To My Kiddos

This morning I read a news article explaining that the original founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, were arrested in the Capitol for protesting ‘big money’ in politics. Knowing a bit about the two, and knowing that they regularly speak up for and out against issues that they find important, I wasn’t really surprised by this information. But maybe because it’s the primary election day; or, maybe because we’re in the midst of a political movement that has been a long time coming and needed, and the likes of which we haven’t ever seen; or, maybe it’s my own growing desire to do something of similar meaning and importance; or, maybe it’s a firestorm of all of those things; whatever the reason, I felt compelled to seize this feeling, and make this an opportunity to hopefully teach my kids a little something someday. Thus, this letter is born.

 

Dear Lily and Ollie—

As your parent, I want so very many things for you. The normal stuff—love, friendship, health, opportunities, and of course happiness. But I also want some pretty complicated things too. I want you both to understand things about life that took me far too long to figure out, or at the very least, accept. But these things I want for you aren’t things I can give you. No, these things are far too valuable, and which you must earn on your own. And I worry each day about you missing out on them, and feeling like I could be failing you if you do. Please understand that it’s not that I don’t want to give you these things. If I could, I’d open your skulls, and crack open your ribs and shove these things deep into your brains and hearts. But like most things that are worth anything at all, these things will only be worth it if you go out and get them yourselves, and define what each means to you as individuals.

I can hear you now, Lily, “Ok, Mom, stop being so damn vague. Get to the point.” Or, at least that’s what I imagine you’ll sound like someday when you’re old enough to read and appreciate this. Ollie, tell your sister to calm down. I’m getting to it. So impatient she is. 😊

What I want so badly for you is something I was not able to give myself until recently. I want you both to feel safe enough to always be brave, and fierce, and radical. To do what’s right, not what’s popular or expected of you. To believe in something so deeply you’re willing to risk everything for it. To put yourself out there and try. And to put yourself on the line sometimes. You know, “fight the good fight”.

I want these things for you because no one ever achieved anything great by sitting on the sidelines. And what I want for you is greatness. Not necessarily in the sense that you need to be President or someone rich and famous. But greatness in the sense that though you may question yourself or doubt your choices, you’ll never regret them because you’ll have earned a life that makes you genuinely and wholeheartedly happy. I mean happiness that seeps into every cell of your being. Happiness that cannot be permanently erased by a slipup or momentary hard time. Happiness that is so inherently a part of who you are that no one can take it away. But the only one who can give you that is you.

And so you need to live each day with the intention of doing all you can to better your life. To find that place of deepest contentment. But not be afraid to shake things up to get there. You need to go to sleep every night knowing that you truly did all you could that day to be the best you, work toward the best world, and that what you’ve done could have enacted change or goodness for others, and lead you to your greatest happiness. If you cannot do that, you mustn’t be too hard on yourself, but promise yourself to do so tomorrow. But don’t sell yourselves empty promises. Believe me, that’s only a temporary soothing. It’s a Band-Aid where you need stiches. Use your words, and use your heart, and act. Take a plunge, knowing you could, and likely will at some time, fall hard. Then get yourself back up again, brush off those bits of gravel from your pants, and climb up and jump again.

Of course, don’t be foolish. Your dad and I have hopefully raised you better than that. Do your research. Think. Inspect. Ask around. See for yourself. Experiment. And listen to others. Don’t always take what they say and adopt it. But listen. Always be listening. And choose wisely. There are so many chances to take. And there are so many battles in this world. You can’t fight them all. It took me until my 30’s to realize that. You must be more like Atticus and less like Scout. (Surely, you’ve both read To Kill a Mockingbird by now! What kind of mother would I be otherwise??) As long as you are helping others, and not harming yourself or anyone else, know that we will support your choices.

