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

Yes, It Is About Race

If you are on social media and you live in a Baltimore suburb, you have been reading about the protests in our fair city.

You have also been reading the comments, because you just can’t resist. Actually – you can’t escape them. There are comments (and judgments) in every other status update coming up on your feed.

And somewhere among the jumble of opinions, someone has made the argument that this “isn’t about race.” More accurately, that the thousands of black people protesting on the streets are protesting something irrelevant. That this latest killing of a young man by police has nothing to do with the color of his skin. That institutional racism ended a long time ago.

The reasons why “this isn’t about race” will vary. Someone will share a CNN screenshot with raw numbers of people killed in police custody, “proving” that, technically, more whites than blacks are killed by police.

Someone else will bring up the fact that the Baltimore police department is way more diverse than that of Ferguson, so clearly it can’t be influenced by the race of the people it serves.

Black-on-black crime will come up, because it always does. And, of course, someone will bring in the trump card of Affirmative Action, whether it makes sense or not.

***

Ultimately, the insinuation will be that the pain, anger, and frustration protesters are saying they feel is invalid or, at best, misdirected. The fact that largely black communities are statistically more likely to have high rates of cyclical poverty and crime is attributed to something inherently wrong in those communities – absentee fathers, welfare-addicted mothers, drugs, gangs – denying even the possibility that the system treats blacks differently than it treats whites.

That, my friends, is racism.

When you have a minority population begging to be heard and a majority population refusing to hear them, you have systemic injustice.

The people protesting on the streets of Baltimore this week aren’t asking us for much.  They aren’t looking for a reason to break laws or injure police. (The few do not define the many.) They aren’t asking for special privileges or for a free ride through life.

They are asking us to listen to them. They are asking us to acknowledge that they have experienced pain and injustice because of the color of their skin. They are asking us to believe them when they say that the injustices they have faced aren’t isolated experiences but a fundamental part of their daily lives. They are asking us to imagine what it would be like not to have the benefit of the doubt, to be mistrusted and judged the moment people look at you.

They are asking us to see them as people with a right to define the narrative of our society.

CORRECTION Suspect Dies Baltimore

Our Baltimore

About 18 months ago, I ran the Baltimore Half Marathon.

As I ran through the streets of the city of my birth, I noticed something — the sidewalks of nearly every street, in nearly every neighborhood, were overflowing with people cheering us on.

There were white people, brown people, black people — people of all the races and ethnicities that make up the beautiful, diverse, charming city of Baltimore.

They were out there together, supporting all us crazy fools out there running, together. These people — the obviously homeless man who raised his brown-bagged bottle to us, the couple in front of a gentrified townhome who handed runners cups of Natty Boh, the thousands of people whose voices we heard but whose faces we didn’t see — they got us through that race, as much so as all the months of training that preceded.

I’m seeing the streets of Baltimore again today. The whole world is seeing those streets today. And what we are seeing is not a city united. We are seeing a city that is broken and bleeding. We see a city out of control, hemorrhaging with hate, lost to violence in protest of violence.

I don’t know how to reconcile those images. It seems impossible. But then again, unity and brokenness are equal parts of Baltimore’s soul.

I can say this, though — rampant, pointless violence for the sake of violence has no place in the heart of this city.

And those images on TV today do not define the people of Baltimore. They don’t define who they are today and they don’t define who they will be tomorrow. The people of Baltimore are so much better than this.

The Smart One and the Pretty One

A few months ago, I was shopping at the local dollar store with my three-year-old daughter. As we went through the store, row by row, my daughter asked for everything she set her eyes on, as she always does.

I usually let my kids pick out one “prize” when we go to the dollar store. I steer them to the craft section, where they can pick stickers, craft supplies, or books — stuff we use.

That day, the craft aisle was overflowing with tempting offerings. Some were on my approved prize list; others were not. We spent a long time negotiating over what  constitutes a prize, and after that we spent an even longer time going through the arduous decision-making process. After changing her mind about a zillion times, she finally settled on the stickers. My body sagged with relief; we had passed through the minefield unscathed.

So you can imagine how I felt when we hit the housewares aisle and my daughter experienced a profound case of buyer’s regret. She really, really, really, really wanted the glitter paint. She needed it. I told her we could trade the stickers for the glitter, but by that point she had grown so attached to the stickers that the only way I could possible satisfy her soul was to buy her both. I said no; she cried.

My daughter is really good with the crying thing. She lets the tears stream down her face, while aiming big, sad, disappointed eyes right at you. She says things like “you broke my heart when you said no, mommy” and “I will never be happy again.”

She was right in the middle of a pretty magnificent expression of pathos when an older man came up to me and said, “Aw, come on. Let her have it. She is too pretty to say no to.”

I’d like to say that I gave the guy a piece of my mind. But I didn’t. I am far too conflict-shy. I just gave him a fake smile and walked away.

There was a lot about that little episode that pissed me off. First of all, I really don’t like it when people contradict my parenting in front of my kids in a matter of discipline. You just don’t do that.

But what really got me going that day was the whole, “she is too pretty to say no to” part. I mean, my daughter is gorgeous, so I get where he was coming from. People are constantly commenting on how pretty she is. They especially rave over her bright blue eyes, which are pretty stunning. And I appreciate the compliments.  I really do. After all, I made her.

I mean, I get it but...

