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Invocations

One night I let a man in the house
where I was living with a dozen
other students because he said he was a friend
of someone’s and I didn’t know any differently

Then he stole the TV

Twenty-five years later
I still tend to believe everyone is
telling the truth
about who they are

even though I should know better
by now

And when I find out what’s real
I wonder who I am
and why I never learn
because I know I would
open the door again today
and let anyone
take what they wanted

~Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
July 2019

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Invocations

No room left in my brain for
completing a task
even a simple one like
editing an article
or making a salad
or sorting out an insurance claim
(ok that’s never simple)

All my constructive, purposeful thoughts
are crowded out, shoved to the side
or hiding under benches
as the what ifs and the worst case scenarios
jockey for position
shouting above the already deafening decibel level

The what ifs and worst cases are bullies
of the worst kind because they are subtle
not resorting to physical violence, but mostly
trafficking in intimidation
knowing the good thoughts will slink away in fear
with a sour taste in their mouths
because of too many hours and days deprived
of fresh air and healthy food
all that’s left to do is sleep
when they aren’t allowed to exercise or
even move about freely

Meanwhile, the what ifs and worst cases gain strength

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Invocations

He asked me in the car,
“What is sand made of?”

And I said I didn’t know.

I said I thought it was just part of the earth,
like dirt, and trees, and mountains.

He asked me if it came out of the ocean
and I said no, I didn’t think so.

He said he thought it was made of
tiny pieces of smashed-up seashells.

Maybe some of the sand is tiny seashells,
I conceded.

“That’s definitely what it is,” he said firmly.

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This place seems as good as any to see a ghost
this tantalizing space between vulnerable and safe
the constant creaking of wood
wind shaking the tops of trees
the insistent clank of boats knocking against their moorings
lapping of the dark water on the banks of the invisible canal
distant chorus of frogs
I can see no one
but I am surrounded by the night

All evening while everyone else was
playing and eating and swimming and reading bedtime stories
I was plastered to the bed by a migraine
only vaguely aware of anything else
Still more hours lost to pain

And now, while everyone else sleeps
I keep watch from the screened porch
of someone else’s house
who I have never met

Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
July 2019


In a few minutes I’m headed to a school board meeting to speak on behalf of protections for trans kids in our school system, such as training teachers to effectively support them, and letting trans kids use the bathrooms and locker rooms in which they feel comfortable.

Here’s what I plan to say:

Good evening members of the school board. Thank you for the opportunity to speak. My name is Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso. I have lived in Arlington for 22 years. I have two children in Arlington Public Schools, and I have been a school volunteer for several years and an occasional substitute teacher. 

The summer after fifth grade, my daughter’s best friend came out to her as non-binary and later as transgender. I know the evolution of their identity was not out of the blue, it was not on a whim, and it was certainly not easy. Thankfully, their parents have been supportive, and their school has helped ease the transition. 

People have asked me how my daughter reacted to her friend’s transition. My daughter has not missed a beat in her unconditional love and support of her friend. Why would she? The only thing that’s changed is my daughter is now incredibly well-informed about the LGBTQIA+ community, and she is quick to correct me if I accidently use the wrong pronouns. 

I’m also glad my six-year-old son has had this personal experience to learn about gender diversity. He creates elaborate family structures with his collection of stuffed animals. Some are straight and some are LGBTQIA+. This little purple sloth is named River, and he is female to male trans. My son decided this, on his own. He gets it. He loves all his stuffed animals for who they are.

I know a lot of LGBTQIA+ kids, some of whom are trans. I have several friends from our Unitarian Universalist church and the community who have adult kids who are trans. They all have their own unique stories of recognizing their gender identities, but I know in every case, these identities did not develop out of the blue, or on a whim. It’s not easy to come out and live as who you know you are inside, even if that isn’t how you’ve presented before. It’s so important for APS to train teachers to support trans youth and to ensure schools foster an accepting and inclusive climate. These are critical factors in reducing the high risk of attempted suicide among LGBTQIA+ youth. 

Trans youth and adults are often on the receiving end of bullying and assault. They are not perpetrators. Trans youth and adults are not pretending or dressing up as another gender so they can harm others or have an advantage in sports. They are trans because owning and identity is necessary for their survival, even if it’s incredibly challenging in mainstream society. No one takes a transition lightly, whether they are 5 or 15 or 55. They do it so they can be at peace with themselves and feel as fully human and whole as they were born to be. 

