Bath Time is Crazy Time

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There is something about warm, unchlorinated water in a porcelain tub that brings out my kids’ inner Kraken. I don’t know what it is.  Maybe the opportunity to be fully, freely nude releases inhibitions along with common sense. Maybe, like a lion tracking its prey, they can sense that a long day has weakened my defenses. Maybe they just really enjoy the thrill of saving their wildest antics for the one place in the house in which they could drown.

All I know is that bath time is crazy time.

My sweet little water monsters insist on bathing together. They are terrified of the shower, so they bathe exclusively in the tub. I let them, despite the havoc they wreak, because honestly you have to choose your battles.

They use this shared bath time as an opportunity to do things they can’t do anywhere else, like fight over whose side of the tub has more water, or who is stealing whose bubbles. They take advantage of the bathroom acoustics to practice their most blood-curdling, bone piercing screams, joining their voices into a wail like the death omen of a banshee.

I say things like, “don’t drink that! Why are you drinking that?! Bath water is butt water.” And “stop laughing at your sister drinking butt – I mean bath – water. It’s not funny. Seriously, it’s not funny.” Or, “God made our bodies beautiful but please let’s keep our private parts to ourselves.”

By the time they get out, I am done – but the bath time/bedtime marathon is not. They still need to get dried and into pajamas. And it is at this point, when I am at my feeblest, that my younger daughter unleashes the full power of her inner demon.

Released from the confines of the tub, she moves to the second phase of her bath time ritual: the escape. Yesterday, I turned my back on her for two seconds and she was gone. I followed her soggy footprints into her sister’s room, where I found her hiding behind the curtains, her little butt pressed up against the floor to ceiling window.

It’s a cat and mouse chase of Tom and Jerry proportions, and by the time I finally catch and clothe her, I am spent. I am nothing more than a shell of myself.

But then this happens.

Norah Sleeping

 

And I am overwhelmed with love and in awe of the fact that these little Krakens are mine.

 

Mother’s Day

My youngest daughter woke me up this morning with a whisper – “Mommy! Is it morning time yet?”

I answered yes, groaning just a little as she climbed over my ribs, wincing as the dog took my opened eyes as an invitation to sit on my hair. “Ok,” she told me, “now you can go back to sleep,” and she slammed the door shut to give me some privacy.

Some twenty minutes later, she returned with my husband, her sister, and a plate of pancakes swimming in syrup. I ate a sticky breakfast in bed while my girls showed me their hand-made cards and the dog pierced my soul with his hungry gaze. It was—if not quite bliss – a moment in which I felt blessed.

* * *

Mother’s Day is not a day of simple emotions – not for me, and, I imagine, not for many others. There are so many struggles when it comes to the relationship between mothers and children. We are all children of a mother and cohorts of a society with a rigidly idealized definition of what motherhood should be. Rarely does the reality fulfill the expectation.

And then there are the women who wish they could become mothers, but can’t, and those who can become mothers, but can’t mother the children to whom they gave life. There are the mothers who have had to give a child back to the earth, and the children whose mothers have left the world too soon.

As the adopted daughter of a mother who died young, the celebration of Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet. When I was a child, it was a day when I felt the pull of my connection with the mother I had never met. It was a day when I honored the mother of my heart – and as I grew older while she grew sicker, it was a day when I wondered what would happen to me if she – when she – died.

After my mother’s death, the day was searingly painful. I had eyes only for what others possessed, but I had lost – twice.

As the years passed, my grief mellowed and so did the pain of Mother’s Day. I became a mother myself, which magnified everything good about the day. And I came to understand that the loss of a mother gives a gift of its own – the experience of being loved by the women who mother the motherless.

These women represent the best of what humanity has to offer. They are the grandmothers, the aunts, the neighbors, the sisters, the friends who love where love is needed. I’ve known these women in my own family, and I have met them in many other contexts, in every part of the world.

Mother’s Day is an easy holiday to celebrate. As children of mothers, it is easy to see their value in our lives. As mothers of children, it is easy to see the gifts motherhood has given us — the weight of a tiny person on your chest, the softness of a cheek, the comfort of a small body still warm with sleep, the fierce strength of a child’s embrace.

It’s easy to celebrate the beauty of idealized motherhood.

It’s harder to embrace the darker side, where mistakes, regrets, and loss reside. But I think it is in this side of motherhood where we find its deepest and most powerful meaning. Because it is here where we find the forgiveness, the persistence, the tenacity of a love that transcends everything, even the grave. It’s here where we find the women whose hearts are the deepest wells, who fill the world with their nurturing grace.

For my mothers, for all the women who stood in a mother’s place in my life, and for my children who have given me more than they know, I am filled with gratitude. And for those we have lost, I will mourn.

mom and me

 

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Michele and Grandma

Get Out and Vote!

Today is Election Day in Maryland and this is a post about voting. But first, I need to tell you about pet turtles and dead caterpillars.

For the last few weeks, my daughters have been lobbying hard for a pet turtle. As our almost 5-year-old recently reminded us, our dog is old and “soon he’s going to die.” And our almost 8-year-old is dissatisfied with the pet-to-person distribution in our family: in other words, there is no pet belonging exclusively to her; she didn’t pick out or name the only one we have; and therefore it’s so unfair.

