Pocket Sized

“Ooff,” I muttered, rubbing my head. I batted away the pink fluff that hung over my face and called for Yelpi. Where was she anyway? “Yelp….” I trailed off mid-yell. I had found Yelpi alright. Except something was up. Either Yelpi was really, really big… or I was really, really small. Either way, our experiment seemed to have gone exponentially wrong.

Maybe I should give you some background, to keep you from being completely lost. Yelpi is my best friend. I met her in second grade. She had braces on her legs to help her walk, and she wore glasses. My family has a rule about being kind to other people—especially people who might be left out or lonely—and this girl looked like she was going to need a friend. So, I introduced myself, “I’m Persephone. But you can call me Persi. Everyone does.”

I don’t know if I expected her to be shy or what. But I definitely didn’t expect her to laugh. At my NAME. I mean, your name’s your mark in the world, you know? I was going to be mad. But there was something amazing about her laugh that made me feel… good. Peaceful. “Persi,” she said, still giggling. “Well, my name’s Yolanda. But, maybe you should call me Yelpi or something.”

If Yelpi had been anyone else, I would have lectured her on how my name marked me as something special. Persephone was the daughter of two Greek gods, after all. And she was the bringer of Spring—new life, rebirth… The way I figured it, my name made me kind of a big deal. But right away I knew two things about Yelpi: 1) she already knew this stuff about the Greek gods without me telling her, and 2) she was going to treat me like I was sort of a big deal no matter what my name was. That’s just the kind of person she is.

Turns out I was right. Yelpi was the smartest kid I’d ever met. She was always reading something. She loved stories about far off places. And she read book after book about science—lightning, grasshoppers, chemistry. Yelpi was unapologetically a nerd. Even in the second grade. And she was also the most amazing person ever. I totally didn’t need to feel sorry for her. The braces on her legs slowed her down a little. And she kind of bounced when she walked. But it didn’t matter. She’d take on any challenge, even if it took her ten times more effort than most of the kids. Like the time we had to run a mile in PE. Coach was gonna give Yelpi a pass on that. But she insisted that she could do it. It took her the whole PE class—45 minutes!—to go the whole mile. But she never gave up. Kids respect that kind of stuff. So, one by one, as kids finished running their mile, they went back to walk with Yelpi. Coach acted like it was a big deal that we all “supported Yelpi”—whatever that means. We were just being her friend. Adults can get so weird about stuff.

Anyway, basically from the day we met, Yelpi & I have been inseparable. My mom says we’re attached at the hip. That’s silly. I mean, how could we even get around to play aliens bodysnatchers or to look for fairies in the backyard if we were attached at the hip? See? Adults = weird. But, if we actually were attached at the hip, we’d probably get in a lot less trouble. And for sure I wouldn’t be three inches tall right now.

Oh, man… I got ahead of myself again. Okay, okay. Remember how I said Yelpi is a total science nerd? Well, she got me into science, too. And our favorite thing to do on a Saturday is to look up experiments and preform them in my room. Usually, we just go to a few science websites for kids and find experiments there. But today Yelpi showed up at my house with a dusty old book that she’d found in a big steamer trunk in her attic. Bet you want to know how she even got up into the attic with those braces on her legs? I knew you were paying attention. She got them off a few months ago. Over the summer. She still bounces when she walks, but she’s gotten a lot faster. And, honestly, I spend so much time with Yelpi that I bounce when I walk, too. It’s kind of just a habit. But it is more fun to walk like that. You should try it.

So, Yelpi has this strange, big book that she’s all excited over. It’s got old, loopy script handwriting in it instead of printed words. It looks like someone spent a lot of time putting together all kinds of potions—potions for love, for curing illnesses, for getting rich. Now, Yelpi and I are in fourth grade. I don’t give a fig about love, at least not the kind of love that makes Aiden Smith always try to kiss me on the playground. And Yelpi and I are real lucky that we don’t know anyone that’s sick. So, we figured we’d try to get rich. Seemed like a reasonable way to spend our Saturday afternoon.

We gathered all kinds of stuff for the potion. Some of the stuff we had to kind of guess on—neither of us could exactly get our hands on an eye of newt or on a fragment of turtle shell stewed in sage. Maybe it was our improvising that was the problem. Because by late Saturday afternoon, we were no richer. But I certainly was smaller. 45 inches smaller, to be exact.

 

We Do Not Have to Live Like This

I haven’t talked to Jane about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. How do you tell a 7 year old, who loves school above all else, that 17 people went in to school one morning and never came back out? How will she ever feel safe again, once she knows the truth? I don’t feel safe. I am terrified. I feel a physical pang when I drop her off at school in the morning. I stop the ‘what ifs’ in my head, because who can live like that?