I support the school board’s proposed policies to protect the rights and safety of trans kids in our schools, and to train teachers and staff to effectively support these kids. Our community must demonstrate that we support and embrace kids for who they are. All of us are worthy and deserving of that respect.  

(originally published on invocations.blog)

When I get a massage
I am polite
but quiet
because in the past 
I have made the mistake 
of being too friendly
and inquisitive
and hearing too much troubling
information about a person
who was supposed to be
helping me relax

Chida is my massage therapist now
She is usually polite and quiet too

Last week she was 
bubbling over 
with excitement
because she and her five-year-old 
daughter are going back 
to Thailand for a month 

Chida said she has to go 
so her whole family 
can participate in the rituals
to say goodbye to her father
who died several months ago
but who neighbors say
they have seen 
sitting on his front porch

Chida’s mother told her
“You have to come home
or your father’s spirit
will be stuck here.”

“Miss Betsy,” Chida said to me.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”

I keep thinking about these positive self-talk charts I see from time to time on Facebook. They’re usually designed for teachers to use with students, or for people with ADHD or various learning differences. Here’s one example I found after a quick Google search.

So even though it’s not specifically listed here, I’m trying not to keep saying, “I am terrible at following through with a plan to do something every day,” such as, say, writing 100 words. Because I can clearly demonstrate that I am capable of doing some things every day. I brush my teeth. I feed and care for my children. I feed myself. And usually I do a number of other required tasks also, although not necessarily every day. So I am trying to remind myself that even if there are days that I haven’t written here (because rarely does a day go by that I’m not writing something) that doesn’t mean that I should give up on the challenge.

Last week Zoe and I went to see Jacqueline Woodson–one of our favorite authors–speak at Central Library. Woodson has written many middle grade and young adult novels and memoirs as well as amazing picture books. After she was interviewed by librarian Diane Kersh and she read a couple of her picture books, Woodson took questions from the audience. One woman asked if Woodson keeps a journal, which it turns out she doesn’t. Woodson said whenever she’s tried to journal, she just feels like she should be writing something for one of the books she’s always working on. The woman who asked the question said she keeps four journals, each with a different purpose. I don’t remember what her four journals are for, but I was exhausted at the thought. There are always so many things in my head that I want to write about but that amount of time and differentiation is beyond me.

On top of loving Woodson’s writing, I really enjoyed what she had to say at the library. Zoe and her friend Andrea, who we ran into at the event, asked Woodson how and when she started writing. She said (and she mentions this in her memoir in verse–Brown Girl Dreaming) that when she was a child she frequently got in trouble for lying. Until one day a teacher told her that if she wrote it down it wasn’t a lie–it was fiction.

When Kersh introduced Woodson, Kersh cited someone whose name I didn’t catch who had talked about the importance of kids reading books whose characters were “mirrors and windows,” meaning the readers see some people like themselves with whom they can easily identify, and other characters who are different in any number of ways, who provide a window into other identities, cultures, backgrounds, etc. I love this concept. And I especially love that, after a lifetime of reading mostly mirrored books, I am flying through one window after another after another. And that Zoe, who has only been reading novels for a few years, has already read enough windows that I feel confident she will not get stuck in her own mirror. I love the fact that so many phenomenal authors are telling stories that are mirrors for kids who’ve had painfully few mirrors, and windows for kids who are thirsty for new views. Especially as I’ve spent a lot of time in my church and in my community and in our country learning about white supremacy culture and white privilege, I am reminded again and again about the power of books to cultivate understanding and empathy. I am convinced that there are some books that, if every human read them, humanity would be changed for the better.

Recently at my church we had an outstanding workshop called Beyond Categorical Thinking, designed to help our congregation think more openly and broadly about ourselves and the kind of minister we want to call, as we are engaged in the ministerial search process. Rev. Keith Kron, who led the workshop, (and has led this workshop in UU congregations hundreds of times before), said that one of the most common concerns in congregations about calling a minister of color, or an LGBTQIA+ minister, or a minister with a disability, is that they will be a “single-issue minister” and all they will preach about from the pulpit is race, or sexuality, or ableism. One of the activities we did during the workshop was to discuss in small groups how our childhoods and lives might have been different if we had been born a different gender or sexuality, a different race or ethnicity, a different religion, or with different abilities. I encourage you to think about that. What opportunities would you have had or might you have been denied, in any of those scenarios? There’s a lot more I could say about this, but as usual it’s past midnight. My point is that it isn’t actually that hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, through a book of windows, or imagining an alternative path for your life.

