The Kind of Article I’m Starting to Hate

There is a certain kind of article/blog post that I’ve been coming across more and more these days, and each time I read one, I know I should just click away, but I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And just as assuredly as the flame can burn the moth, this kind of article draws my ire.

It’s the “What Not To Say” kind of article.

I’m sure you’ve seen them. What Not To Say to a Disabled Person. What Not To Say to a Working Mom. What Not To Say to a Stay at Home Mom. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Miscarried. What Not to Say to a Mom With Lots of Kids. What Not To Say to Thin People. What Not to Say to Fat People. What Not to Say to Parents of Kids with Special Needs. What Not to Say to Girls…To Teens…To Pregnant Women…To Recovering Alcoholics…To Survivors of {fill in the blank}…actually, you can fill in whatever you can think of, I’m sure there’s an article somewhere on it.

They always sound so helpful at first, because yes, of course, we want to say the right thing when someone is facing a particularly difficult challenge. We want to empathize. We want to be helpful. We, by and large, want to avoid being assholes.

Of course.

But notice this kind of article I’m referring to is not a “What TO say” article. It’s not advice that tells you what will be helpful. By all means, tell me what I can do to best serve you in your need. Yet, far too many of these articles only focus on lashing out against the words of the uninformed and possibly judgmental.

The effect is, instead of telling you how to help, it basically tells you to shut the hell up. Because when you’re actually faced with a grieving person, can you really remember the full list of 10 Things You Must Not Say you read that one time last October? No. So you are left, mute, with nothing but the awareness that it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing.

Meanwhile, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the spirit in which these types of articles are written. We all face our own challenges in life. Our struggles are as unique as each of us, and we respond in different ways. What helps one heal or step up may not be useful to another.

The thing is…I don’t feel that other people owe it to us to understand us perfectly. Yes, people often say the wrong things, but how often do they really have bad intentions? If they haven’t been in our place, on what founding do we have the right to expect them to know how we feel? More often than not, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is just trying to make you feel better. It may be a clumsy attempt. It may even be the opposite of helpful. But isn’t it worth anything that they’re trying?

Of course, there are some people who really are just being hateful, but I don’t think they’ll be won over by a “What Not to Say” article either. They’re not the intended audience – the real audience is the well-meaning commiserators. Just like it would be ungracious to throw a Christmas gift back at someone simply because it wasn’t what you wanted, I find it ungracious to judge others for a failed attempt to be kind. Even words that sometimes sound like judgment are really just awkward, clumsy attempts to try to protect you – a motivation based in love, not hatred or contempt.

Yes, there are better and worse ways to comfort people, to converse with them, to let them know you’re there. Many times, there are no words that can help a person heal or deal. Maybe even most times a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on are worth more than any thousands of words.

But the world does not owe us perfectly eloquent grace or perfectly clear understanding. Each person who loves us is a gift. Each loving intention is its own kind of grace. Embracing them all with loving kindness can do far more to help us heal than focusing on how they fell short of our mark.

 

How Pregnancy Changes The Skin I’m In

4 months preggo

Before I became pregnant, I don’t think I had much of an idea of what happens to your body in pregnancy. You get bigger, you get crazy cravings and eat more, and might have to throw up in the mornings. I think that’s all I thought happened.

{Insert a long stream of slightly manic laughter here.}

While I seem to have lucked out on the whole morning sickness thing, my body is changing faster and in more myriad ways than Aladdin’s Genie let out of the lamp Robin Williams style.

First, I got the dry skin. I seemed to be trying to compete with the Lubriderm gator. So I started putting lotion all over. Until I noticed that every time I did, I’d suddenly break out with an unsightly body pimple somewhere. So I stopped with that.

Then I got the dry eyes and had to start putting in eye drops.

Then there’s the stretch marks. Not on my belly. On my boobs.

Then my nails started growing three times as fast as normal. I’d scratch an itch (see dry skin above) with my suddenly uber-long witch nails, and break out in a mini rash.

Thankfully I work (*smirk* there’s an overstatement, when in the first trimester I could barely stay upright) mostly at home so I can hide the fact that I now find underwear supremely irritating.

Sleeping on my left side is good for my growing belly, but now I wake up with numb hips and pins & needles.

Speaking of that growing belly, it was growing at a nice, steady, slow pace right in line with what the doctor recommended during the first trimester. Second trimester hit and suddenly I’m clocking in a new number every time I get on the scale (which, admittedly, is less frequently these days because, heck, I gotta’ hold on to some scrap of sanity).

Apparently, there’s supposed to be some sort of pregnancy glow? All I know is I’ve had to switch to a super mild face cleanser and then follow it up with a super strength moisturizer strategically placed on certain spots on my face, since spreading it across my whole face makes me break out.

