Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Person Standing in Front of Me

Last week, I listened to Jimmy Carter's latest memoir, A Full Life, on my commute to and from work. In the book, Carter describes the frustration he felt when knocking on doors as a young evangelist and not always having the right words to share with those he met. His partner in these efforts, a man Carter felt to be a powerful witness with a great ability to communicate, gave him some advice that has remained with him for the duration of his life.

"You have two jobs. You are to love God and you are to love whoever happens to be standing right in front of you at that particular moment. That's it."

The advice comes directly from Scripture and is the primary call of Christians (see Matthew 22:37-39, Luke 10:27, etc). We are to love. Sadly, it's hard to see that sometimes. But, it's true.

Whether or not you share my Christian faith, I hope you can at least agree with the latter half of the advice . . . that each of us would be better humans if we would decide to love whoever happens to be standing in front of us at any particular moment.

This directive is so simple in its instruction, yet so difficult to put into practice. I fail at it every day. I want to do better.

I have returned to Carter's life lesson time and again while reading news articles and opinion pieces about the current Syrian refugee crisis over the past several days. I remind myself that first, we are to love. There are fellow humans, no better or worse than me, who are hungry and scared, whose homes have been destroyed and whose lives have been threatened. I care for them just as I do the homeless veterans and single moms and teachers and all the other groups about whom social media has been telling me I should care before I worry about those escaping chaos in the Middle East. They all matter. And I agree with the warning that has been shared by analysts much wiser than me -- how we treat these refugees today will have repercussions for generations to come in our battle for the notions of freedom and love to win over those of oppression and evil.

I am not wearing rose-colored glasses. While I love, or at least try to love, I have discernment. I'm not naive. I know that there will be a small number of individuals who seek passage with the refugees who mean harm. And I know that a small number is all that is needed to cause an incredible amount of destruction and death. We have seen that reality play out time and again around the globe this year. This threat is not to be discounted, and it is unfair to taunt or condemn people who understandably worry that the scenes recently played out in Paris and Beirut and Egypt and Kenya and Iraq and Nigeria will be seen here. I believe the process for finding these people is more stringent than the procedures in place in Europe, but I also believe that the best vetting process cannot find everyone. There will be more attacks against us on our homeland.

But, discernment also comes in handy as a balancing tool when considering our risks. I think about the Muslims who have been my friends, roommates, classmates, neighbors, and teachers, and with whom I have gone on dates, participated in community service, and attended Christian baptisms for my friends' children. I am confident that, as much as conservative talk radio and creative Facebook memes would like to convince me otherwise, their relationships with me are genuine and they aren't just biding their time until enough of "them" are here to impose Sharia law and make me wear a hijab. I am aware and vigilant, but I put it in the context of my experiences.

So I (try to) have love, I have discernment. But I will be honest and admit I also have fear. I do worry about harm coming to my family. I worry about terrorist attacks and war that will stretch into the lives of my grandchildren. I worry about the seeming indifference to our global threat, interrupted only by flashes of defensiveness, displayed by our current leader and that those being considered to succeed him include a used car salesman/televangelist who wants to put religious litmus tests on people coming to our country, an overgrown child who calls people names and wants to build a big wall, and a corporate insider who will say anything a particular audience wants to hear except for actually naming the threat in front of us. (See, that last sentence wasn't very loving . . . I'm very much a work in progress.)

I develop fear from the depravity that our constant media exposes us to with its 24/7 news cycle. I don't understand how a human can cut another person's head off or set a man on fire or plant bombs on school girls and force them to walk into markets or kill people who had welcomed him into their church for Bible study or execute an entire room of first graders in Connecticut or lure a child to his execution in an alley in Chicago. These acts hurt my soul and can take me to a dark place. And let me be clear. If I am faced with someone who is attempting to harm my family, I admit that I will fall short of Christ's command and I will not be loving to that person standing right in front of me at that particular moment.

However, I am doing my best to use my love and discernment when the fear starts to take over, because fear can be consuming and will rob me of the joy of what is happening with thoughts of what might happen. I acknowledge that someone may arrive here with a plan to take bombs to a shopping mall or restaurant or government building. I also accept the reality that there were thousands of people inside our borders wanting to cause us harm long before anyone heard of a Syrian refugee. Lots of them were born here. In the meantime, we can provide comfort and shelter and a future to families (and not many families, by the way . . . the United States' effort is a drop in the bucket) who have not been able to imagine such gifts in years. I will remember that I'm more likely to die driving home from work than I am due to the evil intentions of a refugee and I will continue to get in my car every day. I will remember that I live in a community with people who love my children and me and about whom I feel the same way and that we will help each other in times of need and crisis and even possible terror.

