Monday, April 28, 2014

Biting My Tongue at Easter

I love my family. I really do. Not just because I have to, or because I've known them longer than anyone else. Well, partly because of that, but I also love them individually for the people they are. They are kind and loving people, and have good intentions toward each other and the people in their worlds.

That said, I've always been a bit of an odd duck in my immediate family. I was the teenager who bleached my hair and dyed it with Manic Panic, and collected tattoos and body piercings. Then, I was the young adult who started getting all these crazy ideas about social and economic inequalities, and all the little elements from quotidian life that supported such inequalities. Everything from the racist subtext of Disney movies to the sexist assumptions behind cliche relationship dynamics was increasingly interesting to me, and I couldn't help but point out these things at family gatherings. My intent was always to inspire discussion, but it always ended up devolving into a family chuckle about how I was just being contrarian and nitpicky, like always.

That's fine, I guess. I know that I tend to read into everything more than others may feel comfortable or interested enough to do. I know that my doing so can be exhausting to others (hell, it exhausts me sometimes), and that there's value in just enjoying each other's company and shooting the breeze on some superficial level, without having to excavate the conversation for the ideologies beneath. I also know that this tendency of mine earns me the distinction of being the "weird" aunt/sister/daughter, which I would wear as a badge of honor, except that it can be quite alienating in practice.

Still, I can't help but be uncomfortable remaining silent when my brother in law's mother pokes fun of him in front of me and my own mom, as he is working in the kitchen with great effort and skill to prepare Easter dinner for his family. I can't laugh along as she jokes with me about men's lack of domestic skills, and I politely point out that gender alone has far less to do with domestic prowess than practice does.

I squirm in my seat when my 19 year old nephew, fresh out of Marine Corps training, tells a story about how he was stopped at a suburban shopping mall this week by a security officer who thought he  was under 16, and thus in violation of the mall curfew policy. The security officer wouldn't accept his military identification as sufficient proof. "I just hate it when people have no respect for the military," my nephew complains loudly to us, and I shoot my husbutch a look that betrays my irritation. I say, "What -- did you want him to salute you?" and my mom elbows me from beside me on the couch. "Don't start," she says under her breath, but it doesn't matter. My nephew is still barking his indignation, and he doesn't hear me.

After dinner, several people are eating pie, when my sister, who has been holding her newborn baby for most of the last few hours, says to the room: "My husband didn't offer to bring me any pie." When my other sister gets up and offers to bring her some, she says: "No. I want him to feel guilty." At that point, I just can't anymore. I get up and quickly move to another room before I start calling out the meanness behind her banter, and how her attempt to exercise power in this way undermines genuine and mutually respectful relationships between men and women.

None of the comments in these scenarios were intended to be explicitly political, but they are nonetheless. The things we say, the way we treat each other, all matter. It is a reflection of our general approach to social issues and other people. Even casual comments or jokes that support stereotypes and social divisions have impact. In a sense, this banter has even more impact than an overt discussion of politics, because it is so easily trivialized and brushed off as meaningless.

Now, I'm not saying that we should censor ourselves in conversation with our friends and family in an attempt to achieve some kind of artificial political correctness. This is disingenuous and misses the point. I simply think that as a whole, we should be more open to examining the beliefs behind our words, the ideas behind our beliefs. This kind of conversation, especially when held among people with whom we are comfortable, helps us to become more thoughtful and introspective. It doesn't have to be contentious, and there doesn't have to be a winner. If we can figure out how to challenge each other and even disagree in the end without fighting and hurting feelings, how much would we all learn in the process?

I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't very successful on this front at last week's Easter gathering. I mostly bit my tongue and rolled my eyes. If anything, I probably came off as self-righteous and judgy. Maybe somebody should have called me out on it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Here Come the Waterworks

I can always tell it's a therapy day because my eyes are still sore. I go every couple of weeks with my husbutch, to create a space where we can work on the things that we've decided we need help with: navigating parenting issues, staying emotionally connected as partners, communicating more effectively. Invariably I cry during therapy. I don't always know why, and I'm always trying to hold it back. Why? Because as soon as I let it happen, whatever we were talking about gets sidetracked, and the attention shifts to my tears. Why am I crying? Clearly there is something bothering me. What is it?

When I was around 12 years old, I remember being in family therapy. I don't remember why, exactly, and I don't recall what we discussed, but one memory is particularly salient to me. Once I asked my mom if I could see the therapist by myself, as I felt like I needed help sorting out my own feelings. The therapist and I sat in a room alone, and I remember her asking me questions about school and what I wanted to see her about. At some point I started crying, unable to hold it back or put into words what was making me cry. The therapist asked me questions to try to get to the source of it, but I had no words. All of my energy was going into trying to hold back the tears, afraid that if I started talking, I would cry even harder. Eventually, having gotten nowhere, the therapist ended the session by saying something to the effect of: "Come back when you are ready to talk." I never saw her individually again.

I cry easily, and not just when I'm sad. I cry when I'm angry, or frustrated, or sick. I cry when someone tells me about something powerful, or when I see people yell at their kids. I cry when I think about something terrible happening somewhere, even if it doesn't involve me. I cry when I witness childbirth, or a moving expression of love. I cry before my period starts, overcome with the feeling that nothing is right or will ever be right in the world.

What is the big deal about crying? Why does it make me feel so uncomfortable to cry in front of others? It doesn't feel good to hold it back. As I've told my nine year old daughter (who struggles with articulating emotions), crying is like pooping. It's normal and it's healthy. When you have to do it, the best thing is to do it. You can hold it inside, but that will make you feel bottled up and probably a little sick. Recently, a friend put it more elegantly when she said that crying "is a way to bleed out the things that pollute the heart."

Yet, I do hold it back. When I cry, I suddenly lose credibility and strength in the eyes of others. I appear to be irrational, overcome with emotion, and anything I say gets a little lost in translation. My crying itself becomes a problem that needs to be solved. It creates discomfort in others, who either feel the need to "make it better" somehow, or distance themselves from it (usually this happens figuratively, by them "checking out" of the conversation somehow, as it's rather impolite to run from a crying person). Either way my words aren't heard, which is especially frustrating when I'm crying because I've become discouraged or angry while trying to communicate my point.

And, it's frustrating during therapy, for the same reasons. Yes, I know that part of the point of therapy is to explore one's feelings more deeply. When I cry, it probably seems like a perfect opportunity to turn the crying into the focal point, in an effort to excavate and find the source of the pain. But it usually happens when I'm in the middle of talking about something, and I simply feel strongly about it. I would prefer everybody to just ignore my crying and listen to what I'm saying.

My husbutch has gotten a lot better at this. It used to freak her out when I cried, either because she didn't know why I was crying, or didn't know how to fix it. She has come to realize that my crying is not a problem to be solved, and has become better at just being present when it happens. Just listening, or just holding me. Sometimes I just need to cry.

I am grateful for this safe space within my relationship. I am also well aware that my femaleness affords to me the luxury of crying in the first place, within the bounds of socially acceptable behavior.  It pains me to see this right to cry assaulted in our boys and men, though it is getting better. It does make me wonder, though, how different the world would be if we all felt free to cry when we needed, as acceptable as laughter. I think we would feel a little less constipated.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Visible Core

So, this is what my belly looks like:

I don't show it public, and I never have. Well, maybe I did when I was a small child, but at some point I learned that I did not have the kind of belly that was okay for showing. Even today, fifty pounds lighter than I was a decade ago, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the way it looks. I remain thick around the middle (though other parts of me have thinned out so much that it doesn't even look like part of the same body), and I bear both the stretch marks from pregnancy and the loose skin from weight loss. It is what it is, but knowing that doesn't keep me from moving quickly when changing my shirt, or being sure to wear shirts that reach my hips to avoid an accidental belly exposure. More than anything else, I hate that I still feel this way after so many years and personal epiphanies.

Several years ago, I wished I would have gotten a huge sunflower tattooed on my belly before I got pregnant, so that I would have been able to see the changes that have happened with my body, reflected in a beautiful sunflower. I didn't, but now I'm thinking it's time. 

I have several tattoos, and they are all visible. They are all meant to be visible, part of my lifelong pursuit to decorate myself and own my own flesh. If I want to get to the point where I feel comfortable baring my midsection in public (or even in the privacy of my bedroom with my partner), perhaps a good first step is to emblazon it with something unapologetically big and beautiful. My sunflower won't be like a two dimensional drawing, because I am not two dimensional. It will droop and fold and curve, and it will continue to change as I exercise (or not), and age. 

I sent this picture to my tattoo artist today. Even taking the picture, alone in a room, felt scary and humbling. Sending it made my heart race. At the same time, though, I felt like it was a move toward freedom. Who knows... maybe you'll see me in a bikini this summer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Uneasy Relationship with Femininity

I've always known I wanted to be a parent someday. As a child, I felt loved and accepted by my mother, a single parent of three by the age of twenty. In my young adult years, I formulated strong notions of social equality and justice, firmly rooted in the basic principle that everybody is good and unique and deserving of happiness. I imagined my future self as a parent, carrying forward my mother’s legacy of unconditional love.  I would create an environment where my child is free to be themselves.  As a burgeoning feminist with a growing toolbox of gender theory, I also assumed that my progressive parenting would empower him or her to develop a full spectrum of masculine and feminine qualities.  

Nokomis at my wedding, doing her Diva pose.

None of this quite prepared me for my daughter Nokomis, and her persistent obsession with princesses as a small child. It started with a penchant for jewelry and pretty dresses. Her imaginative play became consumed by endless scenarios of princesses in need of rescue by brave princes, dilemmas always ending in swooning and marriage.

My instinctive reaction to all this was to challenge Nokomis. I asked, "What does a princess do?" Her response: "They twirl." "They twirl?" I replied. "Couldn't they also have magical powers or help people or save the day?" She would look at me with toddler exasperation as she asserted, "No. They just twirl." I was appalled and disgusted. How lame! How could Nokomis possibly think that simply being the passive object of a male gaze is a worthwhile pursuit? I wanted to discourage it, to keep her from limiting herself in this way. When she asked to wear a dress every day and play princess, I'd make a face and try to suggest other clothes and activities, to no avail.

At some point it hit me. By attempting to suppress the princess in Nokomis, I was the one restricting her potential. If I truly wanted her to be able to express all of her many facets, it would be hypocritical of me to deter some of them, including the traditionally feminine traits that historically have been compulsory. By doing so, I realized, I was essentially participating in the cultural devaluation of femininity that justifies sexism.

Seen in this light, the situation felt a lot less dire, and a lot more like a normal part of Nokomis's development as a human female. I learned to relax a little, and remember that regardless of where she "got it from" or whether it's "just a phase" to be waited out, this was a part of who she was at that moment. Through her princess play, Nokomis explored such concepts as the majesty of beauty, the magic of one's hopes and dreams, and the power of falling in love. She navigated feelings about attachment and separation when the little plastic princess couldn’t find her way home. It wasn’t helpful for me to impose my adult interpretations about the ideological implications of her play.

I ended up questioning a lot of the principles I held dearest, like the idea that the only healthy expressions of gender are the ones in the middle of the masculine/feminine continuum. By sticking to that principle, I had been violating another one: my belief that children have the right to be themselves. I rethought my beliefs about gender, and it was this compromise with myself that allowed me to grow, and form better, stronger principles.

At the same time, however, my job is to continue to challenge her to push the boundaries of the ideas she is (re)producing, by asking questions and suggesting alternate endings that defy the simplistic fairytale plots. It’s easy to get stuck in the same narratives we tell ourselves about love, life, and The Way Things Are. I can let her regurgitate the same narratives that surround her, or I can push her to write new ones. Either way, the most important lesson I can teach her is that she’ll never have all the right answers. If she can learn that, she’ll know all she needs to know.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Love motivates us more than fear.

Note: The essay below is my submission this year to the Great American Think Off, held every year in New York Mills, MN. This year's philosophical question up for debate is: Which motivates us more, love or fear? As I always do, I chose love.

I spent almost a decade of my life with an alcoholic man. I knew it early, but by the time it really sunk in, I was already in too deep. During that time, my life was on pause. As the partner (and later, wife) of an alcoholic, my role was clear, and it centered around him. I paid all of our bills. I bailed him out of jail, pawning our possessions to get the money. I helped him through treatment. I visited him in prison. I cleaned up his puke in the living room. I searched for empty bottles every night after work. I paid bar tabs in the middle of the night when he was belligerent and out of money. I called the cops on him, and called hospitals and jails when I didn’t know where he was. I lied to my family about how bad it was.

At the time, I did all this under the misperception that I was driven by love. Looking back now, I realize that I was stuck. I didn’t actually DO anything during that almost-decade of my life. I maintained, enabled, treaded water. I lived in a constant state of tension that can only be described as fear. I was always afraid he would start drinking, and when he did, I was afraid he would steal my money or get arrested. I was afraid to leave him, because I was afraid he would fall apart if I did. I felt like I was the one holding everything together, holding him together, and that if I didn’t stay exactly where I was, everything would collapse. Of course I cared for him, and I wanted him to get sober. I wanted it for his and my own happiness, but I can’t say that my decision to stay in the relationship despite the ongoing harm done to both of us was an act of love. It was an act of fear.

Fear paralyzes us; love moves us.

Six years in, I gave birth to my daughter. For the first several months of her life my husband didn’t drink, but I was afraid that he would. Eventually he did, and my fears magnified. I still had to go to work every day, and he was at home with our daughter. While away from home, I constantly worried about whether my husband was drinking. Was he feeding her and putting her down for naps at the right times? Was she safe? I worked close to home, and sometimes I would show up on my break just to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes I suspected he was drinking and couldn’t find the empty bottle to prove it. My daughter was always okay, but I would return to work no less afraid.

One day I came home to find my husband drunk and passed out on the bed. My one and a half year old daughter was standing in the middle of the living room in her diaper, alone. I will never forget the solemn, blank expression on her face. That was the last time my daughter was left in my husband’s custody, and I put her in daycare with money I didn’t think I had.

I wish I could say that was the day I left him for good, but that was still a few months away. What finally made me leave was falling in love with a woman I worked with. Though she didn’t end up being “the one,” my love for her helped me see new possibilities for myself. It made me realize how important it was to be happy, and that I could only control my own life.

This fact alone freed me from the fear that I was the only thing propping up my husband. Fear had kept me there, but leaving him was an act of love. Love for my daughter, who I knew needed stability and comfort to thrive. Love for myself, in my decision to reinstate myself as the steward of my own happiness. Love for my husband, even, who was not prevailing in his struggle with alcoholism, and perhaps needed the opportunity to find his own strength.

Fear is still present, and always will be. I’m afraid of failure, both in my relationships and in my expectations of myself. It doesn’t motivate me, however; it stagnates me. When I let myself become mired in fear, I cease to move. Love helps me find my way out, and keep moving forward.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Last night after my daughter went to bed, I was hanging out with my partner in our bedroom.  This is our daily routine; we retreat to the bedroom like clockwork after bedtime, and usually watch something (a movie or streaming tv show) on the laptop while lying in bed (I know, I know, this is a big no-no according to relationship gurus. Let's set that aside for the moment.).  After we watch our stories, we usually wind down by reading for a bit, and then we turn out the light. Often, instead of or before reading, one of us will interact with our phones (check email, Twitter, Facebook, play a game, etc).  Last night while I was doing just that, my husbutch leaned over and said teasingly to me: "My wife's a Facebook junkie."

My first reaction was pure defensiveness. I pulled back, and said something like: "You don't know that... That's rude... I don't judge your phone time..."  She didn't really respond, and we were still in uneasy silence when we went to sleep.

I was annoyed because I felt judged, and because I felt that she had no right to do so, given that her own attention is frequently attached to her phone as well.  This morning, however, I was still thinking about the exchange, and wondering where my defensiveness was really coming from.  Am I a Facebook junkie? More generally, am I addicted to technology?

I used to be in awe of my ex-girlfriend's sister, who would stay with us occasionally, because she frequently didn't take her phone with her when she left the house.  She would just leave the house without it (and without a purse or any other baggage -- nothing but keys), and not seem to give it a second thought.  She even left her phone turned off for hours at a time.  She was the only person I knew who didn't seem to need her phone or view it as an extension of herself. And while I often teased her incredulously -- how could you not have your phone?? -- I was deeply very jealous of this non-attachment. I knew that if I left the house without my phone, I would feel an underlying anxiety all day, of not knowing what's going on, not being connected.

Ironically, when I don't have my phone, or when I purposefully set it down or turn it off, I notice a lot. I notice other people on their phones as a default activity, from people on the bus to people standing in line. I notice kids talking to their parents, who reply with distant non-responses as they scroll or tap with their thumbs. I notice that everybody seems to have walls up, blocking out the world by occupying their ears, eyes, and fingers with technology. When I quit smoking, one of the hardest things for me was figuring out what to do with myself on break. I used to enjoy going out to smoke on break, partly just to get outside. Smoking was something I could DO outside. Without it, I wondered, what would I do outside? Stare into space? Watch people as they walk by? I found that I could just "be on my phone" during these times, and not feel weird. I was doing something.

Not only does being on the phone make me feel like I'm busy doing something; it also sends the signal to others that I'm not available for conversation or requests. Checking my Facebook feed makes me feel more connected to the truncated lives of the people I know or used to know, and also allows me to be alone in public, protected from the actual presence of strangers. I've been known to pretend to be having a conversation on my phone when in public, in order to avoid other people approaching me. I suspect I'm not the only one who does this.

Avoiding human contact with strangers is different than avoiding it at home with my partner and child, however. I want them both to know that I'm really there when I'm there, and if I'm staring at my phone, I'm not there. Being there means listening with my whole body (as I tell my daughter): making eye contact, being still and present. What would it look like if we all did that, all the time? I try to remember my life not too long ago before I owned a cell phone, and although I had less external distraction back then, I can't say that I was necessarily more present with everybody. There's more to being present than not fiddling with technology. It's about listening without judgment, without thinking about what I'll say next. It's being open to whatever or whoever is in front of me.

This is the heart of what I want in my heart. I feel like it's the answer to any question I have, whether it's about being a better parent, partner, employee, friend, or human. It feels both simple and impossible. Putting down the phone is certainly not the whole of it, but sometimes it's the least I can do.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Apologizing to my Diary

When I was young, I kept a diary. I started at age 11, and my first entries were exactly as you would expect: random, meandering thoughts on topics such as my friends, boys, my hair, what embarrassing thing happened that day.

OMG, This is the one!! 

I tried to write every other day or so, but I remember that sometimes there would be these long periods of time where I didn't write at all (maybe a couple of months), and I would always start the first entry after a time-lapse by saying something like "Sorry it's been so long since I've written..."

To whom was I apologizing?

To myself, I guess. But why? It wasn't something I had to do, or turn in to my teacher, and nobody else knew whether I had written in my diary that day or not. I think I felt like journaling was an act of connecting with myself, of reflecting and processing my life and thoughts, even the most seemingly trivial.

I wish I still had that diary, and the ones that followed. I continued to journal throughout my teenage years, and mostly I wrote about my insecurities. I worried about and analyzed the affections of the boys I dated or wanted to date. I lamented about my body size, and vowed and re-vowed to go on a diet the very next day. I wrote when I was high or drunk, and feeling either incredibly connected with the universe or like an alien.

By the time I was 19, I had five journals filled with my most personal and rambling thoughts. At that time, I entered into a relationship with an alcoholic man named Brian, what would turn into an eight year detour / life stagnation. We moved in together very shortly after we met, and I soon became worried that he would read my journals. I would hide them, but I quickly developed a deep mistrust of Brian, and a suspicion that I was losing my sense of separate self in that relationship. I felt like those journals represented a part of my brain, a part of me that nobody could touch or see, and I knew that if Brian happened upon my journals he would read them, probably out of some paranoid need to know my inner thoughts about him, but partly just to gain just a little more control over me.

Anyway, I couldn't take that chance. One day I took all five journals with me to the coffeeshop I worked at, and one by one I tore them up and threw them in the trash. There. Now nobody could ever read them, nobody could ever touch that part of me.

Now, of course, I wish I still had these journals, because I really did enjoy going back and reading them, seeing how I've changed, seeing how I haven't. Also, my daughter is only a couple years away from the age I first started journaling, and it would have been interesting to revisit this time in my young life, in order to better understand hers. Who knows, maybe I would have even let her read them.

This blog is a journal of sorts for me, but it doesn't feel easy anymore. I used to get out my journal on days I felt stressed or anxious and just write and write. Now I sit staring at a blank screen, dozens of unrealized blog titles lurking in the shadows, and I just don't know what to say anymore. I feel like it has to matter now. Even if nobody is reading this but me, I feel the pressure to say something deep, something witty, something new.

For now, I'd just like to make a commitment to myself to write more regularly. Something, anything. Sure, I'd love for it to be profound and thought-provoking, but maybe some days I'll just write about the cat. It's a habit I'd like to practice, and I'll do it for the same reasons I did it back then -- to stay connected to myself, and to get to know myself out a bit more.