Add to all this, chronically sore feet, a complaining bottom & back, constant trips to the bathroom (all pee and no poo), cravings for sweets that I now find too sweet so that I end up having to bake them myself with a third of the sugar (Toby doesn’t mind this part because I’ll eat maybe three of the cookies, and he gets the rest) and cravings for steak (which is really expensive here, and normally I don’t eat much red meat), crying at the slightest provocation, and throw in a little bit of hot season so I sweat all the time and need more A/C than my husband wants to have, and it’s like: Who AM I? Where did my body go?

To cope, I now have a full skin regimen every time I get out of the shower. I apply a tiny bit of Bio-Oil to my boobs (I don’t know if this will help with the stretch marks, but it does smell nice and make my skin soft, so for $10 I consider that a win). Then comes tummy butter for my tummy, hips, and butt. Aquaphor strategically placed on the very dry or itchy patches of skin, rather than all over. Baby powder on my inner thighs to reduce the sweat. H20 moisturizer spot-placed on my face. Aveeno lotion spot-placed on semi-dry patches of skin. And occasionally at night, Burt’s Bees coconut oil foot creme on my toes & heels.

I’m pretty sure I smell like a pharmacy. Or at least the beauty section of CVS. And I have to trim my nails every five days or so.

Oh, and in addition to dryness, my eyes started getting more sensitive to direct sunlight, so now sunglasses are a must when I go out. I think I’ve officially become Thai now too, because I’ve started carrying an umbrella for sunny days. (What? It keeps the sun off.)

There are a bazillion articles on how to “get your body back” after pregnancy – most of which seem concerned with erasing any sign of pregnancy as quickly as humanly possible to become fitter than you were, with firmer boobs and younger more nubile skin than you had before getting knocked up, like there is some ideal version of you, and as Kate from Eat the Damn Cake observes, whatever ideal that is, it’s probably not the body you have right now.

But the thing is, as much as I jest and kvetch about my changing body, I’m also kind of proud of it. Though sometimes I feel like a little alien has taken over (which, let’s face it, is kind of true – I mean, for crying out loud, if you don’t get enough of a certain nutrient, the baby takes it first, so if you don’t get enough calcium, the baby will suck it up, leaving you with rotted, decaying teeth and osteoporosis), I’m thrilled to be the party host. While I don’t always recognize my body anymore, and new changes spring upon me almost daily, it doesn’t mean I want the old me back. Because the old me didn’t have this little one who dances around doing somersaults and waves at us in ultrasounds. I don’t want to be who I was before, because, before, I didn’t have another tiny heart beating inside. I don’t care if I bounce back tight as a virgin three months after the baby comes, because these rounder breasts and hips are proof I bore life separate from mine. Stretch marks aren’t unsightly. They’re reminders that I became something more than just me. I put on the cream less from vanity and more just to keep my skin supple and smooth, to match the calmness I feel inside. I don’t want to erase that.

I don’t want to erase the fact that I am becoming a mother.

Creating a Family Narrative

My sister, my mom, my brother, and wee little me, back in the days when we lived in a tiny apartment in Mississippi.

An article in the NY Times recently argued that the best way to instill resilience and self-confidence in children is to provide them with a strong family narrative. It’s a fascinating read. Much like other social groups, there is greater cohesion when the group shares its history – the highs as well as the lows – and forms a strong core identity in which children are helped to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

As I read the article, I saw how it reflected my own family. I knew where my parents grew up, I knew some of the darker skeletons in the closet, I knew the story of how my parents met and how I came to be, and my mom told me more times than I can count that blood is thicker than water; that friends may come and go, but that family – whether you want them to or not, and even if they sometimes go about it in really kooky ways – will always be there for you.

It wasn’t just words either. I saw our family banking system in action: when one member needs a boost to qualify for a home, the various relatives scramble to put it together, knowing full well one day it’ll eventually come back to them, though they’d do it regardless; when another gets married or has a baby, the older relatives pull together and set up a nest egg; when the younger members get older, they send money home to the grandfolks or even offer them a place in their own homes, and they continue the cycle of sending money down to help out the younger generations. The insurance is better than anything the FDIC can offer and it’s interest-free.

I saw unconditional love in action: no matter what was said, no matter what hurt was dealt, you could always come home. It might not be easy – justice would always be meted out – but you would never be turned away at the door.

Why does a strong narrative instill resilience? How does the family story bring strength? The article suggests it has to do with “sense-making,” identity creation, and group cohesion. Based on my own experience, I think it’s about more than that. Whenever my mom sat me down and gave me her blood is thicker than water spiel, I always took a deep amount of solace in that knowledge. I took comfort in knowing that I always had a home base, that I would never be shunned no matter what I did (I might surely have to pay the piper, but ostracism would never be the price), and that I always had a gaggle of supporters cheering me on from the sidelines.

Besides, when the family unit is strong, there’s no one better than an older, indulgent sibling, who once kissed all your boo-boos and got you that thing no one else knew you really wanted, to tell you when you’re being a schmuck. Because if you’ve gotten to the point where even they have to say something, then you know you better get your butt in gear. Crying about it is not going to make you shine any brighter in their book, so man up.

