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I have never seen so many pictures of and words for and references to vaginas, vulvas, ovaries, and uteruses in my entire life.
At the Women’s March in Washington, DC yesterday, of the half-million plus people gathered, thousands of them were holding up signs protesting Donald Trump’s vulgar description of his proclivity for sexual assault, and advocating for women’s reproductive rights.
It’s a good thing we talked to our nine-year-old daughter the night before about why everyone was wearing those pink knit hats. I’ve never been a fan of the word pussy, but I’ve become pretty comfortable saying it lately as feminists have reclaimed the word in recent months with images of angry cats saying “PUSSY GRABS BACK.” So we explained to Zoe what Trump had said and done. We told her no one has a right to touch her or any other girl or woman in a way they don’t want to be touched. We told her that, sadly, that doesn’t stop some men from doing it anyway. We explained that’s one reason we were marching.
I decided we needed to go step by step about everything the Women’s March represented, so I read Zoe the unity principles of the movement. If you discuss reproductive rights, you have to explain what birth control is. When kids have pretty much been taught that sex is for making babies, you have to explain that people also have sex for fun, and sometimes even when they’re not married, and sometimes when they’re teenagers. By this point she was kind of burying her face in a pillow but still listening. Every once in a while I would ask if she had any questions and she would shake her head. I would also ask if she was ok learning all this and she would nod.
We talked about disability rights and how some of her friends wouldn’t have been able to attend public school or easily go to public places before the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were passed. We talked about our friends who live in this country but who the government hasn’t given legal status to even though they work hard and contribute to the economy and pay taxes and are good people. We talked about our friends who are gay and married and how that wasn’t allowed until very recently. Zoe was a little kid when she watched one of our best friends marry her wife, so in her mind marriage has always been between any two people who love each other. We talked about how some people–including parents of her classmates–can’t get good-paying jobs so they have to work multiple jobs and they can’t leave their jobs to come to school whenever they want or they’d be fired.
It was a lot to process.
But then Saturday night when we were all home from the march, I asked her if she saw or heard anything that was confusing or she didn’t understand, and she said no. She said, “if we hadn’t had that talk I wouldn’t have understood most of it, but I did. I’m glad you told me that stuff.”
What we heard:
TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!
Men: HER BODY, HER CHOICE!
Women: MY BODY, MY CHOICE!
WE WANT A LEADER, NOT A CREEPY TWEETER! WE WANT A LEADER, NOT A CREEPY TWEETER!
WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS! WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!
NO HATE! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!
WE ARE THE POPULAR VOTE! WE ARE THE POPULAR VOTE!
NO HATE! NO FEAR! IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!
HEY HO! DONALD TRUMP HAS GOT TO GO!
YOU CAN’T BUILD A WALL! YOUR HANDS ARE TOO SMALL!
People led chants from the crowd, from trees, from the top of traffic poles.
You’ve probably seen pictures by now and heard that there were way way way more people there than were expected, so the plans for where the rally and march were supposed to take place quickly went out the window. So for the first several hours we were there, it was a little disorganized and chaotic. But it was the friendliest, most polite chaos I’ve ever experienced. Even during the hour we spent waiting to get on the metro, people were so pleasant. When the Metro employee took the microphone to update us on the wait situation, everyone got quiet. I mean silent. I have never heard people be so respectful to a Metro employee. After he made his announcement everyone said thank you. Seriously. One female Metro employee was wearing a pink pussy hat which she told us a marcher had given her earlier. She was pumping her fist in the air and people were high fiving her and cheering for her.
And everywhere we went downtown, everyone was nice. People shared snacks. People said, “excuse me,” when they tried to get by. We weren’t anywhere near the stage and we couldn’t hear or see anything official that was going on. But we were definitely in the midst of thousands of people who were excited to be there–people wearing pink hats and fabulous shirts and suffragette sashes and all manner of activist accessories. We just enjoyed reading the signs for a while.
