The blessing of a stranger

It didn’t take me long, once I moved to Silver Spring, to settle into a new morning walk routine. I change it up once in a while, but I tend to head into downtown more or less via the Whole Foods, then walk over to the Cameron/Spring St. garage, where I run/walk up the ramps, do a bunch of squats and stretches and stuff, and then jog down the stairs back out onto the streets to wend my way back home. I like heading for a garage because they’re a little closed off from some of the worst weather elements.

After a few days of this I noticed that there was a woman I often saw in the garage. The first thing I noticed was her car, because she drives an older RAV-4 that looks exactly like the one my Mom drove for like a decade. There are always people in this garage in the morning because it is across the street from an LA Fitness club, and people park in the garage and trudge over to the gym.

The thing about most of those people is, they look miserable. Probably a lot of it is that it’s very early – around 6 a.m. But this woman, who I regularly saw getting into or out of her RAV-4, always had a smile. Once in a while I saw her with another woman. After we saw each other a handful of times we started waving and saying “Good morning!” to each other cheerily.

On Wednesday last week, I was running a little late. I didn’t get over to the garage until 6:15 or so. As I jogged up the third-level ramp, I saw a familiar car driving down toward me. She slowed down and I raised my hand to wave. She rolled her window down and stopped the car, waving but also beckoning. I unplugged my ear buds and pulled them out of my ears, so they dangled over the zipped-up collar of one of my three layers of coats.

I walked over to the car as I removed my ear buds, but she’d started talking already so I held up a finger, smiling and holding up the buds once they were out. “Sorry, had to unplug!” I said, reaching her car.

She said she’d just wanted to say hello, and we laughed over the fact that we saw each other so often in the same place. She explained that she was a personal trainer, who sometimes took her clients to the gym next door.

“Oh, so that’s why I see you here with another woman sometimes, running and walking!” I said.

“Yes,” she said, in a pleasant accent that I want to say sounded Trinidadian to me, but that’s a pretty uneducated guess, “Sometimes I go to clients’ homes, sometimes we go on the track at the gym, and then walk over here afterward.”

I explained that I was out here for exercise too, that I didn’t go to the gym but walked every morning. She started talking about how the important thing was to go do it at all, and she thought it was great I was motivated enough to be out on a cold morning, and asked me several questions in quick succession: how long had I been doing it, what got me started, that sort of thing.

I looked at her friendly face and made a quick calculation. I am very aware that people who know me (hi, the five people who still read my blog!) have heard me talk about weight loss and the saving power of exercise PLENTY, but whenever I consider bringing it up with a stranger I try to calculate how it will be received. I don’t want it to sound like bragging or showing off, but sometimes it is very germane to the conversation. It didn’t take long to decide that this woman would probably like what I had to say.

“I’ve actually been doing this for years, and I’ve lost 110 pounds,” I began, and before I could say another thing I was interrupted by her exclamation of happiness, her joyous near-laughter. When I added that I had worked my way off of Type II diabetes medications, I thought she might cry. We talked a little more, about how important it is to live in your body as an ally, not as a hostile force, to take responsibility to care for yourself, and how wonderful it can feel to do so.

At last she asked me my name, and I felt a bit foolish for not offering it sooner. I learned that her name was Patricia. It was time for Patricia to move on into her day, for me to move on into mine. We’d only talked for five minutes or so, but I felt invigorated and refreshed even beyond what exercise usually does for me.

As we were saying our goodbyes, Patricia said “Bless you” several times. She expressed gratitude to me for sharing what I’d done, and I told her I thought that what she did to help others was wonderful too. Beaming happily at each other, we waved one last time and as she rolled up her window, she said, “God bless you, Jen. Really.”

And as she drove away, I said, “You too!” Sometimes I have real discomfort with saying things like “bless you” or “I’ll pray for you” because they sound hollow or cliched. But I did want to offer some sort of blessing to Patricia, as if it could be half as amazing as the one she gave to me. The blessing of human connection, of finding an ally in a stranger. She told me I had made her day, but I am pretty sure Patricia made my week.

January 18, 2015 · Jen · One Comment
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The Year in Selfies

On January 7, 2014 I went ahead and posted a selfie as part of the “#365feministselfie” project. I hadn’t started on the first. I knew I wouldn’t do it every day. But the more I thought about it the more I thought I’d like to give it a try.

First one!

First one!

Veronica Arreola kicked it off on her blog, but I read about it on Twitter. I remember all the fuss at the end of 2013, with “selfie” as the word of the year and the constant back and forth about whether they were good or bad. Because we still love that dualistic simplicity, don’t we?

I didn’t take my picture every day for a year. But I did take a LOT of pictures of myself. Sometimes it really felt ridiculous to keep posting them. (I participated primarily on Instagram and Twitter, though a few found their way to Facebook as well.) I wasn’t so much hamstrung by frustration with my appearance as I was with frustration over the sameness of my daily routine. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my daily routine. It makes me happy and comfortable and is good enough to keep me going on auto-pilot on those days when that’s all I can manage. But morning-walk selfies and office-selfies got real old, real fast. (I think I banned myself from office selfies sometime before we even reached mid-year.)

Sometimes I broke up the routine and had someone ELSE take the picture! Kim took this on my birthday. Thanks Kim!

Sometimes I broke up the routine and had someone ELSE take the picture! Kim took this on my birthday. Thanks Kim!

