Looking for Dad

canstockphoto23635321Years ago, Father’s Day seemed to be mocking me. I had matured just enough to see that it was another holiday designed to sell more shit. My father had left when I was five and committed suicide later in his life. My stepfather was a mean and sometimes dangerous drunk, now also dead. I have never called anyone dad. It rolls off my tongue like a foreign word, unusual and exotic.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I’m not a perky ray of sunshine.  I am, however, a believer in our ability as humans to see things the way we want to see them. My life is a series of truncated and isolated phases. We moved a lot. Connections were broken, addresses lost, time passed. I have forgotten much of my history out of necessity or neglect, but there are some people who have stayed always in my heart. And it’s an important lesson: We can make such a difference to each other.

An Appreciation of Nature

When I was younger, there was an older couple from our church who used to invite us over after service. My brother and I were 8 and 10. The couple were in their 60s. At the time, they seemed ancient. She was plump and severe, often chiding us for getting into things. He was always in motion, starting up the fireplace, walking through his garden, fetching this or that for her.

canstockphoto4041752Sometimes he would take us out to a local lake and even canoeing, if we were lucky. We would hike trails, scramble over logs, tromp through the mud. He knew a lot about plants and animals, always pointing out Dutchman’s Breeches and poison ivy along the paths. He narrated what the animals did and why. We’d look through his giant binoculars at birds, excited by a flash of color. He was interested in everything outdoors, as was I and we often poured through his bird guides to find something seen that day.

As I sit here now, birds are calling outside the study window. Behind me, on my bookshelf, are ten worn and tagged guides for plants, birds and animals. On top of them, a pair of binoculars.

Valuing What I Have to Write

canstockphoto23683471As a painfully shy 5th grader, I had the great fortune of having a teacher who saw me. Always quiet, reading, well-behaved, I learned to fly under the radar as much as possible. Mr. Dunn encouraged me to write. He put one of my poems in the town paper. He encouraged me in writing a parody, the now classic “Snow White and the Five Dorks”, which my classmates were all too happy to perform. My sense of humor had not been honed by subtlety. And still may not be.

I had begun prodigiously scrawling poetry and essays, filling notebooks with inane thoughts. Because I thought it mattered. He made me believe that it was worth doing. It was a kindness that impacted me immeasurably.

Pick Your Battles

One of the most important father figures in my life was my grandfather. He thrived on military history and knew how to do battle with all the women around him without making them mad. At least not for very long. He was gentle, kind and a fantastic storyteller. I miss him greatly.

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I think of Father’s Day with gratitude now. I think of the men who I was so lucky to have met along the way – they were kind, dignified, compassionate and good human beings. I see the relationship of my daughter and her father, knowing that without these examples along the way, I might never have recognized my husband for the friend and mate and the parent that he has become.

It’s easy to get lost in the hostile gender rhetoric of social media and the entertainment portrayals of men and women, that are as baffling as they are unrealistic. In this world, where humans are working so hard to define individuality to the point of isolation and defensiveness, we still need to feel that we matter, that we are valued, that who and what we are has a place in the universe.

You may swiftly forget that moment when you were kind to someone, when you taught them something, when you singled them out and made them feel important. For me, those moments lifted me out of despair and I will carry that gratitude with me always. Happy Father’s Day to you all.

The Reluctant Soccer Mom

canstockphoto3458322This is the first year that my daughter has played competitive soccer. Whatever her skills are, I discovered right away that I’m completely unqualified to be a soccer mom. A group of mothers were standing around talking about how they hoped the coaches were good this year and about the league and volunteering. After several minutes of this, I could barely control myself and blurted “I just hope my daughter has fun.” I got the oh lady, that is SO rec league look. I skulked away to talk to the team manager.

