Wednesday, February 24, 2021

2300 Days (Subtitle - Embracing My People and My Place)

We are all human. Therefore, we all have some wonderful traits and some areas of ourselves that could use improvement. Here is my confession concerning the latter: When I get upset or just don't know how to deal with a situation, I become a hermit. I shut down. I close in my walls. I try to block out what is bothering me but at the expense of also keeping out the good stuff I need to have around me. The lyrics from "I Am a Rock" by Simon and Garfunkel start to sound appealing. I've been going through one of those spells recently. 

The truth is I've felt uncomfortable in my surroundings for the past year. I started looking at houses in other parts of the country. I even looked at the process for transplanting to another country altogether. I asked my kids how they would feel about moving. I called a couple of friends back in DC about possible jobs. And recently while out walking my dogs through our neighborhood, I did some mental math and realized I have approximately 2300 days until my son graduates from high school. I thought, "OK. I can make it that long. I will go to work and take care of my kids and read books and this will be fine."

For the rest of that night, I couldn't shake the fact that I was trying to convince myself to survive more than two thousand days before I could find a place to be happy. How twisted. 

I've tried to determine the genesis of my growing discomfort. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with politics. Some of it has to with the pandemic, which ultimately has to do with politics. Maybe it's realizing that I only have a few years left with my kids in the house and I'm second guessing every decision I've made for our family up to this point. Maybe I'm frustrated that I've only seen my parents once in the past year and a half. It could be that I've never really fit in with the cool moms in town. Part of it is that I'm romanticizing the incredibly diverse, large city environment in which I grew up and I'm worried my children are missing out. It could be that for years my kids and I spent a lot of time with a wonderful church family and now we don't really experience that anymore and that has led to more isolation. Could it be that my kids are older and don't spend that much time with me so my aloneness is more glaring than it was a few years ago?

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons for my discontent, the day after I actually counted the days until my son will be an adult was the day I realized that I needed to change my mindset. Because I was being dismissive of the wonderful people who surround my family and care for us every day. I was focused on what wasn't working instead of turning toward the many ways I have opportunities to be part of a community. I was becoming so consumed with fueling my own pity (gross) and focused on what wasn't working well that I could not see how fortunate I am.

As my daughter, who at fifteen often has more confidence and sense of self than I do at forty-five, tells me when I share my worries with her about how my beliefs are different than many others around us or I feel strongly about an issue that others dismiss, "Mom, don't worry about the opinions or the judgments of those who are not your people. The ones you seem to worry about the most? Not your people. Waste of energy. Spend time with your people."

She's right. I'm somehow raising a pretty incredible and insightful young woman. While I shouldn't ignore what I see as injustices or stark differences in ideologies when they affect my family or community, I also shouldn't let it bother and consume me as much as it does. I shouldn't give other people that much power. It stops me from allowing joy and happiness in the space I inhabit right now. 

Last week, my son was having a rough time. A friend took hours away from his own family on a weekend to treat him to rock climbing and lunch. The next day, that same friend came over again just to check on my son and sit with him a while longer. When my son needed help talking through a problem a couple of days ago, I knocked on my neighbor's door. He came right over and pulled a chair up close to my kid, looked him in the eyes, and spoke quietly with him for a half hour. There are a couple of dads from my girl's softball team who think of her like a daughter. They build her up and hold her accountable and look out for her. The attorneys at my office are like brothers to me. I can ask them advice about parenting or my health or home repairs and I get honest feedback from a place of caring and friendship. I could give so many more examples. These men? My people.

I have girlfriends who I can trust to be there for anything I need. We've walked with each other through births and deaths and divorces and diapers and college admissions essays. I can cry around them. I can tell them my fears as a parent or when my kids have done something that isn't worthy of a shiny social media caption without feeling embarrassed. I don't care (mostly) how my house looks when they visit. A few days ago, one of them brought me a beer as we stood on top of a hill and watched our kids sled. And we laughed together until my stomach hurt. More than decade ago, one of them offered me a bed when my marriage was falling apart and that same year a group of them held vigil at the hospital as I went into labor. We celebrate each other's joys and successes and hold one another through tragedy and confusion. I could give so many more examples. These women? My people.