Jacqueline Woodson said everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a right to tell their story. I believe that 100%. And what’s more, I think we have an obligation to bear witness to the stories that others are telling.

While we did not set out to do a long hike or traverse rugged terrain, my family did walk 44 miles in five days during our recent trip to Florida to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. My parents generously treated the four of us and my sister and her husband and son to a fabulous tour of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center (which has such eclectic attractions we decided Epcot stands for Every Possible Combination of Things), Legoland, Universal Studios Orlando, and Disney Hollywood Studios. None of our kids had experienced Disney or the rest of the parks, and the grown-ups hadn’t been in years, so this was a monumental and thrilling vacation for the family. We decided to fit in as much fun as we could stand.

Turns out that was a lot of fun. Some of the highlights for me from our day at the Magic Kingdom:

Learning that Zoe loves roller coasters. Although she is almost 12, she had never ridden a real roller coaster before this trip. Now she is absolutely hooked. Although she still fretted and gripped my hand while we waited in every line, worrying that each ride would be too scary. None of the rides were too scary for her. The moment she lifted up the safety bar, she exclaimed how amazing the ride was and how she wanted to do it again. She never felt sick. She raised her hands in the air. She screamed. She soaked up every second of the ascents and the plummets and the twists and turned and loved it all.

Rocking out to the tunes of the birds and the flowers in the Enchanted Tiki Room, because apparently that is my sister’s happy place. I did not have the slightest memory of the Enchanted Tiki Room, but my sister remembered it fondly and grew up listening to the tiki song on a Disney tape we had (where was I during this part of her life? I do not know.) The Tiki Room is decidedly low-tech compared to a lot of the newer CGI and 3D-infused rides. It is old school and a classic. But those charming and chatty birds delighted my sister, which delighted me.

I don’t care what anyone says, I like It’s a Small World. I know the song is repetitive, and the subject of much mocking, but I think the ride is sweet, and it’s one of my mom’s favorites. It was a great one to start with when we arrived at the Magic Kingdom. And I enjoyed laughing at my husband’s and sister’s and brother-in-law’s running commentary as we drifted through the world being serenaded by all its peoples. Is that last part of the ride, where everyone is dressed in white, actually heaven? Quite possibly. And I like all the signs at the end that say goodbye in different languages. Farvel everyone!

Taking my mom to the County Bear Jamboree. After most of us had ridden Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (a great coaster and the only one that didn’t make Zeke feel sick), my mom spotted Country Bear Jamboree and wanted to go, but it wasn’t open yet. A little while later after the group had split up to try different rides, she asked whether it was time for some jamboree action. She and my dad had a special moment with one of the country bears early in the day, during which the bear greeted her like a long lost friend, so perhaps she was eager to reconnect with the other bears. Not unlike the Tiki Room, the Country Bear Jamboree is old school animatronics, but well-paced and funny. If the Tiki Room is my sister’s jam, Country Bear Jamboree may be my mom’s.

The unexpected amusement of the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. After my sister and her family had gone back to the hotel, and my husband and kids were taking another spin on the Astro-Orbiter, I accompanied my parents to the nearby Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. My expectations were not high, but my stomach was not feeling like another ride, so I was willing to give it a chance. My parents haven’t even seen Monsters Inc., but I have and enjoyed it, so why not? Turns out the Laugh Floor was hilarious. This attraction uses technology in which the animated characters on the screen are able to “see” and interact with the human audience. Screens on the side occasionally show members of the audience with funny–but never mean or mocking–captions and comments. Everyone is in on the joke. It was funny and it was air-conditioned. What’s not to love? As a bonus, in Tomorrowland where the Laugh Floor and Astro-Orbiter are located, we found a snack bar that sold delicious churros (with chocolate sauce on the side) and the Mickey Mouse-shaped soft pretzels (with cheese sauce on the side) that I came to know and love. The amusement park food lacked a certain diversity or nutritiousness, but I would have those churros and pretzels again anytime.

A side note about the food. Some of us ate lunch at a baseball-themed hot dog restaurant, where I enjoyed a ridiculous meal that featured a hot dog topped with mac and cheese and bacon. Not something I should repeat, but it’s always good to try new things. Anyway, while I was ordering food for everyone, one of the cast members (Charlotte, from Melbourne, Australia, according to her name tag) behind the counter noticed my button that said “I’m celebrating my parents’ 50th anniversary” (my sister had arranged for all of us to have these buttons) and she congratulated me and gave me two little cakes to bring to my parents with her best wishes. Charlotte was training an older woman who was operating the cash register with careful deliberation. Although I ordered six meals, after I paid I realized that only four were listed on my receipt. I returned to ask Charlotte to correct the mistake, and got out my wallet to pay for the missing meals, but she waved me away, saying she would take care of it. Thank you for your kindness, Charlotte from Melbourne.

