In Every Thing, Give Thanks

“Oy es taansgeeveen dei, verdad?” asks a man in the Cholula market. It takes me several tries before I recognize what he is asking me: “It’s Thanksgiving Day, right?”

I am 19, an American studying abroad at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico, living in the small town of Cholula. I have come to buy groceries for the impromptu Thanksgiving meal my roommate and I will prepare for about eight students, fellow Americans far away from home for this distinctly American holiday.

I am surprised and taken aback by this man’s awareness and acknowledgement of a holiday that is not his own. In this moment, surrounded by his words of welcome I don’t feel like a foreigner. I feel known and deeply seen. It isn’t until years later that I pause to reflect on the depth of meaning in his greeting, and wonder what I might do to offer a similar welcome to the foreigners living in my midst. For this memory, I give thanks.

Fast forward thirty years. For nearly twenty years now, our family tradition has been to join with other members of our faith community and serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter in Minneapolis.  This shared meal truly marks the highlight of my holiday season.

This year is different, however.  In a story with a twist, this November Thursday finds me in Rome. Alone. On Thanksgiving.

I have come to visit two of my children who are studying a semester abroad, and due to a transatlantic email miscommunication, my son has left Rome for a weekend in Barcelona with friends a day and a half before my daughter is scheduled to arrive from France, leaving me alone in Italy for the holiday.

I am trying to take it all in stride, but the truth is, introvert that I am, I don’t do so well when I’m truly alone. Let alone in a foreign country. On my favorite holiday.

I bravely say goodbye to my son on Wednesday, and take the tram back to the AirBnB apartment he has found for me. My touchstones are all gone, and I’m struggling to stay positive and not get sucked into the useless and most unpleasant self-pity vortex. That thing pulls in one direction only, and it sucks hard.

Thanksgiving dawns and I decide to make the best of it by attempting to create a modified Thanksgiving dinner for my daughter. Her flight doesn’t arrive until 10:30 pm, but, no matter, we can celebrate on Friday. I take myself to a local park, and watch the families with children and older couples. The weather is balmy and delightful, much nicer than the Minnesota weather I left behind. For this, I give thanks.

With my heart in my mouth, I go grocery shopping.  I emerge from the grocery store an hour later, no cultural or linguistic mishaps to my credit, with what promises to be the makings of a small Thanksgiving feast.

At “home” again, I whip up the pumpkin bread mix that I have brought from the States for my pumpkin-loving daughter. I open the oven door to get it started, and, much to my surprise, find a washing machine where the oven should have been. Well, ok then. No matter. I guess I’ll try and fix it on the stovetop. After scouring the apartment kitchen, I manage to jimmy rig a double boiler. 

My second attempt at pumpkin bread also fails, as I can’t light the gas stove. There isn’t a match or lighter to be found in the entire apartment. I know— I’ve looked. Twice. I am getting a little frustrated, but am bound and determined to create Thanksgiving, no matter what. So the next step involves procuring matches.  I slave over my Italian dictionary and verb book for half an hour until I come up with two sentences that I hope will work: “I need matches. I’m trying to cook.” I’m adding the second sentence to clarify my intentions, lest I unwittingly, in my unschooled Italian, manage to say something like: “I need you to light my fire” by mistake. It is another language, after all, and, well, you never know.

Mercifully, the landlord comes home just as I am leaving to procure matches, and since he has good English, there is no misunderstanding about what I need. He provides me with matches, and I am finally in business. For this, I give thanks.

I cook the pumpkin bread/pudding for several hours. It is not yet done, but it is time for me to head to the airport to pick up my daughter, so I turn it off to finish it later.

My daughter and I are both nervous about this airport rendezvous, not having phones that will communicate with each other, or with anyone else, for that matter.  My daughter is coming from France, multiple bus, train, and airplane flights away. I have given her the address of my Rome apartment as a back-up plan, but this is small comfort, since my Roman taxi driver had great difficulty finding it even with his GPS.

