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When I was taking Biology 101 the first semester of my freshman year at William and Mary, and I realized I was failing, I went to see the professor. I told him I didn’t understand why I was failing–I’d never received lower than a B in my life, with the exception of some rough spots in Calculus and Chemistry in 11th grade. I had certainly never failed a class.

I had also never had to study that much. It turned out college classes were just a wee bit more rigorous than what I was used to in high school. The Biology professor asked if I was an English major. I said yes, but I didn’t understand how that was relevant. “You have to know the parts of the cell,” he explained. “You have to identify each part and where it goes and explain what it does. You can’t just understand the idea of a cell or describe the meaning of a cell.”

I realized I needed to get my act together to pass, which I did by a hair, with a D minus. I also avoided taking any further biology classes until my last semester of senior year, when I enrolled in “Insects in Society” to fulfill the science requirement I needed to graduate.

Between college and now my abilities to pay close attention, to adapt and apply focus to a variety of tasks, and certainly to take new challenges seriously, have all improved. Thankfully I have learned a few things since I was 18. But in most cases I couldn’t pinpoint where or when I figured out how to step up my game. I just evolved.

In recent years I have been privileged to watch my daughter’s transformation in martial arts from someone who understands the idea of the techniques and gets the concept of martial arts to someone who literally embodies the precision, power, persistence, grace, and strength of a martial artist.

Zoe began taking martial arts classes the same week she started kindergarten. She was energetic and determined and cute. She was not especially powerful, focused, or coordinated. Not that that matters so much when you’re five. Emerson Doyle, who owns the studio that was Creative Martial Arts when Zoe started there and which later became EvolveAll, has always emphasized that martial arts is for life. Studying martial arts is about each individual’s journey to grow, learn, and yes, evolve. The staff at EvolveAll has high but age-appropriate expectations.

Master Emerson and his team of instructors have consistently encouraged and motivated Zoe and her classmates. They are patient and kind but also unwavering in their demands that students push themselves and do their best.

I have always appreciated how in martial arts, unlike in many other settings, Zoe struggled–and sometimes failed–to pass a particular test or master a specific technique in a given time period, but never gave up. EvolveAll’s instructors have always made it clear that you will always get another chance. You have to work, and nothing is handed to you, but you will always get another chance.

For a long time I watched Zoe practicing martial arts and, while of course I was proud of the hard work she was doing with her body and mind, I wondered if she was going to really get it. Even though every parent knows they’re not supposed to compare their kids to other kids, when you’re sitting there watching other kids seemingly excel at a difficult task with ease, it can be hard not to wonder why it’s hard for your kid. Sometimes I felt like Zoe was performing a dance–which was beautiful–based on martial arts, rather than actual martial arts. I remember for the first few years she was practicing, Mr. Christian would constantly remind her to kick higher–above her belt. I remember watching her during class and seeing her mind wander as she got distracted or played with her hair or her belt or just gazed out the window. I would try to get her attention with my mind and look intently at her, motioning that she needed to look at the instructors and pay attention. I’m sure I said it out loud more than once. Probably not that helpful.

Christian and Emerson talk about “the switch” that students make at some point in their martial arts practice. The moment where they truly get it, where they lock in to how to master their bodies and their minds–at least for 45 minutes at a time–when they start to understand the black belt mindset. For a long time, I didn’t have any idea when Zoe would reach that point. She didn’t either.

At every growth ceremony when we watched students completing their black belt requirements, I would ask Zoe if she could see herself in their position someday. She would always shake her head no.

From the beginning, when she was in kindergarten, she said her goal was to become a black belt, but she couldn’t quite picture how that would actually happen.

When Zoe was nine, she earned her red solid belt, which is the final step before black belt at EvolveAll. For all the lower belt ranks, there are a series of specific, concrete requirements for students to advance to the next belt level. Once you’re a red solid, however, the process becomes exasperatingly intangible. Instructors are looking for the blackbelt mindset. They’re looking for “the switch.” And you really can’t predict when it’s going to happen.