Enforced volunteering is apparently a thing with these leagues, which cost several hundred dollars for our precious snowflakes to play in. Um, I’m sorry, but my kid is no Pelé or Eusébio and unless you’re carrying her around the field and kicking for her, no “game” should cost that much. Unfortunately, as kids get older – and older becomes a relative term (meaning 10-year-olds are being scouted), recreational leagues aren’t available. And I like my kid moving and active. We just had a long conversation about how playing a skateboard video game is not actually exercise.

I paid to get out of servitude. I grumbled, too, when I did it, saying “When did my kid’s activities become my life?” The manager chuckled and said “Yeah, my dad used to just dump me off at the ballpark with a bat and glove and that was the end of it.” Of course, I felt a little shitty about grousing. The manager is a volunteer.

It might be that I’m an older parent and have spent many more years being single and not a parent than I have been married and maternal-ish. I never daydreamed about a wedding day or found babies to be particularly interesting (most of them seemed to cry when I was around).

Even now, 15 years after getting married and 11 years after having a child, I still get a little phased by this fork in the road. I was going to travel the world and have brief, unsatisfying affairs with non-English speakers. After they would leave in incomprehensible huffs in the morning, I’d brew some coffee, unfold my New York Times, see which slot my novel was in on the bestseller list and then lean back and stare out at the ocean from my balcony.

All my friends got married, some of them for a second time. Baby announcements arrived regularly. I got a degree that would land me squarely in academia. I took dead end jobs, wrote a lot of unfinished stories, had unsatisfying affairs with native English-speaking transients, and one day, decided it was time for a change.

I moved to a bigger city, got a better job, met someone who didn’t irritate me and vice versa, got married when I was 33 and at 37, became a parent.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by a sense of fulfillment, even after having a baby. In retrospect, I was likely suffering from mild postpartum depression. I remember thinking I wanted to pitch her out of a window just for some peace and quiet and a long nap. Yeah, nobody tells you that thought might occur to you and that it’s okay – as long as there is no actual baby-pitching.

It seems that no matter what one chooses, that stereotype machine does its best to suck us in and spew out carbon copy humans. Or at least humans other people can categorize, so they can sleep well at night. Because I now fall into a demographic that is rife with stereotypes, it sometimes sends a shiver of fear up my spine. I used to mock people like me.

But here I am, able to check off many boxes for the middle-aged middle class white lady demographic. It takes two seconds on the internet to tell me what’s wrong with me, what I should be wearing, just how much of a racist/feminist/sexist I am – a liberal hippie Prius-driving nitwit with privileges falling out of my ass. And there’s no end to the child-free/child-shackled screeds or why I should be popping out a few more. For farmhands, apparently.

Sometimes the messages of social media and wingnut parents get to me. I’m standing on the sidelines at a soccer game and it hits me, how did I get here? This isn’t what I planned at all. But then I see my daughter, who was never pitched out of a window, out there sprinting down the field with fierce determination on her face and I think, who gives a shit if I’m standing here in my mom jeans at the edge of suburbia? This is awesome. It’s moments in between clichés and preconceived notions that remind me I’m right where I want to be.

NEW CONCLUSION

 I wrote this post earlier in the season and I was wrong about a few things. The soccer team has lost every game. Soundly. My daughter now stands in the middle of the field, chewing her fingernails and moving as far away from any ball action as possible. The rotating coaches and lack of focus in developing the girls’ team is disheartening. A large angry man who showed up to be their coach last night and spent the whole game yelling at them has been endemic to the season. Adults ruin everything. Even a game.

I want my money back.

If my daughter ever plays competitive soccer again (highly unlikely), I’m volunteering to do whatever it takes to ensure she actually learns about soccer skills, technique and strategy. I don’t care about the winning. I care that my kid isn’t fodder for sadistic dipshits who don’t have an investment in helping kids grow in their abilities.

I’m going to be the soccer mom from hell.

