Monday, October 2, 2017

The Importance and Tragedy of Children in a Crisis

I am going to organize my thoughts from today as best as I can...bear with me, and please join the conversation if your experience echoes mine.

I have worked with children for many years. I've coached children through various crises, from school shootings (school-aged kiddos) to the loss of a parent to changing teachers to name it. I've dug deep into how children engage with trauma and grief and while it's not a topic I enjoy talking with kids about, I feel it has made me a stronger teacher, leader, and person as a result.

Today was different.

Maybe it's the anonymity, the distance, the far-flung consequences of the deaths of people they don't know and never will know. Maybe the abstract idea of guns, something they are familiar with but don't quite understand. Whatever the case, today I struggled with this crisis as a parent and as an educator in ways I never have before.

It started with my daughter. My boyfriend gave me a warning before he left for work this morning (I stayed home with June because she was sick this weekend) that something terrible happened in Las Vegas and he couldn't even bear to watch the news about it. Sick to his stomach. So I left the TV off. I checked social media and felt his tremblings; it was atrocious. I let Juniper watch all the ridiculous shows on Netflix she wanted, but I kept noticing that people and animals were dying in these shows - Pocahontas II, the English have guns and the Native People have bows and arrows and they battle. Then she started watching this show about a cheetah cub and his parents, and the dad got shot by a land developer as the animals were passing through a building site.

My anger increased and I became incensed. Why was my child being bombarded with this imagery after I'd so carefully protected her (and myself) from the news? Gun violence, in a child's television show? I felt ill. So I made an appointment to donate blood, partly to get out of the house and partly to feel like I was doing something, and we headed out.

Donating blood felt good, but I didn't feel like June understood the gravity of what I/we were doing. I explained to her in 'kid speak' that there are bad people in this world and we can't always tell they're bad. I explained to her that guns can kill animals but they can kill people too, and she asked me incredulously if there are 'actually people who use guns to kill other people.' I somberly answered yes, and told her about Las Vegas (using safe words) and that some people died and some were injured and that's why I was donating blood. I explained to her what it means for me to have O Negative blood and how I can help everyone, and maybe someday she can, too. I felt a glimmer of hope when she said she would donate blood when she has children so she can take them to learn how to do it, too.

I volunteer at an organization called Circles that helps to lift people out of poverty and teaches them methods for saving and spending to help them learn new habits. I'm the youth program coordinator, so I work there every Monday night with the children of parents and allies while their parents attend their workshop. I had 4 children tonight, ages 4 and 5. Our theme was goal-setting, and we were reading books about making wishes and setting goals and plans for ourselves.

First, we read a book about making wishes, and I realized quickly that this book was written by actual children, their wishes taken down and compiled by an adult. There were simple wishes, like "I wish I had a cat," and "I wish I could get a cool new pair of shoes," but then there were wishes like "I wish everyone has a place to sleep tonight," and "I wish everyone would be kind all the time." I'm sitting here, reading this book to these sweet babes, these young, tiny humans who have not yet been crushed by the unrelenting blows of this world, reading to them about their peers wishing for homelessness to end. Their sweet eyes never left the page, and they contributed their own wishes at the end of the book. Simple wishes, again, about dogs and babies and shoes. I said, "I wish for peace," and they asked me what that meant.

I couldn't even answer them. I finally choked out, "This is peace," and wrapped my arms around their tiny bodies in a hug I was sure might take their breaths away. Looking into their big, unadulterated eyes, I caught a glimpse of something I am reminded of only when working with children: true hope. I've stopped looking for hope in grown humans. We only see the darkness, and even if there is hope, it's clouded, like the sun trying to push through rainclouds on a stormy day. The eyes of tiny humans light up like gems when you read to them, color with them, play with them, dance with them, sing with them - all that beauty that life stifles out of adults as we grow is still deeply present within them. That's what I saw in Juniper when we talked about donating blood when she has children - hope. She's not thinking about what school she's going to send her kids to, or what religion she might subscribe to, or how mass shootings may have increased by the time she has kids. No, she is thinking only of teaching them, demonstrating to them how to save a life.

The tragedy of children in a crisis is that their grief is untouchable and unknowable. Children will weep, yes, to be sure. They will curl up in your arms and let themselves sag into your chest, that safe place where the monsters cannot get in. They will hurt, and they will show it in the worst ways - sleepless nights, sassiness, anger, picky eating, not speaking...they don't yet know how to manage their pain. They don't know how to regulate the way we do. They don't understand compartmentalization. So they will mourn, sometimes for 10 minutes and sometimes for 10 days and sometimes for 10 years, but not like grown humans. That's the tragedy; we are taught, through years and burdens, how and when to grieve. We don't teach children to grieve because how can you teach a thing like that? So we let them, in their own way, on their watch, not ours, because it is the best thing you can do for a child.