I will start by focusing on offering love and kindness to any person who is standing right before me at any particular moment. That effort should keep me plenty busy. And then we will see what happens from there.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Confessions of a Quiet Sports Mom



My yearbook offers rare proof that I was on the varsity tennis team in high school, since my parents didn't care enough to come and take any pictures . . . (I'm trying to ignore the typos in the caption.)
 
What you are about to read may be the most controversial and personal piece I have ever written. It’s about youth sports.

Sports were not a central part of our home growing up. My brother played baseball and basketball for a bit with the local boys and girls club, and I remember my mom dropping him off (not staying) at practice when he was my daughter’s age. I was on the high school tennis team, but I’m pretty sure my parents did not attend a single match. (Correct me if I’m wrong here, Mom.) That was not unusual, though, because I don’t recall more than two or three spectators at any of our matches . . . and we were the county champions every year, which is significant as there were around twenty high schools in my county! Parents just did not attend and it never occurred to me that they should. Was this unusual even in the early 1990s and the parent-free sports competitions at my school were an anomaly? Or have things changed that much in the past twenty-five years? I know that parents are more involved than ever in their children’s schooling and athletics and even playtime, so the latter is certainly possible. Whatever the case, I imagine that my own life experience has led to me being blindsided and unprepared in knowing how to operate as a sports parent.

I love watching my kids play ball. LOVE it. They enjoy being on the field and they both seem to have a decent level of athletic ability. But my experiences with the other adults in that environment during their first season of play have continued to affect how I watch their games and I’m not sure how to shake it.

When my son was four years old, a dad of another kid on his tee-ball team got in the face of the head coach, screaming profanities at him and actually threatening physical violence. The local police had to be called to escort this dad off the premises. What made this involved father so irate? He did not like the way that the coach was teaching the kids to stand at the plate and he insisted these young players would never succeed at a high level if the problem was not corrected immediately. Yes, apparently this is sufficient reason to threaten a brawl in front of a group of preschoolers.

That same year, my daughter had a bad call made against her during a playoff game. She clearly got a kid out at second base but the teenage referee called the runner safe. She was frustrated, but bad calls are going to happen and you have to learn to handle that. Two parents from our team started screaming from the bleachers, telling the high school student that he needs to get his shaggy hair out of his eyes and that he was awful. They would not stop. This vocal couple soon was ejected by the teenager (which I enjoyed), and then had to watch the rest of the game and the next game from the parking lot. Their daughter looked so embarrassed. When I spoke up about the behavior we were modeling for our kids, the coach said, “Well, I was upset about the call, too. And I don’t know why you aren’t mad, because the call was against your girl.” So, I was the bad parent for NOT being obnoxious.

Also in that season, I finally had to ask another mom to stop coaching my girl from the stands. I must admit -- I don’t get this constant shouting of “helpful reminders” while a kid is at the plate, beyond the supportive cheering. I’ve seen instances in which balls whizz right by players because they are looking at their parents yelling from the sidelines. (And then these parents get mad that the kid was not focused.) Coaches ask parents not to do this and my daughter has told me how distracting the constant noise from outside the fences can be. So, I finally had enough and said to the mom who had words for my daughter after every pitch, “Would you please just let my girl play?” To which I received the response, “Well, if you don’t like the rest of the parents supporting your kid, I guess that’s your right!”

As a result of these experiences, I have swung sharply in the direction of super quiet sports mom. My kids know where I am and often look for me when walking up to the plate or taking their place in the field. And I’m ready with a big smile and a thumbs up. But it is unusual that you hear my voice during a game other than an occasional “Yea!’ or “Good job!” when a play is over. On the rare occasion that I do catch myself being overly enthusiastic, I cringe and draw back. I know that the unruly and overbearing mom is in the minority, or at least I like to think so, but she also draws the most attention. I find that I go to great lengths, often to the point of stifling my own enjoyment of the game, to do the opposite. I’m not saying this is a good approach on my part . . . instead this is my confessional and search for advice.

I’ve asked my kids if they wish I would be louder during games. My girl said she doesn’t want to hear anything while on the field. Fair enough. My son said, “I just want to know that you are watching me every time.” And I do. As long as they are having fun and are happy with my presence, I’m good.
 