I get it…

But here is where it  gets problematic. First of all, I really don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that it is her prettiness that gets her recognition and appreciation from people outside her family. I desperately don’t want her to feel like when she is out in the world she is defined by how she looks. Sometimes I think we grownups forget how watchful our children are, or how much they observe from life as it goes on around them. And even though she is only three, I can tell that this little girl is aware of how her looks influence other people.

Secondly, I have another daughter. Another gorgeous daughter with brown eyes you can get lost in. And all she ever hears when we are all out together is how beautiful her little sister is. People notice the little one because she is at the peak of her cuteness. But they always seem to miss the older one, the brown one, the one who is as pretty as she is smart.

This one.

This one.

The one who told me the other day that she is ugly. That her eyes are the color of poop and dirt. That her sister is prettier than she is. The six-year-old who is unhappy with the way she looks because “the pretty one” gets all the attention.

I know that, as much as we wish they didn’t, looks do matter in our society.  And I know that when people compliment little girls on how they look, they are doing it out of kindness, with only the best of intentions. I’ve done it myself often enough. There are times when it is biologically impossible not to rave over how cute a small child is. I also know there are times when people need to be told that they are pretty, or attractive. There are times when it is welcome and appropriate.

I just wish that when people engage with little girls out in the world, they notice more about them than just their pretty faces.

And I wish we had a better understanding of the subtle ways our words and actions shape a world that puts far too much value in the way women and girls look.

I also wish that when people see two little girls together, they notice them both.

Because they are both awesome!

Because they are both awesome!

Beach Bodies

I haven’t really been writing a lot recently. More accurately, for awhile this winter, I was writing a LOT. But it was freelance work that resulted in me being paid money, which you have to admit takes precedence over writing a blog that hardly anyone reads.

But aside from that, what I have mostly been doing in my free time is exercising. I’ve been taking classes at the gym with my friends, getting strong and having kind of an awesome time doing it. Like, I have actual, discernible muscles in my arms. I can do a push up. A REAL push up, with my knees up and my nose all the way to the ground. I’ve been squatting and planking and even doing a class with the word “turbo” in it.

The reason why I have been exercising so much goes all the way back to last year, which I refer to as The Year of Pestilence. After spending roughly half of the winter in my doctor’s office, she finally sat me down and said, in a nice doctorly way, that my immune system is shit. She put me on vitamins and supplements and probiotics. She also told me that regular exercise is key to building stronger immunity.

This suggestion felt a little unfair at a time when I had gone from running half-marathon distances to being barely able to wheeze my way through a mile. But I took her advice and I made it a priority to be regularly active.

At this point, I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of regular exercising on boosting the immune system. I am currently on a break because I am battling bronchitis. Again. I can hear the rattling in my chest as I write.

But here is what I can say about exercise: it makes you stronger and more fit. It is good for you emotionally as well as physically, especially if you do it with friends. It’s a good thing.

We certainly hear enough about it, especially around this time of year when “bathing suit season” is looming on the horizon.  Everywhere I look, someone is pushing a 21-day this or a 30-day that. Words like “new you!” and “transformation” and “life-changing” are only outnumbered by words like, “Get a beach body by June!” and “YOU can have THIS body too!”

You can have “this body,” (someone else’s body, in point of fact) if only you take the following steps. You can “sculpt” and “tone” and “food system” yourself to an idea of perfection embodied by someone else.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong in encouraging and helping people to be fit and to eat healthfully. We need to care for our bodies if we want to keep them around.

What I find so disturbing is the message that we should be so dissatisfied with our own flesh that we need to force it into someone else’s mold.

Because here’s the thing. You won’t ever have any body but your own body. You are what you have right now. You can work to make it stronger and healthier. But at the end of the day, it will still be the same body that has brought you through life from the day you were born to this very moment. That is something to rejoice in, not reject.

And I think the message that we need to transform our bodies, that, with work, we can reshape ourselves into someone else’s proportions is a dangerous one.

Because, why should we strive to be what someone else is? Why aren’t we good enough in the skin we have? And who is it, really, who gets to decide what a “perfect” body is? Why does the message always have to be that we need to make some sort of fundamental change to be our best?

When I see these claims — that the perfect body is hiding somewhere under the skin I already have, that all I have to do is carve it out of myself — I get frustrated, not motivated.

I also get angry, because these are the messages that my daughters are going to grow up hearing. Their little bodies, perfect in every way, amaze me every day with what they can do. And someday they are going to hear the message that those bodies aren’t good enough. They are going to be told that they really should be striving to have the body of someone else, someone who is, ostensibly, better than they are.

I’m not OK with that. I made those bodies — those bodies are miracles. And it really bothers me to know that someday — in the not-too-distant future — they will be made to feel as though their bodies are less than miraculous.

I also know that the loudest message of all will come from me, and how I treat my own body.

So from now on, my “beach body” will be me, wearing a bathing suit, on the beach. It will be the same body that I take with me on runs, the one that carries my children up to bed, the one that I have relied on all my life. Sometimes, it will be strong and fit. Sometimes, it will be rattly and sick. But whatever it is, it will be mine.

In action: Plus-size model Robyn Lawley (far right) is joined by other curvy women in a new swimwear calendar retaliating against society's obsession with super-slim bodies - here the bathing beauties strike a pose for July

These are bodies. They are on a beach. They are beach bodies.