Selfies aren’t all good or bad, for me. Feeling confident in my appearance has been something I’ve struggled with for years, certainly. But in the last year or two I’ve struggled with something else. I feel better and more confident since losing so much weight of course – but I also feel far more attractive. I realize that plays into traditional notions of what is “expected” of women and that it shouldn’t be my concern, and that vanity…

SIGH. So I was value-judging myself for enjoying how I looked after doing a lot of work and losing a crap-ton of weight. Way to go, ME.

One thing I've always liked about myself: I look great in (most) hats.

One thing I’ve always liked about myself: I look great in (most) hats.

This isn’t a big end-of-2014 post, really. I write and reflect a lot during the year (home offline journal entry count for 2014: 102!) so doing some kind of public summation feels vaguely masturbatory.

Instead let me show you a bunch of pictures of myself! HA!

Sometimes I got fancy! (Not to mention sick of my own face!)

Sometimes I got fancy! (Not to mention sick of my own face!)

The biggest value of #365feministselfie to me, however, wasn’t increasing comfort with being proud of my appearance. It was the stories and pictures that cropped up every day with that hashtag. I made new friends, I laughed and cried, I cheered, I made judgments, I chided myself for making judgments and went back to just witnessing woman after woman feeling okay presenting herself to the world. (There was no gender restriction on the project whatsoever but statistically, the vast majority of participants identified as female.)

Yes I even did the bathroom selfie thing. Look a lot of selfies were involved here.

Yes I even did the bathroom selfie thing. Look a lot of selfies were involved here.

A couple years back – 2008, I think? – I was in a terrible community theater production of a terrible play called Big Bucks. I played the wife of the main character, Buck (see what they…nevermind). In 2008 I was at sort of a midpoint on my weight-loss journey, down significantly from my top adult weight but still 60 or 70 pounds heavier than today’s fighting weight. One day during rehearsal, I was waiting behind one of the set doors for a cue, and the guy who played Buck had to walk past me to get to the other side of backstage. It was tight back there so I squished myself into that doorway as much as I possibly could, self-conscious. “It’s all right, you aren’t THAT big!” said my gruff and good-natured stage husband, thus making me want to curl the rest of the way into a fetal position. He really was an affable dude and meant it in a “don’t be so hard on yourself!” way but I took it the same way I take the reactions I sometimes get to being carded: “Damn, girl, you don’t look THAT old!”

Thanks?!

THIS one is gonna be an author photo some day, my hand to God.

THIS one is gonna be an author photo some day, my hand to God.

Anyway, in 2008 I was still battling with deep shame at the amount of space I took up in the world. I still don’t have a good or accurate sense of quite how much room my physical body takes up. But whatever happens to my physical stature, I don’t want to shrink like that ever again. The magic of #365feministselfie was, to me, all sorts of women saying “This is me, taking up room in the world, because it’s okay. In fact it’s okay if I take up MORE room. It’s okay that I let you know that I’m here, and not hiding, and not ashamed.”

Last one, in this morning's early light. No fuss, no filters, just me.

Last one, in this morning’s early light. No fuss, no filters, just me.

December 31, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Jingle bell cat

It’s been an appallingly long time since I updated the blog. Sure, I moved. Sure, I had a semester of work to finish. Sure, the holidays. Sure…hey, I guess that’s why I haven’t updated.
Today my friend Laura and I were asked to share reflections on the theme of “bells” – she shared hers on her blog (see link above!) so I thought I would share mine.

It’s my intention to write here more in 2015. I’ve felt hamstrung by all the weighty topics in the news and on my mind, but I think there’s room for funny things as well. And ruminations. And just plain more sharing here. So let’s start with this silly story, which will actually be pretty familiar to folks who’ve known me a while. I’ve been telling it since 2001, after all.

 

Jingle Bell Cat

 

Throughout most of the ‘80s and ‘90s, my parents hosted an annual Christmas Tree Trimming party at our house in mid-December. We asked guests to bring an ornament for our tree, in the hopes that people would not arrive laden with cookies and fruitcakes and candies and other holiday treats. So year after year, we’d welcome people and their ornaments with open arms…even though many of them still brought unwelcome snacks.

 

This meant a wide array of ornaments on our tree year after year: some we would change up, some were perpetual favorites, some seemed to get broken awfully quickly, and some achieved a permanent spot in the display.

In 1988 we received a small stuffed cat ornament. It was actually a toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal – a tie-in with the Disney movie Oliver & Company (which I will admit I’ve never actually seen). The ornament came equipped with a little chip inside, so that if you gave Oliver’s tummy a gentle squeeze, the chip would beep out a merry, tinny version of “Jingle Bells.”

Even though I hadn’t seen the movie, I sure do love cats – and so does everyone in my family, so the Oliver ornament made his way onto our Christmas tree year after year. We would dig him out of the box, press his tummy, let him play “Jingle Bells” and hang him on the tree.

When my dad retired, they decided to stop bothering with the tree-trimming party. It was nice, but it was a lot of work, and we’d already broken or just plain thrown away more ornaments than could decorate a squadron of trees. In 2001, we had our first “family-only” tree-trimming in nearly 20 years.

When I had moved out of my parents’ house in the mid-90s, I’d taken a few ornaments that had been given specifically to me over the years, by my friends or family friends or relatives. That Christmas of 2001, we faced boxes and boxes of ornaments – many more than would fit on a single tree. So as we weeded through the ornaments, we made three piles: ones to keep, ones to discard, and ones that I or my brother and his family wanted to bring to our own trees.