I’ve also become friends with a few of the parents who I have come to know over the seasons. I enjoy talking and laughing with them during games or running into them at the park if their kids are now on different teams. And there are some wonderful parents who help in the dugout and warm up with the kids before the games and make sure to compliment other kids on the team when they’ve had a good game. My kids’ lives have been impacted for the better by being part of a team and building lasting relationships with some of their coaches. But, my inability to understand and be around the hyper-involved parent is still a stumbling block for me and I’m frustrated by that. At this point, it’s not them, it’s me. I know that. I need to figure out how to get over it.

Many of you out there have kids who are involved in sports. What is your approach when you are at the ballfield (or rink or court or pool)? What is your advice for not getting hung up on or affected by the parents who are loud and critical throughout a game?

On a related note, were you involved in sports as a kid? If so, what was your experience like with your own parents and other parents on the team? How did their interaction (or lack of) with you during games affect your development and/or love of the sport, if at all?

 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

An Open Letter To Trump Supporters

Dear Trump Supporter,

Hola! (Just kidding, just kidding . . . I'll start over.)
 
Hi! How are you today? I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I guess part of me was hoping this Trump for President thing was just a fad and my letter wouldn’t be necessary. But here we are. Trump is hanging out at the top of the polls with the support of 30% of Republican voters and he just excited a bunch of people today by signing a pledge to support the eventual nominee of his party. (Of course, he is quite confident that he will be that nominee because he is awesome and really great and really rich.)

So here are my questions. Why do you like him? How do you listen to his speeches and think, “Now there’s a guy I want to represent my country on the world stage!”? How do you call yourself a conservative when Trump has a long history of political leanings in the other direction and has not shared any specific policy ideas to suggest his outlook has changed all that much?

I don’t want you to think I’m writing to you with these questions without first having done some research on my own. Here is what I have gathered concerning what his supporters say make Trump so appealing. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

He “tells it like it is” and is a “straight shooter.” His honesty is refreshing. I will agree with you that the need many of us feel to be politically correct in our conversations has destroyed some opportunities for honesty and progress. I’ll give you that. But I also think you can be straightforward and bold and critical without being obnoxious and insulting and slimy. Donald Trump often talks in a way that would have my six-year-old son sent to his room. His name calling is not refreshing, it’s belittling. A true leader does not feel the need to make fun of Rosie O’Donnell or pick fights with Megyn Kelly. That’s what a small person does. A wealthy man with class does not need to remind everyone how rich he is. A well-liked person does not have to brag that he can make a President and First Lady attend his wedding with one phone call. I shudder to think about a President Trump during my kids’ formative years.

He isn’t a politician. Great! Again, I can get on board with you here to a certain extent. I get that you are fed up with the establishment candidates. It’s the same reason that Dr. Ben Carson is also popular in the polls while Jeb Bush continues to plummet. Our government was not structured in a way to create career politicians. I love the idea of having scientists and businessmen and teachers and plumbers (just not that Joe the Plumber Guy, please) and accountants as elected members of Congress who come to D.C. for a defined period of time to discuss the nation’s interests and then return to their other lives. I tend not to trust elected officials who have done nothing except run re-election campaigns for the past three decades. But the fact that Trump is not a politician is not enough reason to put him in the Oval Office. That overbearing Kardashian mom is a multimillionaire entrepreneur who thinks highly of herself, too.  That doesn’t mean she would make a great chief executive. Being outside of the political inner circle can be a plus, but it’s only a good starting point that then requires some more discretion.

And, most importantly . . .

He wants to make the Mexicans foot the bill for building a very tall wall. But don’t worry, because this wall will have a large and pretty door. It will be the most beautiful door you’ve ever seen. There are certainly some problems with immigration that need to be addressed. I don’t like that individuals with criminal records and/or bad intentions are able to cross our border over and over again. But when you play to the fears of people who go on rants when they hear “press 2 for Spanish” on a customer service line, you’ve lost me. Besides the few words I remember from high school German and the possibility that I could maneuver around Moscow with the barebones Russian I remember from college, English is the only language I know. I have never felt that I was unable to read directions or fill out a job application or watch television or go shopping or read the news in my country because I am an English speaker. English is the (unofficial) language of the United States. I don’t anticipate that changing, so I’m good. And I’m all for people wanting to speak one hundred beautiful languages around me with their families and in their houses of worship and in their places of business (if they don’t mind the profit limitations that come with such a decision). I also understand wanting to enforce our laws and protect our sovereignty. I have no doubt there are people coming across our border who mean us harm. Let’s address that. But when I listen to Donald Trump, I just feel like he is playing to the emotions of those who dislike anyone who is “different” and that’s just ugly.