I was worried at one point when Zoe’s friend Ellie, who she had been in class with for years, earned her black belt, and Zoe didn’t. Ellie was two years older than Zoe, and significantly bigger and stronger. It was clear that Ellie had made the switch, but I was afraid Zoe would be upset or feel like she’d been left behind. Instead, Zoe seemed to be genuinely thrilled for Ellie, and definitely nowhere close to ready to follow her. I had to trust Zoe’s knowledge of herself, which can be hard. It’s always tough to know how much to push your kid and when to back off. I’ve had to remind myself many times of Emerson’s mantra that martial arts is for life, and there is no rush, no race for Zoe to finish. There is conditioning, community, and challenge, and that is plenty.

Then, a couple years ago, Zoe started to envision her path. She made becoming a black belt her goal, not just for someday, but for that year, and then the next year. She stopped asking if she could skip class when she was tired. She started going to more classes. She asked me to take her to the studio for extra practice when a test was coming up. She started helping teach the lower belt classes. At first she was not good at teaching and had no confidence in her ability. Then she got better and gained confidence. She stopped being afraid of sparring and embraced it. She started winning some of her grappling matches. Meanwhile, she grew several inches and learned to kick higher than I thought possible.

Every growth period includes a black belt pre-test, which all red solids and black belts are invited to participate in. Master Emerson works these kids hard during these tests. It is intense. Over 90 minutes they do hundreds of exercises and demonstrate techniques and grapple and spar. At the end of the test, all of the current black belts gather with the instructors to discuss which red solids are ready to move up, and prepare to become black belts.

At the test this past June, all the current black belts and the instructors thought Zoe was ready. But Zoe did not think Zoe was ready. So Master Emerson said she needed to wait. If Zoe didn’t believe she could become a black belt, she shouldn’t become a black belt. Yet.

The next black belt pre-test rolled around this October. This time, Zoe knew exactly who she was and what she could do and she did it. After Master Emerson announced that she would be one of three red solids who were selected to prepare to become black belts this time around, all the girls in the class mobbed Zoe in a sweaty group hug. Mister Christian walked off the mat and gave me a hug, because he has seen how much time I’ve spent watching Zoe practice and had countless conversations with me about what she needed to do to reach her goals and how we could help her, and now she was there. Or almost there.

One week from tomorrow, Zoe will attempt to complete the requirements to earn her black belt in martial arts.

She will break five boards using five different techniques. She will grapple and spar with her friend and mentor Sophie, who has been patiently helping her train, insisting that Zoe use more power, more power, more power. She will read from the essay she’s written about her journey from white belt to black belt. Once she has successfully conquered these challenges, she will take off her red solid belt and hang it around her neck. Sophie will take off her own black belt and tie it around Zoe’s waist. Zoe will receive an actual sword. And she will chop fruit with it. I will probably cry.

Most importantly, Zoe will know that she worked toward this moment for seven years. Just like she was in kindergarten, she is energetic, determined, and cute. But a lot has happened since then. Now Zoe is strong and powerful, persistent and resilient, generous and graceful. Of course I will be proud. But I’m already proud, not because of what she’s about to do, but because of who she is and what she has learned about herself.

Zeke turned to me this afternoon
from his position sprawled on the couch
watching Spider-Man cartoons
and asked if I knew what he did
when he arrived in his classroom
this morning
on the first day
of first grade.

I asked what
and he said he cried
because he was feeling really shy.

I said I was sorry
that he had been so upset
and asked him what happened
when he started crying
he said the teacher came over
and talked to him
and made him feel better.

I asked what she said or did
to make him feel better
but he didn’t remember.

He said he only cried
for twice the amount of time
it takes him to brush his teeth.

He said there’s no one
he knows sitting at his table
but there is a boy who
speaks another language.

“What language does he speak?”
I asked
Zeke said,
“A language I’ve never heard before.”

At least at recess Zeke got to play with Jack
his best kindergarten buddy
who is in a different class
and moving to Chicago soon anyway
they played hide and seek and Zeke said
Jack is really good at hiding.

Last night at bedtime
Zeke seemed relaxed
although he said he was nervous and excited
then he told me I smelled like cheese
and I said I had brushed my teeth and
washed my hands and face
and hadn’t even eaten any cheese recently
he was not convinced
He was clutching his stuffed owl, named Even
I said, “maybe this owl smells like cheese!”

And he became deeply offended
that I did not
call Even by his name
“Why did you say this owl?” he demanded
“You know his name!”

At which point I realized
he was more upset than he had let on.

I had to leave the room to make sure
Zoe’s first day outfit was in the washing machine
and when I returned
and climbed back up into the top bunk
to resume snuggling with Zeke
he began to weep.