Little Oliver came out of the box looking as lively and squish-able as he ever had. So of course I pressed his tummy, awaiting that merry, tinny version of “Jingle Bells.”

Instead, I got a terrific monotonal beeping, almost like a low hum but far, far more annoying. If you kept pressure on the chip inside the ornament, it might warble out a few notes – or at least change tone! – but left on its own, it just made consistent machine noise. It was funny at first. But it quickly became clear that the monotone was going to go on much longer than the time the chip would ordinarily take to play “Jingle Bells,” and the family was on the verge of throwing it out. Or taking a hammer to it.

“No, no,” I said, “I’m curious now. I want to see how long it can beep.” So I took the unquiet ornament and buried it inside my heavy coat pocket, under my mittens, hanging on the coat rack by the door. We couldn’t hear it when it was muffled over there, so we went about trimming the tree, joking about the old ornaments, sharing a meal and a warm cup of cider… And when we were all packing up and getting ready to leave, I went over to my coat and dug out the little cat ornament. Still beeping! My nephews, who at the time were 9 and 5 years old, thought this was the funniest thing in the WORLD. They couldn’t stop giggling, especially when I would squeeze tightly to the little chip inside the cat and it would beep out a few garbled notes from “Jingle Bells” before going back to the monotonal buzz. I promised them I would take the ornament home and report back on how long it took for the buzzing to stop.

I took the ornament home. I buried it deep in my t-shirt drawer. I would check it daily. My friends, that ornament buzzed without cease from that Sunday evening until the following Friday. When I dug it out on Friday to discover it had quieted, I must admit that for one mad moment, I thought of pressing Oliver’s tummy again. But no. I restrained myself.

We learn a lot of how to be in the world from our parents, for good or ill. By 2001 I had my own little tree-trimming party tradition, though I didn’t ask for gifts of ornaments – just for my friends’ help with trimming the tree. My own party was that Saturday, the day after the ornament finally went silent.

When the first guests showed up, I simply had to tell the story. It was just too funny. Then a little bit later when we got out the ornaments to trim the tree, one of the guests asked me, “Is this the cat you were talking about?” Unthinking, I said “Yes, that’s him!”

And this party guest, this supposed friend, picked up that little cat ornament and squeezed its tummy with gusto.

The little chip inside the cat’s tummy proceeded to play “Jingle Bells” perfectly, one time through, and then stop.

“Hey,” said the friend, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”

I looked at him and smiled and held out my hand. “Hand it over,” I said, taking it and hanging it back on the tree, where it hung quietly forevermore. Every year, he still does. I give him a squeeze each year for good measure, but that 26-year-old battery has beeped its last jingle.

 

December 28, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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What do I have to do?

Hilo, on the windward side of Hawai’i, is “the third wettest designated city in the United States” according to Wikipedia. Hilo overlooks Hilo Bay, situated between the flanks of Mauna Loa, an active volcano, and Mauna Kea, a dormant one. Two years ago, the day we visited Hilo certainly comprised the wettest day of our vacation in Hawai’i. Having only a day, we boarded a tour bus and headed for Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, an uphill trip from Hilo through not less than five distinct microclimates.

Okay, that’s the book-report part over with. In the past few weeks I’ve thought about our tour guide to Kilauea in the national park atop the Big Island. Kilauea has been in the news again, erupting, an active lava flow threatening some populated areas.

I can’t remember our tour guide’s name. A friendly, easy-going guy, he had moved to Hawai’i over twenty years before, from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. One of the sorts of places where I imagine no one asks why he’d think of relocating to Hawai’i.

I wondered, though. I wondered why he chose Hilo. He described his house to us. Set in the lush vegetation of the rainforest microclimate, its walls needed to be regularly washed down with bleach to keep the flora and fauna from taking hold of the house. It was set on concrete footings, but not anchored to them, so that when the lava came, the house could easily be placed on a tractor-trailer and moved out of the way.

When the lava came. Not if.

No, after he shared he was from Wisconsin or possibly Minnesota, no one questioned his decision to come to Hawai’i – but several of us questioned his decision to come to THIS part of Hawai’i, to place himself in a situation of inevitable, unavoidable, impermanence. One of us actually asked – why? Why here? Why a mobile home with a bleach-bucket and the daily threat of lava flow?

I wish I could remember exactly what he said. In essence, though, his answer was, “That is what I needed to do to be here.” Why live in a bleach-box? Why fight every force of nature? Because when he saw that place the first time, he knew. He knew it was something he wanted well enough to ask the question, “What do I have to do to be here?”

If that man asked “What do I have to do to be here?” and heard the answers – be ready to move your house at a moment’s notice, be ready to constantly battle plant life and animal life for the right to live in your space, be ready to lose it all if the truck breaks down and the house can’t be gotten out of the way – if he heard those answers and still wanted to be there more than anyplace else? Then I think I understand.

People talk about change a lot. I’ve made a few significant changes in my life and I get asked about them a lot and I never feel like I have the right answers. I know what MY answers are but I am never sure if that is actually what people are asking. I feel like they are asking me, sometimes, to tell them THEIR answers. Maybe I should ask a question back. “What do you have to do to be there?”

There. The place you’d rather be. Maybe not a literal place. I’d like to be on time for appointments regularly. I’d like to be more confident about some things. I’d like to go to graduate school which is sort of a place but is also a lot more than that.

