December 30, 2014

Choosing our words and also our reactions

Everyone has heard the cautionary tale about the little boy who cried wolf, or what happens if you yell FIRE! in a public place when there isn't one. At some point, we become desensitized to the language and when a real emergency happens, nobody reacts.

Elementary schools always have some sort of anti-bullying policy and children are taught to never-ever bully, but they don't always seem to be taught what exactly constitutes bullying. I see this phenomenon as a substitute teacher in the district where I work. Nearly every day, one child makes an unkind or unfiltered remark to another, something perhaps as innocuous as your hair looks weird today or I don't like the color of your sweater. Within moments, I have a child telling me they've been "bullied". I'm put in a position of mediation, but in a culture that is so hyper-vigilant, every utterance must be monitored. In fact, if I don't react properly, I could be responsible for not addressing the situation.

I'd like to teach our children instead to be ducks and let it roll off their backs. When did the teasing that is inherently part of children being children become a rallying cry for preventative measures in every exchange? In no way do I wish to diminish the very real and serious problem of bullying, especially with the lengths true bullying can go in today's cyber world. However, I believe that the culture reduces the problem to the level that when real bullying happens, it's often ignored, in a slew of ongoing offenses we commit against one another.

When I was in high school, our drama club did a very funny play called The Stuck Pot. Here is a synopsis from Dramatic Publishing:
Some boy is always getting stuck with an awful "lemon" for his date at the annual dance. The boys have decided to establish a consolation prize to be awarded to the boy who gets stuck. They call it The Stuck Pot. The girls retaliate by establishing a stuck pot of their own. So much money is collected for the two stuck pots that everyone (almost!) wants to win. Alice is particularly anxious to win. She's not much interested in boys and she'd like that "pot" in order to buy a microscope. Alice is a whiz at chemistry and she cooks up a unique new "perfume," the smell of which should send any boy running for the hills. Meanwhile, some of the other girls are vying to be the most unattractive, and it results in probably the most riotously funny dance scene your audience will ever see. The dance reaches a humorous climax and a delightful resolution. 

I remember laughing hysterically at this play 30 years ago. The same play this year was rejected by the administration as having too many undercurrents of "bullying".  When the reason was explained to me, I absolutely understood, but I couldn't help but wonder why nobody ever considered it a generation ago?

funny looking shoes
I've addressed my own issues with bullying as both the giver and the receiver, and have seen glimpses of it while raising my own children. However, we don't teach elementary school children that sometimes people just aren't always nice to each other, and that isn't the same thing as terrorizing, harassing, or bullying. It's about learning social skills to diffuse a situation instead of escalate it.

When I was about 10 years old, I had a pair of boots that my mom picked out for me. They were very stylish in her eyes, but they weren't at all like anything my classmates wore. I didn't want to wear them to school, because I knew what would happen. But of course, Mom made me wear them to school and sure enough, I got there and everyone made fun of my boots. They were strange looking for the style of the day. I recoiled, embarrassed that I had to spend the day in boots that I knew people would tease me about. I got home, barely able to conceal my anger, and refused to ever wear the boots again. I look at the boots today and think they are pretty cool. But to a 5th grader in the mid 70s, it just didn't work with the styles my peers were wearing.

What happened with the boot incident was not bullying but a series of life lessons. I learned that sometimes people tease you for something you cannot control. You either learn the confidence to manage it or you let it hurt you. Or you find a reason to stop being teased. In my case, I knew my boots were funny looking in elementary school eyes. I gained the confidence to stand up to my mom and grow into a more independent person. I didn't hate my classmates or internalize the teasing. They were making fun of the boots, not me.  But I wonder how such an incident would be repeated today. Would a little girl wearing the funny looking boots think she was bullied? How can we check that reaction and instill the coping skills to manage some uncomfortable moments?

I think that's what it really boils down to. We need to learn to manage moments of discomfort. Those moments we're either embarrassed or ashamed, and how we handle it. It's about how we're reacting to what someone is saying.

