Pretty is…

as pretty does, my dad used to say.  He also used to say we were more than pretty.  So what message did he send?  We were pretty where it mattered.  Pretty because of our contributions to the world and our treatment of others. 

I’ve spent my morning following bunny trails of videos and articles about women’s bodies.  The last was an Ellen excerpt with Australian “plus” size model Robyn Lawley.  She is lovely and luscious (sorry-it’s on my ick list too, along with “panties”-but there’s not a better word for it!) in a way that catwalk skeletons can’t understand.  In a way that makes me shake my head in wonder at the sheer absurdity at the idea that beauty is fat free.  Especially female beauty.  Just compare these, side by side, and tell me which women are more attractive as women, not as clothes hangers or concentration camp survivors.

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And it struck a chord for me, after my daughter spent a few minutes leafing through a photo book and focusing on a photo of two of the most beautiful people I know.  One of my cousins (who are, incidentally, both scientifically beautiful) and my sister.  And I am reminded again how lucky we were to be raised in a family culture that promoted authentic concepts of beauty.  

My morning’s bunny trail took me through a Huff Post video about two model scouts and their process for finding potential money makers.  One clip shows them approaching a mother in a mall to admire her daughter, and propose that she may want to model.  Before they could even finish, mom was blowing them off like the plague.  No no no, not interested.  Wise mother.  My sister used to get offers like this, with her 13 year old basketball player 5′ 9″ body and blond cornflower beauty.  But my mom, with perhaps less bluster, would turn them down.  Because she knew that a girl’s body is not a woman’s body or a billboard, and the adoration and obsessions about size 2 waists and thigh gap are a cancer that will rob any young woman of her sense of value as she grows into her adult self. 

We have puppy syndrome as a culture.  We want the cute and malleable ball of new, but are bored by the dog.  I live in a city where this is demonstrated with cruel regularity, as grown dogs are regularly abandoned on the streets.  Puppies you can jam in a purse and carry around to be admired.  Dogs have bigger needs and are not so cute.  They are not convenient, not like a puppy.  Big surprise-because they’re NOT puppies.  Just like adult women are not 13 year old girls. One comment that was made on the video with the model scouts was that the 14 and 15 year old models that are usually featured on catwalks will DO anything you ask them too.  Puppy syndrome?  Grown women have (or should have) expectations and boundaries. That’s what makes us adults.  Apparently, that’s also what makes adult women so unattractive to an industry trying to exploit and sell female bodies. Hips, thighs and self respect.  The thing they work so hard to make us loathe. 

What defies logic is that so often, these self same women (i.e. adults) buy into the lie with the same naivety as an 8 year old child wanting to buy a toy because a commercial told them to.   Why do we insist on making every grown ass woman feel like a failure because she’s not built like a child?  So you have a booty and hips, and weight settles around your waist.  Instead of recognizing that this is the biological destiny of being female when we are no longer in the taffy pull stage of adolescence, women have been convinced that if they just ate enough celery and did enough crunches, they could be the way they should.  Hipless, thighless, “muffin-top” less, but of course, not breastless.  Imagine a world where we demanded as much body diversity as we demand ethnic diversity. 

Pretty is as pretty does.  And I know some awfully gorgeous woman, who happen to gorgeous on the inside too.  And that’s nice to say and nice to think and true.  But my real sense of outrage is that we live in a looking glass world where we have convinced actually beautiful women that they aren’t “good enough.”  And I want to be purely superficial for a day, and say with some reverse sizism, (sorry skinny ladies), that women who look like women are comforting, alluring and mysterious, and far more attractive than women who look like coat hangers or teenage boys.  I personally got the build of those boys-no hips at all-which means if I collect anything around the middle, it shows.  I am one of those skinny fat people that can hide under clothes (you know what I mean, if you are one-lots of lumps and bumps, but skinny arms and legs sticking out), so I’m not pretending I know how it feels to live in our backwards world looking very different from the purported ideal.   I don’t even particularly hate my little donut, but some hips would sure be nice for dispersing it more pleasingly.  Anytime I try and carry anything-kids included-for a distance, they slip right off.  Hips are what make women women-so are bellies and thighs; so all the representations of women minus these parts should aggravate ALL of us.  And we should reject them as easily as the idea that we should grow beards.  We should find them as horrifying as foot binding and genital mutilation.  Why don’t we?

My husband never NEVER passes on cake or a candy bar because it might “stick.”  As a rule, I refuse to pass on these things either.  If I did, I would resent him for having his cake, eating it, and still having a rocking body too.  Which he earns through lots of exercise and by being a dude.  He likes to ride bikes, good for him.  He was born a dude, good for me;)  But he never ever feels guilty about his body, or worries how he’ll look in his swim shorts.  There is a strange paradox in our times of Cosmo and Sex in the City, where women feel entitled to careers and respect, but abuse their bodies for love.  If we expect equal respect for our personhood in a job or community or home, why do women as a gender feel so much guilt for the very bodies that define us as women? 

In the last 5 years, I’ve gained some weight, with little change in diet or exercise.  If anything, I eat less.  I have some hormonal problems and sleep problems, both of which contribute.  But guess what?  I’ve got bigger boobs, and that’s fine with me!  Because here’s a math equation our culture at large manipulates with silicone and surgery; bigger girls have bigger boobs.  It pisses me off when women cheat the system, throwing off the benefits for all the real girls in the world.  Men should have to choose-tiny waists & tiny boobs, or bigger girls & bigger boobs.  If everyone agreed to stop screwing with the system, we’d all have something to offer, and feel much better about ourselves.  Instead of feeling like we all had to  fit into the same chocolate mold, we’d just each be a handmade truffle.  Something unique and delicious and unpredictable, wrapped up to be unwrapped by one person, one day.  I fact, my husband’s godmother used to tell him that men who like sweets make better husbands.  I think there’s an analogy here.

When we buy into female guilt for just looking however we do, we are part of the machine that has turned female bodies into mass manufactured products for mass consumption, which is how our culture treats women’s bodies.  We need to reclaim ourselves as something handmade and unique.  Part of that equation is treating yourself like something valuable, for one person’s pleasure and appreciation, not the whole world’s.  The whole world won’t appreciate you.  It doesn’t need to.  But don’t let everyone take a bite out of you proving the point.  In our current cultural climate, we can’t much control the fact that lots of men have been convinced we should all have the dimensions of a Hershey’s bar, but we can learn to think of ourselves as truffles.  There are some rules to this. 

We have to STOP looking at glamour magazine at all.  Do you hear me?  We have to practice what lovely Ms. Lawley does, and tell ourselves that we are great the way we are.  (You are!  Believe me-you’re a truffle:)  I am not trying to say that it’s good practice to, as my dad likes to joke, lay around eating bon-bons and reading True Detective all day.  But be as close to 100 cocoa as you can-find your set point, and embrace it.  Some girls are tall, some girls are small, some are curvy, some can’t keep the baby on their hip-but we’re all truffles.  Just don’t forget about the filling!  Because pretty is as pretty does:) And pretty doesn’t give a shit what Anna Wintour has to say.

The Life We’ve Got

I can’t sleep.  And as I do 50% of the time when I can’t sleep, I have just spent an hour following a bunny trail of foster care photo listings for children needing homes, to an orphanage in Haiti (look on a map, it’s exactly between you and I-doesn’t that seems like a sign?), to blogs written by adoptive and occasionally birth parents, to pinterest “pins” of sibling photos.  I suppose it’s like a rosary of sorts.  Rub these 8 links in this order, and someday, it will be you writing that blog.   It hasn’t worked for 8 years, but I’m crazy like that.  And an insomniac like that.

Since I’m peeling back the band aid, I’ll admit that I dream of handing my daughter a baby the way some people dream of handing their husband a baby.  Maybe it’s evolved to this in recent years because her longing for that scenario has grown as fierce as mine.  The day I can snap a pic of her with her Huck Finn beauty holding onto a sibling will be the day I can sleep again like a normal person.  Or, at least blame my insomnia on a person and not an idea.  And yet.  The last bead I read was a great post from a blogger who was adopted and who has adopted.  She has a great commentary on overthinking the mechanics of love, and a fine conclusion about her life, which follows a little anecdote about how her birth parents almost revoked placing her with her family.  She segues into her commentary this way:

A bunch of adoptive parents were talking recently.  They were discussing about whether their kids would have been better off if they hadn’t been adopted internationally.  If the loss of their birth families, homeland, culture was too great, too damaging.  These parents love their children.  They agonize for them.  They see the hurts that their children suffer.  They are open, honest and raw as they share this with each other.  I honor and respect that.  I hurt for my boys, too.  They have lost so much.  However, I don’t find myself wondering if we are what is best for them.  Not because I am sure we are what is best for them, but because it doesn’t matter.  There is more than one path to a good life.  Our paths led us to each other.  We’ll just take it from there.