But none of us should be living like this.

I’m not one to shy away from discussing difficult topics with Jane. Racism? We talk about it. She’s appalled by it. White supremacy? She knows what it is & thinks it’s gross. Homophobia? Yeah, she thinks that’s just dumb. But gun violence? I guess that’s where our privilege really shows… we haven’t talked about it because it could directly effect her. America’s love of guns could cost my child her life. I don’t know how to broach that. Yet people of color talk to their children often & from a young age about America’s racism that could one day end their lives for no reason at all. So, yes, white privilege is wrapped up in all this, too. But really, isn’t it always.

I don’t believe we have to quietly accept racism. And I don’t believe we have to accept the status quo on guns. When I found out that Atlanta Public Schools will do active shooter drills, I immediately felt relief. Knowing how to respond could increase Jane’s chances of survival. Then that sunk in: I am concerned about increasing my child’s chances of survival AT SCHOOL. Shit. Then the second wave of realization hit: Jane will learn that if she isn’t in her classroom, she must hide. On her own. The doors will be locked. She can’t get back in. She just has to do her best to stay alive.

SHE IS SEVEN.

We have created a war zone. Here. In America. We are our own enemy. On any given day, our children might die at their own school. And we refuse to stop it. We just try to navigate around it. That is some bullshit right there.

When I posted on Facebook that, during active shooter protocol, classroom doors are locked an aren’t to be reopened until the all clear is given, I got a lot of pushback. Not from gun activists. From teachers. They said they would never leave a child out to die on their own. They would let them in.

I don’t doubt that, at all. Teachers have sacrificed their lives to save their students. But teachers aren’t soldiers. They shouldn’t have to EVER make the decision to open that door or not. The orders are given for a reason. Opening the door might save the one student, or it might end the lives of 20 others. Teachers are not combat trained, for God’s sake. How could they ever make that call effectively? Better yet, WHY SHOULD THEY HAVE TO?

We do not have to live like this.

And, to be clear, homeschooling isn’t the answer to the threat of being gunned down in school. America’s love affair with guns cannot cost us our public education system. We cannot abandon our children’s futures to the NRA. We did not allow 9/11 to stop us from traveling, living, and rebuilding. We didn’t all move to rural America in response to terrorism in one of America’s greatest cities. Make no mistake: the NRA is a terrorist organization. Abandoning public education means the terrorists win. That wasn’t an option after 9/11. It isn’t an option now.

Tonight, I will talk to Jane about the Parkland shooting. I’ll read articles about talking to kids about gun violence. I’ll pray about it. Then I’ll start the conversation. But I’ll be damned if I will resign myself to this being her normal. I will fight back with every breath I have. And, if I know my kid at all, she’ll insist on being right by my side.

Speak up. Stand up. Fight back.

We do not have to live like this.

 

 

Photo credit: Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Reawakening

Emma Gonzalez is a warrior. Just days after witnessing the slaughter of her classmates, Gonzalez delivered a powerful, gut-punch speech that spoke truth to power. She spoke through tears. She yelled to be heard. And then she practically took over the entire internet, with repost after repost of her speech on traditional media, Facebook & Twitter. I’ve watched the video of her speech over and over again. And I wonder, where did the Emma Gonzalez in me go?

The fierceness that radiates from Gonzalez…it looks and feels familiar. Just seeing her take the podium snapped me back to my college activism days. I felt radical then—exposed to the women’s and LGBT movements and empowered by the notion that I could change the world. I spoke without fear then. I challenged my traditional upbringing. I fought against a culture that would rather I have stayed in the closet. I called b.s.—albeit on a much smaller scale.

But Gonzalez isn’t “finding herself” on a college campus somewhere. She discovered her voice as an 18 year old, high school senior. Most seniors get to focus on attending prom, organizing senior skip day, and planning for college. Gonzalez, on the other hand, is addressing a nation, via repost after repost, about the horrors of gun violence. She’s already faced the hard truth that the gun lobby owns many of our congressional leaders. And that isn’t about to stop her. She understands that politicians care more about being re-elected than passing reasonable gun control necessary to save children’s lives. That isn’t going to stop her, either. She calls b.s. on it all and pushes forward to do the real, necessary work of stopping the murder of kids at their own schools.

We, the adults in America, have failed. We bought the lie that we are powerless to change American policy and American culture. We have given up.

What happened to the Emma Gonzalez in me? I listened to the adults. I took to heart their assertion that I’d never get anywhere by being too “angry,” too “militant.” I let them silence me by believing my passion would alienate people. I learned to worship the false god of compromise above all else. I took in their mediocrity and made it my own.