The flip side of that coin was a deep sense of duty. I’m not sure it was ever put into so many words, but because I had that comfort and the experience of seeing the family in operation, I knew I had a role to play too: that when others needed my help (whether it was asked for or not) the best way to show love was to jump in and do what was needed, that one needs to learn to be open-minded enough to see love in the kookiest of gestures and appreciate even the quirkiest of personalities, and (this was never expressly said, but if it’s true that I would never be ostracized, then the transverse must also be true) that the worst thing I could ever do would be to turn my back on family because they would never turn their back on me.

It’s part of what gave Toby & me the courage to take a leap and fly across the globe. We knew, no matter what happened or how miserably our experiment might fail, we could always have a soft spot to land at home. It’s what kept me going in the darkest, hardest parts of my most painful experiences…when I wanted to give up, when I would have simply let go if it were simply up to myself, I hung on for my family. When I couldn’t do it for me, I did it to honor the ones who never dreamed they could do it for themselves.

This NY Times article shone a light on an aspect of my family that I hadn’t put into quite the same words before. But if it’s true that a strong family narrative creates stronger children, I know what I’ll do when my child joins the fray. I’ll show them each and every day not just how I love him* and not just how my husband loves him, but all the ways all our aunts, uncles, grandmammas, grandpoppas, and cousins love him and what it means to love back. I will tell him again and again where and who we came from, and I will show him that whatever we did and no matter from how far away, we did it together.

* And by “him” I mean “him or her.” No, we don’t know the baby’s sex yet. 

For the month of March, Bigger Picture Blogs is celebrating the turn from winter toward spring with the theme: Rejuvenate! Come join us: Rejuvenate your heart, rejuvenate your soul – pick up your pen, your camera, and your spirit!

Find all the ways you can blow some fresh air into life and link it up with us at Bigger Picture Blogs!

Live. Love. Capture. Encourage.

Raising Men in the Aftermath of Feminism

Photo by Kristi Phillips

It’s no secret now that, while women are still fighting for equal pay and the face of power remains decidedly male, the gender gap in schools didn’t close, it flipped directions. Girls and women at all levels of education, from elementary to collegiate, are outstripping boys – so much so that some colleges are even giving a little extra boost for the guys (yes, you heard that right, affirmative action for white males). Nicholas Kristof provides a nice summary of the problem here and Businessweek has another good one here, but even a cursory poke around Google will bring you a slew of articles from across the Western nations documenting this counter-intuitive trend.

Meanwhile, when we look around at male role models in popular culture, what do we see? Primarily, a glorification of one of two things: underperformance (a la Peter Griffin, Homer Simpson, etc.), or androgyny (types like Michael Cera, “metrosexuality,” dare I even mention Ryan Gosling?). We have to look to Mad Men to find masculinity of the type we used to revere – except they’re all philanderers and misogynists, so that ideal is certainly tarnished.

Toss in rising divorce rates plus a “gotcha!” culture of news media (if I may borrow that phrase) focused on catching politicians and celebrities with their pants down, so to speak (for good or ill), and we have a recipe for stripping society of role models to look towards. I’m being a little blase and overgeneralizing an incredibly complex issue here, but the truth is men these days are often confused about what role they should play and are taught to be ashamed of manliness rather than to uphold its virtues.

We’ve focused so much attention on girl power and what it means to raise a confident, empowered woman, that we’ve forgotten the need to guide our boys too. But we’re doing our girls no favors, when they grow up to be strong, smart, independent women only to find there are no men they can respect to stand strong beside them. Building women up does not require tearing down our boys.

A fellow blogger touched on a growing double-standard in her post, “I never thought he would feel that being a boy was a limitation.” Her children are young, so her concern focuses on erasing gender lines with the toys her kids play with and the cartoons they watch.

But it’s about so much more than that.

It’s about so much more than whether girls can play with monster trucks or whether boys can enjoy watching My Little Pony. As my friend, Brook put it, “we want ALL children to be confident, compassionate and courageous.” Courage is not just for the men, just as compassion is just not for the women.

BUT I don’t think androgyny is the answer either. We do both our children and our society a disservice when we tell them it’s wrong for men to be manly and wrong for women to be feminine. (By the way, we haven’t just hurt our boys either – teaching girls to act like men when it comes to sex has created a host of problems, including, but not limited to: undermining their own sense of value, repressed needs, and increased difficulty in finding and maintaining relationships.) Moreover, we’re simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that there aren’t at least some biological differences between the genders.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to follow a gendered ideal, though – we all suffer when we try to force anyone into a box, no matter what that box is. I’m not harping on anyone who naturally falls towards the middle of the gender spectrum. Gender and sexuality are both complex and we should honor that complexity. What I AM saying, though, is this: We don’t celebrate humanity by wishing (or socializing) away all our differences. We celebrate humanity by encouraging authenticity, harnessing the power of each individual’s strengths, and treating ourselves and each other with respect.