I am grateful that my son, before his departure to Barcelona, took time to orient me to Termini, the local bus station, as well as which bus company would take me to the correct of two airports. For this, too, I give thanks.

I walk several blocks to the train station and take the train to Termini, find my way to the correct bus, which will, hopefully take me to the correct airport. I have given myself several extra hours in case anything goes wrong and I need to backtrack. Mercifully, everything does not go wrong. Everything, in fact, goes right. After a long and boring wait in the airport waiting room, I see Erin’s anxious face appear alongside those of other arriving passengers. I catch her eye and we let out a collective sigh of relief. As soon as I reach her, we have a tear-filled reunion;  it’s hard to say which of us is crying more. We link arms and head out to find a taxi. No matter if it gets lost—we’ve found each other, and that’s all that matters. All’s well that ends well—and for this, I give thanks.

Oh–and the pumpkin bread wasn’t half bad.

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We See You

On past occasions I’ve written about my experience as a white mother of biracial children. This is my first post about what it means to be the parent of a transgender child and of his partner, my child by choice, who identifies as genderfluid.

In many ways being the parent of a transgender child means the same thing it means to be the parent of any child: you clothe them, feed them, raise them, and nudge them. But mostly, and most importantly, you love them– no holds barred, no matter what.

It differs in that, in the current social and political climate, a trans or gender non-conforming individual is more likely than a member of the general population to commit suicide.  (According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41% of trans persons attempt suicide vs. 4.6% of the general public.) These statistics are sobering and, to a parent, terrifying.

In the face of last week’s New York Times report that the Department of Health and Human Services was circulating a memo proposing that gender be defined as: ” an immutable biological condition deterred by a person’s sex organs at birth,”  I couldn’t sit still. That pronouncement got the momma bear in me all riled up. How dare you try to eliminate my children? How dare you try to eliminate America’s children?

Yesterday I got together with my adult children, made some signs and spent an hour on a lovely sunny October day, standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other supporters at our local trans-visibility event. My family joined voices with other GLBTQIA individuals and allies, to say: “We are here. We are real. You can’t erase us. We are not going away.”

There was a sense of camaraderie and joy, of common purpose, and perhaps wonder at how many folks turned out to be counted. Counted as in–we count.

Passing motorists were joyful as well, honking, whooping, flashing peace signs, occasionally shouting something supportive.

The stipulated hour was almost up, when one car passed, the passenger sporting a small cardboard sign. The letters were faint, so it wasn’t until the car had almost passed that we made out the message. Just three small words formed a message of solidarity and love: “We see you.”

My brawny son, whose brave transition from female to male over the last three years has left me awestruck, was moved to tears, as was his partner.

And I marveled at the power of a few well-chosen words to move hearts. I was reminded of the power of being deeply seen. Reminded also of the responsibility that I carry as a privileged member of American society to be an ally, to continue showing up and bearing witness.

The sign I made for today’s rally read: “You may not erase my children.” My next sign might be simpler. It could just read: “I see you.”

By and By She Met a Tiger

Note: This essay concerns a problematic children’s story, which may be triggering for some. Please trust me to get us to the other side.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved stories. She loved hearing stories, she loved looking at stories, and she especially loved the sound of her parents’ voices when they read stories to her. And her favorite story, the one she asked her parents to read her over and over and over and over again, was…(I know) Little Black Sambo.

The little girl loved how much Little Black Sambo’s parents loved him, how they fashioned clothes and shoes and a fancy umbrella for him. How he marched off into the jungle proudly parading his finery. She did not love how, several times “by and by he met a tiger.”  Those tigers were out to get him, no question about it. But Little Black Sambo was SO smart, he shrewdly convinced these tigers not to eat him, but to take his clothing so that they would also look grand. In the end, of course, he is naked, but safe. (Well, this is actually the middle, not the end, but he is still naked.) He comes upon the tigers arguing over who is the finest; they chase each others’ tails round and round a tree until they turn themselves into butter, while Little Black Sambo looks on from behind the bushes. Our hero picks up all his discarded clothing, takes the butter back home, and feasts on pancakes with his family, consuming one hundred and sixty nine pancakes, which was an astonishing feat. The little girl always wanted to be able to eat as many pancakes as her hero, but never came close. Even five pancakes was quite a stretch.