And the thing is, the longer I spend thinking about all of the amazing people who are a part of my life every day, the more I realize that I'm being ungrateful and shortchanging myself on a lot of joy if I focus on what doesn't look as I hoped it would be. From neighbors to coaches to teachers to friends to the best co-workers imaginable, I have so many reasons to be content right here, right where I am today. Changing zip codes is not going to do a single thing to make me happier if I cannot make focusing on the good of primary importance no matter where I am. I hereby commit to immerse myself more in my current tribe, to expand my tribe, and to release myself from those who may not belong with me but who make beautiful members in other tribes.  

Will I still move someday? It's quite possible. After all, there is a big world out there and want to immerse myself in more of it. I may decide for a dozen different reasons that my kids would flourish better elsewhere in the next few years. Life may hand me circumstances I cannot begin to imagine. But in the meantime, I need to honor and embrace where I am and who is with me while I'm here. I'm responsible for that - for finding my happiness with my people. And for doing a better job of letting them know that I love them and appreciate them and that they are way more than enough to stop me from the absurd intention of marking the next 2300 days off on a calendar. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Homecoming Dress

My freshman year of high school, I was not really plugged into what one was supposed to wear to a homecoming dance. So, my mom took me to some store inside Laurel Mall and I picked out a plaid skirt and a black wool cardigan that had trim to match the skirt. When I arrived at the school, I soon realized that my chosen outfit did not align with the general understanding of "semi-formal." So, I spent most of the evening sitting at a hidden table just outside of the cafeteria with my friend who also had dressed much more casually than most of our peers.

You could argue that my friend and I could have been more confident and walked into the cafeteria to enjoy that dance no matter what we were wearing. And, your point would be a valid one. I would hope my own daughter would have marched onto that tiled floor, started dancing to "Miss You Much" by Janet Jackson, and within a half hour have everyone there convinced that they should have worn a cardigan. But, my friend and I were very shy fourteen-year-old girls who had taken a big swing and miss at our first major social event for high school We chose to lick our adolescent wounds in the shadows while others slow danced to Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart."

The following year, surprisingly undeterred, I asked my mom to take me shopping for homecoming again. This time, I picked out a black velvet number that I knew would make me blend in more on that cafeteria dance floor. And even though it cost more than any any dress worn by a sophomore in high school should, my mom bought it for me. This was unusual, as my mother was not one to encourage spending a lot of money on clothes or other such things. But she must have realized that the dress had more of a meaning for me. 

I loved that dress. After stopping with my girlfriends for Frostys at Wendy's, as pictured below, we headed to school and enjoyed Homecoming 1990. I stayed in the cafeteria the whole time. I remember doing the Electric Slide and dancing with a senior to "Humpty Dance." 

An interesting twist, though, is I never really cared about having a fancy dress again. My junior year, my friends and I opted to dress up in togas and go bowling on homecoming instead of going to the dance. I don't remember what I did senior year. Perhaps another member of the ERHS Class of 1993 can remind me. As for senior prom, I went my junior year because my boyfriend at the time was a senior and my senior year I went with a friend and we hung out in a big group the whole night, Both times, I wore lovely dresses sewn by my mom. Maybe I grew more confident in myself and with my friends and didn't need that expensive black velvet dress anymore.

But I've been thinking about that sophomore year dress a lot this past week. That was an indulgent treat that I still remember as being so special thirty years later. Or the times that my mom drove me to Peoples Drug so I could get the new issues of Teen Beat and Tiger Bear the days they hit the stands. That didn't cost her any money, but it still was indulgent. Or when she surprised me on my walk home from school in first grade with some snacks at a picnic table that I passed every day. (Because in 1981 kids were allowed to walk the mile and a half home by themselves, as it should be.) 

My two children have struggled during the pandemic, both in different ways. I don't want to write more about that now, but perhaps will someday when the feelings and the difficulties are not so tender and fresh. But I want to make sure they have some of those memories of indulgences to break up the nearly year-long lack of structure and time with friends and normal kid stuff. It could be the three-mile run I took with my son just to enjoy some new scenery and talk. Or it could be the special decorations I bought for my daughter's room because she spends so much time in there. Or the night we bought a bunch of junk food and slept in the tent in our backyard. Maybe it is spending a bit more money than I would have and surprising my son with a particular hoodie he's been wanting for a long time. 