After a couple hours my sister and my daughter decided to head home. The rest of our group attempted to make our way closer to Independence Avenue in hopes of joining the march as it went by. We ended up trapped in a throng of people who had the same idea, but we were all stopped before we made it to the street. We were standing extremely close to each other. For over an hour. Finally we got word from a march volunteer perched on something high that the reason we couldn’t move is that the street was completely packed with people. And in fact, all the streets were completely packed with people. We didn’t learn until we got home that the entire route that the march was supposed to take was totally full of people, so there was nowhere to march. But people stayed calm. They passed out chocolate. A guy next to us laughed at my husband’s joke and told him he got an A+. Someone told me she liked me Unitarian Universalist shirt and had gone to UU summer camp in the midwest. Anytime someone felt ill in the crowd, everyone shouted “medical” and people moved out of the way to let the person get to the street where there was a police officer on hand to help. When we heard cheering from the general direction of the stage, we cheered. We read each other the signs we spotted in the distance.
Eventually the woman on the perch instructed us to turn around and head to the mall, so we did. Soon we found ourselves enveloped by the march, which was exciting. I don’t even know if we were on the planned route or if there were multiple routes at that point. In every direction there were marchers as far as we could see. It was incredible. Not only were we in the largest group of people we’d ever experienced, but with all these people who shared our core values. If this is a bubble, it was a freaking enormous bubble that I was happy to live in.
As we approached the Washington Monument, a woman asked if she could take a picture
of our sign with the monument in the background. There was more chanting, more singing (mostly “This Land Is Your Land”) and a drum line somewhere nearby helping us keep the beat. There was a topless woman astride the shoulders of a topless man. Her nipples had black tape across them and she and her partner were shouting “FREE THE NIPPLE” and holding a sign saying “DESEXUALIZE WOMEN’S BODIES.”
When we first got there, Randy asked how many people I thought we would see who we knew. I guessed 50. He said five. He ended up being closer, as we actually only spotted two of his co-workers and the reading teacher from Zoe’s school who I sometimes substitute for. In my head I’d been thinking about the Arlington County Fair, where we always see lots of people we know, because there are only a few hundred people there and we know a lot of people in Arlington. But when you’re in the midst of more than half a million people, it’s statistically unlikely you will unexpectedly wind up marching next to your friends. Thanks to Facebook, I realized later that there had actually been hundreds of our friends and co-workers there. People from our preschool (including the director); our current UU church, previous UU church, and previous Presbyterian church; Zoe’s school; my elementary, middle, and high schools and William and Mary; work; martial arts; my soccer team; and basically any other group I can think of that I was every a part of. I feel like virtually everyone I know was there, although I didn’t see them. I saw the photos and there were those same signs behind them! I also had friends who marched in cities around the country and around the world. The word solidarity has never meant so much to me before.
When we finally decided to head home to see our kids, many marchers were headed to the White House to deliver their message more directly to Trump. I understand that many of them left their signs on the White House lawn as calling cards. It took us a long time to get home, but as we walked through the city people were still chanting, smiling, singing, wearing their pink hats. Everyone was exhausted but inspired.
Rev. Aaron’s sermon today at church reminded us that yesterday was just day 1. It wasn’t the end of the world, but the beginning of our revolution (my word, not his). He talked about how we need to treat Trump’s absurdity like the weather, just be prepared and dress accordingly, but don’t let it stand in the way of doing what we need to do. We can just say, “Oh it’s tweeting outside” and move along.
I have felt better the past two days than I had in a long while, thanks to the friends and family who came over to our house to celebrate kindness so we could forget about the atrocity happening across the river for a few hours, and because we spent the day with more than half a million like-minded strangers yesterday who are willing to fight for what they believe in. Cynics are asking, “but what happens now?” And I know what will happen now. We keep raising our voices.
TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!
Sometimes I fantasize
about a sofa that appears only to me
in the bathroom
So that when a certain three-and-a-half-year-old climbs into our bed before dawn, sweetly saying “I want to be with you, Mommy” and handing me his lion to snuggle with and asking to hold my hand but then proceeds to cough repeatedly into my face
and poke his finger into my throat
and tap me on the nose
and plant his foot in my crotch
and bounce his dog on my boob
and take up my entire pillow
and exile me to the outer limits of the bed, generously granting me
six whole inches in which to lie down
And when I tell him to stop he asks “Why?” and I say
“Because it hurts, because it’s annoying,
because that’s my body and I don’t like you touching me like that,”
and he just repeats his question, “WHY?”