By and by, the little girl grew up, and learned that her favorite childhood tale was racist, containing, as it did, grotesque, stereotypical images of people of color, and a title that had come to be used to demean African Americans.  It was hard to square this information with a story that had meant to her, a loving, functional family, a brave and smart little boy, and a lover of pancakes. What to do with her old storybook? She didn’t feel comfortable keeping it anymore, yet she didn’t want to throw out what constituted one of her most precious childhood memories.

Her mother came to the rescue, sending her The Story of Little Babaji, a modern retelling of the same tale, set in India, with beautiful, culturally appropriate  illustrations. This book she can comfortably read to her grandchildren. So this resolved the issue of how to pass her favorite story along to another generation, without passing on the negative messages and stereotypes that accompanied the original version. There is also a VERY cool picture of Little Babaji actually RIDING ON THE BACK OF a tiger. 

Which brings me to my next point. When the little girl grew up, she discovered there was darkness buried deep inside her, scary things, terrifying things that were way too difficult to acknowledge. In her dreams, from time to time, tigers would appear. They often prowled around her, sniffing at her, looking menacing and scary. After several years of this, one night the grown up little girl had this tiger dream, which she has shared with me here:

I am at home, and there is a HUGE tiger in my room. At least I’m outside the room. I need to let him out, get him back to safety. I creak the door open. He is enormous, and did I mention TERRIFYING? His head comes nearly to my chest. Somehow I discover that he likes to have his ears scratched, and then, wonder of wonders, he can talk to me—we can communicate! I don’t remember what we talk about, but I end up letting him out of the room. I am worried he might hurt someone else. I open the closet door. A fire has been raging in the closet. Is this where the tiger was? Will the fire burn the house down? Apparently not. There is a sprinkler system, which has doused the smoldering pile of two by fours. I guess there will be some messy clean-up to do. 

Meanwhile, the tiger has found his way to a boy, who greets him enthusiastically, with great joy. They are old friends. The boy is not afraid of him, and they will be together again. They have missed each other.

The grown-up little girl ponders the meaning of her dream. Her heart still pounds thinking of how frightening this dreamland tiger was. Her eyes fill with tears when she thinks of the joyous encounter between the tiger and the little boy. And she realizes—this tiger is a part of her, as is the little boy. This is her wild nature—her creativity, her passion, her anger. It is big, and powerful, and alive. She has been afraid of it for so long. She finally realizes there is nothing to be afraid of, only strength and power and beauty to embrace. And, like Little Babaji, she steps up and goes for a ride on the back of her very own tiger.

 

Learning to Say “No”

Once there was a young girl who didn’t know how to say “no”. 

She would smile demurely. 

She would prevaricate. 

She would murmur and mutter under her breath, hem and haw, and sometimes even roll her eyes. 

Anything but say “no”.

 

And this was not helpful.

It was not healthy.

And, as it turns out, it was a very hard habit to break.

 

The little girl grew up into a young woman who also didn’t know she could say ‘no’.

More years passed, and she became an older woman for whom saying “no” was still

a challenge.

 

And so, one day, she decided it was time to practice. 

First with small noes—“no thank you” “no, not really”, etc., and worked her way up slowly to the “absolutely nots”.

It was a long haul, and what she lacked in nay-saying she more than made up for in perseverance.

Until the day came when a “no” rolled off her tongue as easily as a “yes”.

And she smiled contentedly, knowing that she had her own back at last.