Being thoughtful isn't a one way street. It's not just about what we say, but also what we hear and how we react. A little more thoughtfulness would go a long way.

December 29, 2014

Goal for 2015

Many years ago, (at least seven), I started blogging under a pen name. I woke up every morning and wrote something. A lot of it was ridiculous, some of it was sublime, but the ritual was necessary. I wrote and shared and folks gave me feedback. Sometimes the feedback was "what in the world are you talking about" and sometimes it was "wow, you really nailed it". But feedback helped me grow. It helped me grow so much I stopped writing privately and brought it public. Then I stopped writing.

I started marketing and selling and making sure that what I said fit my intended audience. And it got tiresome. I started to drift. I stopped making sense.

Since my days of regular writing, I've found a lot more commercial success, but I've unfortunately, my writing skills have atrophied. I like to think it's like riding a bike, I just need to get back on it and it will all make sense. I'm training my fingers to do just that and hope my mind comes along for the ride.

As long as I'm talking about bike riding, I need to shout out another goal. I joined an exercise studio over a year ago, one that specializes in spinning. For those who don't know, spinning is an intense stationary bike workout. It's cool because unlike when you ride on the road, if you slow down, you don't get left behind, you simply slow down. I ride a little slower for several reasons. One is that I am overweight. I'm trying not to be. But I am. The other is a slight heart condition. I have been diagnosed with "mitral valve regurgitation". Basically what that means is that one of the valves that sends oxygen to my blood doesn't always close and the oxygen flows the wrong way. At least that's how I understand it based on my research following the diagnosis. But I get short of breath sometimes, with a legitimate reason. My heart doesn't always get the oxygen where it needs to be. My doctor is watching it. As am I. I just realize that if I'm having a hard time breathing, I need to slow down and catch my breath.

It ties into the theme of my decision to write again daily. I need the fresh air. I need to breathe. I need to try to write again, every day. I have a goal of writing a biography for someone and I need to get back on that bike and ride.

Here is my bike. The chain is oiled, the tires full, and the handles ready.

So am I.

To writing, breathing, riding and life.

December 22, 2014

I'm not racist (but) ... and other lies we tell ourselves

I'm a white woman living in a white world. My life is pristine and crisp. But I think I'm enlightened. I participate in discussions about race and keep an open mind. Heck, I even told one of my black friends (because all us enlightened folks have black friends we reference as proof we aren't racist), that I understood. I even went so far as to elaborate. I explained in great detail how big I was for understanding the need to even the playing field, as I continued about my own personal experience. I was in college and applied to be an RA in the dorm. My competition was a black girl. Or at least one of several competitors. But she was the one who got the job. I remember the shock and outrage that she was selected, and not I. Never mind that 14 were selected. She was the one I should have beaten.

I explained this very sincerely. Halfway through the explanation, I realized, I. Am. An. Asshole. This from a woman who doesn't curse on a regular basis. But it fit. I placed an incredibly arrogant myopic view on my experience. I told myself for 25 years that I lost to a black woman. I comforted myself with false magnanimous declarations that it evened things out. I never took a moment to consider that I had been competing for a job with 13 other candidates. Only that I lost the the black girl. So I again repeat, I. Am. An. Asshole.

You see? I have sold myself on the assumption that white people deserve jobs and if black people get them, it's about quotas, not quality. I was so myopic, that I didn't consider perhaps I wasn't as qualified, or didn't interview as well. I assumed the job was mine. Because I'm fabulous and I know it.


I recoil in my assumptions but embrace the chance to learn. In a time when we are barely openly discussing race, I am not going to miss my chance. I had an epiphany last week. In the middle of explaining to my friend how "big" I was for understanding that I had to take the hit, I realized what a jerk I was. I realized that my WHITE PRIVILEGE never had me consider that maybe I just wasn't the best person for the job. I am embarrassed. As I discussed my experience with my friend, I recoiled in shame.