Yesterday was Election Day and I know it didn’t go the way I would ideally have liked, or honestly even the way I rather realistically expected. And every Election Day some people wake up feeling like that. There is embittered talk, and snarky talk, and people vent and make legitimate points but mainly vent and also pout. I know, because I’ve done it. But after the fussing and the stretching and the realization-setting-in, I have tried to boil it down to: “This world that I want. What do I have to do to be there?”

This morning I read an online column by Parker J. Palmer, that contained this quote: “No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all.” There is no perfect way to be in the world I want because my perfect world is not everyone’s. My perfect world is your idea of bleaching your house down for fun, maybe. And I cannot have the exact world I want because I have to share it with others who have different dreams, different ideas, and different goals. So right now my exercise is this: What do I have to do to be in the world I want? Not the ENTIRE world. My world. My immediate space. What can I do? The people I see day in and day out. The people I stand in line behind at the grocery store. The people I have seen today who were very pleased with how the election went. I don’t want to be in a world where I am full of bitterness and snark all the time. That was more or less 1995 – 2003 inclusive, for me, and I’m kinda done with it. It doesn’t work for me anymore. I want to do the work I have to do to be in a world I like waking up in each day.

I’m still thinking about that guy whose name I don’t remember, wondering if he’s had to load his house up on his trailer and move out of the way of this lava flow yet. If not this one, then the next one, maybe. That’s what he has to do to be there. That’s how he knows it’s his paradise.

Atop Mt. Kilauea, July 2012

Atop Mt. Kilauea, July 2012

Look it is the time honored tradition of the traveler to go observe overwhelming, awe-inspiring natural phenomena and then take pictures with their gobs smack in front of said phenomena.

Look it is the time honored tradition of the traveler to go observe overwhelming, awe-inspiring natural phenomena and then take pictures with their gobs smack in front of said phenomena.

 

November 5, 2014 · Jen · One Comment
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Hello I must be going

Last night, Friday night, I was tired. It had been a long week. Work’s busy, I had my mid-term exam in Spanish, I have some friends going through rough times I can’t actually help with, the move draws ever closer. So I was tired, and I wanted to go home, and chill out, and do nothing.
But I had baked a cake for our story-sharing night at church, and I had to go. And I had to go because it’s my thing, it’s partially my thing at least, a thing I try to do for the community each month to build up the conversation. And I’ve been tired before but I’ve always been glad to go.

So I went, and I’m so glad. Smaller groups, larger groups, cakes or no. Love is a thing I over-think. Actually I over-think most things but love is really up there on the list.

 

Showing up: that’s love.
Listening: that’s love.
Talking: that’s love.

Sharing: that’s love.

Impatience: that’s love too.

It’s probably easier to list what love isn’t. I came home last night renewed and grateful, grateful for the myriad ways there are to love in the world, and be in the world, and grateful I still let myself learn about new ones.

Then this morning I awoke to another side of love: loss. I am not here to eulogize my friend Dan who passed away this morning. I’m not qualified, it’s too soon, and I just can’t right now.

We live and love and go through this over and over. And it is different every time. And it breaks our hearts every time. How do we go out and get our hearts broken so often?

The alternative is not to love at all. Not to live at all. May we all live richly, fully, amazingly while we can. Next weekend is Día de los Muertos. My request is that everyone remember and celebrate those dear to them who are no longer here. And yes, take a moment in gratitude of everyone who has ever touched you, ever loved you, ever been a friend to you.

Safest of journeys in strong light, my friend.

October 25, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Dear Dad

September 20, 2014

Dear Dad –

Can you believe it’s been five years? Yeah, me either! I can’t believe it’s been five years since we lost you. I can’t believe it’s been five years of blog posts and I haven’t once resorted to an epistolary model…until now.

A lot has gone on in the last five years. I know that you didn’t want me to cry or be too sad, but come on. You knew me pretty well. I was pretty sad when you left, and I have certainly shed my share of tears.

Recently I was talking with a friend about how you and Mom never really did understand what to do with me when I would cry. Like, you were concerned, and loving, and looked at me like I was a dear, sweet, beloved alien child who had somehow started leaking.

Speaking of calling crying “leaking,” did you know we lost Robin Williams too? It sucked. I wish I believed in an anthropomorphic type of afterlife where you and Robin Williams could be up there laughing your asses off together, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works. But I could certainly be wrong! God knows I’m wrong a lot!

Anyway, so I’ve cried a lot in the last five years. Sometimes because I was sad, sometimes because I was happy, sometimes because I was angry or confused, and sometimes simply out of sheer beauty or sheer joy. Often it was several of those things mixed up together.

I visit your grave usually once a year, usually on your birthday. Remember how I never knew what to do at graves? And I’d talk to you and Mom about it, when we would go to put flowers on Grandma’s grave? Where I wasn’t sure whether to pray or laugh or chat or what? Yeah, I still have no idea. I love the cemetery where you’re buried though. It makes sense to think of you there.

I keep thinking of stories from the past five years, Dad. Funny things and sad things. The bird that got stuck in the church during your funeral. Continued Christmas gag gifts and how I tried to figure out a way I could possibly leave one of those singing fish plaques on your grave. There are things I’ve wanted to tell you and ask you. I visited your grave once not on your birthday, but after the first Flower Communion I attended at my new UU church. I brought the flower that I got that day to your grave, because I needed to tell you about where my faith was taking me, and what I feel I need to do.

But why now? Why take up this letter-writing business when after all, I’ve just admitted a few paragraphs ago that I don’t believe in the type of afterlife where you could at all appreciate this sort of letter?