When I was a baby,  I spent a couple of months in foster care before being placed with my adoptive parents.  During that time, my birth parents went to the adoption agency and told the social worker that they planned to get married and wanted me back.  After spending time talking with social worker, they decided to stay with the adoption plan.  But, had that happened, when I was older, they may have told me the story of how they almost went through with an adoption plan for me.  They may have told me about their last minute change of heart and how they got me back so we could be a family.  I would probably be horrified that I had almost been given away and raised by strangers!

Instead, I found this information out as an adult, an adopted adult, and felt horrified.  I wouldn’t have been me!  I would have a different name, a different life, no Kurt, Devyn, Maddy, Mikias or Jemberu!   I wouldn’t have had my parents!  I would have had the wrong life!

But of course the thing is, I wouldn’t have had the wrong life.  I would have had the life I got.  Just like our adopted kids.  This is the life they got.  We can’t change the circumstances or decisions made that led them to an orphanage.  We can’t change the fact that they were in a place where they needed a family.  We honor their past.  We acknowledge their hurts.  We do our best.  We love them.
(Alison Boynton Noyce, They’re All My Own, Practical Love)

Just last night, my insomnia was fueled by the necessity of revising a letter to immigration, asking them to let us return to the US as a family.  My attorney appointed mission is to convince some stranger somewhere who reads the letter that a.), living in Chile is a hardship on me, and b.) living without my husband in the US would be a hardship.  If you have more than 2 brain cells, you probably need to reread that last line with a “say what?” as a dear friend did.  As in, what the HELL? How is living perpetually anywhere without a spouse NOT a hardship? But I digress.

My concluding thought to Mr. or Ms. nameless immigration employee who will one day read said letter is this:  Trying to decide what is best for our child is the hardest hardship.  Is a father worth giving up a life with all near and extended relatives? Is having a father worth living with what seems to be infinite economic concerns? Giving up a traditional education? Is a nuclear family more important than old friends, warm water, mountains, trees, summer camp, mornings waking up in a hot tent under a pine tree? Worth missing for years the smell of sage, rain, pine and waffle cones? Holidays, bookstores, nieces, nephews, birthdays, weddings, and decent coffee?  Is it worth living in a literal desert?

The only good answer is that it’s the life we’ve got.  And there are many paths to a good life.

There is a corollary here between marital love and maternal or paternal love.  However or why-ever you married your spouse or came to parent your child, they are the life you’ve got.  Many marriages and families are sacrificed on the alter of romantic ideas like soul mates and destiny, and greener grass over there, because our culture doesn’t teach us the common sense value of appreciating what we’ve got.   And to be honest, it’s a virtue I have been working on badly for a few years now.  I am a book nerd and an Oregonian with a sensory aversion to sand and dust and a rash that is exacerbated by heat, living in a desert without bookstores or decent coffee.  I wrote a book my husband will never read, and when I tell him it smells like Autumn, he looks at me like I’m crazy.  He is bike obsessed, and has a semi secret smoking habit I won’t elaborate on. On paper, we have 1 thing in common, and she’s Huck Finn gorgeous.  We are not the stuff romantic comedies are made of.  We don’t lay in bed at night whispering about the future or reading poems. We don’t celebrate Valentine’s day (thank god;) or anniversaries (wipe a tear, seriously).  Because that’s not the life we’ve got.

My daughter has lost connection to her first family and her first culture; she also has been shuttled away from her second culture, and her extended family.  Just this year, she has begun to really appreciate her cousins, and miss them.  She has somewhat accusatorily asked me (again) recently why I can’t have kids, as if it was something I did against her.  And I have had to tell her, it’s just the life we’ve got.  But next time I will tell her “there is more than one path to a good life.”

And sometimes, it looks like this:

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when we really, really want it to look like this:

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And if I had to explain why, I’d read her chapters out of Exodus. Because they really explain everything about being human.  There was this group of miserable people who were saved miraculously from eons of slavery.  It involved plagues and parting seas and almighty power.  And what did they do? They began complaining about being hungry about 5 minutes later.  So then what happened? -(Cliff note version)- manna falls-literally falls- out of the sky, and they were happy for a day.  But their compulsion was to hoard it.  Instead of learning to appreciate the “manna” in our lives, we are no better than the Isrealites, wandering around the desert, looking for another idol to worship.  More stuff to hoard.  Not learning to trust the living holy god that literally meets our daily needs, and sometimes does a miracle or two.  It’s never enough.  We always want something flashier.  Something more exciting.  Something big and sexy that would make a good movie.  And by we, I of course mean me.  It is a reflection I have had to contemplate in the last week, after our city experienced an 8.2 earthquake and EVERYTHING stood.  Like the wise man and his house of brick.  Solid. No tsunami came, no buildings fell, no one died.  Even the enormous bookshelf I had told my husband a week before to anchor to the wall fell TOWARD the wall.  As in, did not come crashing down.  Did not break.  My daughter observed the little chalkware people on a shelf intact, and said “even they are okay mommy!” And to be really honest, in the midst of all that shaking, what mommy was really truly thinking was “Noooooo, not the tomatoes.” And then “crap!  I love those little chalkware people, and they’re fer sure a broken disaster.”

And yet.  Hard to exhale.  Hard to stop waiting for the next thing, and just enjoy the manna.  Disaster averted! A friend said a psychologist advised people experiencing post traumatic stress to just “be.” And then we laughed about “what does that mean?”  Because the just being, not planning, not worrying, not doing, is…so….hard.  And explains exactly why I am up way too late.  I am not a good “be”er.

I was watching the episode of Friends a day or so ago when Phoebe introduces Monica, who is already married, to her “soul mate.”  In short order, the two hit it off and discover they both dream about living in France in a “house made of cheese.”  Monica’s husband watches it all unfold, almost as convinced she’s got the wrong guy as Phoebe is.  But Monica gets it.  She gets the principle of “the life we’ve got.”  She tells Chandler later she doesn’t believe in soul mates.  There are many paths to a good life.  You pick someone, and you work hard to make your life together a good one.  The only two variables in these scenarios are ourselves and our circumstances.  We get to control one.  That’s 50 percent of the pie.  And just as Boynton Noyce observes, we do our best.  Because, as my dad told me 1,000 times growing up, it’s all we can do.

And so I conclude that a father is worth giving up all the other stuff, because a.) he’s her father, b.) he’s my husband, whom I inexplicably adore more than coffee and bookstores put together, and c.) it’s the life we’ve got.  It’s really really not easy somedays.  But that’s all relative, and no matter where anyone stands, there are always times when it’s really really not easy. But there are also times when the manna blankets the landscape like snow.  We just have to remember. And so I try to make little alters, just like those Isrealites.  For the time being, chalkware figures will have to do. Because as my daughter said-they’re okay! And so are we.  And maybe the why in it all is best answered by the alters.  They’re lessons in gratitude, and we’re still in school.

Its a Small World

 

Lessons from a Rabbit

My daughter longs for a few things.  More days at the beach, less days (i.e. no days) doing school, no hair brushing ever again for the rest of her life.  A Ninjago Lego set. A horse, in her room, preferably. A My Little Pony, come to life. A tiny hippo.  A sister.  As of today, a sister with allergies. (Because she watched a movie about a boy … with a sister … with allergies.) Some of her desires more realistic than others. I guess she’s no different than anyone else.

wish candlesHer birthday wish this year was to go to a baby shower and a wedding.  Read into it what you will. I expected it to come from the above mentioned list.  Just goes to show, there are other things on her mind.  I imagine that, in the same way it sometimes feels to me that the whole world is sporting a swollen belly (in the summer, to be scientific,) it must seem to her that every other child has a built in playmate.  Someone to hide from mom and dad with, someone who gets the jokes that mom and dad don’t.  Now, to be fair, we know lots o’ ladies that aren’t pregnant, and quite a few only children, so neither of these are full scale tragedies.  And I get that.  But much as I’d like to address it like I do her requests for a phone or i-pad, because “everybody else has one,” for once, I am sympathetic.

