Today, Pal’s Thought for the Day is “Be Mysterious”.
Once, in a small town nestled in the mountains, there lived a good family.
The mother drove a shiny SUV, and she had two children, a boy and a girl, who were both on the A/B honor roll, which you would know if you read the bumper sticker on her shiny SUV. Her husband worked in an office and wore a tie. What he did isn’t important; it’s the fact that he did things that set him apart from the people who didn’t. He provided insurance and stability and was an excellent role model.
They were active in their church, and they paid 10% of their income in tithes, and every Christmas, the whole family volunteered to ring the bell outside of K-Mart to collect money for the food bank. Their Christmas letter included details from their eldest daughter’s mission trip to Mexico, where she spent four days leading a Bible school in an orphanage. They weren’t stingy with their canned food donations, like some people who just brought in a couple of dusty cans of cream of mushroom soup that had been languishing in the cabinet for a few months. They organized things, headed committees, their socks always matched, and their clothes were always ironed.
One night, just before Christmas, an angel of the Lord appeared to the mother while she slept. The angel said, “Keep watch, for tomorrow Jesus will come to visit you.”
The woman woke up early, and as she got her children ready for school, she thought about what she was going to say to Jesus. “I’ll ask Him which Bible school curriculum we should get,” she thought, “and then I’ll ask Him if we’re doing a good job, and I’ll ask Him to heal the sick and feed the hungry.” Her intentions were pure and good, and on the drive to drop off her children at school, she hummed “Jesus, Take the Wheel”.
As she pulled her car into the pickup line at her son’s elementary school, she noticed that there was a hiccup in the system. Leaning out her car window, she could see that a couple of SUVs in front of her was a vehicle that had stalled. The mother driving it had gotten out and lifted the hood. She stood there staring at the engine helplessly, wearing a coat over fuzzy pajama pants. Our protagonist rolled her eyes. “Can’t people get dressed before they leave the house? Jesus Chr…,” and then she stopped herself. “I just mean, how hard is it to put on pants?” She knew this other mom. She knew the woman’s kids, too. Their pants were often just a little too short, their noses just a little too runny, their hair just a little too uncombed. She wasn’t certain, but she was pretty sure they got free lunches at school, and had said more than once to her friends at parent night, “I don’t want to deny the kids food if they’re hungry, but I just think their parents should step up.”
Finally, someone came to help the pajama-clad mom, and as our lady drove around the stalled car, she averted her eyes. “Bless her heart, she’s probably so embarrassed,” she thought, “but that’s what happens when you don’t take care of your car.”
She stopped at the grocery store on her way home, to pick up some snacks for Jesus when He came to visit. There was a couple standing in the cereal aisle, blocking the Life, which she wanted to have on hand, since Jesus was the bread of life, after all, and she did so love a theme. She had to get close to them to say, “Excuse me,” and when she did, she smelled stale cigarette smoke and dirty hair. Their sunken cheeks and glazed eyes told her what she already suspected. There was a prescription drug abuse epidemic in her small town, one that made her make concerned faces when she talked to her friends about the parents who brought their kids to their Bible school every summer, but then never even came back to the church. “I mean,” she would say, “I’m glad they’re bringing them, I just worry about them acting that way around our kids, some of the stuff they say…” and then the other moms would nod in agreement about how very unfortunate the situation was.
When she reached for the cereal, she met the man’s gaze. “Hey,” he said, “you got like just five dollars we could have to get some groceries?” Our protagonist was not unfeeling, but she was also nobody’s sucker. She knew they weren’t going to buy groceries with that money. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, “How about I buy you the groceries?” She congratulated herself for being so clever and also generous. What she didn’t realize was that they could tell that she didn’t trust them, and that poor people, and people addicted to prescription painkillers, can still detect disdain in people’s voices.
She went home and waited for Jesus. She turned on the TV, but Comcast was down, so she called customer service. After waiting for fifteen minutes, she finally got someone on the phone, but they didn’t even speak English, so she said, “Nevermind, I’ll call back later when I can talk to somebody I can understand.” She pulled out her phone and had to use her data to complain about it on Facebook. Her friends all agreed that this was unacceptable and infuriating.
Evening came, and Jesus had still not arrived. She made dinner, and the family discussed their weekend plans. They had selected not one, but THREE angels off the angel tree at Wal-Mart, and couldn’t believe some of the things those kids had asked for. “One of them wants a tablet,” her husband said. “Do they even know how much those cost?” He cut into his steak. “OUR KIDS saved up their allowances to get their tablets with their own money, nobody handed them anything,” he said. His daughter, who was sixteen and had a newly-minted social conscience, thanks to her four days fingerpainting pictures of Jesus in a Mexican orphanage, started to say, “Dad, it’s not like they deserve nice presents less than we do,” but her mother cut her off, saying, “We can talk about this later.” She had said the same thing when they had started to argue about drug tests for welfare recipients. They had never talked about that again.
When the woman went to bed that night, she was filled with disappointment and doubt. She prayed, “Jesus, I was promised you would come visit me. I waited all day, but you never showed up, and I’m not angry, I just think it would have been considerate to let me know you weren’t coming.”
Jesus didn’t answer. She had kind of expected Him to show up and explain Himself. It was really the least He could do, she thought.
But then, just before midnight, she awoke, and there was Jesus, sitting on her stationary bike, His hands on His knees.
Before she thought about what she was saying, she blurted out, “Jesus Christ, are you trying to give me a heart attack??”
“Sorry,” said Jesus.
“You were supposed to visit me today.”
“I did,” Jesus said. “I mean, I tried. I handed you a lot of opportunities to be kind. I even tried to help you with your cable access, but you were super rude. What was that about?”
The woman didn’t know what He was talking about. “Look, I’m a good person. I volunteer and I donate money to a LOT of charities,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Jesus, “and I really appreciate that. But you need to work on your tone. It comes across as kind of judgy.”
“I just don’t want to donate to the wrong people,” she said.
“Let me sort that out,” said Jesus. “I promise, if you do good things, I’ll make sure good comes of it.”
The woman began to weep. “I didn’t mean to be judgy,” she said, “I want to do what you would do. I even used to wear one of those bracelets.”
“I know,” said Jesus. “I liked those. But you’re forgetting the things I DID do. I healed people who didn’t have insurance. I helped people who didn’t deserve it and who didn’t show a proper amount of gratitude. I hung out with hookers and tax collectors and people with poor personal hygiene. If you want to do what I would do, that’s what you’re going to have to do.”
“That sounds really hard,” she said.
“Listen,” said Jesus, “I never promised this would be easy. But I can promise that it will be worth it. They’re going to talk about you. You’re going to have to speak up when your friends start making low-key racist jokes. You’re going to think about other people more than you think about yourself. You’re going to have to get uncomfortable.”
“How uncomfortable are we talking about here,” she asked, “like, sleeping on the ground or standing in the cold?”
“Seriously,” said Jesus, “are you really talking about discomfort to me right now?”
“Oh. Right. Sorry. I forgot.”
Jesus sighed. “I know. A lot of people do. I mean, you take communion with King’s Hawaiian rolls, for My sake. You know that’s supposed to be my body, broken for you, right?”
“But the kids complained about those paper wafer things,” she started to say, but then remembered this time that she was speaking to a man who was crucified with a crown of thorns pressed into His head.
“How do I fix it, Jesus,” she asked. “How can I do better?”
“When you wake up tomorrow, I want you to go out and find the least of these.”
“Like the kids on the angel tree?”
“That’s a start. But you know what else would be great? If you also found their parents.”
“But their parents are probably on drugs,” she said.
Jesus nodded. “Yeah, some of them,” He agreed, “so they probably need more help. That’s where you come in. It’s your job to love them anyway.”
“But…but…they’re on drugs.”
“I know,” said Jesus, “and you’re kind of self-righteous, but I still love you. And even though they’re on drugs, and they steal, and they act ungrateful, I love them just as much as I love you.”
