Thursday, February 28, 2019

Fear and Freedom and Fear

I listened to a bit of Michael Cohen's testimony to Congress this morning. To tell the truth, the sound of mature-looking professional men yelling at each other in public wakened long-dormant memories of observing Baptist business meetings with my dad--when I was amazed to see a mild man, whom I had only previously known behind the pulpit or shaking hands, turn red-faced and angry when someone dared question the financial priority of his beloved softball!

When I turned the livestream on again later, a Republican Congressman was forcefully explaining why he didn't care what Cohen said. Cohen's words could not be trusted, he said, because Cohen is a liar. Greedy. A bully. A narcissist. He went on.

I shut the screen off again, because, really? As I learned decades ago from Winnie-the-Pooh, "there is no real answer to 'Ho-ho!' said by a Heffalump in the voice this Heffalump was going to say it in."

I used to love irony, but it has been so sadly stretched the last few years, so turned inside out, so prolapsed as to require surgical reconstruction. It turns out that irony is a kind of inside joke that is far less enjoyable when it is hanging out 24/7 and people are cruising past pretending it isn't even there.

Whatever words are spoken in the Capitol today, they will not solve my larger question:
How do I treat individuals...
      who voted for a sneaking, grasping bully... 
             with the dignity and humanity they deserve? 

Because I sure as hell* don't trust them.

Oh, they may seem like kind, decent people--they may be my neighbors, my relations, (heaven forbid!) my dance partners?--but their ballot choice exposed them as a threat, if not to me personally, then to my children and to other children and to the planet on which my children must live with their peers long after I've taken my leave.

I can imagine that these particular individuals, some of whom I must interact with, bear no malice toward me or mine. It does, however, require the exercise of imagination. Their alignment with a cruel incompetence may stem from ignorance--an excuse which, at best, reveals a deficiency of curiosity so acute as to be actually dangerous. Dangerous to me and to the ones I care about. Dangerous to women around the globe. Dangerous to anyone categorized by powerful men as "other".

The scent of danger on the air puts me on alert. My body stiffens, my heart pumps faster.

Fear. But we are warned against fear.

"Fear is a sin. We are commanded to 'fear not'. God has not given us a spirit of fear..." Jesus! I don't even believe in sin, or god, or spirits. Yet the deep anxiety over fear is ingrained.

"Fear is the path to the dark side! Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate..." Shit, Yoda. You're no help!

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!" Yeah, right.

I've spent the last five years learning that it's okay to protect myself. That my fear can be a signal, that my instincts are a strength, that boundaries are my salvation, that not everyone is safe. And when people show me who they are, I believe them and take precautions accordingly.

What am I afraid of, exactly?

My life is great, after all! I have the intertwined privileges of being white, straight, married, educated, insured, Midwestern and middle-class. So what fear is set loose when I see men yelling at a New York lawyer who is on his way to prison?

Well, rational or not, I am afraid of enslavement. Not literally, though it has come to mind. Of losing my hard-won autonomy. Of having choices taken away. Of being punished for asserting my humanity. I fear coldness and narrowness. I fear losing a debate and with it, my freedom. And it does make me angry. Cages--for the body or the mind--make me angry. Injustice and inequality make me angry.

I saw the faces in Congress today. I know there are plenty of powerful people in Washington, in Kansas, in my neighborhood even, for whom I represent a threat to the fabric of society. With as much glee as they deport immigrants thirsty for a new life, they would put me back in the box where they deem I will be most "fulfilled".

Deep down, that is what frightens me. I may have anxiety about the environment, about global conflict, about economic trends, but small-mindedness scares me most of all. That is why my pulse quickens when I have to share a road or a sidewalk or a room with someone who is comfortable with a government that separates children from their parents, or a god who would barbecue me for eternity. People with an abusive and narcissistic god have grown accustomed to manipulation and abuse. We do not cherish the same values. We are not building the same future. Where I want bridges, they want walls. 

I don't want to live in fear. I want to live bravely, boldly, out in the sunshine. I also want to feel safe.

So... it's a dance.

The humans who remind me that this world is a good and beautiful place, who take risks, who expose truth, people with wise hearts and kind hands, who see with compassion and love without judgement--to them I show my truest self. Them I hold close to my heart. Them I wish well.

And those who--from ignorance or misguided zeal--empower cruelty, and greed, and lies, them I will be on guard against. Because I have known abuse. I have known narrowness. I have tasted freedom and I refuse to go back. I give myself permission to respect my fear. To use caution in the presence of people who have not earned my confidence. To jealously guard my best gifts. To be a wise serpent always, sometimes taking the shape of a dove. Because by fostering my own humanity,  I honor theirs, as well.


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Out Loud Thoughts on Motherhood

How is motherhood "supposed" to feel?

I have suspected for a long time that the sentimentality about mother-love and maternal instinct and "you know you'd just die for them" and "my heart outside my body" is either a fantasy or more bullshit propagated to make women feel guilty.

After a decade of helping raise my baby siblings, I was very curious about how motherhood would feel different from sisterhood. I cared for my siblings: I fed them, changed them, bathed them, wiped their noses, brushed their teeth, braided their hair, played with them, cleaned their scrapes, kissed their bruises. I prayed for them, sang to them, rocked them to sleep. When Mom wasn't there, I did my best to keep them safe and happy so I could present them back to her--healthy and mostly clean. As far as I could tell at the time, the only things I didn't do were grow them in my uterus and feed them from my breasts. I looked forward to having that experience because that would make me a full-fledged woman, equal in stature to my mother and her friends, not a mere surrogate but the real thing.