I can say, “I have to go potty, I’ll be right back.”
and escape into the bathroom, where,
instead of falling back asleep while sitting on the toilet
which has been known to happen
I can curl up on the couch
which is more of a loveseat really
upholstered in a garish Christmas plaid
remaindered at the furniture store
(my imagination modest at 5am)
shielded from germs and bathroom detritus
by Hermione’s protego totalum spell
of course there’s a soft fleece blanket in a clashing plaid
to keep me warm
No one else can see the sofa or knows that the bathroom
doubles in size to accommodate it
not all the time—
only when it is too early to wake up
—at least in my opinion
and I require refuge
In 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.
On 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, lest 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 statues. 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. The 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 was, 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.
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.
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.
Think 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.
My 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 strawberry 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.
As we prepared to bury three goldfish in the backyard this afternoon, I thought about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I read in 11th grade and remember only bits and pieces of, but enough to picture a homemade coffin and grotesque family dynamics related to the family matriarch. By contrast, I dug a shallow grave in the mulch and dirt under the pathetic frozen hydrangea bush. I laid to rest Dumbledore (the fish, not the wizard), who had been stored in a small cardboard box within a ziplock bag since his untimely death on January 4, just 11 days after he and his fish friends Mad-Eye Moody and Tonks were given to Zoe for Christmas by Aunt Susannah and Uncle Aaron. The fish and their home were her favorite Christmas present. She had asked for fish for Christmas but revealed to me after the fact that she did not actually expect to receive any.
We thought Dumbledore died from too much poop in the fish tank, so we thoroughly cleaned the tank after he died. We journeyed to PetSmart to find a successor but instead bought new rocks and plastic plants for the tank. The fish woman at the pet store said goldfish are not really meant to be pets. They’re meant to feed larger fish or swim in ponds, she suggested. Perhaps that’s why they cost 15 cents each, or something like that. We learned that all the other fish available at PetSmart are not compatible with goldfish because goldfish can live in cold water, and the other fish need heat. So Zoe and I decided that we would continue to care for Tonks and Mad-Eye until they outgrew their tank or died.
We did not expect that death would come so soon, just two weeks later. Because of what happened to Dumbledore we were proactive in cleaning the tank on Monday night, before it was noticeably poop-ridden. Speaking of poop, Zoe had observed that each fish in turn was constipated. I had not known this was a problem that beset goldfish but it is. Zoe brought home a book from the school library about goldfish care that instructed us to feed the fish tiny bits of lettuce or oats if they were constipated. Randy and I each chopped up some lettuce and Zoe conscientiously fed it to the fish as needed until their GI tracts were clear.
So when we cleaned the tank, we did all the same stuff as before, except for whatever we did differently, because in the morning Tonks and Mad-Eye were floating awkwardly instead of swimming jauntily as they had been for the past two weeks.
Zoe was distraught. The night Dumbledore died she sat in my lap and cried for a while (probably also because she and Randy had just returned from an exciting adventure in Florida with her paternal grandparents and she was coming down from that). She apologized the next morning for crying and I told her she was entitled to cry and there was no reason to apologize.
So this morning she was even more distraught, and cried in my arms again for a while. I called school and told them she would be late. All she was missing was PE. I emailed her teacher to alert her to Zoe’s disposition. After school today, in the bitter wind and 25 degree temperatures, we held the fish funeral. I said thank you to the fish for being Zoe’s first pets, and for contributing to the soil so flowers could grow, and said that I hoped they were swimming happily in fish heaven. I held Zoe’s hand. She cried. She said goodbye. Later, inside, she told me there was more she wanted to say but she couldn’t because she was crying, so she said it in her head. I told her she could still say it, to me, or she could write it down, or she could just keep it in her heart.
Now the tank is empty. The light is off. The filter is quiet. It’s too cold to buy new fish right now and we’re expecting a massive snowstorm this weekend. I told Zoe this would be a good opportunity to research some heartier aquarium fish and–more importantly–how to take care of them. The fish were possibly a starter pet as we considered small mammals for the future–perhaps a pair of guinea pigs? But we’ve got to improve our fish skills before bringing anyone furry into the house.