Your candidate has managed to take all of the media attention from the other Republicans running for office. And here’s the thing . . . some of the men and women who want to be our next president actually have proposed real policy ideas and have specific plans! I know – kind of crazy, right? What does your guy want to do? (Well, besides build the aforementioned really big and spectacular wall) What are his thoughts on climate change? What is his proposed strategy for combating terrorists? How does he feel about Common Core or any kind of nationalized education standards? Does he think abortion is a federal issue? What should our role be in the United Nations? Does he feel that the ERA still has a place in 2015? What should the United States do concerning the heartbreaking Syrian refugee situation that is unfolding? I went to Trump’s campaign website because, like I mentioned, I wanted to come to you having done my research. The ONLY position statement listed is regarding immigration reform. That’s it! It’s the only drop-down item on his Positions tab. But hey. He gives out one senator’s cell phone number and mocks another senator for being a prisoner of war for years. He’s really good at yelling “Shut up!” and being a sexist. So, what more do you need to know?

But I’m writing to you for a reason beyond just complaining about your candidate. I want to learn. I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m missing something. At this point, if Trump becomes the nominee (which I honestly doubt will happen because this entertaining circus show cannot sustain itself), I likely will be voting for a third-party candidate for president. Which is fine . . . I’ve done it before. Am I wrong to feel this way, though? Am I misjudging Mr. Trump? Is he more than a suit who rambles loudly with red meat generalities?

I await your reply.

Sincerely,

 
Sarah

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

You SHOULD Get Offended in College

A group of incoming freshmen at Duke University has refused to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the summer reading selection for the Class of 2019, because the LGBT themes run afoul of their Christian beliefs. I have never read the book and actually had not even heard of it before coming across this controversy at Duke. Whether or not I had read the material, my advice is the same.

Stop it.

I'm uncomfortable with the concept of Hell. I get upset and often cry when hearing about emotionally abusive relationships. I think the Holocaust was abhorrent and the genocides that are continuing around the world today are heartbreaking and the photographs are difficult to see. I get unfairly frustrated with people who have different financial or child raising or political priorities than me. I am never going to be a Buddhist or a socialist or a Donald Trump supporter or a NRA member or a lesbian. Does that mean that I should not have to think about and learn about these people and these ideas and these events . . . that I should be exempt from acknowledging their existence? If I claim to be interested in higher education, or simply an engaged member of my community, I think not.

Stop hiding from ideas that make you uncomfortable or feel awkward or (gasp!) offended. I'm sorry that your parents coddled you up to the age of eighteen and told you it was okay to shield yourself from differing opinions. I'm sorry that you do not see your college years as the time to meet all different kinds of people and hear all different kinds of ideas. I'm sorry that you do not yet see yourself as an adult operating in a world that will not cater to your views at all times. I'm sorry that you CHOSE to attend this particular private institution of higher learning and are now put off by the expectations placed on you before you even begin. And I'm sorry that if your convictions are so intense, you don't see this as an opportunity to engage others in discussion instead of crying at the supposed offense.

And I'm not just speaking (well, typing) to the conservative Christians at Duke here. In fact, it seems that a subset of college students from all religions and political leanings and family backgrounds are now inclined to build a protective cocoon of happy thoughts while at school. We have warnings about possible "trigger words" before debates on sensitive topics and "safe rooms" filled with coloring books and cookies to which people can escape if they become troubled. The Great Gatsby is not to be discussed because it could make certain groups uncomfortable with its misogyny. Huckleberry Finn is avoided because of racial stereotypes and language that unfortunately was common in Twain's time. At my alma mater, the showing of the movie American Sniper on campus was postponed because some students were upset. Conservative politicians or pundits are shouted down or uninvited altogether because some students do not want to hear a different worldview. Students at Berkeley protested the notion of liberal atheist Bill Maher speaking on campus because of statements he made about Islam (kind of hurts when he turns his mockery of religion on anyone other than the Christians, huh?).

It's no wonder that comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have shared in interviews that they no longer perform on college campuses because the students are OFFENDED BY EVERYTHING. It seems that too many of today's coeds have grown up believing that they have the right to be protected from everything that makes them uncomfortable.