“Wow,” said the woman, “that’s really humbling.”
“I’m glad you finally figured out how to use that word correctly,” said Jesus.
When the woman woke up the next morning, it was with a heart full of both joy and fear. But she went forth, and did as she was told.
She was kicked out of the country club.
She made a lot of committees angry.
She was uninvited to the annual Fourth of July barbecue the year after she showed up with her SUV full of sticky kids from the group home who ate all the hot dogs and ran around like nobody had ever taught them how to act right, which of course, they hadn’t.
Her husband was horrified at first, but eventually became accustomed to the steady stream of eclectic dinner guests. Her daughter was finally proud of her mom, and the next mission trip, they went together, and didn’t even remember to post a single selfie on Instagram, dubbing themselves #blessed.
The woman noticed, after a few years, that her car was filthy and in disrepair. Her clothes were out of style. Her highlights had grown out. The invitations and meetings had all but disappeared from her social calendar. That night, Jesus came to her again.
“Good job,” He said. When they high-fived, she saw the place where the nail had pierced His palm.
“Hey,” she said, “I’m sorry I forgot.”
“It’s okay,” Jesus told her, “you remember now.”
I take issue with Santa Claus.
Not the real Santa, of course. I’m talking about the mall Santa. The Santa in the songs that play constantly on the radio and in every store from Halloween till New Year’s Eve. He’s a petty Santa, who keeps a list of your wrongdoings in order to hold them against you for an entire year. He’s the boyfriend who keeps score all year long, then reminds you that you weren’t good enough this year to deserve his love. He’s a fair-weather friend whose love is conditional. If you’re good, you’ll get presents, but if you mess up, you get nothing but coal and switches. That’s not love, people.
So yeah, I hate that guy.
A few weeks ago, when we were filling shoe boxes to send to Operation Christmas Child, I told my daughter, who is four, “We’re sending these to boys and girls who wouldn’t get Christmas presents otherwise.” She asked, “Why? Because they were bad?”
She didn’t get that from me, but from school and songs and Christmas specials and commercials and other kids and strangers in the mall who stop and ask her in the same breath both if she was good and if Santa is bringing her presents. Who can blame her for drawing that conclusion, when the sentiment is everywhere she looks? It’s a consumer-driven society that taught her that only the good people get to have nice things. I certainly didn’t tell her that, because in my experience, it’s exactly the opposite. Most of the people I know who are truly good don’t have nice cars or the newest phones. In fact, goodness is very rarely the quality that is rewarded with material wealth. To teach that being good = having a lot of stuff is to imply that poor people are poor because they’re bad, immoral, and unworthy of nice things. If we believe that, then we weren’t paying attention during any Christmas special ever aired on ABC. If we’re teaching that, then we don’t believe that George Bailey really is the richest man in town. If we buy into the good person = wealthy person mentality, then we can’t be inspired when Della sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her beloved. We wouldn’t be ticked off when Clark Griswold’s hard work all year long was rewarded with a jelly of the month club membership instead of a fat bonus check.
I hate this judgy-pants Santa so much, I don’t let him in my house. Yup. That’s right. This sanctimonious Santa does not visit my children. He can look at them over his fake half-moon spectacles and say, “Have you been good this year?” all he wants, but I will not let his fat judgmental butt down our chimney. I will not allow his obsessive list-making to operate as my kids’ moral compass. I mean, they’re mostly good, but they’re human, and the process of learning how to act is one of trial and error, so the answer to “Have you been good this year?” is more than likely, “No, not particularly.”
I think all of us, if we’re honestly taking stock, probably have a similar response. Have I been good? Well, I tried to be, but sometimes people cut me off in traffic and I say bad words. I like to think I’m a good person, but I occasionally snap at my husband over something petty. I want to be nice to everybody, but a lot of people said some dumb stuff on Facebook this year, and it was a struggle. So was I good this year? No, not particularly, if I’m being completely honest.
Fortunately for me, and for my not-always-perfect family, this Pharisee of a Christmas spirit is not who brings me my gifts. Because I’ll let you in on a little secret: that’s not the real Santa. Oh, Santa is real, sure, but it’s not that guy. The real Santa is more like Fred, who invites his uncle Scrooge to dinner even though he’s a jerk. The real Santa is like an indulgent grandparent, who sends you a birthday card with a check in it even if everyone else is mad at you for drinking too much at your cousin’s wedding. The real Santa is more like Jesus, who sat with the sinners and chose the company of whores and outcasts and tax collectors, and not just people who were good and followed all the rules. The real Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good, but understands that we are all by nature sinners, so he doesn’t hold our mistakes and imperfections against us.
I cannot- and will not- give my children every toy on their list, not because they’re bad, but because I’m a human person who does not have unlimited resources to dole out gifts based on merit. This is why I won’t use Santa as a threat or a bribe; it doesn’t matter if my kids are angels all year long, my bank account is still going to look very much the way it did last year, when they were monsters. The number of gifts they receive depends on what we can afford to give them, just like every other family. And what about the kids who are the biggest jerks ever, who call your kid names and hurl dodgeballs at his face? They’re still getting gifts, right? Is that injustice, or is that a beautiful metaphor for grace?
Never have the words, “Don’t make me tell Santa that you won’t brush your teeth” been uttered in my home, because Santa doesn’t care about your teeth. Just, really, not at all. I think a much more realistic finish to “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why” is “because other people have to share this planet with you.” I expect you to be good because being good is the right thing to do, not because you want a reward for it. You don’t get a trophy for putting your socks in the hamper. You put your socks in the hamper because you live in this house, and that’s part of being a considerate person. My goal as a parent is to raise kids who are kind because it’s the right thing to do, not because they expect something in return. Do I want my kids to stop running in the grocery store or arguing in the backseat? Of course I do, because parenting is hard and exhausting and frequently embarrassing. And yes, the threat of a present-less Christmas morning would be, in the short term, effective, but does it teach your kids to be good or does it teach them to play the system to get what they want?
Be good for the sake of goodness, for goodness sake.
My kids still believe in Santa, but they don’t stay up worrying if they’ve been good enough to get presents from a manipulative, voyeuristic toymaker. As tempting as it has been to use Santa as a disciplinary tactic, we haven’t done it. There isn’t an elf who comes to our house after Thanksgiving to spy on us, and I don’t have his number at the North Pole so I can call and give reports on their behavior. There isn’t a list of who has earned love and who hasn’t. Santa loves you unconditionally, just like mom and dad love you unconditionally, and just like God loves you unconditionally.
In our family, we celebrate Christmas as a holy time, a time to joyfully celebrate the birth of our Savior. Every Sunday, we light a candle in the Advent wreath, anticipating the birth of a baby king, of a Savior who was sent for all of us, both the naughty and the nice. We weren’t given the ultimate gift because we had been good; it was given out of love. When humanity deserved a cosmic lump of coal, we were given grace and redemption.
Santa will come on Christmas Eve, my sweet children. When you’re tucked into bed, trying to stay awake to hear reindeer on the roof, Santa will come. He’ll fill your stocking with candy and trinkets instead of coal, and leave toys under the tree instead of switches. He’ll bring you presents because he loves you. Because your father and I love you, even though you have had three detentions and an in-school suspension this year. Because even though you have to be reminded to say please and thank you, we adore every hair on your sweet head. Even when you throw a tantrum, even when you whine, even when we are so tired of arguing with you that we hide in the bathroom with a glass of wine, we cannot imagine our lives without you in them. There will be presents under the tree even though you had to be asked nineteen times to go brush your teeth. You were loved from the moment you were born, not because of any good deeds you did, but because of the miracle of who you are.
Your parents love you no matter what.
God gives you grace even though you don’t deserve it.
Santa will bring you presents not because YOU are good, but because HE is good.
I have bipolar disorder.
