on role models

I didn’t realize when I became a mother that I would be thrust into a frontier of comparison.  During the first few months of Henry’s life I was totally engrossed in our new and sweet bond.  I nursed him, bathed him, and watched him, all with complete contentment.  We started a baby yoga class, and I continued to follow our daily rituals, but I also started to notice other mothers.  I started to watch how they carried or traveled with their babies, and so often I felt like the last one to practice preferred methods of care.  For example, it took me months to copy other mothers who carried their infants in car seats.  It just didn’t occur to me until I saw it.  Later, I learned that I should bring fifty-seven different snack options when we go to the park.

 

I also started to discern from whom I wanted to learn.  When Henry was a toddler I found myself with tons of patience, but needing vocabulary and language to help him make choices.  Waldorf education was helpful, and so was listening to mothers who had the right words. This is when I felt myself yearning for “mother” mentors.  I use quotations marks because I don’t think you have to be a Mother to be a mother.  I’ve learned from women and men who know how to mother—even if they do not have children.  I also believe that someone inspiring to me is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all model, though Instagram may make us feel otherwise.

 

My best friend has been hugely impactful.  She has three step-children whom she loves with such intention and directness.  She loves this way in general, and as a parent, her three have felt seen and heard from the day they met her.  This is extraordinary to me, especially as her children enter and move through adolescence.  Her parenting is inherited from her own mother, whom I have also witnessed love with simultaneous abandon and complete purpose.  Their parenting includes an awareness and implementation of their own needs, boundaries, and expectations.  In other words, they love whole-heartedly, but also demonstrate self-respect.  And respect for their partners.

 

My own mother continues to be a role model, especially in terms of her work as community service director at a private high school.  She is confronting so many critical challenges for parents and children, especially within a specific sector of society.  Her students are mostly privileged, and her mission is not just to serve impoverished (economically, socially, disenfranchised, etc.) communities, but also to nurture her students to become global leaders who, like my best friend, are able to see and hear.  How do we teach this to our children?  How do we help them grow into mindful citizens?  There is such a huge distinction between the classroom and the real world, and as much as our schools talk about the values of social justice, it is critical that our kids engage in it.  One of the biggest pieces of action I take from my mom is this engagement.  My family goes to the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving and gives presents to families in need on Christmas, but this is as much for us as it is for the recipients.  My mother practices the spirit of these two days, every day.   She demonstrates for me and my children that it is okay to sit down with someone.  To listen.  To see them.  She touches people and stands close to them—unflinchingly respectful regardless of their appearance or state.  She normalizes their pain, and she makes them feel loved.  I watched her do this when I was a child, and it brings tears to my eyes to think about this incredible gift she gave me.

 

Another piece of my parenting comes from a friend in Utah.  We met at our children’s school, and within minutes of talking to her I asked if she is a professor.  Indeed she is, but so much more.  Writer, researcher, visionary, sage, and goddess, my friend M became not only a mentor, but also a mirror.  How do we help our kids see in themselves what we see in them?  M spoke to me carefully, softly, slowly, and directly.  Her words filled me with assurance and belief, and she impressed upon me the importance of being me and a mother.   These are not mutually exclusive.  I once said to her when trying to justify a babysitter so I could write: “Well, I guess it’s important for my kids to see me doing what I love.”  “Yes, sure,” she said. “But it’s more important that you just do you.”  Her words may have once struck me as being selfish, but eventually I learned to hold both my children and myself with gentleness and compassion.

 

I realize that mentorship will grow increasingly important and complicated as my kids get older.  Already my concern about how to carry my baby has been relegated to the past.  I sometimes miss those days, but I also relish in my responsibility to nurture not just my children, but also myself.

 

 

on fall

It’s hard to write about hard things.

Like the dog I saw today.

Already a ghost.

He walked like he was in a pony show, ambling dressage.

The spherical joints of his hips were exposed, and

they looked like drumsticks sun-dried on a park bench.

It’s hard to write about sad things.

The soft ears of his puppyhood still retained the auburn fluff of chasing squirrels.

He will die soon, that was clear.