The new pet campaign came to a head this morning. I’m taking little Wednesday Addams and Dorothy Day on a Girl Scout field trip to our local pet shelter and my husband made it clear that we will not, under any circumstances, be coming home from this excursion with a new pet.

But being the innovative and perseverant children they are, my girls decided that since we already have a flourishing ant population in our house, they would adopt a few wild ants in need of a good home. So, just before lunchtime, they set out in the backyard with bowls, watermelon chunks, and a few spent dandelions.

They caught three ants and named them Tickles, Shine, and Steve. They had a few good moments together before one of the ants – I think it was Steve – initiated a mass breakout and they escaped into the grassy wilds.

I redirected the girls to our front patio and tempted them with a bucket of sidewalk chalk, but they were not to be distracted from their quest for a new pet. After a few minutes I heard an excited cry – my older daughter had found a caterpillar.

It might look from here like this story has a happy ending. It doesn’t. Mr. Caterpillar had shuffled off his mortal coil, and was no more.

“Honey,” I told her, “I think he’s dead.”

“That’s OK” she said, “He can still be my pet.”

So I flicked the poor creature into my daughter’s bowl habitat and then I walked away because some things you can’t change.

Also, I had to deal with the 4-year-old who was sobbing over the fact that her sister now had her own pet, but she didn’t. The fact that it was a DEAD freaking CATERPILLAR carried no weight with her. Meanwhile, her big sister began singing lullabies to the dead caterpillar, because that’s what you do, I guess?

It wasn’t long, though, before the little sister’s heartbreak was alleviated by a burst of schadenfreude. My older daughter had dropped her caterpillar and it fell through the cracks in our deck.

But the fact reminded that, after all their trouble, neither one of them had their own pet. The crying resumed, this time in stereo.

All of this happened at that exact point in the day when hunger and low-caffeine levels make me extra short on patience. On a normal no-school day, I’d be silently cursing the school calendar deities for ruining my life while searching online for boarding schools.

But not today. Today, I’m feeling deeply grateful for the good fortune that allowed me to be born in a democratic country, at a time when women can vote, in a state where voting is easy.

My dad always says that you can’t complain if you don’t vote. But it seems to me like our country is really good at the complaining part and not so good at the voting part. And that needs to stop.

People died for our right to vote. There are plenty of places around the world where people are still fighting and dying for a right we take for granted –a right that some of us scorn. And, even now, in America, there are states and districts that are making voting excessively difficult, if not impossible.

I understand people’s frustration with our political system. I feel it too. But not voting because you can’t be bothered or just don’t care is an insult to those who have sacrificed their passion and even their lives for our right to do so. It’s also an insult to anyone who is denied the right to vote.

So get out there and vote. I did it, with two kids who still don’t have their own pets and are still crying about it. Polls are open until 8. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Speech Isn’t Free

In January, Mount Saint Mary’s University, a small Catholic college used to living a quiet life in the country, burst ingloriously onto the national media stage.

Student reporters for the University’s newspaper, the Mountain Echo, broke a story about a plan designed by school president Simon Newman to cull at-risk freshman, based on their responses to a legally-dubious questionnaire. I wrote about it as an alumna, along with dozens of other alumni and higher education reporters.

The story started out bad, and it has only gotten worse.

In the time since the Echo published its report, the newspaper was temporarily shut down. Its faculty adviser was fired — for no specified reason other than “disloyalty.” Another faculty member who contributed to criticisms against Newman’s plans was also fired for “disloyalty,” despite having tenure. An entirely new advisory staff for the student paper– approved, of course, by the president — was installed.

Faced with an untenable situation in which not only their academic freedoms, but their livelihoods, were threatened, faculty met and voted 87-3 to urge President Newman to resign.

Newman did not resign. He countered by reinstating the faculty he fired as an act of “mercy” — though the faculty themselves were not immediately informed what their “reinstatement” involves or even allowed access to their university email accounts.

He handed out doughnuts to the 70 or so students that showed up at a rally held to support him. He touted a student government survey that indicated a majority of its respondents believed in his mission, as if it were some sort of referendum. He vowed that he wasn’t going anywhere and he brought back the Mountain Echo.

It’s a version of the Echo, however, that reads like a state-sanctioned student newspaper out of North Korea.  Its return was announced with a list of letters to the editor, which were, as a whole, supportive of Newman’s approach. And its home page looks like a catalog of pro-Newman propaganda.

Looking at the newspaper from an objective point of view, you might actually believe that Newman really is, on the whole, embraced by the overall Mount community.

He’s not.

At least one other letter to the Echo editor was not published, despite being scheduled to go out in last week’s edition. The letter was critical of President Newman, but it served as a respectful request for him and the rest of the administration to listen to the voices of those who differ from them in opinion.

I know this letter was withheld because, with my fellow alumnus Nunzio D’Alessio, I wrote and submitted it. Clearly, our request to be heard was denied.

There are many stakeholders who have the best interest of Mt. St. Mary’s University at heart. Students, faculty, alumni, and the Catholic community of which the Mount has been a part for 200 years. We are not, by any means, universally supportive of President Newman or the Board that has consistently backed him up.

Alumni who criticize President Newman have been vilified by other alumni. We have been accused of trashing the school we (falsely) claim to love and damaging the Mount name. The bad press is our fault.