The Luxury and Cost of Empathy

canstockphoto20739510I’ve written before about being a member of the “sandwich generation”, caring for a child and aging parent. It’s a flippant phrase thrown off to encompass and neatly categorize a myriad of emotions and actions. This week has rendered me battered and exhausted, sleepless and emotional. If there were any time for me to be anti-Zen, it’s now – as in, I’d rather not be in any more moments. I would like to daydream, write feckless fiction, doze off in a chair thinking of an island in Greece.

My daughter experienced her first “frenemy” moments, crying for the second time in a week when one of her friends was deliberately cruel to her. It’s a rare thing for my child to cry and while she is sensitive to others, she’s not easily upset. This is new. And it’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to drop-kick an 11 year old, who tells my daughter she’s only joking, after a cutting remark. I calmed and comforted, talked about how some people didn’t know how to be good friends and that if this friend continued behaving in a hurtful way, the friendship might need to be reconsidered. I sounded reasonable and mature.

That night, I tossed and turned, alternating between rage and fear. I felt that gut-wrenching pain that only the tears of my child seems to bring on. I railed against myself for projecting all my childhood anxieties onto a kid who has more confidence than I’ll likely ever have. I thought about how this was just the beginning. That more hurts would come, that I’d have to be diligent and listen and try to hold back my adult anger and defensiveness. Then my mind spiraled into a darker place. The pain of mere social interactions was nothing compared to thinking about the years ahead when I might lose her or she me. Part of me wondered if there was anything I could do to protect myself, never imagining I’d be so connected to another human.

Morning came. We talked at breakfast. “How are you going to deal with so-and-so?”

“I’m just going to act like nothing happened.”

My dull, tired brain harrumphed, but I kept my mouth shut. Where’s the righteous indignation, the fiery cry for justice?

canstockphoto8541895And off to school she went.

I began my newest morning routine, packing up some exercise gear and headed over to my mother-in-law’s for the now daily physical therapy exercises she must do. She is 85 and living independently as long as we can keep her moving and engaged. Early stage dementia was diagnosed many years ago and over the last couple of years, cognitive impairment has shown up in the form of short term memory loss. Lately, it’s started to scare her.

Last week, I met with the services coordinator. My mother-in-law, for as long as she has lived in this senior building, has played Friday night cards with a group of her peers. Until one Friday, she went down and they had shut her out of the game. The other players were becoming irritated with her forgetfulness and decided they no longer wanted to play with her. My heart ached for my mother-in-law, who contrived her own explanation for no longer playing cards. As I waited to meet with the coordinator, I heard her in conversation with a couple of elderly people in the the hallway.

“I never said she couldn’t be in the library. She told Joan that I said that, but I never did.”

An old man piped up “She’s a troublemaker.”

I sat in the coordinator’s office and sighed. She came in, apologizing for the delay. I said “It’s like grade school all over again, isn’t it?”

“You don’t know the half of it. Every day is like this – gossip, fighting, misunderstandings. I spend a lot of my day just mediating.”

I shook my head. “And I suppose you can’t just tell them to grow up!” We laughed and proceeded to discuss a plan for my mother-in-law to get interaction with some of her nicer peers.

I headed upstairs and knocked on my mother-in-law’s door. She opened the door with a smile. “I’m ready – I took my shoes off.” We laughed – taking off her shoes had become part of the routine before starting exercises that required her to lay on the bed. Her table was littered with hastily scrawled notes. Tomorrow. Thursday. 1:30. Next week. Notes she took when I talked, ignoring my typed schedule that sits prominently in the middle of the table. She is trying hard to hold on, to keep cognizant of time and day, to keep herself from drifting away. Sometimes I just want to grab her writing hand and tell her it’s okay, but I know that the effort anchors her.

A low grade depression has settled over me. Some weeks, I feel like I’m disappearing. Dramatic life moments are happening all around me, but I’m inconsequential, a blank white board getting covered in reminders and lists and other people’s needs. I remind myself with a mental kick, that this is a luxury, to have problems that don’t belong to me. To be able to lend a shoulder, a hand, sage advice I earned years ago. But all the aphorisms in the world don’t change the fact that empathy has a price and I wonder how much I’m capable of paying, in these years of learning and losing.