There are two blogs I follow despite the fact that I am neither male nor am I mother to a son. I follow them because I find the articles provide a fascinating discussion of what masculinity means in a post-feminist world: how men can still strive to be the best they can be, present themselves with distinction, be assertive, demonstrate honor and valor – and that masculinity does not have to imply male chauvinism. The first is The Art of Manliness, which grew so quickly and displayed such gratitude from its readers that it showed just how lost men feel in this age, how desperate they are for some guidance on how to be men. The other is 1001 Rules for My Unborn Son. Both hark back to the past for examples of great men, tempered with the greater understanding and self-awareness we have gained in the past decades. It’s a shame how far we have to look back to find great examples.

So whether your boy melts his G.I. Joes in violent combat or plays quietly with a Carebear, teach him to read because great communicators make for great leaders. Whether he prefers World of Warcraft or Sims, teach him to help with chores around the house, because a sense of responsibility breeds great husbands and fathers. Whether his interests lie in the sciences or the arts, teach him to show others respect and appreciation because courage means putting others before ourselves and strength should always be on the side of justice. Whether his hobby is fly-fishing or baking, encourage it because any added skill makes for a more well-rounded human being. Teach him how to change his oil, sew a button, safely discharge a firearm, and iron his shirts…because one day he might need to know all those things.

And roughhouse with him too, because we don’t learn everything there is to learn from “playing nicely” alone.

 

Education, In Essence

Every year that I spend working at The SOLD Project brings me new lessons and deeper understanding about what education means and the purpose it serves. For those of you who aren’t aware, my life role as an educator began at UC Santa Barbara, teaching undergraduates while I completed my doctorate. It was rewarding, and challenging – with the deepest challenge being how to engage kids in material that would make them better American citizens, while half of them were only in college because their parents had insisted upon it and they had no clue what other life purpose they should have.

Perhaps paradoxically, my favorite class to teach was also one of the most difficult (and the one almost everyone else tries to avoid getting assigned to) – Research Methods – but I loved it because nowhere else was there as stark a connection between effort and reward, both for me and for my students. The class brought humility to the students for whom the whole school schtick was far too easy, and then there were moments when I felt I was physically pushing my timid ones to overcome their fears. Life lessons served with a side of statistical analysis. My hours spent teaching that class (and consoling the lost) were longer than any other – but then so were the letters of gratitude slipped in my end-of-quarter evaluations.

At university, educators commonly bemoan students’ inability to craft complete sentences despite 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, and the major value we consistently work towards is cultivating children’s critical thinking and skills in analysis. Supposedly, primary and secondary schools attempt to teach this as well. If so, we on the college end feel we see little fruit of those efforts. Students trained on endless state and national testing continue to come to college wanting to be told what to think. By college age, you should be curious and seek information on your own steam. So our job as educators becomes teaching kids how to think – which means kids must relearn the capacity to ask questions, natural to them at the age of 4, a chore at 19. And we do the best we can, and if we can’t change the lives of our undergrads, we hope at least we might do better with our own children.

This is the background I had before starting my work with at-risk, disadvantaged children in rural Thailand. I had plenty of high-minded ideas about how I could come in and challenge these children to think critically, to analyze, and to help bring them up to speed to compete on a global stage.

It’s kind of laughable, really, the gap between my highfalutin’ ideas and the reality. The first year was a lesson in humility for me, a constant stepping back and back and back to realize that the “basics” with these kids was even more basic than what I had ever known in my middle class, born to highly educated parents, upbringing. I couldn’t teach them to write or analyze poetry if they didn’t even dare to put words to a page, or utter a question (because in some classrooms here, asking a teacher a question implies the teacher isn’t teaching properly – a major loss of face). I had kids who were too afraid to color for fear of coloring incorrectly. They copied each other incessantly, too afraid to do anything on their own. If they did anything wrong, then at least their friends were wrong with them and there was safety in numbers.

The realization blew my mind. So the second year of my teaching focused on building the kids’ self-esteem and confidence, to teach them not to fear trying and to teach them that they could produce something of worth and value.

When a volunteer came and started them on entirely new projects and they jumped right in, I began to hope that our efforts were working. When I saw a previously shy 13-year-old jump up on stage in front of 200 people and lead a dance troupe front and center stage, and a quiet 15-year-old belt out two solos in English in front of said crowd, I began to believe the foundation had been set.

But I don’t have forever with these kids. I’m not starting at scratch with 5-year-olds. I have some 5 and 6-year-olds, some preteens, some teenagers. We dream big for them, but realistically speaking, not all of them will go to college. Probably only a small handful will obtain higher than a high school diploma, though we hope to continue to keep our kids in school through the end of high school. Likely, very few will hold desk jobs, and even fewer will obtain upper-management positions. What can I impart to them that will be useful in their world?