The Little Girl Who Loved to Climb Trees

Dear Readers,

Thanks for helping my writing dreams come true–I’ve just been accepted to study for an MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University! Your encouragement of these blogposts is part of what gave me the confidence to go back to school. Following is one of the pieces I wrote for my admission application. May it help breathe life into your own dreams, whatever they may be.

The Little Girl Who Loved to Climb Trees

There was once a little girl who loved to climb trees in her spare time. The problem was, she rarely had any. Or at least she didn’t think so. She was always spinning or weaving or cooking, or sweeping, or doing all those tedious houseworky things that girls often do in fairy tales.

The little girl became very sad. She watched other children play tag and jump rope and wished that she could break free of the evil spell that kept her permanently attached to her to her domestic duties, so that she could play outdoors and climb trees all day long. Day after day she would think to herself “I’ll go climb trees as soon as I’m done with my chores. And day after day, her chores never seemed to be done, and the sun would set again before she could let herself get outside. The little girl sighed and groaned, and eventually she just got frustrated and pissed off, sweeping piles of dust in futile circles on the kitchen floor.

One day, much to her surprise, a mouse scrambled across the floor in front of her while she swept. It darted quickly behind the refrigerator. As you might expect, our heroine tended to be a tidy housekeeper, so of course she moved the refrigerator away from the wall, (carefully, so as not to tear the linoleum ), and what do you think she found? Of all things, she spied a flier tucked away behind the refrigerator coils.

Curiosity (and habits of extreme cleanliness, truth be told) got the best of her, and she vacuumed the refrigerator coils before removing the flier. Without even thinking, she released her hand from her vacuum to unfold the piece of paper. “WANTED”, it said “Young Maidens who Love to Climb Trees.”

The young woman (for the little girl had swept and tidied for so many years she had become a young woman) scratched her head in indecision. “I’m damned if I do, and double damned if I don’t” she thought. “Well, damned beats double damned any day, how about let’s do?”

So she read the flier in detail, and signed up for the tree-eating contest. Wait, wrong flier. She signed up for the tree-scrubbing contest. Wait, not that one either, though she would have been a cinch to win. It was the Queendom’s (for she lived in a matriarchy) Tree-Climbing Championship. Oh boy!

There was no fairy godmother, glass slipper or carriage in this fairy tale, so the young woman dressed in comfortable, yet stylish attire, donned a pair of hiking boots, and took the Light Rail to The Edge of Town where the tree-climbing championship was to be held.

She arrived at The Edge of Town in a timely fashion, and none the worse for wear, ready to get her tree climbing game on. As she approached the registration table, she was alarmed to see that an ogre of giant proportions was handling the registrations. She knew about ogres. Or so she thought (having never met one before), and her fear was so great she nearly turned back on the spot. For a moment she hesitated, but her courage was greater than her fear, so she stepped up to the table and spoke her name.

Much to her surprise and relief, the Ogre smiled and greeted her warmly, and welcomed her to the tournament. That was before he handed her a clipboard with two pounds of forms to complete, including, but not limited to the registration paperwork, the liability waivers, and the autobiography template.

Our heroine, well, I will not say she was undaunted. In fact, she was nearly overcome with despair. But she had not come this far in life without accumulating a variety of tools, among which were persistence, grit, and a fabulous pen collection, so she sat down to begin her work, pausing every so often to practice her centering, her yoga breathing, or, failing that, blowing into a paper bag.

Years passed, our heroine still sat there, diligently filling out her paperwork. By now she was no longer a young woman either, but no matter. She had left her broom behind, and was valiantly pursuing her lifelong goal of tending to her own dreams.

Eventually the day came when when reached the bottom of her paper pile. She stood up slowly, wiped her bleary eyes, and tested to see if her joints still worked. Miraculously (and this is the only miracle in this fairy tale) they still did. She walked triumphantly, though with a slight gimp, over to the registration desk bearing her sheath of paperwork. The ogre was no longer there, having left his post several decades before. “Now what” she wondered. “Has all this effort been in vain?

