Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Someday I hope to find my Inner Sydney...

Someday I hope everyone will discover their “Inner Sydney”.  In the world we live in with all its fears and uncertainty, its frailties and capriciousness, having an Inner Sydney is a necessity.  

Sydney is my eight year old granddaughter, and she was born with a sensitivity to textures and sensory experiences. As a very young child,  everyday experiences often created a landscape of deep and immediate emotional reactions. 

One would think that being wired this way would create a young woman who would be trapped in fear and anxiety.  But Sydney is one of the bravest people I know.
As I write that, many memories surface of when I witnessed this first hand, but the freshest example is from the first day of third grade this year.

For the first time, Sydney was facing elementary school without her older sister, whom she adored.  When we pulled up, the sidewalk was nearly empty and the school loomed large. 

I felt her momentary hesitation and took her hand.  “Syd, do you want me to go in with you?”  

She stared right into my eyes, totally clear and open.  I saw the beginnings of tears forming.  Then, she took her hand away and smiled a weak smile. 

“Oma, I got this.”  

She closed the door of the van, squared off her shoulders, readjusted her backpack, and headed for the door.  


A night later, she was standing on the field of the local high school stadium preparing to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” acapella before the start of a soccer match.  

“Are you nervous?”  I asked her. 

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation and strode off with her mother towards the field.  She was led off by an official to be in position for the start, and I saw that once she was settled in, she stood there silently holding her mic, waiting.  


When the player introductions finished, her name was announced over the PA system,and the crowd stood.  Standing by herself on the field, she seemed even smaller than her eight years.   I felt her inhale, and then she sang with a confidence way beyond her years.

When she was done, I asked her how she handled her nervousness.  

“I held a stress ball in my hand.”  

That was all.

As a parent, as a wife, as a friend, as a grandma, when others express their fears, I often find myself giving pep talks, or at least what I think are pep talks, to help them “get through”.  But this little girl has learned what many of us never do.  

Strength has to come from the inside.  

Strength from the inside is a strength that sustains.  It is a strength that admits frailties and marches ahead anyway.  It is a strength that gives voice to fear and then walks through it, head held high. 

It is an "Inner Sydney strength" forged in the crucible of fear.

Someday, I hope to develop my own Inner Sydney and stare down the voices of resistance - to acknowledge my fears but not let them own me. 

Someday, I hope you find her too.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A white senior citizen's attempt to understand racism through the lens of sexism.

Not a single person who knows my husband of 30+ years would ever describe him as a misogynist.  Words used to describe him are often "kind, compassionate, respectful, a good listener." Women have told me he is a “safe” person, someone who will honor them as women and hold their souls in quiet, gentle hands.  He is slow to anger, abounding in love, and a man of integrity.
But his journey into the landscape of truly understanding the importance of respecting  women has been a long one.  Yes, he was brought up to respect women by a mother whose own gentle soul made its imprint on his.  But he was also a product of his environment – an athlete who grew up in a locker room culture and a young man who came of age during the 60’s and 70’s when objectifying women became an accepted cultural practice.
When we married, he would say things or talk about experiences with fellow athletes that made my heart cringe.  Each time I would express to him that what he had just shared was inconsistent with the man I knew him to be.  And generally, his response would be, “But that’s just joking around.”  I had to explain to him that joking around at someone else’s expense wasn’t funny.
Over the years we examined issues like the use of sarcasm, which I explained to him this way:  If you stab someone in the heart with your words, saying “Just kidding” afterwards does not stop the bleeding.  But the turning point came, I think, when he told me how some of the men he had been golfing with were flirting with a young waitress at the restaurant on the course.  It had made him uncomfortable, and he was processing the experience.  
To put it into context, I asked him how he would have felt if it had been one of his daughters serving them that day.  How would he have felt about the table of men filling the air with innuendo and seeing her only as an object?  He was horrified, and from that day forward, I believe he changed as he saw through his own eyes and felt through his own heart as a father the damage that could be done to a woman by the actions and words of men who would excuse their behavior as "just joking around"  or "boys being boys".
Here is what he did NOT do.  He did not dismiss my feelings or experiences because they were not his own.  He did not suggest that because women were more present in all places of society, they just needed to be patient .  And he did not accuse women of creating divisiveness because of their desire to draw attention to their struggles.