And I wondered about the nearby gardener that blew leaves from the grass.

With his machine he blew the leaves away so that the grass wouldn’t die under the crisp weight of fall.

Let’s watch the leaves bury the grass; the roots of the trees demolish the pavement; and the vines twist to the eaves.

It won’t make the hard things easier; or the heart break less.

But maybe we’ll all see the pained ghost and in our hands we’ll lift his soft snout and bring our foreheads together;

we’ll feel the bones of each other.

on rape narratives

For Bethy and Dr. Ford

I was a senior in high school when two, male classmates tried to rape me.  It was the year after my serious boyfriend and I broke up.  He left for college and I was stuck with one more year of school.  I missed him terribly, and alcohol made me miss him less.  I was also insecure, which in retrospect was definitely a theme among my mostly privileged, affluent, white classmates.  There were lots of parties in big houses, with some hooking up, and some bad, drunk dancing.  There were also old rumors of “non-consensual” sex from past years, but there was no condemnation or outrage.  These stories were brought up as part of a list of possible outcomes.

 

The night of this particular party, I drank too much.  I danced with friends, and we jumped in the pool.  We ate junk food until very late at night, and as people started fading—either falling asleep or partying elsewhere—I tripped my way around the house looking for an empty room where I could sleep.  I found a bedroom, but I didn’t make it to a bed.  Instead, I curled up on the floor.

 

I remember voices.  Men’s voices.  I remember hearing laughing.  I remember someone tugging at my pants.  I remember whispered giggling and more pulling.  Laces, zippers, buttons releasing.  I remember serious, lower whispers, and another yank of clothing.  It was at this point that I remember my brain telling my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t.  I was too weak to move.  I also remember thinking this isn’t really going to happen.  They’ll stop.  It’s not actually going to happen.

 

And it didn’t happen, because moments later the lights went on in the room and I heard a woman’s voice, but I couldn’t understand her.  I felt hands release my body and there was shuffling and footsteps.  I remember a blanket resting on my skin with a safe, heavy weight.  I felt enclosed and concealed.  And I fell back asleep.

 

I woke up the next morning—only a few hours later—with none of my clothes on, but the blanket still wrapped around my body.  My underwear was around my ankles; my shirt, bra and pants were in a pile.  I didn’t immediately remember what had happened, but as I dressed, I remembered the woman’s voice.  And then the rest came back.

 

I left the house without talking to anyone.  I went home, showered, and went back to sleep.

 

I woke up with a start, and a tightness in my chest that left me gasping for air.  I let out a sob as I relived the night.  They hated me so much that they wanted to rape me.  And now they would be disappointed that they hadn’t, which would make them hate me more.  I was trash.  Garbage.  The kind of woman that men don’t love.  I would never be loved.

 

It wasn’t until the following Monday that I heard from a friend that everyone was talking about me.  The two men had boasted about it to their friends on the soccer team.  They told everyone what they almost did.  And that the mother of the host of the party had stopped them.  There was no embarrassment or shame that they had tried to rape me.  They were proud and were telling everyone.  Their only embarrassment was that they hadn’t succeeded.

 

I never said or did anything about it.  I just held my breath until the rumors ended.  At home I couldn’t speak without sobbing so I hid in my room watching television shows that I hoped, desperately, would transport me away.

 

Things became worse.  I was the blindsided recipient of new, character-shattering labels.  I was called a slut; I became a guilty, albeit unwitting, actor in their assassination of my identity.  There was no shelter, no mask, no protection from an emotional and psychological assault that eventually usurped the actual, attempted sexual assault.   In my class year book, I kid you not, I was voted “most likely to sleep with Bill Clinton.”  I’m sure on a scorecard of unkindness that has to count as incalculable.

 

And yet, I, we, persist.  We do not yield to the cruelty entirely.  We struggle and strain against it; we find moments of clarity and we lie down in the sweet comfort of knowing that there might be another narrative.  There are people who see us, entirely, and at first we do not trust their kindness.  It feels foreign and we are hesitant, perhaps weary of its permanence.   Eventually, through years of work, we learn to love, and trust.  We also look back and think of that young girl.  She’s so tender-hearted and scared.  I want to say to her,  “Oh, honey.  You are so brave.  You can stand, even all alone.”