Well, Dad, a few reasons. For one thing, I’ve had the blog since before you passed away. I still have it, and it seemed important to me to mark this five-year anniversary. For another, to be honest, there’s something I struggle with. I’ve written about grief and mourning and about missing you. The grief is part of me now, every day. It is a part of the sum total of who I am.

But Dad, I have to tell you. I don’t miss you every day.

You hear that a lot, you know? “I miss [name of deceased loved one] every day.”

I couldn’t tell you when the first day I didn’t miss you was. I was pretty aware, a few months after you’d passed, that I had at that point gone longer without seeing you than I ever had in my life. That kind of sucked. And there have been plenty of times I’ve been reminded of you, or wished you were there to read a book or see a movie I thought you would enjoy. (Let me tell you RIGHT NOW though, I’m pretty glad you didn’t have to see them make these stupid Hobbit movies. Yeah: movies, plural. Don’t get me started…) The family’s been through so much we would have been so happy to have you share with us, good and bad.

But I don’t miss you every day. And I need to talk about that because I think sometimes people get ideas of how their grief should be. They listen to the people who talk about missing so-and-so every day, or the ones who note how long they placed a certain type of flower on a grave, or maybe they drive past the monuments on highways to people killed in crashes long ago. Maybe sometimes people hear what other people do or feel in grief and they feel guilt because their own grief doesn’t work the same way.

I know you’d agree with me that that isn’t right. Because I know that you wouldn’t WANT me to miss you every day. You would want a life of love and joy for me. I know this because you told me, and for that I’m so grateful. We got to have a lot of conversations when we knew your time was coming – on top of the ones we’d had all along. Maybe sometimes people need to mourn in a different way because of conversations they do or do not get to have with their loved ones before the end. If you had died suddenly, perhaps I would miss you every day.

I’ve had a lot of pain and a lot of joy in the last five years, Dad. There have been many days I’ve missed you. And there have been times I have been grateful for the freedom of not having you here. It’s hard to say that. But we each make our break from the life we were raised to in our own way. We make our own life, our own path, our own way. Sometimes we run away from our families, or marry and make new ones in a traditional way, or act out against our parents, or simply move on and make chosen families in less traditional ways. Part of becoming fully me, fully myself, has been facilitated by your not being here. And while I love you, and while I carry the grief of your loss, that is a scar and no longer a wound.

I’ve written, Dad, about what a revelation it’s been to look in the mirror and like what I see. I love who I am, scars and all. It’s not that I could never have learned to do that so well while you were here, Dad. It’s that this is the way it has happened, and this is who I am right now, and part of this woman I am is your loss. Part of this woman I am is more with your memory. There are things in my past I regret, things I’m ashamed of, things I am proud of, things I can barely remember. But to be here now they all matter. You matter immeasurably, Dad. You mattered for the 37 years of my life I was blessed to have you with me, you mattered for the 32 years you had before I showed up, and you will continue to matter so much for as long as I live.

But I don’t miss you every day. And I thought you’d be happy to hear that.

I love you.

p.s. In the last five years I’ve gotten two more tattoos AND gotten my nose pierced. And I know how much you must love hearing THAT. Heh.

Also, Dad, in the last 5 years there have been these things called "selfies"...

Also, Dad, in the last 5 years there have been these things called “selfies”…

September 21, 2014 · Jen · 6 Comments
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Tone Deaf and Colorblind

I can’t remember when I learned my father was colorblind. I do remember my tiny mind being blown. “Wait, so what DO you see?” I asked, struggling to understand. “Mostly grayish things…I can see bright colors, like that yellow there…” and he’d point. “But, like, what does the SKY look like?” “Mostly gray.” My mind went around and around, trying to figure out what that meant, to live in a world where only the brightest colors stood out. That inevitably led to the same speculation we all make at some point or another, maybe during particularly intense freshman-year up-all-night philosophical discussions: “How do we know that what YOU see as blue, that wavelength of light, how do we KNOW that we each see that the same way? What if I borrowed your eyes, could see what you see?”
It was easier to figure out tone deafness. Standing next to my father at church, singing with my own sweet little entirely competent, entirely ordinary voice and listening to my father simply butcher the hymn. One time in the car, as he butchered some other song on the radio (best bet: something by Johnny Cash), I asked about that too. “Well why is it so hard to sing with the radio, then?” I said, understanding that holding a tune you didn’t know well with a tepid Catholic choir could be difficult. “I just don’t hear how my voice and his voice match up,” my father said, struggling to explain. I didn’t get that either. Why couldn’t he hear how off he was from what was on the radio, and make corrections, the way I could do?

The one time in my life I was ever sexually assaulted, I barely recognized it as that at first. I was at Tracks, a gay bar in Southeast DC that had goth nights on Thursdays. It was very popular with my group of friends. I didn’t go all that often, clubbing wasn’t entirely my thing, and when I did go I often felt like a schlub (old shorts, Docs, t-shirt) compared to my friends who dressed up. One summer Thursday, I said the hell with it and actually played the part a bit, in a clingy black dress with a low neckline. Even without a low neckline, this dress would have done nothing to minimize or hide my breasts, which have frankly been prominent since oh about the fifth grade. However, one supposes that the neckline made them seem easier to grab, because that is what a distant acquaintance (a few overlapping Venn diagrams of friendship separated us but he was not a stranger to me either) elected to do. He shoved his hand into my dress with no particular lead-up or pretense. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly that I was barely beginning to register it (“Hey! What the…!?”) before friends were yelling at the guy to back off. He removed his hand and slunk off, and was then not-so-subtly removed from the club and told not to return. There was brief discussion about whether to involve the police, but frankly since the whole thing was over in under a minute and had been handled, I didn’t bother. I felt safe, because even though something unpleasant had happened, it was quickly and ably demonstrated to me that that sort of behavior would not be tolerated.