When I was a kid I had a series of goldfish. I don’t even remember how many. One of them–who I know was named Patrick–jumped out of the bowl and I found him lying on the carpet of my bedroom when I got home from school. I couldn’t understand what had prompted him to try to escape. I buried them all in matchboxes in the backyard. I don’t remember my parents helping, but maybe they did. I don’t remember crying, but probably I did.
Today I could tell that Zoe’s heart was breaking, even though they were only fish, and even though she had known them for less than a month. They were her first pets. They were wholly hers. And she loved them.
Zoe has been complaining more and more about the paltry 20 minutes of recess she is granted at school every day. I suggested she write a letter to the superintendent and the school board and her principal expressing her concern about the lack of outdoor time and her desire for change. I shared with her some facts about how outdoor time benefits kids intellectually, emotionally, and of course physically, that I had learned in my own research for something I’m writing. I told her I would help with the mechanics of the letter but that the ideas and the words had to be hers.
We brainstormed tonight–I asked her questions about how she felt before, during, and after recess and she wrote notes. Then she dictated the letter to me. I looked up the addresses for her and she wrote them on the envelopes. She’s very excited to send her letters off tomorrow. At bedtime she whispered, “Do you think they’ll actually change the amount of recess we have?” I said I didn’t know, but you never know until you ask.
Here’s her letter:
Dear Dr. Murphy,
My name is Zoe Rosso and I’m a third grader at A******** Elementary. I really love my school. We have great teachers. I have tons of friends. My favorite subjects are math, reading, and science. I love almost everything about my school except that we only have 20 minutes of recess.
If I don’t run every day my legs start to feel weird like I have to move around. I need more than 20 minutes to get enough exercise. I love to climb and hang upside down. Climbing exercises my brain and muscles and improves my strength. There are very few things that you can do outside that you can do inside.
When I’m outside, I feel great. I feel like this because the outdoors never end. It’s just a big open space—a big field of fresh air and fun. Also before I go outside I can get bored, but when I come in after recess I am really into the subject. Being in fresh air helps me to focus in class. When I don’t go outside I start to get really tired of just sitting around. When you sit around it can make it much harder for you to think.
Being outside helps me to relax and stop worrying about things. Being outside also makes me feel good because I get to run around and play with my friends and it doesn’t really matter how loud or quiet I am. Many of my friends are in different classes than me so at recess I get to see and play with them. I am also not allowed to run in the hall, but outside there is no hall.
It would be wonderful if we could have more recess. Please consider increasing recess for elementary school students.
Yesterday, in the middle of watching Project Wild Thing, a fun yet serious British documentary about the dramatic causes and effects of today’s generation of kids spending so little time in nature, I decided to turn off the tv and take the kids to the park. Seriously. And not just the playground, but the woods. Yes, there’s a paved path, but there are also lots of trees and rocks and a large meandering creek that invites kids to explore it.
Sure it was about to get dark, but I didn’t let that stop us. Zoe didn’t want to go, but I dragged her off the couch. After hearing what filmmaker David Bond had to say, building on what I learned from another stunning documentary–School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten, I felt a certain urgency to be outside with my family, especially after we’d been cooped up for a few days while it rained. But it wasn’t raining anymore, so we went.
The path was covered with wet leaves that had fallen from dozens of different kinds of trees, none of which I could identify. But I observed the diversity and my kids picked up some leaves to bring home. “We can do art!” I exclaimed, remembering how Zeke’s preschool teachers had the kids painting leaves last week. I am always the kind of mom who wants to do nature art but rarely the kind who makes it happen. I am more likely to get irritated when doing the laundry at the pieces of outside that wind up inside, stuffed into my kids’ pockets.
Instead last night I was collecting the leaves in my pockets, trying to keep them smoothed out so we could make a collage with them later. As we walked, Zeke inevitably picked up and brandished sticks. He and Zoe threw some rocks into the creek. We reminded Zeke to throw small rocks, and not to throw them in the direction of Zoe. Eventually Zeke and Randy went back up to the path while Zoe and I ventured further into the creek. We were wearing our boots. I only just bought rain boots last week. I hadn’t owned any for decades. We climbed and maneuvered and squelched in the mud.