 

***

 

Rape stories, especially in schools, leak into the cracks of the walls and settle on the dust in the floor boards.  These insidious reiterations enter the victim’s marrow like cancer.  They become embedded in the subconsciousness of cliques and teams, clubs and carpools.  They even make it to the teachers and administrators who know, but don’t want to know.  And this culture doesn’t just condone the behavior, it acquiesces to a level of fear and a desire for stasis that relegates women to the sidelines as victims of “alleged” rape narratives.  Women, crawling on their hands and knees—waiting for a hand to pull them up and into the arms of being known, are cast aside.  We are told there is a “bigger” narrative.  We are not a part of it.

 

Here is my wish.  The mother rescues the girl, then softly says, “Come here, sweet girl.  We will never let this happen again.” And the boys apologize, maybe even twenty years later.  And they teach their sons about the sanctity of bodies and choices.  And my daughter, and hers—they never have to wake up in silence.

on airing dirty laundry

I’ve been thinking about sharing and over-sharing recently. I’m a pretty transparent person nowadays. I like to feel connected to people through narratives–happy or sad, triumphant or despairing.   Another way of saying this: I don’t like small talk or trivialities. There is a distinction, however, between connecting and gossiping, or sharing stories that aren’t mine to disclose. In my writing groups this is sacrosanct. We do not share our peers’ writing, directly or anecdotally, ever.

There is a woman’s blog that I follow, off and on, that has a tendency to over-share. By this, I mean she will write about others’ stories—fully disclosing heartbreaking details of, say, her mother’s earlier life. I’m caught off guard when I read these posts, sometimes feeling like I want to ask, “Did you ask your mom if you could share this?” I suppose part of it is context, too. Is the nature of the blog to share devastating narratives of people in her life or is it mostly a Waldorf homeschooling blog? See what I mean?

I worried about that after my first two writings. Did they catch people off guard?   Were they too personal? Too revealing? It’s strange because I NEVER would have shared them before I started writing again in Utah. Only a handful of people knew about my eating disorder, because there’s an impression I felt I needed to maintain: I’m a mother, I’m healthy, I’ve got it together. And then the real reason: I.Do. Not.Want.To.Be.Judged. Eating disorders are very touchy, mostly because they’re grossly misunderstood. But then I learned from my friend M that no one’s judgment has any power over me (I can’t tell you what internalizing that nugget of advice did for me), and additionally, maybe I’ll make someone else feel a little less judged by sharing. When I first told my best friend about the eating disorder, we had been the closest of friends for over ten years. It was the ONE thing I’d never told her. Why? It’s complicated, for sure, but I think it had to do with a friend that she lost to an eating disorder, and I didn’t want her to worry about me. When I did tell her over a year ago, she looked at me with her misty, green eyes and hugged me, “Oh, Aggie. That just makes me love you more.” Sigh.

I’m curious about your decisions to share personal details either casually or with caution. Has sharing ever backfired or does it usually bring you closer?

I haven’t yet asked for specific responses on the blog, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot and would love to know. x

on inclusion

Yesterday I stopped at Tulie, a wonderful bakery in SLC, to pick up a few loaves of banana bread for my neighbors. They have endured the hideous PODS in front of our house for the past week so I figured it would be nice to express some gratitude. While I was there I chatted with the barista, a lovely guy from Texas, who is one of the few persons of color I see on a regular basis. I asked him if I should still give bread to the neighbors who called parking enforcement on us. His response, “F**k them!” I love him. I bought the grumpy couple across the street a loaf anyway.