Our heroine began to feel more than a bit dispirited and panicky.  She had no idea what to do. Despair and thoughts of hopelessness began to overtake her. Why was there no one left at the tree climbing tournament? Had she left her sweeping for naught? Had her dreams of tree-climbing super-stardom fallen by the wayside as well? What would become of her? Would she ever be good at anything? And who was she meant to be? For a time she was overwrought, frail and numb, depressed even. Some days she sobbed so hard she could hardly breathe. And when she had finally cried all the tears she owned, she fell into an exhausted sleep.

This woman, a grandmother by now, dreamed a peculiar dream. She dreamed of her hands. First she dreamed of her little girl hands. They were soft and chubby, and held a broom. Next she dreamed of her young woman hands. They were still soft and delicate, and they held a tree branch apiece. Finally she dreamed of her hands as they were now. They bore the marks of time, the gnarly bumps and age spots that were witnesses to the years gone by. At first they looked empty, and our grandmother was quite distressed, but then she suddenly realized that hands that look empty mean hands that are open to possibility, that there is space in them to hold whatever comes next. She relaxed and was content, cupping her hands in gratitude, aware of holding both emptiness and fullness at the same time.

Our heroine awoke from her interesting dream. Again she stretched, rubbed her eyes, and checked her joints. She felt calmer than she had when she fell asleep.  She gathered her sheaf of papers, (which, by now, contained a handwritten autobiography), looked down at her hands, and realized they were full again. One hand held her sheaf of papers, the other, a sturdy pen. Suddenly, she knew just what she must do. And I don’t remember what happened next, or exactly how she made it happen, or what seemingly miraculous serendipities occurred, but ultimately she got her wish, went back to school, and wrote to her heart’s content.

The little girl who was now a grandma still swept from time to time, but only when she wanted to. And she climbed trees again from time to time, though not as high as those she once had. And she never missed a single sunset just because she was too busy sweeping.

 

One Nation, Indivisible

It seems fitting to republish this on the first anniversary of the inauguration of our new president. With DACA up in the air and #shitholenations in the news, this piece feels as true now, and more urgent, perhaps, than when I first wrote it. 

It was election night. The results were pouring in. My phone buzzed with a text from my son: “America doesn’t want me.” This text required a phone response.

I called my boy, half a country away. He answered. His voice was trembling, I could tell he was in tears. “Mom, I’m terrified. I’m afraid to go out.”

For the record, this adult son turns 29 today. He is a world traveler, and street-savvy. He has an art degree, is studying law, and is passionate about pursuing justice for all, that thing we pay homage to in our pledge of allegiance. He is smart, but more importantly, he is kind. He’s of Mexican descent. And he was terrified.

“Mom,” he said, “during the course of the presidential campaign, I’ve been approached in an LA laundromat and a St. Paul coffee shop, questioned as to whether I was a terrorist. I’ve had my life threatened by an off-duty policeman in a bar in Minneapolis, who said he could take me out back and shoot me, and no one would ever find out who did it. This was just during the campaign–how much worse will it be if he gets elected?”

It is the fear of every parent that we cannot protect our children from the world. We do what we can, we prepare them as adequately as we know how, and we spend the rest of our lives learning to let go. For those of us who are white parents of children of color, the world we would protect them from is not one that we personally experience. We are only too aware that the elements they may need protection from are part of the white privileged systems from which we ourselves benefit. It is painful to acknowledge that we can be unwitting players in the oppression visited upon our children.

I felt so helpless as I talked to my boy. I tried to offer support that only seemed to twist the knife deeper, and hung up feeling inadequate and dissatisfied. In a later conversation, I asked him “what can I do to help you?” “Let people know, Mom”, he answered. “It’s important to tell these stories.”

