Reading Wonder

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.)

Adventures of Puptastic (& 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.

 

Reckoning

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.

Take a Knee

I have strong feelings about taking a knee during the national anthem. As in, there is no way in hell I am going to be anywhere near the national anthem and NOT take a knee. Because systemic racism. Because the murder of black and brown people at the hands of police officers. Because white supremacy.

On Saturday morning, I got up before the sun to run a 5K. I made myself some coffee, real-quick-like washed Jane’s soccer uniform for her game that morning (planning ahead isn’t always my strong suit), and headed over to Avondale Estates to run. The 5K supported the elementary school of one of my very favorite kiddos, so I was extra excited to go and see his family and participate in the race.

I parked my car and headed to check in. Cheerful volunteers beckoned me over. There were no lines to contend with–which was both pretty unusual & pretty rad. Usually, on race day, the lines to pick up race numbers are LONG. But I quickly realized that this inaugural race would be an intimate affair. Cool. I love supporting fledgling efforts.

The weather was a bit chilly, so I was hanging around in the gymnasium instead of outside. And that’s when it happened. I finally focused on the singing that had previously been kind of melodic background noise. I realized that it was a choir. And that they were practicing the national anthem.

DAMN. They sure as hell were going to sing the national anthem before this 5K.

I have strong feelings about taking a knee during the national anthem. As in, there is no way in hell I am going to be anywhere near the national anthem and NOT take a knee. Because systemic racism. Because the murder of black and brown people at the hands of police officers. Because white supremacy. Because freedoms that should apply to all actually only apply to some. Right now, our country is wrong on so many levels. I see that. I feel it. And I have a responsibility to respond.

So, here I am, in a neighborhood that is not my own, faced with the necessity of taking a knee during the national anthem. Did I mention this was a really small crowd? It wasn’t like no one would notice. Oh, they’d notice all right. And as strongly as I feel about taking a knee–well, folks feel just as strongly on the other side. Sometimes their feelings involve death threats. So, yeah, I was a little nervous about this whole situation.

But the first bars of the national anthem rang out, and I put my knee on that asphalt. It hurt like hell. And I was shaking like a leaf. As I knelt there with my head down, tears stung my eyes as I thought about all the professional athletes who have taken a knee, the performers, the high school kids… Because that shit is BRAVE. When you’ve got an audience that matters to you–whether its millions of football fans or hundreds of folks gathered for a high school sporting event–it is wrenchingly frightening to take an unpopular stand. There is peril in telling the vocal majority that they are wrong. But they are. They are wrong. And the people who stand up in big and small ways–who call out systemic racism, who reject white supremacy, who really believe that we are not truly free until ALL OF US are free–they deserve our commendation and our respect. Kneeling there, marveling at how long the national anthem is (it’s real, real long), I prayed for every person who’d been brave enough to take a knee. I prayed for their safety, their strength, and their continued conviction.

At the end of the national anthem, some woman behind me said “Amen” (that’s a problem for another day, this God & country business), I got up and ran my race. People probably felt irked by me. Or made assumptions about my “white guilt” (of which I have none, by the way. Guilt is useless. Action trumps guilt every time). Or maybe they didn’t notice me at all–people, including myself, can be way too ego-centric, always assuming folks are talking about, looking at, or focusing on them. So maybe no one even noticed.

But I noticed. And every step I take to disentangle myself from white supremacy, to stamp out the racism that I’ve been exposed to all my life (as we all have), to create something different for my daughter’s future–that is important. Ending racism will happen in momentous moments and in seemingly inconsequential ones. But, as a white woman, I know I have to take steps every day to reject racism. My liberation is tied up in this, too.

Hard Truths

Through quick glances in my rearview mirror, I watched my sweet 6-year-old sob on the way home from the grocery store yesterday. I wish it was because I wouldn’t buy her something in the checkout line. Or because she’d gotten in trouble AGAIN for her reckless driving of the shopping cart. But it was much more complicated–and painful–than that.

Through quick glances in my rearview mirror, I watched my sweet 6-year-old sob on the way home from the grocery store yesterday. I wish it was because I wouldn’t buy her something in the checkout line. Or because she’d gotten in trouble AGAIN for her reckless driving of the shopping cart. But it was much more complicated–and painful–than that.

She was crying because she’d just come to the difficult (and necessary) understanding that some folks are not going to like her because she’s white. My outgoing, loves-everybody child found this particular truth heartbreaking.

Here’s what happened:

Jane and one of her closest school friends were in the back seat of the car. Sometimes I pick this friend up from school, if her mom needs a quick childcare fill-in. Neither girl had known they’d be hanging out together that afternoon, so they were super excitable. Chattering, squealing, giggling, saying bootie and chicken nugget constantly–the usual. Once her friend realized that she probably wasn’t going to get a full-length playdate at our house, she asked if I could drop her off at another friend’s house instead of taking her home. (Uh… NO. But good try) Jane protested that she wanted to hang out, too. Her friend responded, “You could come too! Oh… no. No. You couldn’t. She (this other friend) wouldn’t like that. She doesn’t like white people.”

To her credit, in the moment Jane kind of just skipped right over what her friend had said. They carried on. More BOOTIE! More CHICKEN NUGGET! And so much running around the store. They drove me crazy–and had a blast. They hugged each other goodbye  one MILLION seven hundred and forty-seven times.

Then her friend was gone, and I got to have the tough conversation in the car. The one that made her cry.

I get it. I like to be liked. And, even though I have a much broader perspective of systemic racism and white supremacy than my six-year-old, it still stings when a person doesn’t give me the benefit of the doubt because I am white. But then I pull myself together, recognize my own privilege and acknowledge that, by and large, white folks have done very little to facilitate positive, interpersonal relationships with black folks. In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time doing precisely the opposite.

And that’s where I started my conversation with Jane.

This past weekend, Jane interrupted me in the second to last chapter of The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. She started talking to me as if nothing were going on, while I was mired in the child narrator’s perspective on the Birmingham church bombing–the one where four black little girls were slaughtered at the hands of white men. Once I finished the book, I had to explain why I was so upset when she interrupted my reading. I reminded her what she’d learned about the civil rights movement. How separate was not, in fact, equal. And how people fought so hard for the very basic civil rights that she and I enjoy every day. Then, I told her about the kind of hate that would drive grown white men to bomb a church and kill little girls. Just because they were black.

Fast forward a few days…as Jane sat crying in the backseat yesterday, I reminded her about the church bombing in 1963. That MLK got shot for leading black folks toward liberation (or civil rights, at least). That her black friends will not always get the same benefit of the doubt that she does, simply because of the color of her skin. And I reminded her that we still have to say that Black Lives Matter, because to so many, they don’t.

These are hard truths. These are truths her black friends are never spared.

Jane is a warrior for what’s right. It’s just in her nature. She believes passionately in fairness and equality. To her, someone not liking her because she’s white is the epitome of unfairness.

But when I reminded her of the unfairnesses–in education, employment, housing, incarceration, etc, etc, etc–that black and brown folks endure every single day as white folks keep institutional and systemic racism firmly in place, well… she found a little bit of perspective on the unfairness of some kid not liking her because she’s white.

And, just for good measure, I begged her to never say “not all white people…” because FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. NO.

Instead of worrying about what one little girl she doesn’t even know thinks about her, we agreed that maybe she could focus on all the lovely friends she does have. And that she could do her part to try to make the world more fair for everyone. And that, regardless of what comes her way, she would always, always be a warrior for what is right.

I Love You More Than Littlest Pet Shop

Jane is an easy child to parent.

There. I said it.

By nature, she is kind, warm, independent, curious, and fun. We exchange I love yous like trading cards—each one more fantastic than the last.

“I love you more than peanut butter.”

“Well, I love you more than my new Shopkins backpack.” (that is SO MUCH LOVE right there, y’all).

Sure, we have our tussles (like when she asks me what something is, I tell her, and she says, “No, it’s not.” WTF, kid?? Then why did you ASK me???) And she constantly brings down a torrent of parental wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the chaos that is her bedroom floor. But she’s an easy kid, and I know it.

Here’s what I also know: being a mother is the toughest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. Because you’ve gotta bring your whole self to this mothering gig. Your BEST self. And that’s tough.

She sees me. Really sees me, in a way that almost no one else does. Sometimes I swear she can read my mind. Which means, there is no hiding my reactions from her. So I damn well better be on my mental A-game all the time.

For me, that translates into: no negative self-talk, offering apologies when I’m wrong, radical acceptance of my body, prizing strength (of body & spirit) over beauty, laughing at myself, and being honest about what I know and what I don’t.

I suck at all these things.

BUT… I am approximately one TRILLION times better at them than I was 6 and a half years ago.

I’ve considered all the things I want her to be when she grows up… then I’ve tried to become all those things myself. Because, let’s be honest, I have no control over what she will choose as an adult. All I can control is my influence on her now—how she sees me live my life.

So, I am passionate about social justice. I look for the best in people. I ask questions about the whys of people’s behaviors, instead of just making assumptions. I see great beauty and pain in the world—and try not to shy away from either. I dance for no apparent reason. I sing loudly in church—even though I’m confident that Jesus is the only one who appreciates my singing. And I pursue my passion—even when I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. to write—because I want her to one day feel fully justified in pursuing hers.

Jane makes me a better person. Every day.

On the morning of her first day of First Grade, I sighed as I redid her braids three different times. She stood there in her brand new navy uniform dress (the one with the ruffle on the front & the bow in the back) and complained of boredom. I rolled my eyes because the braids wouldn’t stay in right. But we both stuck with it—because Jane has tremendously well-honed sense of self. The braids were an important part of her first day outfit, the way she wanted to present herself in this new chapter of her life. And I want her to live into her vision for herself. I wish I’d known who I was at six years old.

She went to school brimming with excitement, self-confidence, and hope. She will rock First Grade. I’ll cheer her on—through both the super-amazing stuff and the not-so-easy stuff. And I’ll hold on to the hope that, one day, she’ll look up to me as much as I look up to her.

 

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Practically Perfect in Every Way (photo credit: RM Lathan)

 

 

Saying Yes to Sloth Backpacks (& dreams)

On July 1, I embarked on my biggest writing adventure yet: a novel. I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was 8 or 9 years old. This obsession coincided with my newfound love of Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew was my hero: independent, smart, determined. I wanted to write something like that–something that would make a kid not want to put the book down until the very last page.

Then I made a mistake. I let an adult in on this dream of mine. And, as adults sometimes do when they think they’re just being pragmatic, this adult laughed and said, “But what are you going to do to earn money?” For some kids, this nay-saying would’ve only made them more determined. But I was a pleaser. And my self-esteem was shaky at best. So, what I heard is, “You may love writing. But you don’t have what it takes to make it. Go find something attainable. Something that doesn’t require any real talent.”

Even as I got older, when it was clear that I could write–that people enjoyed reading what I wrote–I stuck to academic writing. I can’t do creative writing at all, I’d say as if it were totally no big deal. And then I’d make some offhand quip about how I’d let other people write the stories, and I’d just critique them. Which, you know, denied my own dream, belittled an entire profession, and also managed to be self-deprecating. I was a piece of work.

But this dream wouldn’t let go of me. It was determined, even if I was not. I tried multiple career paths… communications (at least I got to write sometimes), writing instructor (maybe the dream would just shut it if I taught someone else to write. Hundreds of someones. Nope.), children’s ministry director (what the f…?!?). But, on a transAtlantic flight back from Paris, I got real with myself (I mean, hell, I had time… what else was I going to do for 7 hours?). I admitted that I would not be happy, could not be happy, unless I was writing. What that looked like could be negotiated. But the writing, that was non-negotiable.

A few of my friends took a chance on me and hired me to write for them: blog posts, technical papers, web content. I loved every minute of it. Because I was creating something. Something that wouldn’t exist without me pouring my heart & soul into it. I’m so grateful that I get to do client writing all the time now. And I’m so grateful to my friends for believing in me.

But that dream….writing a novel… it wouldn’t stop nagging at me. I found NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a few years ago, through Facebook I think. And I intrepidly started a novel last November. Which I quit in the middle of. Because it was hard. Oh, and that’s right around the time my marriage was falling apart. So, you know, my creative focus was a bit out of whack.

But this July, I found Camp NaNoWriMo. I don’t know if it’s because it’s called “Camp” and that made it sound fun (read: non-intimidating). Or if it’s because I had characters living inside my brain that were dying to get out… But I started a novel. And I’m 6,999 words away from completion. And every minute I’ve spent writing it is like living a dream. A dream I’ve had since I was 8. And any time a voice has tried to tell me I can’t do it, or that it’ll suck, I’ve told it to SHUT THE HELL UP.

I’m doing it. And I’m madly in love with my characters. I even bought the very same backpack that my character, Rowan, has. Because I feel like she’s with me all the time. Might as well be backpack twinsies.  (And, besides, sloths are cool.)

I wish I hadn’t spent years believing a lie about myself. I deserve to live into this dream. At the very least, I deserve to give it a chance. A real chance.

I’m almost there. And it feels really, really good.