Behind me in line was a friend, a pulmonologist. She was in her scrubs, pager clipped on, so I figured she only had a few minutes, but we ended up talking for a while. I told her we were moving to Toronto, and that we were looking forward to living in a more diverse city. She quietly nodded. Our conversation then steered to updates on our close-in-age kids, vacations, summer camps, etc. She mentioned that she was moving all three of hers from one school to another in the fall: private to public. I asked her what prompted the change, and she hesitated. “Well,” she said, almost reluctantly. “We felt like they were often excluded from social engagements with classmates.” I watched tears gather in the corners of her eyes. While both the private school and the public one she mentioned are in progressive neighborhoods of Salt Lake, I can’t say that I was surprised—although this did not in any way remedy the sickness I felt. She explained that in addition to her children being repeatedly left out, they were also often asked by other kids, “what are you?” Tears were streaming down her face. We embraced in the bakery for several seconds before she grabbed my arms and pulled back. In her eyes I saw such utter and complete sadness.

My friend is Indian-American and her husband is Mexican-American. She calls her children, “of mixed race.” I have never been asked in my life, “what are you?” I’ve been asked about my heritage. A coded word that denotes: you’re white, so tell me about your nuanced European lineage. When someone asks where I’m from, they’re asking which city or state I was born in. No one is ever trying to “figure me out” or identify what kind of “foreigner” I am. I don’t think that people’s questions are necessarily coming from a mentality of overt racism, but there’s an identification of “otherness” when we demonstrate a desire to make meaning of someone’s “other” identity.

My writing mentor describes herself as being able to blend into many cultures. She loves it when people embrace her as one of theirs, but she feels offended when someone is trying to “make meaning of her.” Often, this is done in a condemnatory way. She can be “identified” and written off in the blink of an eye. While being a woman can certainly lend itself to being easily written off, there is a collective narrative from early America through #metoo that provides white women, in particular, with the resources and, honestly, jurisprudence, to take aim and fire back. Does the woman of color have the same archives of social, historical and political power? She does not—despite the fact that among our earliest activists were valiant women like Sojourner Truth.

Regardless of the intention of her kids’ classmates, what my friend experienced (experiences) delineates a certain cultural and social narrative that remains scattered and undefined. We talk to our kids about celebrating difference, but are we simply amplifying the seed of separatism? I don’t know, but it’s something that Mark and I talk about a lot, especially as our moves have taken us to predominantly white, albeit liberal, places: Missoula, Portland, Vermont, and Salt Lake City.

I believe the adage, listen more and talk less, is spot on. I gave my friend the space to say, I don’t want my kids to feel hurt anymore. Again, I’m not patting myself on the back. I should probably just shut the hell up more often. In our schools, in our homes, and in our culture, how do we make inclusion the focus? How can we nurture origins of culture and heritage without abetting patterns of ignorance? I’m all ears.

 

 

 

on work

Americans have a strange relationship with it.  We work a lot.  We’re taught about work ethic from a young age, we value dedication and long hours, and we often have a strained push-pull with taking time off.  We know from tons of data and research that self-care is critical to health and happiness, but culturally we can’t quite develop a collective relationship with the short- and long-term value of balance.  Look no further than our mostly punitive maternity contracts, and it’s clear that you really need to get back to work ASAP.  Consequently, most of us have unhealthy or at least complicated feelings about working.

In college my major was called the Program of Liberal Studies. This sounds like an amorphous humanities program, but in fact, it was an amazingly specific one.  It was mainly a Great Books major with our reading list including every great tome from antiquity to about 1950.  We read all the classics, plus some more unusual titles, with an integration of mathematics, sciences, music, art history, philosophy, and religious studies.  It was pretty awesome.  When I applied and was accepted to the program I found myself among the Book Nerds of all book nerds.  I was psyched.

One of the more unusual titles we read was a philosophical text by German author Josef Pieper entitled Leisure:  The Basis of Culture.  I loved the book, and especially the way Pieper viewed work.  According to Pieper, leisure is a condition of the soul.  Oh my goodness I love that phrase so much.  His idea was not that we need a piña colada on a sandy beach to restore ourselves (although I believe that might be debatable), in fact we can find both meaning and leisure regardless of whether we’re in work mode or not.  My professor at the time gave a great analogy of the construction worker.  While the construction worker is toiling in the hot sun, where is his mind’s eye? If he is engaged in a loving search for an understanding of Being and Eternal Wisdom, is this not the primary action and purpose of man?  My professor explained, we are made to work and philosophize (among other things), though the mix will be different from one person to the next. But philosophizing is the loving search for an understanding of Being and Eternal Wisdom, and it is the primary action of man.  Wowzers.