As my daughter got off the school bus later that day, I watched from the window. Hmm, usual bounce in the step, turning and waving to the friends on her bus. Maybe a good day. Later that evening, I asked how it went with her friend, expecting a same as usual response. She said, “I told her that she was mean to me and needed to apologize and she did.”

I slept well that night.

Misogyny of the Heart

It hit me like a ton of bricks. My daughter is becoming a girl. She’s always eschewed anything stereotypically feminine for that which is “cool” and rugged and associated with being a boy. She declared at four that she was a vegetarian and at seven that she was officially a tomboy. The transition to a developing body, to the social gymnastics of preteens and all the cultural expectations that come from being female have crept up on us.canstockphoto24377829I was surprised at the fear and anger and sadness that washed over me when thinking about the changes and lessons she will experience. While preteen advice is burgeoning with woman-positive messages, I sat glumly thinking about my miserable transitions into adolescence and adulthood. There are my truths and there are the things I want her to believe. The gap between the two feels like a canyon.

She’s acutely aware of the differences, starting her protests early on as a toddler. She refused dresses, canstockphoto14836302asking resentfully why the boys got to go swimming without their shirts and she couldn’t. Girls can’t play football is the taunt from fifth grade boys that recently sent her into a sputtering rage. We talk about it and I puncture her outrage.

“Do you want to play football?”

“No.”

I’ve begun the concession talks. Pick your battles. Fight for what you care about. Start small. In my head I’m wondering if I’m asking her to be small. But I know there is a long road ahead. Many have walked it generations before us, fighting and winning some big battles. For me now, the battles are smaller and with a global awareness, small potatoes.

I have immense gratitude for the monumental changes in the last century and for now being able to have choices. But the feminism I’m living little resembles political theory or the echo chamber of social media or the cover of a glossy women’s magazines. The cacophony of voices telling me what I am and am not supposed to believe about women falls on deaf ears.

canstockphoto15586920I don’t have time for it. I have work to do. I’m raising a child, while trying to find my own way in the world. Roles have shifted so rapidly that I focus on learning and teaching how to be a decent human on this planet. Sometimes she will ask me a question and I flail, because she’s right. There is a lot of injustice out there. Each person must pick and choose whether or not to look past an inequality and continue on their journey or whether ground must be held, banners painted, protests enacted.

Raising a child is an unexpected education. It forces me to examine my beliefs, deeply held prejudices and patterns of behavior. It’s hard work to suss out what your personal truths are and how they impact the growing person who is watching you with keen eyes. How can I help her grow into a happy woman if I hold back, grimly watching and waiting for the other shoe to drop? Waiting for the “because you’re a girl” comment or scenario that makes her less than.

canstockphoto13127372I grew up in a home where I saw that being a woman was not a positive experience. Being a mother was endless drudgery and constant anxiety. Being a wife was the fear of getting hit or not getting enough money to buy groceries or being trapped with no way out. Poverty and domestic violence never stops with the adults.

In the male-dominated workplaces where I’ve worked, from the army to universities to factories, the conversation in relation to gender is always the same. Tiresome. A wink, a touch, a sly aside. I learned to sharpen my tongue and keep my distance and cultivated a twisted sense of humor. Just do your job, asshole and let me do mine. Then I did my job better than anyone else could, just to prove a point.

The gender divisiveness starts well before reaching adulthood, though. You get told early on that you are different from the other and in what ways you are different, squashing the individual inclinations in favor of easy categorization. The minute you tell a human who they are, something valuable is lost. There’s no measuring how much potential has been drained and how much misery this binary narrative has generated.

canstockphoto10311077Maybe that’s what I resent most of all – all this energy that I, having been born and identified as a female, spent trying to fit into that box. It took years of awkward clothes and shoes, disordered eating and self-loathing before it hit me, this isn’t working. It took me years to realize that I didn’t fit, that nobody fits in these little boxes.

Fear drives my anger and I can’t teach my child from this place of anger. I’m scared of what this world will tell my thoughtful, imaginative child about who she is. I have to take hold of my fears, lay them down, reach beyond this narrow space in which I find myself.

She is not me as I am not my mother. Our experiences are reflections of familial evolution and of advancing social awareness. My daughter has a different role model, home environment, and a different experience entirely of womanhood. She has many attributes that insulate her against casual expectations of her gender and has critical thinking skills that can neutralize attempts to devalue her.

Confronting my internal misogynist pessimism is a challenge. I’m a little stuck sometimes trying to see that being a woman is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Some days, I’ll see something or read something and I burn with anger and righteous indignation. Some days, I am so damned lucky to see the world through my daughter’s eyes. Her truth is powerful. She knows who she is and everything else is just noise.

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Scrooge in 2015: The Everyday Path to Redemption

I sat incanstockphoto0044344 the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last week, self-consciously wiping the tears off my face. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 1951 version with Alistair Sim or the 1992 Muppet version or a live version on stage, A Christmas Carol always has me sniffling by the time the third spirit arrives. I know what is coming. The break of day and redemption.

This idea of redemption, not in an afterlife or by last minute acts of desperation, but in the present, is such a beautiful, gut-wrenching concept to me. And I don’t think a supernatural fright is necessary to experience it.

Most of us have not committed egregious, prosecutable crimes. For those who have, I leave it to their victims to offer redemption. Most of us are petty criminals – innocuous in our envy, silently savoring our pride or our appearance, holding petty grudges or being snarky. I do something nearly daily that in hindsight I am embarrassed or ashamed about, whether it be an act or a thought. The nature of being human means that some of our layers aren’t things we’d want others to witness.

Perhaps, too, the redemption I learned about in church is something too ephemeral and distant to mean much. So often it seems that people use religious concepts of redemption as a way of excusing behavior they’ve made no attempt to modify or for which they feel no remorse. Real redemption lies in making amends and then making different choices. It requires that introspection which differentiates us as humans – our willingness to recognize our flaws and our ability to learn to do things differently, to be different.

As a writer, this has always been something that niggles at my little gray cells. I like happy endings in stories. I like it when characters make different choices that lead them on an upward trajectory. I like to believe the most seemingly irredeemable humans find their way into the light. This is why I’ve not enjoyed the latest trend of fictional protagonists as antiheroes – those who are repugnant in their choices and never find a redemptive path. I don’t see the point of elucidating these characters if they are going to continue making the same kinds of choices with inevitably worsening consequences.

Culturally, the antihero seems to dominate public attention. Heroes and heroines are eventually tarnished. Moral rectitude is replaced by expediency and attention-seeking stunts. The myths of goodness in the public sphere are like bad alibis – easy to poke holes in, unable to withstand scrutiny. True heroes and heroines are going about their work, sometimes unregarded and unnoticed, but staying the course. And every day, they are still learning and seeking redemption by choosing in those singular moments to be better than what they might otherwise be.

canstockphoto13945863This is the true beauty of redemption – each moment is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to scrutinize the uglier bits of our personalities and decide to be better. It’s a chance to look at whatever prejudicial beliefs that have permeated our cells and decide to be smarter. It’s a chance to be a better friend or parent or student or employee. It’s an opportunity to say sorry and mean it. Each day, we are presented with small choices and interactions in which we can redeem ourselves. We can be just a little bit better than what our nature dictates. I think that is a miracle unto itself – no spirits required.

 “Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them, for he knew that no good thing in this world ever happened, at which some did not have their fill of laughter. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

May your 2015 be filled with redemptive moments and joy – keep it well!

 

Currently trying to redeem my brain cells with these books:

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry

Parenting: The Nostalgic Haze of Never-Really-Happened Days

WARNING: Extreme Defensiveness Aheadcanstockphoto2415989

This morning I ran across another article jumping all over parents about over-scheduling, helmeting and seat-buckling their children. Already angered by the repetitious message that parents today suck, I decided to throw gas on the fire and read the comment section. Apparently, the best parents are the ones with the shortest memories and empathy-impairment.

Let me tell you a story about the good ole’ days. Yes, I rode my bike, without a helmet, around town from the break of daylight until dinner time. Our family of 6 lived in a 2 bedroom apartment – converted from a commercial office. My stepfather was in and out of work, drinking heavily and arrested occasionally. My mother was drinking just to survive the close proximity of a baby, a toddler and two older children, the oldest of which was me.

Every week, we’d attend the Seventh Day Adventist church service. Surrounded by vegetarians, fire and brimstone sermons and an odd proclivity for footwashing, we’d pretend that there hadn’t been a drunken, late-night, screaming argument the night before at a barbeque. We’d pretend that my stepfather hadn’t threatened to bash our heads in with a two by four. We’d pretend that we hadn’t lain as still and quietly as we could in our beds, quivering mice, hoping that we wouldn’t be noticed.

In today’s terms, I’d have been classified as a high risk child. A shy, introverted awkward girl in an unstable, abusive home environment who wandered through town at all hours. A Safeway shoplifter of gum and candy. A child who longed for adult kindness, who was the sometime recipient of free food, a ride, clothes, a place to stay.

Like vague criticism waved at large, labeled groups, people need to learn how to qualify their statements. And I call bullshit on most nostalgic ruminations. When I was a kid, life was not homemade cookies and bedtime stories. I was scared, nervous and so angry inside that I nearly self-destructed in my twenties.

As for the flag-waving, suburban nostalgia, I learned to hide under my desk in the case of a nuclear bomb. Johnny Gosch disappeared, as did the idea that any kid was ever safe. Some of us were molested by neighborhood friendlies. And corporal punishment taught me that I had to be stronger and meaner and more physical against those smaller than I.

Just because you survived your childhood unscathed, just because you had loving parents, just because you lived in a safe, cozy neighborhood, many of us didn’t. So we are a little more vigilant and conscientious about the lives that have been entrusted to us. We’re supposed to raise decent humans in a world that caters to the cruel, the hyper-sexualized, the gun-brandishing Wild West of this America.

Parents today are expected to beat out advertising, technology and the sexual marketing of and to children. We’re supposed to be better than sugared cereals, stupefying television, an underfunded, disrespected education system, our own crappy inherited parenting skills. On top of that, we’re bombarded by a media saturation of child kidnapping, rape and murder – even if it’s a lower percentage of crime, a safer American than before, it burns into the psyche.

I am a diligent, conscientious parent. I took parenting classes. Read all the books – there’s an endless supply of information about the many ways you can screw up your child. I talked over issues with other parents. I listen to and talk with my child regularly. And STILL, my daughter might meet the wrong boy in the future or god forbid, sit in her elementary classroom with 19 of her peers when someone with an untreated mental illness gets his hands on weapons.

Parenting is hard and it is hard in a way that I had no idea about – the sleeplessness, gross hygiene issues, constant need – I expected these. But I am baffled by a world that is in the throes of self-destruction, yet takes time out from its downward spiral to deride parents – the individuals who are raising the people who just might pull this planet back from the edge.

The life my daughter has today is wonderful. I have no regrets. I have no problem with putting a helmet on her, making her buckle up, sending her off to try a new sport or hobby or instrument. She is whip-smart, kind and a critical thinker. Her home is stable and our expectations clear. I am not sorry for my parenting and I am happy to be a parent.

So save the anecdotes. If you can’t help me do this job, if you aren’t going to help me protect this child, if you are going to gripe about taxes for education and criticize using the barest safety standards, perhaps you should wonder why your perfect childhood didn’t create a more compassionate adult.