The importance of children in a crisis is that moment when you look into their eyes and see their hope that gets slowly worn away with 9-5, panic-filled, worry-stricken, money-driven adulthood. It may feel selfish to slip away into those great big pools of hope, even for a time. You feel like you're stealing it. But they possess it in absolute abundance. Even the children who are homeless, heartbroken, hungry will still light up when you turn on music, or open the pages of a new story. They will lean into you for that kind of deep chest hug that breathes new life into your lungs. The tendrils of their hope will seep in through your pores; you will inhale it like an aroma and it will become a part of you, if only for a moment.

This beauty and tragedy exist together in children, which is perhaps the most beastly of all. We must handle them like fine china, but also like fresh clay.

Hug your children tonight. If you don't have a baby to hold, stop for a moment, dig into the recesses of your adult brain, and pull out whatever shards of hope you have left. Clasp them in your hands, feel their edges soften under your touch, and place them deep into your heart. Hold on. Feel the depths of hope caress your dark places, and stand renewed.

"There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings."
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Friday, March 24, 2017

Love and Time

Once upon a time, when I was young and sweet and foolish, I didn’t realize what death was. I recognized that it was the ending of life, but it felt so far away, like a vivid dream that you can’t quite remember. The ending of a life, yes, but what I couldn’t understand was that it was the ending of other things, bigger things, bigger than a life, maybe. Or the pieces of a life.
I did not realize this until it was happening to me.
Death is the ending of a motherhood, of a fatherhood. The ending of a marriage, a partnership, a relationship. The ending of a job, a career, a successful hobby. The ending of nights out with friends, of quiet cups of coffee on slow Sunday mornings. The end of feeding ducks, the end of walks in the moonlight, the end of lost keys and broken things and fights in the night. The end of the bad things and the good things.
How do we decide what to mourn? How do we know?
My initial instinct is to mourn the love lost, the unexpected pain of the end of that person’s embrace. I want to remember what that person’s smile looked like in a moment of incandescence. I want to remember what that person’s hand felt like in mine. I want to remember how it felt to look into that person’s eyes and feel known.
What I don’t think about as much is how much I valued — or didn’t value — the time spent with that person. Every single moment is a chance to feel someone, to know someone, to interact with, to understand, to love someone else. How much time do I spend every day doing things, things that don’t matter and won’t have any impact on the relationships I am developing with other people?
I remember sitting on the back deck, drinking whiskey and staring at the stars with the intention of a person who is trying to run as far away as possible. I couldn’t be inside, with the fingers of death raking over the carpet, ruining the furniture, slowly coloring everything around me. I couldn’t bear it. So I used my time selfishly trying to get away, to distract, to exist somewhere else. I may have succeeded, in that I didn’t feel as much pain in those drunken moments as I do now, reflecting on them.
How much time did I give you? Was it enough? Did I say all the things I should have said? Did I hold your hand enough? Did I tell you I loved you enough times for you to fully understand how much this ragged heart really loved you? Did I explain how you taught me to wait for good things? Did I encourage you enough as you made your way down that dark and dreadful road you didn’t choose? How much more time could I have given you? How many times could I have chosen you over my whiskey and starlight?
How much more time could I have given?
The answer is — never enough.
Even lovers in the throes of passion cannot give each other every moment of their time. Parents cannot give every second of their time to their children. Friends cannot spend all of their moments together. Time is a desperately hungry creature with an appetite and an agenda. We are entirely gilded yet also ensnared by time and her forever unsatiated desires. We will never get enough time, and even if we did, even if we had all the time in the world, we would squander and abuse it, because that is what we do with things.
Unless it is a thing that we love.
Love and Time dance like old lovers on the floor of our lives. We allow the things we love to dictate how our time is spent, and we use our time to do and be with the things we love. They are forever intwined and symbiotic. I believe we allow ourselves, our time and energy, to be dictated by what we love most. Parents prioritize their children, because they are created from love and our natural instinct is to love and protect them. Lovers long to spend time together, because it gives us space to show our love to one another.
The depth of love can be measured in units of time, and the breadth of time can be measured with the yardstick of love.
Love does not equal time. Time does not equal love. To confuse them is to trivialize them. They cannot replace one another, and they can’t be substituted.
If you’re going to be with a thing, be with it, fully and unabashedly. If you’re going to love a thing, love it with every bit and particle you have. Before you know it, your time will be gone, and all you will have left is the love you had for that person. Memories fade but somehow, the love stays as strong as the day it was realized.
Did I give you enough time? Maybe not as much as I should or could have, but I gave you every ounce of my love and that, I believe, may be enough.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Audacity of Self Care

I quit my job some weeks ago. Actually, it'll be a month, tomorrow. Without question, it's been one of the riskiest things I've ever done, primarily because I didn't quit this job to take another job. I quit this job because I wanted to take care of myself, and I'm still having a hard time believing that into existence.