So it is with understanding white privilege, I think.  For those of us who are white, we do not have the background or experience through which to evaluate the depth of racism in this country.  And we cannot dismiss the concerns of people of color simply because we have not walked in their shoes, just as my husband could no longer dismiss sexism just because he didn’t have the experiences of being female in our culture.  
We will not understand until we listen to the experiences of people from other races and cultures and place our own lives in that experience.  How would I feel if I knew that if my son was lost on a street, he would be viewed with suspicion because he is Black?  How would I feel if it was assumed my parents were illegal farmworkers just because they were Hispanic?  Would I want my daughter viewed with suspicion because her faith required her to wear a hijab?
I think we need to stop being offended when someone uses the terms “racism” or “white privilege”. I think, instead, we need to be open to asking questions.  I think we need to be honestly willing to consider the possibility, just as Tim did, that our own personal experience of our culture does not equate with the truth because our vision is limited.  
But more than anything, we need to stop and examine our own lives in light of the pain being expressed by people whose lifelong experiences of the promises of America are diminished because of the external expressions of race and culture. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

“Some of us want to be shamed,” the NBC personality said Thursday on “Megyn Kelly Today.” 

Dear Megyn,

I have been following with some interest the reaction to your comment about the benefits of fat-shaming and your subsequent clarification (“It works for some people.”)

I will not be joining the bandwagon to crucify you for this remark, though I must admit as a mother and grandmother, all I could picture were my beautiful daughters and their granddaughters.  One of them is entering adolescence, by the way, and by all accounts, she is one beautiful girl from the inside out. She is a gifted thinker and athlete, but what impresses me most about her is her kindness and compassion towards others and the world.  

Sadly enough, she is already worried that she is “too fat”.  So you can imagine my visceral reaction to your comment.

But now, to be honest, I am just feeling sorry for you.  I feel sorry that your culture sent you the message that your worth was tied to a number on the scale.  I feel sorry that when you made that request of your step-father, he did not pull you over and give you a hug and a heart to heart talk about how important it was to not place your value in your looks.  I feel sorry that you are now the recipient of cruelty on social media, which, as you know, is just another form of shaming.

Megyn, I used to think like you because I am a product of the same culture. I was young and thin and obsessed with “looking good” as defined by my culture.  And I held in disdain those who fell short of the mark I tried so hard to achieve.  Though I never said anything out loud to anyone, I knew the thoughts I harbored in my heart.

But I would like to share with you a pivotal experience I had on a commuter bus in downtown Seattle that forever changed me.  From my vantage point about one half way down the row of seats, I saw a woman who could barely fit down the aisle gently coaxing a young girl of about three in front of her. They took a seat behind me, and while they passed by, my head filled with critical thoughts about her appearance and the effect “her lifestyle choices” would have on her young daughter.

As we approached my stop, I moved to the side-facing seats in the front, and from that vantage point, I had a clear view of this woman.  The young girl who had boarded with her was now fast asleep on her chest.  For some reason my vision shifted.  I saw this young girl enveloped between her mother’s breasts.  I could almost touch the warmth that emanated from the mother’s face as she stroked her daughter’s hair and smiled down on her. 

In that frozen moment, I saw what my critical self had missed in judging this mom by her appearance: she was a harbor of love for that young girl.  She was warmth and safety, and she had a peace and a calm about her that invited affection.  Somehow, I could not imagine that her little girl ever noticed anything about her mom except her capacity to love.  

And now, because of her,  it is that quality I seek to notice and celebrate in others.

Megyn, I want you to always remember this: our size never defines us as women.  And our individual stories can never be reduced to a cultural stereotype.  Let us celebrate our competence and our courageousness and not qualify it through a number.  Let us encourage and support each others’ gifts and not let them by hampered by external expectations.  But more than anything, let us stand together against the real enemy – any words or actions that seek to diminish us in any way because of artificial notions of what it means to be acceptable as a woman. 

We are beautiful,we are worthy of respect,  and we are  enough - no matter what our size.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Someday, I hope all of us get handed a shaker.  Not the kind that is salt, but a real, honest to God bright yellow, egg-shaped noise maker.  And I hope when we are given the shaker, that each of us, with great vim and vigor, will shake with reckless abandon to contribute to the song of life that swirls around us.

Bright yellow egg-shaped shakers, it appears, are highly prized items in senior settings.  We discovered this quite by accident while playing music in a small adult family home.  One of the residents, who recently celebrated her 98th birthday, expressed frustration every time we came because she could not sing, though she loved music. One day I found at the bottom of my purse a leftover shaker from band practice, which I handed to her. 