I attended every possible lecture on campus when I was in college. I listened and if I didn't like what I heard, I chose not to clap. Sometimes I even made posters to express an opposing viewpoint during rallies. But, I wanted to hear all perspectives. If nothing else, learning more about the people with whom you disagree can give you additional ammunition for your cause (intellectually speaking, of course).

You are supposed to have those late-night dorm room conversations with the guy who claims that communism will work "but it just hasn't been tried in its true form yet." You are supposed to be aggressively greeted by the Jews for Jesus who ask if you have found true purpose in your life when all you wanted was to stop in the student union for a soda. And you should talk to the guy who argues with a passion that it will take 400 years from the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to achieve racial equality in our country because that's how long slavery existed here. And question the women who paid for a full-page ad in the student newspaper and then used that space to print the name of every undergraduate male under the heading "Potential Rapists!" (My fellow Terps remember that campus scandal in 1993?) And read works by atheists and Christians and wiccans. Go to your friend's movie night at the Baptist Student Union and for Passover dinner at the Hillel. Attend a panel discussion on curriculum priorities sponsored by the Asian American Student Union. Listen to both sides of an abortion debate.

This is the time to have your core values challenged and to debate them with passion. Once confronted with opposing viewpoints, you may come out on the other side with your convictions even more solid than before. Wonderful! If you feel so strongly about your beliefs and are grounded in them, why would you be threatened by a little dissent? Or, you may find that your perceptions of people and circumstances have changed. Either way, the process is important and amazing.

I'm not arguing that young men and women don't come to college having already endured some difficult, even traumatic, experiences. I get that. I've walked through some stuff in my own life and with friends. We should never create an environment that is intentionally upsetting or that belittles a group or individual for no other reason than to do just that. But we need to learn to face difficult people and circumstances, to stand up and get engaged when our integrity and beliefs are tested, to be willing to accept that there are other ways of thinking.

It may be that by the time my kids get to college, if they decide to go that route, they will attend class in an emotionally sanitized setting, memorize items for a test, watch their peers cry foul if a hint of discord is apparent, and shuffle along to graduation. That's depressing. But if that is the case, I hope they still find outlets through which they can hear conflicting ideas and take part in uncomfortable conversations. I refuse to raise them with blinders on or with a fear of difference and dissent.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The F Word

I am sitting in a beautiful cabin in the Smoky Mountains with three of my favorite people, my kids and my mom, sleeping in the next room. The only sounds I hear are the insects talking to one another in the trees. Quietly, another decade of my life is coming to a close. I am turning forty tomorrow and the anticipation of this transition over the past several weeks has afforded a great opportunity to reflect on what time has taught me and how I hope to evolve and deepen even more over the next ten years.

When I turned thirty, I was insecure, sad and uncomfortable in my own skin. I was in a struggling and toxic marriage that had me in tears almost every day and I didn't think I deserved any better. I also had recently learned that I was pregnant with my daughter because, as all experts will tell you, the best way to improve a relationship is to have a child together. I was working at Middle Tennessee State University as an academic counselor and I liked both my job and the people with whom I spent my days, considering several of them to be close friends. In fact, one of my co-workers was the very first person I told about my pregnancy. But overall, I was rather isolated.

Over the next decade, I had a child, was a stay-at-home mom for several years, had another child, got divorced, went back to work full-time, bought my first home, and gained strength and confidence. I also lost some friendships and made amazing new ones, rediscovered my passion for writing, ran five half-marathons, put on ten pounds, faced disappointment in myself and others, and was overwhelmed with gratitude. I have failed and succeeded. Through that time, I've become acutely aware that I am very much a work in progress. And, as more of my life finds itself in the rearview mirror, it is interesting to see how events and people and circumstances have shaped that work.

Instead of "Forty" being an "F word" that makes me cringe and obsess over every gray hair along my temples (actually, I like my gray hairs and admire them as little badges of honor) or sun spot on my legs, I'm embracing the change and I'm determined to make this new decade the best one yet. With that in mind, I have come up with three "F" concepts about which I have learned a lot in my thirties and that I hope will continue to be areas of growth for me over the next ten years.

Friendship

I lost a couple of really important friendships while in my thirties, ones for which I still grieve. I accept a majority of the blame for their disintegration and I recognize the primary reason it happened. When I am hurt or I know I have hurt others, I pull away. It's easier than having those tough conversations. It's also incredibly immature. The loss of those relationships has helped me to improve who I am as a friend, both in being more conscious of not hurting someone for whom I care in the first place and by being willing to talk it out if tension does arise. But I wish I did not have to lose some important people in order to get there.

I've also come to experience friendships that are deeper and more treasured than at any other point in my life. From the girlfriends who hung out in a hospital waiting room all night while I delivered my son to friends at work who make me laugh until I cry multiple times a week to the friend who came up to me when I was sobbing the day I filed for divorce and said, "I don't know what to say, but I'm going to stand right here with you" to the single mom squad on my block, I could not be more fortunate concerning the chosen village that surrounds my family. I've learned that being a good and reliable friend, one who does not judge but offers her honest opinion, one who wants to share the happy moments with you and will not run away from the hard ones, one who will find a way to be there for you at 2:00am, is one of the most important jobs a person can have.

I still have a long way to go to become the friend to others that I wish to be. But I'm glad that my thirties taught me how crucial true friendship is and what it should look like. And I am thankful EVERY DAY for the friends in my life. I treasure their love and support and strive to be more like them.

Forgiveness

Making the decision to forgive has brought such peace as my thirties draw to a close. I am no longer angry about parts of my childhood that did not look exactly as I would have hoped. What's the point in that? I can't change them. I have forgiven stuff (that's as eloquently as I can express myself here because "stuff" is as much detail as I ever plan to publish about something so personal) that happened in my marriage. My ex-husband comes to our daughter's softball games, and there were other parents who, even at the end of the season, thought we were still married because we are able to sit next to one another and support our girl. There is peace, and that comes by choice.

I've learned that harboring anger has very little impact on the person who is causing me pain, but it sure does get in the way of being happy and content. That doesn't mean that I don't have flares of anger when I feel that I or someone I love has been wronged. I just don't let myself stay there anymore.

Also, I've forgiven myself, for choices I've made, for not valuing myself for way too long, and for not always being the person I wanted to be in the past, as I realized I needed to free myself from that guilt in order to move forward and be a better person tomorrow.

Fear

Over the past decade, I have known people my age who have died from cancer and heart attacks and tragic accidents, leaving behind spouses and young children. I have grieved with people who have buried children. I have watched with horror the news coverage of natural disasters and terrorists' atrocities. Instead of making me worry more about the many threats that surround us every day, these events have led me to worry less. Living in fear would not have prevented that tumor or that other driver from crossing the yellow line or stopped a person intent on violence. But it would have taken up room in the brain that is better reserved for joy and laughter. I don't want to dwell on all of the "what ifs" of life instead of enjoying the moment right now that I've been given. Of course, I still try make smart decisions and strive to have a lifestyle that keeps me healthy and reasonably safe; I just have come a long way in not focusing on and wringing my hands over what I cannot control.

I've also realized that fear is a bunch of hype. It makes headlines and sells books. It tells us to tether our kids and lock ourselves inside our homes and not trust the stranger walking down the street, but it's largely fiction. I've learned that most people are good and most places are safe and the worst possible scenario is hardly the most likely one.

Finally, I've freed myself from a lot of fear because I faced some scary stuff over the past ten years and come out on the other side stronger, from single parenting to health concerns that dragged on without answers to confronting difficult people. I can look at most challenges now and think, "Remember what you did back then? You've totally got this one as well."

I'm excited to start my forties not feeling afraid of what may, or may not, come next.

So, good night, thirties. You've been filled with some difficult lows but more spectacular highs. You made me a mom. You developed me into someone with whom I enjoy spending time. You've introduced me to people who have made my life so much richer and more fun. You have matured me and softened me and strengthened me. Thank you for all of your lessons. I won't miss you, because my focus is strictly on moving forward. But, I love what you were to me and will carry you with me always.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Per's Gifting Day


 
I won’t pretend that I knew her well. I met Persephonee one time, last summer in Minnesota. She was the daughter of my brother-in-law Karl’s close friend. She splashed around in the lake as I talked with her mom about how she was so excited to start kindergarten in a few weeks. I watched Persephonee that day--beautiful and energetic and happy--and thought that my son, who is almost exactly her age, would have a lot of fun playing with her. I mentioned that maybe next summer I could bring my kids and they all would play together.
Last week, Persephonee was a healthy five-year-old girl. Tonight and into the early hours of the morning, her parents will be offering the gift of life to other children through the donation of their daughter’s organs. They are calling it “Per’s Gifting Day.”
On Saturday night, Persephonee was having trouble breathing. Her parents took her to the ER early Sunday morning, where she was given some steroids and a nebulizer and then sent home when her breathing improved. Doctors assumed she had croup and that the steroids and some fresh air would help. That night, the difficulty with her breathing returned and then she couldn’t swallow. Her mom called 911. Persephonee lost consciousness and her dad performed CPR. While the ambulance arrived within four minutes, it took the EMTs twenty minutes to bring back any signs of life. By then, her brain had lost too much oxygen.
Doctors have determined that Persephonee had an infection called streptococcus pneumoniae, which is a type of strep not detected on the standard throat culture she had on her first trip to the ER. The strep bacteria led to bacterial tracheitis, a rare condition that swells and ultimately blocks the airway.
Persephonee’s parents, Amee and Chris, have spent the past few days cuddling in bed with her while machines keep her breathing. They made family handprints. They are telling stories. They are welcoming a lot of visitors. They have asked people to share photographs of Persephonee and send her thoughts of love.
I have cried a lot for Amee, for Persephonee. It’s not fair. It’s awful. I’ve just been doing my best to send virtual hugs from one mom to another, reaching from Tennessee to Minnesota. Putting myself in the position of holding my own five-year-old and getting no response, of clinging to my son for the last time before releasing him to perform a beautiful act of giving that will save others and afford reprieve from pain for other parents. Thinking what it would be like to watch people walk around me as if life was normal and wanting to scream, “Stop! Why are you acting like the world is the same today as it was yesterday when EVERYTHING has changed?!”
Of course, I have no idea what their pain actually feels like. I will not insult them to insinuate I even have the first clue. I can't imagine.
Amee and Chris have asked that people say their daughter’s name often today. Persephonee. They want her to leave this world surrounded by people thinking about her. Maybe whisper it in your prayers tonight. Tell your kids about her—about how she loved Frozen and kindergarten and McDonald’s French fries and singing and learning. Send thoughts of love and comfort to her and her parents. Persephonee. Read what her parents have written over the past couple of days as they reach out in shock and grief and love to tell others about their daughter.
Persephonee – Thank you. Because of you, I have hugged my kids more this week. I have been reminded of how precious they are, of how precious and fragile life is. You’ve also reminded me not to worry so much, because what good does it do? We are not in control. Your parents did not cause this to happen through any action or inaction on their part. So instead of worrying, we should embrace the wonder and the simple joys, much like I saw you doing on that beautiful day at the lake last August. Thank you for saving the lives of other boys and girls with the strong body that you leave behind. I trust you soon will be enveloped in peace and laughter and beauty and that you will be playing with other children who are no longer hurting here in this world. I hope to go to Minnesota this summer and bring my kids this time. I will show them where I met you and where you splashed in the lake. And I hope your mom is there again so that I can hug her, because even though I only met her once, that is all I want to do right now.
To everyone else -- Hug your kids. Tell them you love them. Play a game with them. Do something silly. Reach out to friends who are grieving, no matter the reason. Remind them that are not alone, because they likely feel so lost and lonely. And, if you aren’t already, please follow the lead of Persephonee and her parents and make sure you are identified as an organ donor if that moment ever comes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Vanderbilt Rape Trial

GUILTY

I don't know how much national attention this story has received, so I will begin with a quick summation. Earlier today, two former Vanderbilt football players (kicked off the team and subsequently expelled from school as soon as the allegations surfaced) were found guilty of aggravated rape and several other charges. Two of their teammates await trial for the same crimes.

In June 2013, an intoxicated Brandon Vandenburg carried an unconscious woman back to his dorm room and then invited several of his similarly drunk friends over. What happened next was horrible and it was documented. Photos and videos were sent by these four men to their friends across the country while the crime was still being committed. The woman has no recollection of the events of that night and only learned what happened several days later. The Nashville media has covered this case well and respectfully, so plenty of articles are available if you wish to learn more.

I have been disturbed by multiple aspects of the case:

1. The four football players directly involved in the rape. They claim that they were too drunk to be held accountable for their actions. They have little to no recollection of the events of that night. They never would have done the things that they did if they had been sober. Here's what I think. While I have no doubt that alcohol impaired their judgment, it did not change their core character. They were entitled athletes with no respect for women or the notion of consensual sexual activity and who believed they could get away with anything. That truth had to be embedded in the marginally functioning parts of their brains in order for them to take part in the events of that evening. They now will have at least fifteen years in prison to come to terms with the fact that their status on campus could not protect them from the consequences of their depravity.

2. The bystanders. The trial revealed that several students saw the half naked woman lying in a dorm hallway and did nothing to help. Vandenburg's roommate witnessed the four assailants with the victim, but turned over in his bed and pretended to be asleep. Vandenberg sent photos to high school friends in California . . . while the rape was still occurring. I don't understand. Yell! Call the police! Physically remove the perpetrators, or do your best to try! Do something. I find these men almost as disgusting as the rapists. The "bro code" of not interfering with another guy's sexual activity, the fear about getting involved, the callous lack of humanity -- all of it makes no sense to me. They are guilty, too.

3. Other rape victims. I know that these crimes made headlines in Nashville every day because the case involved Division I football players. The story also made news because the woman who was the victim of these crimes was brave enough and felt supported enough to come forward. We would be fools to think that this same kind of behavior doesn't occur on college campuses every weekend. And how many women blame themselves or worry about the backlash or believe the school and media will just protect the criminal (see Florida State)? I hope that one good result of this tragedy is that the strength of this female college student to sit in that courtroom every day, mere feet from those who assaulted her, in order for justice to be served will give voice to other women who have been victimized.

4. Coach James Franklin. When this story broke, Franklin's attitude with the media was arrogant and dismissive. He never once came out with forceful and angry language to condemn this behavior. He was not forthcoming about what he knew and when he knew it. He is not a leader. He's despicable. I hope he finds no success with his new job at Penn State. And, seriously, Penn State . . . this is the guy you chose to be at the helm of your team in an effort to make a fresh start from your own ugly headlines?

5.  Drinking. The defense attorneys tried to argue that Vanderbilt created a culture of excessive drinking and sexual promiscuity. The argument didn't work, and it shouldn't have. That being said, the goal that so many college students have to go out every weekend and get trashed to the point of blacking out is sad and dangerous. Why would you purposefully consume alcohol to a level at which you have little to no control over your actions and may not even remember them the next day? I know this has always been a part of college life; I've seen it and I'm sure my parents did before me. But even just twenty years later, it seems different somehow . . . more detached and more attention-seeking and more fueled by the inhumanity afforded by technology and the anonymity of social media in detailing exploits. I already talk to my children about alcohol. They know what it is and, generally speaking, what the negative consequences can be. My daughter is nine . . . she is not more than a couple of years away from being around kids who will start to experiment with drinking. I'm not waiting until then to start a conversation.

That being said . . .

6. Teaching my daughter. I struggle here. Every time I think about talking to my daughter about making smart choices when it comes to alcohol and the people with whom she socializes, I worry that I'm dancing awfully close to blaming the victim. But I'm not. My daughter always will know that there is NO EXCUSE for anyone touching her without her consent. But I think it also is OK for her to know that she is smart and independent and capable of making decisions for herself. And those decisions need to include having people with you whom you trust to look out for your safety and best interests should you end up drinking in a way that compromises your own judgment or even just going somewhere unfamiliar. My daughter also, sadly, needs to know that making all of the right choices doesn't always matter. The victim in this case had been dating Vandenburg. She assumedly trusted him not to cheer on his friends as they raped her after a night of drinking. In that most awful of scenarios, my daughter must know that a woman's voice matters and that victims have a community and a justice system standing with them that will not endorse or ignore rape culture.

7. Teaching my son. I cannot imagine being the mother of one of those two men who were walked out of the courtroom and into custody today. My heart breaks for them. They had to sit for days and listen to graphic testimony and see photos and videos of their sons doing atrocious things. They learned about how their sons lied and asked others to lie in the days that followed. I don't have the answers as to what these moms could have done differently, if anything, to prevent their sons from doing these crimes. But I do know what I am instilling in my son, and I hope it makes a difference. You respect women. You intervene when you see someone hurting a woman. You help another person in need. Now, I don't expect a five year old to physically confront an attacker, of course, but I can have discussions with him now about the kind of young man I expect him to be so that hopefully when is eighteen, he will stand up and do the right thing.

The whole case is sad. I'm even a little sad for the two men convicted today. Don't get me wrong. I am pleased with the guilty verdicts and that they will have many deserved years in prison. But I'm sad about who they are and that they functioned every day viewing both women and themselves in the way that they did.

The victim in this case offered a powerful statement through her attorney once the trial ended, telling other women that they are not alone and they are not to blame. It is up to all of us to make sure those words ring true.