Zoe pointed out a boulder that had a hole running through it and we took turns rolling a pebble though. Then she saw what she thought was a carving on another rock but then realized it was my wet boot print. I told Zoe it was getting dark and we needed to get back to the path, but she wanted, not surprisingly, to go a little deeper. She waded over to a tree that had fallen across the creek and hoisted herself up onto it and shimmied across to the upended root system and up onto the bank. I held out my arm to her, but she said, “No, I don’t want you to help me.” She wanted to challenge herself, as usual.
In the midst of this activity, Zoe said, “you can’t be a Rosso if you don’t like adventure.” How great it is that she thinks that, I thought, even though I have never really thought of myself as adventurous, at least in the outdoors. In these nature documentaries people my age talk about how when they were growing up they were always playing outside. It was just a given. When I was growing up, my given was reading. I could read inside or out, but I was pretty much always reading. I played with my friends and I definitely went to the park, went roller skating, and rode bikes. But I also got teased for my lack of natural athletic ability and I didn’t like heat or bug bites. In fourth grade a classmate told me that I sweated too much. So I was kind of flattered that Zoe thought of our family as adventurous. I felt like I’d earned an adventure badge in mom scouts.
So while I certainly appreciate nature and enjoy being outside and all that, in a general sense, I still don’t think of myself as an outdoor type. But I do think of myself as a writer, and as a good mom, and an engaged parent. Last year Susan Parker, the director of our fantastic preschool asked me if I would be interested in writing something about the outdoor classroom program that she and AUCP teachers had piloted, modeled on the forest kindergarten highlighted in School’s Out. This is Arlington and we are progressive but still we like things the way we like them, so the idea was to take one class of kids to spend the whole preschool day (three hours) in the woods every couple weeks. Timber Tuesdays and Forest Fridays were born, and in the first year it seemed to pour rain or snow every Tuesday and Friday of the winter. But the kids were undaunted, and the adults made sure to match their spirit and wear extra layers. Zeke’s not old enough to do this yet (the program focuses on three-, four-, and five-year-olds) but I heard all about it and Susan shared with me how thrilled she was to be seeing what the kids could do outside. “It’s all there!” she said. Dramatic play, reading, science, critical thinking, negotiating skills, leadership development. She said kids who struggled in the classroom tended to shine outdoors and some who were stars sitting inside were pushed a little out of their comfort zones in the woods, forcing them to learn new skills. Susan handed me stacks of studies and articles about the positive effects on kids’ mental and physical health of being outside, or the dangers of not enough outside exploration. When kids are outside more, exploring the natural world, they are less likely to
- struggle with gross or fine motor skill development
- have ADHD
- be obese
In fact, Project Wild Thing‘s David Bond said this generation of children is the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, which he (and presumably scientists he cites) attribute to a more sedentary lifestyle. People in hospitals heal faster when they can look out the window at nature, he said.
I’ve been working on the article, although I still haven’t found someone to publish it yet, but the process has been inspiring. Even just hearing about what goes on in the woods on Timber Tuesdays and Forest Fridays has inspired me to be more patient, and even more encouraging, when my kids want to splash in puddles or dig in mud or collect acorns or climb rocks. And it makes me want to do those things too. Maybe not so much the mud, but definitely the other ones.
When we got home from the park, by which point it was completely dark, I found a piece of cardboard and two bottles of glue. I made Zoe promise that she would let Zeke glue the leaves the way he wanted to, even if it conflicted with her artistic vision. She agreed and they collaborated beautifully. Glue was everywhere, but that’s ok. I still don’t know what kind of leaves we found, but that’s ok too. That’s an activity for another time. As is watching the rest of the film, which I am eager to do. Right now, I’m just glad we squeezed some time outside into our day.
UPDATE ON 10/6/15
My friend Kevin kindly identified most of the leaves we found!
While I hate to keep Zoe home from school when it’s only the second week, I also don’t think she’ll be in much shape to learn anything tomorrow morning at 8 when she went to sleep just before midnight. Why did she stay up until midnight on a Monday night, you ask? The answer is a repugnant four-letter word: LICE.
