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 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.
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.
There’s a rug that’s really getting my goat right now.
No matter how many times I wash the damn thing, someone steps on it immediately, making it a dingy, repulsive shade of gray. I know, I know… rugs exist to be stepped on. They live on the ground, after all.
But, still, I go round and round with this rug. I wash it. The dog leaves a muddy paw print on it. I wash it again. Jane steps on it with a dirty boot. And her boots are elementary-school-dirty, which is it’s own special brand of funky. So, I wash it again. Rinse. Repeat. Literally.
I’d throw the rug away. But Jane swears she loves the rug. She acts as if baby Jesus himself gave her that rug. I could just dispose of it while she’s at school. Then it would just be gone. But that’s not really how we roll over here. The rug technically belongs to her. It’s in her bathroom. She picked it out to match her shower curtain. And I don’t throw her stuff away (if I can help it). It feels… sneaky. And like it might breed some justifiable mistrust.
BUT I HAD NO IDEA HOW AWFUL THIS RUG WOULD LOOK ALL THE TIME. It makes me feel dirty, just to look at it. And, let’s be honest, I’m not the best housekeeper in the world anyway–so this rug is just mocking my inadequacies.
I’m sure there’s some larger lesson here about how we allow small, easily changeable issues to become seemingly insurmountable thorns in our sides. Or about how sometimes we get so bogged down in our own reality we don’t see the simplest, most freeing solutions even when they stare us in the face.
But I can’t focus on any of those lessons now, because THIS RUG HAS ABSCONDED WITH MY GOAT.
I’ve long been a fan of Mondays. New beginnings and all. But THIS Monday felt extra-special shiny and new because I got to read this morning. With kids. And we read a super-funny book to boot.
Let me back up a bit:
I recently volunteered to read with two sixth grade students at our neighborhood middle school. I meet them on Monday mornings. They are, in fact, my first appointment of the day. Together, the 3 of us are reading Wonder. And it is hysterical.
I don’t know how this book escaped my attention, given my love for & devotion to middle grades novels. (Well, I kinda know… it seemed like everyone was reading it… so then I wasn’t sure I wanted to… you know how the tired trope goes…womp.womp.) Anyway, the young kings & I made it through the first few chapters today. At one point, during my turn to read, I was laughing so hard that I had to take a minute to collect myself. Which made king #1 crack up. king #2 smiled (which, trust me, was a VERY big win). But, seriously: Mr. Tushman?!? Miss Butt!?! That kind of stuff can get actual laughter out of sixth grade boys. Witnessed it myself today. Surely did.
I know I get all book nerd about reading. But reading changes LIVES. And, when you’re a middle school kid who doesn’t really know where you fit (and, let’s face it–no middle school kid really knows where they fit, regardless of their bravado), books mean that you never have to be alone. You can be in some far flung corner of the world, instead of waiting out the bell in seventh period. Or, even if you don’t have any actual friends at school, you can find a friend in a character that feels the same way you do–even if your life experiences aren’t even remotely the same.
I’m so enthused about books that I can’t even pretend to hide my book nerdiness, not even for a minute. As soon as king #1 volunteered that he hated Language Arts because his teacher made him write so much he thought his hand was gonna fall off, I immediately sympathized. Because, yeah, my hand totally fell off in sixth grade from the very same affliction. And I told him so.
“You know what I do now?” I asked him.
“No. What?” he replied. He actually looked a tiny bit interested.
“I write. Know why?”
He grinned. I think he knew where this was going. “Why?”
“Because of that Language Arts teacher who put goofy questions up on the board every day and made me write in my journal ’til my hand fell off.”
Look, if you’re going to hang out every week with two young kings, you might as well be up front about who you are. That’s what I think, at least. And I am a wildly unapologetic book nerd. And I think Wonder may be just the book to make them book nerds, too. (Okay. Okay. That may be a reach. But I bet it’ll make them not hate reading anymore. Which is alright by me.)
I don’t want to brag, but Delilah the Boxer & I are kind of a big deal in our neighborhood. Or, at the very least, we’re real conspicuous… That’s the same thing, right?
Our walk this morning perfectly illustrates who we are, as dog & owner:
In Atlanta, the past 3 days have been snow days. THREE DAYS. Snow in Atlanta means a complete shutdown. No school. No going anywhere (at least for the first 24 hours–then it’s a matter of playing chicken with the ice). So, this morning, I decided to take Li on a nice, long walk. She’s been trapped in the house too, after all.
I head out in my incredibly stylish aqua & black baja, some jeggings, and my high top Vans. I threw on a red puffer jacket for good measure, which ended up being a stellar move because it was still below freezing outside. Also, I had on a black yarn hat, flecked with a rainbow smattering of other yarn, with a puffy ball on top. None of this matched. And not in a cool, mismatched way, either. In an I’m-finding-adulting-overwhelming-right-now kind of way. Also, I never took off yesterday’s make-up. So it looks like I’m doing some wonky walk of shame through the neighborhood (which, incidentally, I haven’t done since the summer of 2003. Just for the record. But that summer was pretty shameful).
So, obviously, I’m looking awesome.
Delilah & I are almost through one of the intersections when she starts flipping out. Seriously. Standing on her hind legs. Swatting at her nose with both her paws. I’m both a little frightened and incredibly amused. So I’m laughing, trying to tug a dog (who is still on her hind legs swatting at her nose) across the street.
Turns out there was a leaf stuck to her nose. God deliver us from Boxers.
Then, I spy a dog across the street. Delilah spies it, too. All the hair on her back stands up immediately. A tough guy, she is. She growls slightly. To avoid a scene (and trust me, there have been many, many scenes), I start talking to her in a slightly. high-pitched, way-too-cheery voice: “Who’s a good girl?!? Who isn’t going to bark? That’s right! What a good girl! You’re okay, girl! Yes, you are!” Meanwhile, Delilah has let loose one loud and proud bark, has pulled on the leash enough to be on her back legs for a few steps… and then carried on walking next to me, as if nothing happened. Nothing to see here, folks. Because who’s a good girl? It’s Li.
After all that excitement, we carry on mostly without incident. We’re chatting, as we do. I’m narrating things for her. But, when we get close to home, she gets a little eager. She’s pulling on the leash a little–which I DO NOT LIKE. So, I decide to make her walk beside me. As I’m reeling her in, I step on a patch of ice… and land square on my ass. Delilah thinks this is great. We’ve never sat down in the middle of the sidewalk before! So, she climbs right on top of me. Now I’m sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with my 50 pound boxer in my lap.
So, yeah, I think we’re probably neighborhood famous, Me & Puptastic. We’re trying not to let the stardom go to our heads.
All my life, I was taught to curry favor with men. That’s the honest to God truth.
All my life, I was taught to curry favor with men. That’s the honest to God truth.
What men thought of me, how they perceived me, needed to remain top of mind if I hoped to be happy (and happy always involved a man). Men were not to be offended. Or led on. They would expect things, if I behaved a certain way. So, I should be ever-mindful of signals I sent.
I got the message. Oh, I got it. And I internalized it (as one does).
But here’s what happens: the messages we internalize find a way of manifesting themselves in our daily lives. The be-ever-subservient-to-men message showed up as a giggle.
Yep. A giggle.
What the hell?
But it’s true: when faced with an uncomfortable situation involving a man (or boy, as it first began), I would simply giggle. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe I thought it seemed carefree. Or maybe I hoped it would be dismissive without being offensive. Who really knows? It wasn’t a conscious decision, the giggle. It was a coping mechanism.
You know what that giggle protected me against?
Not a damn thing.
I giggled in fifth grade when a boy told me he liked me but I didn’t like him back. What was wrong with him liking me? Nothing at all. What was wrong was my utter lack of understanding that it was okay to say “Thank you, but no,” even at 10 years old.
I giggled when, as I was standing outside my middle school sucking on a Blow Pop, some crude ass boy asked if I was “practicing.” I had no idea what he meant. But from the way his friends let loose peals of laughter, I immediately got that sexual innuendo was likely. Did I tell him to fuck off? That word was CERTAINLY in my vocabulary as a seventh grader (I had tried it out as all different parts of speech, in fact). Nope. I giggled. Because? I don’t know. Maybe I thought I should be glad he considered “cute” enough to make sex jokes with.
I liked a boy in eighth grade—a boy I believed had been having sex with his older, high school girlfriend. He and I engaged in a make-out session, during which he climbed on top of me. My thought? “Well, I guess this will be how I lose my virginity.” Casual. Detached. Like one considers the weather: “Well, I guess it is going to rain today.” I don’t remember giggling that time. Maybe I didn’t think I had the right to be dismissive. I’d let him climb on top of me, after all.
I hardly think my experience navigating interacting with boys qualifies as unique. What galls me now, as an adult—and as a mother—is the belief system that I whole-heartedly subscribed to as a child. A child with no sense of control over her own body. A child with no belief that she had the right to say no.
The past few days, the article about Aziz Ansari and the subsequent social media flurry of response made me a little spinny. Every time I tried to talk about why I wanted to push back against categorizing this truly common interaction between men and women as assault, I felt like I was grasping at air. And the I read this brilliant piece. And I found my footing again. It was this quote in particular that gave me a place to land my thoughts:
“People are quick to label sex crimes as deviant or aberrant, but the truth is that sexual violence is socialized into us. Men are socialized to fuck hard and often, and women are socialized to get fucked, look happy, and keep quiet about it.
Aziz Ansari has been socialized. And if we don’t like the way socialized men do sex, then we need to take a hard look at our society, friend.”
I don’t like the way socialized men do sex. But I don’t like way socialized women do sex, either. That giggling I was doing all the time as a kid? Yeah, by 10 I already knew about the looking happy and keeping quiet.
This isn’t about victim blaming. And it isn’t about silencing women. On the contrary, for me, this is about agency. A lot of really solid thought already exists about the way young girls are socialized—especially when it comes to beauty, sex, and power. But my reading of these pieces was disassociative at best. Oh, of course we don’t want girls growing up feeling powerless and preyed upon—without ever admitting that I grew up feeling precisely that way. And it didn’t even occur to me that this worldview might be flawed. Wrong even.
I grew up accepting the basic tenet that I had to be pleasing to men in the world to have worth.
To have worth.
So, I didn’t stand up and say no. I didn’t tell Blow Pop boy to fuck off. I didn’t speak up for myself because I thought I wasn’t worth it. Because without the male gaze, what was I?
That’s a pretty painful truth to have to reckon with.