I’ve been wanting to write about a lot of things. I’d like to write more about some of the service work I did this summer. I’d like to write more about my vocation. I’d like to write about the sad death of Robin Williams and a sad death of a relative I wasn’t close to and how different my reactions were. I’d like to write about a few movies I’ve watched recently.

And I can’t, because there’s a post I’ve been composing in my head since February 2012 and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. I felt stunned and uncertain and utterly unqualified to say anything about the incident even as everyone in the country seemed to have an opinion. And I didn’t want to seem to leap on a bandwagon or to speak with any sort of authority. I just had things I needed to figure out for myself.

This is not that post. But I cannot let myself write anything else until I address the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent chain of reactions that has shown me (I hope, shown many of us) again and again how profoundly ingrained our institutionalized racism is in this country, how damaging it is, and how we do our fellow citizens (and ourselves) a deep disservice and deep disrespect by pretending it does not exist.

My father was colorblind and tone deaf. I don’t mean to pick on him, as there was racism entrenched on both sides of my family, but these two conditions mean he serves as a rather brilliant metaphor. The way I was raised was called “colorblind.” I was taught to treat all people the same. It is a lovely ideal. But it was tone-deaf as well as “colorblind.”

When I was pretty young, maybe 8  or 9, I heard my paternal grandmother using really hateful, racist language – the sort of thing that would have gotten ME in a lot of trouble. I was really bothered, but I hated confrontation, so I kept my mouth shut. After my grandmother went home from her visit, I asked my parents about what she’d said, the words she used, and why she was allowed to use them. “Your grandmother was raised in a very different time, and while she is very wrong to say those things, you’re not going to change her mind now.” They told me that I was certainly allowed to say something to her if what she said bothered me, but that I must be respectful. I was still a little scared but when my grandmother used that language again I asked her very nicely not to talk that way, and she did listen. (At the time. I had to ask her more than once.)

I felt pretty pleased that I’d stood up for what I thought was right. But what I had no honest idea about was how very “tone-deaf” the idea of “colorblindness” actually was. There’s a popular quote, very often illustrated in a pretty graphic and shared on social media: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

That is what I did not learn for an embarrassingly long time. I did not learn that my “colorblind” childhood actually left me blind in some damaging ways. It was good to learn to treat the black boys and girls in my classes with the same respect as the white boys and girls. It was not good to pretend that we were all exactly alike, because it diminished the struggles – past and present – that my classmates went through.

In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, who was supposed to start college classes the exact same day that my younger nephew DID start college classes because he is still alive, the people of Ferguson Missouri have reminded the rest of us, again and again, of those struggles. I have read countless articles and editorials. I tend not to read the ones by white people, because I am becoming aware how easy it is to live in a little echo chamber of one’s own, reflecting only similar experiences. Frankly the country has had enough of white people talking about this, as if we know. As if we know what it’s like to raise sons that we must train how to behave when they are arrested. Not if. When. As if we know what it’s like to have had predatory lending practices levied against us due to our skin color. As if we know what it’s like to fear for our lives and wellbeing at every traffic stop.

But I have to write about this before I can let myself address anything else. I wrote about my sexual assault because it is such a good example of the way things should ideally work when someone takes a wrong action. Men and women stood up for me immediately, recognizing a wrong. I know how fortunate I am. I know how many others have been sexually assaulted and have not found help or support, at the time or after. I know how many people have called the police only to be disbelieved, or have failed to call the police at all out of fear or intimidation. That is wrong. That is tone-deaf. It is not the way to start correcting our society in the direction of fewer and fewer sexual assaults.

So what can we do to make the corrections we need to? To sing along with the radio right, to cast aside the tone-deafness? How do we start correcting our society so that we listen to black voices and respect black people by recognizing the way we have stacked the deck against them? I have no idea. I have no easy answers. But we must, must, must set aside the idea of “colorblindness.” Everyone’s story must count for something, even – ESPECIALLY – the ones it makes us as privileged white people uncomfortable to hear. Having said that much, my intention is to return to listening.

August 24, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Story-sharing

Last night my friend Laura and I hosted our second “Sharing Our Stories” event at UUCC, on the theme of “Love in Action.” We host these evenings to discuss and raise awareness of issues surrounding reproductive justice.

But just lately I’ve had so much more than that on my mind. After I got back from General Assembly (see my last post), I had a bit of down-time and then I headed to War, West Virginia for a week chaperoning our high school youth group on a service trip. War, in extreme southwest West Virginia, is a part of McDowell County, one of the most impoverished counties in the country. It was like a whole other world.

And I haven’t written about it, because I’ve had no idea how. What I mean is, I haven’t written anything for “public consumption” – I’ve written a lot, but I’ve gone in circles. There is too much to say. About poverty. About hope, and its lack. About work. About perspective. About community. About loneliness. Some of this stuff I’ve been thinking about is outward-facing (“How on earth do we even begin fixing this?!”) and some is inward-facing (“How on earth do I come home and take up my old life of privilege and hope and desire when I have faced this other extreme?”). And mostly I’ve felt split in two.

For the theme of “Love in action,” I wanted to write something about the trip. Okay, strictly speaking, I felt almost entirely unprepared to write about anything NOT involving the trip.