If you spend enough time in rural or distressed areas, you begin to hear stories about people: how so-and-so got into this scrape or that, how that person’s neighbor went to jail for this crazy thing that was only sort-of his fault, and how the other person’s sister got taken advantage of by that guy everyone knows is a crook, etc., etc., etc. You probably know somebody like this too: someone who, no matter what they try to do, always ends up in some crazy situation or another and needs to be bailed out and everyone’s afraid of that one time things go too far and you can’t help them anymore. It’s not really about rural or urban, poor or wealthy, schooled or not…there are people like this in all walks of life, though you see them more often in less-advantaged areas.

And you wonder: how does this stuff always manage to happen to them? Why do they trust people no one else would go near with a 10-foot pole? How do they find these scrapes to get into?

The reason, I believe, is and isn’t education. Education, done well, leaves people not only more knowledgable, but also more capable of assessing situations and other people. It’s never taught directly, but these skills are a by-product of careful study and experience. Also, the more highly educated you are, I believe, the more you begin to appreciate your self-worth and value, and are thus less likely to trust where your instincts tell you something is off. Education isn’t totally the answer though because, when you’re facing a class of 30 or more students, it’s a blunt instrument. Children are individuals, not sponges. They come with their own histories and proclivities and the same information is not going to affect them all equally.

But, in essence, this is what I believe education is all about. Sure, you learn what year the WWII began, the makeup of mitochondria, algebraic functions, and how to communicate more effectively through proper spelling and grammar. But what I think education’s key underlying goal is – or what I think it should be – is to help kids learn how to function independently in the real world, in whatever capacity they find themselves, whether as sales clerks or high court judges. Knowledge and information is critical, of course, but so is critical thinking, exercising good judgment, and learning how to ask the important questions.

Which brings me right back to needing to teach these kids how to think critically – but I need a shortcut because I don’t have years with them, I have only moments. So this year, my challenge is to take the foundation of self-confidence that we’ve begun with these kids and turn that into a sense of self-worth and value. My belief (and hope) is that if the kids begin to believe in their own worth, they will be more self-protective and less likely to follow trouble. If we can cultivate their sense of value as individuals and human beings and that protective instinct, then maybe we can talk more cogently to them about how to determine who’s worthy of trust, how and why to avoid situations that feel wrong to you even when your friends or family are telling you it’s right, and what healthy, loving relationships look like and how to cultivate them, so you don’t end up in the arms of abuse.

Maybe I’m back to my highfalutin’ ideas again. This may or may not work (and next year, I’ll most likely be right back at the drawing board again), but I’ll keeping trying because their lives are valuable. Each life is a miracle and has value. If they believe that, then maybe they’ll do an okay job of protecting their own.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
WE’VE ALSO OPENED UP REGISTRATION FOR TWO NEW
WRITING CIRCLE EVENTS!
Tuesday, February 5, 8:00 p.m. CST: Fiction {Host: Jade}
Wednesday, February 13, 8:00 p.m. CST: Memoir {Host: Hyacynth}

 

In A Word

My brand spanking new journal for the year.

It’s a popular trend these days to try to sum up all our goals and intentions for the year in one word. Considering my list of resolutions and hopes for the year filled up two journal pages, finding that one word is probably going to be a challenge for me. There is one word that immediately popped into my head – ROUTINE – but I think I should abandon that one as a hopeless longing rather than a resolution since I’m about to break it in just a week when I will move to Chiang Rai for two weeks, go to the Golden Triangle (the meeting point between Thailand, Burma, and Laos) and participate in a filming project for SOLD, stay extra long and teach there, and join in some belated New Year’s festivities that will keep me occupied while my husband goes on a long motorbike trip through Laos and my parents decamp for the States.

Things are never dull around here, and it just goes to show what an ass I am that I actually do say that with a bit of chagrin.

So ROUTINE will not be my word because the craziness of my schedule is something I’m not in control of, and thus any resolution attempting to control such forces is doomed to quick, pitiless, miserable failure.

What I can control, however, is what I do with my time, and as I look over my list of heart-wishes for the year, a different word emerges:

INSPIRATION

To seek it, to give it – because the best gifts are the ones you share (unless it involves marzipan, in which case, hoard that shit). My focus this year is on finding and spreading inspiration wherever I can.

Art isn’t a result; it’s a journey. The challenge of our time is to find a journey worth of your heart and your soul.

- Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

What’s your journey?

What’s your word?

::

This week at Bigger Picture Blogs, we’re living life with intention by committing to ONE WORD to guide our year ahead. Do you have a word? If so, share it with us! We’re linking up at Alita’s!

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.

BE SURE TO CATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!

 

Soldiering On

I am reposting something I wrote earlier this week because it was my Bigger Picture Moment…but I don’t want to just leave it at that as we head into Christmas, so if you’ve already read this, please stick around for what I have to add just at the end.