Now, I can feel some eye rolling.  I get it, you can’t think about Plato’s cave while you’re working on a legal brief.  So, let me give you a better example.  My dear friend owns a beautiful children’s clothing company.  About a year ago, a shipment of her dresses arrived with many missing buttons.  Like 300 of them.  I felt horribly for her because this sounded like a ton of work.  I don’t know how to sew on a button let alone 300, so I imagined the awful and tedious work she had to undertake.  Interestingly, when I asked her about it in her office, while she was sitting next to the sewing machine, she was elated.  She said she hadn’t been back doing this kind of work since she started the company, and she loved using her hands again.  This is exactly what Pieper is talking about.  No, she wasn’t philosophizing about the meaning of life, as far as I know, but she was finding pleasure and meaning in her work.  In many ways I feel like Pieper is hitting on the same thing that Buddhists hope to ascertain: enlightenment.

My kids were in a Waldorf school when we were living in Vermont, and one big part of the school’s practice is having the kids do some form of work.  This is a pretty foreign concept to American parents of my generation.  Our kids play.   They may have iPads or phones.  They may make their beds, maybe.  They do homework, but we shy away from having them work… Until they graduate from an Ivy League School, and then they’re expected to work 80 hours a week in their careers.  Wait, that sounds terrible.

Waldorf schools familiarize children with the idea of finding meaning in work from a young age.  Why do they grind their own oats for snack?  Why do they clean up and wash their own dishes?  Why do they plant their own gardens and tend to them?  Because each act is celebrated as a critical and meaningful part of the community.  Teachers can say, “Josie ground these oats for our oatmeal today.  Thank you, Josie.”  “We planted these carrots; aren’t they delicious?”  “Thank you, William, for washing our dishes so that we have clean plates to eat on today.”

A spirit of generosity, community, and purpose becomes the most prevalent aspect of the classroom.

Imagine if that condition of the soul became a part of our work environments?  Sign me up.

 

on social inequality

I watched a documentary tonight about a neighborhood in New York City where a relatively new prep school was opened across the street from the Chelsea-Elliott Houses.  The statistics in the film were incredibly disheartening, but not surprising.  When the high line was constructed on the abandoned, elevated railways on the west side, no developer, architect or resident predicted the shockingly high appreciation in real estate the neighborhood experienced.  The vertical growth is impressive, as are the new buildings with private pools and car elevators.  The projects remain in the neighborhood, for now, although low-income housing in New York has dropped by forty percent in the past ten years, so I’m sure many developers lie in wait.

The film explores the relationship, or lack of relationship, between the residents of Chelsea-Elliott public housing and the students at Avenues: The World School.  Mark and I both rolled our eyes when we saw the colon in there.  Good grief.  It’s hard not to dislike (another double negative, sorry–sometimes they’re affective) this school off the bat.

The kids from public housing are from hard-working families, most of whom have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives, and they all seem on the brink of some form of disaster.  One little girl in the film steals the whole show.  She’s spunky and precocious, wise and creative, imaginative and unstoppable.  I fell head over heels.  Her name is Rosa and she’s eight years old.  She says, “I can tell you for a fact my family is not going to be living in the projects for ten more years. They think they’re comfortable living where they are — my mom’s been living there for twenty-five years already — they think it’s fine, but honestly if we face reality, it’s not. New York, for me, is one of the places your dreams come true. Don’t get me wrong, when I leave the projects I’m not going to forget where I come from, but I want to succeed in life.”  She has sparkly eyes and curly hair, to boot.

While the students at Avenues come across as smart and likable, too, there’s a weariness among them about how they’re supposed to feel or respond to their $50,000 per year education.  A female junior decides to cross the boundary between her school and the projects, and create a community project.  She calls it 115 Steps, referring to the number of steps between the two buildings.  I admired her intrepid action; it felt authentic and investigative, but I’m not sure the kids who crossed onto her turf experienced the same satisfaction.  They had to go back to their side of the street when it was over.