The student reporters who broke the story have been harassed and intimidated. Students who oppose President Newman are afraid to speak out. Some faculty will only use private email servers to discuss Newman because they are certain their emails are being read.

Today, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) announced its 10 worst colleges for free speech. Mount Saint Mary’s is at the top of the list. And until drastic changes to its leadership are made, that is where my school belongs.

From the first time I visited the campus, Mount Saint Mary’s has felt like home. What it is going through now is painful to see — it’s like watching a family fall apart. But I love the school enough to know that disloyalty isn’t speaking your dissent– it is staying silent when injustice and poor leadership threaten to destroy something sacred.

Krista Threefoot,
Class of 2001

Click here to support struggling freshmen at Mount Saint Mary’s.

The text of the letter that was not published in the Mountain Echo is below:

February 10, 2016

Dear Editor,

We, the undersigned, are alumni of this university who have for some time been concerned with the general direction and current state of affairs at our beloved alma mater.

While the precipitating cause of this letter is the recent debacle surrounding the so-called “retention program” (known among us as Bunnygate) and its support by President Newman and the Board of Trustees, we judge this most recent event as evidence of a much deeper problem.

Initial reports of President Newman’s retention plans were shocking. Even in hindsight, the program comes across as misguided. The language President Newman used to describe the culling of 20-25 “at-risk” freshmen, as bunnies to be drowned, was even more disturbing – it hints at a lack of respect for the constituents of the school and the faculty who were attempting to serve their students’ best interests.  

But, thanks to our Mount education, we are able to look past President Newman’s unfortunate choice of words to assess the issue on its own merits. It is in looking past his choice of words, however, that we find our source of concern.

Despite the explanations and justifications the administration has rushed to put forth, we still find little to reassure us that this retention program was intended to be as constructive and supportive as President Newman has recently described.

The Mountain Echo reporters have offered enough evidence to suggest that President Newman did indeed intend to encourage a set number of “at-risk” freshmen to leave the school by a certain date. The fact that this date would have enabled Mt. St. Mary’s to favorably manipulate their retention numbers is not, in our opinion, coincidental. Why would the faculty have refused to submit the data to the administration by that date if they had no concerns about how it would be used?

We are further distressed by the tone of Mr. Coyne’s Message from the Chairman of the Board of Trustees from January 22, and its attempt to cast doubt on the objectivity and methodology of the Echo reporters who broke the story. The Echo has been admirably transparent, providing more details than should be necessary on how they researched and verified information for the retention plan story. (See their Jan. 19 Editorial Note.)

We are alarmed by Mr. Coyne’s blatant attempt to discredit the students, alumni, and faculty who contributed to this story. Mr. Coyne’s letter appeared to suggest that any and all criticism of the President’s methods and motives is the propaganda of some sort of cabal of malcontents actively working against the best interests of the school.

This week, our concern has turned to outrage as we have learned that Mr. Coyne’s letter contained more than just vague accusations and idle threats. The demotion of Provost Rehm and the firings of Professor Egan and Doctor Naberhaus have been made public, along with a well-founded suspicion that their firings were the result of their opposition to President Newman’s agenda.

And it is here where we reach the heart of the matter we find most disturbing: Mount Saint Mary’s shines as a school in the liberal arts tradition where open discourse between people with differing ideas and opinions is welcomed and encouraged. The administration’s suppression of dialogue, its retaliation against those who speak out against it, and its unwillingness to address legitimate concerns about the direction of the school belies everything for which the Mount stands.

We write today cognizant of the many challenges currently facing the Mount as an institution of higher education. We are fully aware that the President and the Board are working hard to save a school facing serious – potentially catastrophic — financial difficulties. We recognize that these financial problems are President Newman’s inheritance, the result of his predecessor’s prodigious spending that increased the university’s debt substantially. We respect President Newman and the Board for their commitment to making the Mount flourish in a changing world.

But we worry that the administration’s unwillingness to engage in constructive dialogue with its critics is symptomatic of deeper problems besetting the University. Contestation and critique are vital aspects of a thriving liberal arts education. When the administration stifles the voices of those who question it, how can we trust them to preserve the Catholic liberal arts learning environment that has so profoundly enriched our lives?

We fear that in its push to make the Mount marketable, the administration is exchanging discovery, dissent, questioning, and critical thinking – the highest virtues of a liberal arts education — for an expanding quest for rankings, prestige, retention, and greater tuition and grant dollars.

Today, we address the Mount administration as academics, bloggers, nurses, therapists, educators, writers, television producers, scientists, journalists, business leaders, community leaders, mothers, and fathers. We are writing as the generation of alumni poised to lead society through the next decade, and we want you to know that the core, liberal arts curriculum and the vibrant spirit of community which characterized our Mount education are critical aspects of the unique contribution we are able to make in our world. The education we received at Mount Saint Mary’s 10, 15, 20 years ago is even more relevant now than it was then.

We ask that you respect our ideas, opinions, and concerns. We ask that rather than dismiss or discredit those in our Mount community who criticize your decisions, you respond openly and with transparency. We don’t want to be told what to think – our Mount education taught us to ask for more from life than directions to follow.

Our Mount education also taught us to speak out against injustice, whenever and wherever we see it.

We see injustice now, in the actions the administration has taken to punish those who refuse to toe the line. We ask that you understand that we will not stay silent.  

Above all, we ask that you work as hard as you can to preserve what we treasure most about our mountain home: its cohesive identity, rooted in the ever-curious, ever-seeking spirit of Catholic, liberal arts education. The future of Mount St. Mary’s University does, indeed, lie within the foundations of its past. On this point, we agree.

We sign with sincere gratitude for our Mount community,

Chinenye Adimora

Stacey Margaret Allen ’01

Adaora Azubike

Sarah Pilisz Babbs C’06

Jason Bacon ’01

Amanda Blizzard ’02

Meghan Bolden ‘04

Patrick Bolden, ‘78

Ken Buckler, ‘06

Toni Burkhard ’99

Martha Ciske – ’01

Lizette Chacon ’02

Eryn Chaney ’02

Joe Creamer ’01

Nunzio D’Alessio ’01

Krishawn Demby ’02

Christy V. Emmerich ’03

Reggie Eusebio ’00

Paul Evans ’03

Jen McAlice Fellows ’01

Michael Fellows

Steve Finley ’03

Angie Gilchrist ’04

Katie Reilly Giusti ’01

Kelley Wilson Griffin ’02

Melinda Hatcher ’01

Fran Harrington ’03

Cindy Stanek Holsworth ’02

Alison Zabrenski Humphreys ’01

Kevin Hunt ’00

Cuyler Jackson ’02

Kristen Johnson – ’02

Kelly Klinger ’02

Jen Mabe ’00

Katherine Stattel Mach ’01

Steve Manley ’02

Leroy Masser ’01

Gina Woods Mastromarino ’02

John W. Miller ’99

Mary Saynuk Monroe ’01

Kelly Wallin Morin ’01

Nola Occhipinti ’02

Ekene Adimora Ogwu ’01

Chloe Mathus Oram ’02

Elizabeth Polit ’01

Katie Sherman Rawson ’01, MBA ’07

Katie Hopkins Repetti ’01

Eric Seebach ’00

Jen Wieber Schildkraut ’02

Rebecca Walker Shoemacher ’03

Nicole Sinclair ’01

Erin McCartin Smigal ’01

Elaine Streck ’00

Krista Wujek Threefoot ’01

Sarah Tucker ’00

Beth Smith Utter ’01

Kate Vancavage ’02
Darlene Kukura Wallace ‘04

Julie Varner Walsh, ‘01

Kate Muldowney Watkins ’02

Matt Watkins ’02

Catey Heimerl Williams ’01

Wendy Brinig Williams ’02

Erin Callahan Woerner ’01

Rebecca Pagan Zamora ’01

Melissa Ismey Zimmerman ’02

An Angry Alumna

For graduates of a tiny liberal arts college that hardly anyone knows about, it’s always exciting to see your alma mater’s name in the international news.

Except, of course, when it’s in the news for doing something  you think is completely unethical – something even Donald Trump might consider shady – in complete defiance of everything the school has stood for over a span of 200 years.

Yesterday my news feed was flooded with stories of my beloved alma mater, Mt. St. Mary’s University and not one of them was good.

During the last decade, Mt. St. Mary’s has changed drastically from the school I knew. It is no longer a college, but a university. It has moved away from its intellectual, liberal arts focus toward a more business-minded emphasis. The school wanted more prestige and needed to make more money. And so things had to change. The leadership steered the school away from its traditional values into a realm more fitting for a corporation seeking to expand its profit margins.

Consider the news that came out of Mt. St. Mary’s yesterday. According to the school’s newspaper, The Mountain Echo, which was used as a resource for a later article published in the Washington Post, the newly appointed president of the university created a freshman questionnaire purportedly to “help students discover more about themselves”, which was to be used instead to cull students whose responses labeled them as being at-risk, with the goal of improving the school’s retention rates.

Higher education institutions are required to submit to the federal government the total number of students enrolled each semester. This number is then used to calculate the freshman retention rate, which is a factor that contributes to many students’ college selections. If a large chunk of a class’ population drops out after the first year, it could indicate something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Mt. St. Mary’s president Simon Newman had the bright idea that if the school got rid of students  who were destined to fail anyway ­before they had to calculate and submit their enrollment numbers, then the retention rate would be higher. Voila! And the best part – he’d actually be doing those students a service by saving them the wasted money of a semester’s tuition, room, and board.

When discussing this matter with faculty — who as a whole do  not support this plan —  President Newman urged them not to think of freshmen as “cuddly bunnies” with this charming metaphor:  “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Because in a bunny-eat-bunny kind of world, you have to take out the runts before they get devoured.

Tough love has its merits, or so they say. I’m not very good at it myself.  But injustice is injustice, and that is what we are facing here. You can’t establish the certainty that a student will fail based on a survey he takes during freshman orientation. In fact, you can’t be certain a student will fail until they actually fail. You can’t treat a group of kids embarking on the educational journey that will shape their future like a herd of cattle being fattened for the market.

It’s disturbing to me that any group of leaders directing a university could think this way.

But what is worse, in my opinion, is that this decision came from a Catholic college that has always prided itself not only on its commitment to academic excellence but also on the strength of its community.

The community at the Mount is, or was, its greatest asset. When I was a student, we knew our professors personally. They took us out for beers and invited us into their homes. I babysat their kids. They treated us like equals, encouraging our curiosity and fostering our intellectual growth.

The community I was a part of helped freshman – and sophomores and juniors and seniors – who were struggling academically. They helped us when we were struggling personally. They invested in us. A small minority of students failed or left for other reasons, but at least they had a fair chance.

The community I was a part of was, in the most powerful sense of the word, a community. We had a shared identity that united us and defined us. And for me, having been part of that community continues to shape who I am today, nearly 15 years after my graduation.  The older I get, the more I realize how vital it is for me to be a part of something larger than myself. I used imagine that I would find my greatest fulfillment as a globe-trotting idealist, saving the world from itself.  Now, I know that my happiness is as deep as the roots I have formed. I have the Mount to thank for that.

The direction President Newman is taking Mt. St. Mary’s is the wrong one and his methods are unconscionable. It needs to be stopped. I’m hopeful that the negative media attention will force him and the board of trustees to change the course they has chosen. But in the meantime, it looks like it’s time for some strongly worded letters.

***

If, like me, you are a Mount graduate or a concerned member of the Baltimore Archdiocese (or if you just enjoy writing strongly worded letters) and you also feel the need to state your objection to the direction MSM is taking, here are some helpful links:

Contact information for the University cabinet: http://msmary.edu/presidents_office/university-cabinet/

Office of the Archbishop of Baltimore: http://www.archbalt.org/about-us/offices/archbishop-office/index.cfm Email: archbishop@archbalt.org

Baltimore Sun news tip contact: newstips@baltimoresun.com, 410-332-6100

 

 

 

 

 

What Grief Has Taught Me

what grief has taught me

It’s January 6th again, the day that I dread. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t dread this day, and I think I will continue to dread it as long as my memory is intact. I’ve been dreading it more than usual this year, because January 6, 2016 is kind of a big deal.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death from breast cancer. I don’t know why this number seems so significant. There is something about a quarter of a century that feels substantial.

And I don’t know why measuring the time that has passed is so important to me. It’s something I just do, automatically. I can say with certainty, though, that these 25 years have changed me. Looking back to 1991 from 2016 feels like looking from one world to another. To me, it is a different world. I’ve grown up.

I’ve grown up, and I’ve grown in understanding. The roles that cancer and loss have played in my life have never been far from my mind. I’m a thinker (and an over-thinker), and I’ve never stopped thinking about the parts of my life that have so fundamentally shaped the person I’ve become.

So, small though my pool of knowledge might be, I do know this:

Cancer is a family disease.

I’ve never had cancer, but cancer is a part of me.

My mother was first diagnosed when I was four. I was young, but I was very aware of the fear gripping my family. I used to have this nightmare, over and over and over, so often that 32 years later I can still remember it in near-perfect detail. I was in my parents’ bedroom – pale blue walls, bed covered with a white, tufted chenille bedspread. My mother was standing at the foot of the bed packing a suitcase. My father was in the corner of the room crying. I was squeezed between the bed and the wall, watching, hidden. Behind my mother a bear hovered — it wanted to take her away. I knew my mother was scared but didn’t want to show it, and I knew that my father was crying because he was helpless.  This scene would repeat itself in a loop, and it scared me stiff.

Chronic illness — when it carries with it the potential of a death sentence — is terrifying for the person fighting it. It is also terrifying for those who love and need that person. During the long seven years of my mother’s illness, in my heart I was fighting alongside her. The time that has passed since her death has done nothing to diminish my sense of having battled and lost to cancer.

Sharing death with someone is an intimate, profoundly affecting act and everyone should do it once.

My mother died at Christmas. Technically, she died on the last day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. But really, her death began on the 26th when she fell into a coma that only broke when her pain became uncontrollable.

I was there the whole time. I was with her when she lost consciousness. I heard her when she emerged only to moan in pain. I learned what dying breaths sound like and I stood beside her as those breaths ebbed to a stop. I could almost see her soul depart her body.

Four years ago, when I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I sat in another room with another person I loved as cancer took his life away too. This time, it was my uncle – one of the best humans I’ve ever known – who was making his surrender. With my aunt and my cousins, I held his hand through a death that was not peaceful.

The memories of my mother and my uncle dying are among my most painful. But I also treasure them. There was an inexplicable beauty in those moments, a sense of connectedness and love. I’m better because of them.

Grief grows as one body.

When you first experience grief – not just great sadness, grief – it creates a sort of nerve in you with the cause of your grief at its core. And once that nerve exists within you, you can’t experience loss without it being touched.

Shortly after my mother died, my grandfather died, also of cancer. I grieved my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, but his death renewed my grief for my mother. As death took more of the people I loved, an uncle, my grandmothers, an uncle again, I grieved each individually and all of them together.

When my second uncle died four years ago, I felt the loss of everyone who had gone before him. But oddly enough, the grief I felt was also a kind of resurrection. Grieving them together somehow brought them back to me individually. For a time they were all with me again.

People die, but grief doesn’t.

Grief is a gut punch like no other. It shatters you absolutely. People tell you that it goes away with time, but it doesn’t.

And as much as you wish in the early days that it will go away, that it will release you and let you go back to being the person you were before it took over your life, you end up not wanting it to go away.

Time makes living with your grief more bearable, but it also takes you further away from the person you have lost. Eventually, grief becomes the strongest connection you have with them.

In 25 years, the world has changed. I’ve changed. And with every year that passes, it’s as though time has taken my mother further away from me. I don’t feel her presence anymore. The memories I have of her are pitifully few. I take them out like treasures now, cherishing them, guarding them, but lacking a sense of their relevance in my daily life.

And now that the grief of missing her in every moment has lessened, a new grief has taken its place – the grief of not missing her in every moment. It’s a quieter grief — and more bearable — but it’s grief all the same.

After 25 years, what I know above all things is that grief never dies.

Mom

 

 

Patrick’s Story

patrick's story

Ten years ago, when I worked for Catholic Relief Services, I took a trip to Africa. The purpose was for me to visit programs, talk to the people who were a part of them, and come home to write stories that would encourage wealthy Americans to invest in CRS’ work.

I traveled to Uganda and Ethiopia. I met hundreds of people and I heard dozens of stories. They were stories of loss and suffering and joy and triumph. For the most part they were stories I treasured; stories to hold on to; stories to share when hope is a bird in a storm.

But there was one story I couldn’t retell, at least not willingly, not until it came heaving out with my sobs on a night when I couldn’t sleep.

It was a young man who told me the story – I think he was about 16 at the time. He said his name was Patrick. I was in a camp for internally displaced people (not the same as refugees: they hadn’t crossed their home country’s borders), in Gulu, Northern Uganda.

If you have ever heard of Invisible Children, you know something of the decades-long war in the north of Uganda, where Joseph Kony and his LRA have made terror their career. The camp was a safe haven (though not very safe nor much of a haven) for people whose lives had been destroyed by LRA forces.

Many of the people I met were former abductees who had escaped their LRA captors. I spoke with a woman who had endured gang rape, many times over, who escaped when she became pregnant, and who delivered her child alone in the bush while running away.

I met another woman whose lips had been cut off because the LRA caught her riding a bike. I saw people who had lost hands and ears for much the same reason.

And though those stories make my eyes well as I write, they don’t compare to the horror of Patrick’s story, which makes me reel even a decade after hearing it.

One night when he was around 12, LRA soldiers came to Patrick’s home. They killed his entire family and they abducted him to join hundreds of his adolescent peers as a soldier in their army.

Before becoming a soldier, he told me, you went through a process of indoctrination. They stripped away your ties to everything — your community, your peers, your identity.  And then they gave you a gun.

Patrick’s captors drilled into him that his gun was his only ally, his only family, his new identity, his everything. His life depended on it — and on his obedience.

All the boy soldiers were trained to accept the impossibility of an independent future. But hope springs eternal and there were still those who tried to get away. One day, a few boys in his group made the attempt. They were caught.

When the escapees were caught, they were brought back to the camp. Patrick and the remaining boys were forced to kill them. They were forced to dismember them, cook their flesh over a fire, and consume it from the skulls of the children who had, just day before, been their peers.

* * *

For a privileged white girl from the American suburbs, listening to Patrick’s story was shattering. It was terrible beyond anything I imagined possible.

But Patrick was matter-of-fact in his retelling. There was little emotion and no drama – it was his reality after all. He was a child who had lost everything and, in his emptiness, been forced to commit an act that could have destroyed his humanity forever.

Somehow, Patrick kept his humanity. He escaped and made it to the camp where he was working with a miracle of a Catholic nun to restore some sense of himself and his place in our world. The trauma he’d experienced had hollowed him, but there was enough of him left to strive for a future.

The night after I met Patrick, I went back to my room in a hotel that was so heavily guarded I was afraid. I was supposed to meet the rest of my co-workers for a big dinner celebration, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I stayed in and revised my notes and cried until I vomited. I slept and I dreamed terrible things, and at some point I was certain I’d heard the sound of gunfire.

I came home with this story buried deeply underneath so many others. I shared the other stories liberally, but this one, Patrick’s, I held within me. It had grieved me so terribly that I feared I would hurt others if I told it. I still have nightmares of skulls boiling in cauldrons over campfires.

But it’s been ten years and whenever this story resurfaces in my memory, it comes back fresh and it fells me with emotion. It is with me again now, as I am reading, over and over, new stories of refugees torn from their communities, stripped of their identities, striving in desperation to escape a reality that could destroy their humanity.

* * *

Patrick’s life was derailed by an army of terrorists, acting under the mantle of a distorted version of the Christian faith. The “Lord” in LRA stands for Our Lord, the one whose birth we plan to celebrate in a few short weeks. He escaped with his existence, and I hope he has carved out a new life for himself. Maybe he has.

As an IDP, a person displaced within the borders of his own country, Patrick wasn’t granted the official status of a refugee. His rights to resettlement in a safe territory aren’t even protected under international law.

“Refugee” isn’t a term thrown around loosely in international officialdom. When we discuss refugees, we are talking about people who have had to prove that they were forced by persecution out of their home country, with no possibility of living safely within their own borders in the foreseeable future. And then, to come to America, they have to prove that they don’t pose the same threat they are fleeing to others.

These are people who have been victimized, terrorized, forced from their homes, and left without a shred of hope of regaining the lives they lost. The only hope they have is found in the hospitality of other nations.

When we open our arms to refugees, we are opening our arms to women who otherwise would be brutalized, children who otherwise would be dead, young men who would otherwise be forced to fight against us. And when we shut them out, we do no less than send them to their deaths, at the expense of our humanity.

Grieving the Almost

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A Facebook friend of mine once shared a post on grieving the almost. It was a beautiful and thoughtful essay on the paradoxical idea that we have the ability to miss something that never really existed, except in our perceptions or in our imaginations.

On the surface, grieving the almost seems impossible. How can you feel the pain of the loss of something that was never yours to lose? It shouldn’t be possible – God knows we have enough grief in this world from the losses of what we can feel with our own five senses. And if reality were just what we can see and touch and hear, it wouldn’t be possible.

But of course it’s possible. Because we all know that just because something happens in our heads, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. We can grieve the love we thought we felt, but didn’t. We can grieve the marriage that was never really a marriage. We can grieve the job we never got, the dream that was never fulfilled, the potential we never reached. We can grieve the child we never conceived and we can grieve the one we lost but never met.

These days, it’s the grief of that final almost which has been foremost on my mind. I’m posting this in October, the month dedicated to bringing awareness to pregnancy and infant loss – and social media is ensuring that memories of my own loss remain on the edges of my thoughts.

I can say from experience that anyone who has lost a cherished pregnancy, no matter how early, knows what it means to grieve the almost.

A parent is able to love – overwhelmingly – the baby whose proof of life lies only in the faintest of pink lines. A parent can see the child of her heart in the sprout-like form and nubby limbs of an 8-week fetus. A parent can feel the downy hair she never nuzzled; she can know the soft weight that never warmed her chest.

A parent who has lost a pregnancy has grieved – and will always grieve – the almost.

I’m writing this post not so much in the name of awareness, but in remembrance. Because I think the hardest part of pregnancy loss is the knowledge that we (or someone we loved) once carried within her the potential for a life that will not only never be lived, but which will never be known.

And so, this post is for all of the almost babies, the shadow children, who exist in the hearts of so many mothers and fathers.  Your presence is felt in a world you never saw, because you changed those who loved you without ever knowing you. We remember you. We miss you. We grieve for the world that will never know you.

What’s in a Flag?

I first started writing this post on June 20, shortly after the Charleston church shooting. At the time, I was feeling baffled and sad and, honestly, angry, even though I really had no right to be angry. It wasn’t my community that was targeted; my perspective is comes from the other side.

But I was angry, and my anger clouded my thoughts so much that expressing them would have led me to saying things I would later regret — mainly because my anger was for people with whom I identify, those who make up the social circle in which I live. My anger was for people who, like me, have had the privilege of living in skin that is accepted, respected, and protected but who cannot (or will not) accept that we do not live in a post-racist society.

Back in May, when the Freddie Gray story was all over the media, I was confused how, after so many deaths of young African American men at the hands of police and vigilantes, there could still be people in our country refusing to acknowledge even the possibility that racism exists in our country.

I asked myself then what it would take for the racism deniers to see what is staring them in the face — the fact that racism is a fact in our society, not a theory or a possibility or a shadow of the past.  And I thought to myself — these people aren’t going to see what is right in front of them until something horrific happens, like a lynching or the burning of a black church. You know, the kinds of things that used to happen back in the days before the civil rights movement, when racism was law.

And then, on Wednesday, June 17, a white man wearing emblems of white supremacy proudly on his clothing, entered a historic southern black church with a gun and killed nine black people.

***

After it happened, I found myself thinking that now we would have no more excuses.  Now there is nothing else we can use to cover the abscess that is racism in our country. A white man  killed nine black people in a church that is a sacred symbol of the civil rights movement in the south. The denial must end here.

Except that it didn’t end there. People continued to struggle to find an excuse, any excuse at all to explain the motivation behind this hate crime, as long as it wasn’t racism.

And when I say people, I don’t mean the gormless trolls who lurk in the bowels of comment sections. I mean political leaders. Governors and congressmen and presidential candidates — people we rightly view as representatives of a significant percentage of our society.

When I started writing this, in that context, I was baffled beyond the point of frustration and into the territory of fury.

* * *

In the weeks since the murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney , Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, the conversation has, finally, begun to change. Many of those who hesitated to label the killings as a hate crime against black Americans have backpedaled. Some have admitted they were wrong.  The most vehement deniers haven’t stopped denying, but their voices have, at least, been drowned out by a louder call for equality.

The amount of change necessary to answer this call for equality is staggering — it always has been, which is why, after each instance of brutality against black people that gains national attention, the demand for change becomes diluted simply by how immense the problem is.

But after these killings in Charleston, our call for change seems instead to have become distilled into a demand for the removal of the Confederate flag from our public spaces.

***

It’s a start. Certainly a flag that was raised in treasonous rebellion against the United States in order to defend and promote an economic system that forced one group of men to call anther group their masters has no place in any authentically American institution. It does not belong on the flagpole of a State House building. It doesn’t belong in a state flag, or as a representation of any level of American government.

The validity of this argument was finally recognized by a majority of lawmakers in South Carolina, the heart of the confederate flag debate, and at last the flag was removed from a space it had no business occupying. And it is coming down in dozens of other places across the country.

Again, it’s a start. It is good to see that the reasonableness of the argument against having a literally treasonous flag flying over a state capitol has been recognized by many who once denied it. And it is a reasonable argument. It’s not a radical, fringe idea to suggest that a flag used in battle against the American Government does not belong in our public spaces.  And it isn’t a radical idea to suggest that a flag which represented an army rebelling at least partly in defense of an economic system based on the enslavement of black people is racist.