Juniper was recently diagnosed with ADHD, and we're having her evaluated for Autism Spectrum Disorder and sensory disorders, among other things. As a parent, that's more than a little intimidating, because anything that's unknown is intimidating. I also wasn't sure how I was going to be present for her through all of that, because of how much I was working, and how much my job required of me - physically, emotionally, mentally. My job demanded at least 45 hours from me a week, but usually more like 50-55 hours a week. I would get home and toss scraps of myself to my family. I had crusts for Juniper when she deserves gourmet sandwiches. I would piss and moan to my boyfriend about nothing but the job, and my stress level was practically off the charts. None of that mattered, however, because MONEYCONSUMERISMBILLSMONEY. At least, I convinced myself it didn't matter.

I had something of an epiphany one day, when Juniper asked me when I was going to be happy again. Cue the knife in the heart. Besides the weekends, I saw my child perhaps 10 hours a week, and those hours were consumed with frustration and exhaustion because I took work home with me and would dish out my woes like dinner onto their plates. I was only half committed to anything else, driven mad by what I felt was a required allegiance to this vapid employment. When Juniper said those words to me, it was like all the gears in a machine shop grinding to a halt on Friday night when everyone was heading home. All of the pipes, all the connections in my brain, stopped instantly, and I just stared at her. I said, "Junie B, do you think I'm not happy?" She replied, "You're always angry and sad. You're always at work. I want you to be with me."

I put in my notice within days.

Now I'm unemployed, but damn, do I feel good. I have time to sit and snuggle Juniper in the morning, instead of yelling at her to "get her shoes on because we're late and how many times do I have to ask you to finish your breakfast?!" I have time to research recipes and make food that fulfills my creative longings and satisfies my family's hunger, instead of stuffing their faces with anger and stress. I'm sitting outside in the sun as I type this, not fielding phone calls with my shoulders already up to my ears and the work week hasn't even started yet. I'm making frayed ends meet, but now it's on my terms.

So why do I feel so lazy? So unmotivated? So helpless?

There is a school of thought that I have realized women buy into. We are frenzied trying to fill our time, because if we are viewed as doing 'nothing,' we are labeled as free-loaders; lazy women who sit and home and spend their savings or their husbands paychecks, useless to the world. Even stay-at-home moms serve on this committee and volunteer at that non-profit and sign their kids up for this event and that sport - fill the time, fill the time. Moments spent relaxing or sitting around are forbidden, because we have been led to believe that we must be productive at all costs.

Maybe it's because women make less than men, and are still viewed as 'lesser-than' in the business world, so our frenzy is a desperate attempt to prove to the men that we're just as busy and important as they are and we deserve as much. Maybe it's because stay-at-home moms want to be seen as just as productive as working moms (BELIEVE ME, I KNOW HOW HARD SAHM WORK, I was a SAHM - bear with me here) so we throw ourselves into anything with a sign-up sheet to show how dedicated and committed we are to this or that.

Maybe, it's because....we don't even know how to take care of ourselves. Self-care feels SO foreign. Why would I sit for hours and drink coffee when there's laundry to be done?! Why would I let you clean the car by yourself?! How can I possibly let you cook dinner without helping?! We slip into a modus of 'do-it-all-or-die-trying' and completely lose ourselves in the process.

I have said for many years, and probably to some of you reading this, "You can't pour from an empty cup." I can safely say that, while I was preaching this to others, I was certainly not practicing it myself. My cup has been empty for YEARS. I didn't have the money to fill it with anything (yoga, a wine club, a gym membership, a little trip alone) and even if I did, I didn't have the time. I would make due with a new dress from Goodwill or Target, splurge on a bottle of wine, do a yoga video I found on YouTube, or get some henna. Nothing permanent. Nothing that even made a dent. It was comparable to Cinderella trying to go to the ball in the dress after her step-sisters destroyed it. Like the meme of the dog sitting in the room on fire, saying, "This is fine."


Our bodies and our minds deserve so much more than a 10 minute yoga video once a month. We deserve more than a clearance dress that makes us feel pretty until our kid vomits on it or we spill on ourselves (inevitable). We deserve more than a bottle of wine that will be gone in an evening. We deserve hours to ourselves. We deserve hot coffee and yoga class and time with our friends and to sit and do nothing every now and then. Certainly more often than once a month.

Despite the fact that I am unemployed, and I am floundering and broke, I am going to take care of myself. It helps tremendously that I have a partner who encourages and fosters that, and I hope that you do, too. If you are taking care of any other living thing, even a pet, know that self-care isn't audacious. It is absolutely 100% necessary.

And so are you.