And just remember that everyone is someone. We all have thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, mistakes, etc. If you can look into the eyes of every person you meet, and see them as a person, an individual, regardless of their actions, behaviors, or choices, and see what is universal in us all, I think you will never really make a terrible mistake. We’ve tried to raise you with empathy, and with consideration for others in hopes that when you see a wrong being committed, you’ll act to stop it. And when you see a need being unfulfilled, you do what you can toward filling it. Everything we have done and continue to do is for you two. For your greater good and so that you will become amazing adults. And we hope you can use our examples as a springboard for doing so much more. Losing my job for speaking out against poor education practices is small peanuts really. But I have the hope that it was one of the first examples of you seeing your parents standing up for what they believe in, even though it had a somewhat unfortunate outcome. Follow us, kiddos, but eventually pass us. Forge those trails on your own. Look back and we’ll be waving. We will always be here; we will always support you. So don’t be afraid to be yourselves and do what’s in your heart. Because if you do, you’ll never want for a thing. And what more could we hope for you both?

Love you with all my heart and soul,

Mom

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My New Normal

It’s been awhile since I’ve last written anything. Sometimes I find the words to match my thoughts just mischievously elude me.

Anyhow, this is what I decided was good today. I am NOT a poet by any means, but today this just felt right in this format.

I naively thought the little pill was magic,

that I would pop it into my mouth each night,

and by some miraculous conjoining of my bile

and the Sertraline

it would make me better.

I thought that this little pill

the color of lima beans and

smaller than my baby niece’s little fingernails

would conquer my fears

and anxieties

and bring me back from underwater where

no matter what

I would breathe again with ease, and

like a superhero, keep me safe from

the monsters in my head and their claws pulling

at my brain and my heart.

I guess I should have figured that nothing

is as good as it seems; or,

that nothing worth having comes this easily.

I guess I should have realized these cliches

were true when it comes to mental illness.

Yes, mental illness.

Not crankiness

or a bad day

or over exaggerating

or being too sensitive

or making things up.

And just like any illness,

this too doesn’t go away by command.

I can ask and plead and even

cajole or bargain with myself

to stop all of this; but,

like no one can stop cancer from spreading

or epilepsy from seizing

or diabetes from metabolizing incorrectly,

I can’t stop myself from

worrying if I’m good enough

or wondering if I’ll ever measure up.

I can’t convince myself to leave the house

some days

or see friends

or go for a run

or do yoga

or anything that would help me feel

more alive.

Because I’m afraid.

This fear is real to me.

It squats upon my shoulder

nagging at me

taunting me

trying its best to

reduce me to invisibility.

It feasts upon me.

It nibbles little holes

into my willpower.

It breaks me down into

digestible pieces that are

easier to take without notice

over time and with little struggle

until suddenly

there isn’t much left.

And it’s then that it’s up to me

to save myself.

This little pill can be the buoy that

keeps me from being swept to sea,

but it can never be my personal island.

I can either flounder and drift amidst the

menace of the swells;

or, I can find some inner strength and

pull my dead weight to shore every time.

Because it’s become clear to me that

this isn’t going away.

It isn’t a small hiccup that will slowly

taper off until stopping without notice.

This is my new normal.

And so I open my arms wide,

put on a pot of tea,

put some cookies on a tray,

and welcome Depression into my home

like an old friend who will be staying on

for an indeterminate length of stay.

We sit together in my room, in

the sunshine pouring into the windows.

We sit and listen and watch and wait.

We enjoy the company of solitude and

the freedom of endless time.

We don’t worry about dressing up for each other

because we have no need for impressing.

But we also hold no pretenses.

We don’t embrace each other because that

would feel too risky.

But we also don’t ignore one another because

that would feel like a charade.

We watch each other in our periphery

waiting to see what each other’s next move

will be in this game of chess we play.

It may be the longest, most impossible

game of chess that has been played;

but as long as I have my arsenal,

my little green pill,

and my writing,

and my room with the sunshine,

I can make it.

There’s no magic here.

There’s no cure-all.

There’s only me.

In my new normal.

Whatever that means.