I taught with Teach for America when I graduated from college.  I started with kindergarten in Washington Heights, then second grade in the South Bronx.  In many ways my experience was quite similar to the juxtaposition of Avenues and the Chelsea-Elliott projects.  I lived on the Upper East Side on 77th between 2nd and 3rd, in a charming studio subsidized by my parents, and I took the 6 train to the Bronx each morning.  I was earnest in my desire to help my students, like the junior from Avenues, but like her, I had the underlying safety net of a roundtrip ticket.

In the summer of 2003, I started TFA training at Fordham University.   Within several weeks there were rumors of class and racial tension among corp members.  My roommate, an amazing woman from Puerto Rico, asked me to participate in a town hall-style conversation among teachers.  Apparently there were a lot of insensitive comments being made in some of the training sessions.  I did not personally experience this in my group, but I wasn’t surprised that there were issues.

The tricky part about organizations like Teach for America is that predominantly privileged, college graduates go into impoverished regions of the country to “make a profound impact on low income rural and urban communities.”  There are  many assumptions made in this statement.  Additionally, much of the language from TFA is incredibly loaded with words like “equity,” “justice,” and “unwavering commitment.”  Let’s start with the problem in the last statement, “unwavering commitment.”  Well, the commitment is actually only two years, and this poses a problem for the teachers who have committed to their students for decades.  When a privileged, white woman, like me, shows up in the Bronx to confront the injustice, finally, how does that impact the community who has been striving for justice all along?  You can imagine how offensive the organization can come across to veteran teachers.

So, here’s what happened at the town hall meeting.  I arrived, was given a chair on stage, and was pointedly asked in the first five minutes:  “Where do you live?” “On the Upper East Side.”  “Who do you think you are?  A white girl like you traveling to the ghetto for the day?”  “Why does it matter where I live?  I’m here to help these kids.”  You can probably imagine how the rest of the conversation went. I left in tears, defeated, embarrassed, ready to call it quits.  The thing is, she had a point.  It’s one thing to dedicate your life to the injustices in our country; it’s another thing to stride out of college debt free, rent a quaint studio apartment to teach kids for a couple of years, then decide what you really want to do with your life.  She was totally right.

I left the meeting, and my dear friend, Henry, was there to comfort me.  And when the rest of the group left, I was called back in by one of the TFA administrators.  I was kind of expecting a “How are you? Sorry you had to take all of that heat alone.” But, I was in for a different scolding.  “Aggie, at Teach for America, we’d really appreciate it if you’d avoid words like ‘these.’ As in, ‘these kids.'”  While I was too young to fully absorb the significance of that evening–the nuances of privilege, institutional racism, social inequity, etc.–I was aware of what was fundamentally problematic about her takeaway from that whole discussion.  She missed the fact that I did care about the kids.  A lot.  Many of my former kindergarteners and second graders are now college graduates, and I still talk to many of them.  Tamia is now a professional ballerina (I was her teacher when a ballet school came to do an informal evaluation); DeJane went to Harvard and is now studying to be a veterinarian; Tomas is starting law school at, believe it or not, Fordham University.  What she heard was semantics, and while I think words are important, she missed the whole point.  I needed to learn to fill in the grey area between my apartment and my school.  What happens when the two years of commitment are up?  What happens when you build a school in a community that’s been there, fighting for its life, and you never acknowledge its presence?  Those were the questions I needed to strive to answer.

Indeed the widening social inequality is among the most challenging we face as a country–now more than ever.  In the documentary a family watches Barack Obama give a speech regarding the status of undocumented parents whose children are U.S. citizens.  He says, “You can come out of the shadows.  If you pay taxes, you can stay.”  This statement, a relief at the time to millions of families, seems like a distant memory.  The family, whose father is undocumented, cries tears of joy because they will be together.  I can’t begin to fathom that being one’s constant fear.

The divide between the projects and Avenues school is indeed far greater than 115 steps.  As invisible boundaries and imagined borders close indefinitely, how will children like Rosa cross the divide?  And how will we meet her there?