So I share this story today, knowing full well that it is far from unique, and struggling with this ugly irony–that in the same breath in which I am enraged and indignant at how strangers dare to treat my son, this precious child who made mother’s day cards, and brought me breakfast in bed when I was sick, this young man who loves to play with babies and spent his last summer seeking justice for those on death row–in this same breath I am painfully aware that my own unconscious racism leads me to look upon other mothers’ sons with similar suspicion. I catch myself checking to see if my car is locked, when driving through predominantly black neighborhoods. I see a young man and woman of color, walking together down the street, laughing. He holds a television set poised over his right shoulder. The first thought that flashes through my brain, before my Minnesota Nice chip can intercept it is: “I wonder if that TV’s stolen”.  I walk down the street and encounter a dark-skinned stranger, and from some deep recesses of my brain, a racial epithet floats to the surface, something cruel and ugly that I would never speak out loud, and am ashamed to discover I even contain.  Of this I am not proud. And I am not just chagrined–I am horrified. Horrified to recognize the seeds of racism sown within my own heart.

It’s always easier to project our evil onto others than to engage in painful self-examination. I can weep and wail and protest about everything going on out there, but if all that does is allow me to turn the spotlight away from my own failings, then I am no better than the “enemy”, whomever or whatever he or she might be.

I believe that the surest way to peace, to justice, and to “One Nation, Indivisible”, is for me to take a good, long look at my own heart, painstakingly uproot what has been planted, till the soil, and plant a new crop. I pray the harvest will come soon, and be bountiful.

And I wonder–what sort of a nation might we become if we each tend first and foremost to the fruits of our own heart? Shall we journey together and find out?

 

 

 

Bearing Witness

The more we can bear witness to another’s sacred story, the more we can heal each other and the world.” –Nicole Duenow, Healing House

It was a dark and gloomy night (not outside, but in the very depths of my soul). In the back seat of a car, abducted by strangers with my three-year old daughter, my mind raced to process what was happening and what would become of us. I engaged my captor in conversation to try and discern his motives, our destination, our chances. I knew our lives were on the line. As much as I had faith in God, I knew that many others, far more worthy than we, had perished without divine intervention. Oscar Romero came to mind. If God had not stepped in to save such a saint, I knew we had no guarantee.

Blindfolded, I could not look deeply into my captor’s eyes, read his face, his fears, his intentions, so I searched deeply in my heart, reached depths deeper than I knew existed, and found that place where we are all equals, divine creatures, that place called namaste. From that place I could see my captor through God’s eyes, listen deeply to his own story of woundedness and unexpectedly find these words: “I know why God allowed this to happen to us—it’s because He wanted you to know how much he loves you.” The spell was broken. I had stumbled upon the key that ultimately set us free from our would-be prison. At that moment, my captor’s motivation faltered, and together we began to plan how he could release us.

That experience forever changed me, in ways both powerful and devastating. When it mattered, I was able to connect deeply with love. In the ensuing years, I have also had to contend with panic, terror, fury and depression, all different facets of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. My journey to recapture the pieces of my spirit that were injured in that assault has taken over twenty years, and is not yet complete. My daughter, now a son, struggles with demons of his own, as do his brothers, who have been indirectly impacted by that event through my struggles with mental illness.

And yet we are so blessed. Life continues, and is full and good. My grandson, now four, son of that sweet little child who survived the unthinkable alongside me, is at that stage where he’s trying out new superheroes on a daily basis. He is endowed with infinite superpowers, and is forever engaged in galactic battles, sword fights and other impressive adventures.

“Grandma, what’s your superpower?” he asks me one day as we play together. It takes me a while to find my answer—I don’t usually think of myself as a superhero gifted with magical powers. After a moment it comes to me: “Love”, I tell him, a little bit surprised at my answer.  “My superpower is love.” In a rather disgusted, somewhat condescending voice he replies: “Grandma, you can’t kill with love.”

And suddenly I am transported back to that unforgettable night and remember. Remember and understand. That key that opened the door to set us free? Its name was love. It was love that saved our lives. It has always been my prayer that love may, in some unknown way, have saved our captor’s life too. And it is my greatest joy that after nearly thirty years, love has helped my wounded spirit find its way back home.

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