This is not the best way to start a conversation, maybe, but it certainly does separate the wheat from the chaff.
You get a lot of different reactions when you tell people you have a mental illmess. Some people will act surprised (“WHAAAAAT?? But you seem FINE!”), or try to relate (“I’m so moody and random, I’m probably bipolar too!”), or awkwardly change the subject. Some people will be awesome and understanding. Some people will use it against you every time you get angry or sad. Some people will use it to discredit you (“Well, sure, she said that, but you know she’s bipolar, right?”), and others will use it as a reason to disappear from your life entirely. It’s okay. Let them go. Those are not the people you need to have around you anyway.
I didn’t receive my diagnosis until I was an adult. I didn’t learn how to successfully manage it until I had been an adult for a while. And I didn’t know how to talk about it until maybe last year.
It started when I was eleven or twelve. My erratic behavior was attributed to puberty, to “just being a girl”, to “being dramatic”, and none of that was very comforting. Because from the inside, it looked like everyone else on the planet was in on a secret. They all knew how to deal with things, how to be socially acceptable, how to speak just the right amount so that no one stared at them or rolled their eyes or thought they were weird. I was the only one who didn’t seem to be able to do those things. I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying at Christmas dinner and had no idea why. Just me, locked in the bathroom, staring at the wall and thinking, “There has got to be something, some vital piece of information, that I’m missing.” When I got older, it was hard to understand why not everyone got overwhelmed and hid in their dorm rooms with the lights out because going to the dining hall for breakfast was too daunting a task. When I spent my early twenties making a series of stupid and destructive decisions, I just kind of thought, “Well, I guess this is who I am.”
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t who I am at all.
There was one event that changed everything for me. I wish I could say that one night I looked around and decided I deserved better, that I was worthy of love, that I could pick myself up and be the very Best Version of Me. However, I did it for a boy. When I met the man who is now my husband, I was a hot mess. I was unreliable and self-destructive. I had no ambition, no drive, no healthy coping mechanisms. But he was a High Quality Human, and I wanted him. In order to get him, I had to change some stuff. So, because I had a crush on a boy, I cleaned my apartment. I started cooking healthy meals. I put up curtains and started making my car payments on time. It wasn’t everything, but it was a start, and it was enough to convince him that I wasn’t feral.
While I couldn’t hide the crazy forever, unlike every other boyfriend I had ever had, he saw it for what it was: an illness. There was enough of me that came to the surface between the manic, euphoric, obsessive highs and the rock-bottom, drinking wine from the bottle and weeping, spending days in bed staring at the wall lows, that he realized that that middle ground was who I really was. The other stuff, the extremes, wasn’t me. It was the misfiring neurotransmitters. It was a voice that said, “Go. Go now. Go dismantle your bookshelves and donate them to the church down the street. Start a scrapbook and don’t stop until it’s done, even if it means you won’t sleep for three days. Give yourself a haircut. Buy some jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets. Bake coffee cakes. Do it now, and don’t slow down and don’t rest and don’t think and don’t eat and don’t sleep.” It was another voice that burbled up from the depths of the darkest part of my brain, sucking up the dopamine, saying, “You aren’t worth it. Look at you. Look at how little you’ve accomplished. Look at how disgusting you are. They’re all against you. They don’t love you. They don’t want to be your friends. You’re a burden on your family. Everyone is happier when you’re not around. Just stay here, where it’s dark and you can’t disappoint anyone anymore.”
This man didn’t give up on me. He dragged me to a doctor, sat with me when I refused to go in alone, and when I tried to tell her that I was fine, just a little sad sometimes, and she started to prescribe me another antidepressant, he stopped her, and said, “That’s not the whole story.” Together, we described my life, piece by piece.
“I think I know why the antidepressants haven’t been working,” she said. “We’ve been treating the wrong thing.” She sent me home with a book about living with bipolar disorder, a prescription for lamotrigine, and a standing weekly appointment with a therapist. As I read that night, through page after page describing everything I had tried and failed to explain, tears rolled down my face. This was me. Word for word, me. This meant that the way I was wasn’t my fault, and more importantly, that it could get better.
And it did get better. The medicine works. 200 mg of Lamictal, every day for ten years, minus the eighteen months I spent pregnant. I’m not ashamed of my medication. I’m grateful for the miracle that it is. Because of it, I’m able to enjoy the things that people are supposed to enjoy, that I always desperately wanted to enjoy, but was held back from feeling that joy by a vicious combination of chemicals in the wrong proportions. I’m able to have a job, to volunteer, to create, to be a good wife and mother, and to thrive. I’m grateful, every single day when I take that little blue rhombus, that I live in this age, where I can take this medicine and live my life and not be locked away or burned at the stake for witchcraft. I’m grateful for my partner, who fills my prescription and reminds me to take it every day. And I’m grateful that when I look in the mirror, what I see is who I really am. I see a girl with clear eyes and sincere emotions. She’s awesome, and I like her.
I’m not “fixed”. I still have good days and bad days. If I drink too much caffeine or aspertame, or if I drink alcohol, it can trigger a change in either direction. Some social situations can push me in one direction or the other. And sometimes it happens for no real reason at all, with no trigger or reason I can give. Now, though, it’s like the beginning of that swinging pirate ship ride at the fair: a gradual back and forth, not too far in either direction. Some days I just need to let myself stay in bed, and I’ve made peace with that and I don’t feel guilty about it. Some days I talk too fast and clean too much, and I’ve learned to take advantage of those days and get shit done. I will never be cured, but I can handle it and remain the Alpha of my brain.
When I started talking about my bipolar disorder, I noticed something huge. Talking about it made me less afraid of it. Talking about it made it normal. Talking about it meant that I wasn’t ashamed of it anymore.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a mental illness. It isn’t contagious. It isn’t a weakness or a character flaw. It isn’t something I chose, or something to be afraid of. Since I keep up the habits that help me manage it, I’m completely healthy. I’m reliable, responsible, and reasonable. And I’m a damn good time.
This is important, though, and more important than anything else I’ve said: it isn’t like this for everyone. I got the winning lottery ticket, the right combination of factors that made my illness manageable. Not everyone has the same chemical makeup that I do. Not everyone responds to medication as well as I did. Not everyone has the same support system I do. And that is absolutely no fault of their own. I’m going to say it louder, for those of you in the back: THAT IS ABSOLUTELY NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN. My success was the best-case scenario, the example that pharmaceutical companies could use in commercials. My determination to win the heart of a boy with blue eyes and a deep voice and a contagious laugh was what gave me the courage to start. The rest of it was good fortune. I very easily could have followed a different path. People who have mental illnesses aren’t that way because they want to be. They aren’t that way because they aren’t strong; hell, we have to be stronger than anybody just to drag ourselves out of bed in the morning. You can’t will your way out of a mental illness. You can’t just decide to be happy.
If you know someone with a mental illness, they might sleep all day, they might cancel plans, they might go weeks without being able to leave the house. My advice to you, as far as how to be a good friend, is to not give up. Try not to take it personally, because I can guarantee that whatever it is, it isn’t about you. Bring over food. Join them in binge-watching something stupid on Netflix. Don’t tell them to cheer up. Don’t offer advice or give them a million reasons they should be happy. They already know they should be happy. Don’t tell them that all they need is some fresh air and exercise. Don’t abandon them, and for God’s sake don’t use their condition as an adjective to lightheartedly describe someone’s mood or behavior. It isn’t an adjective; it’s a medical condition. Mental illness isn’t a reason to mistrust anyone. Mental illness doesn’t discredit anyone’s opinions or ideas or work. Mental illness doesn’t mean that a person is less worthy, less talented, or less capable than anyone else.