This is the crux... I live in a bubble. I don't know what I don't know. This doesn't make me a horrible person. This means I need to recognize that just because it isn't in my realm, it doesn't mean it isn't real.

This means that it took me over 25 years to realize that I wasn't the best person for the job. Period.

Thanks, Staci, for listening to me and being my friend. I love you.
P.S. Happy Birthday, friend.

December 18, 2014

The meaning of Christmas

To me, Christmas is a year round celebration, not the weeks leading into nowadays Halloween and Thanksgiving. I get frustrated by the retail push to encourage us to spend money on kitschy junk as a way to "celebrate". Then there is the stress to get it all done, adding tasks to an already full plate. The past few years, I've given myself permission to skip one of the must-do tasks as a way of offering a reprieve. One year, I didn't bake cookies. Another year I didn't mail out cards. Another year I didn't write a Christmas letter, etc. But even by allowing myself a breather, I still feel overwhelmed and out of breath. I can completely understand the sentiment behind John Grisham's book Skipping Christmas, which was adapted into the film Christmas with the Kranks.

This year, for a number of personal reasons, I am not feeling any of it. My heart isn't in the mad retail or decorating melee. I've written Christmas letters, but not copied them and gotten cards, but still not mailed them. I decorated the tree but decided we didn't need to do outdoor lights, only to have to undo them in a few weeks. I'm just not in the mood for any of it. I don't want to bake, I don't want to decorate, I don't want to put on a fake smile. I just want peace. And quiet.

But, then once I get that peace and quiet, I remember why we even have the season. Over two thousand years ago, a baby was born into a humble life. There are a lot of stories about the hows and whys and the expectations of this young baby. When we stop thinking about another blow up Santa yard ornament or reindeer antlers for our car or ugly Christmas sweaters, we may remember the words that young baby grew up to share. We may remember His parables and stories, reminding us that Christmas is anything but all the stuff we force ourselves to do to celebrate. The things that ultimately leave us wanting. You see, Christmas has nothing to do with any of the things I am stressed about or not feeling.

Christmas is about the words of Jesus. Whatever you do or don't believe about religion, if you recognize Christmas as any sort of holiday, you must recognize the words of the namesake. Words like:
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.
He opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

These are the words that remind me what Christmas is about. The words Christ spoke, repeatedly.

Here in my town, I've been given a reminder. A man in my community is reaching out to the people that often are overlooked. Those who hide beneath our bridges and huddle in vacant buildings. People who haven't seen a shower or had a hot meal in days. People who need medical help. People who most of us turn away like we never saw them. He is finding them and going to where they are camping in a Tent City along our river. A loosely organized group has been doing daily outreach. They are going to where the houseless live, in makeshift shelters, up and down the banks of the river. Building trust with people the world has ignored and shunned. The group is helping keep our brothers and sisters warm, fed, and restoring dignity. They are no longer faceless ghosts we try to ignore. They are men like Will, who wants to find work in a restaurant, or Freddie who can work as a janitor. Or Jen who has worked as an office manager and billing clerk. The group is collecting bus passes and survival gear. Planting fruit trees so the camp will one day bear edible fruit for anyone who needs it. But more than anything, they are planting hope.

Jesus didn't charge us to hang wreaths from our eaves or put large plastic light-up figurines of His birth on our town square. He didn't ask us to yell at clerks who don't say Merry Christmas or write companies expressing outrage at a policy that won't allow it. He didn't ask us to exchange useless white elephant gifts and laugh about sticking someone with something nobody needs. He didn't ask us to bake piles of food and eat like gluttons while Lazarus sat the the gate waiting for even our scraps. Those aren't the messages we're supposed to hear about Christmas.

Thank you to a humble local shepherd, for reminding so many of us what we should be hearing.

If you're interested in learning more about Tent City and how you can help, please visit Go Fund Me. 

Let's all remember the Reason for the Season.



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