He asked me if I could come in the classroom
with him in the morning
even though he knew he was riding the bus
and I told him no, that wasn’t the plan
and he just cried
and wouldn’t speak
and wouldn’t answer my questions
just burying his face in Even.

You know how much I love to shower. My showers are quick and I prefer them cool–especially in the summer, I shower early and often. Growing up, I usually showered every day, but when I moved into my un-air conditioned dorm my freshman year in steamy August Williamsburg, I made multiple showers a day my way of life.

Twenty-seven summers later, even when I had to walk across a woodsy clearing, wearing my Adidas slides to protect my feet from sticks and rocks, and carry my soap and shampoo and towel and clothes with me, each of my three showers a day at family camp was bliss.

Of course, family camp was much more than a chance to bathe with bugs, but when it was 97 degrees every day and we were kayaking, climbing, dancing by the lake and simply walking across camp from one activity to another, I earned those showers. Not to mention that sometimes I was carrying my 50-pound child on my back when he alleged that he was too tired to move.

(For those of you who know me and have made fun of my affinity for showers for years, please note that I did not shower first thing in the morning any of the days we were at family camp. I brushed my teeth and put my clothes on and went to breakfast without showering, like a good camper. I only showered after I did something that got me really sweaty. Which, of course, is almost anything.)

Driving home yesterday some of those muscles I didn’t know I had were sore, but in the best possible way. Most of our stinky clothes are now clean again and most of our gear is unpacked, and we are already talking about what we will do next year when we go back.

This summer was Zoe’s fifth at Camp Friendship, but our first at Camp Friendship’s family camp, held for a week at the end of the summer when regular camp sessions are over. Family camp includes a lot of the same activities that the kids do during the summer, but with fewer counselors and rules and more flexibility.

Zoe loves Camp Friendship fiercely. She counts down the days until she can go each summer and it takes a while when she comes home for her to come out of her post-camp funk. She has made deep connections each year with campers and counselors and she has challenged herself to try new things every year and push herself . This summer during her second week at camp, she was named Camper of the Week in the Junior Girls Village, voted unanimously by the Junior Girls supervisor and all the counselors because of her enthusiasm and willingness to help out and because she was a friend to everyone. Zoe was modest about it when she told us, but when I talked with Kerry, the Junior Girls supervisor, she said Camper of the Week is a big deal. I was very proud.

My only sleepaway camp experience growing up was two weeks at the Young Writers’ Workshop held at the University of Virginia. While this was a phenomenal and formative experience for me, I stayed in a dorm and took writing classes, so I never experienced the typical sleepaway camp activities. For the past five years I’ve been both impressed and daunted by Zoe’s descriptions of her summer adventures at Camp Friendship.

This year I decided Zeke was old enough that we could go to family camp without him needing to stick by my side all the time, so we signed up for a half-week of camp. After watching the videos that Zoe showed us multiple times, Randy observed that family camp seemed like “an introvert’s nightmare” and opted to stay home. Now that we’ve been, I feel confident that he would enjoy most of the activities and he could easily sneak off for some quiet time when we’re singing cheesy songs or having a dance party. Anyway it was just the kids and me this time around.

Here’s what I LOVED about family camp:

  1. Being away from my phone and computer and all other screens for three days. Devices aren’t prohibited at camp but I decided our family did not need to use any. I used my phone only for the alarm clock so we wouldn’t miss breakfast, and to take occasional photos, but I had it on airplane mode (plus I don’t have any service in Palmyra, Virginia) the whole time and it was absolutely wonderful. I didn’t have to check anything for myself or my children or respond to anyone’s requests or even feel the constant buzzing in my pocket. I loved that we could just make a plan and write something down on paper and I didn’t have to text anyone to see where they were or tell them where I was or ANYTHING ELSE. And I didn’t have to bug Zoe to get off her phone. No one was asking for screen time. It was lovely.
  2. Not having to drive anywhere or even carry my keys. The only time we were in a motorized vehicle was when one of the staff members drove a van full of us back to camp after we enjoyed tubing a couple miles down the Rivanna River. We walked everywhere. As I mentioned earlier, there was a heat wave and we were hot and sweaty, but it was such a relief not to have to drive and great exercise. And I wasn’t even counting steps.
  3. We were archers! Zeke and I used a bow and arrow for the first time (Zoe has done archery every year for five years) and I discovered that it’s really fun and not as hard as I expected. I managed to hit the target most of the time. I don’t think Zeke did, but he made a valiant effort. I am eager to find someplace close to home where we can practice.
  4. We kayaked! Randy is a big kayaker and Zoe has kayaked a lot at camp, but I had only been in a kayak once or twice and was intimidated by it. Zeke had never done it at all. We started out in a kayak together but I quickly remembered that two people in a kayak is way harder than one, so I kicked Zeke out and made him get his own kayak. And he did it! And I did it! We paddled around the lake, forward and backward, under a little bridge, through a fountain, and we didn’t fall out!
  5. These are not in order of importance, because one of my absolute favorite things about family camp was that my kids could go wherever they wanted without me and I did not have to worry about them at all. Of course I knew Zoe would be fine on her own since she knows the camp much better than I do, but I wasn’t sure how it would go with Zeke. But he figured things out quickly and easily and I was delighted and relieved. He walked the 100 feet to the bathrooms by himself, even in the dark. He got food and drink for himself in the dining hall. He floated along in his tube down the river. On the night when everyone gathered at the beach by the lake, he explored on his own and built sand castles with some other kids and a counselor while Zoe and I were playing cards and dancing. When we were at friendship bracelet making, Zeke got frustrated and decided to go down to the pottery class instead, where he made a penguin and a Camp Friendship sign. One morning Zeke did kids camp–going on a scavenger hunt across the entire camp, culminating in a swim at the pool–while Zoe and I did other activities. On the night when we were at the lawn party, we played cornhole and volleyball and lawn bowling, and then he decided he wanted to play night tennis. He has been wanting to learn tennis lately, so he told me he was going to the tennis courts, and he left. He met up with us later for ice cream. He also had a lesson with a tennis pro another day we were there. It was wonderful to be in a place where I knew the kids would be safe, there were a million friendly counselors and staff people around in case they needed anything, and whatever they were doing would be something good.
  6. I did not have to cook or buy or order any food for myself or my children or anyone else. They served us three delicious hot meals a day, with plenty of healthy options. They had an ice machine where I filled up my water bottle a million times a day. They had endless lemonade. And they had 24-hour bagels, bread, cereal, and fruit available in case you needed a midnight snack. We only availed ourselves of this the last night we were there, after the dance party. We discovered some teenagers in the dining hall playing Cards Against Humanity and a cluster of kitchen staff watching Netflix on someone’s laptop. For many people, especially parents, or maybe just me but I think it’s many people, figuring out what to feed yourself and your family is a lot of work. It was such a relief to not have to worry about this at all for nine entire mealtimes.
  7. I met counselors and staff from England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Croatia, and South Africa. There were also American staff, but because many colleges in the US start in mid- to late-August, a lot of the American counselors have to leave before family camp. The international staff often have more flexibility. Everyone who works at the camp was incredibly friendly and kind. Almost every single person knew and loved Zoe. She was like a celebrity there and I was part of her entourage. By the time we left, a lot of them knew Zeke too. This job is an intense one, where you’re on duty nearly 24/7, so it requires a certain kind of commitment that’s different from scooping ice cream or mowing lawns. I talked with several staff members who work there year round, never having expected to make a career out of camp. Some of the counselors are in college or taking a gap year or just graduated, and some of them work in other fields, and some are trying to figure out what to do next, but in the meantime they are having a fabulous time at camp and those kids adore them.
  8. Zeke went fishing. I did not have to participate. Zoe played cards with Kerry while Zeke fished. Zeke did not catch anything but he had fun. And I didn’t have to participate. Did I mention that?
  9. I kinda learned how to make friendship bracelets. This is an extremely popular pastime at Camp Friendship. Every camper and counselor wears several on each wrist. I’ve seen Zoe doing it for years and it always seemed very mysterious. I have yet to complete a perfect bracelet, but I’ve made a couple for Zeke, who is quite forgiving, and I’ve started a couple more. This may not be a skill I will put on my resume, but it’s kind of cool and can be meditative to sit and play with string.
  10. My kids and I had fun together at camp. We were outside most of the time doing all kinds of cool activities. I didn’t have to pitch a tent or cook over a fire (although we did make s’mores, the supplies were provided for us–we just had to find sticks). We made tie-dyed shirts. Zoe and I tried to climb an insanely difficult high ropes obstacle. Zoe and Zeke zip lined across the woods. I didn’t have to worry about anything. It was hot and sweaty and exhausting. We had a great time. And I took plenty of cold showers.