If you have a mental illness, and you’re in the thick of it right now, I want you to know that you are amazing just for waking up every day. You’re still here, and that means you’re still fighting. It’s hard to see the light when you’re down in the bottom of a well, but it’s important that you know that this is not your fault, and you are not alone. There is help out there. There is NAMI, there are therapists, there are different medications that work for different people. There are support groups and people who care. There are hills and valleys, and when you’re in a valley, that hill looks impossible to climb, and it’s okay if you don’t make it all the way to the top today, or this week, or this year. Do what you can, and that’s enough.
You are not alone. And you are not crazy.
She’s really my son’s dog.
She was what he wanted for his seventh birthday: a dog, but not one that would jump on him and bite and bark. After weeks of searching for this near impossibility, I found her. She had been in a no-kill shelter for a year, having been left there by a couple who was divorcing and unable to keep her. When I held my hand out for her to sniff, she lowered her head and rolled over on her back, showing me her belly. “We’ll take this one,” I told the woman at the desk. “This is the one.”
She’s not a beauty, not in a conventional sense. From a distance, she has the noble silhouette of a Labrador, but when you get close to her, you see that her coat is patchy and graying, due to skin allergies and (in my opinion) premature graying caused by what was undoubtedly a stressful life change. Her jowls and neck have the soft fleshiness of a shar pei, and her tongue is spotted with purple like a chow’s. We don’t actually know how old she is, but the vet guesses that she’s about seven, but in good health, thanks to my obsessive mothering. What she lacks in physical beauty, she more than makes up for in personality. Her official name is Susie, but we hadn’t had her long before we started calling her Mamaw Dog, due to her tendency to furrow her brow in concern and worry about her babies when we wandered out of her sight.
From the moment I rubbed that belly, we have been inseparable. She follows me from room to room as I clean the house, curls up beside me when I read a book, and (despite my husband’s initial protests) sleeps in a sleepy warm heap at the foot of the bed. If the Husband gets up in the night, she will creep closer and closer until her head is beside mine, and when he returns to bed, he finds the two of us spooning, her head on his pillow, and what could be interpreted as a smirk on her face. As I write this, sitting at the table in my sunny kitchen, she has chosen to lie on the hardwood floor at my feet rather than in her bed ten feet away. That’s more distance than she is comfortable with. Personal space is not a thing Mamaw finds necessary.
I am her Lady. I am the one who is home all the time, the one who remembers to buy treats and is generous with them, the one who cooks dinner and sometimes drops bits of chicken onto the floor accidentally-on-purpose. When I’m sick or sad, she rests her sleek head on my knee and looks at me with concern. I can almost hear her ask me if I want a cup of tea or anything. She’s a Mamaw, after all. When my husband worked second shift and didn’t get home until late at night, she and I would curl up in bed together and watch Murder, She Wrote and eat cheese until we fell asleep. We are kindred spirits and old souls.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t relish her clear preference of me over anyone else in the household. The children, if we’re being honest, prefer their father. He’s big and funny and affable, always in a good mood, always willing to give pony rides or have tickle fights. I’m the broccoli enforcer, and the homework police, and if I had an action figure, it would repeat my catchphrase, “Are you SURE you brushed for two minutes??” So, yeah, I’m kind of a buzzkill. But to the dog, I am the Homecoming Queen.
In what is perhaps the most cruel trick the universe has ever played on the human race, dogs don’t live as long as humans. They exist for a while with us, pure creatures who offer love and comfort and devotion, asking nothing in return but that we fill their bowls and sometimes share our sandwiches. Sometimes I look at her, and it occurs to me that one day, I won’t have her here, and the thought is so sad that I have to push it down and bury my face in her floppy neck skin.
I’m a strong advocate for animal adoption, especially senior animals. Puppies get adopted first, because they’re tiny and cute and without medical complications or neuroses. Older dogs don’t get adopted as quickly. Unless they have the good fortune of being in a no-kill shelter or a rescue facility, the odds are against their survival. After spending an entire life with a family, to be abandoned at the very end seems devastatingly unfair.
The downside, though, is knowing that you won’t have as much of their time. She’s healthy and has years left with us, but she most likely won’t be here when my children are grown and I’m left with an empty nest and no one to coddle, and that’s a reality that is hard to swallow. But when I think about my girl, and how scared she must have been when her people left her in a shelter and never came back, it breaks my damn heart, and I know without a doubt that we made the right choice for our family.
I’m committed to give her the happiest ending any shelter dog could have. It’s a fairy tale story, really. She spent a year alone, in a noisy kennel with a concrete floor, and then a lady in yoga pants and crazy hair showed up and took her to live in the country, on a farm where she could run all day in the grass and sunshine if she wanted to, or take a nap at her Lady’s feet if it was raining outside. She has two children who love to throw tennis balls for her to fetch, who argue over who loves her the most, who tend to drop bites of their dinners under the table, and who shower her with belly rubs and chin scratches. The Man dutifully takes her out every night, then brings her back inside, where she sleeps in a people bed, between the feet of two people who would keep her safe no matter what. The Lady makes her scrambled eggs for breakfast and kisses her sweet head and tells her that she is the best, smartest, most beautiful dog in the whole world. No one yells at her, and no one would dream of striking her. She has never spent a night outside in the cold or the rain since she came to live with her Family. When she argues with the cat, the Lady always takes her side, because everyone knows that the cat is kind of a jerk.
She is technically my son’s dog.
But she is completely my soul mate.
I kind of didn’t think it was going to happen for me.
Okay, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen. My body had betrayed me before, with a still and silent ultrasound when we were expecting the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of a heartbeat, with a soft-spoken doctor, with the gentle heartbreaking news that it wasn’t going to happen. Not this time. Probably not ever.
My husband and I were resigned to a no-kid life.
Really, though, we sat in the parking lot of a Books-A-Million on what was maybe our third date, and I said, “Look, if you want kids, I’m not your girl. Before this gets serious, you need to know that my body won’t do that.” He said he didn’t care. “I just want you,” he said. “We’ll get five dogs, and if we ever decide we want a baby, we’ll just adopt.”
Just adopt. Like it was that easy. We genuinely thought it would be as simple as popping down to the baby store and selecting the one who smiled at us first. “Totally,” I said, “we could totally just adopt.”
Since we had made peace with our kid-free future, and had decided that we would just swing by and pick up a kid when we decided we were ready to, it was a pretty big surprise when I came home from our honeymoon with what turned out not to be food poisoning, but a baby. And then, four years later, surprised again by a stomach bug that wasn’t a stomach bug at all.
I’m not sure how it happened. The workings of my stupid body and the Lord’s sense of humor are equally mysterious to me. But here they are, the Schultz children, sturdy and smart, both of them looking like nesting-doll versions of their father. I couldn’t have designed it any better, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t the one in charge, because my plan had previously and off-handedly been to “just adopt when the time is right”.
See, I’ve been known to assume things are easy when they are, in fact, hard as hell. Take adoption, for instance. Ask anyone who has been through the process, and they’ll tell you exactly how not-easy it is.
Knowing what I know now, I realize that had we tried to adopt, we wouldn’t have been chosen. We both had unstable careers. We lived in a less-than-ideal apartment with less-than-safe wiring and a less-than-friendly dog and two less-than-good-at-reliably-using-a-litterbox cats. We had zero, ZERO experience with children, no plan for childcare, and no idea how to take care of a baby. Furthermore, I have a diagnosed mental illness, and my husband cannot pronounce the word “February”. In real life, we’re delightful people. On paper, we were a hot mess.
It blows my mind to think that I was ever so flippant and presumptuous about my future as a mother. Now that I’m older, wiser, and not an idiot, I see that had divine uterus intervention not taken place, there is no way I would have had the chance to be a parent.
I have these friends, Tim and Brady, who are doing everything they can to adopt a baby. They’re both teachers, and between the two of them they have way more experience working with kids than I do, and there is no doubt in my mind that they’re more qualified for the job than Steve and I were when the hospital trusted us to take home our son with no instruction manual or training or anything. Their marriage is solid, their home has good wiring, they have a network of supportive friends and family, their careers are secure, and most importantly, they want to be parents more than anything.