Most nights after she showers, Zoe asks me to comb her hair, and tonight when I was combing I observed some small, unwelcome creatures crawling on her scalp. After Randy had taken Zeke upstairs to bed, I told Zoe that I thought she had lice, and she started weeping. I called my mom for advice. I tried to calm Zoe down but I also felt like the need to expunge the bugs was rather urgent. I combed and she cried. I texted friends whose children I knew had dealt with lice. After Randy came downstairs I dispatched him to the drugstore to buy some lice-repellent product. Zoe asked if I was going to be combing her hair for the rest of her life, and I said, yes, I would be combing her hair when she breaks her board this Saturday at the martial arts growth ceremony, and when she goes to the prom, and as she’s walking down the aisle during her wedding. She added that I would be combing her hair while she was giving birth to her first child, and then while she was combing her own child’s hair. By then she was laughing instead of crying.
I did the treatment. Randy stripped the bed and sprayed it with some magic lice-be-gone spray. I did the second treatment and combed again and made the bed. I put most of the stuffed animals in the wash and some pillows in a trash bag where they’re supposed to live until the lice suffocate and die. I inspected Eve, Zoe’s doll who cannot go into the wash, and she looked clean. I didn’t feel like giving her the treatment. Also she doesn’t have hair.
It’s Randy’s birthday too. Fortunately we celebrated yesterday, as tonight was not especially festive. Exciting, sure. Festive, maybe not. Although yesterday was also exciting when the cake we made for Randy caught fire in the oven (marshmallows on top) and Randy blew it out and made a really big wish. That was festive AND exciting.
Before the discovery of the bugs tonight, Zeke had mysteriously melted down at dinner. He burst into tears because Randy cut up his broccoli too small, so he could eat it. He wanted big broccoli. This might not sound crazy, but Zeke doesn’t usually get upset about such things. He usually spends dinner either eating his food, spilling it on himself, or trying to make us laugh. I guess he had a long day. We went to the meet and greet at his preschool today so he could check out his classroom and spend a few minutes of quality time with his teacher. On the way into the school he was so excited that he started sprinting across the parking lot and fell down and scraped up his knees. They were still hurting him at bedtime. We tried to assuage him with Muppet band-aids. So Zeke was feeling a little fragile all day, although when I strapped him into his carseat as we were leaving preschool he had tears welling up in his eyes and I asked him what was wrong and he said, “Nothing. Happy.” Perhaps even he didn’t know what was wrong. But he seems to love his teacher, who was once Zoe’s teacher and as a result greeted Zeke by name last year when she saw him in passing. I didn’t know he even noticed or remembered her, but when I introduced her to him as his new teacher he leaped into her arms and gave her a hug like they were long-lost buddies. It is possible he doesn’t understand why he keeps going to school for brief periods of time only to have to leave again just when he’s getting going. Thursday is his first real day. Hopefully it will be satisfying for all of us.
The report on third grade: so far so good. Zoe says her teacher is awesome. She is thrilled to have a locker, for which she shopped for decorations this past weekend. I still haven’t gotten a lot of concrete details about anything she’s learning, but she’s seemed happy every day when I’ve picked her up, so I’ll take that. Except today when I picked her up, I asked how her day went, and she said she spent most of it worrying. This afternoon she had her green solid belt test at Evolve All, where she had to demonstrate the exercises, techniques, and understanding that green solid belt martial artists are supposed to master. She was nervous. She said Master Emerson reminded her last week that it’s good to be nervous because it means it matters. During the test I kept Zeke entertained with puzzles and snacks and a blue car we rolled to each other, while I watched Zoe out of one eye. She did awesome. I can see how much confidence and poise she’s gained over the past year, even though she still gets nervous. She passed. She wasn’t as pleased with herself as I expected, but she stood on her head in the turf room for a bit afterwards, which always seems to make her happy. Now onto the board break on Saturday. I will remind her again then as I did today, what Rev. Aaron said in his sermon on Sunday, “We got this.”
So watch out, lice. Move on out. We have our combs and our creams. We can run our washer and dryer all night if we have to. We got this.