Throughout the hour, she experimented with the sound.  Basic shaking came first.  Then as her confidence grew, so did her repertoire of sounds until she soon could do not only the first beat, but the subtleties in between the measures as well.  As we were saying our goodbyes, she remarked, “I can’t sing, but I loved doing this.  I was able to participate.”

Because of this reaction, we began to bring other eggs shakers to pass out before performances.  And we noticed something unexpected. Sometimes, like our 98 year-old friend, making rhythm came naturally.  However, other times, the shakers would sit unused until between songs. Watching from the front I would see listeners pick up the egg and roll it around in their hands, as if examining it under some kind of microscope.  Then experiments would begin in the pause between songs.  A shake here, a roll there…like explorers in uncharted territory.

For some,however, the shakers became an invitation to boldness.  One senior, notable for a sometimes surly response to the world, became the lead shaker in a large group setting.  From her chair at a table, her shaking of the egg became more complex and rhythmic until it seemed the very movement itself compelled her out of the chair and across the room to where we stood.  Leaning on a support post beside me, nearly blind and hard of hearing, she stood and sang full volume, her feet, moving in time to the shaking of the egg in her hand.

The shaker moved her from discontent to bold leadership.  When an old favorite tune ended, she stood, marched up to us again, and started a new chorus of the song, leading the room in an acapella reprise of one of her favorite songs.  In the end, when we went to greet after the music was done, she announced, “This was the best day of my life.”

But there is a catch to the shakers.  Though we arrive at our senior sing-a-longs with a certain number, and though we always say we are collecting them, new "owners" are reluctant to give them up.  They get slipped under napkins on the table or into pockets or into purses.  We know this is true because as we wander, we hear the telltale signs of the rattlesnake-like rhythm punctuating the air.  A little like a game of hide and seek, when we are near, quiet reigns.  But as we move away, we hear the quiet rattling dares of captive eggs in the hands of their kidnappers.

After seeing this pattern develop, it occurs to me that apparently, that egg-shaped shaker is not just a noise maker.  It is a symbol of what happens when people gather to relive memories through music and create new ones through participation.  It is a symbol of curiosity about things that are new.  And it is a symbol of what a person can still do well when other abilities are gone.

Someday, good Lord willing, it will be me sitting in that dining room while someone is singing the songs of my youth… Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and, yes, Arrowsmith.  And I hope when they do, that someone hands me a shaker.  Something small that fits in the palm of my hand and is brightly colored so I don’t lose it through blurred vision.  Something that gives me permission to be part of the music and not just a silent subject.

And when they do, I want to shake it with every fiber of what’s left of my body.  I want to shake it as my primal victory cry to the world that I made it…I sang my song…I lived my life.  And no matter what lies ahead, I want to shake with all of my being to announce to the world that I will live, to my last breath, not on the sidelines of life, but celebrating the life song I was given with a joyful noise.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Someday I hope to be able to always look up ...

Someday I hope to be able to always look up in any circumstance.  The idea came to me after reading a blog by fellow writer and nature photographer Jack McLeod.  In the blog, Jack wrote of a  soul provoking Christmas present from his daughter: 52 weeks of challenges, the first of which was to simply "look up".  Jack's looking up involved his reflection in word and photo and deed.

Perhaps it was his blog...perhaps it was the photos from his time of "looking up" included here, but something in those two words ruminated in my head like a brain worm, sort of a background whisper to the start of my day. 

That start included a morning meeting in a nearby town, so I located a French bakery for treats  to add to our sharing of tea and conversation. Perusing the delicacies, I contemplated what I could bring for my long awaited chat session with my friend.  Turning away from the fruit custard tarts and sixteen layer cakes, I directed my attention to the pastries, so light and airy I could feel the flakes falling on my shirt.  A young woman took my order, and as she prepared it, I stood transfixed by the array of sweets, fighting the desire to buy one of each.

Then I heard Jack's challenge in my head..."Look up." I turned my gaze towards the small courtyard outside where frost still dusted the concrete from the previous night.  The twenty degree weather was still clinging to the air as I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye.  There next to a small tree stood a young man and a young woman cramming their sleeping bags into plastic bags and then into a small shopping cart.  I knew immediately that the frost covered concrete of the small patio had been their mattress for the night and imagined what the night must have been like, as we had experienced a prolonged cold spell. Immediately, a whisper began in my head, “Buy them breakfast." 