If we were really meeting for coffee today, you’d find me curled up in a hammock, wearing yoga pants and a comfy sweater, cupping my coffee to me. If we did speak, it would be quietly.

When I heard the news, I was at The SOLD Project helping set up and prepare for our Christmas party. It was an event full of delight, as friends, students, and community came to put on a really awesome show. We had about 200 guests and everything came together without a hitch, and with plenty of laughter and festive cheer. But for me, it was like I was walking through the whole thing with cotton buds in my ears. It was muted as I began to process shock. Grief. Disbelief. Sadness.

I found myself looking into the eyes of our 5- and 6-year-olds and finding it impossible to imagine how a person could do that and pull a trigger. There’s just a wall in my head where that cannot go.

Every morning, I wake up and find my Facebook stream absolutely ablaze with everyone processing this tragedy in their own way. I know that anger is just another form of grief and fear, but it saddens me to see people attacking other people, instead of discussing the content of their ideas. It just goes to show how fresh and raw the wound is, I suppose, that we are so quick and ready to see the worst in each other and to find distaste rather than commonality.

Yesterday, I posted a tribute to the victims, a black armband of shared mourning. But as I typed those names onto that black square, I was acutely aware of all the names that I wasn’t typing. The names of the 20 school children in China who were stabbed by some crazy head that very same day. The names of the children in the Congo subjected to violence and horrors almost daily. The children in Central American countries. The children in Chiang Mai. I wondered whether our nation would have responded this strongly if Sandy Hook was a school on the south side of the Bronx and all the little children were brown, instead of blond little angels named Grace?

I don’t feel this is an appropriate time to drag race issues into the mix, and I’m really not trying to poke at people where they’re already sore. Empathy is never a bad thing and it’s impossible to feel the full scope of sadness for all the sad things in this world – a person would absolutely break. But for me, that question is there. It lurks because part of what defines tragedy is the extent to which we identify with the victims, and simply being fellow humans is rarely enough.

Last week, I confessed about all my existential questions about the point and meaning of life, and the sense of absurdity I felt in it. This week, I sense that we can pose all those kinds of questions we like, but none of them do a damn bit of good in helping us confront the fact that life must be lived, every day, one day at a time. There’s tragedy. Some days that tragedy is as huge as the murder of innocents. Some days the tragedies are as minor a freshly baked tart dropped on the floor. Most days, it’s something in between: unaffordable medical bills, a crappy or even lost job, a bitter argument with someone you love, a flu you just can’t seem to shake.

And it’s okay because there’s other stuff too. There’s the handwritten cookbook full of family secrets passed down. Presents under the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. A shy 14-year-old belting tunes all by herself, in a foreign language, out in front of a crowd of 200. Husband and wife secretly copping a feel and sharing a laugh in between job and chores. A puppy climbing in your lap, seeking warmth and comfort, when you’re trying to go to the loo. Family giving you a space at the dinner table, despite what you said to them earlier that day. A stranger anonymously fulfilling an unspoken need.

This is how we live life, day in and day out. We cry at the tart so lovingly made and so carelessly splattered to the floor. Then we scoop it up, scrape off the abused parts, and eat the rest of it anyway.

Here’s what I’d like to add as we turn now towards Christmas. It’s easy…comforting, even…to respond to such tragedy with fear, anger, and hate. It’s much harder to respond with love. But if we cling to that security blanket that we can weave so delicately with yarns of sadness, despair, and fright, and pattern with disgust, vitriol, and spite…if we hold that dear and treasure it, those who seek to incite terror and to make people pay for the hurt they feel inside will be the ones who win. If we let the Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas of the world cause us to suffer, they win. Their mission will be accomplished.

But it is love, not hatred, that helps us heal. Choosing forgiveness over sorrow is what makes us stronger as people. Mercy, not punishment, is what makes us humane.

You might be thinking, “Oh, she’s all the way in Thailand, far removed from all this. She’s not a parent of the children lost. What could she know?” Well, I’m human too, and I speak from the experience of my heart from working with kids just as innocent as the ones we lost last week, but who are subjected to all manner of abuses, the kind most of us cannot even fathom. I speak not from my strength, but from theirs. They have all the reason in the world to hate the world, yet continually, they respond to love.

This Christmas, as you hold your dear ones close to you, send love.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Hyacynth’s!
BE SURE TO CATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!

A Coffee Chat

If we were really meeting for coffee today, you’d find me curled up in a hammock, wearing yoga pants and a comfy sweater, cupping my coffee to me. If we did speak, it would be quietly.

When I heard the news, I was at SOLD helping set up and prepare for our Christmas party. It was an event full of delight, as friends, students, and community came together to put on a really awesome show. We had about 200 guests and everything came together without a hitch, and with plenty of laughter and festive cheer. But for me, it was like I was walking through the whole thing with cotton buds in my ears. It was muted as I began to process shock. Grief. Disbelief. Sadness.