Next up–reflections from our day at Epcot, or Every Possible Combination of Things.

Never in my life have I imagined that so many people besides my mother love matching shirts. Growing up, I thought my mom’s penchant for buying matching dresses for my sister and me, or matching sweaters for her and me, or custom-made matching sweatshirts that say “Hugging is My Favorite Exercise” was excessive. I must now apologize to her because I have seen first-hand thousands of families demonstrating a much more extreme degree of matchiness.

Before you stop me and say, “Wait, didn’t your whole family wear matching t-shirts to the Magic Kingdom last week?” I will acknowledge that yes, of course we did, in honor of my mom and in celebration of my parents’ 50th anniversary, which was the occasion for our trip. My friend Annie designed the shirts and my sister and I gave them to everyone for Christmas. So I am not trying to be hypocritical here, just expressing amazement at the level of matching we witnessed on our trip.

We spent five days at five parks in and around Orlando, and every day in every park we saw hundreds or maybe thousands of groups sporting matching or coordinated shirts. Some were parents with kids, some were couples, some were groups of girlfriends. These families were white, Black, Latinx, and Asian. Most shirts were t-shirts, but some were tank tops. Most shirts featured the iconic Mickey Mouse ears, but many had slogans like “My real home is Fantasyland” or “I’m here for the snacks” or “Best Day Ever.” (Although I also saw a cynical shirt that said “Most Expensive Day Ever.”) There were also plenty of Harry Potter shirts, particularly in Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure where the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter live. People were representing their Hogwarts houses and favorite Quidditch teams or displaying the Deathly Hallows. In Legoland we saw a large group wearing white and yellow baseball style shirts that said, somewhat meanly in my opinion, “I hope you step on a Lego.” A kinder, gentler shirt sported by an older gentleman read, “I would walk across Legos for them,” meaning his kids or grandkids I assume.

In both the Disney parks and Legoland, many families had shirts that identified each member, not necessarily by name, but by their role in the family. Like “Husband” and “Wifey” (ew). Or “Daddy” and “Mommy” and the names of each kid, like “Isabelle” or “Ryan.” I didn’t see shirts that said “Son” or “Daughter” but I did see “Sister” and “Brother.” I also saw “Birthday Girl” and “Uncle of the Birthday Girl,” etc.

Somehow these shirts that reduced their wearers to their familial role only in relation to the other people present rubbed me the wrong way. I might wear a shirt that said “Betsy” but I would feel weird wearing a shirt that said “Mommy” even though I am very proud and honored to be the mom of both my kids.

Similarly, I am not a fan of the shirts that say, “I’m with her” or “I’m with him” with many Disney-themed variations.

The only shirts in that vein that I liked were from the Star Wars shops in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

I also liked this one. I liked it because not everyone in the family has to wear it for it to make sense. It’s relevant and positive but it doesn’t only work if you’re in Hollywood Studios while you’re wearing it. The shirt demonstrates a sense of familial unity without being cutesy.

I love our shirts and I’m delighted that we wore them to Disney World. I just had no idea that everyone else was going to wear theirs too.

My dad and me in our shirts on the first day of our trip.

In the airport on our way to Florida last week, we passed by this row of seven Nutcrackers with their backs to the wall. Four in red and three in green, all sporting ringlets and tall, plumed hats.

Why were they facing the wall? Sure, it’s a few months past Christmas so they may not be needed in an official capacity, but where’s the shame in that? Are they turned to the wall because they’re off-duty and they’re getting a little shut-eye, even still standing at attention, so they won’t embarrass themselves or their station? Are they playing team hide and seek? Closing their eyes and counting to 100 while seven other Nutcrackers march swiftly around the airport looking for places to hide, which may be tricky when you’re a six-foot-tall statue, although it is a large airport. Are they turned to the wall in sad resignation because they no longer feel useful and cannot bear to see the passers-by glance at them in puzzlement, or worse, derision? Do they feel dejected because they worry they have been forgotten, abandoned for more than 10 weeks when their fellow Christmas decorations have long since been carefully packed away. What if they are left to face the wall until next December? Oh, the horrors.

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