About seven years ago, when our Mortimer was a wee little turtle of a man, Brady and Tim came over for Top Chef night. Mortimer, who knew Brady as “Baaaydy”, the man who was generous with high-fives, Ritz crackers, and endless picksy-upsies (a grand game, where an adult with endless patience and upper-body stamina picks up the sturdy child and swings him through the air while making airplane noise; kids don’t get tired of this game, ever, so the only escape you have is for your arms to actually fall off), crawled up onto the sofa between Baaaydy and Mr.Tim. He sat there, like their little colleague, holding a Tim hand in his right little fist and a Baaaydy hand in his left. In that moment, when I saw them exchange a glance and a smile over Mortimer’s blonde head, I knew (before anyone else, because I fancy myself a clairvoyant, and I’m very competitive) that they needed to be parents.
You see it in some people. Some people need to be parents, because the world needs more people who are taught to be good people, and you just know they would be really good at it. You see it in people with kind voices and patience, in the way they never say no when a kid asks them to play a game or read a story. You see it in the way they look at kids, really seeing them, making eye contact as if they were people instead of twirling balls of chaos. Listening to them even if they can’t understand every word, but trying because even a little person deserves to be heard.
I want them to be parents. I want it for them so badly. I want it not just for them, because they are my friends and I want them to be happy, but for the world. I want the world to be a place that has more kids who were raised by good people, people who will not only make sure they brush their teeth and have regular checkups, but who will teach them to be kind and to speak with care. I want a world that has a Brady-and-Tim kid in it, and I want a world where some kid wins the parent-lottery and gets to grow up in a home that is full of love and security instead of uncertainty.
My husband used to work in a children’s home. He would come home with stories about how these kids acted out, and how he couldn’t be mad even when they were violent, even when teenagers bigger than he was physically attacked him, because after what they had been through, he really couldn’t blame them. Kids who were beaten, who were left on their own for days at a time, who were exploited and abused and unloved. So many people have babies without doing the most basic requirements of parenting: loving your child and keeping him safe.
Parenting is hard and thankless and expensive and exhausting. It’s not for everyone. Not every grownup needs to be a parent, and not every pregnant woman is ready to be a parent, but every child deserves to have one. That’s where people like Brady and Tim come in.
I asked Brady how the adoption search was going. We don’t live close to each other anymore, but I see his hopeful updates, their growing stockpile of baby things, ready for some lucky kid to hit the adoptive-parent jackpot. “Slow,” he said. “Frustrating to see people chosen before us. Frustrating that people assume we aren’t capable of being great parents.” So they continue to wait. They’re waiting for a woman who isn’t as ready as they are, whose love for that unborn baby is so great that she wants it to have a life that she isn’t able to give. I want to tell her, the woman who is struggling with the decision to keep her baby or to let it go in hopes that it will land someplace safe and warm and adored, that she can trust this couple. That if she does decide to place her precious cargo into their open arms, that it will be loved and safe and given the opportunity to lead a life full of infinite possibilities. That if she wants her baby to grow up with a village of people who are loving and doting and supportive, then this is a place where that future is certain. She could give the child a home full of music and books and laughter and love, with the safest carseat, crib, high chair, and toys on the market. That child would grow up going to museums and dance lessons, attending the theater, visiting zoos and libraries and having picnics in the park. She doesn’t have to be afraid.
I know what it’s like to yearn for a baby. I know what it’s like to peek into a stroller and feel a stab of envy and emptiness when you see those fat little biscuit feet and lashes curled against rounded cheeks. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re missing a piece of you, and to fight resentment when you see people taking their ability to reproduce for granted. But unlike Brady and Tim, I had a casual, ignorant optimism that when the time was right, I would just wave my magic wand and the adoption fairy would leave a baby on my doorstep. Unlike Brady and Tim, I was lucky enough to be able to grow my babies in my own body, with hardly any actual effort. They are living the sad truth that there is no adoption fairy, and that the process is long and anything but easy for everyone, but especially for a couple who, though more than qualified to parent, and securely capable of giving some kid a life that most kids would only dream of, happens to be made of two men. There are some people who would rather a child be raised in fear and instability with a man and a woman than in a home with two fathers, no matter how safe and warm and nurturing the environment. I’m not asking for everyone to think it’s a great idea, just one person. Just one woman. Just one baby who needs to be cared for by two people who would be excellent at the job, who are smart and kind and generous with their high fives and Ritz crackers and picksy-upsies. Go check out these links and you’ll see what I saw years ago: two people who would be truly incredible parents.
I’m a crier. Always have been.
My father had been parenting boys for thirteen years by the time I was born, so I think he thought that he knew what he was doing. My brothers are pragmatic, infuriatingly mature, and logical. They don’t make emotion-based decisions or cry at pictures of sad-looking dogs.
When faced with a problem, my brothers would analyze and attack, solving the problem in the most efficient way possible.
I would have a good cry and then write about it in my dream journal.
My dad, though he had hoped and wished and prayed for a girl, had no idea what to do with the crying, so he just told me to stop. For the longest time, years after his death, I felt really guilty about it, because I thought it was the crying that made my dad angry. Now that I’m an adult, and have had a lot of therapy, I realize that he wasn’t mad at all. He just didn’t know what to do. He wanted to fix whatever problem was making me cry, but when there was objectively no problem, just sadness brought on by a vague mention of someone in a book whose grandmother died, he couldn’t fix it.
I cried at the normal sad things that bring children to tears: falling down, slamming a finger in a car door, losing a pet, finding out in the last chapter that Charlotte FREAKING DIES. But it wasn’t just that. I cried about things that other kids never even considered crying about.
I cried when Lyle Lyle Crocodile was thrown into the zoo just for frightening Mr. Grumps’s cat. I cried when a character on television cried. I cried when we had fire drills. I cried when we had a substitute teacher because I knew that meant that my real teacher was sick and I was afraid she would never get better and her dog would be left all alone with no one to take care of him.
My teachers, likewise, were bewildered.
I will never forget (or, let’s be honest, forgive) a teacher’s aide who dragged me into the hallway in first grade. I had started crying because we were watching a film about polar bears, and a baby polar bear was on an ice floe and was crying because he was separated from his mother. I love my mother fiercely, and if I could have, would never have left her side. That baby polar bear probably felt the same way about his mother, I thought, and the idea of the sadness he must have felt dissolved me. The teacher’s aide stood next to me and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You better stop crying. I don’t deal with little girls who cry.” This, of course, made me cry even harder, because children can feel humiliation the same way adults can. She took my arm and marched me into the hallway and said, “Stop that. Stop those crocodile tears, there’s nothing wrong with you.” She made me sit in the hallway until I stopped what had become sobbing, which I absolutely could not do. The kindergartners processed by me on their way to the cafeteria, staring and asking each other, “What’s wrong with her?” The worst thing was that I didn’t know. What WAS wrong with me? No one else cried about the baby polar bear. No one else cried because the cafeteria was too noisy and the kid sitting across from them pulled the cheese off his pizza and held up the saucy, bumpy rectangle crust and said was a piece of Freddy Krueger’s face. No one else cried because the girl on the schoolbus safety filmstrip broke her glasses. Just me.
Everyone thought I was just being dramatic. I was accused of just doing it for attention, as though kind of attention I got for being a “crybaby” was the kind of attention I wanted. Everyone seemed to come to the same consensus: I needed to grow up. I needed to stop letting things bother me. I needed to figure out a way to stop making everyone so damn uncomfortable all the time. No matter how hard I tried, the tears would start pricking my eyes, and a lump would rise up in my throat, and my lips would tremble, and then there I was again, making people roll their eyes and send me to the hallway. Every time I heard, “Stop crying,” I tried to say, “DON’T YOU THINK I WOULD IF I COULD, YOU HEARTLESS BITCH,” but I lacked the gumption.