No hate here.

#HeritageNotHate 

Yet we still don’t seem to have reached the point where, to believe otherwise —  that is, to believe that the confederate flag does have a legitimate place as a symbol of who we are in a pluralistic democracy based on the principle of the equality of all men – is also not a radical, fringe idea. We only have to look at the way our (black) president was greeted when he drove into Oklahoma City earlier this week. Welcoming him with the waving of confederate flags, people were quick to defend their actions as “not racist” but as a “celebration of their heritage.” (Arguments which are hard to believe when groups like the KKK, who openly identify as racist, rally under the mantle of that very same flag.) But beyond that, there is no separating the heritage of the South from the heritage of racism. The glory of the old South had its foundation in an economic system dependent upon the enslavement of black people. The history of our nation is imbued with the bloody stain of racism: we cannot bleach it out. But far too many of us continue to try.

NO HATE HERE... (Members of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009, Pulaski, Tenn.   SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)

No hate here… (Members of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009, Pulaski, Tenn. SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)

The confederate flag does have a place in America —  it belongs in museums, where we honor the history that has made us who we are today. The Civil War was by no means a war of pure good versus pure evil. There were heroes and virtue, villains and vice, and racism on both sides of the divide. The best way for us to understand the nuances of war is through our study of history — not through the veneration of a flag that represents to so many the greatest sin we have ever committed as a nation.

***

As I look back at this month of anger and hurt and social upheaval, I am still not at peace with the example being set by people who share my skin color and my privilege. In my continued frustration and disappointment, all I want to say is that these people do not represent me. Not me.  But perhaps what I should really be saying is, “I’m sorry.” Because I know that racism is alive and thriving. I know that the whiteness of my skin puts me at an automatic advantage. And I don’t know how to change it. And I am sorry.

In Honor of Our Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, so it seems like a good time to put into words a post I have been writing in my head for weeks.

The state of our schools is on the minds of parents across the country. We hear about oppressive testing regimens, disinterested teachers, the much-maligned common core.  We hear far more complaints and criticism than gratitude and praise. More than that, we hear about a system that is broken, in which excellence is the exception to the rule.

***

On paper, our local school does not look promising. Our Great Schools rating has dropped from an eight to a four. Sixty percent of our students receive free or reduced price lunches – the highest percentage in our (wealthy) county. We have a significant population of parents whose first language is not English, so many of our students enter Kindergarten unable to understand their teachers.

If you look at just the numbers, ours is a school that some people would choose to avoid.

Some people would, but thankfully, we didn’t. Because numbers and metrics and the problems so many people like to discuss don’t tell the whole story.

***

For me, the story begins with our teachers.

When my daughter started Kindergarten last year, I was worried. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was three. Since then, different doctors have agreed and disagreed with that diagnosis, but on one thing there is a clear consensus: she has some quirks. School, with its many transitions and social challenges had the potential of being really tough for her. Full-day Kindergarten looked, to me, like a minefield.

It wasn’t. My daughter’s teacher seemed to have an intuitive understanding of exactly what she needed to thrive. She made their daily routine clear and guided my daughter through transitions. She recognized the triggers that made my daughter especially anxious, and she made sure to work around them.

And she did all that while dealing with a class of 17 other children, who were all over the developmental spectrum. Some were struggling with the basics of reading, others were reading chapter books. Some came to school barely understanding English. Some had never been in a school environment, and several struggled with the restrictions of being in a classroom all day.   Her special understanding of my daughter wasn’t even special – because she had the same commitment to meeting the unique needs of each and every other student in her classroom.

And this teacher, as good as she is, is not an anomaly.

Back in December I had a meeting at our school to talk about my daughter’s handwriting, which was terrible.

Because her fine motor skill development was concerned, the meeting included her first grade teacher, the lead special education teacher, the school psychologist, an occupational therapist, and her principal.

I began the conversation discussing some of my daughter’s history, expecting to have to explain her quirks and how they affect her in the classroom. But I didn’t have to, because her teacher had such insight into her personality, her anxieties, and the way she learns that she was able to contribute more to the conversation than I was.

The special education teacher picked right up on what her teacher was saying, and put together a plan that was not only tailored exactly to my daughter’s needs, but which was creative and empowering.

Her principal looked over her handwriting samples, and understood immediately what our concerns were, adding in his own interpretations and recommendations.

Everyone in that room cared. They cared about my daughter as a person, not just as a student. They liked her. They wanted her to succeed in becoming her best self. It’s a gift beyond value — beyond any kind of measurement —  to have people like these in your child’s life.

***

Our teachers have an incredibly difficult job, especially at the elementary level. They aren’t just imparting knowledge. They are teaching our kids the basic skills that form the foundation of all the learning they will do in the future. And they are doing so for a classroom full of children with vastly different learning styles, family backgrounds, social statuses, and personalities.

My family is fortunate to be part of an exceptionally good school district and to be assigned to a school with excellent teachers and a strong community. I know how vastly unequal school districts across the nation are. I know that we are privileged.

But the story of our education system starts with our teachers. And if we want that system to be great we need give our teachers the support, the gratitude, and the respect they deserve.

So to all the teachers in my life: Thank You.

S