Having babies was expected. I didn't particularly want babies or not want them (I had an alternate life plan should we happen to be infertile), but I believed motherhood was the surest route to feeling like a true adult, and I desperately wanted that. So I was excited when I found out that everything "worked" and we had made an embryo.

When my first baby was born, I cried over her every day for weeks. She was by far the tiniest person I'd ever held, I was amazed by all I'd just experienced, and the chemicals rushing through my sore and swollen body were a combination I'd never felt before. For the next few months, my focus was sharpened to a single point: keeping her alive at all costs. By which I meant keeping myself alive, because I was her lifeline, her energy source, her matrix. I expected the same response when my son was born, but it never happened and I wondered if this meant I was a terrible and unfit mother or simply a tired and seasoned one, non-stick like a well-used cast iron skillet.

I've always felt a strong responsibility for my kids when they are in my care. But I rarely spend much time thinking about them when they are at school or under the supervision of an adult I trust. It's as if, deep down, I still believe my responsibility is to keep my kids happy and safe until their mom gets home when I will be rewarded with, "Good job; thank you." And it turned out that having my name on three birth certificates still did not make me feel like a grown-up.

Many people have heard me speculate that my maternal "instincts" were burned out on my siblings, my first batch of children, as it were. I did worry about those children for years after I left home, fretting that I couldn't give them the care and love and protection they deserved. By comparison, I felt less attached to my own children. They were always present, of course, so there was no pull to be nearer. I didn't feel the way I expected to feel as their mother. Perhaps because they developed in a healthier atmosphere, they began to differentiate from me on a much more natural schedule. And even though they came slipping out of my vagina and their multiplying cells were fueled by food I swallowed on their behalf, they could have been another series of brother and sisters, or nieces and nephews--more small humans whose DNA resembles my own. Even today, whenever I am around my family of origin, I inevitably call my kids by my siblings' names, as if they are a continuation, rather than a new generation.

Perhaps I never had "maternal instincts" at all. I've certainly never wished that babies would stay babies; I was the one counting off how many more years till they move out of the house. The smaller the child, the more energy they required, and it seemed better for everyone when they could do more things for themselves. The most fascinating thing about babies was to watch them become increasingly responsive: when my daughter's nervous system developed enough to be ticklish, when she made eye contact, when she could mimic her grandma, when my son could be saddened by words on the radio.

Watching minds grow has always brought me joy. Feeding information to children is fun, in the same way that it was fun to feed peaches to the zoo bears when I was a kid. I must have been in second or third grade when my dad came home from a business trip and handed me a paperback with a colorful cover: The Silent Storm. I had watched enough Little House on the Prairie to grasp blindness; I'd been exposed to sign language and to braille. As I read about Helen Keller and W-A-T-E-R, I could imagine being locked in black silence with peaches and cake and toys--but no alphabet. No words. No books. No songs. No Sesame Street. To my mind, it was a fate worse than death. And tragically, no amount of parental love could bring Helen to life. Their desperation, however, led them to Annie Sullivan who slipped the key of language under the door of Helen's prison. That story gave me goosebumps. I reenacted it more than once, holding one hand under a cold spigot while spelling w-a-t-e-r with the other. Annie Sullivan was my kind of superhero; her spectacles were better than any cape. I longed for a Teacher, a companion and mentor to feed me all the knowledge I could hold. I wanted to be her. I would choose Annie Sullivan over Mrs. Keller any day.

And maybe that's who I've been.

Sometime in my mid-20's, I realized I'd grown up in a linguistics laboratory. And soon it was my turn to give my own children language. And not just language, but literacy: literature, comedy, journalism, speculation, poetry, song. They have the tools with which to experience this world and to express their sensations, as well to imagine new worlds and to communicate those images. They have inner resources I didn't have, and outlets for idea exchange that I didn't have, either. I'm thankful beyond words that they have teachers and friends and support systems outside the four walls of this house.

As a new mom, I imitated my own mom. I was a confident mother because I'd done most of it before, and the rest I'd watched her do. Every good memory from my childhood I tried to recreate for my own kids. But my own childhood ended by the time I was a tween, from then on I was more of a mother's helper than a daughter. I had years of practice raising young children...but now that my kids are teenagers? I'm winging it. It's all uncharted territory now.

Their lives are so different from my own at their age that we might have grown up on different planets. When I speak in the language of my first twenty-five years, only my husband understands the words. I feel lucky to live with someone who still remembers the world we came from, while my kids stare and ask, "What did you say? What does that even mean?" Sometimes we translate it for them, sometimes we let the words evaporate in the space that will always be between our children and us.

So I don't know how motherhood is "supposed" to feel. But when I listen to my children today, I feel pride mixed with awe. I enjoy their company. It's a treat to share new experiences with them. To introduce them to people and places and activities that hold meaning for me. To watch their personalities bloom. Watching them be themselves, I continually learn new things about my self. Now I find myself imitating them. I admire their courage, their discipline, their soft hearts, their creativity, and their wisdom.

They are, unexpectedly, becoming my favorite people and my best friends.