Kraft macaroni and cheese.

From the chewing gum Papa gave Nana as an enticement, which she washed off in case of “love powders,” the trains Papa rode as a child after his mother died and he was unwanted, and the dance in Yonkers where Max first laid eyes on Sally, with her red hair and green dress.

I am from trunks and thick albums and framed, fading collages documenting all the moments from all the decades, and the people who we hardly recognize now.

Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
May 3, 2016

 

How it came to be:

Because blessing is the theme for May at my church and because he is awesome, Rev. Aaron reminded us that the greatest blessing we can give to others is our whole selves.

At our worship team meeting last week, he shared with us this poem by Kentucky poet George Ella Lyon.

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins, 
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride. 
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening, 
it tasted like beets.) 
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own. 

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses, 
          from Imogene and Alafair. 
I’m from the know-it-alls
          and the pass-it-ons, 
from Perk up! and Pipe down! 
I’m from He restoreth my soul
          with a cottonball lamb
          and ten verses I can say myself. 

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch, 
fried corn and strong coffee. 
From the finger my grandfather lost 
          to the auger, 
the eye my father shut to keep his sight. 

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures, 
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams. 
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Then Rev. Aaron handed this out–like a mad lib for spiritual history.

I am from _______ (specific ordinary item), from _______ (product name) and _______.

I am from the _______ (home description… adjective, adjective, sensory detail).

I am from the _______ (plant, flower, natural item), the _______ (plant, flower, natural detail)

I am from _______ (family tradition) and _______ (family trait), from _______ (name of family member) and _______ (another family name) and _______ (family name). 

I am from the _______ (description of family tendency) and _______ (another one).

From _______ (something you were told as a child) and _______ (another).

I am from (representation of religion, or lack of it). Further description.

I’m from _______ (place of birth and family ancestry), _______ (two food items representing your family).

From the _______ (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the _______ (another detail, and the _______ (another detail about another family member). 

I am from _______ (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).

 

All of us filled in the blanks, and then we shared a glimpse of our histories and our souls, visualizing the house on top of the mountain in China where you could watch the storms roll in, tasting the grilled cheese like mom learned to make in the orphanage, hearing the crack of baseballs.

Rev. Aaron invited us to share our poems with the congregation as the call to worship in the service. Also he gave us handmade Bhutanese paper to hand write our poems on. For some reason this was the hardest part of the whole thing–overcoming my feeling that my words were somehow unworthy of the paper. He convinced me that the paper was waiting for my words.

When we give ourselves as blessings, we invite others to do the same. So today I read my poem and I shared my blessing, with people I love, friends and acquaintances, and total strangers, seen and unseen.

You can watch the service here. (Click on Archives, then on Sunday worship 11:15am Sunday, May 8, 2016–you’re welcome to watch the whole service, or you can skip to around 8minutes 30 seconds to find my poem)

If you write your own version of “Where I’m From,” I’d love to read it. Share your blessing!

 

alexander-childrens-book-disneyI struggle with a destructive habit of constantly tabulating the mistakes I’ve made and the things that have gone wrong when I’m having a bad day. I know about counting your blessings. I know the things for which I am thankful are abundant. But some days are just not good and I tend to make them worse.

My past two days were Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days. Actually they were mine. And I cannot seem to stop perseverating about my failures, large or small. I learned that word from a therapist who said I did it and I was embarrassed to not know what she was talking about. A failure in and of itself. My birthday is next week and somehow all these little injuries feel like bad omens. Shouldn’t I have my life more under control when I’m about to be 42?

Today I had part one of my first root canal. Tomorrow is part two. I have been a diligent tooth brusher my entire life, and only had one cavity ever until now, when I have several, including one so deep that it required a root canal. I felt convinced my tooth decay represented moral depravity on my part. I have an extraordinarily strong gag reflex. So I spent the time today in the dentist’s chair alternating between silently weeping and loudly gagging. Sometimes I did both simultaneously. The dentist was patient and nice about it. I was embarrassed. I felt sure that she and her entire staff sighed with relief when I left, although not that much relief since I have to come back tomorrow morning. She handed me prescriptions for antibiotics, ibuprofen, and valium in the hope that I could tolerate the rest of the procedure with less drama.

I won’t actually share my litany of troubles, because no one likes a complainer. Although many people like to complain. And I don’t like to complain. Just remind myself internally of all of my shortcomings and the world’s brokenness.

For several weeks now I’ve been listening to audio books in the car when I’m driving alone. I love music and I love NPR, but there came a point where every time I turned the car on I would hear, “And the death toll in [name any place] continues to rise.” Or “Today Donald Trump said [any revolting thing].” And I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I listened to The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy, as a tribute to one of my favorite authors, who recently died from pancreatic cancer. Although I knew something about Conroy’s family from his autobiographical novels, this memoir laid bare the lifetimes of abuse, drama, and emotional disfigurement that Conroy and his family experienced and foisted upon each other. Plus Conroy’s writing is inventive and lush. He describes so much pain with so much beauty. Part of what struck me about The Death of Santini is how, despite suffering cruel and bizarre treatment from each other time and again, most of the family never gave up on each other. I felt thankful that, however eccentric or idiosyncratic my family is, we are fundamentally kind. That counts for a lot.

I am thankful for my family, and for modern oral health care, even if it is unpleasant and uncomfortable. I am thankful that I could come home today from the dentist and take a long nap. I am thankful that I was able to help Zoe with her math homework, and that Zeke asked me to read Where the Wild Things Are, and The Mommy Book, and Maisy’s Book of Seasons to him at bedtime and that he snuggled in deep on my lap under his favorite crocheted blanket. I am thankful that my family liked the dinner I cooked for them, courtesy of my friend Trader Joe, even though I couldn’t eat any of it. I am thankful that people were cleaning our house today while I was at the dentist. I am thankful for the music I listened to at the dentist, and all music that brings me joy.

Yesterday Zoe and I listened to this song about 25 times. The fabulous youth choir at our church sang it and we found this recording on YouTube that the song’s composer created with a choir at Texas State University. I think I need to listen about 25 more times.

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