Growing up didn’t stop the tears. If anything, I actually cry even more now, because there are more things to cry about. I can’t read Lyle Lyle Crocodile to my children because it is just too damn sad. I can’t watch The Lion King (or, really, any Disney movie) without a box of tissues. I can’t watch news coverage, listen to This American Life, or gaze reflectively at my children for too long without tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping off my chin.
The one thing that has changed, however, is the way I feel about it.
When I was a kid, I felt guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed when I cried. Crying meant that I was going to get into trouble, that I was going to disappoint my father, that I was weak and weird.
Now, with the help of a therapist and an understanding husband (who, for the record, also tears up when we’re standing on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom, each of us holding one of our sleepy children, and see Tinkerbell fly from the top of Cinderella’s castle) and the benefit of self-awareness you can only gain with age, I realize that I’m not weak. I’m not weak at all.
My feelings are close to the surface. I have an extraordinary ability to empathize with other people’s situations and feelings. That quality, which is what makes my emotional reactions so strong and real and undeniable and inconvenient, is also what makes me The Best Friend You Will Ever Have. You’re mad at somebody? Then I am too. You’re sad? I’m going to cry with you. You’re happy? Then so am I.
As a mother, I’m less apt to be frustrated with my children for having feelings that seem, on the surface, unreasonable. You’ve seen the “reasons my kid is crying” photos that are meant all in good fun? Yeah, they make me want to cry, too. If you’re sad, then you’re sad. The fact that someone else doesn’t think your reason is good enough doesn’t change the fact that you’re sad.
As a human being, I’m more tolerant of worldviews that don’t coincide with mine. I might not agree or approve of them, but I’m not the person saying, “I can’t imagine what would make a person do that,” because I can. I can imagine what would make a person do that. Does it mean that I think atrocities are justified? Absolutely not. But I can see the process, how one thing triggered another, that set off an alarm, that changed a thought, that made that person do something unthinkable. Because nothing, really, is unthinkable. If it happens, it’s thinkable. It may be horrifying, it may be callous and cruel, it may keep us awake at night trying to imagine what happened to a person to make him capable of something that monstrous, but it did, so it’s thinkable.
No one has ever had to tell me, “Think about how that person must feel,” because I don’t have to think about it. I already feel that way.
There’s no point in telling someone not to be sad. If they’re sad, they’re sad, even if you don’t think their reason is good enough. A feeling is just a feeling, and you just have to let it be what it is: neither good or bad, just there, existing for what it is. Will you get over being sad? Sure, when you’re ready. But what I have learned is that trying to reason the sadness out of someone only layers guilt on top of the sadness. Let a sad person be sad. When they’re done, they won’t be sad anymore. The only person who can make that decision, who can come through the other side of sadness, is the actual sad person. As much as you want to help, as much as you want to take the sadness away, you can’t. No matter how much you want to fix it, you can’t. Your powers as a Person of Emotional Fortitude are not strong enough to hasten the grieving process in another human being. Just hand over tissues, supply the pancakes, and say, “I hate that you’re going through this. I wish there was something I could do.” Sad people don’t want you to fix it. We want you to love us so much that you wish you could fix it, while acknowledging that you cannot.
Whenever I hear anyone say, “I guess I’m just being too sensitive,” I want to take that person firmly by the shoulders, look directly into their eyes, and say, “No, you’re not. You are being exactly as sensitive as you’re supposed to be. Don’t apologize for your feelings. Your feelings are your feelings, and you’re allowed to feel them. This is me, granting you official permission to feel whatever the hell you want to feel without the additional layer of guilt you have been taught is appropriate.”
I am not weak. If anything, I have X-Men super powers. I have empathy strong enough to kind of see where just about anybody is coming from. It makes me a better friend, a better leader, a better wife, and a better mother. If it’s what made me a weird kid, then it’s what has made me a great adult.
I didn’t know that empathetic was a good thing to be. I don’t think I ever even heard the word before I was in high school. I learned that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, how to do long division, and how to identify a topic sentence, but I didn’t learn anything about feelings, or why mine were so much closer to the surface than anyone else’s. I didn’t know that it was a gift, and that someday, I would be grateful for the way my chemicals were arranged. I never thought it would ever be something anyone would celebrate or find useful. It was weird and off-putting and it frustrated my father and my teachers and my friends.
Empathy is good. It’s what keeps us from treating people as objects instead of people. People who were never taught empathy are the people who grow up to rape and then not accept the guilt. People who were never taught empathy are the people who see the world only through their own eyes, never taking into account that not everyone has been formed by the same life experiences.
When my daughter cries, I pick her up instead of teasing her. I hold her close, I smell her hair, and I say softly, “It’s okay.” When I say those words, I don’t mean that she’s okay, that the thing that has made her sad isn’t a thing she should be sad about, that her whole world is okay and that she has no reason to be sad.
When I rock my girl, my girl who cries when her brother gets in trouble, what I mean is, “It’s okay. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be soft-hearted, because soft-hearted people are really the strongest kind of people, because it takes a lot of courage to be that way. It’s okay not to push those tears down and pretend you don’t care. It’s okay to be honest about the way you feel. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
I’m scared to post this. I’m afraid of alienating people I love, people I interact with on a daily basis, people whose friendships I value. I wouldn’t say this if it hadn’t been weighing heavy, like a 50 pound weight on my tongue every time I open my mouth to say something and stop before it comes out because I don’t want to stir the pot. I don’t want anyone to be mad at me. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But I can’t, in good conscience, do that anymore.
I live with a certain degree of privilege. Monetary privilege? Not so much. But social privilege? Absolutely. I am part of a demographic that is perceived as the LEAST THREATENING to society. I’m a White Lady. Further, I’m a Southern White Lady. Still further, I’m a Heterosexual, Cis-Gender, Southern White Lady who Happens to be the Married Mother of Two Apple-Cheeked Blonde Children. I’m a damn Norman Rockwell painting, complete with pearls and a homemade apple pie.
I have literally never been discriminated against in any significant way. I’ve been the target of unwelcome male attention because of my gender, but that’s a rant for another day.
The point is that I don’t have any right to complain about racism.
What I do have, however, is a duty to complain about racism.
It exists. It’s real. It happens every single day, in every single city in America, whether we see it or not, and as long as we avert our gaze, it’s pretty easy to feel indignant that anyone should imply that there are racists among us. “There’s a black man in the White House,” I hear them huff. “What more do they want?”
I’m not going to speak for an entire race that I’m not a part of, but my guess is that one of the things “they” want is to no longer be referred to as “they”. To do so is to imply that to be black means that you aren’t part of “us”. That you are somehow “other”. That you can’t sit at our table.
Having a black president is a huge step. Even ten years ago, I didn’t really think it was possible. There was too much of a pushback, I thought. Too many people were angry. Too many people said, “I’m not racist, BUT…”. It’s a huge step, a leap forward in progress that was long overdue. But we’re not done.
How many times have you heard nasty things said about our First Lady that were directly about her race? About her body? How many insulting caricatures have you seen posted on Facebook by a friend from elementary school who you only vaguely know? I’m ashamed of how many times I just clicked, “Unfollow” and pretended it hadn’t happened, because I didn’t want to make a fuss or cause any unpleasantness. After all, I’m going to run into this person at the Dollar General, and I’d hate for it to be awkward. I should have called it out for what it was. I should have said, “Why was it treason when the Dixie Chicks didn’t like George W. Bush, but you can laugh at caricatures of our Commander in Chief, depicted in overalls, eating watermelon in the Oval Office while the First Lady, a woman of infinite class and enviable arms, stands by in a dotted headscarf, like she stepped right off a bottle of syrup, and call it freedom of speech?” But I didn’t. I quietly unfollowed, I went for a run to burn through the rage and shame that burned in my cheeks and my stomach. I should have said something. I should have said something. I should have said something.