I found myself looking into the eyes of our 5- and 6-year-olds and finding it impossible to imagine how a person could do that and pull a trigger. There’s just a wall in my head where that cannot go.

Every morning, I wake up and find my Facebook stream absolutely ablaze with everyone processing this tragedy in their own way. I know that anger is just another form of grief and fear, but it saddens me to see people attacking other people, instead of discussing the content of their ideas. It just goes to show how fresh and raw the wound is, I suppose, that we are so quick and ready to see the worst in each other and to find distaste rather than commonality.

Yesterday, I posted a tribute to the victims, a black armband of shared mourning. But as I typed those names onto that black square, I was acutely aware of all the names that I wasn’t typing. The names of the 20 school children in China who were stabbed by some crazy head that very same day. The names of the children in the Congo subjected to violence and horrors almost daily. The children in Central American countries. The children in Chiang Mai. I wondered whether our nation would have responded this strongly if Sandy Hook was a school on the south side of the Bronx and all the little children were brown, instead of blond little angels named Grace?

I don’t feel this is an appropriate time to drag race issues into the mix, and I’m really not trying to poke at people where they’re already sore. Empathy is never a bad thing and it’s impossible to feel the full scope of sadness for all the sad things in this world – a person would absolutely break. But for me, that question is there. It lurks because part of what defines tragedy is the extent to which we identify with the victims, and simply being fellow humans is rarely enough.

Last week, I confessed about all my existential questions about the point and meaning of life, and the sense of absurdity I felt in it. This week, I sense that we can pose all those kinds of questions we like, but none of them do a damn bit of good in helping us confront the fact that life must be lived, every day, one day at a time. There’s tragedy. Some days that tragedy is as huge as the murder of innocents. Some days the tragedies are as minor a freshly baked tart dropped on the floor. Most days, it’s something in between: unaffordable medical bills, a crappy or even lost job, a bitter argument with someone you love, a flu you just can’t seem to shake.

And it’s okay because there’s other stuff too. There’s the handwritten cookbook full of family secrets passed down. Presents under the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. A shy 14-year-old belting tunes all by herself, in a foreign language, out in front of a crowd of 200. Husband and wife secretly copping a feel and sharing a laugh in between job and chores. A puppy climbing in your lap, seeking warmth and comfort. Family giving you a space at the dinner table, despite what you said to them earlier that day. A stranger anonymously fulfilling an unspoken need.

This is how we live life, day in and day out. We cry at the tart so lovingly made and so carelessly splattered to the floor. Then we scoop it up, scrape off the abused parts, and eat the rest of it anyway.

Gratitude for Happenstance

I often don’t shut off my camera before I shove it into my bag, and it’s later, as I scan through the slide show of recent photos that I sometimes come across an unexpected…and even surprisingly stunning shot like the one above.

I had plans today. Not specifically planned plans, but a list of things to do…

…until I got a phone call.

My cousins were randomly in town – and not in the town I live in, but the one I work in, three hours away. There was in invite to breakfast, and sure, I have time for breakfast.

And breakfast led to a meeting with a prominent artist, and soon we were traveling to his house and the houses of other artists, galleries, and temples….

…amazing places…

 

…fantastic spaces…

…and kind, sweet souls….

 

 

To me, there’s nothing more beautiful or inspiring than seeing people do what they love, with joy. With peace in the heart comes a generosity. Sometimes, I feel – I know – I lead a charmed life. But I’m also surrounded by charming people doing good in the world, by starting with themselves. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started out today. It was only towards the end, as I began to look back, that I truly saw it.

I’m grateful that I said yes to breakfast.

P.S. I’m trying out Intense Debate as my new commenting system. For those of you who might not have used Intense Debate before, please know it is not necessary to create an account to comment.* Just be sure to include your name and email – and if you wish to receive email notifications of any replies to your comments (from me or other readers) so you don’t have to keep checking back, hit the button “Subscribe to:  Replies” at the bottom left.

Please let me know how it’s working for you! Yay or nay?

*If you’re a regular reader & commenter, it may be worthwhile to create an account for greater ease of use (and that’s how you can get a nifty little picture by your name too).

A Globetrotter’s Life

When I was little, I used to dream of having a life where I could travel and see the world. When I tried to imagine myself as an adult at the ripe old age of, say, twenty-five, I imagined myself in an airy New York apartment with wood floors and concrete walls, stalking about in power heels and a sharp suit in between jaunts to London, Chicago, Paris, and Moscow. I was a lot taller too.

It wasn’t clear what all exactly I’d be doing, but that’s what it should look like.

As I got a little older, the probability of this fantasy coming true began to wane. I maxed out at 5’1″ in high school. I pursued studies in art, clearly having no realistic sense of how few artists make enough money to buy tailored suits and plane tickets. I thought I’d become a graphic designer, working with models and photographers for fantastic magazine ads like the kind you see in Vogue, clearly having no sense of how to get there.