Yes, I burned with anger and sorrow after the Sandy Hook shooting. I marched and organized with Moms Demand Action. And then, when nothing happened—when we proved ourselves incapable of passing meaningful gun regulations after first-graders were massacred in their classrooms—I quietly, unwittingly surrendered to the belief that change was impossible. I gave up.

But Emma Gonzalez reminded me that I used to be better. That I once existed free from the fear of disapproval. That I know how to speak truth to power. She reminded me that a fierce warrior lives inside of me, too. I’ve said on social media that Emma Gonzalez is my hero. That is my truth. She brought me back to my highest self—the one that will not ever stand by again to witness the death of our children because our nation has been bought by the NRA.

 

 

The Sins That Change Us

I remember her name was Chrystal*. I can remember the honey color of her hair. But I can’t recall her face at all.

Sometimes our minds take mercy on us, even when we are least deserving.

I hated myself in middle school. A boy in my sixth grade science class told me I was ugly. I believed him. A girl at the sixth grade dance told me I looked stupid dancing. I believed her. Ugly, stupid, unpopular… I accepted whatever label my peers offered me**. I never challenged them. By eleven, I believed I was worthless.

I wasn’t bullied. I had a good home life. But I still felt alone. Weird. No, not just weird… I actually believed that if anyone knew me, they would find me disgusting. Gross.

Pain and powerlessness. Self-loathing. And Chrystal.

This turned out to be a toxic mix.

I think I picked her because she seemed weaker than me, somehow. I don’t remember if we bullied Chrystal the one time or if it was ongoing. But there’s one memory that is so clear to me:

Some other girls and I were in a storage closet with Chrystal. I think we’d been sent to gather props for drama. Regardless, we got what we wanted because we had Chrystal alone. No adults anywhere to be found.

We said awful things to her. I’m sure they were awful not because I remember the exact words, but because I get a very particular feeling in the pit of my stomach when I remember it. My words were designed for maximum impact–to make her feel as insignificant and unworthy as I did. She was trapped in this closet with us, and we rained verbal abuse down on her relentlessly. I may not remember the words I said, but I do remember the thrill of power. I usually felt invisible. But right then, I felt what I was sure the popular girls felt all the time: I felt superior. Untouchable.

One of the girls in our band of bullies moved closer to Chrystal; a metal pole–like the ones used to hold up velvet theater ropes–fell on her knee. It was her tears that snapped me back into myself. Her jagged gasps for breath between sobs broke through my rage. Her tears made me human again.

Immediately, I remorse kicked in. I was sorry, but I didn’t want to admit the full extent of my transgressions. I pretended she was crying because her knee hurt. I begged for forgiveness for that hurt knee. She kept sobbing. And in between those sobs, she asked over and over again why we were so mean to her.

I didn’t have the answer then. I don’t have a good answer now. But God, do I wish I could do that 15 minutes of my life over again.

The first time I told Jane this story, she was in PreK. I re-tell it every so often. Why? Because words can hurt more than fists. Because even when we believe ourselves to be “good” we can be capable of evils–great and small.

I tell the story as a kind of penance. And as a reminder that our sins change us–and only we get to decide how. I tell Jane the story in the hopes that, if she’s ever in a similar situation, she will choose kindness instead.

*Chrystal is a fictional name. The story is real.

**I had plenty of peers who said kind things to me. But I did not, could not, hear them over my own self-loathing.

Photo Credit: Instagram-@gbarkz

 

Fanciful (a microstory)

Indigo light pushed its way gently into the morning. Swiftimonds darted back and forth, their iridescent bodies lit up like prisms against the aquamarine sky. I yawned, wiping the sleep from my eyes. Swaying in time to the rhythm of the swiftimonds’ morning song, I steadily gained momentum until my hammock flipped over, sending me cascading down between the riboheth trees, gliding between their flaky, silver trunks, wings extended. My feet touched the ground, making small indentations in the velvety, fuscia grass. Marifelds sprung up spontaneously where I’d landed, rising and lifting their glittering, tangerine petals toward the sun.

Aubergine the Kind & Brave

Aubergine knew the rule about being kind to others, even if they weren’t kind to you. And she hadn’t been mean. In fact, she hadn’t said anything at all. Then why did she feel so awful?