I looked at my notes. I looked at pages and pages of contemplation and questioning and agonizing and frustration. What on earth to focus on? And how could I keep it SHORT?

I wrote the following, and shared it. It’s not poetry, exactly, because heavens above, I am so many things, but I am not a poet. But it’s not exactly prose because it’s the only way I could begin to approach the topic: by cutting it down to one, specific, emotional truth.

Before I read this, so help me, I also shared this song by my friend Caleb. He and I have talked about what it means to write songs from points of view that are very different from your own. I love this song and am so thrilled he wrote it…yet every time I sing it, I think, this song needs to be sung by a woman. I am not forwarding myself as the best woman for the job; still I was the best woman to do it last night since I was the one sharing it, who knew the words. It is worth a listen to his lovely recording above.

Then I shared this. I will have more to say later I’m sure. But it was important for me to start this process, to stop sitting in silence and gazing at my own navel which – I think we can mostly agree – has a true but quite limited applicability.

 

It doesn’t seem possible that this woman’s heart can actually be contained within the human-sized cage of her chest. When she speaks, the love pours out like the cavern within her is bottomless, spanless, neverending.

Here is where I am from, she points.

These mountains. These rivers. These trees.

Welcome in, though it is broken.

Welcome in, though it is tired.

Welcome in, though it is weathered.

Welcome in. It looks asleep. It looks exhausted. It is alive. Alive and boundless and spanless and neverending.

This woman takes it up. Another woman started it, the lifting. They come together, the women who have lost more than we understand. Their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons. Their homes, lands, dignity, opportunity. They have lifted back up their spirits in song again and again, to heal what is broken, to breathe hope in where it has collapsed away, to fill the earth rent so deeply.

And as that love pours out, she says, “The men have lost so much.”

The men here have lost everything.
Everything that they are. Everything they were ever told they were to become. Every chance they had to do the only thing they were ever expected to do.

It is gone. They are hollow. They need to be lifted, filled, healed. The earth will care for itself in time. Who will care for them?

The women here sing the answers. They lift their voices their spirits their hands their boundless spanless neverending hearts.

July 27, 2014 · Jen · 2 Comments
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Give Love Voice

I got my first tattoo when I was 25. In the summer of 1997 I was in a weird place, done with college but not graduated, looking for work, restless. At the time I’m pretty sure I wasn’t all that certain exactly why getting a tattoo appealed to me, but I pawned my high school ring and went to a place in College Park and picked out a Chinese character off a sheet of flash. Walking out with “wisdom” inked on my back, I felt a rush of excitement that I’d done something different, something permanent. I’d changed myself in a small way.

Over the years, as I slowly got more tattoos, I started to clarify for myself what they meant to me. I remember watching some kind TV show – celebrity interviews maybe, I’m not sure – and a guy went into a tattoo parlor with Sean Penn while Mr. Penn got some new ink. It got me to thinking about the way our culture treats celebrities vs. how it treats regular people, and how a certain level of celebrity allows you to get away with things that would be frowned upon for “regular folks.” Of course over the past seventeen years, tattoos have become a far more accepted part of our culture and far more prevalent even on us regular folks.

In reaction to seeing celebrities with tattoos, I felt my own desires coalesce. I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to see me as more than I appeared at first. I wanted people to look at me and perhaps be thrown or startled that I had a tattoo, and wonder what it meant to me, what it said, what it signified. 

And in more recent years I have added to that. I want to be seen, period. I want to be heard. And I want to remind myself of those things. My tattoos have become more significant to me over time. The early ones, I plan one day to cover with more significant designs, but the later ones serve not only as outward-facing symbols but also as reminders.

The latest is also a promise. A promise I am making to myself, but externalized physically so the world can see it and hold me to it.

This weekend I was in Providence, RI for the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s the largest annual gathering of UUs each year, and it’s when the business of the association is conducted, as well as when many workshops, activities, and panel discussions are held. One day last winter I had lunch with my minister to continue our conversation on the vocation I’ve been contemplating, and she recommended attending GA as a part of the discernment process.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and it was all very overwhelming. Though I took my Catholic faith pretty seriously when I was young, that started wearing off in adolescence, and I never participated in large church-oriented gatherings – and then when I became an atheist, there was not yet much organizational structure that I was aware of. Nor, frankly, was I at that time in my life particularly interested in organizing with like minded people for social change.

My mind started bending in that direction as I got older. My return to the Catholic church did nothing to satisfy this desire. When I did volunteer work that led me to the UU church, I saw a convergence begin – I was starting to become who I thought I might be.

On Thursday night, my friends Laura and Michelle and I went wandering the streets of Providence in search of dinner. We eventually found a neat little restaurant, and on our way we passed a piercing/tattoo parlor. “Hey guys!” I said, “Let’s all get chalice tattoos!” I was kidding. We laughed.

I woke up on Friday morning at 4:30 a.m. thinking, “Hey you know what, I think I do want a tattoo.” Not a chalice. I was thinking of words. I’m not the most visual person. I had a phrase in mind and I thought I would sit with the idea. 

On Friday afternoon I attended a workshop called “Writing as a spiritual practice.” In my notebook, before I even started in on the first prompt, I wrote down a phrase that was surfacing in my mind again and again: Give love voice. This phrase came in part out of the morning session I’d attended, on using personal storytelling as an organizing tool for social action. We had done an exercise where we told a story of our own to someone we didn’t know. I spoke to a lovely older woman who was a minister from Colorado. When we went over my story afterward, I talked about the ways I was learning this particular event in my past had been a turning point in ways I couldn’t possibly have seen. “I got my voice back,” I said. “You see a way to give voice to the voiceless,” she said.