Clemson’s football coach, Dabo Swinney, made a speech yesterday about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, about his choice to remain seated during the National Anthem. I realize that down where I live, to question Dabo isn’t just treasonous, but downright sinful, but here’s my problem. He didn’t condemn Kaepernick. He just said that his protest wasn’t at the right time or place. He said that our problem was sin, not racism. And on the surface, that’s pretty innocuous. He’s being lauded by nearly everyone I know as an example of what humans should be like.
I wonder when, exactly, is the right time for a protest. I wonder where, exactly, is the right place.
He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He held him up as an example to which we should all aspire. But maybe he forgot about some things. He seems to have forgotten Dr. King’s 13 arrests. Maybe he never learned about the death threats Dr. King and his family received, year after year of his peaceful protests. Dabo wasn’t there, I assume, when people called for Dr. King’s blood. I certainly wasn’t. But I can read. I paid attention in history class. Those incidents are well-documented. It’s just more comfortable to forget, I guess.
What I really want to say is that you need to decide what it is that you want.
“We wouldn’t mind peaceful protests.”
(Okay. We’ll forget for a minute that this is being said by the same country that arrested, beat, tear gassed, and set actual fire to peaceful protesters not all that long ago. Okay. That can’t be used as evidence by the jury. Didn’t happen. It was all hand-holding and rainbows and everyone recognized Dr. King as a saint from Day One, and immediately saw him as the force that would unite our country forever. Nobody threw books at little girls just for walking into school. No one poured acid into swimming pools because black people were swimming in them. Nobody lynched anybody. Nobody set fire to any churches. White America collectively opened their eyes, all at the same time, and said, “Holy gee whiz! You DON’T want fewer rights? Our bad! Won’t happen again!”)
So. Since you said, “We wouldn’t mind peaceful protests,” that’s what Colin Kaepernick did. You actually can’t get much more peaceful than that. He just sat. He didn’t yell. He didn’t hold up a sign. He didn’t throw punches or set fire to anything. He just sat.
America collectively lost its mind over this.
“We wouldn’t mind peaceful protests, just not like that. It was the wrong time and place. It was inappropriate. It was disrespectful. It was distracting.”
People are burning his jersey. Boycotting his team. Using his name as a swear word. He is vilified and called a disgrace. People are FURIOUS. But he did EXACTLY WHAT YOU SAID YOU WOULD BE TOTALLY FINE WITH.
I’ve read “He’s rich, what is he whining about?” As though his protest was for personal gain, which he has stated repeatedly that it is not. As though being rich exempts him from caring about anyone else having problems. As though he being rich, personally, has erased generations of systemic oppression.
So Dabo wants him to protest in a way that isn’t distracting. In a more convenient way. Maybe we’d be okay with it if he protested peacefully…at home? Alone? With the curtains drawn? In the middle of a Tuesday night? That…that kind of defeats the purpose of a protest.
I’ve heard people say that what Kaepernick did “should be illegal.” Really? Think about it. Really think about what you’re saying. If I understand you correctly, you want peaceful protests to be punishable by law? You want sitting during the National Anthem…to be punishable by law? So…saluting the flag, standing for the Anthem…those are going to be…mandatory? Think. Think. Think. What other governments have made swearing allegiance…mandatory? I’ll give you a second. You can Google it.
You did, huh? Now, is that what you really want? Really?
The words of the National Anthem, which I have sung hundreds of times at various sporting events, fundraisers, and even once at a funeral, clearly celebrate, with fireworks and a note that pierces the stratosphere, that we are “the land of the free”. That means everybody. EVERYBODY. Everybody is free to say things. So if you have the right to burn Kaepernick’s jersey, that means, logically, that he has the right to sit during the National Anthem. If you want to make that illegal, then you no longer want this to be the “land of the free,” you want it to be “the land of the things I’m comfortable with”.
In college, at Clemson, actually, I read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in a history class. I read this sitting in a classroom within spitting distance of a statue of John C. Calhoun. The irony, at the time, was lost on me. But last night, after hearing Dabo’s much-lauded speech, during which he invoked the name of Dr. King, I couldn’t stop thinking about this:
“One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked, “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded as much as the outgoing one, before it will act.”
He continues to say, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never”. We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim, when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of affluent society…”
It goes on, and it is painful and poignant, and it should be required reading for everyone before they’re allowed to post anything at all on the internet, ever.
Racism is still a thing. It is. It was when I was in kindergarten, and there was one black girl in my class. Another kid told me not to sit next to her because black people’s houses were dirty. This wasn’t in 1967. This was 1988. Well after desegregation, this kid, who being five didn’t know any better, had been taught to say these ugly words. Somebody taught her that. If racism stopped like a switch flipping off when Dr. King declared that he had a dream, then where did she hear it?
Racism is still a thing. When ladies are describing someone and look around before they whisper, “She’s black,” it’s still there.
When we say things like, “some of my best friends are black,” to excuse or defend the next words that will come out of our mouths, we are acknowledging that what we’re about to say is racist. And with those words, that seem harmless among your friends, you plant another seed, you enforce the idea that we are somehow different, that your “black friends” are in some way not the same as your “white friends”. If they were, you would just call them your “friends”. Whether you mean for it to be or not, it’s still there.
When I , an idiot teenager, got away with loitering and stealing signs and committing acts of petty vandalism, no one ever stopped me. Ever. No one blamed it on my upbringing or called me a thug. No. They chuckled and said, “I remember being a kid, too.” It’s still there.
I say this to you, my fellow White People: we don’t get to decide that racism doesn’t exist. That’s not our call to make. Maybe you aren’t racist. A whole lot of people aren’t. A whole lot of people in the SOUTH aren’t. There are, I have to believe, more good people than bad people. But that doesn’t mean that those bad people aren’t there, vocal, angry, and dangerous. Just because we don’t see something every day doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I don’t see polar bears every day, but I’ve seen one once, and that’s enough to make me accept that they do, in fact, exist. It may not affect you at all. But you have to think, if so many people are angry, if so many people see it, then who are we to say their experiences are invalid? It’s not our place. We don’t get to decide how other people feel. We don’t get to sit from a distance and say, “They have a black president, what more do they want?” If you think racism doesn’t exist, stop using race as the primary way you describe our president. Use “Harvard graduate” or “excellent husband” or “Commander in Chief”. Show our first family the same respect you show the National Anthem. Hold W’s daughters to the same standards you hold the Obama daughters. Treat Michelle Obama with the respect she deserves as our First Lady. That’s what you have to do in order to claim to love your country enough to scream treason when someone sits during its anthem. You can’t have fierce pride in your Confederate heritage, wave your heritage flag, and then be horrified when people don’t want to say the Pledge of Allegiance, even though if your ancestors hadn’t done exactly the same thing, you wouldn’t have a Confederate heritage to be proud of. You can’t claim racist remarks about our first family are “freedom of speech” when a peaceful protest is “treason”.
Actually, you can.
That’s the point. You CAN do those things. The veterans you support fought for your freedom to do those things. But if you want that freedom, you can’t say it applies only to the things you like. It doesn’t work that way. Walk through it. “We have freedom of speech, so we can say whatever we want. But that guy shouldn’t be allowed to say what he wants, because I don’t agree with it. I don’t think that right…should be…distributed…equally.”
And there you have it.
That America, where the pledge is mandatory and we’re not allowed the right to peaceful protest? That’s not the Land of the Free. That’s something else entirely. I’m not saying that you can’t be angry. I’m saying to be careful what you wish for. A country that requires you to swear devotion to a specific set of ideas, and makes pledging loyalty to them mandatory is not a place I would want to live. I don’t think it’s a place anyone wants to live, if we really sit down and think about it. I want my patriotism to be a personal choice. I want my religion to be a personal choice. I don’t want anyone making my personal choices mandatory, because in doing so, you take away the meaning in the choice.