It doesn't need to be a black velvet homecoming dress. But while I do have expectations for my kids' behavior and I never want them to expect a "yes" to their every request, it is fun to surprise and indulge from time to time. Especially during a period when so much has been taken from them.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

When It's All My Daughter Knows

I have a confession. Before I voted for Joe Biden in November 2020, the last time I voted for a Democrat to be president was in 1996. It's hard to admit that in the environment of 2021, considering what the Republican Party has become. I feel no connection to a party that now ignores rule of law and mocks science and gives oxygen to conspiracy theories and lies and wants to tear us apart. The Republicans I voted for at one time barely resemble whatever it is that the party is now. And that is difficult to explain to my daughter. (I haven't even told her that I once met Sean Hannity. I think I've tried to block that moment out because that's just gross.)

My fifteen-year-old equates voting for a Republican with endorsing Trump. And her perspective is understandable. Trump became president when she was ten years old, which is right around the age when I started gaining a real interest in politics. Trump is really all she knows in any meaningful way of leadership in the Oval Office and of Republicans. And that's unfortunate. 

I tell my daughter that for most of my life, Democrats and Republicans have been able to disagree on the size of the social safety net or our responsibilities abroad or the definitions of crimes and punishments, but that these were policy discussions that took place inside the assumption that all participants valued our republic and had its best interests at heart. I tell her that policy differences and debates are a good thing and they have helped our country evolve and become stronger over the past 200+ years. But healthy debate and a preeminent emphasis on the Constitution and a belief in the innate goodness of people - none of that existed during the Trump administration. There has been no example for my kids to witness. 

I try to explain to her that Trump is not a Republican by traditional definition. I tell her that former national Republican leaders like Reagan and Bush and McCain and state leaders here in Tennessee like Thompson and Frist and Corker were nothing like what Trump and his adherents represent now. I tell her that there are many others like me who voted for Republicans in the past but who are greatly troubled by what the GOP has become. I'm friends with many fellow voters who don't recognize the party we once, at least sometimes, found cause to support - and we lament together often!

I want my daughter to know that I voted for Republicans or Libertarians to be president because that is what my reading of the Constitution and my understanding of our nation's structure prescribed. Small and limited government in DC with state and local officials making their own decisions about the role that government should play in healthcare, education, the arts, infrastructure, wealth redistribution, and so on. That's federalism, after all. 

I also want my daughter to know that the disintegration of the Republican Party into what we see today started when she was a toddler with a woman named Sarah Palin. Palin's nomination was a move that John McCain did not want and I believe always regretted. Palin fed an undercurrent of fear and anger that existed in the souls of many in our country and that finally was brought out of hiding. Palin ushered in the Tea Party who then laid out the red carpet for Trump. In all instances, in that continuum from Palin to Trump, the bend was towards authoritarianism and dismantling of a free republic in the name of "patriotism," which always has been so disturbing and sad to me. Many Republicans discovered that playing to our worst instincts was an effective way to get elected and gain power and now we have representatives like Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene to prove it. I explain all of this to my daughter. 

Now, I need my daughter to know, the only way I ever will vote for a Republican candidate again is if he or she has disavowed Trump and all the damage he tried to inflict on our Constitution and our freedoms. Such politicians are out there, but sadly their numbers are not large. The work that politicians like Rep. Adam Kinzinger in Pennsylvania and Governor Larry Hogan in Maryland are doing to rehabilitate the Republican Party is important. But only time will tell if it bears any fruit. I'm not betting on it. At least not when half of the GOP caucus just yesterday gave a standing ovation to an anti-Semite who believes school shootings are staged and that Muslims shouldn't be allowed to serve in Congress. 

President Biden isn't awesome. He's not the great political savior for our country. But if nothing else, I'm hoping that his term in office will offer my kids a sense of what it can be like to have valid policy disagreements that don't devolve into name calling. That they can see two parties with fundamental differences but with members who want to compromise. I dream that my kids can see political relationships like the one between Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s - the politics that I saw when I was their age. Or maybe, at the very least, they just can appreciate a few years of the machinations in DC being boring again. 

Is anyone else out there struggling to convince their children that politics used to be different? Does anyone else get the "Ugh, how could you?" reply if you mention your previous voting decisions, because what that vote means now is different than what it represented twenty or thirty years ago? 

Here's a photo of me at age twenty displaying excellent posture (while still wearing my coat for some reason) at my White House internship in the Communications Office. I regret that I am wearing white nylons. I'm sure there are some juicy Clinton secrets on those post-it notes. It was a year after this that I would cast my last vote for a Democrat to be president until I did so once again several months ago. The fresh-faced college kid you see here believed in the goodness of both political parties. Will my daughter be able to feel the same in five years?