originally posted on Invocations.blog

I feel like about half 
of my parenting challenges 
are deciding when to 
say to my children

Sometimes you have to be 
tough and 
brave and 
stick it out 
do hard things 
be independent 
you can do this
you got this

and when to say

It’s ok
you can take it easy
sit this one out
relax
skip this one
don’t worry about it
rest and
you can snuggle with me

There is 
no formula
no equation
no guidebook 

that tells me
which way to lean

I just have to 
figure it out
over and over again
every
single
day 

~Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
August 2019

Last Sunday my friend D and I led the service at UUCA, on the theme of Embracing the Mess. D wrote a great scene in which our kids (and one bonus kids) demonstrated how to make a mess and we figured out how to deal with it. This was not much of a stretch for any of us.

A moment from our “Embracing the Mess” service on July 14.

If you’d like to watch the service, visit http://www.uucava.org/livestream/ and click on archives and click on the July 14, 2019 service.

Here’s my reflection from Sunday:

One of the reasons I became a Unitarian Universalist after spending many formative years as a Presbyterian was that I wanted more variety than the Bible seemed to offer. When I discovered that UUs looked to many sacred and secular texts as sources of inspiration, I was delighted. As a writer and reader, I love discovering wisdom from new people and places.

That said, I acknowledge that the Bible includes some great stories. They’re not always easy to understand, universal truths are embedded in those parables. My perspective on Jesus is that he was a kind, compassionate, and generous person and a powerful teacher. When I think about embracing the mess, I keep coming back to this story from the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Picture the scene. You have an unexpected celebrity guest—plus his entourage—and you’re working frantically in the kitchen to find something suitable to serve. You’re pouring chips and salsa into your best bowls. You’re searching for the corkscrew to open a bottle of sauvignon blanc. You’re preheating the oven to pop in some Trader Joe’s appetizers. 

And you’re doing it all by yourself, while your sister is in the other room laughing at your guest’s amusing anecdotes and not lifting a finger to help you. Maybe it’s not your sister, but your significant other or your roommate. Regardless, you’re growing increasingly frustrated at them for having a good time while you’re working your tush off.

I have a question for you. How many of are familiar with the enneagram? How many of you are type 2?

For those of you who don’t know the enneagram, it’s an ancient tool used to help us understand motivations and behaviors. The enneagram can be a useful way to examine the choices we make and help us to become emotionally healthier. 

Type 2 is known as the helper or the giver. Martha was likely a type 2. A bunch of guys show up on her doorstep and she immediately gets to work making dinner. There is a need to be met, and she assumes it is her responsibility to meet it. She does not understand why no one else is helping, because it is so obvious to herthat there is work to be done. 

I will confess that I am also a type 2. After years of emotional work, however, I would like to think I am a healthy 2. This means I would probably head to the kitchen to get snacks for Jesus and his friends, but then I would order pizza so I could join in the conversation sooner. I might ask the apostles to take everyone’s drink orders. 

Unhealthy 2s plow ahead with all the work themselves, becoming increasingly resentful. Healthy 2s will ask for help when they need it, or even decline a request that someone makes of them. My spiritual director calls this “the holy freedom to say no.” The enneagram provides a direction for each type to move toward in order to balance out unhealthy tendencies. For type 2s, we are guided toward 4, known as the romantic or the individualist. I suspect Mary in this story was a 4. When Jesus showed up at her house, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, which was sit and hang out with him. What could possibly be more important?

I can’t count the number of times when I was younger that I cleared the table and started doing dishes when I had friends over just to get the mess out of the way. And then missed out on time I could have spent having fun and laughing with people I loved. The dishes will always be there. I have learned that community, conversation, and connection are much more important. 

A couple months ago, a friend of mine from college emailed me to say he and family were going to be in town and wanted to get together. He asked if we wanted to meet at a restaurant, but I suggested they come to our house, knowing it would be more relaxing, and that the kids could play, and we would have more time to talk. He agreed, although he suggested we get takeout and he offered to bring wine and dessert. I ordered dinner from Bangkok 54 and we had a fabulous time, and I did very little work.   

Of course, I’m not saying you never have to clean your house, but that embracing the mess provides an opportunity to cultivate both connection and creativity. 

How many of you have ever lived in a house overrun by Legos?

This has been my house for the past decade. 

We have built Lego sets of a lunar lander, Hogwarts, the Millennium Falcon, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, countless superheroes and villains and their vehicles, and many more. We have thousands of Legos that have been used to build fabulous creations even more imaginative than the sets you buy at the store. Everyone at our house is a builder, but Zeke in particular is on his way to becoming a master builder. Where I see Legos scattered all over the coffee table and the floor, he sees superhero hideouts and innovative spaceships and cars that can dive and fly and so many technologies that might actually come to fruition someday. I have no doubt that he could become an engineer and design the prototype for an actual car that flies.

Our house is also littered with overflowing bins of art supplies, books piled up next to densely packed bookshelves, and magazines with ideas for making new stuff out of old stuff you have lying around. Sure, sometimes I wish my house looked like something out of a magazine, where you’re sure no one actually lives there because there’s no stuff. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to give up the time our family spends making art, reading, and creating with everything that surrounds us. 

Embracing the mess opens up possibilities and allows for freedom. This can be risky. And liberating.

Both my kids attended AUCP, the phenomenal preschool located here at UUCA. After Zoe graduated and before Zeke started, AUCP launched a program called Timber Tuesday, where, every other week, a class spends the entire three-hour school day in the woods near Long Branch Nature Center. Rain or shine. I have never been an outdoorsy person, and I was skeptical about this at first, but AUCP’s director Susan Parker quickly sold me on the value of spending this time outside. Kids who struggled to conform to classroom expectations thrived outside when given plenty of space to explore. Kids with sensory or motor challenges pushed themselves to climb rocks and touch trees and splash in the creek. As a parent, one of the most important lessons I learned was that it’s ok to get messy. Just bring a change of clothes. Or be prepared to ride home in your underwear. 

I remember sometime after I had become a Timber Tuesday convert that my kids and I were out after a rainstorm. Instead of instructing my kids to avoid a puddle, I encouraged them to jump in it. They were astonished. 

They have certainly taken that encouragement to heart. Two weeks ago, our family was on vacation in Lewes, Delaware. One evening we went to the beach to watch the sunset. One minute we were walking with our toes in the water, and next thing I knew both of my kids were laughing and splashing, submerged up to their chests in the Delaware Bay, fully clothed. Then we went to get ice cream. Because why not?

(originally published on Invocations.blog)

Before my second baby was born
I used to worry (a lot) about 
having a boy
thinking, “what would I DO with a boy?”
as if he would turn out to be a different
species than me
rather than another gender
and that we would lack a 
common language

Now he is almost six
and I understand that 
what I was afraid of
was that he would be 
a stereotype
of a boy
or that he would 
(alarmingly)
be a clone
of boys I had known
who had scared me
or disgusted me
because of their 
aggressiveness
or
crassness
or 
insensitivity
which I wrongly 
attributed
to testosterone
and the Y chromosome

My son loves to kiss me
and snuggle and 
make art
together and 
battle bad guys (not with me, because that’s not my thing)
and build Legos (sometimes with superheroes and bad guys 
but sometimes not)
and watch the Great British Baking Show
and do martial arts
and play with his multitude of stuffed animals, 
all of whom he has given names 
and identities 
(some straight, some gay, some trans) 
and family relationships 
(usually interspecies)

He likes to wear pink and purple (and sports shorts and Adidas) 
I told him that I’m glad he knows 
pink and purple are colors 
for everyone
and not just for girls
He said unfortunately not everyone 
at his school knows that
and not everyone at his school thinks boys 
can wear nail polish
but he knows 
how much fun it is 
to get your nails done
and how cool it looks 