I acknowledge my privilege. I don’t celebrate it or deserve it, but I realize that it’s there. And since it is there, whether it’s right or not, I think I’m obligated to use it for good.
If you make a racist joke, I’m going to call you out. I’m going to make it clear, from now on, that you should not be comfortable using that language around me. I have ignored it and excused it for too long, and I’m ashamed of that. It’s not okay. It’s not harmless.
Since Dr. King’s legacy is now so much revered (as it should have been all along, if things were just and people were kind), I want to close with this, because it is as true today as it was when it was written in that jail cell in Birmingham:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you and the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” ; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season,” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Before you say that MLK would have condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, read his words. Because they condemn you, too.
I don’t remember a time that my life wasn’t rich with stories.
My mother read me fairy tales and Shakespeare and Little Women, a chapter every night for months. She read The Little Princess, sitting in my twin bed, with me curled up next to her so that I could see the pictures. We cried together when Beth died, and when Sarah Crewe was sent to live in the attic. She read The Mouse on the Motorcycle, Magnus Powermouse, and every book in The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me, and my father would listen too, because her voice was like music. Road trips meant a stack of books in the front seat, and my mother reading P.G. Wodehouse, doing all the voices, so that none of us ever asked if we were there yet or complained about being bored.
My father would start talking , and stories would roll out of his mouth. His life had been so full of material that riding in the car or sitting at the dinner table with him was better than any TV show could have been. That was a good thing, because my parents didn’t really believe in TV. Other kids had Nickelodeon, I had stories of when my dad worked in a mortuary. I think I got the better deal.
It wasn’t just my parents, either. My grandma is full of stories about growing up in Alabama with her millions of siblings and about doing home visits for the health department in rural Appalachia. She remembers their names, and the way they butchered words with hilarious and inappropriate results, using the word “rectum” instead of “retina”. Infinitely generous of spirit, she cleaned the house before her cleaning lady came, and made coconut cakes for the woman to take to her husband who was in jail. My maternal grandparents both come from large families full of what we refer to as “characters”, and thanks to my grandma, I know everything about them.
My aunts and uncles would sit around and tell stories until they were laughing so hard they couldn’t get the words out. It didn’t matter how many times they had heard it; it got funnier and more colorful with each repetition.
I remember lying on the floor under the dining room table after they had finished dessert and scooted their chairs back, and studying their feet while they talked and talked and talked.
I never met a lot of those relatives. I never knew my daddy’s mother, but they talked about her so much, about how funny and beautiful and smart she was, that she was so real to me that one of those pairs of shoes under the table could have been hers. She remained so vivid in those stories, repeated to me over and over, that if I did ever meet her, I would know her immediately. She was so strongly imprinted into my memories and genetic makeup that it’s impossible to separate what I know of her from stories and what I’ve imagined she was like by piecing those puzzle pieces together. I have never heard her voice, but I imagine it was strong and certain, with the flattened vowels of the East Tennessee twang that I slip into when I’m around people I’m comfortable with.
My family did me a great service, repeating these stories over and over. They told stories about relatives even they had never met, who died before any of them had been born, but who had been so well preserved through the spoken word that when we sit together on my aunt’s patio, they are as much flesh as we are.
It was as though they had deliberately lived their lives in such a way that they would be certain to be remembered for hundreds of years, making indelible marks on the family escutcheon, insuring their legend for generations to come.
I heard those stories over and over when I was a child, so I can repeat them over and over to my children, especially the ones about my dad. Of all the colorful characters that make up the tapestry of my family, my father remains for me the brightest. He’s gone, and has been for sixteen years. It’s a great loss, a cosmic injustice that takes a piece of joy away from every happy thing that happens to me. My graduation, my wedding, the births of my children…they are all dimmed just a little by his absence. My great-aunts, watching my daughter play in the yard this past Fourth of July, her long blonde hair streaming behind her while she laughed and chased her cousins, said, “Wouldn’t Steve have loved to have seen this?” He would have. He would have loved every single thing about these children. He would have loved that my son wants to be a scientist, and with his Masters in Biology, he would have taken him to collect water samples to examine under a microscope. He would have loved my daughter’s fearlessness, as he himself was fearless.
I tell them about their grandad Robie, who they almost remember, who hiked the Appalachian Trail twice, jumped out of airplanes, ran a post office, and how he collected arrowheads and dove off cliffs. I tell them about their great-uncle Ted, how he could heal warts, and about the time he rode the pig across the river, caught his shoe on fire stomping out a firecracker, and played horrible (but hilarious) pranks on his sister. I tell them about their great-great grandmother, Mama Sue, who let us take spoons from her kitchen to dig holes in her back yard, who smoked a pack of Camels a day, ate gravy every morning, and lived well into her nineties, and her husband, Papa Ira, who had been a truck driver and had a blue cat, and who was as gentle as Mama Sue was salty.
When I miss them so much that I feel like my heart is actually breaking in half, I repeat their stories so that they stay here with me.
I repeat their stories so that they will be as real to my children as they were to me, and when I close my eyes, those words that come out of my mouth sound more like my mother’s or my father’s than my own.
Though every member of my family tells wonderful stories, my parents actually earned Master’s Degrees in the art. When I was about nine years old, they started taking classes from Flora Joy at ETSU. Since I was given the choice of going with them or staying home with my brother, whom I deemed to be untrustworthy as a caregiver, I spent most of that year, and a few years after that, sitting in the back of a college classroom. I was supposed to be doing my math homework, but instead, I just let the words wash over me. Dr. Joy, who is the kind of adult who notices children, noticed, and I started telling stories. I still don’t confidently know my multiplication tables, but it really hasn’t come up.
By divine providence, my fourth-grade teacher was also a storyteller, and seeing a kid without much of a niche, who didn’t play sports, make the best grades, or had many friends, and who lacked the basic ability to be comfortable anywhere, she grabbed the thing I was good at and gave me opportunities to shine. I told stories alone, for talent shows and kindergarten classes. I told in showcases, in tandem stories with my parents. I told stories at festivals, alongside people who I later learned were practically celebrities. As far as prepubescent storytellers go, I was kind of a big deal. “She got a double dose,” my dad used to say when people told him that I was talented, that I was funny, that I was animated and likable. He would, in his words, “swell up prouder than a toad on a whatnot shelf” and, beaming, declare that I was “a slice off the old ham.” My senior year of high school, I was invited to tell in the Youthful Voices tent at the National Storytelling Festival. From there, I was recruited to the Clemson Forensics team, and handed a scholarship for an activity I didn’t even know existed. (Forensics, it turns out, is just a fancy word for telling stories. If you’re good at it, they give you trophies.)
Every time I have tried anything scary, every time I dove head-first and with complete confidence into something I had no business doing, or been faced with a situation that was certain to end in failure, my parents have said, “Well, if nothing else, it’ll make a good story.” I can’t help but think that every single one of my ancestors, on both the maternal and paternal branches of my family tree, lived by exactly the same creed.
Last week, I stood alone on a stage and told a story about a tempest, about a magician and his daughter, betrayed and left for dead on an island inhabited by gentle spirits. I told stories about princes who turned into wild swans, a lion who fell in love with a woodcutter’s daughter, and about how my grandad’s cousins accidentally got baptized when they fell into a creek during a tent revival. People came, and sat in a dark theater, and did what I did when I was a child under the dining room table: they sat still and listened as I painted a portrait of my family, of their various eccentricities and the events that made them memorable, if not happy. Before the house lights dimmed, I stood in the wings, my knees shaking, full of nothing but sheer terror. The stage was mine for the next hour and a half. An hour and a half of just me, trying to keep all these people from falling asleep or walking out. I took a deep breath and remembered where I came from: a long line of people doing stupid things without fear.
“If nothing else,” I told myself, “it’ll make a good story.”