Abergine’s day started like every other day. She got dressed for school in a rainbow tutu, a shirt with glitter stars, a sequined cape, and her favorite tiara. Mom sent her back into her room to change into something “a little less festive.” Aubergine tried again. This time, Mom exclaimed, “Holy guacamole, Aubergine!” Aubergine wasn’t sure what her outfit had to do with squished up avacados. But she was happy that she got to wear her favorite princess dress, cowboy boots, and reindeer antlers to school. The worst thing in the world a person could be, according to Aubergine, was boring.

After morning announcements, Mrs. Wormly began the math lesson. Aubergine loved math. She liked examining the math problems and discovering how to solve them. In the middle of puzzling through a particularly difficult problem, she heard Crawley McFarley whisper, “Girls don’t like math.” Aubergine spun around in her seat. She glared at Crawley McFarley. When it was time to go over their math work, Aubergine raised her hand for every answer. She noticed Crawley McFarley didn’t raise his hand once. Hmpf, she thought.

On the playground, Aubergine climbed to the top of the monkey bars. She flipped upside down so that she hung by her knees. She liked how the trees looked as if they grew from the sky when she was upside down. Suddenly, she was looking at a pair of brown eyes, curly brown hair, and a mean scowl. “Girls don’t play on monkey bars,” Crawley McFarley said. Aubergine rolled her eyes and climbed back to the top of the bars. She closed her eyes, touched her middle fingers to her thumbs to make the shape of an O, and said more loudly than was strictly necessary “Ooooooommmmmmmm.”

After she had Om’d for a few minutes and was feeling much better, she opened her eyes to see Crawley McFarley sitting next to her on the monkey bars. “Meditating is dumb,” he said, still scowling. Aubergine sighed, flipped down off the monkey bars, and went to play with the kids on the seesaws.

At reading time, Aubergine pulled out her book slowly. The class was reading Charlotte’s Web together. Out loud. Aubergine always felt nervous about reading out loud. The words in her head didn’t always come out of her mouth right. Sometimes, she accidentally whispered when she read and the teacher had to say “Speak up, Aubergine. Be audible.” This made Aubergine feel even smaller.

When it was Aubergine’s turn to read, she got tangled up in the very first sentence. She tripped over the first few words, then she froze. Crawley McFarley saw his chance. “I can read, Mrs. Wormly!” he yelled, waving his hand in the air. After Ms. Wormly had nodded at him to go ahead, Crawley McFarley whispered under his breath, “Who’s smart now, Aubergine?” Aubergine didn’t know what to do. So she just rolled her eyes and stared down at her book.

By the time Aubergine got home, she felt sad and angry. Why was Crawley McFarley so mean to her? She was so upset that she couldn’t even eat the dirt & worms that Mom had made for her special snack. She finished her homework, ate dinner, and went to her room to read Charlotte’s Web. She read it just fine when she didn’t have an audience of meanies like Crawley McFarley staring at her.

Then next day, Aubergine didn’t feel as excited about school as usual. In fact, she felt yucky. She got dressed in an ordinary pair of jeans and a pale blue button down shirt. Mom saw Aubergine’s outfit and knew something was wrong right away. “Aubergine, do you need to talk about something?” Aubergine paused. She knew the rule about being kind to others, even if they weren’t kind to you. And Aubergine had been kind, even when Crawley McFarley acted like a big old poopy-pants. She sighed loudly. And then she recounted for Mom all the ways that Crawley McFarley had set about to ruin her day yesterday.

While Aubergine talked, Mom nodded and hmmmm‘d. When Aubergine finished the story, Mom gave her a big hug. “You are a good kid, Aubergine. Stellar, in fact. And I think I have some ideas for you that might make today a little better.”

Aubergine didn’t go to school in plain old jeans and a blue button down shirt after all. She proudly walked through the doors of Birdnest Elementary in a superhero costume with a cape, sparkly wrist bands, and a shield. Crawley McFarley snickered when Aubergine walked in the room. Aubergine ignored him. She knew she looked amazing. And, besides, she had a plan.

At recess, Aubergine headed over to the kids playing four square. She was practically a four square champion. She couldn’t wait to play. As she reached for the ball, Crawley McFarley appeared out of nowhere. He shoved her out of the way. Then he grabbed the ball. “Girls can’t play four square.”

Aubergine jumped up from the ground and grabbed her shield. She planted her feet firmly on the ground, looked Crawley McFarley in the eye and asked loudly, “What did you say?”

“I said girls can’t play four square,” he replied. But he said it more quietly this time.

Aubergine took a deep breath: “I can play four square! I am the best four square player at Birdnest Elementary! I am super good at math. I want to be an engineer one day! News flash: girls can do anything they want to do! And, for your information, I like to read. And it is MEAN to pick on someone because they get nervous sometimes. One more thing: meditating is AWESOME. It’s like my superpower. You should mind your own business and STOP being mean all the time!” Aubergine walked over to Crawley McFarley, took the four square ball out of his hands, and said, “I am playing first, because I was here first.”