I slept on it again. On Saturday morning I woke up knowing what I wanted to do. I looked up the tattoo parlor I’d seen on Yelp, saw they were well rated, and at noon I walked over there. I was there for a few minutes and the piercer was very welcoming and gave me a tour and showed me the autoclaves and the tattoo area and the piercing area. I had fifteen minutes until my next activity so I made an appointment for 2 p.m. Before I left, I wrote the phrase on paper so they could transfer it to stencil: “GIVE LOVE VOICE.” After my afternoon activity ended at 1:45, I walked over again, filled out the paperwork, handed over my ID, and within 20 minutes I was out the door with that message on my right arm.

I do not know the ultimate outcome of my continued path in pursuit of this vocation. I learned so much this weekend, including the existence of legislative ministry, a phrase that made me stand up and take real notice. I met people I admire. I joined passionate people and engaged my own passions, without feeling like I had to hold them back or pass off a more aloof nature. At GA, it’s okay to be jazzed about everything.

“Give love voice” sums up what I want to do. It’s a promise to myself. And it’s a promise to everyone else. It doesn’t mean I’ll be perfectly unfaltering and undaunted. It doesn’t mean I know all the answers. It just means I am actively working on being who I think I can be.

Freshly unwrapped on Saturday afternoon.

Freshly unwrapped on Saturday afternoon.

June 30, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Vanity

Just lately I’ve been thinking of my own sense of vanity. This may be because I never really had much of one before, oh, the last couple of years.  Or, when I did feel that creeping up, I felt shame. Like I didn’t deserve to like how I looked, perhaps.

I spent some time searching my LiveJournal (13 years I’ve had that thing!), looking for an entry I’m sure I remember writing sometime before my first-ever Jeopardy! audition. (That would have been 2006 or so, I think.) I wanted to find it because I remember it being pretty funny, but it also dealt with the strange sense of …unease I had, allowing myself to be concerned with my looks. It told the tale of preparing for the audition (it was done in-person, not online, at the time) by going to get my eyebrows waxed. At the time, that was still something I had done regularly. The lady offered, as she always did, to wax other parts of my face where pesky hairs were springing up – lip, chin. I thought of auditioning for TV. I said “yes.” And then she hot-waxed half my face and I wandered around blinking back tears and looking like a horse stepped on my face. (My sensitive skin and I, by the way, no longer consent to having any hairs ripped out of any part of my body via hot wax. Just, hell no.) 

Before I say any more, I should perhaps adjust my terminology. I’ve been contemplating this post for a little while, on and off since my most recent Jeopardy! audition just a few weeks ago in fact. And I’d always thought, “Yes I’ll write about vanity.” So to check myself, I looked up vanity, and the first definition is “excessive pride in appearance” (emphasis mine). Wait. Is it excessive? What amount of pride-in-appearance is okay?

Apparently “none,” at least for me. While I don’t think I had a lot of active body shame (except when I was at my heaviest, and even then I’m not sure how aware of it I was), it’s also been a rare thing to look at myself – in a mirror, in a photo – and think “Hey! I look pretty!” 

Over time my attitude toward myself and how I look has changed. As I struggled out of adolescence, I took better care with hygiene. As I hit the stride of young adulthood, I started developing a sense of personal style. (A kind of sloppy one, but a sense of style nonetheless!) As I entered the world of dating and then of work, I became more aware of how my appearance was perceived by, and could influence, others. 

And then, they put cameras in cell phones. And then, selfies became a thing. And then, this year, I heard about the #365feministselfie project and started participating in it. And I’ve done that for six months now, and I had my audition, and in this drawn-out, agonizingly slow way of mine I have figured out that hey, I’m actually pretty.

And it’s OKAY that I think that. It doesn’t mean I’m full of myself. It doesn’t mean I’m a better person than I was when I didn’t think that. (Although in many ways, of course, I feel I have improved as a person as I moved through time. There may well be correlation but I doubt there is causation, other than perhaps in a certain confidence of carriage that has developed as I hit middle age.) I struggle with that last one a bit. The fact that I’ve taken more charge of my health in recent years has been important to me, and part of that has been significant weight loss. I find myself bringing that up at odd times, because it IS something I’m proud of – the good pride, not the sin stuff. (Many more thoughts on pride to come from me this summer, by the way.) Yet I remind myself continually that just as gaining weight didn’t make me a bad person, losing it doesn’t make me a good one. We are all so much more complex than that sort of dualism leaves room for. My rigid planner’s mind likes classifying things, though, so I remind myself. That looking good doesn’t make me better. And that liking the way I look doesn’t make me worse. It’s just part of learning to live with, and love, who I am.

Here's my selfie-project snapshot from yesterday. For Throwback Thursday, a shot of me at age 21 (1993).

Here’s my selfie-project snapshot from yesterday. For Throwback Thursday, a shot of me at age 21 (1993).

 

And here's today's snapshot (Casual Friday!) by contrast. Age 42.

And here’s today’s snapshot (Casual Friday!) by contrast.

 

And for fun, this is the first selfie I posted as part of #365feministselfie, on January 7 of this year.

And for fun, this is the first selfie I posted as part of #365feministselfie, on January 7 of this year.

June 20, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized