Thursday, July 16, 2015

Common Kindness

“Say and do something positive that will help the situation; it doesn’t take any brains to complain.” – Robert A. Cook

There is just so much. We are inundated all the time with the wretchedness of humanity: A man killed four marines in Tennessee. A man massacred over twenty people in a movie theater. People gathered in a parking lot to hear a politician speak were shot. A young girl and her friend were shot in the head for trying to get an education. The KKK is holding rallies in an effort to dumb down the next generation.

It goes on and on.

My heart grows heavy with it all. I am not one who reads a story and dismisses it. I linger over the details. I think about the families and how they may be coping with the “after” they have to live in. Having had my life divided in to numerous before’s and after’s, I can understand the shock and confusion that comes with it. How the ‘after’ always comes along so suddenly, BAM! Life is changed forever. Perhaps it’s because I can relate so well that I don’t just skim headlines and move along. I feel stories.

Being overly empathetic is difficult. I bring the weight of the world upon myself in this way. I pray for those whom I can, send out good vibes for others, but the unrelenting wave of humanity’s horrors is wearisome. Once I’m caught up in it, I find myself trapped. My mood begins to darken, and I get lower and lower.

I feel like May, in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, fated to feel the misery of the world, my heart perpetually breaking for the problems I can’t fix, my mind continually overwhelmed by just how awful one person can treat another.

But just as I’m at my darkest, when I’m trapped, just then my youngest will joyfully run through the house in her leotard and Batman cape.

She’s a reminder of all that is good in the world. All the positive, all the happiness, all the goodness that we so seldom see reported: the police officer who buys diapers and wipes for a woman instead of arresting her for shoplifting. The man who builds tiny houses for the homeless instead of reporting them for loitering. The dry cleaner who offers free service to those needing an outfit cleaned for a job interview. The boy who went to Target for a tie and got coached and prepped for a job interview.

These are great stories, but they are few and far between. We ask, “What is wrong with society?” If all the news/media show is darkness and negativity, is it a surprise that society is a negative place? When I pick up my eldest from school and she rants about how awful her day was, I let her go on and on. When she winds down, I always say, “I’m so sorry you had a rough day. Now tell me something good that happened today.” Balance. There should be positive with the negative.

If we want the world to be a certain way, we have to make it that way. How else will it get there? We want our children to know certain things, so we teach them. We want them to act a certain way, so we show them. If we all want the positive to dominate in society, we need to be proactive in making that happen. Random acts of kindness. Compliments. Respect. Help someone in need. They don’t have to be huge things. Something small to you can be something huge to someone who is struggling. One positive act from you can lead to the next person doing something kind for someone else. It becomes a society linked by positivity.

Far better to be linked by kindness than chained by hate.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The PSAs of Parenting

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” - Buddha

Sometimes, parenting feels like an endless stream of PSAs. I have moments where I literally feel like I’m a parent in one of those old After-School specials; that’s how hokey, crafted, and wholesome the words are that come out of my mouth. As parents, we know all about “those” topics that we know we will have to discuss with our kids at some point, so I like to have something kind of cued up, pre thought-out, sort of simmering along on the back-burner.

Yesterday it was a good thing I had so many pots already boiling away because my nine year old was in a talkative mood and she wanted to talk about all kinds of things.

Here are some snippets:

On Love:
We were watching North and South. No, not the BBC series. The 1985 miniseries with Patrick Swayze (with the most glorious hair ever), James Read, Kirstie Alley, Philip Casnoff (omg…yum), Genie Francis, and oodles of other popular actors of the time.

My youngest is nine years old, almost ten, and the notions of race expressed in this miniseries are different than she has ever been exposed to. She was extraordinarily bothered by it.

“Mom,” she asked me, “Why is it bad for Virgilia and Grady to be together if they’re in love?”

(Virgilia [played by Kirstie Alley] is a white northern abolitionist who helps the slave Grady [played by Georg Stanford Brown] escape the south. They fall in love and get married.)

I explained that at this time in history, people had the wrong idea about the races and thought they shouldn’t date or marry each other, and isn’t that silly?

She was quiet for a little while, but not happy. I could see the little wheels turning in her head.

“So,” she finally said, “what would happen if someone brown wanted to love me? Is that still bad?”

And there it was. Time to bring pot #1 forward.

I turned the movie off, turned toward her and said, “No. You listen to me, now. It doesn’t matter if you love someone who is black, white, brown, red, yellow, or any other shade of any color there is. It doesn’t matter if you love a he or a she. What matters is that you love and that you are loved in return. You can’t special order what package your true love comes in. You just accept it when it comes, however it comes.”

She looked at me hard, and asked one more time, “It doesn’t matter anymore?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I confirmed.

My daughter will not grow up thinking love is wrong. And that’s all I have to say about that.

On Sisterhood:
Or this could probably be titled “On Fighting”. There is a four-year age gap between Emma and Violet. This leads to a lot of old-fashioned sisterly bickering and all-out door-slamming. There’s a big difference between almost-10 and almost-14, or – in other words – almost-fifth grade and almost-ninth grade. Emma still plays with dolls and Barbies, still creates magical worlds with legos and stuffed animals. Violet likes to play role-playing games on the computer, text on her phone, and read. Worlds apart. Emma’s answer to this is to nag Violet constantly about playing with her. This causes some frustration.

After this had gone on for a few hours, I called them both in to my room for a family meeting. Oh, how they hate family meetings. They know I’m about to talk…a lot. And I did. But the part I stressed was this:

“You need to remember that y’all are it. Sisters for life. At some point, you two will be living in this world without me. You two need to be able to lean on each other, learn from each other, and love each other. I need to know that even when I’m not here, you two will still be fine and will still have one another. You need each other, even if you can’t quite see it now.”

Emma’s father had died before she was born. Their brother had died in 2003. We are all familiar with the concept of death. But the girls had never applied it to me. They had never thought that I might not be there for the rest of their lives. This was a brand new thought to them. It shook them.

The fighting hasn’t magically stopped, but it has gotten better.

On Conscience:
“Mom, don’t you ever just want to do the wrong thing?” Emma asked me.

Questions like this can be delicate, but I always try to tell her the truth. Kids are excellent at sniffing out lies, and if you lie to them once, they are wary of trusting you again.

“Yeah, there are a lot of times I want to do the wrong thing,” I admitted.

“Really?” She seemed absolutely stunned that I would cop to that. “Why don’t you?”

Why don’t I? A most excellent question.

“Sometimes I do. Because I’m stubborn and want things my way. But I always end up feeling guilty so I wind up doing the right thing after all. It’s a hard lesson to learn. I make a lot of mistakes. I’ve learned to admit when I’m wrong and ask for help. I’ve learned it’s better to do the right thing even when you don’t want to.”

I didn’t think she was really listening to me because she was fiddling with the new panda bear pillow pet her aunt had just given her. But she was. She was processing.

“I’m still learning that,” she said.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “I like helping you learn,” I told her. “My goal is to be the voice you hear in your head. That’s why I do the right thing.”

We may be schmaltzy, but that’s fine. I talk to my girls. I talk to them about everything. When they have questions, they know they can ask me. When they have a problem, they know they can come to me. Maybe I sound like a hokey After-School special or one of those “The More You Know” TV spots, but I communicate with my kids. We talk about the silly little things, like what the dogs are thinking, to the big things, like equal rights.

I want to be the voice they hear in their heads because theirs are the voices that beat in my heart.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

All the Colors of the World

“You don’t fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity.” – Bobby Seale

We are not all the same, and I thank my God for that. For years the idea of being “colorblind” has been disseminated, as if that is the solution to racism. I cannot think of anything worse. “Don’t see those color differences,” those righteous people said. I have two words for that: Bull. Shit.

What an insult to pretend the entire world is a single shade. How pompous, how arrogant of anyone to decide what shade all people of the world should be seen as. Because somewhere, someone is deciding that you – you, the person reading this – are the wrong color and they are erasing your skin tone and replacing it with the “appropriate” shade to make us all “colorblind”. Do you see the problem yet?

Making everything one color takes all the other color out of the world. And what a dismally dull world that would be.

See those colors. See all the beautiful colors we come in. It is a glorious array.

We talk about race in my classroom. At first, the students are incredibly uncomfortable and say little. But they learn that my classroom is a safe space. They can offer honest opinions, viewpoints, and insights without fighting or recriminations. We have academic debates. Eventually, in many classes they really open up and we have good discussions. Sometimes they get…lively. Overwhelmingly they tell me after class that they have never been allowed to discuss it before.

What madness is this?

Racism is a problem in this country. How can this problem be improved, and ultimately fixed, if it isn’t talked about?

So we talk even more. I’m building more and more into my college syllabus because I find that they want to talk about it and no one lets them.

Last semester, one student asked me what racial term I preferred. I told her she’s welcome to call me “white”. I’m about as pale as they come; “white” describes me pretty well. So I asked her the same question; I had a feeling I knew where she was going.

“Black,” she said, without hesitation. “I’m not from Africa. My mama is not from Africa, and her mama was not from Africa. We aren’t African-Americans. We’re ‘black’”. This set off an entirely new discussion in the classroom: “Black” vs. “African-American”. My white students weren’t as quiet as I expected them to be; several asked some great questions that day.

I told this class that I was raised with the idea of everyone being colorblind, that we should look at people as if we were all the same color. It was like grenades exploding in the classroom. Loud voices, all talking at once. Oh no, they did not like that idea at all. I held up my hand and they settled down. I had them tell me why they disliked the idea.

Student #1: “Because it’ll never work. People will always judge first based on what they see, and they’ll always see skin color first.” Many heads nodded, murmured “yeahs” and “uh-huhs”.

Student #2: “If we’re all the same color then we’re all the same. But in a bad way, I mean. Like carbon copies.” More nodding heads.

Student #3: “You know that if we’re all one color, that color’s gonna be white. Ain’t nobody gonna make everybody in this world black. I don’t want to be white. No offense, Ms. P., but I am a beautiful black woman, a proud black woman, and if someone doesn’t want to see the color of my skin they don’t have to look. They don’t have to know me. My life does not depend on them.” She got the loudest cheers and applause.

She also made the best point.

I try to teach my students how to argue and debate logically and keep their emotions to a minimum. I try (try!) to teach them that arguments based on emotion don’t last, that they have to think their way through. And that’s what we face with racism: we have to think through it. We can’t react to it with emotional knee-jerks that only fan its fire.

We used to see things only in black and white. That’s what my kids call “the olden days”. We shouldn’t do that anymore. Now we live in the splendid and superb world of high-definition where everything is bright and rich and deep and every nuance of color is perfectly tinted to our viewing pleasure. Let’s embrace every shade there is.