The beginning of bravery

Very recently I had the pleasure of meeting with a former professor whom I admire greatly as a woman, thinker, educator, and mom.

I originally met her in my second to last semester as a graduate student. I had to take a research class, which I thought would be a definite drag. It wasn’t. It was one of the most challenging and intellectually invigorating classes I’d taken in all of my academic career. It was a breath of fresh air–pardon the cliche–amidst some very heavy and droning lecture-style classes.

This professor “had me at hello.” She was at once witty, insightful, hilarious, brilliant, and best of all, radiated confidence. Though she wasn’t that much older than me, I developed the sort of idol complex children often have with super heroes. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up. She believed what she said, didn’t need to apologize for any of her opinions, and didn’t care who disagreed.

I acutely remember one doofus moment very early on in the class during which I felt like a prize idiot. After introducing ourselves to the class, we had to tell one thing of interest. I mentioned that I had a one-year-old daughter. Without a blink or hesitation, this amazing woman shared that she was going through fertility treatments and that they were making her sick to her stomach. I, thinking I was making idle chitchat, said something to the effect of, “Well, you’ll definitely feel like that during pregnancy.” She immediately responded with something along the lines of “Yeah, but at least I’ll have a baby.” Burn. What a silly, foolish thing to say to a woman who was fighting with every ounce of her being to conceive a child, and here I was reducing it to some trite idea known galaxywide.

But that was it. There seemed to be no malice in her comment, nor did she seem to harbor any resentment or ill will toward me. She just said what she was thinking, and that was that. That was, and still is, her style. In a world where people exist with so many masks and who live so much of their lives hiding behind either a keyboard or false pretenses, this way of facing the world feels almost poetic to me.

And so, when she asked to meet me to help her with an interview for her newest research, I was floored. Though we’ve maintained contact via various Facebook posts and comments, I was excited to sit down with her after so many years and really talk.

We talked mostly about education–the good and the bad…mostly the bad on my part, I admit. And in doing so, I shared so many thoughts and feelings about the state of education, what it is to be a public school teacher in a country so comfortable with vilifying us, and how worried I am that students are missing out on what could be amazing experiences because of the restrictions put on schools, teachers, and the students themselves. It felt amazing to be heard, really heard. And not just heard, but understood.

Of course I’ve spent my fair share of time commiserating…ok, bitching…with my colleagues. And of course my husband has had to wield my rants more times than he should have. But to have someone objective, with no connection or investment in my personal situation come out and agree with me, felt liberating. Perhaps I wasn’t crazy after all. Perhaps I’m not just a jaded, miserable wretch of a teacher. Maybe it’s the system, and not me, that’s flawed.

As if this wasn’t good enough for my soul, one of the last questions she posed to me was, “How are you so brave?” I was honestly taken aback by the question. Me, brave? I really hadn’t thought about it that way. I was just speaking my truth. And it was in that that she impressed upon me was what was most brave. To speak what I really, truly believe without any of the typical dancing-around-the-bush or other verbal detractors, was impressive to her. And that resonated with me.

And the more I think about it, the more I really wonder how many of us are speaking our truths? And how many of us don’t worry about the consequences? How many of us refuse to apologize if what we say isn’t what others want to hear? And why the fuck don’t more of us feel secure in doing so?!

Soon, I found, I couldn’t keep her question to me out of my mind. Yeah, I guess I was brave in being completely honest to her. But what about other times I practically have to force my mouth shut? Why was I hiding sometimes? And what good was it doing me? The more I questioned it, the more I knew I had to do something about it. I had to do something for myself for once.

And so, this is where this blog comes into play. This is now my sanctuary. A place where I can express myself, and not care about repercussions. I have always found solace in writing. It waters my soul. And so I no longer give a shit who sees this. Come, get a glimpse of my mind and heart. No one will stop me. No one will make me feel afraid or ashamed to feel how I feel and say what I say. Come what may. I’ve battled anxiety and censorship for too long. And that is over.

And it was all because of a single question.