I used to worry 
that people would think
I was a boy
because my hair is short
because I mostly wear 
t-shirts and jeans
In high school when I wore Doc Martens
I was told “those are men’s shoes.”
(Now I sometimes shop in the men’s department for my size 11 feet
and I receive many compliments on my brown leather wingtips)
In college when I asked the boys down the hall
to use the clipper to shave the back of my hair
I was told “that’s a lesbian haircut.”
and because I wore plaid flannel, 
“you dress like a lesbian,”
(but seriously, it was the 90s)
A little girl once asked me, “are you a boy?”
I said no but she still said, “I think you’re a boy.”
When I wake up and stumble into the bathroom 
in the middle of the night or
first thing in the morning
so many times I’ve looked in the mirror
and wondered if I looked that day like 
Richard Simmons or Andy Gibb or Michael Moore
it’s always a weird male celebrity I see
I used to think that if I didn’t wear earrings 
when I left the house
people would think I was a man
even though plenty of men
wear earrings when they leave the house
like my daughter’s 5th grade teacher 
who was a middle-aged married father of two
who wore basketball shorts to teach and sported
a gold hoop in each ear

My son notices when I have new earrings
and is the first to compliment me 
when I get my hair done
He often does not care if his clothes
are clashing colors
but sometimes he wants me to brush his hair
and help him choose the perfect outfit
for the occasion

My son recites the names of all the Avengers
(and their friends such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four)
and their unique capabilities
and asks me what powers I would like
and then endows me with them
and says, 
“I love you with all my heart and all my dreams.”
and falls asleep with his forehead touching mine
and his arm around my neck

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.

Today was the final Sunday of our November theme of abundance at UUCA. I led worship, along with my friends Bob and Kendra. You can watch a video of the service here: http://www.uucava.org/livestream/.

You can read my meditation and prayer here:

I encourage you to put your feet on the floor. Feel your seat beneath you and observe the presence beside you of caring people, whether they are friends or family or strangers. Notice your breath. Breathe in peace. Breathe out love. Breathe in comfort. Breathe out compassion. Breathe in strength. Breathe out generosity. Whatever you need right now, feel it filling your body every time you inhale. Whatever you wish to share with the world, feel it gliding into the atmosphere on your breath.

Spirit of life, we come together here today after having been scattered near and far during the past week. Some of us are refreshed and rejuvenated by time off from work and reunions with beloved family and friends. Some of us are weary from tense and difficult moments and feelings of obligation rather than joy. Some of us labored, some of us were served. Some of us were surrounded by love, some of us were lonely.

Whoever we are, may we find refuge here.

Spirit of life, as we begin again today, we ask for another chance. An opportunity to be kind to ourselves. To truly love ourselves so we can better love others. We seek relief and ease because some of us are Just. So. Tired. We seek clarity when facing an uncertain diagnosis, or no diagnosis at all, in the midst of debilitating symptoms. We seek reassurance as we endeavor to do right by our children when parenting can be so stressful. When we are young and when we are old, we seek acknowledgment. We want to know that we matter. At every age, we wish to be heard and understood. We seek grace along the path that is littered with our mistakes. We seek courage to be bold and step onto a new, unfamiliar path. We wish for the strength to unclench our fists and let the anxieties, the fears, the old hurts be carried away on the winds, leaving our hands and our hearts free. We long for the freedom to laugh and to cry with abandon. We seek release.

Whatever we seek, may we glimpse it today in this place, and claim it for our own.

 

And here’s my reflection:

FINDING YOUR ABUNDANCE

I have a contentious relationship with time. I am always running late, always composing an apology in my head. I promise it’s not because I don’t respect you or value our relationship. It’s because I am overly optimistic. I always think I have time to do one more thing before I go. Write one more sentence, put away one more load of laundry, cross one more thing off my to-do list. I am wildly unrealistic about how much time something is going to take. You would think that by this point in my life I would’ve figured this out, but no.

My family is so often late that we’ve invented a game called the good excuse bad excuse game. Note that we do not play this in the exact moment when we’re tumbling out of the house and into the minivan, because I would be way too flustered. But in a moment of calm, we can play. Here’s how it works. One person says, “sorry I was late, I decided I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but eventually I did.” Everyone responds, BAD EXCUSE! Another person says, “Sorry I was late, I was rescuing 100 puppies from a burning building.” GOOD EXCUSE! And we continue to come up with the most pathetic or most heroic excuses we can think of.

As silly as this might seem, the good excuse bad excuse game points to an unspoken truth. The most valuable use of your time is often when you are helping someone else, when you are sharing your abundance, just like in the story Kendra read earlier. But what are the abundances we have to share? How can we find them when we so often focus on what’s scarce in our lives?