Crawley McFarley didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there staring. Aubergine couldn’t remember anyone ever standing up to Crawley McFarley. Ever. But now she had. And she’d done it without being mean at all.

Aubergine smiled. Mom was right. It took a special kind of superhero to be kind AND stand up for herself. And now Aubergine knew just what kind of superhero she wanted to be.

 

 

Seven Years Ago: The Two Things I Promised My Girl

My sweet baby Jane came into the world 7 years (and 4 days) ago. I had some pretty naive ideas about motherhood then. I thought she’d never wear pink. (By day 4 she had on her first pink outfit. She hasn’t turned back since.) I strongly opposed princesses and damsels-being-rescued in any format. (Jane’s 4th birthday party was a princess party.) And I swore she’d eschew gender roles entirely. (She threw me a bone on this one: she has a doll named Simon, who is a boy, that proudly wore dresses for many years, although now he’s much more gender-traditional in his choice of doll clothes.) It was laughable how little I knew about the hair-raising, hilarious task that is raising a child.

Jane made her way into the world via C-section. She stuck her little fist out first, proclaiming her grand entrance. She surprised the doctor, who thought her perhaps a bit bossy as he folded her arm back in to allow her to make a safer, if less dramatic, entrance into the delivery room. When she and I finally got a minute alone, after all the family had come and gone, after her Bobby had drifted off to sleep and was snoring (sort of) quietly in the corner, I looked at her and I knew 2 things: 1) I loved her wholly and deeply, and that 2) I would never try to protect her from the beauty and the tragedy that is life.

All my life, my parents have tried to shield me from hurt and disappointment. They did this because they loved me, as much as I love Jane. Of that I am sure. But I never learned to handle my own sadness and pain. Before I got sober, I was not resilient in any way. (Hence the having to get sober…) So, it was very important to me that I love Jane through her pain, when she ultimately faced it. I learned this from a very good therapist who also informed me that Jane was not mine; she was simply on lend to me. It was my job, from the moment she was born, to begin the long, slow process of letting her go, so she could become the person she was meant to be. (And, really, who am I to hold Jane back?)

I lived this philosophy out in small ways. When she was 6 weeks old, I left her in the church nursery for the first time. It was excruciating. I ached for her. But I did it again the next week. Because I knew that it was right. I lived it out in bigger ways. When she encountered her first frenemy in preschool, I did not intervene–even though I watched this heart-breaking friend triangle play out again and again. I let the teachers manage it. I did not rescue her. (Remember, I don’t believe in damsels-being-rescued) And she came out of the whole situation just fine (just like the teachers promised she would). And then there was the really big year–the one where her Bobby transitioned and we moved from Florida to Atlanta. Yeah, that one was a doozy. But we did those things because they were what her Bobby and I needed to be whole, happy, healthy people. So, we trusted she’d not only be fine but that she’d thrive. And so she has.

This week, some turmoil unfolded in Jane’s school community. It looked like rezoning may be imminent. At first, I said nothing to her. But I know Jane. And she doesn’t like to be surprised by things. I also know that part of my job is to teach her that she can do hard things. So, I told her that not all of the kids at her school may be able to stay there. I explained what I believe to be truth: our school is too crowded, two other schools not full enough. So some kids may need to go those other schools, to make things more fair. When she heard the news, she cried. She is seven after all. Her entire class cried earlier in the year when some of their classmates were moved into a new class. A new class right down the hall. Change is hard. She asked me if she’d need to change schools. I told her I didn’t know. But that no one was going anywhere right now.

She took this in, dried her eyes and said, “Okay.” I promised her I’d go look at the other school, just to check it out.

I found this other school to be pretty amazing and came home and told her so. I told her that it has two floors (she’s OBSESSED with stairs, so a two-story school is mind-blowing in her world). I described the nifty classrooms and the bright colored squares on the linoleum floors in the hallways. I told her the school felt both happy and calm. She took all this in and asked a few questions. Then she bounced out of the room to play with her dolls. As you do, if you’re seven.

The next day, as she was making her lunch before school. Suddenly she stopped spreading the mayonnaise and turned to face me.  “Mommy,” she said, “if I need to change schools, I want to go to that school you told me about. That sounds like a really, really nice school.”

And, just like that, it was done for her. She’s happy at her school now. She’ll be happy at this other school, if that’s where she needs to go. She can do hard things. Because she is resilient. And because she is Jane.

I love her so, and I could not be more proud.