I could feel The Whisper's strength, but equally strong were the voices against the plan. The line was long, a meeting awaited for which I was already late...the list of reasons forming in my head drowned out The Whisper. I picked up my order at the sound of my name and headed to the car, and as I opened the car door, The Whisper's strength in my head increased.  And so did the litany of excuses.  

         I could go to Safeway and buy some coffees and pastries...but that would take too much time.
         What if I came back with all the food and no one was there anymore?
         What if I came back and they were violent when I offered breakfast?

Finally, I realized that I would not get peace until I just listened to The Whisper, so I called my friend, simply letting her know I would be late and that it was a Holy Spirit thing.

When I returned, the voices began again:

         What if they are gone?
         What if you get robbed?
         What if they are mentally ill?

But the choice was the same: listen and follow or be haunted by the missed opportunity.

I rounded the corner walking into the small courtyard and placed the coffee and rolls in their hands along with some money for lunch.   I introduced myself and shook their hands.

"It cannot have been easy to sleep outside last night," I offered as they introduced themselves.

"It's a good spot," he replied, "a safe place."

"At least we're together," she added.

I asked them what led them to be sleeping outside that night, and they both shared a simple story which is probably common to many in this situation.  I let them know about the local missions, but I knew that a couple devoted to each other would be split up from each other.  Thinking of my own husband and protector, I understood that being with someone you love and who cares for you sometimes trumps everything.

We talked in the cold, and then, as they readied to leave, we hugged each other and went our ways.

This is not a story to highlight a generosity of spirit on my part.  It is a story to show you what a rusty heart looks like, one that is illustrated in the photo of my friend Jack.  My heart knows The Whisper and from where it comes, but the human side of me living in fear of the unknown and of connection has thousands of reasons not to act.

Every whisper that compels me towards the Light is met with resistance.  And I would love to tell you that with practice, reaching out becomes easier. But in reality, I have learned the battle never changes, nor does it get any easier.  The only thing that changes is that now, I am starting to recognize The Whisper more quickly, though I rage against it as I seek a path of selfishness and isolation.

Two people who slept on concrete in the cold welcomed me like an old friend that day.  They had no hesitation and no fear. They hugged with reckless abandonment.  And, as always, they taught me the poverty of my own spirit.  

Someday, I hope to have learned the lesson well enough that the battle is gone.  But that is a someday that, I think, awaits me only in heaven.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Someday I will be efficient...

Someday I will be efficient...

Someday I will no longer have to worry about how the dishwasher is loaded. Being just a tad bit OCD, loading it up in "perfect order" has been one of the few joys of housekeeping. Like a master puzzle maker, everything sorted according to its size and shape, the goal has always been to use every square inch of space, in an orderly fashion of course. I tell myself that it is to "save water" and the planet in the process, but really, in a world spinning out of control, it is one of the few tasks that brings peace and order to a chaotic world.

I lost that job when my 95 year old mom moved in. I did not lose it right away, but in tiny increments as her dementia has deepened. Though it was her decision to move in, for the first four months she "raged against the machine", which in this case was me. Hurtful things came out of her mouth, reminiscent of the less than affectionate barbs slipped into conversation throughout my life. But in those hard times, I made a conscious choice to just love her, regardless of the emotional climate. Whether it was that determination or the progress of her disease, something in her turned, and she began a transformation into a loving, gracious person, someone I had not experienced most of my life.

I think, though, that probably it was the dishes that turned the tide. Your see, she wanted to be helpful, and washing dishes was a joy from her childhood, so I agreed she could "pre-wash" them. She would get up from our shared table each morning after breakfast and totter as though intoxicated, carrying our dishes to the sink. Like a new mom, I would hover to make sure things did not get dropped. Then I remembered that broken dishes can be replaced, but stolen dignity could not. It was a lesson I would have to learn over and again.

What started out as a quick rinse has now, as she progresses in her decline, become a ritual that grows each day.  "I am going to do the dishes now," she announces, and I remove myself to let her do it all by herself. Many mornings, I have sat and watched her stare out the window lost in thought, and I wait for her inspiration to return for the task at hand. Then an inner light switches on and she shuffles over to the sink, dishes shaking like small buildings in an earthquake, her slow almost crablike walk creating an arrhythmic thump on the tile floor. 