I thought I might do a semester abroad in college, but I had the kind of love going on that kept me bound rather than setting me free, and I was okay with that. I made my choices. I might have been a little afraid to leave too.

Then, after college, I got a “real” job working in advertising for a real magazine company. The dream, right? Except I was chained to my desk. I learned that ads involved more computers than cameras and stock photos of Tahiti rather than trips to Tahiti. I finally made enough money to travel, but with only two weeks’ worth of vacation time primarily eaten up by Christmas and New Year’s, I never had time to go anywhere.

I made a rule for myself then: to see one new place every year. It didn’t have to be exotic; it just had to be someplace I hadn’t been before. I stopped envisioning trips to Rome and Machu Picchu, and focused instead on the splendors of Yosemite, Nevada, and South Carolina. That rule for myself was my lifeline; my declaration that I had not given up on my dream, no matter how little money or time allowed for it.

When that job at the magazine publishing company lost its luster, I decided to go back to school, and again traded time for money. I had vacation time aplenty, but no money.

My twenty-fifth birthday did not see me in a svelte flat in New York.

But it did find me on a plane to Germany. I begged and bartered my way there, staying with people I was lucky enough to know living there, thus saving on hotels. (One of whom was a man I’d never met before in real life and on the train down to meet him I began hyperventilating over the fact that he could be all manner of dangerous freak — it turns out he was one of the most gentlemanly men I’ve been fortunate to know and he set me up with a place to stay at a female friend’s house and they showed me all around Munich, despite barely knowing me, and we’re still very good friends to this day.)

I made that trip as a gift to myself because I wanted to prove to myself I could travel on my own. I remember arriving at that German airport and being terrified for not being able to speak the language and being all alone. It ended up being one of the best gifts I ever gave myself. I learned the kindness of strangers, and I learned I was less fragile than I thought.

Flash forward a few years, I was coming to the end of my doctoral program, still unsure what my future would hold. I might have had a few day dreams of standing in a long flowing skirt on a dirt road, with dusty children playing around me, as I fought for their rights. But those dreams were born of visions of movies like The Constant Gardener and had all the reality of centaurs and Patronuses.

And yet, this time, I was a little older, a little braver, and married to a man who had spent a year traveling around the world. Rather than chaining me to all I knew, he spurred me to know more, see more, and do more. We spurred each other on.

I could have played it “safe” and followed a career path so set and immutable it was literally called a “track.” But we were ready for a transition. We were comfortable – and we figured we were far too young to be so comfortable.

So we shed everything: our apartment, our furniture, prescriptions for a “safe” job (which, by the way, was not at all safe given the state of the economy), my trusted old car, and my husband’s beloved motorbike. We traded it all in for one-way tickets to a foreign country and a potential position with an NGO.

This year alone, I’ve been up and down Thailand innumerable times. I’ve been to Hong Kong, Berlin, Krakow, Prague, Dresden, and Los Angeles. I’ve stood in a long flowing skirt on a dirt road, with children playing by my feet as I discussed the best ways to keep them from becoming enslaved. And I have plans to go to Charleston, Santa Barbara, and the tropical islands in the south of Thailand. I have far more experiences and much less stuff. I take shorter showers, but communicate in more languages and eat a much broader repertoire of food.

Looking back, I’m still not sure how I got here, other than much like my first trip to Germany: I booked the tickets and then freaked out about it later, when it was too late to do anything but put one foot in front of the other.

But I’m still just shy of 5’1″. (If anything, I mighta’ shrunk a bit.)

A traveler’s life can be lonely and isolating, being so far from all you know and having to navigate all manner of things without speaking a lick of the language. But the truth is, I never really did any of it alone. I did it with the emotional (and often financial) support of family. I made friends with people who made transitions easier. I have a husband to hold my hand and mirror my look of awe and surprise as I go. I flew, always knowing I had a soft spot to land with friends and family whenever I wanted or needed.

When I was little and dreaming of a globetrotter’s life, I couldn’t really imagine much beyond that svelte flat in New York. Now I’m living it, I know it has nothing to do with any flats in any particular place and everything to do with the attitude you bring to it. The things that matter in life – loving family, good food, strong connections, freedom, and security – are the same whether you’re sitting in fisherman pants on a bamboo mat in Mae Tha or around the dinner table in Elgin or at a beer garden in Berlin. Whether you’re riding in an SUV or a rickshaw, you still make the choice to impact the people around you in a manner that’s positive or not. Children respond to gentle encouragement whether they’re learning to color in a community center in a rice field or learning to skate in a rink in Fountain Valley. You can have the same conversations with concerned people, whether you speak in a northern Thai dialect or with a Southern twang.

And whether here or there, you can be 5’1″ and still walk a long stride.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up HERE!
BE SURE TO CATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!

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I’m linking this up again as my Best of Bigger Picture Moments from 2012.
Join us next week with your One Word Resolution for 2013!

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