I don’t believe in only children.  I wouldn’t have picked “singleness” for mine, if I had a choice. If you have never read Anna Quindlin’s lovely essay on siblings, you ought to.  I would quote her here, but my copy is in deep storage.  (And it only costs $2. bucks on Amazon for your own copy:).  To summarize, she says something to the effect that a sibling is the best gift you ever give your kid.

Now, I have a sibling.  And I know kids don’t always see it that way.  A large percentage would happily trade their sibling for an i-pad.  Because they don’t understand the appreciating value of a sibling.  Especially a sibling who is close in age.  Yes, there is a little circle of mommy hell reserved for women who have multiples under the age of 3. (I haven’t tried it personally, of course.  But even poking it with a stick from far away, that’s a whole lot of mommy mommy mommy and sleep deprivation.  And diapers. And fingerprints on the walls.)

But bless those mommies, because they are giving their children the incredible gift of collective memory.  There is no one else in the world who is going to know the ridiculous phrase your dad made you (I mean us, of course) repeat when asking for “official permission to enter the quonset hut, sir,” and how it  made you giggle.  Who will reminisce with you about fighting over the toilet seat and the heating vent, when that luxurious warm air was growling out with a little sigh, and how it blew your nightgowns up like hot air balloons.  There is no one else who will know what you mean when you laugh about how you used to burn your heiny on the heater that was as big as the world’s first computer, warming up out of a shower on a winter morning. Or make fun of you for decades for driving against the proper lane of traffic when you crossed that bridge, until you got wedged in wonkywise. And one of you had to climb out a window.

Now, I must interrupt this ode to the pleasure of collective sibling memory by acknowledging that yes, you’re correct, maybe someone else will.  If you are lucky enough to have an incredibly intimate childhood friend that sticks around through adolescence and adulthood.  And cousins can be pretty good stand ins.  Let’s call them second siblings. They’ll know some of it, I concede.    But not all the ins and outs of mom and dad’s “isms,” not the weird rules like no unicorns allowed, no watching “Gimme a Break,” millet in the cookies and nothing good to trade at lunchtime, because mom was onto rice crackers waaaaay before Portland “got weird.”

And here’s the other benefit of collective memory.  It is the tensile fiber that holds you together with people that you would probably never pick or fall in with as friends.  It teaches children to be loyal for loyalty’s sake. Not because you both love Johnny Depp or Mumford and Sons, but because you belong to each other.  You get to use titles between yourselves no one else can claim.  I used to dress like a bag lady, before Nirvana made that cool.  (Okay, sometimes I still do, on weekends)  My sister was a prom princess and accidental cheerleader, and got picked to be the lead in plays.   You’d be hard pressed to guess we lived together, but somehow she always made me, the book obsessed bag lady, feel like the bomb.  Once I got over resenting her golden existence, (I did show my mom the door the day she brought her home) I discovered she was my favorite person.  In spite of myself.  Probably because she was so good at making me feel like her favorite person. Definitely because she is cheeky and sensitive, thoughtful and sometimes chatty, sometimes solitary, with a man’s communication patterns and in need of no one else’s affirmation.  She has secret dance moves you just wouldn’t believe, and dispenses hug therapy where it’s needed. Did I mention how she laughs? I know that’s like saying someone has beautiful eyes, but seriously.  If I had to pick one thing to hear before I die, it would be Sister laughing.  Than I know I’d meet God laughing too.

How do all those good things make themselves at home in one person? And did I mention, MY person.  You may be her friend, but you’ll never be her sister.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Sisterhood is primitive.  Which is why only children long for it.  Just as barren women long for babies. Some part of us knows we were made for it.  And the good news, if you have no sisters, is they can be made. Adoption isn’t just for babies.  It’s for anyone who cares enough to make you their own, Velveteen Rabbit style.  It won’t be pretty, and it will hurt.  But it will be real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Children, with their funky breath and wonky toes (you say pinkies?) and friends are precious because we claim them, and love them until their fur rubs off.  Not because of who they are, contrary to the culture of child idealization.  We love our kids because of all the nights they kept us up holding their hair back while they puked, or checking their temperature 32 times, or worrying over them on the playground. They can be ugly, or stinky, weird or hyper hypos.  But if they’re ours, we’re gonna love them. And if you have a friend who will hold your hair back or stay up all night with you, who genuinely worries over you, you’re gonna love them too. If you put in the time.

velveteenrabbitI once made a psychology student redo a report she had made about our family, in which she consistently referred to our daughter’s father and myself as her “adoptive” parents.  She was young, and just learning her profession, and was not yet aware of nursery magic.  “Adoption isn’t a chronic disease” I explained to her.  “It is a fact of origin.  But our family is not defined this way.  We are her REAL parents.  Not substitutes or stand ins.  She is our REAL daughter. We don’t need subtitles.”  The nursery magic happened. Our child does not idealize us.  She sees the fur that’s been rubbed off and the loose stitching, just as we see hers.  We are her real to each other.  And the more we pay to be a family, the harder it is, the realer we become.

If there is power in disowning someone, it is only because there is greater power in owning.  I’m not talking about pimps or control freaks here.  I’m talking about the chord that wraps itself between any two people when at least one devotes themselves to the other.  It’s why people still get married.  It’s why some sibling relationships are more intimate than marriage. It’s why Samwise Gamgee followed Frodo Baggins to Mordor.  Love isn’t born out of beauty.  It grows between the cracks of brokenness and vulnerability. Because our siblings are often the first person to hear us cry in the dark and share a changing room, we trust them with the hairy stuff.  We don’t have to prove our lovableness to them. If we’re lucky, we can be that naked with a spouse or a friend.

I know that not every sibling relationship is like ours, but every sibling represents an opportunity for a closeness that cannot be duplicated in any other context.  It can be approximated, but the lining of memories from that first golden decade of childhood, with a shadow that stretches longer than any of the subsequent combined, can never be hemmed in after.

I read a funny little article recently about marriage, and how men and women bring different expectations into it.  Women want companionship, a life partner, security, and some other warm fuzzies, apparently.  According to this article, men generally want two things out of a relationship.  Drum roll…1.) sex (yes, I know you knew.  Gold star for you:) and 2.) not to be criticized.

Is this realistic? Well, that is not the topic of my little bunny trail, but it does say something about the difference between two of the most intimate relationships you can have.  If you’re trying to make a marriage work, you might take this to heart.  It certainly explains the origin of many fights.  But marriage is like all human relationships in that it won’t satisfy the deep longings of your heart.  We yearn to be loved for or in spite of our imperfections.  The truth is that our spouses will weary of them, but may be wise enough not to harp on them.  But siblings will celebrate them and make fun of them with a familial affection.  They will not refrain from criticism, because they have nothing to lose.  In the first family unit, siblings are the ones who can best recognize the “you”ness of you. And exactly because they’re not married to it, they will pull no punches.  “Remember that time you asked when the Fourth of July was?” “Are you SURE you don’t want a map.  I just don’t want you to drive to California on accident.” But when they say it, you can smile.  Because it’s not criticism.  It’s affection.  You do that stuff because YOU do that stuff. Don’t ask my sister directions.  She may know the way, she may not.  But she’ll punk you into being sure she does, and when you got lost because you listened to her, she’ll deadpan “well, you didn’t have to listen to me.” It’s the her-ness of her.  And together, we spend a lot of time analyzing that dad-ness of dad, and the mom-ness of mom.  It’s something we can only do with each other.  It drives our husbands crazy.  But sorry guys-we’re simply turning over the rocks from our home planet and admiring them together.  Even if they’re sharp or slimy. They’re native rocks. And we’re ladies.  We want the companionship of analyzing.  Yes, that’s a real thing.

When we fall in love, we want the affirmation that comes from an alien landing on our planet and admiring it’s unique qualities. Woman in particular want to feel like someone “gets” our planet.  Admiring it is not enough.  You have to understand it.  And sometimes, we’re silly enough to think the alien does get it.  But how could he? Or she? They are not from the home planet.  The seasons make no sense to them.  After some time, the beautiful rocks seem t0o abrasive, the air that once felt cool and refreshing may over time feel cold and inhospitable.  And the flowers may become increasingly recognizable as weeds.  But siblings, they are from the planet.  They will always get it.  They may not always like it, but they are citizens too.  They can read the hieroglyphs.

I watched a really remarkable film late one night based on a true story about a woman who spends 16 years getting her degree to be a lawyer, just so she can represent her brother who is serving a life sentence for murder.  In the process, she loses her husband and both her sons elect to go live with their dad. Her husband doesn’t get her attachment to her brother.  He feels displaced.  She jumps through many, many hurdles to get her brother released.  She passes through many disappointments and injustices.  One day, her boys (now older) are play fighting in the car, and one says to the other “I wouldn’t waste my whole life to help you, like mom did for uncle Kenny.” And their mother, instead of being offended at their conclusion that she had “wasted” her life, says “really? You wouldn’t?” A little part of her dying, because she hopes for more.  If you read more about this woman, you will see that what is remarkable about her is how unremarkable she is.  She loved someone, and she didn’t give up on him.  It sounds so simple, but if you’ve ever tried to be faithful for a long time through adversity, you know it is not simple.

It is my personal philosophy that if you marry a dude, you should not expect him to act like a girlfriend.  That’s what sisters and friends are for. And if you marry a girlfriend, it should be no surprise when she doesn’t speak dude. That’s what bros are for. Sometimes, we try another person’s planet, and just can’t get the hang of it. And the first impulse is to go back to ours.  If you have created an intergalactic species between yourselves, you can create a whole lot of harm following your impulse for home.  You may just have to learn to be a stranger in a strange land, waving at your planet as it twinkles in the dark.  And taking some comfort, like the little Velveteen rabbit did, that you are real.  Because somewhere else, someone loved you enough to make it so. Perhaps the alien you live with will not know every nuance of your species, but that’s okay.  Somewhere out there, someone does:)  And if they don’t, there’s always time to adopt a sister.  Or love your alien until his antennae break and his silver skin grows dull.  Just be prepared to get your heart broken a little in the process, and to put in the time.  It’s what makes you real.

An Inconvenience Rightly Considered

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
― G.K. Chesterton

When we were much younger,  my sister had a teacher she adored, who generously shared her life with her students.  One salient feature of her life was her child, who happened to have Down Syndome.  I will never forget the gist of a parable that she shared with her students one day; a small story that made such an impression, it was worth repeating by her students.  You could ask my sister to confirm the details, but it goes something like this.  Having a child that is different than you expected is something like getting on a plane for Paris, and ending up in Holland.  The language is different, the customs are different, the topography is not what you expected.  You learned French, and prepared for Paris, but ended up in Holland.  Can you guess the moral here? Holland is different, and you are less prepared.  It is an inconvenience.  But Holland is also a beautiful, wonderful adventure.

I must admit that in the wee small hours of the morning, on nights when my daughter is sick or my husband is gone (or, as happened last night, both are true), I am frequently guilty of following a bunny trail of insignificant “news” (i.e. human drama) stories through yahoo and Huffington Post, if I’m not derailed by clicking episode after episode of Jimmy Fallon videos on youtube.  All that to say, I end up reading things about people I never heard of before, like, for example, Charlotte Dawson, who was found dead in her condo yesterday morning.  Because I have never heard of her, I started reading a bunny trail of articles about her life, to know what she did that her death merited notice.  I don’t really want to delve into defining her life, but there are two facts that made me pause while reading.  One is that she had a very short lived but long on impact marriage to Olympian Scott MIller.  The second is that they conceived an “inconvenient” child together.  What she said about it was this:

“I could sense some hesitation in Scott,” she says. “My due date would clash with the 2000 Olympic Games and this was very concerning.

“Everything Scott had done was leading up to this moment and nothing could stand in his way, so it was decided that we would terminate the child and try again later. Who needed a developing foetus when a gold medal was on offer, eh?”

On the day of the termination, Charlotte says she was in “total turmoil”. Her husband accompanied her to the clinic, but “couldn’t cope with the atmosphere” so left her alone.

After the procedure, Charlotte went home and tried to behave as though nothing had happened, but says something had changed forever.

“I felt a shift,” she says. “Maybe it was hormonal, but I felt the early tinges of what I can now identify as my first experience with depression.”

(excerpted from Australian Women’s Weekly)

If you look up Scott Miller today, you will find an interview where he seems so high he might fall asleep, and cannot give a coherent response to the interviewer.  The tone of Charlotte Dawson’s reasoning for an abortion is not one of agreement, or acceptance.  She never came to a place of saying “good thing we aborted that baby.  Everything turned out for the better.”  That baby was Holland, and her husband was dead set on France.  I remember reading a collection of essays in my twenties about couples.  Not sure why I picked it up, but I have ever after been haunted by the story of a woman whose husband was a doctor, and insisted that they abort their unexpected second pregnancy, as they had “successfully” raised their first child to adolescence, because he didn’t want to risk “messing up” with the second.

Where do we get our concepts of love and success? Love is not a business deal, where we cut our losses and report our quarterly gains.  If success is defined by “not messing up” we will only be measured once we’re dead, and have no further possibility of “messing up”, whatever that means.  I think it is fair to say that the very definition of love is risk and sacrifice.  God himself sent us a baby to save us all.  He gave us his son, to mistreat and murder.  Jesus could have come full grown out of the ocean, like Botticelli’s Venus, or spring from God’s forehead himself, replete with armour, like Athena.  If we are inventing dieties, that’s how we do it.  Actually, our God would probably look like Scott Miller, in his glory days, ironically.  But God knows better.  Heroes are not made from narcissists and easy lives.  I have noticed that my sister’s catch phrase these days is in regard to “following the path of least resistance.”  It is what 90-99 percent of the population do, myself included most days.  We do not do the moral thing, the brave thing, the unpopular thing.  We do not rightly consider inconvenience.  Abortion is always the path of least resistance.  Putting ourselves first is the path of least resistance.  Sacrifice is not.

In what I would call one of the best short stories ever written, O’ Henry wrote about a young destitute couple, wishing to give the other the best gift each can offer, after making the biggest sacrifice they’re capable of.  In Gift of the Magi, Della and Jim have little else but the love between them, apart from Jim’s watch, and Della’s long, beautiful hair. So what do they do? Jim sells his watch to buy Della a comb for her hair, and Della sells her hair, to buy a fob chain for Jim’s watch.  So here we compare the story of Charlotte and Scott.  Would a baby have robbed Scott of his Olympic Dream? Compare their story to Jim and Della.  I do not wish to draw a parallel between a human life and a watch.  But think of how beautiful Della felt, with her hair chopped off, to know Jim had given away his most precious possession for her pleasure? What if Scott Miller had done the same?  How would Charlotte Dawson’s life have looked?  How would his? Instead of being an Olympic has-been with nothing much to show but a history of drug use and a broken hearted ex-wife who loved him still, he might be a family man, with a child to love and an adoring wife. She made the sacrifice, hallowing herself out for his dream.  But what did he offer in return?

Even God would not take Isaac from Abraham.  What God wants our reciprocal love. If you have ever been angered by the story of Abraham and Isaac, perhaps you do not understand O’Henry’s story.  God does not wish for us to give him everything, so he can hoard it.  He is Jim.  He already gave the best he had, and we are Della.  He is waiting, to see which of us understand the intimate nature of the exchange he offers.  He wants to know the color of our hearts.  He is the king, dressed as a pauper, waiting to see who will love him truly.

If I told you a story about a woman who drowned her baby because her boyfriend didn’t want it around, you would call her wicked.  If I told you a story about a woman who “disposed” of her pre-born baby, because her husband didn’t find it convenient you would call her practical, and modern.  Or, you might see her for what she is, and call her very, very sad.  And if you have children yourself, you might point out that children are NEVER “convenient”.  From all accounts, Charlotte Dawson was a kind, lovely woman, and she probably would have been a wonderful mother.  I do not wish to cast stones; simply to point out the illogic of our moral and legal laws.  God knows better than we do the end result when we spurn his gifts.  When he offers us Holland and we insist on France.  We assume we can always go to Holland later, if we decide to.  But sometimes, the offer never comes around again.  Our folly is assuming it will, and insisting that regardless, France is better.

Consider this well known but little implemented wisdom, from Corinthians: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

In the same book, before the better known “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), we find another verse, that reads: 26For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen…Image

On the subject of Holland: If you look up the percentage of woman who choose abortion once they are aware that their child is likely to have Downs Syndrome, almost every source shows that between eighty and ninety percent of the gestational carriers (hesitate to call them “mothers”) will abort.

This is, as one article suggests, a form of eugenics.  It is also, as Cassy Fiano writes so directly in a convicting article on the topic, a selfish convenience:

Recently, I wrote about an article in the New York Times, where the author lamented her friend’s missed opportunity to abort her child with Down syndrome 30 years ago. One commenter, perhaps inadvertently, showed why people really choose to have abortions due to Down syndrome: convenience.

We terminated after a positive DS diagnosis. I am so glad we did. Our quality of life would have been terrible. We actually have the chance to retire in 9 years at age 54. Had we birthed such a needy child, such dreams would have gone down the drain as would our summers in Spain, Mexico and Israel.

This couple allegedly had an abortion so that they could go on exotic vacations. Having a child with Down syndrome would have ruined all of that, so bam – sorry, baby, no life for you!

Would this be acceptable in any other situation? Grandma was too much of a drag when we wanted to travel the world, so we killed her. Little Susie got leukemia, which was just really inconvenient for our trip to Spain next year, so we smothered her with a pillow. Society would rightfully shun anyone who expressed such thoughts. Yet the logic is literally exactly the same, so why is one acceptable and the other is not?

When you think that 80-90 percent of woman would choose to abort their child, knowing he or she will have Down syndrome, it’s hard to think of a better example of a “despised” group of people.  When you think of the simple cognitive abilities of people with Down syndrome, its easy to categorize them as “foolish” or “weak.”  And so, I think it’s fair to say that these are the “despised God has chosen” to essentially teach us how weak we can be, how foolish we can be.    If you look at the statistics of families that have children or siblings with Down syndrome, you might be surprised at how HAPPY they are, both the individuals Down syndrome, and the parents and siblings who love them.  It is not sentimental to call these people gifts.  God made them, he loves them, and he gives them to us as gifts, just as any baby is a gift.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that I once, while working for the program Big Brothers Big Sisters, had the pleasure of matching a grown woman with Down syndrome to a little girl with Down syndrome.  Katie, the adult, was a productive, contributing, lovely individual.  She swam regularly, and was proud of her accomplishments swimming in Special Olympics.  She was a proud auntie, an excellent friend, and a role model to the little girl she mentored.  To my knowledge, she never did anything that brought sadness or harm to the people around her, (and I had interviewed them before matching her).  Could the same be said for Scott Miller?  Does he, an “able bodied, able minded” Olympian have more right to live than her? Did he cause his parents less grief, his wife less pain by being “normal”? He is simply a different trip.  And, as I hope for any individual, I hope his family loves him through his failings, and grows through the experience. As the Hokey Pokey says, that’s what it’s all about.  If they do, he will know that they really loved him.  Not for his Olympic medals, or his perfection, but for himself.

Probably my daughter’s favorite song these days is by J.J. Heller, called “What Love Really Means.” She sings it soulfully, and frequently, and I listen.  And I hope that she, and my husband, and my family and friends, and YOU will always know that you are loved for being yourself, imperfections and failures included.  I imagine that Charlotte Dawson had the lyric playing in her heart the day she died “who will love me for me?”  It is a tragedy that she didn’t know, or believe, the chorus.

He cries in the corner where nobody sees,
He’s the kid with the story no one would believe.
He prays every night, “Dear God won’t you please
Could you send someone here who will love me?”

Who will love me for me?
Not for what I have done or what I will become.
Who will love me for me?
‘Cause nobody has shown me what love
What love really means.

Her office is shrinking a little each day;
She’s the woman whose husband has run away.
She’ll go to the gym after working today-
Maybe if she was thinner
Then he would’ve stayed.
And she says:

Who will love me for me?
Not for what I have done or what I will become.
Who will love me for me?
‘Cause nobody has shown me what love, what love really means.

He’s waiting to die as he sits all alone,
He’s a man in a cell who regrets what he’s done.
He utters a cry from the depths of his soul,
“Oh Lord, forgive me, I want to go home”

Then he heard a voice somewhere deep inside
And it said
“I know you’ve murdered and I know you’ve lied
I have watched you suffer all of your life
And now that you’ll listen, I’ll tell you that I…”

I will love you for you
Not for what you have done or what you will become
I will love you for you
I will give you the love
The love that you never knew.

May you be loved for you.  May you know, in the darkest, loneliest night, that you are always loved by the one who made you, and knew you in your mother’s womb-no matter what you’ve done. May you learn to love the people around you truly, deeply, sacrificially. May you know the love of Della and Jim.  May you accept the gift, and feel that peace that passes all understanding. May you go to Holland, if the ticket ever comes. Please send a postcard, if you do;)

Sticks and Stones May Break Bones, but Words…

“I’m garbage, I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m a blockhead.  I’m bad luck; I’m a one-leaf clover. I’m only worth a penny.  I’m ugly.  I don’t make good decisions.  It’s so hard.  You deserve a perfect child.  I’m not perfect.  I’m garbage.”

My daughter has had a full meltdown tonight, and a terrifying jumble of dark, frightening words spilled out of her.  She is right.  She does not make good decisions because it is so hard for her.  She is wrong. About everything else. After I accused her of treating me unkindly, she agreed too readily after a day of crossed arms and haughtily practiced glares.  But her repentance is so broken and sincere, her sobs so wrenching, that I felt I had stumbled over a trip wire, leaving an explosion in my wake.  Her despair at feeling so broken, so imperfect, spill out of her in almost poetic self-hatred.

My daughter’s attitude, like many a pre-adolescent, is frequently less than lovely, but she herself is worryingly beautiful. Her words, repeated like a sick mantra, tell me something darker is amiss: “I’m ugly, I’m stupid, I’m dumb, I’m ugly, I’m stupid…” They scare me.  I grab her, pull her in and try rocking her ever expanding frame.

“Baby, you are NOT ugly, you are NOT stupid.  You are BEAUTIFUL, you are SMART, you passed tests in two languages!  You are fun and funny, friendly and good at so many things.  Who TOLD you such wicked lies?” Because I know they did not come from home.

And she spills the well-guarded beans.  The kids, at school.

“Which kid baby, which kid said such a terrible thing?

“Not the kid, the KIDS,” she corrects me, so clear on the topic.  “They told me, twice a week, twice a day.  That I’m ugly. That I’m stupid.”

But baby!  You don’t BELIEVE such terrible lies?

“I do, yes I do,” she saws with raw feeling.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me before?” I ask, feeling like a failure.

“Because I was embarrassed,” she admits.  I try to erase the ugly words that have accumulated in her ribcage, reaching her heart.  I want a psychic eraser.  I want to squeeze my hands slowly around a few puny necks, and set fire to the school breeding them.  My beautiful, brave child.  Who has been dragged through 3 countries, gone to 4 schools, and tried so bravely to get along in all of them, in spite of focus and impulse problems.

The wicked wickedness of cruel words.  They are scratched into her psyche.  They are splashed across the mirror, so that she cannot see her own beautiful face.  They are voices in her ear, so she cannot believe in her own intelligence.  It will take so, so many more kind words and hours of scrubbing to cover and clean the graffiti they have scrawled across her soul.  Who said words will never break me?  What foolishness.  What can cause more permanent damage than a few well-placed serpent words? Image

We spent the day today with a little boy who has apparently gotten a paper route to save money, so he cross continents and propose one day when H is 19.  He has been planning this for about 3 years, so the kid has staying power.  And even after a day spent with such an ardent admirer, she will not believe that she is a treasure.  I happened to make the comment to this little boy’s mother just today that H threw me off, because she was my only good luck in a long string of bad luck.  She is the fairy tale that came true. But a pack of dwarves offered her a poisonous apple, and she took a few bites.  I am so afraid for her.  I know what caused the symptoms, but I’m not very confident I can expel it from her system.  Sticks and stones may break bones, but words will break hearts.  So much harder to heal.  I am reminded of a poster I have that cautions “speak words of kindness.  Every word matters.” So do me a favor this week, and tell a kid you know that she’s beautiful, that she’s smart, that she’s marvelous for just being her.  That he’s kind, that he’s funny, that he’s marvelous for just being him.  Maybe even after a bad attitude.  Maybe it’s an S.O.S. for redeeming a scratched up soul. As a lyric I have had on repeat the last few days goes, “Who will love me for me? Not for what I’ll do or what I’ll become?” Paint a mural on someone’s heart that says “you, wonderful you, no matter what you do or become.” Let me be the first.

You, wonderful you!  Fearfully and wonderfully made.  Knit together in (someone’s!) womb.  God knows you full well. You are a marvelous, unreproducible original work of art. Your lifelines, your earlobes, your wonky pinky’s and funny toes. The shape of your lips and the way you walk, recognizable even in a dim light.  You fill a niche in your friend and family ecology that makes you valuable and beloved. You were born with an innate intelligence.  It may be for finding nests or describing sunsets, for laughter that breaks into a hundred pieces of happiness, rocking babies or planning parties. It may be for accosting strangers with your brand of warmth and kindness just when they needed it, or discovering a star.  And you are beautiful.  Not, of course, as beautiful as my daughter! But as beautiful as your sister’s sister, or you mother’s son, or your husband’s wife. You are most beautiful when you’re kind.

As Miss Piggy once sang for Kermit the Frog, insecure about being green:

“I like your eyes, I like your nose.  I like your mouth, your ears, your hands, your toes. I like your face, it’s really you. I like the things you say and do.  There’s not a single soul who sees the skies the way you see them through your eyes.  And aren’t you glad? I’m really glad there’s no one, no one, exactly like you.”

And really, what would the world be like without loveable Kermie?  We love him, not for what he did or became (he was once a tadpole;), but for being him. For being green.

And to my daughter, I quote our new favorite, the boat song, by J.J. Heller:

If you were a boat, my darling
A boat, my darling
I’d be the wind at your back
If you were afraid, my darling
Afraid, my darling
I’d be the courage you lack

If you were a bird, then I’d be a tree
And you would come home, my darling, to me
If you were asleep, then I’d be a dream
Wherever you are, that’s where my heart will be
Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?

If you were the ocean, I’d be the sand
If you were a song, I’d be the band
If you were the stars, then I’d be the moon
A light in the dark, my darling, for you

Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?

Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?
Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?

When the Bootstrap Breaks

We have really, truly come to the end of our rope.  And not for lack of trying.  In an unfortunate series of events dating back 8 years, bad has gotten worse.  I am helping my daughter right now with a math problem.  We did mental math, and double checked by “carrying” the numbers.  We missed a step with the mental math.  She got a different answer.  When I pointed out that she found our “missed” step, she offered to write my name over the correct answer, patting me sympathetically on the elbow.  “I know how it feels to lose mommy; I usually do.”  What insight and tenderness from a little person.  How well she has summarized the mood in our house.

We are American, she and I.  I grew up middle class, hearing commentaries from other middle class people about those who are not middle class.  Urban legends, really, about how “anyone can be anything, if they just WORK hard enough, and TRY hard enough.”

And now, having spent the last 7 years watching my husband try to work hard enough, and try hard enough in three different countries, I can only conclude that either a) the fairy tale is true only in America, for those lucky enough to be born there, or b) the fairy tale is a fairy tale.  I am leaning toward b.

Probably the most recently celebrated American “fairy tale” was the docu-drama “the pursuit of happy-ness.”  Aptly named, for something so obviously capitalizing on our American fondness for stories of triumph in the face of odds. The problem is when we turn these stories into touchstones of what’s normal and achievable, instead of calling them what they are: lottery winners.

I recently read an article written about the poor financial decisions poor people make from the point of view of a woman who views herself in that category.  In the article, she tries to explain why poor people make the decisions they do. Depending on who you are, you may find the article full of excuses or explanations.  I think it’s a combination of the two. But the woman writing it writes from the perspective of someone who didn’t start with anything.  I think it’s important to contribute a perspective from someone who started with a lot.  I did.

bootstraps-300x269

And yet, in spite of both my husband and I having master’s degrees, and letters of recommendation from former employers, we find ourselves falling through an endless rabbit hole of despair.  My husband has pulled and pulled and pulled on his bootstraps.  He has been one of “those” people you hear of being accosted crossing the mexican desert to enter the US illegally.  Why?  Because he was waiting for his greencard application to process for an indefinite period of time, prohibiting him from the leaving the US, when his mother had a stoke.

Ask yourself; if you were in that situation, what would you do?  Would you sit tight for months or years, waiting for an allusive piece of paper, while your mother struggled to live on a different continent?  I might, because I am a rule follower.  Does that make me a better person, or a bigger coward, than him? I hope I wouldn’t.  I hope I would be brave enough to break every rule and run home to mine. It’s easy to sit smugly in a your house with the rent paid on time and food in the fridge, hot water in the tap and a car outside, opining about all “those” people crossing the border and breaking “laws”.

If you have never been in the dire straights that drives people to risk drowning, having their legs hacked off by moving trains, death, or rape, just to have enough to take care of your family or a future, I have to pose the question to you.  Are you are better person than those people who take the risk?  Do you have any idea what desperation drives them?  If you want a small window into that world, I recommend that you watch the mexican/american collaboration “Sin Nombre.” Or the Fifth Estate documentary “Run for Your Life,” about Honduran immigration.  You don’t have to agree with the choices people make, but you should try and understand.

After what we’ll call immigration “difficulties” in the US, my husband was lucky enough to get a visitor visa to Canada. And then, “lucky” enough to get a work visa.  Which involved a few months of sleeping in a car and showering on the beach.  This little episode involved getting his window broken, so he had the additional stress of worrying about where to store his tools while working.  And one day, he didn’t realize the streets were being cleared for a holiday, and his “home”/auto were towed-his wallet inside.

Try and imagine living alone in a city, with no place to sleep, starting out with about $50. to your name, and no one to call when things go south.  In a slow process of “pulling” himself up by his bootstraps, my husband found a job, saved enough money for a little basement apartment, and we joined him.  We slept on an air mattress for about 5 months, until a tiny hole sunk the middle, and we woke up in the night rolled into each other.  We saved for months to buy a couch.  Slowly, step by step, things get better.  We had an immigration consultant who suggested to me that I try asking AGAIN at the border if I could have a work visa.  He said I should be eligible.  For arbitrary reasons known only the ding dongs at the border, they decided a year later, at second glance that yes, I could have a work visa.

I got a job, we found a school for our ‘special’ needs daughter that was not composed entirely of Chinese students who would just as soon ignore her as look at her.  My husband began to work double shifts for what was going to be a season, so we could visit his family.  It became the routine, as the only way to replace our ailing car was with additional income. My husband, so you know, was so well respected at his job working with high needs children that he was promoted to a supervisor, and was told by the provincial providers that he should think about running his own house.  He was not taking anything, or feeling entitled to anything.  He contributed, a lot.

There was just one small glitch.  We had been temporary residents for 3 years, and were waiting for the outcome of our permanent residency.  To make sure we didn’t make ANY mistakes, we paid a consultant, endorsed by Canadian Immigration, to review and prepare our application.  As newly marrieds, we paid for paperwork instead of plates and furniture.  For 2 years running, we spent our anniversary stuck at our consultant’s house, going over paperwork.

3 years into our Canadian life, we tried renewing our work visas, a standard procedure.  I was denied at the border 2 times.  Once by a large officer who spent 10 minutes prior to attending me crowded around a co-worker’s computer, chuckling at some hilarous e-humor.  This was pre Canadian olympics time, and I kid you not when I say I was the ONLY person in the building, and there were 10 officers, not terribly interested in attending.

Even though it said on the Canadian Immigration website that I was ELIGIBLE to apply at the border, this giant genius informed me that if they attended every one looking to do what I was doing-after about 3 attempts of making him understand just exactly WHAT I wanted to do-the office would be backed up with people.  I repeat: 1 customer=me, 10 officers=them.  Excusem?

Thus began the insanity that is Canadian Immigration.  The rest went like this: I went to a local office to ask how I could be “pre-approved” for a work visa, as I was instructed to do by the genius at the border.  At the local office, they looked it up on their computers. (Thanks for that professional advice,  ’cause I couldn’t do that.)  I rounded up all the paperwork, sent it over, and a few weeks later, got my paperwork back with a note that “that” office doesn’t do “that” service.  So silly of me.  Just trusted the 2 DIFFERENT immigration officers I spoke with.  We then received a letter from immigration (located, btw, in Buffalo NEW YORK, wtf?) that because we marked a no on our application where we should have marked a yes (per advice from our paid consultant per consultation with a thick volume of canadian laws) we now had to fill out a different application.  An application requiring the acquisition of paperwork from three different countries, some of which needed to be translated.  So we saw another attorney, a few times, who told us I was LEGALLY eligible at the border for the work visa I’d already inquired about.  We filled out the second application-got all the paperwork and translations-and sent it in.  I went back to the border, and this time had the pleasure of dealing with 2 militant female officers, intent on proving they were every bit as serious as the fellows.  And clueless about the laws around my request.  So I was denied, again.  I missed my best friend’s wedding.  I missed a niece’s birth. And we waited for that 2nd application to be approved.

And waited.  Waited for Juan to start his own residential home, which would give us enough income to finally *adopt.* The dream, after we found out we are unable to have our “own” babies.  Enough income to become home owners.  Small dreams it seems, relative to what most middle class people I know wish for.  A baby and a house.  We waited.

And then the letter came, but not the letter we were waiting for.  The government asked us to send in Y in order to process X.  And then they processed X without ever looking at Y.  They gave us a month to leave.  My husband’s employer said they would get him an attorney to “fix” it.  This attorney cost as much as I have made in some years of working.  She looked at our paperwork and said NO PROBLEM.  She has done an application for many people that will remedy it.  So she put together some papers and sent them in.  And not long after, received a letter from Canadian immigration that we were not eligible for said application.  That she should never have sent it.  Even though she has done it MANY times before and they always approved it.  She has done it for people caught at the border with drugs, within the year previous to filing.  And they went through.  My husband worked with highly disturbed autistic children, that few people but he could manage.  I teach English.  But for some reason, we were left out of a system that worked for everybody else.  It is like falling into an episode of the twilight zone.

The month we were getting ready to go, my husband’s mother had a final, massive episode, and died a week before he made it home.  This time, he didn’t follow his heart.  He was practical, working as many hours as he could, so he could support us wherever we landed.  But in the end, his wages were garnished for the attorney that didn’t do anything for us.

I would like to say that at this point in our family saga, things get better.  Like Will Smith, I would like to pause our life, and say “this is the part we call happy-ness.” But I can’t.  Life is filled with little pleasures, if you look for them.  I won’t deny it. Hanging out the laundry on a balmy night, seeing the moon pulled down to earth like Gru actually stole it.  Adopting a kitten that sleeps on your face.  But life is also filled with big griefs and enormous disappointment.  Imagine that part in the movie when the rich guy asks Will Smith to borrow his last buck.  That feeling of being SO outside of some else’s easy existence, and that’s where we live.  If I could tell you how I want to scream every time someone suggests we just take this trip or do that activity, or enroll our child in X.  As if the money actually does grow on trees.

In her article about poverty, Lind Tirado writes this:

“Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn’t give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary, but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm,” which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov.”

And I have to say, I get it. If you are going to stand on a particular stair, people expect you to look a certain way, and it goes the other way.  If you look a certain way, people assume you stand on a particular stair.  The idea of health care is like the idea of Disneyland.  As in, yeah sure, some day we’ll go there. When someone tells me I just have to go visit so and so ruins in Peru, I want to punch them.  Sorry (kind of) but I do!  I know they are being perfectly cordial, and oblivious, but it feels about the same as when some friendly person asks me why we don’t have more kids.  I beg you, don’t ever ask near perfect strangers this question, or recommend that they visit some exotic local.  Because some day, they just….might….. punch you.

I invite you back into our movie: The train wreck kept on rolling.  Now transplanted to a new, garbage strewn and desert destination, we struggled to look for jobs.  I hopped around in a few schools, and took on a job as the director of a little school, where I discovered later, they paid me half of what my MALE and less educated predecessor received.  That ended up being an awful experience, where all the warnings from my husband and co workers that a certain someone was “sawing the floor under me” being true.  The ways in which it went wrong would really need a catalogue, but the aftermath meant that my daughter, enrolled there, needed to transition to yet another school. And this school was a whole new hell, eventually “suggesting” a change of “pedogological” environment for our daughter.  After my husband spent a whole year fighting for her fair treatment.  Everyone told him, don’t do it.  In the end, they’ll kick her out.  His answer?  It is the RIGHT thing to do.  They need to be accountable for proper treatment of children.  And guess what.  Year end, they kicked her out.  Code for: you parents are a giant pain in the ass.  There is no recourse in a city where we live.  If you complain to the ministry of education (which we did), they do nothing to protect you from retribution.  Everyone knows it, and no one fights it.  But my husband.  (Can you tell yet that he’s like a dad superhero?!)

All this time, my husband was hustling to try and make a living.  Just imagine that you went to school for A, worked doing B for 10 years, and then moved to a country where B doesn’t exist as a profession.  What’s a grown man do?  Pulls up his man pants and tries to beg, borrow, and steal a living.  Without, of course, stealing.  It has not gone well.  And not for lack of trying.  We have been at the doorstep of sooo many “almost” opportunities.  Through an almost overt system of bribery, my husband has lost multiple contracts for services he could provide cheaper and better.  But here, the “pituto” is king, and fat chance of a coup.  This week brought the hardest fall.  And all I can think is-sometimes you pull so hard on those bootstraps, they have to break.  And sometimes, you FOLLOW the rules, and get screwed anyways.  I’m here to tell you a little bit about the psychology of those rules.  If you know they only apply to some people, are un- evenly applied, or interpreted by human beings with the IQ of a rabbit, you start to have a certain disregard for the rules.  So when I hear people saying that all “those Mexicans” should just follow the rules, I’m here to tell you, the rules are not for them.  I once spoke with an attorney for 40 minutes who thought my husband was Mexican (he’s not); and he basically told me to FORGET trying to submit any applications for him, because they would never been seen.  I believe him.  Canada’s most recent response to a backlog of permanent residency applications was to shred them, and start over. CANADA.  This is a 1st world response.

Each of those applications represented lost money, time, and the dreams of the people who submitted them, FOLLOWING the rules.  So what is the message?

The bible says time and chance happen to us all.  And for some reason I cannot explain, some people get most of the chances, and some get nada, or nada and a half.  And it is a fallacy to assume that people who fail, fail for lack of trying.  It is very possible they tried so hard, their bootstraps broke.  My husband said to me last night “I feel hurt.”  Not a small thing to say for a man of few words.  It hurts to fall down, down, down and down again.  It is humiliating to look up a steep well of stairs, and know you probably will never get back to the middle.  Especially when so many people you know are up there, looking down at you.  It is a fairytale to believe it can be done through sheer force.  If it is true that time and chance happen to us all, it is also true that money makes money.  You can’t make something from nothing, and until you’ve tried, you can’t really know how true it is.  Sure you can take your lemons and turn it into lemon-aid, but try taking your nothing and turn it into something aid. You’ll end up with nothing aid, which about sums it all up.

Sometimes people are broke or homeless because they tried, and things went south.  There is no rainbow at the end.  We have work histories and educations, and it happened to us.  A series of decisions, system failures and bad luck knocked us right down one stair, and then another, until we seem to have hit the bottom.  And it sucks down here.  It isn’t just “poor people” or “uneducated people” who land on the bottom.  It can happen to anyone.  It could happen to you.  One gift of the bottom is the new view it affords.  It’s ugly, but you could never see it standing at the top. I watched a marvelous video yesterday about this.  If you have a minute, it’s worth a watch.

Empathy

The Plan

I am getting excited about the holidays.  I love the well placed sequence of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas.  In America, anyway.  I love my Canadians, but Thanksgiving just isn’t the same pre-November.  It steals all the thunder from Halloween, and leaves us drifting through November, with nothing to distract us from the wait to December.  As far as I’m concerned, the first of October is the home stretch in a long year of waiting, waiting to go home again.  And our kick off is Halloween, a holiday I love a little more every year, because it is the domino that tips all the rest over.  Halloween, Thanksgiving; Thanksgiving, Christmas; Christmas, trip home;  Trip home, New Year’s among friends, again. Sigh.  New Years, January-still home (in the states).  It is the first in a 4 month cycle, that helps us slog through the other 8 months, until we’re home again.  February, back to Chile.  Put the dominoes away until next year.

So, speaking of cycles, back to Halloween, the first holiday.  It’s got me thinking of the joker.  More specifically, Heath Ledger’s Joker, in the brilliantly done “Dark Knight.” And what is one of the two most memorable movie lines I have heard in 10 years.  It goes like this:

The Joker

You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”.  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!

Why does this quote resonate so?  This observation about “the plan” is so astute.  It is not the chaos of the world around us that surprises.  It is the disruption of our expectations that we generally find so horrifying.  This can take many forms.  It occurred to me today that there is a grammar analogy hiding in our expectations.  In linguistics, there is a concept of diagramming sentences.  Sounds sexy, right?  Diagramming sentences is a way of showing the “deep” grammar that undergirds surface grammar.  Like, for example, if I say to you “wanna go?” you know I REALLY mean, “DO YOU want to go?”  If you are a native speaker, this is obvious to you.  You know who the subject is, you know it’s a question.  But maybe you never thought about what is down there, under the waterline, past that ill spoken ice-burg.  Maybe, you never realized that the ‘do’ and the ‘you’ were sitting down there, pushing the rest above surface.

Expectations are like that.  I had some expectations above the water line for years.  I knew they were there.  For one, I used to love Barbara Kingsolver-in particular, in my early 20’s, I loved the character she’d imagined in the Bean Trees, who unexpectedly falls in love with an abandoned baby she calls “Turtle;” a baby she ends up keeping.  I wanted Turtle.  I loved her too.  And one day, I met her, in my real life.  And fall in love I did.  My expectations cut a wide swath for such a marvelous marriage of circumstance and blessing, that when it happened to me, I met it gratefully.  However, getting married was never really on my ice-burg.  But Turtle and I crashed into a ship, we’ll call him my husband, and it set us off-course.  Oops-see that there.  That’s the evidence.

The deep grammar, the underwater expectations I had went something like this:

  1. Have a house
  2. Have some babies, free and easy
  3. Live with those babies in that house right down the street from sister.  Just like when we were kids….
  4. Sister has babies, free and easy, and she lives right down the street from me, just like when we were kids….
  5. Have a car
  6. Have health insurance, house insurance, car insurance, life insurance.
  7. Somewhere, hovering in the background, must be a lucrative job, or well heeled man.  It seemed as necessary and unfamiliar to me as the family piano.  Something that must be in the living room, but I have no idea how to play it.

Guess what.  After the Turtle miracle, nothing went “according to the plan.” And believe me when I say nothing, nothing. We have the pain and privilege of experiencing the world through a new set of eyes.  The eyes of “them.” And by them, I mean, everyone who’s expectations are necessarily less than mine, based a life experience and place of birth.  Granted, mine weren’t obvious to me until they weren’t met, but how scandalous it feels when things do not go according to the plan.  And I am met by another realization, something I could only recognize in the mirror of my sister.  We were set up to expect so much!  We had a house, a green lawn, regular dental visits and cross country trips to see grandma; summer and winter resort vacations; bicycles and health care and team sports.  Visits to the hair dresser, and packed lunches, courtesy mom.  We had new Easter dresses, and school clothes shopping; regular visits to the mall and the movie theatre, and annual Christmas “girl’s weekends”  to Seattle.  What a set up!  I didn’t realize until very recently how wired I am to expect my life to look like my parents.  I wonder how true that is for other people.

I can be a slow learner, so certainly it is silly to be 35, having the aha moment that my life doesn’t have to, and won’t, resemble my parent’s life.  When I was a child, I was convinced that when I was an adult, I would be able to play the piano.  Not because I practiced, but because my mother knew how.  It seemed a rite of adulthood: grow up, have 2 kids, a backyard, and the magical ability to play the piano.  Isn’t that what everyone has?  I didn’t know too many people who didn’t.  That was the set up.  And then I grew up.  I don’t play the piano.  I don’t have 2 kids.  I don’t own a house or have a backyard, health insurance, life insurance, car insurance or fire insurance.  And suddenly, that much insurance seems a little ridiculous.

Suddenly, paper towels and razors are luxury items.  The internet and hot water are available on the good days.  When my daughter gets the wind knocked out of her, and a few bruises falling out of a tree, or off a see saw, my first thought is to pray she doesn’t have to go to the hospital.  Because how will we pay for it, and even if we could, who want to go to THAT hospital?  It’s a little like chaos.  It is, as the joker noted, fair.  More than fair, because it’s about time we experience a taste of what passes for normal in most countries.  It is less than fair, because it’s about time we experience what passes for normal, and we still haven’t even gotten there.  We feel safe, we eat, we have a few bedrooms, and most months, we can come up with the money for Turtle’s sport.  Someone buys us tickets home, when the dominoes start tipping.  But the deep grammar is there, causing a sea quake, robbing our small island of peace.  If I could just forget all those expectations, it would be so much easier to enjoy the view.

There is an image circulating the internet (our should I say Pinterest?) that has resonated with me for the last year.  It says “Don’t let comparison steal your joy.”   I realized awhile ago that social media sites like Facebook and Instagram can have a   numbing effect, when you see all the shiny happy parts of other people’s lives, and feel like you somehow missed the boat.  I have learned to take them with a bucket of salt, and realized that a major factor for curating the appearance of a happy life is a great camera and some photographic talent (I have neither).  I wouldn’t mind if a few people posted status updates that said things like “electricity got cut again,” and “screaming match with 10 year old again.  Isn’t it a little early for puberty?”  But the internet is not REAL.  So of course, the things we put on the internet are not real.

I recently read “The Hole in our Gospel,” written by the founder of World Vision, and I was struck when I reached a chapter about a man who travels abroad, and while staying in a home as a border, does his host a favor by emptying her bathtub of the still water collected there.  When he lets her know about the “favor” he did her, she begins to cry, because the tub had been full of the only clean water she would have for a month.  What a good illustration of people who have no idea about want meeting those who do.  We grow up with this 1950’s maxim about eating everything on our plate, because people “in Africa” have nothing to eat.  And somehow, that to has a numbing effect on us.  Of course people in Africa have nothing to eat, because they live IN AFRICA.  That’s somehow part of the plan, so it doesn’t seem so horrifying.

I follow a blogger who works with midwives, helping foment rural health care in Zambia.  One of  her recent posts is about trying to offer solace to a mother who lost her fifth baby.  FIFTH baby.  And in her post, she says:  “I have heard of hospital staff withholding medication or giving lethal doses to patients whose lives they deemed worthless.”  (Every Minute of Every Day) And I can’t help but  think of the Joker, and “the plan.”  Lately, I have been thinking and reading a lot about abortion, primarily in America, and was rocked when I was diverted to a page about the enforcement of the single child policy in China, and the many abuses and murders that have been committed against Chinese families to enforce it.

It took my breath away a little, to realize that in all my years of grieving over an inability to have a second child, I NEVER thought about the fact that there is an entire enormous COUNTRY where EVERYONE is only allowed ONE child-because that is the PLAN.  And if you breach it, your family members will be detained and tortured, some murdered.  Your nearly full term babies will be ripped from your womb, and as a woman, you will be forced to undergo a process of sterilization

(http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/chinas-one-child-law).  Why don’t we hear more about this?  Why isn’t it all over the news?  Why don’t we hear a whole lot more about a whole lot more things?  I am guessing because they are all part of the “plan.”    Of course, ironically, this year there have been 964,340 babies aborted in the US (http://www.numberofabortions.com/) to date, because they are NOT part of the plan.  This is a big difference between the US and Chile.  Abortion is still illegal here.  And it changes the culture.  Everything is not dominated by a PLAN.  We don’t go to parties at X time (of course everyone is late here!), we don’t leave parties at X time, we don’t go to bed at X time, and if you get knocked up, you are going to have that baby.  Which means no man is going to pressure you to get “rid” of your baby, because it’s not convenient to him.  No parent is going to push a child towards an abortion clinic, because it gets in the way of college (the plan).  People adapt.  Children are CHERISHED.  Because they are not the fruit of a plan.  They are gifts.  They are adventures.  They are what life is ABOUT.

My daughter is anti-type A.  I think, on a scale, she’s about a Z.  I hover somewhere around G.  Which means there is a rub. We have endeavored to take morning walks before we start our school day, so she can exercise her anger, which has lead to the untimely deaths of a few bugs.  It’s our new plan to avoid a bug holocaust.  But, I am ever mindful of the hour, because we have to get other things done, besides the walk.  So mindful, that many mornings sound like this:

“Mommy, look at the flower!”

“Yes Turtle, that’s great.  Keep marching.”

“Mommy, look at the ladybug.”

“*Sigh* Amazing.  Please keep walking.”

“Mommy, look at the Hummingbird!”

“Ack!  I don’t CARE about the hummingbird.  We have to get HOME.  Puh-LEASE WALK!”

(By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, we repeat this scene OFTEN).  We recently had one of these interactions, and I had a temporary moment of sanity, and thought “what? I don’t CARE about a hummingbird?  My daughter’s great passion? One of God’s greatest works of art?”  But it wasn’t part of the plan!   So we stopped, and it happened.  A small crescendo of joy, as I stood in a dilapidated park with my very unplanned child, and watching a tiny jeweled miracle dart around, on a beautiful warm day,  under a lovely tree.

I know some of us are type A, and we need a plan.  A plan is not bad!  I’m not saying it is.  But slavery to a plan, happiness built on the realization of that plan ROBS our JOY.  So my halloween wish for all of us (can I have a halloween wish?) is that we all embrace a little chaos; that we relinquish our dependence on the plan, and that we are more aware of our brother’s and sister’s around the world that are suffering, and don’t accept is as part of any plan.  My new maxim is “Don’t let the PLAN steal your joy, or anyone else’s.”