Then the water is turned on and I hear the dishes being washed one at a time and set on the sink floor. A few moments will pass, and then she turns the water on and washes them again, not out of cleanliness but forgetfulness. My teeth no longer grind as I listen. It is just water. And she is happy.

Every day when finished, she comes in and proudly announces the dishes are done. Often she takes my hand and leads me into the kitchen, unaware that I have been surveying her work from a distance, watching her glide like a manta ray on the ocean floor over the counters looking for things to wash and organize. "I don't know what we would do without you,” I tell her every time. Her face shines like a schoolgirl who has just passed an important exam. She has meaning in her life now.

The newest wrinkle is now a towel gets placed on the counter, and she creates a little pocket to put the silverware in and then places the washed dishes on the remaining towel. Yesterday I opened up the cupboard and found the "washed dishes" - traces of breakfast still intact on the sides, neatly stacked. I think to myself, "It is time to teach her how to load the dishwasher."

We all worry so much about legacy, or maybe it is just me, wanting it to be something deep and meaningful. But this, after 95 years, is hers. She washes dishes....with great tenderness and great love. It is her act of sacrifice, done for me, the daughter she has come to love openly as we wander through this journey to the end of her life.

Someday, I will be efficient and save water and do my little organizing task with great planning and orderliness, and the sound of her shuffling across the floor and the rattle of dishes will be only a memory that haunts this house. But today, I will teach her how to load the dishwasher. It will be messy and chaotic and will, in all likelihood, turn a five minute task into an hour long ordeal. But in the end, what we will have together is something better than order...

We will have love made visible in the chaos...

(Note:  My mom died two days after I wrote this draft.  On her last day on earth, she loaded the dishwasher and raked leaves...what she would have called a perfect day)   

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Someday I will sing out loud ...

Someday I will sing out loud like no one is listening, even when they are.  And when I do, I will remember the young man at Michael's craft store who taught me my first awkward notes.

Trying to tack a quick shopping trip unto the end of a long day, I was already busy thinking about what awaited me at home, trapped in that internal frantic making of "to-do" lists.    As I rounded a corner at full tilt, I could hear someone singing very loudly and very off key.  Annoyed, I looked up to see a grown man-child staring off into some other world, a blissful smile on his face as he crooned some unrecognizable tune.  Next to him, a calm, motherly woman stood, ignoring the sounds and quietly shopping.

 Cute, I thought, through my throttled annoyance.  I had my list and the clock was ticking, so I murmured some quick pleasantry to his mom and moved on, face tight and focused.

 But it seems I could not get away from that song.  I could not see the young man, but his voice filtered back to the picture frames and curled around the DIY projects and resounded through the clearance aisles. And, as luck would have it, his voice was right behind me, singly loudly and off key, in the line that snaked far too long past the lone checker available to us all.  This was going to be a long, loud wait.

 Patience is not my gift, but in an attempt at self-improvement, I made myself turn around to engage with his mom.  As he roared into song again, something in me wanted to help her know that this singing was a beautiful thing, even if I was having a difficult time feeling that way today.

 So I joined him.  I just followed his meandering voice and for a few moments sang as loudly and as off key as I could with him.

 He stopped perplexed.  In an inarticulate voice I heard him as he turned to his mom.

 "What is she doing?" he asked,  a small look of panic in his eyes.

 "She's singing WITH you," mom said as she smiled at him.

 He looked at me, his eyes a little vacant and turned away, and I finished my transaction and turned again to the young man.

 "Thank you for sharing your song."

 He looked at his mom puzzled. She gazed back into his face and lovingly said, "She liked your song."

 This man-child looked right into my eyes with unexpected clarity and maturity.  His voice clear and focused, without a trace of impediment, he held my gaze.

 "Thank you."  
Just that...and then he smiled, and his face fell back into that vague dreaminess.  But in those two words, here is what I heard:  

 Thank you for noticing me...for hearing my song.

 And here is what I hope my heart spoke back to him:  

 It is okay to sing out loud for no reason.  It is okay to let go of the rush of life and participate in small moments of joy.  It is okay to lift your voice simply because you can, because you are alive, and this breathing moment is the only one we are guaranteed.

 Someday, my breathing moments will be gone, as they will for all of us.  For the ones I have left, I hope to let go of the tyranny of worry and rush and remember this:  Dance, as the poster says, as if no one is watching.   Sing out loud as if no one is listening.  And in your impatient, I-don’t–have–time-for-this moments, push pause...look deeply...and simply say,
Thank you.