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you may have sorted yourself into one of the Hogwarts houses. Is your abundance bravery, loyalty, intelligence, or ambition? Do you possess an abundance of patience in a world that prioritizes speed and multitasking? Are you able to bring presence into a culture of preoccupation? I know that I am awed by people who are able to be fully present with me, to make me feel like I am the only person in the world who matters at that moment. Yet this quality is not one of my abundances. For better or for worse, my mind is always tuned in to several channels at once. I can’t NOT hear a conversation happening across the room, or the oven timer going off, or notice that someone in the vicinity needs something. One of my abundances is an astute power of observation, but not focused presence.

Maybe your abundance is more practical, like agility with numbers and the ability to manage or make money. I interview a lot of people on behalf of one of my clients who say they became budget counselors because they always loved numbers. I have always felt like I am allergic to numbers. At the annual meeting at church, my eyes glaze over when they talk about the budget. I am terrible with money. I sometimes wish our currency were only in words instead of numbers. Then I could understand. This trouble with numbers often comes into conflict with another of my abundances, which is generosity. Are you raising money for Multiple Sclerosis research, or orphans in Haiti, or school supplies for girls in Nigeria? I am guaranteed to donate, whether or not I can afford it.

In fact, one of my favorite holiday traditions, for the past 10 or 15 years, has been giving alternative gifts to nonprofits that I hand pick—and now my husband and children help choose—for all of our family members. We do this at an alternative gift fair, like those sponsored by Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, or in Arlington, Gifts that Give Hope—which is hosting this year’s event on December 9 at Discovery Elementary. Or online through the Catalogue for Philanthropy. What these organizations do is bring together wonderful charitable groups and tell you what exactly your $10 or $20 or $50 donation would do for their beneficiaries. For example, a $5 donation to your local animal shelter would buy chew toys for a dog waiting to be adopted. A $25 donation to a nonprofit that serves single moms who are survivors of domestic violence would buy a week’s worth of diapers. A $50 donation would buy a bike for a young person in an African village to have the transportation needed to start a business. We take time to think about what kind of donations would be meaningful to each family member. Like the dog toys for Uncle Larry and Aunt Susan who have loved dozens of dogs and cats over the years. Cooking classes in honor of my aunt who taught me to make delicious food from scratch. You get the idea. On Christmas morning, we open these gifts along with all the others and read out loud where the charitable gift will be going. My family’s goal on Christmas morning is to make people laugh or cry, and often these gifts elicit tears. And they don’t take up room on anyone’s shelf, and they’re making the world a better place. These gifts also remind us of just how much abundance we have in our family and our community.

Going for the laugh is also fun, like when I got my mom an autographed 8×10 photo of Adam Levine because she’s a huge fan of the Voice. You have to balance things out.

The paradox about my contentious relationship with time is that time is what people want most from me. Time is what my kids want, time is what my parents want. My husband, my dog, my friends, my clients, the church. Even though it doesn’t feel like I have a lot of it, time is my most valuable abundance to give.

My parents have everything they could possibly want, and more. But my mom is thrilled if I give her a Christmas gift of a day where I help her clean out her closet and go to lunch. We take each other to concerts and plays and readings, where we share the gift of time spent together, sharing an experience. Seeing and hearing live music is one of the great joys that my husband and I share. When we devote so many hours to working and managing the house and taking care of our children and our dog, the simple act of making the time to be together and do something we both love can seem monumental, but it’s so important.

What Facebook has abundance of is memes, and many of them are silly, and some are annoying, and some are offensive. But some are really good reminders of what matters. One I remember said something like, “if you have a stack of dishes in your sink, it means you have enough food to eat. If you have a pile of laundry to fold, it means you have enough clothes to wear.” It’s easy in Arlington, or in Northern Virginia, or Greater Washington, to feel like we don’t have enough. We have plenty of first world problems. But we also have plenty of abundance. Abundant opportunities, abundant amusements, abundant things to see and people to meet. Abundant chances to serve. Abundant ways to receive.

As we close out our month of abundance, and our weekend of abundant food and company, and we look ahead to a month that may be filled with hope or anxiety, love or loneliness, generosity or uncertainty, or maybe all of these. Remember to take with you this month your inner abundance. Is it compassion? Vision? Wit? Steadiness? Creativity? Maybe you can’t name your inner abundance right now. If that’s the case, give yourself time to find it. And when you find it, give it away.

May it be so, may it be so, may it be so.

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